disclaimer: this is only a draft





You sounding like this shit is the wheel and stuff; like it’s gon’ change the world.”
Nino Brown to G-Money                                                  New Jack City, 1992

I’m working on an essay that correlates the rise of hip hop with the implementing of crack cocaine in lower/working class communities.  In essence I wanna show that the hip hop we know now—and complain about most of the time—is one of the legacies of crack. Hip hop music is crack music.

Here’s what I think:

Hip hop started out in the mid to late 70’s to express the frustrations and aspirations of the lower/working class communities.  Those aspirations were mostly material—money and the stuff it could buy from clothes to sex.

Socially, lower/working class communities were rightfully frustrated.  The late 50’s and early 60’s had seen them beginning to prosper thanks to the strides of the Civil Rights Movement.  The mid and late 60’s saw the deaths of the major leaders of the movement: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.  These communities erupted in riots first and then in action. 

The action was rather different than the movement’s diplomatic approach.  The new movement was given its momentum from the Black Panthers, a bunch of fed up, but intelligent, kids who had tried it that way.  There was Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) who had been chairman of SNCC (pronounced Snick), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  There were college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale who decided after Malcom’s assasination that the was not forceful enough. 

Their willingness to fight spoke to the best and worst in these communities.  It harnessed their anger into something other than gang-warring with each other.  Then, it, too was taken down by the FBI’s climate control. The FBI created a climate of fear and confusion through Hoover’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) surrounding the Panthers just as it had created such a climate for King and El Hajj Malik Shabazz (as Malcolm X came to be known by the time of his murder).  This kind of climate made their destruction both imminent and necessary.   

By the late 70’s and early 80’s these lower/working class communities were enjoying few rewards of the Civil Rights movement.  In Boston; Wilmington Delaware; Richmond Virginia; San Francisco, and more cities, they were getting bused out of their neighborhoods into menacing and uninviting white ones.  The economy sucked; gas being rationed due to the Energy Crisis and what not.  The boys the government had not managed to draft and kill in Vietnam were coming home traumatized and untreated.  They came home addicted or turned to it to heal themselves of their wounds, both physical and mental. 

Poor people, no jobs, education hard to come by without a fight; hope keeps getting shot down (literally half the time!) was the order of the day in these communities.

Nobody wanted to sing ‘We Shall Overcome” anymore.  The youth who saw little way out didn’t want to sing about “turn off lights” ‘cause Conn-Ed had done it already!  They weren’t trying to sing of “sunshine on a cloudy day” ‘cause all the days were cloudy.  So they created music that complained of their plight.  Grandmaster Flash warned about the dangers of “white lines” and Kurtis Blow listed some of  “the breaks” I just described.  Grandmaster Flash and ‘nem threatened, “Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head” and described these communities as “jungles.” 

But the song that supposedly brought hip hop genre to the mainstream was the party cut  “Rapper’s Delight,” which understatedly reveled in the excesses of drug culture: “money, cash, hoes” as Jay Z, a more contemporary artist, puts it.   One of the gang’s got Lois Lane sweating him, another will take the “friend” of his girl “if she starts acting up” and another promises any one of the ladies that he will “bust her out with his super sperm.”  That’s the sex that comes with the drug game—the “hoes” in Jay Z’s simplification.

The gentlemen wear fine threads, drive Lincoln Continentals and own an additional “brand new Cadillac.” 

The rap game was nothing, economically, like it is today so where did they acquire such goodies in the tight economy of the time?  I’ll give you one guess…

This crack comes on the scene.  Cheap to make, cheap to buy, and boasting a super high that will make you buy some more.  And some more.  The crackheads are buying it up, robbing and stealing to buy it up.  And the dealers are getting richer and greedier.  And more violent in fulfilling this greed—killing rivals, delinquent crackheads, and residents who just happen to be caught in the crossfire. 

The crack dealers that were my classmates: Tubby, Taivon, Rodney, Craig G and nem are the role models this new school of rappers looked up to.  The crack hustlers that loved the late 80s’ excess and could buy it with their crack money were who they looked up to.   The dealers had the girls.  The neighborhood girls, anyway, who could be bought with some bamboo earrings, a bomber, some 54’11’s; maybe even an MCM bag. 

Maybe it wasn’t a Nino Brown production in all neighborhoods; it wasn’t quite that big in mine, but no matter how big or small, crack was always a money, cash, hoes enterprise that could not be helped but to be talked about in hip hop.  After all, the communities where crack was bought and sold were the communities from which the genre emerged.  And they could “only talk about what they saw.”  With crack, finally, the have-nots had even if was at the expense of their own neighborhoods.   

And the FBI, which had been so intent on keeping these communities at status quo with COINTELPRO’s calculated destruction of any challenge to the standard, didn’t have much of a job anymore.  Because from every street light powered block party, Sony boom box, and souped up Chevette, the virtues of crack were being extolled while handily ignoring its destruction.   

Public Enemy might have scared a few with “Night of the Living Basshead,” but Eazy E’s on the West Coast living the fast life of a hustler: driving a 64 Impala, slapping a hoe who said something he didn’t like, shooting his boy JB, a crack addict who’d tried to steal his Alpine stereo.   From Houston, the Geto Boys’ “minds’” were “playing tricks on them” after Willie beats a man who gave him “gold medal flour” instead of “’caine.”  Scarface is having a hard time coping “feeling like I’m the one doing dope” as they ride around “like superstars” in their big crack-bought cars.   And of course, New York, where it all began (I’m not gonna even bother to debate South Bronx or Queensbridge), let us know in Boogie Down Productions’ narrative of “Love’s Gonna Getcha” the casualties would come no matter how many girls or dookie chains or fly cars one had.

“New Jack City” was a 90’s celluloid chronicle of crack’s rise to power, complete with a new jack soundtrack including Ice T’s ode to the protagonist hustler Nino Brown.  This film gave rise to a new genre of such films and more angry soundtracks from “Menace to Society” to “Boyz in the Hood,” to “Juice.”  In each film young people lived in the shadow of violence from drug-infested communities.  Some died in broad daylight.  

The late 90’s saw the deaths of two promising rappers—Tupac and Biggie Smalls—both declared prophetic for their candor in discussing the drug trade; the environment it created; their supposedly novel adoption of its money, cash, hoes premise.

The new millennium began with the crack babies, no not Harlem’s Hale House infant residents who brought a new dimension to the need for Title III programs but the 20-something Cam’rons and 50 Cents and Jadakiss’ who were but snotty nosed look outs during crack’s heyday now worshipping the money, cash, and hoes.   There’s one more treat that belongs in the series that Jay-Z, drug-dealer-cum-mogul, seems to forget to mention in his ode to the good life offered by drugs: violence.  But good life for who and again, at whose expense? 

See, hip hop has always had factions that see drugs as a reasonable means of income from the days of the hip hop; hippy to the hippy the hip hop the boogie to the bang bang boogie to the boogie to the boogiety beat. So what can we say of Mims who brags that he’s “the reason that crack turned from cocaine?”  Or of Jadakiss who has “the fiends searching for new things” which we can assume is a reference to drug dealing since he’s not at the “top” of the profitable rap game but only on the “ladder.”  

Sex and the drug trade always walk arm in arm.  Whether it is the crackheads selling it for a hit or the dealers competing for territory.   Remember the infamous scene from “Meance to Society?”  Crackhead begs O-Dog for crack but doesn’t have the cash to pay for it.  He offers the irritated O-Dog a cheeseburger first and finally, to “suck his dick.”   O-Dog shoots him for making the proposition, snatches the cheeseburger from the dead addict, and offers it to his friends.

In “New Jack City” Nino Brown parades a resistant resident of the Carter Homes projects down the street, naked, to make the point that his crack business will have dominion over the community.

Snoop Dogg has become the quintessential pimp figure: Goldie of “The Mack” brought to life all smoked out, dressed in gawdy jewelry and clothes, and objectifying women to no end.  His sexist attitude is one that permeates music videos and has created the phenomenon of the “video chick.”  His attitude is espoused in the songs of his contemporaries like Pretty Ricky. A review of Pretty Ricky’s lyrics shows that all they do is think of, prepare for, or have sex.  It’s a wonder they have time to write and perform music!

Common and Nas would have you believe that this misogyny is not their style but songs like “Go” and “Oochie-Wally” reveal that they, too, are legacies of crack—with its violence, excess, women, and sex. Mos Def is reportedly reluctant to care for the babies he was busy making when he was doing “Black Star” and “Black On Both Sides;” maybe those baby mamas were just na-na and not “Brown-Skinned Ladies.”   That current hip hop considers women as objects is no surprise then—bitches that can be bought, sold, and/or discarded.  It was, again, Slick Rick who suggested men “treat her like a prostitute.”  And boy have they taken that advice to heart!   

Lil Kim is the easy target; she squats on her first solo album cover legs wide open and often boasts of how she uses her body to get what she wants.  “You gotta hit me off/buy this girl gifts of course,” she says, after promising to “do things that you won’t forget.”

Foxy Brown was marketed as her genitals—c’mon, the ill na-na?!  And while it may be claimed that she did that on her own, not from the end of some man’s puppet strings, the fact is her name only became public outside of NYC freestyles when she did her duet with Jay-Z, noting her lack of concern for his cheating because he “kept her laced.”  She was the kept woman of the hustler and bragged, “Ain’t no nigga like the one I got.” There are more where these comes from: Trina, the Baddest Bitch; Shawna best known for “Getting’ Some.”

True to crack culture, today’s rappers are terribly materialistic and boast almost constantly about their material possessions moreso than the boastful 80s raps that measured an emcee by his lyrical skill (remember rap and breaking battles like on “Beat Street”) rather than the amount of blood diamonds on his wrist.  ‘Cause “money ain’t a thing.”    

“30 and ten” is what Jadakiss paid for his “kit” that he had “put on his vehicle.”  A vehicle described in terms that would rival the fleets shown on MTV’s “Cribs.” 

In the 90’s Biggie’s claim to fame, “Juicy,” discusses how he stood on the corner to put “rocks” in his baby girl’s ears and resented the neighbors who called the police on his crack selling, community-fucking-up ass. 

Biggie’s mama was a school teacher and he was an only child.  Tell me again, why he had to sell crack.  Because he was greedy and the Slick Rick’s that preceded him—no disrespect to Rick—told him with their fat dookie ropes and gold fronts that excess was cool and readily achievable.  It did not require years of education though I’m convinced that many hustlers are intelligent and resourceful enough to have approach their riches from that angle.  But fast, easy money—and lots of it—is a lasting retention of crack. 

Everybody turns a blind eye in the face of the question of how this excess gets paid for, it seems. Like the mother in KRS-One’s “Love’s Gonna Getcha” who had to notice that there was suddenly more than “beans, rice, and bread” on the shelf and was eating the “steak” her son brought home to accompany it.  This has been the case ever since the hippy to the hip hop…blah, blah, blah.  ‘Cause, let’s face it:  a school teacher mighta kept Biggie fed but it wasn’t gonna put rocks in his or his daughters’ ears.  Hmmmm. 

Kanye West is so irresponsible he admits to using an advance on his first album’s sales to buy “Rollies” (or Rolex watches for those not in the know).  To be fair, the context of the song is to acknowledge such irresponsibility but such namebrand dropping often has the reverse effect on the youthful consumer population who want the “it” jewelry or trinket mentioned and will do almost anything to get it.  In some communities this would mean maxing the credit card.  But not in ours. In ours it’s means hustling, and anybody who tries to do it any other way, is “lunchin, punchin the clock.”  Jay-Z’s explains that the plan is “to make much and lay back munchin.’”  

In our communities, the fact is that we are still suffering over lifestyles that mid-school (not the new school babies like Cam’ron or the old school heads like Slick Rick but those in between—Nas, Jay, Diddy) rappers continue to uphold.  They’ve been fortunate enough to no longer be forced to live it.  They may throw a few free turkeys at Christmas ala Nino Brown and have a couple of basketball tournaments in the park, but what of this tax-deductible charity work if you know that half of the people are still illiterate, broke, and need a fishing pole not just a damn cut of fresh halibut?!   

It seems to have always been the case the music pays it dues: there is the lip service appeasement to the violence like “Self-Destruction” in the 80’s; Tupac’s “Life Goes On;” Nas’ “I Know I Can.”  

And there have always been the conscious ones—X Clan, Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, BDP; more recently, Dead Prez, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def just like Carter Homes resident in “New Jack City” who feels compelled to shoot Nino Brown.  It feels like that will always be the case; that the oppressed, as Frantz Fanon reported in the seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed will take on the qualities of the oppressor to free themselves from their grip. 

Certainly, contemporary tracks offer violence as a reasonable solution to handling rivals just as in the drug game graphically chronicled in “The Wire” where crack seems to be the foundation the city of Baltimore is built on.   Look at Biggie and Tupac; Jam Master J and Freaky Tah; Big L and that Shyne and Diddy fiasco (wherein a gun is fired in the club at some “disrespectful” somebody, a trial ensues, and Nino—I mean, Diddy enlists top of the line legal aid, gets off, and leaves Shyne, his runner, to be locked up for years). 

These deaths represent a microcosm of what the communities that rap emerges from face.  In 1992, during the height of the crack epidemic, the New York Times reported that Black men between the ages of 15 and 29 were dying at a rate higher than men over the age of  85.DMX in his menacing sing-song offers a line from Scarface, the non-thinking man’s manifesto for “making it,” that tells his rival who refuses to get out of a car and fight him, “meet my li’l friend.”  He shoots him.  That’s the way crack disputes are settled.  And lately, hip hop has suggested it is a fair and reasonable way.They have reason not to expect to live and whenever you don’t value your own life, you’re going to have a hard time valuing someone else’s.  In interviews of young Black male victims of violence, John Rich of the Boston Public Health Commission finds that many take drugs or else purchase weapons to stave away the anxiety of living in such a threatening environment.   

I probably could stand to be more sympathetic in the face of such information.  If the music is a reflection of the streets then, really, are rappers doing anything wrong?  See, I do love hip hop.  And because of my age and experience, I’m part of the legacy, too, whether I like it or not.  But in my I think that part of how love works is that it can and should step to the beloved and say, “You’re living foul right now.”  Of course, just like Busta refusing to “snitch” on the person who killed his bodyguard—someone he supposedly considered a “friend.”  That woulda been too close to right and way-y-y far off from the post Civil Rights community building attitude.  It was nothing more than the “gotta mine; you gotta get yours” mentality borne of the crack epidemic.



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