The War on Rap: Is It Real?
Fires in Paris, clearly caused by rap music
I've spent the past week immersing myself in the case of a couple of record-label guys who damn near ruined my life three years ago. I never liked Murder Inc. Never liked Ja Rule's throaty tuneless moan-sing, never liked Ashanti's paper-thin whisper-coo, especially never liked Irv Gotti's sleeping-Casio production. The only Murder Inc. moments I've liked ("New York," "Only U," "Clap Back," that's it) are the ones with a sense of gradeur, the ones with a little mud in their sparkle, and Irv Gotti wasn't responsible for any of them. (Actually, fuck it, I liked "Happy." But that's it.) The Gottis' lawyers are right when they tell the jury that Murder Inc. got huge on love songs, pop songs, not gangsta rap. So for me, it struck false notes when Ja Rule told the press after the first day that the trial was the result of a war on rap bigger than Murder Inc. That was a week ago, and now I'm not so sure. For one thing, the government's case is undeniably flimsy, more based on association and hearsay and extrapolated meanings of vague text-messages than any hard evidence. For another thing, money laundering, I'm sorry, just doesn't seem like that horrible a crime to me; it's weird that the prosecution would offer a deal to a guy like Phillip Banks, a guy who told the court that he'd shot a pregnant woman, over some small-fry white-collar crime. (And yes, Banks is testifying in Supreme's trial as well, but still, come on.)
But there's something else at work here; rap is the dominant force in circa-now pop culture, and plenty of people aren't happy about it. Yes, it's making money, and Donald Trump wants to hang out with rappers, and 50 Cent gets to make his own movie, and critics like me give free passes to indefensable misogynistic ignorant-asshole lyrics. People are getting rich and living lives of luxury and making history. And 50 Cent is going to sleep OK at night no matter how many parents are angry about him. Anti-rap forces aren't going to hurt 50 Cent; they're going to hurt kids and poor people, people with no power over their own situations.
Take, for instance, the case of Anthony Latour, a 14-year-old white kid from rural Pennsylvania. Latour makes rap music and claims to be influenced by Eminem and Necro. Any 14-year-old kids I have will not be listening to any motherfucking Necro, but multiple volumes of Faces of Death tell us that American kids are always going to seek out the most fucked-up shit they can possibly ever find, and Necro certainly fits the bill. Beside the point. Latour and another rapper kid were internet-posting lyrics back and forth at each other, and the other kid's mother saw Latour's lyrics. She reported the lyrics to police, who arrested Latour, charged him with making terrorist threats, searched his home, and confiscated the recording equipment his parents had bought. According to Allhiphop.com, he was sent to a juvenile detention facility for a week and expelled from school for two years. There's a happy ending: Latour got a badass pro bono ACLU lawyer and a judge smart enough to realize that he was protected by the First Amendment since he was posting the lyrics from his house and not from school. The school district has been forced to retract his expulsion and pay his family $90,000 in damanges. But here we have a kid who suddenly found himself caught up in some Kafka shit out of nowhere because his town didn't accept this rap stuff. More Allhiphop quote-biting:
“I live in a small town and they really don’t understand rap music,” Latour told AllHipHop.com. “I didn’t really know what was happening, it blindsided me.”
But here's the thing: it doesn't matter that they don't understand it. It doesn't even matter that they don't make any attempts to understand it. Likewise, it doesn't matter that 14-year-old white kids shouldn't be talking graphic/violent horrorcore battle-rap lyrics at each other or dropping N-bombs, and it doesn't matter that parents probably shouldn't be spending thousands of dollars to subsidize it when they do. What matters is that the town is afraid of it to the point where it does everything it can to ruin a 14-year-old kid's life when he starts talking rap talk. That matters.
Another recent Allhiphop news story throws this whole war-on-rap thing into sharper relief: French lawmakers are attempting to pass a law targeting French rap groups for inciting the recent rioting around just about every major French city. I don't want to talk out of my ass here: everything I know about life in downtrodden Paris suburbs comes from La Haine, and I wrote an embarrassingly flip piece making fun of Tony Parker for rapping while all this rioting was taking place. And I know it's not as simple as this, but it seems to me that all this rioting is happening because people don't like it when they have no control over their lives, when this supposed model of tolerance pushes all its undesirables off to the side and hopes they stay quiet. It didn't have anything to do with rap music, and any French lawmakers who try to pin the blame on such an easy target are only going to perpetuate the divisions that caused all the rioting in the first place. This should be obvious, but rap isn't this cultural monster that came out of nowhere and wants to turn your kids bad. Among other things, it's a reaction to problems that are already there. And any clumsily ignorant stomp-out attempts are just going to make any of these problems worse. There's no conspiracy against rap, and nobody is trying to shut down the volatile political force that is Irv Gotti, but there are people out there who are very invested in stopping rap's global conquest. Let's not let them.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on the Murder Inc. trial