Gangsta Rap and the Media, Part 2: “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge”

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the second part a four-part series on gangsta rap, Black Nationalism, and representations of political discourse. Read the introduction here. Part 3: “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so Help Your Black Ass?” | Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”]

Dr. Dre’s solemn pronouncement at the beginning of “Straight Outta Compton,” the title track of NWA’s debut album, proudly declared that the young black men from the streets of one of California’s deadliest ghettoes were ready to share their perspective with the burgeoning audiences of gangsta rap.[1] NWA, an initialism for “Niggaz With Attitudes,” were the quintessential gangsta rappers, and they debuted on the music scene in the middle of hip hop’s “golden age.”[2] In the opening lines of “Straight Outta Compton,” Ice Cube declared “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From the gang called Niggaz With Attitudes / When I’m called off, I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off.” This gangster machismo, which seems to dominate most of the lyrics written by NWA and other gangsta rappers, exemplifies their public image: they were poor, young, black men from American ghettoes that belonged to gangs and engaged in violent rivalries with other groups.

But also within these lyrics, rappers like Ice Cube authored excoriating critiques of white supremacy, police brutality, racism, and classism. In the second track off “Straight Outta Compton,” the aptly-named “Fuck tha Police,” Ice Cube’s verse blasted structural racism:

“A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown / And not the other color so police think they have the authority to kill a minority / Fuck that shit, ‘cause I ain’t the one / for a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun / to be beating on, and thrown in jail… Searching my car, looking for the product / Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics”

These themes are present in the music video for “Straight Outta Compton” when the members of NWA are relentlessly pursued by white police officers, even though they are never shown committing a crime.[3]

However, these gangsta rap songs are also homophobic and extremely violent, especially towards police officers. Ice Cube states that he would “Beat a police out of shape / and when I’m finished, bring the yellow tape / To tape off the scene of the slaughter… I don’t know if they fags or what / Search a nigga down, and grabbing his nuts.” Later in the song, MC Ren describes what he would do in a fight with a police officer, including the lines

“I’m sneaky as fuck when it comes to crime / But I’ma smoke ‘em now and not next time / Smoke any motherfucker that sweats me or any asshole that threatens me / I’m a sniper with a hell of a scope / Taking out a cop or two, they can’t cope with me.”

In another appropriately named band, Ice-T raps in Body Count’s rap-metal anthem “Cop Killer,” right after several gunshot sound effects, about how he would execute a police officer:

“I got this long-assed knife / And your neck looks just right / My adrenaline’s pumpin’ / I got my stereo bumpin’ / I’m about to kill me somethin’ / A pig stopped me for nothing! / I’m a cop killer, better you than me / Cop killer, fuck police brutality! / Cop killer, I know your momma’s grieving / Cop killer, but tonight we get even / Die, die, die, pig, die! / Fuck the police… for Darryl Gates… for Rodney King… for my dead homies!”[4]

Yet despite their violent lyrics, each artist incorporated elements of his lived experience into his music. Through firsthand experience and the cultural knowledge of American ghettoes, each singer was well-acquainted with racism and police brutality, and their music illustrates their frustration. Moreover, their music exhibits a clearly political goal of eradicating police brutality and structural racism, even if violence is necessary to accomplish their objectives.

Rap is well-established in the historical and sociological literature as a form of cultural, social, artistic, and political expression.[5] The political elements of gangsta rap were studied as early as 1990, and one quantitative study found that of the 306 songs sampled from artists like NWA, Ice-T, Public Enemy, and KRS-One, over 68% had political messages of “oppositional resistance.”[6] Studies found that rap lyrics are fundamentally influenced by American cultural violence, including America’s violent streets.[7] As problematic as rap’s homophobic, misogynistic, and violent lyrics can be, rap is clearly a legitimate art form and vehicle for cultural expression and resistance.

In addition to academics, some audiences have also found rap to be a particularly important form of cultural expression. Young African-American boys, for example, find rap music to be “life-affirming” because it speaks to their experiences and personal feelings.[8] According to sociologist Amy Binder, for black audiences, “rap music—with its evocation of angry black rappers and equally angry black audiences—was simultaneously perceived as a more authentic and serious art form… and as a more frightening and salient threat to society as a whole.”[9] These observations illustrate how rap music, as a uniquely black form of expression, reflected and amplified the quotidian experiences of African Americans by directly targeting power structures that reinforced white supremacy.

The major divide between academics and journalists is how rap is portrayed in elite discourse. Journalists constitute the most widely-read elites, whereas scholars of African-American culture have been relegated to narrowly-read academic publications. The chasm between these two classes can be attributed to the respective focus of each group: academics focus on cultural context, sociological themes, and historical significance while writing for an academic audience; journalists focus on events. Subsequently, journalists, who are also constrained by space in daily newspapers, are more apt to approach rap without contextualizing its broad discourse. However, their stories carry their cultural metanarrative biases, which influence the narratives produced in their news stories, and these narratives are available to larger audiences.

Journalists have generally characterized gangsta rap as a violent, misogynistic, homophobic genre that glorifies thug culture. One reporter claimed that NWA’s lyrics glorified the lawlessness of the ghetto, writing

“I don’t know of any white singers making a buck off a record that glorifies cop killing and crack dealing. That’s what NWA has done…. Volume sells. And the highest volume of crime, drugs and violence happens to occur in areas filled with black people…. [The] reality [is] hundreds of unsupervised young black hoodlums who are out each day terrorizing whole neighborhoods, infecting another generation with the drug crack, holding an entire community hostage.”[10]

In this highly critical account, the reporter claimed that NWA benefited from exploiting the ghetto lifestyle and reinforcing violence in those communities. Another journalist, reporting on a student who was shot, blamed rap as the cause. In the article, the journalist juxtaposed the unrelated rap lyrics with the incident, reporting only the police’s account of the events: “What apparently started with an exchange of dirty looks at the concert, which featured a group whose lyrics speak of police slaughters and gang warfare,” ended in a shootout.[11] After a rape was committed after a 2 Live Crew performance, a jury found them guilty for inciting the violence through their lyrics.[12] In the stories about the shooting and the rape, the music was linked to independent events, and both journalists ignored any defense that could have been given by the rappers, and instead they focused on police descriptions. These examples illustrate that journalists were writing in such a way as to strip rap of its political overtones and delimit it as only violent, and they refused to allow the rappers to speak for themselves. More importantly, when characterizing the lyrics of the rappers, they excluded any mention of political activism, leaving their audiences with only the images of rappers who promote violence for selfish ends.

These violent snapshots reinforced the mythology about rap music and young black men by omitting what was most important to the rappers’ performances. Journalists chose to report on rappers’ violent imagery in isolation from the rest of the lyrics, despite how even a shallow reading of the lyrics as a whole would reveal political rhetoric throughout the songs. Treating violent imagery in isolation discursively eliminated the rappers’ concerns over police brutality. The media effectively dismissed critiques of structural racism and the carceral state by focusing on the use of profanity and violence in the lyrics, and to any news reader who was unfamiliar with rap, the only impression they would have of these rappers would be seeing rap as violent and devoid of legitimate discourse.

By diminishing the significance of political rap, journalists defined the parameters of legitimate discourse. Journalists function as informational gatekeepers, which allows them to create a value-laden barrier that prevents illegitimate or ideologically problematic discourse from being widely distributed.[13] In these news stories, besides ignoring political critiques, journalists focused on the violent aspects of rap, but they never asked why rappers were so preoccupied with police brutality, expressions of violence, racism, and masculinity. Indicatively, they never asked rappers anything, preferring to completely exclude their voices from interviews or accounts.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 3: “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so Help Your Black Ass?”
Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”


Footnotes

[1] N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, Audio CD (Ruthless, Priority, EMI, 1988).

[2] Jon Caramanica, “Hip-Hop’s Raiders of the Lost Archives,” The New York Times, June 26, 2005.

[3] Rupert Wainwright, Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A., Music Video, 1988.

[4] Body Count, Body Count, Audio CD (North Hollywood, California: Sire/Warner Bros., 1992).

[5] For a small sample, see: Geneva Smitherman, “‘The Chain Remain the Same’: Communicative Practices in the Hip Hop Nation,” Journal of Black Studies 28, no. 1 (September 1, 1997): 21; George Lipsitz, “We Know What Time It Is: Race, Class and Youth Culture in the Nineties,” in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, ed. Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (New York: Routledge, 1994); Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994); Theresa Martinez, “Popular Culture as Oppositional Culture: Rap as Resistance,” Sociological Perspectives 40 (1997): 265–86; Yasue Kuwahara, “Power to the People Y’All: Rap Music, Resistance, and Black College Students,” Humanity and Society 16 (1992): 54–73; Robin D. G. Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); Errol A. Henderson, “Black Nationalism and Rap Music,” Journal of Black Studies 26, no. 3 (January 1, 1996): 308–39; Tricia Rose, “‘Fear of a Black Planet’: Rap Music and Black Cultural Politics in the 1990s,” The Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 3 (July 1, 1991): 276.

[6] Catherine Beighey and N. Prabha Unnithan, “Political Rap: The Music of Oppositional Resistance,” Sociological Focus 39, no. 2 (May 1, 2006): 138.

[7] Jeanita W. Richardson and Kim A. Scott, “Rap Music and Its Violent Progeny: America’s Culture of Violence in Context,” The Journal of Negro Education 71, no. 3 (July 1, 2002): 175.

[8] Rachel E. Sullivan, “Rap and Race: It’s Got a Nice Beat, but What about the Message?,” Journal of Black Studies 33, no. 5 (May 1, 2003): 605.

[9] Amy Binder, “Constructing Racial Rhetoric: Media Depictions of Harm in Heavy Metal and Rap Music,” American Sociological Review 58, no. 6 (December 1, 1993): 754.

[10] Mike Barnicle, “Guys with Bad Attitudes,” Boston Globe, June 8, 1989.

[11] “Student Shot; Police Believe Event Was Outgrowth of Concert Incident,” Denver Post, August 3, 1989.

[12] Steve Marshall, “2 Live Crew Is Obscene, Jury Rules,” USA Today, October 4, 1990; Philips, “The 2 Live Crew Controversy.”

[13] Baker, Advertising and a Democratic Press, 42.