Back in the early '90s, hip-hop artists took pride in being excluded from such mainstream venues as the Grammy Awards. Being part of the Academy Awards then was not even a consideration. That lack of recognition by the arbiters of the cultural establishment bolstered the genre's rebel status and underscored hip-hop's claim to authenticity. The Grammys, the Oscars and anything else mainstream were, in the words of hip-hop, "wack" -- a fate worse than death.
But as Dr. Dre once said, "Things done changed on this side." Indeed!
There was the rapper-producer Kanye West, looming large this year at the Grammys. Chris Rock at the Oscars as MC. Hip-hop chanteuse Beyonce was there too on Oscars night, performing three musical numbers, with the ubiquitous P. Diddy serving as a presenter. Rock was right when he said that this year's show was "kind of like Def Oscar Jam."
Hard to believe that just nine short years ago Jesse Jackson staged a protest at the ceremony over what he saw as a lack of black nominees. I mean, look at best actor Jamie Foxx, with not only that Oscar for "Ray" but a supporting actor nomination for "Collateral."
But all this mainstream success doesn't come without raising suspicions within hip-hop. Hip-hop, some say, has potentially gained the whole world, but lost its soul.
How did hip-hop come to find its way into such an easy coexistence with these mainstream venues? Well, it's been culturally bilingual for a long time now, and that's one of the primary reasons it's been so successful: The music has always been able to deliver different messages to different constituencies. Ever since hip-hop artists began recording clean and explicit versions of their albums, singles and videos in the early '90s, the culture's ability to speak in multiple tongues has created a space that seems to offer something for everyone.
A good example of hip-hop's bilingual skills is a Gap television ad from the late '90s featuring the rapper-actor Ladies Love Cool James, better known as LL Cool J. In the ad, LL wore a Gap sweatshirt while he "spit" a freestyle rap verse. He was also wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of FUBU, a hot hip-hop fashion label at the time.
In LL's verse he dropped the lyrics "for us/ by us/ on the low," a coded allusion to the meaning of FUBU's acronym, "for us, by us," which itself is an old black nationalist saying from the '60s. "On the low," or "in secret," as it were, was LL's reference to the way he was using the apparel behemoth Gap to plug the fledgling hip-hop label FUBU -- in language that only someone attuned to the prose of hip-hop would understand. The mainstream simply saw a Gap ad, while FUBU used the boost provided by LL's verse to establish its name.
This ability to speak to multiple audiences is on prominent display whenever Chris Rock takes the stage. What was really groundbreaking about Rock's presence at the Oscars was hip-hop's continued infiltration into places previously off-limits. Though Rock is not a rapper, his "amped-up" style represents hip-hop's reach into all areas of the culture. His willful desire to be "real" in his comedy is at the foundation of hip-hop's eternal quest for authenticity.
Rock took his game to a higher level back in 1996 with his HBO special "Bring the Pain," whose title comes from a popular Method Man single: "I came to bring the pain/ hard core to the brain." That is, Rock wanted to make you think and laugh so hard your brain hurt.
"Bring the Pain" touched a raw nerve when Rock made a distinction between "black people" and "niggas." Many old-school African Americans found Rock's comments inappropriate, like airing dirty laundry in public. Yet these same comments helped make Chris Rock a superstar.
By breaking the racial stranglehold that many civil rights-minded blacks had on open discussion around such issues, Rock infused the conversation with hip-hop's edge and in so doing, suggested that anything and anyone was fair game in his comedy. His willingness to criticize his own people gave him the space to criticize everyone else and get away with it.
In the years since, Rock has been able to go places and do things that other social critics moonlighting as comedians -- people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor -- could never have conceived of. Could you imagine any of them being allowed to host the Oscars, of all things?
What the mainstream hears in his comedy is quite different from what hip-hop hears when listening to him. In "Bigger and Blacker," for instance, Rock jokes with his audience about the often unspoken dimensions of white privilege when he says that "there's not a white person in here who would change places with me ... and I'm rich!" He goes on to refer to a white "one-legged busboy" who, when given the choice of abandoning his own miserable life in favor of being rich and black, decides to "ride this white thing out."