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COVER STORY : The Uncivil War : The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class

July 19, 1992|CHUCK PHILIPS | Chuck Philips is a regular contributor to Calendar. and

I got my 12-gauge sawed off

I got my headlights turned off

I'm 'bout to bust some shots off

I'm 'bout to dust some cops off.

Cop Killer, better you than me.

Cop Killer, f--- police brutality!

--Ice-T, "Cop Killer"

Ice-T is fed up with George Bush, Bill Clinton and other politicians taking potshots at rap artists.

In the three months since Ice-T's graphic inner-city anthem "Cop Killer" was released by Sire Records, it--along with the whole realm of urban rap music--has become a flash point in the 1992 presidential campaign.

"I don't know what Bush and Quayle and the rest of these guys are so upset about," says the 30-ish Los Angeles-based rapper, whose real name is Tracy Marrow. "After all, don't these politicians realize the country was founded on the kind of revolutionary political thought expressed in my song?

"I mean, haven't they ever listened to the national anthem? Anybody knows that the 'Star-Spangled Banner' is really just a song about a shoot-out between us and the police. Have they forgotten that Paul Revere became a Revolutionary War hero for warning everybody, 'The police are coming, the police are coming?' "

When it's all over, the Rap Battle of 1992 probably won't rank up there in American history with the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. But it has reopened the old American wounds of race and class. And the debate--which had been couched as a conflict between free expression and moral responsibility--has degenerated into an uncivil war of words enveloping politicians, business people, artists and others.

Rap's strong rhythms and sometimes poetic, sometimes tortured rhymes have moved out of the nation's big-city ghettos and into the mainstream of popular culture. The music, which runs from the neo-bubblegum sound of Atlanta's pubescent Kris Kross to the "gangsta" threats and bravado of Compton's N.W.A., has become a $700-million-a-year business--with whites buying three-fourths of all rap records sold. It has become a big moneymaker for such international entertainment conglomerates as Sony, Philips and Ice-T's record label at Time Warner. Hammer sells Pepsi. General Electric's NBC prime-time lineup includes "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

But it's rap's grittier, militant street component that has moved the music from "Entertainment Tonight" to "Nightline." It has sparked a sociopolitical firestorm that has been largely absent from pop music since the heydays of Dylan, the Beatles, Hendrix and the other '60s icons who stormed the gates of the Establishment. The works of Public Enemy, Ice Cube and Ice-T are as contemptuous of today's reigning order.

And the order is as defensive as ever. From Bill Clinton to Dan Quayle, politicians have introduced the messages of militant rappers, many of whom were unknown to the great mass of voters, to the national debate. Some critics see the worst sort of political cynicism at work: For Clinton, attacking Sister Souljah a few weeks ago was an easy play to conservatives who believe Democrats are too beholden to blacks; for Quayle, going after Ice-T's "Cop Killer" was Willie Horton II, a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the stereotype of the criminal black male.

Another homie got murdered

In a shakedown

And now his mother's at the funeral

Havin' a nervous breakdown

--Ice Cube's "Dead Homiez"

The debate over rap really goes beyond the presidential race and looks to the music's place in today's cultural framework. Is it for real? Is rap an important art form that taps a vein of the black, urban experience that has been hidden since the '60s' civil rights fights? Or is it simply a commercial contrivance designed to tap the pocketbooks of America's mall-roving teen-agers?

"This kind of rap may be shocking, but it's popular for a reason," says Nova University law professor Bruce Rogow, who defended Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in a notorious obscenity trial two years ago. "'It reflects deep feelings that are shared by many members of the culture. The forces who are trying to shut this music down are living in a cocoon. Our leaders need to listen, not chide or censor these artists."

"What we have here is a bunch of businessmen who have irresponsibly decided to make money on products that threaten lives and encourage the kinds of anarchy that you folks in Los Angeles have just been through," says Oliver L. North, the ex-Marine, ex-Reagan White House aide and ex-Iran-Contra figure who has joined a national effort to block the sale of Ice-T's "Cop Killer." "The people who put this stuff out must be held accountable."

"Why, now, all of a sudden in 1992, the minute a black man puts out a song with the slightest revolutionary message, does everybody want to silence you?" asks Ice-T, whose "Body Count" album is actually rock music, not rap. "Can't these jokers find anything more important to base a political platform on?"

Maybe not, for rap has become a political buzzword this season--alongside "cultural elite," "family values" and other terms.

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