Fight the Power: From Message Rap to Hardcore

Sylvia Robinson (above), CEO of Sugar Hill Records and the so-called “Mother of Hip Hop,” released “It’s Good to Be The Queen” in 1982. Robinson, in the tradition of MC boasts, raps about her success and the material comfort it conveys. But she samples the “Black national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” which suggests something deeper than boasts about conspicuous consumption. Why do you think she does this?

The pioneering “message rap” song, “The Message” (1981), credited to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five:

Melle Mel and his colleagues suggest that the personal tragedies that Kurtis Blow rapped about in his 1980 “The Breaks” have social causes and social consequences.

Run-DMC’s 1981 “Sucker MC’s” is a classic of the MC boast genre:

In 1984, Schoolly D riffed on this genre, adding lyrics that pointed in the direction of gangsta rap, with “Gangsta Boogie”:

A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 “We the People” uses irony to argue for unity:

And “U.N.I.T.Y.” is the name of Queen Latifah’s 1993 song schooling men on how to treat women:

Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Doo Woo,” encouraging men to respect women and women to respect themselves:

Sister Souljah’s 1992 “African Scaredy Katz in a One Exit Maze”:

Souljah’s disturbing album cover evokes the Soweto student uprising of 1976, one of the events that opened the eyes of the world to South African apartheid:

Public Enemy’s “911 Is A Joke,” in which MC Flava Flav invokes images of blackface minstrelsy to blast the lack of basic services in Black neighborhoods:

The song that led journalists to coin the term “gangsta rap” (NWA called it “reality rap”):

“Doing 55” Playlist

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Hoodie (David Hammons, 1993).

Trigger/Content Warning: Disturbing subject matter, police brutality, racism, profanity, racist language including the n-word.

Read Jennifer Lynn Stoever’s article “‘Doing Fifty-Five in a Fifty-Four’: Hip Hop, Cop Voice and the Cadence of White Supremacy in the United States”:

Stoever notes:

As African American theorists, writers, artists and musicians – from Frederick Douglass in the nineteenth century to Mendi + Keith Obadike in the present moment – have been reminding us for quite some time, the perceived inaudibility of whiteness does not mean that it has no sonic markers, that it is not heard loud and clear. . . . [Nevertheless] there is nothing essentially biologically “white” or “male” about the cadences of cop voice, and both [race and gender] are heard and sounded through ethnic and class identities.

We’ve talked about what it means to “sound black.” What does it mean to “sound white”?

As you listen to the music Stoever analyzes in her essay, do you hear what she calls “those aspirant ‘t’s and rounded, hyper-pronounced ‘r’s” when the rappers switch personas to voice the white cops?

Stoever compares the “cop voice” enacted by rappers with ventriloquism. Can we think of it as a racially-reversed, power-inverse form of minstrelsy — a kind of subversive minstrelsy performed by the disempowered?

KRS-One, “Sound of da Police” (1993):

Jay-Z, “99 Problems” (2003):

Main Source, “Just a Friendly Game of Baseball” (1991):

Public Enemy: “Get the F*** Outta Dodge” (1991):

Rebel Diaz, “Calma” (2009):

Prince Paul/Everlast, “The Men in Blue” (1999):

N.W.A., “F*** tha Police” (1988):

J Dilla, “F*** the Police” (1999):

Mos Def, “Mr. N*gga” (1999):

Jasiri X, “Crooked Cops” (2013):

G-Unit, “Ahhh Sh*t” (2014):

The Game, “Don’t Shoot” (2014):

Sammus, “Three Fifths” (2015):

Appendices:

  1. Poet Claudia Rankine reading from her collection of poems Citizen: An American Lyric, a meditation on race in America.

2. Jennifer Stoever’s playlist of black women artists singing/rapping about police violence:

3. Eric Garner’s siblings, “I Can’t Breathe” (2016):

4.. Read the African American Policy Forum’s report #SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women, by Andrea Richie and Kimberlé Crenshaw, here.

5.. Listen to Rudy Francisco perform his poem “Adrenaline Rush” (h/t Anokye Bomani):

6. Read the “Lower the Boom” organization’s (racialized) open letter to those who, as Public Enemy  puts it, wheel with the boom in the back.

Boys;

Most of you – not all of you – are mere boys, or have the mentality of a boy and thus exhibit much of the typical mind set of an adolescent. . .  (Those of you who carry this attribute into adulthood will have painful marriages and failed personal and professional relationships. At best, you will spawn yet another dysfunctional family for our society). You lash out with vitriol, vituperance, and vile invalidations because you feel you are being personally attacked or have been caught being wrong. To the clear-headed and intelligent, you look quite insecure when you do that.

We know why you lash out, and you need to realize that it isn’t because you are a big man. You do whatever you think you can get by with, even when it’s counterproductive, morally lacking, damaging to others, or just plain stupid.

7. Read “It Took a Jury 9 Minutes to Decide A Man Could Legally Blast ‘F*ck Tha Police’ Near an Officer.”

8. Read “To Unprotect and Subserve: King Britt Samples the Sonic Archive of Police Violence.