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Rap : Striking Tales of Black Frustration and Pride Shake the Pop Mainstream

April 02, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

Rap music is not polite. It's a noisy 'n' crude attack on mainstream sensibilities that has even liberal-minded adults who were raised on the rebellious, outlaw beat of Little Richard and the Rolling Stones asking themselves, "What happened to real music?"

While these adults shudder at the sound of rap, however, the music is the pulse of a far wider urban hip-hop phenomenon--a glorious, multilayered celebration of spontaneous, street-ignited artistry that also includes break dancing, graffiti and video. Its energy and flash and style have moved into advertising, fashion, and--of course--the pop-music mainstream.

Sales of rap records to young fans--black and white--have become strong enough to even make the once-reluctant pop Establishment finally open its doors to the black street sound. The Grammy Awards introduced a rap category this year, and Billboard magazine followed suit with its own rap sales chart. MTV dishes up a weekly rap show, and critics toast the best rap with a fervor rarely seen since the arrival of new-wave rock in the late '70s.

One reason for the greater acceptance is the arrival of a new wave of rappers, such as D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. They're so wholesome they could be regulars on the Cosby show.

But even with this new-found acceptance and poplarity, rap is still criticized by some who say that much of the music is socially irresponsible.

Nowhere is this outlaw rap more visible than in Los Angeles, where Compton's N.W.A has become an explosive new force with tales of gang violence that make even some in the rap movement uneasy.

Pushing the imagery much further than anyone before them, N.W.A feature sirens and gunshots as backdrops to their brutal and ugly X-rated tales of drug dealing, gangbanging and police confrontations. The group's first album, "Straight Outta Compton" has sold nearly 500,000 copies in just six weeks, while the solo album by N.W.A leader Eazy-E, "Eazy-Duz-It," is nearing the 650,000 mark.

Ice-T, a pioneer of the Los Angeles movement who calls his management-production company Rhyme Pays, goes out of his way in interviews to warn against the gang life style. His records, he has said, show young rap fans the consequences of such actions. Ice-T wrote the title track for the controversial gang movie of last year, "Colors."

The defiant N.W.A, however, refuses to pass judgment or offer itself as a role model. The group's name echoes its bold, incendiary nature: Niggers With Attitude.

Sample line from N.W.A's "Gangsta Gangsta":

Since I was a youth, I smoke weed out

Now, I'm the ----------- that you read about.

Taking a life or two.

That's what the hell I do

If you don't like how I'm living,

Well, ---- you.

This is a gang and I'm in it.

Ice Cube, a 19-year-old who writes most of N.W.A's rhymes, says the extreme language isn't just an attempt to shock. It is a reflection of N.W.A's world.

"We make these records for our people first," he said last week. "Words like bitch and nigger may be shocking for somebody who is white, but that's not why we use them. It's everyday language of people around my neighborhood. When they refer to a girl, they might say 'bitch' or when referring to a guy, they might say, 'that nigger over there.' It's not used by us the way (bigots) used to use it."

About the group's social stance, Ice Cube (real name O'Shay Jackson) added, "People say our music inspires violence or whatever, but there has been violence since the beginning of time. I like my records to shake people up, make them think . . . see something in a new way.

"To me, films like 'Cry Freedom' and 'Mississippi Burning' are from the wrong point of view. Hollywood never shows it from the black person's point of view, . . . Even in 'Colors,' they showed it from the police point of view instead of the gangbangers' point of view. Our stuff is more or less documentary. It's what we grew up with.

"People think that kids are incapable of knowing what is right and what is wrong, but kids are smarter than the adults think they are. They don't have to listen to records to know what they should do."

Because of lyrics as explosive as N.W.A's, rap has split the pop community in ways that haven't been seen since punk arrived more than a decade ago.

For nearly a decade now, much of the media and the pop Establishment has been hoping that rap would simply fade away. But the music has proved resilient and has become a dynamic forum for the expression of black frustrations and aspirations.

Dr. John Oliver, professor of social policy and planning at Cal State Long Beach's School of Social Work, sees a connection between rap and the soul artists who sang of black pride themes in the '60s.

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