Is gangsta rap, with all its violence and alleged sexism, merely a form of modern reportage--a newspaper of the street, as its proponents typically proclaim--or advocacy journalism of a particularly cynical and odious sort? That's the age-old (or 5-years-or-so-old, anyway) question that recurs throughout MTV's "Gangsta Rap" special, premiering tonight.
An opening crawl for this MTV News-produced half hour warns that the show "contains violent imagery and excerpts of some videos that are not shown on MTV." Indeed, non-fans who carp about MTV's lax standards and practices may be shocked to learn how many gun-toting, pro-payback anthems the web turns down that do show up on The Box and other outlets.
Given the bias you'd expect toward the youthful audience, MTV News once again does a surprisingly good job of objectively framing a moral debate, allowing defenders and detractors a reasonable voice.
"Hip-hop historian" Bill Stephney boils down much of the prevailing message to this: "Nobody cares about me, so why should I care about anyone else?" The result is a virus-like rage that turns fascinatingly visceral--and, ironically, of course, crosses cultures--in the right creative hands.
Or, the result may just be heightened capitalism, in the case of brilliant producer Dr. Dre, who eschews "gangsta" labels or politics and admits, "I'm here to make money."
But most of Dre's contemporaries consider their work in nobler terms. "Whatever I wrote was honest ," says Tupac Shakur, boiling down his defense of some admittedly negative themes. He may be right, but that attitude begs another unasked question--whether "honesty," celebrated in the absence of all other ideals, is really as platonic a virtue in isolation as the rappers might hope.
* "Gangsta Rap: An MTV News Special Report" airs at 10 tonight.