Vox Populi: Rap Can Be as Enjoyable as It Is Offensive, Which Might Explain Its Staying Power

by Francis Davis

ROCK-AND-ROLL has outlived its usefulness to most of us who grew up with it. The current hits aren’t about us anymore, but that’s all right—we’re no longer crowding the clubs and record stores. Pop has always existed primarily for the young, the only ones who have time for it. The source of disenchantment is in realizing that the favorite songs of our high school and college years are no longer about us either—they reflect where we were in our lives then, not where we are now.

This may be why so many of my friends have developed a sudden interest in country, a style of pop whose subject matter is less often adolescent sensuality than adult wreckage. It may also explain why so many aging rock singers, on finding themselves in a reflective mood, have turned to songs given their definitive interpretations by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s, when our parents were our current age. With notable exceptions, including Neil Young, Richard Thompson, and Loudon Wainwright III, the pop singers of our own generation have given us no clue as to how grownups of our day are supposed to feel and behave as they enter middle age. This is because these pop singers know no better than we do.

I sense, too, that the first full generation after ours might be more disenchanted with rock than we are: between their favorites and ours exists no clear line of demarcation like the one that existed between the big-band crooners our parents had enjoyed and our yowling idols. Pop today, in other words, has something to alienate everyone. People in their late thirties and older are put off because it’s not just theirs anymore, younger people because it never was just theirs.

No other subgenre of pop alienates as many people as deeply as rap does, despite what I sense to be a suspicion —even on the part of those who profess to find rap indistinguishable from random gunfire—that it is the only thing happening right now, the only kind of pop with the sort of larger cultural significance taken for granted in pop since Woodstock.

BY THE TIME a rap song first made the national charts—“Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugar Hill Gang, in 1979—rap was already something of an old story, having started about five years earlier as an underground offshoot of disco. Its origins as a kind of dance music are hinted at in its other name, “hip-hop,” which is preferred by those for whom it is not just music but a look, an attitude, and a lifestyle, although even they frequently use the terms interchangeably. The “rap” is the lead vocal or vocals; “hiphop” is the vocal plus everything else on the record—the background chants and disjunct instrumental sounds that initiates call the “beats,”which are sometimes supplied by live singers and musicians but are more frequently the result of a disc jockey’s sampling bits and pieces of other records.

In the beginning the rap was optional. Hip-hop’s first heroes were its DJs, who provided a nonstop groove for dancers by isolating, electronically boosting, and repeating ad infinitum bass lines and drum breaks from 1970s funk and glamrock hits. Although vilified by some as plagiarists and scavengers, these hiphop DJs (Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa became the most famous of them) were essentially grass-roots successors to Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and George Martin, the 1960s rock producers who pioneered the use of the recording studio as an instrument in its own right. A sociological study that attempted to link the rise of hip-hop to the decreased availability of musical instruments in public schools in the 1970s would be right on target. In the meantime, what needs to be acknowledged about hip-hop, apart from its paradoxical origins as a roots music dependent on electronic technology, is its remarkable staying power. It has outlasted graffiti, break dancing, and every other manifestation of the black-teen Zeitgeist of which it was initially seen as only one component.

Rap remains dance music, and on the most basic level a catchy rap song wins you over in much the same manner any good pop song does: by virtue of its hooks—those vocal refrains and stupid instrumental riffs you can’t get out of your head. The DJs have been relegated to the background, but the most imaginative of the record producers who have succeeded them—Teddy Riley (Wreckx-N-Effect, Kool Moe Dee, and Heavy D. and the Boyz), Prince Paul (Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, 3rd Bass, and De La Soul), and Hank Shocklee (Ice Cube and Public Enemy)—are responsible for the only formal innovation in pop since the punk minimalism of Talking Heads and the Ramones in the late 1970s.

The controversy surrounding rap, however, usually concerns its lyrics, not its hooks or its merits as a music for dancing. In Michael Small’s informative 1992 rap scrapbook. Break It Down (Citadel Press), Afrika Bambaataa includes on his list of rap’s possible antecedents African call and response, the insult game called the dozens, Cab Calloway, chitlin-circuit comedians, bebop scat singing, black nationalist oratory, Jamaican dance-hall “toasts,” and the “political awareness rap” of the Last Poets, a spoken-word group popular in the 1970s. Others have mentioned the influence of jive-talking radio disc jockeys, the singing poet Gil ScottHeron, and the jump-rope game double dutch.

Rap can also be compared to 1950s a cappella or doo-wop, with which it shares a street-corner male ethic, a delight in onomatopeia, and an ingenuity in making do with very little. The difference is that doo-wop’s young singers were forever trying on courtly feelings much too large for them, on already popular songs such as “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Rap has no dreamy side—unless you accept, as an indication of how times have changed, a song like Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” from his recent CD The Predator, in which Ice Cube enjoys marathon sex, gets drunk without throwing up, doesn’t get stopped and searched by the police, doesn’t have to attend the funerals of any buddies, and goes the entire day without having to fire his AK-47. As if to show us what a fantasy all this is, the video for the song ends with Ice Cube in a Los Angeles SWAT team’s crosshairs.

Ice Cube, a founding member of a group called N.W.A (“Niggas With Attitude”), epitomizes “gangsta,” probably the most popular style of rap right now, and certainly the most truculent and ghettocentric—the style people have in mind when they condemn rap for its comic-book Afrocentrism, its monotonous profanity, its Uzi-brandishing, its anti-Semitism and intolerance of Asians, its homophobia and crotch-grabbing misogyny, and the seeming determination of many of its performers to conform to every negative black stereotype.

According to gangsta’s apologists in the music press, these objectionable characteristics are symptoms of black disempowerment. It’s difficult to argue with this at face value—difficult not to feel, on being subjected to a drive-by musical attack from a Jeep whose back seat has been torn out and replaced with speakers, that what one is hearing is the death rattle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

Just as there is something called alternative rock, which nobody in the music business seems quite able to define except by example, there is something called alternative rap—perhaps best exemplified by the group Arrested Development. Musically, the difference between gangsta and alternative is that alternative tends to be more playful, both in its rhymes and in its sampling. But the perceived difference between the two styles has almost nothing to do with music. One gains a sense of what both gangsta and alternative have come to stand for by listening to “People Everyday,” a song from Arrested Development’s debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of . . . . Speech, Arrested Development’s leader, is spending the afternoon in the park with his girlfriend when along come “a group of brothers” swigging forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor, “goin’ the nigga route,” and “disrespecting my black queen.” Speech at first ignores them, but after they make fun of his colorful garb (an Afrocentric variation on thrift-shop chic, to judge from the album cover) and start “squeezing parts of my date’s anatomy,” he springs into action. “I ain’t Ice Cube,” he tells us, “but I had to take the brother out for bein’ rude.”

It takes “three or four” cops to pull Speech off the gangsta (who evidently survives the encounter), and the story becomes one of “a black man, acting like a nigga and get stomped by an African.” Speech, who tells us on another of the album’s songs that he’s “a bit shorter than the average man” and on yet another that “brothers” in possession of automatic weapons “need to learn how to correctly shoot them, [to] save those rounds for a revolution,” has more in common with Ice Cube than he may care to admit. A machismo fantasy is still a machismo fantasy, even if it takes the form of an appeal to black pride rather than a call for retribution against the police. And shouldn’t a songwriter who has been praised for leading one of the few sexually integrated rap groups know better than to put a woman on a pedestal as his “black queen”? At least she’s not his “bitch" or his “ho,”as she might be on a gangsta record. And at least Speech’s politics are slightly more sophisticated than those of the gangstas, many of whom claim Malcolm X as their role model, although what they seem to find most admirable about him is that he was once a street hustler with the gift of gab. just like them.

BEYOND COMPLAINING that rap isn’t really music because so few of its performers play instruments or “sing” in the conventional sense of the word, middle-class whites who grew up dancing to Motown’s three-minute assimilationist fantasies seem to be alienated by what they take to be rap’s black-separatist agenda. A still deeper source of frustration might be a sense on the part of middle-aged whites that rap’s tacit off-limits sign is generational, not racial.

But at whose young is rap aimed? In a nasty little cover piece on rap in a 1991 issue of The New Republic, David Samuels argued that the audience for rap now consists in large measure of white middle-class teenagers turned on by rap’s “evocation of an age-old image of blackness: a foreign, sexually charged, and criminal underworld against which the norms of white society are defined and, by extension, through which they may be defiled.”The cover of Ice-T’s recent Home Invasion, which depicts a white tousle-top surrounded by the books of Malcolm X, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim, listening to music on headphones as he fantasizes that his mother is being ravished and his father is being beaten to death by muscular black intruders, suggests that there’s some merit to Samuels’s argument.

So what? Rap’s young white fans are hardly the first of their race to get off on black music. The problem with focusing on what percentage of rap’s listenership is white and whether its performers pander to white sexual fantasies is that such questions leave black adults out altogether. Reading any of the recent trendy books and magazine pieces contrasting the tastes and values of Boomers with those of their offspring, one might think that generation gaps were an exclusively white phenomenon. Yet a visit to a record store with one section for rap and another for soul makes clear that black America has its own generation gap, of which differing tastes in music are only the visible tip.

As the essayist Gerald Early has pointed out, Each new generation [of African-Americans] views its elders with suspicion, thinking them failures who compromised and accommodated themselves in order to survive among the whites. And each generation, in some way, wishes to free itself from the generation that produced it.

African-Americans now in their late thirties or early forties, already resentful of their marginalization by mass media that tend to present black culture only in terms of new directions in jive, must sometimes feel as though everything they grew up believing is under attack in some of the music their children are listening to. “When we first started, everything was black-this and black-that—the whole positive black thing,” Easy E, the former drug dealer who was a founder of N.W.A, once explained to an interviewer. “We said f... that—we wanted to come out in everybody’s face. Something that would shock people.”

This particular generational clash is exacerbated by class friction of a sort seldom experienced by whites. In Juice, an otherwise forgettable 1992 action movie directed by Ernest Dickerson (Spike Lee’s cinematographer), a man named Quincy who is an aspiring hiphop DJ from the projects introduces himself as “Q” (his street name) to the estranged husband of the older woman he’s been sleeping with. “What, did names like Mustafah and Akbar become too hard to spell?” the husband sneers. His equal disdain for the African or Islamic names given to children by roots-conscious black parents in the 1970s and for the breezy street names many of those kids have since adopted is supposed to tip us off that this man is a member of the black bourgeoisie, or at least aspires to it. Both kinds of names reek of the ghetto to him, and this makes him an unsympathetic character in the movie’s scheme of things. What gives the scene its power and surprising complexity is the glimpse it provides of the alienation felt by many middle-class African-Americans at a time when the ghetto street culture celebrated in rap is increasingly viewed as the only authentic black experience.

MY OWN feelings about rap are so conflicted that I hardly know how to answer when somebody asks if I’m a fan. As a middle-aged white man, I’m in no position to think of rap as mine. As a music critic, I listen to a good deal of it out of professional obligation, and I enjoy much of what I hear—although even much of the rap I enjoy troubles or saddens me. The rapper most admired by my colleagues is Chuck D, of the group Public Enemy, who has, in effect, put a beat to the bluster of the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam. Marshall Berman, a professor at the City University of New York and the author of All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, an influential text on modernism, has likened Public Enemy’s “breakthroughs” in rap to “Picasso’s in painting, Eliot’s and Pound’s in poetry, Faulkner’s and Joyce’s in the novel, Parker’s in jazz.” All I hear in Chuck D is a rapper whose delivery is too sententious to be convincing and whose worship by the pop intelligentsia is evidence of the extent to which black racism is now accepted as a legitimate response to white oppression.

The rap performers I enjoy are those who emphasize production values, songcraft, and that quality of playfulness endemic to all good pop. These include P. M. Dawn, Neneh Cherry, De La Soul, and a new group from Los Angeles called The Pharcyde. Another new group, the Digable Planets, are nothing if not playful in attempting to fuse rap with elements of bebop, but what finally turns me off about them is their reduction of jazz to walking bass lines, finger-snaps, and bohemian posturing.

These performers (I’ll add Arrested Development, if only for their “Tennessee,” an evocation of the agrarian South as a place filled with both harrowing and idyllic memories for black Americans) suggest the wide range of approaches possible in a genre as seemingly inflexible as rap. My favorite among all recent pop albums is one generally spoken of as an example of alternative rap, though it might not be if the young performer responsible for it weren’t black and didn’t employ sampling and other hip-hop studio conventions.

Michael Ivey is the leader of a group called Basehead, which—at least on its debut album, Play With Toys—turns out to be not a group at all but just Ivey on guitar and vocals, a drummer named Brian Hendrix, and a handful of other musicians drifting in and out of the studio. Ivey sings in a small voice as uvular as any we’ve heard since Donovan. When he isn’t singing, he’s speeding up and slowing down the tape to alter his speaking voice: what are presented as arguments between him and his friends are actually Ivey’s stoned interior monologues. Although “basehead” is street slang for someone who freebases cocaine, the illegal substance of choice in Ivey’s songs is marijuana, and even it takes second place to beer—Ivey or one of his imaginary friends is always popping the top off a cold one.

Ivey is a musical as well as a verbal ironist who delights in subverting both rock and gangsta-rap conventions. His guitar riffs demonstrate pop’s boomerang effect: played a little faster and with more thunder, they could be the riffs that Led Zeppelin and other British proto-metal bands appropriated from the Delta bluesmen. The bass-heavy sound mix on Play With Toys is similar to those favored by the gangstas, but Ivey turns the tables on them by sampling N.W.A’s “8 Ball” on a song called (what else?) “Ode to My Favorite Beer.”

Ivey’s melodies are slightly woozy and doggedly minimalistic; a key change is a big event. Not much happens in his lyrics either. Ivey, who recently graduated from Howard University with a degree in film, drinks beer, writes songs, broods over breaking up with his girlfriend, and frets over his own future and the fate of other young black men as he watches the evening news. Although compared by critics to the aimless postadolescents in Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker, Ivey can no more be said to represent a type than his music can be reduced to sociology.

Basehead’s new Not in Kansas Anymore is a disappointing follow-up on which Ivey—whose cult listenership is mostly white, to judge from the audience that turned out for a show he gave in Philadelphia last winter—makes what sounds like a deliberate attempt to blacken up, at least in terms of his lyrics. Leaving his apartment for a change, he’s treated as a potential shoplifter in a clothing store and stopped and frisked by the police for no apparent reason other than that he’s young and black, and therefore assumed to be armed and dangerous. Though I don’t doubt for a minute that Ivey is writing from experience, his touch is almost too light to convey his indignation.

This turf belongs to the gangstas, whose ghetto narratives forcefully express the rage a middle-class monologuist such as Ivey can’t bring himself to feel. What gives a song like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer" or Paris’s “Coffee, Doughnuts & Death” its troubling power is the performer’s sense and ours that he isn’t speaking just for himself. These songs are the only ones on the radio now in which more seems at stake than a spot on next week’s charts. But the fact of their social significance does not allow us to overlook all that is reprehensible about them; issues are rarely that simple, and neither is pop.

I am someone whose tolerance for such violent films as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant renders him vulnerable to charges of practicing a racial double standard in feeling such dismay over rap’s bloodlust. And I do admit that rap troubles me in a way that movies rarely do. But there are differences between movies and pop music, perhaps the most obvious of which is that movies, by their very nature, are capable of presenting multiple points of view. In Reservoir Dogs, for example, Tarantino stops just short of showing us a cop having his ear sliced off by a sadistic, razor-wielding hood played by Michael Madsen. This is a scene that sickens some moviegoers and sends others stumbling for the exits, either in fear of what they’re about to see or in fear of their response to it. The camera follows Madsen throughout the scene, and it’s difficult not to become caught up in his delirium as he turns up the volume on the radio, does a series of graceful little dance steps to Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” and closes in on his defenseless, screaming captive. “Was that as good for you as it was for me?” Madsen asks the cop afterward. Then he douses him with gasoline and pulls out his lighter. Madsen might also be asking those of us who sat through the scene without averting our eyes. But along with Madsen’s dance steps, what stays in the mind are the cop’s screams and his dazed reaction to his mutilation and imminent death.

Pop songs are theoretically as capable as film of providing this kind of emotional and moral complexity. Randy Newman and Lou Reed are among the pop songwriters who have provided it, or at least have come close. Rap is strictly first-person-singular at this point. Its young performers have yet to develop the artistic, and moral, gift of empathy. Maybe when they grow up. This, though, may be asking too much of pop.