It was the Academy Awards show for the hip-hop nation. The Source Music Awards in Pasadena, Calif., sponsored by the rap-fan magazine, would honor a musical genre that has almost displaced rock 'n' roll in American pop music.
No sooner did the TV cameras start rolling than fights started to break out. Backstage, some of the performers and their handlers got into it, and out in the well-dressed audience fists began to fly. When people started throwing CDs and bottles, the producers decided they had better shut the ceremonies down. (No arrests were made, and the show--with later tapings spliced in--was still televised, to some of the best ratings in UPN's history.)
Rap music is hugely successful, but it has been tainted by the gang-style murder of some of its biggest stars (Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.), the imprisonment of one of its biggest impresarios (Marion "Suge" Knight, head of Death Row Records), and arrests after arrests. Critics complain about the bad language, explicit sex, and violence in hard-core "gangsta" rap, but the problem goes much deeper than that. What we have, very specifically, is the culture of crime. And this criminal culture has now gone mainstream.
This is not to be confused with black culture. Rap music grew out of a long tradition in the black community of improvisational street poetry. Originally, this poetry tended to have a positive social message. Then the fast, rhythmic poetry recitations went electronic, accompanied by first scratched records and soon a host of musical background effects. Today, many rappers produce music that is as innocent, playful, and sometimes thoughtful and artistic as any other genre of pop music. Not all rap is gangsta rap.
Nor should gangsta rap be confused with the culture of the poor. It says little about social injustice or the need for economic progress. Rather, it projects a world of Rolex watches, limos, suitcases of cash, and all the "ho's" (i.e., whores) money can buy. Its images are those of luxury, not poverty; conspicuous consumption, not struggling to make ends meet.
Gangsta rap is filled with the curious obsession with honor that is, in fact, found among thieves-the disrespect-me-and-I'll-kill-you attitude, the swaggering macho bragging about impregnating and abusing women, the constant status-seeking of gangs and their hierarchies. Such fantasies of wealth and the sad craving for status at any cost are indeed alluring to some among the poor, but this way of thinking leads not to social mobility but to prison.
The music actually is being churned out primarily by large, white-owned corporations--such as Time-Warner--that have bought up most of the small recording labels once associated with hip-hop music. And the most significant fact about the popularity of this kind of music is that its biggest customers are white, suburban, affluent, middle-class teenagers. This means that the values and thought-forms of the criminal underclass are now the rage among a wide spectrum of America's children.
Today, the biggest hard-core rapper-and the meanest, most violent, most lawless of them all--is the white Eminem (his given name is Marshall Mathers). His recording The Marshall Mathers LP has been at the top of the charts for months and has sold some 6 million copies, making it one of the best-selling rap albums of all time. And he lives the life. This summer he divorced his suicidal wife, his mother sued him for slander, and he was arrested for attacking someone with a gun.
Black leaders need to make the case that gangsta rap, far from exemplifying black culture, is in fact racist. Not only does its language employ the most offensive racial epithets, it perpetuates the most negative and socially harmful racial stereotypes: the young black male as thug and the young black woman as whore. Such racism tends to get a pass when it comes out of the mouth of a black performer, but it should not, any more than the stereotypes of earlier generations were acceptable when acted out by blacks performing in minstrel shows.
In the meantime, the criminal culture needs to be dealt with in more fundamental ways than mere parental warning labels, censorship debates, or complaints about Hollywood. Now that influential Democrats such as Joe Lieberman and Tipper Gore are agreeing with Republicans about the harmful effects of music marketed to children, perhaps we could take another step. Since the problem is a specifically criminal culture--which includes the influence of criminal gangs and gang members--why not do what the Kennedy administration did when the Mafia started infiltrating legitimate American businesses and institutions? Instead of using organized crime statutes against pro-lifers, let them be used for what they were designed for. Let us have congressional and grand jury investigations of the role of organized crime in America's music industry.