Hip-hop will rock and shock the nation.
rap group Wu-Tang Clan
Bart Simpson shouts out "Yo!" Disney releases an album titled "Rappin' Mickey." McDonald's commercials feature cute toddler twins, dressed in fashionably baggy clothes, rapping their way to a Happy Meal.
Two decades after it emerged on the streets of the South Bronx, hip-hop has become a dominant force in American and global pop culture. No longer a local art form of street stories and freestyle poetry, the hip-hop sound, style and slang now provide fodder for mainstream movies, television, radio, fashion, advertising and, of course, the news media.
"Kids in Beverly Hills know what gangs are like. Kids in Arkansas know something of what it's like to be underprivileged in New York," said Def Jam Music Group chief Russell Simmons, who has built an empire of rap music, comedy and street wear. "Hip-hop is absolutely a unifying force."
Like blues, jazz, rock and soul, hip-hop evolved from the limited means of the African American underclass. From its origins in the disco, graffiti and break-dancing scenes of the '70s, hip-hop has grown to embody postmodern media--borrowing voraciously from the past and reworking it in a way that appeals to the mind as well as the hips.
For many Americans it is also a divisive presence, riveting kids to dance floors while keeping their parents on the defensive and politicians in the pulpit. Some adults feel alienated and mystified by this culture that favors electronic rhythms and encrypted rhymes and encompasses everything from trendy clothes to graffiti to its central force--rap.
No other music since '50s rock 'n' roll has caused such social distress. Hip-hop has endured attacks from presidential candidates, Congress and the courts. A judge in Broward County, Fla., attempted to censor a 2 Live Crew album--an American first--but was eventually rebuffed by a higher court. Former federal drug czar William J. Bennett has been an outspoken critic.
What those outside the culture appear to fear most is the violence that seems to run through the veins of hard-core rap like verbal steroids. The public slayings of the popular East Coast-based Notorious B.I.G. on Sunday in Los Angeles and the charismatic but volatile Tupac Shakur last September in Las Vegas are stark reminders of just how real the rap game can be.
This shocking violence and the aggressive stance that spawns it keep adults at bay, creating the biggest cultural divide in domestic life since the '50s--a divide that splits America, more than anything else, by age.
For the young, says Wired magazine media critic Jon Katz, "hip-hop is the rebellion of choice because it freaks out so many adults."
At its core, hip-hop is a club with a language, fashion and sound that are constantly evolving, as if to keep the cultural tourists from becoming the locals. It is this very sense of an underworld that holds appeal for suburban youth.
"Kids adopt cultures that differentiate themselves from their parents," Katz said. "The more offensive the better. This is not new."
Part of what keeps hip-hop abrasive toward adults and attractive to the young is its oft-heard ethic to "keep it real." No one in hip-hop wants a modern-day Elvis to translate their music for the masses.
This attempt to maintain authenticity can breed extreme behavior, however.
"Some people feel that acting like gangsters is what 'keeping it real' means," said Los Angeles radio personality Dominique DiPrima. "Part of what traps those rappers into living this lifestyle is this whole media concept that they're not rappers, they're gangsters who rap."
To be sure, some hard-core rappers have led genuinely hard-core lives even through prosperous times of record contracts, legions of groupies and endless supplies of marijuana. Notorious B.I.G. and Shakur were two such artists. There is also a lethal strain in rap that reinforces a tougher-than-thou aesthetic: "Throw your set in the air" (flash your gang sign), youths are encouraged in a song by Cypress Hill.
But critics say the music industry and suburban audiences only work to keep the gangster game going, that it is young, white America's voracious appetite for gangsta rap that encourages violence. Jeff Chang, co-founder of the lauded Solesides Records rap label in San Francisco, even calls some gangsta rap "blaxploitation."
In a statement issued after the slaying of Notorious B.I.G., C. DeLores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women, said: "We must lay blame squarely where it belongs, at the feet of the greedy record industry moguls who put profits before principle."
Yet, as Chang and others point out, gangsta rap is but a media term to describe a street-level style of narrative that has been around since hip-hop's inception. While some of it is no doubt hype, some is true.
Listen, rap's defenders say, and don't blame the messenger.