This essay is an update to the original draft posted here and can be read or printed in PDF (without live links) here.
Much like crack, hip hop music is arguably addictive and can be equally deadly. A leisure of the lower/working class, hip hop music emerged in American culture nearly directly alongside and much like crack—in an attempt to provide an under-served community with opportunities that had not been previously available. Among users and producers of each, opportunities for social acknowledgment and economic wealth are nearly unparalleled in the consequences to these same communities who sometimes supported or at least benefited from their emergence. Contemporary hip hop music, though constantly lamented as a new more deadly form of the original music, is really no different than the music that was borne of the same generational history and environment that produced the crack epidemic.
“You sounding like this shit is the wheel or something; like it’s gon’ change the world.”
Nino Brown to G Money
New Jack City, 1992
While drug kingpin Nino Brown and his Get Money Brothers are fictional characters, the film in which they are immortalized, New Jack City, is as much of an archetype in telling the story of the Crack Era as the Greek myths are in telling the story of ancient times and peoples. Crack is indeed “like the wheel” as the innovative drug lord Nino Brown surmised in that it helped to transform modern American society. Just one look at the second indigenous art form of American society (only jazz can be rightfully recognized as the first): hip hop and as hip hop artist Nas puts it, “it ain’t hard to tell.”
At the very least hip hop music has transformed and reinforces the way modern American society speaks, dresses, and regards one another. Hip hop music hulks us everything from Kool-Aid to cleaning products to jeans (Figures 1-3). Hip hop music dominates the Billboard charts, has found an arguably prominent place on pop music awards shows and in movie scores; blares from our children’s Ipods, cell phone ring tones, and educational television programming. And the style that is hip hop can be found from Martha’s Vineyard to Brooklyn (Figures 4-6). The attitude that is hip hop is as prominent in public school hallways as in corporate boardrooms (Figures 7-8). This national phenomenon that connects the least of us with the most powerful of us is a part of the legacy of one of contemporary America’s most tragic vices: crack cocaine.
A HIP HOP TIMELINE
Now way back in the days when hip-hop began
With CoQue LaRock, Kool Herc, and then Bam
Beat boys ran to the latest jam
But when it got shot up they went home and said “Damn
There’s got to be a better way to hear our music every day
B-boys gettin’ blown away but comin’ outside anyway”
They tried again outside in Cedar Park
Power from a street light made the place dark
But yo, they didn’t care, they turned it out
I know a few understand what I’m talkin’ about
Remember Bronx River rollin’ thick
With Kool DJ Red Alert and Chuck Chillout on the mix?
When Afrika Islam was rockin’ the jams
And on the other side of town was a kid named Flash.
Patterson and Millbrook projects…
It was seventy-six, to 1980…
Kool Herc, the dj credited with fathering hip hop music, grew up hearing the sounds of the dancehall in Kingston Jamaica. The music included the “toasting” of deejays speaking over the music they played. When he moved to the Bronx in the late sixties he brought the style with him, carefully isolating the break—the percussion—of songs in order to make way for dancers (break dancers–or “b” girls and boys) to breakdance to the encouragement of his toasting which developed into the rhyming style we now call rapping.
In the late 1970’s when this hip hop music began to capture the attention and attitude of disenfranchised youth at Herc’s street parties high crime and unemployment was near crisis level in the Bronx where Kool Herc lived. New construction cut right through the borough causing white flight and giving rise to gangs of impoverished undereducated youth and graffiti on the abandoned properties left behind.
The youth that populated Herc’s parties were products of lower/working class largely African American communities that had been consistently disenfranchised. Though the late 50’s and early 60’s had seen these communities beginning to prosper thanks to the strides made by the Civil Rights Movement, the momentum was on the decline by the time hip hop emerged.
Different camps cite different start dates of the Civil Rights Movement. Some assert the December 1955 launch of the Montgomery bus boycott as the beginning of the movement while some see the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision as the turning point that placed civil rights on the national and international stage. The specific start date notwithstanding, the decade saw African Americans through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so it is clear that the parents of hip hop visionaries were not only seeing but were an integral part of the great strides being made for their communities—the same ones from which their children and the children’s “hip hop” culture would emerge. What happened between 1965 and the release of the first commercial hip hop single in 1979 gave birth to the culture that names itself hip hop today. A culture that is as idealistic as it is nihilistic and often unwittingly self destructive in its endeavors.
Without question, the 60’s were an explosive era in American history, and many young people were impatient with, or unable to feel, the strides that were being made. Much like the Emancipation of slaves in 1865 when what should have been its requisite freedoms came late for many slaves, the civil rights laws put in place were not necessarily enough to secure the rights, freedoms, or benefits they listed. Therefore, the same communities that gave birth to hip hop erupted in kind—in riots first and then in action.
In 1964 Harlem went up in flames over the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15 year old by an off duty police officer. Then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy probably rightly considered, “There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes, the law is the enemy.” Harlemites had long alleged police brutality by a force on which they were only marginally represented.
Watts erupted and burned over six days the following year in response to growing racial tension between the police force and residents of the California community. The Detroit and Newark riots of 1967 were sparked by similar allegations of police mistreatment on increasingly disenfranchised residents.
Perhaps it’s not ironic that in each incident, the communities that burned were the same communities in which the offended lived. Much like hip hop culture attempts, residents were blindly idealistic, expecting that self-destructively setting fire to themselves would call attention to the embers of discontent that had been smoldering all along.
The D.C. and Chicago riots of 1968 that immediately followed the assassination of Dr. King revealed what the 1969 Kerner Report surmised of all the riots up to and including these: they were not a direct response to current events like Martin Luther King’s Death, for instance, but rather evidence of increasing frustration in Black communities for whom the Civil Rights Movement seemed to fail.
The action taken by these communities was rather different than the movement’s diplomatic approach. Southern style integration efforts had not been a staple of the Black Civil Rights Movement in New York nearly as much as had Black Nationalism, begun at least as early as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association that planned to move all Black people to Africa in the early 1900’s. In 1935 massive rallies were held in the city protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. And Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., State Congressman and pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem earned his reputation as a militant fiery agitator in the 40’s as he encouraged rent strikes and picketed the 1939 World’s Fair until more Black workers were hired. But the counter-movement was clearly given its momentum from the Black Panthers, a bunch of fed up but intelligent kids in California.
In 1966, following Malcolm X’s assassination, Merritt College students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale decided that the Movement had not been forceful enough and drafted the Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s Ten Point Platform. They intended, in part, to defend their communities against the same injustices against which the movement was fighting, but their approach was less conciliatory and more direct.
Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), then a Howard University philosophy major from the Bronx, had been the fiery chairman of SNCC (pronounced “Snick”), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. An offshoot of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the NAACP, the organization of college students organized sit-ins and freedom rides to overturn segregation—de-facto and legislated—in the South. SNCC also exerted its presence in the 1963 March On Washington.
It was King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that created a rift between the old guard and the youth movement as the young people of SNCC decided the speech inaccurately portrayed the government as being helpful to their cause. They remembered how the Alabama government as represented by then Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Conner had sat idly by as they were beaten, firebombed, and jailed in the Freedom Rides for breaking “Jim Crow” laws that had recently been outlawed by the federal government. In fact, it was the government’s new anti-segregation laws they were riding to test.
The response of President John F. Kennedy to their plight had been frustrating; he had suggested a “cooling off” period in which the beaten but determined riders would stop their protests to avoid causing more embarrassment before the global stage.
By 1969, a year after King’s assassination, the organization had changed its name to Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect its changing strategy. Carmichael, credited with coining the term “black power” in a speech at Berkeley, began to express his dissatisfaction to the media, left SNCC, and by 1968 became the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party.
These young peoples’ willingness to fight spoke to the best and worst in African American communities. It harnessed their anger into coalitions that are the parents of what we now know as street gangs.
Particularly in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, the Black Spades street gang, in which hip hop visionary Afrika Bambaataa was a leader, was one of the largest and most violent in the city. Its conception came when the Cross-Bronx expressway, was completed in 1963, cutting through the center of the borough.
The subsequent flight of the Italian, Jewish, and Irish middle class left the community largely Black and Hispanic—and poor. Many businesses left the area, taking their jobs with them.
Because the new industrial landscape was hardly favorable on the real estate market, property values decreased and rents decreased substantially as well making the neighborhood a place the poor could afford and that only the poor would choose to live.
The City of New York’s decision to offer landlords above market rents to house welfare clients also increased the low income, underemployed population, and rent control laws prevented landlords from raising rents. Landlords increasingly abandoned their properties instead of making costly renovations on them maintaining a dilapidated community.
Finally, the 1968 construction of the first in a series of public housing high rises at the North end of the borough created a concentration of low income underemployed residents because no one else wanted to live there re-segregating the community despite the impetus of the Civil Rights Movement.
Drugs, particularly heroin, flooded into the community at the same time thanks to the expressways and gangs flourished, Bambaataa claims in Jeff Chang’s seminal hip hop history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. The gangs, Bambaataa points out, were in response to the White gangs that were preying on the White and Puerto Rican youth in the newly integrated schools. The Black Spades and other gangs took some of their activities directly from the Black Panther rhetoric and what little they knew of their African history. But the Black gangs eventually turned on each other, using what we now recognize as an essential component of hip hop culture—graffiti—to mark turf.
A similar tale is told about the gang formation on the West Coast of Bloods and Crips (whose name actually stood for “Continuous Revolution in Progress” after the disbanding of the Panthers) in the late 60s and early 70s. Che “Bone” Sloan, himself a gang member, chronicles in his documentary “Bastards of the Party” the rise of gangs like the Slausons and Gladiators that were borne of a need for disenfranchised young men to protect themselves from White gangs at school.
Perhaps, too, all these young people aspired to find a voice that defied what must have felt like powerlessness in the face of overwhelming odds.
Hoover’s F.B.I. seemed to take little interest in these street gangs, but the now infamous document that specifically lists the Black Panthers in its accord to “prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups…” reveals that its goal for such gangs who were rooted in political aspirations of protecting themselves and their communities were likely purposefully turned on each other by informants and infiltrators. Certainly the F.B.I. counterintelligence program COINTELPRO was aware of the danger that youth with a mission presented; the memo included a directive to “prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth.”
The document plans in its premise to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement” such as “Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad.” According to the document they “all aspire to this position” and so COINTELPRO believed that creating a climate of fear and confusion would create the toxic climate that would make the Black leaders’ destruction both imminent and necessary.
And indeed, the Panthers, like leaders before them, were eventually destroyed under the auspices of confusion and mismanagement.
Needless to say, by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, during hip hop’s formative years, these lower/working class communities were enjoying few rewards of the Civil Rights movement.
The high unemployment rate, the challenge of accessing decent education, the lack of—and fear of taking on—leadership all created a highly toxic status quo in these communities, especially in the Bronx. It is little wonder that young people’s misplaced pride in their often failing communities and in themselves created this alternative culture and was emblazoned on the borough’s rapidly vacated properties in graffiti; that their powerlessness was remedied by terrorizing the very communities in which they lived for the respect and money that is integral to the hip hop we danced to then and often bemoan now.
THE EMERGENCE OF CRACK
“Times like these people wanna get high…really high…and real fast.”
Nino Brown to the Cash Money Brothers
New Jack City 1992
The song that brought hip hop music to the mainstream was the party anthem “Rapper’s Delight,” which understatedly reveled in the excesses of criminal culture: “money, cash, and hoes” as Jay Z, a more contemporary artist, puts it. One member of the Sugarhill Gang boasts that Lois Lane is pursuing him while another promises that if his girlfriend starts “acting up” he will “take” her friend instead. And Mike G of the trilogy boasts to the ladies that he will “bust them out” with his “super sperm.” Such lyrics are an early representation of the sex that is such an integral part of hip hop music and the drug industry that informs it.
Masculinity and the requisite power it assumes are intrinsically tied to sex. In communities where there is a lack of power and disenfranchisement such as the 1960s Bronx from which hip hop culture emerges, males compensate for their powerless by accessing power from the one aspect of masculinity that is not denied them: sexuality.
Or else they overcompensate in violence and thus it is no wonder that gangs proliferate in such environments.
A closer listen to “Rapper’s Delight” reveals, too, that the gentlemen wear fine threads, drive Lincoln Continentals and “sunroof Cadillacs.” It is ironic that in communities where poverty is markedly rampant such expensive goodies can be acquired, especially in the critical economy of the time. However, these represent the goals of the poor communities and the goals are mirrored in the music of the youngest, perhaps most vulnerable, citizens of the communities.
A young man with money attracts young women without it. Material wealth, then, is a further extension of his power. So while the Sugar Hill Gang may state it one way in 1979 and Jay Z in an entirely different way in 1999 the facts remain the same. Hip hop represents the aspirations, for better or worse, of the community from which it emerges.
MONEY, CASH, HOES: THE INTERSECTION OF CRACK AND HIP HOP
“Money cash hoes money cash chicks what
Sex murder and mayhem romance for the street
Only wife of mines is a life of crime.
And since life’s a bitch in mini-skirts and big chests
How can I not flirt with death?”
“Money Cash Hoes”
Volume 2 Hard Knock Life 1999
Crack first appeared in major cities around 1985.
In 1986, the New York Times reports that young people are turning from heroine, which had been epidemic during the late 1960s through the 70s, to cocaine. Why?
Crack cocaine is a cheap, quick, and powerful high. Cocaine, when mixed and heated with common and easily attainable ingredients including baking soda and water, produces crack, a cheaper way to enjoy a cocaine high.
Where heroin produces the euphoric state often glamorized by Harlem hipsters playing and making great jazz music, crack’s high takes effect almost immediately and lasts briefly. And unlike powder cocaine, the mode of delivery—through smoking rather than snorting—causes more of the drug to go to the brain producing a more powerful high.
The intense crack high is the crux of the addiction: dependency is based not on a physical craving but rather a need to achieve the intense but quick high that comes with use.
The recipe is simple and the profits are great since “crackheads” are always trying to cop their next high. So it is no wonder that crack cocaine dealers were my classmates Tubby, Taivon, Rodney, Craig G. They weren’t necessarily on a mission to destroy their communities as much as they were trying to get a rep’ as hip hop artist Guru put it in 1989.
The little brothers and sisters of hip hop’s pioneers, they too want to feel the power that had been denied their lower/working class community. That comes in the guise of girls on their side, money in their pocket, and communities that at once suffer and prosper much as they do under the auspices of contemporary hip hop. With crack, finally, the have-nots have even if it is at the expense of their own neighborhoods.
It isn’t always a Nino Brown production in all neighborhoods; it wasn’t quite that big in mine. No drug lord took over an entire apartment building for his enterprise, killed rivals in broad daylight, and sauntered the streets in expensive clothes handing out cash and Christmas turkeys. But Christmas turkeys find their way to tables of mamas who will not have a turkey without their child’s “entrepreneurship”—and therefore turn a blind eye to it. Much like the mother in KRS-One’s 1988 anti-materialism anthem, “Love’s Gonna Getcha” who has to notice there are more than “beans, rice, and bread” on “her shelf” and is eating the “steak” her drug dealing son beginning to bring home to accompany the pantry staples. While one family prospers, another will be mourning their child who has become the neighborhood eyesore, disheveled and strung out begging for cash, trying to sell mama’s turkey to whomever might buy it to fund their next hit. Or else a child is killed in the crossfire of drug territory wars.
Where there are drugs there is money and where there is money there are girls. Crack is unquestionably a “money, cash, hoes” enterprise that cannot help but to be talked about in hip hop.
Snoop Dogg has recently 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 with his attitude that women are objects that are acquired as part of his wealth. Certainly this is how women are acquired in crack culture.
His attitude is one that permeates music videos and has created the phenomenon of the “video ho.” But his attitude is not new nor his alone. Since “P Is Free” from KRS-One’s” 1987 Criminal Minded album, rappers have pointed out in words perhaps less obvious that, “The girls are free/’cause the crack costs money.”
Even more conscious rappers like KRS-One who deal with less pop subject matter reveal themselves to be legacies of this culture with songs like “Go” that detail Common’s favorite sexual exploits and Nas’ pointedly crude “Oochie-Wally” boasting of his.
That current hip hop considers women as objects is no surprise then—bitches that can be bought, sold, and/or discarded in the same way as any object retrieved from the money culled from crack dealing.
It is Slick Rick who suggests men “treat her like a prostitute” in 1988. “Don’t treat no girly well” he commanded.
Notorious B.I.G. protégé L’il Kim is the easy target; she squats in promotional photos for her first album Hardcore (Figure 10) in 1993 legs wide open; most of her raps brag 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 a prospective lover she’ll “do things that you won’t forget” in “Crush on You,” a hit she made with her crew, the Junior Mafia.
Foxy Brown was marketed as her genitals—the ill na-na. And while it may be that the gimmick was her own, not the workings from the end of some man’s puppet strings, the fact is her name only became public outside of New York freestyles and in guest spots on men’s songs when her duet with Jay-Z, “Ain’t no Nigga” was released. In it, she notes 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.”
These women are the beneficiaries of doors opened by female artists like Lady B, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Lyte, Nikki B, and Salt-N-Pepa, none of whom are overtly sexualized. But each woman is without question a product of the crack era and its ills and even their lyrics reflect the quest for power and self actualization—if only because many times they try to counter the image of the female who is only a man’s plaything for the benefit of his wealth.
Perhaps it is the near asexualization of women like Latifah and Monie Love who rapped in 1989’s“Ladies First” that “a woman can break you” in 1989 and MC Lyte who dressed in tomboyish track suits for most of her rap career that pushed more contemporary rappers to hypersexualization. Trina, “Da Baddest Bitch” (Figure 11) and Shawna best known for the highly descriptive “Getting’ Some” continue to prove that the achievement of power via sexual excess is not gender specific.
Contemporary artists who are condemned for their lyrics often counter their critics with the quip that they can “only talk about what they see.” It seems rather limited for an artist to suggest this, but there seems to be merit to what they say. And certainly, the phenomenon is not new.
A review of the history of the communities where hip hop initially thrived—the Bronx, Philadelphia, South Central L.A. and the history of the lyrics reveals the music is as much feel good dance tracks designed to counter otherwise depressing circumstances as an angry challenge to the status quo; a challenge that spotlights the fact that the status quo has consistently and unequivocally failed these communities.
New Jack City is the celluloid chronicle of crack’s rise to power, complete with a hip hop heavy soundtrack including Ice T’s ode to the protagonist hustler Nino Brown “New Jack Hustler.” This film gave rise to a new genre of such films and more angry soundtracks from Menace to Society to Boyz in the Hood, Juice, and Clockers. In each film young people live in the shadow of violence from drug-infested communities. By not overtly extolling the dangers of crack, the films, much like the music, inadvertently create heroes out of the antagonists who enjoy the feelings of power young people seek.
Make no mistake that what these hip hop artists want is hardly different from what their parents marched for. Everyone wants to feel respected and that makes them feel good. So boasting—like Jamaican dancehall toasting from which hip hop lyricism comes—is a prominent component of the music.
Boasting eventually requires tangibles to back it up and such is the case with hip hop. Really no less than any other feel good music including spirituals that eventually lead slaves to seek a sweet by and by on earth via the Underground Railroad, than the blues wrought with tales of men and women who have lived the tales they tell from murder to whoring, hip hop music, most notably gangster rap, tells substantiated stories of what young artists do and will do with their frustration, anger and aggression.
Crack culture is about the same kind of feeling good in spite of—or maybe as an antidote to—these feelings. The drug substantiates its reputed power to make people “feel good” in spite of—or perhaps as an antidote to—their situation. For users it delivers the promised high; for dealers it provides the expected profit.
Even the earliest of hip hop records focuses on these basic tenets of crack culture; feeling good is made possible by the same sex, money, and violence that figures so prominently in the drug, particularly crack, trade.
In 1979 Kurtis Blow, a Bronx native, describes the poverty of these communities as “The Breaks” and doesn’t fail to include the loss of a sexual partner as one of those breaks too: “If your girl goes out with another man/that’s the breaks/that’s the breaks.” Finally, he promises that the song’s “breaks” in percussion will make people dance and forget about such troubles.
In 1982’s “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five describe the community as “a jungle” with its junkies, people who “just don’t care” and violence in the park that makes them keep their hand on their gun. The rappers in their rugged delivery admit that they are “close to the edge” and don’t know what it is that helps them “keep from going under.”
It seems too apparent in the music that “Disillusion is the word/That’s used by me when I’m not heard/I just go through life with my glasses blurred/ It’s like that, and that’s the way it is” as Run DMC rap in 1983’s “It’s Like That.”
These are the early days of hip hop—even before the era of crack cocaine—but this kind of attitude is what makes Nino Brown surmise in New Jack City that these times are times when people want to get “real high real fast”.
By 1986, Ice T’s “Six in the Morning” which chronicles a day in the life of a “self-made monster of the city streets” complete with Uzis, hoes, and boasting of his ability to elude the police, is revealing the truth behind hip hop music.
The music speaks of the aspirations of the children and now grandchildren of a bygone era. That these young people choose to reveal and reflect the power they seek—the same as their forefathers before them—in the ways they do is hardly surprising.
KRS-One points out in a lecture delivered at Temple University that these young people decide that their parents’ failures at achieving their aspirations will not be their own and take on a decidedly new means to achieve their ends. It is tragic but no wonder then that this ingenuity borne hip hop and made successful a drug called crack and that the two would create the opportunities for them they had not been able to achieve otherwise.
True to crack culture, today’s rappers show that power is revealed in material possessions—the more the better. The American Dream is rooted in material possession as a symbol of achievement. The six figure income to purchase the home with the white picket fence, 2 cars in the driveway, and a 401K plan. Hip hop has stayed true to that dream, as its parents did. So while arguments of excessive materialism in the music and culture abound, the criticism is shortsighted.
The goal of these young people is not unfounded or unwarranted; it is how that material is earned that is most suspect and tragic to these communities.
“30 and ten” is what rapper 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 mid 90’s Biggie Smalls’ claim to fame, “Juicy,” discusses how he stood on the corner to put “rocks” (diamond earrings) in his baby girl’s ears and resented the neighbors who called the police on his crack selling, community-destroying self.
Biggie’s mama is a school teacher and he is an only child. It then becomes suspect why he has to sell crack. It is likely that the rappers who come before him suggests in their behavior if not in their lyrics that material wealth and indeed material excess is hip, patently achievable, even expected. It does not require years of education though a convincing conclusion could be drawn that many hustlers are intelligent and resourceful enough to achieve their riches from that angle. But fast, easy money—and lots of it—is often a lasting retention of poverty, which these communities knew plenty about.
Kanye West, another child of an educator, admits that his irresponsibility compels him to use a cash advance on his first album’s sales (the album was called College Dropout) to buy “Rollies” (Rolex watches). To be fair, the premise of the song, “All Falls Down,” is in part to acknowledge such irresponsibility. But such name brand dropping often has the reverse effect on the youthful consumer population who want the “it” jewelry or trinket mentioned by the “it” artist and will do almost anything to get it. In some communities this would mean maxing the credit card. But not in the communities that live hip hop. In these communities it’s means hustling, and anybody who tries to do it any other way, is “lunchin’ punchin’ the clock.”
In the slang terminology that Jay Z is using in that quip, that means that working a legal job is idiotic, unintelligent.
Crack, like many illegal drugs, is not in itself what leaves so much death in its wake. Rather, it is the violence that comes with it. In 1989, only three years after crack came on the scene, prominent members of the hip hop community came together to record “Self Destruction” in response to the violence that is overtaking urban communities. The “Stop the Violence Movement” donates proceeds from the single’s sales to the National Urban League, and the move prompts, or at least gave rise to, a surge in popularity among more political and culturally astute rappers including A Tribe Called Quest, the X Clan, Public Enemy, The Jungle Brothers, and Poor Righteous Teachers.
Still in 1992, during the height of the crack epidemic, the New York Times reports that Black men between the ages of 15 and 29 are dying at a rate higher than men over the age of 85.
In his verse in “Money, Cash, Hoes” DMX, in his menacing sing-song, offers a line from Scarface, that tells his rival who refuses to get out of a car and fight him, “say hello to my li’l friend.” He shoots him. That’s the way crack disputes are often settled. Contemporary hip hop suggests it is a fair and reasonable way.
The reasons behind the attitude are not all that complex, again, when one takes a look at the history of such communities. First, they are the grandchildren of the nonviolence movement, a movement that essentially failed their communities.
Secondly, as the children of the counter movement—largely led by the Black Panthers, in which aggression and fearlessness still do not afford them access to the American Dream, they not only create their own composite of the dream, they also create their own means of achieving it, which includes self-destructive violence.
In short, these young people have reason to expect they will not realize their aspirations; will not live. And whenever one doesn’t value his own life, he’s 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.
Therefore that contemporary tracks still offer violence—to self via drug use such as the lyrics about “syrup” the dopamine found in cough syrup that has become an accessible drug of choice that abound in southern hip hop such as Lil Wayne and Three Six Mafia or else to others such 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 on which the city of Baltimore is built.
Contemporary rappers too often still live some of the same struggles for “money, power, and respect” as the Lox coined the connection in their 1997 anthem of the same name. And in recent years, many rappers have died the deaths of common street hustlers such as those seen in “The Wire” (and on any given night in almost any given urban neighborhood) including Biggie Smalls who died in a hail of gunfire, Tupac Shakur who promoted “thug life” with a tattoo across his belly, and Freaky Tah of the Lost Boys who rapped about Lexes, Coupes, Beamers, and Benzes.
Even the Shyne and P. Diddy fiasco wherein a gun is fired in the club at some “disrespectful” patron, a trial ensues, and Nino Brown cum Diddy enlists top of the line legal aid, and gets off suggests that the violence that comes with this attitude of hip hop is never far away.
Further, it corroborates the idea that these communities have decided, based on their collective history and experience, money is indeed power. It turns out Shyne, who was at the time merely an up and coming rapper, did not have the kind of money and therefore power that Sean “Diddy” Combs had, and thus remains incarcerated.
“I’m not guilty. You’re the one who’s—guilty the lobbyists, the lawmakers…all you who lobby against making drugs legal. Ain’t no Uzis made in Harlem. Not one of us owns a poppy field…This is big business; this is the American Dream….I was forced into this way of life…Hey look, I been dealing drugs since I was twelve years old. See I didn’t have the chances you had, Ms. Hawkins. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth Ms. Hawkins.”
Nino Brown’s testimony in court.
New Jack City, 1992
If hip hop music is a reflection of the streets then, really, are contemporary rappers doing anything wrong by rapping songs that inspire or suggest community and self destruction? In the communities where the music was borne, there is a blood memory among the children and now grandchildren, of the culture. That memory understands too well the American Dream and how it has been achieved as well as denied to specific populations. If blood is on the hands of the artists, it is also all over the hands of the society that produced them.