Now, unable to do anything useful about our catastrophe in Iraq, Congress moves on to a more manageable
mortal threat -- rap lyrics. The House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection chaired
by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) convened to address the issue last week. The hearing was a made-for-Jon
Stewart event -- these media-clueless hacks straining to persuade (not force) titans of the recording
industry to stop releasing hard core rap -- one of the industry's few remaining golden geese. Our
leaders, however, would find it easier to sleep at night if they knew that, after more than a
generation in the cultural bloodstream, rap has become as safe as milk to a young audience that is
in no way shocked or corrupted when they hear the dirty words that guys like Snoop, Dick Cheney
and Mom & Dad use in public every day. And that the booty in all the videos is basically of the
retarded ring-a-ding-ding variety of the Rat Pack's swingin' fifties -- but with better graphics.
What's disturbing to me is not that rap presents a threat to American society's brain-dead power
grid; it's that rap no longer tries.
When I first heard The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the sun
orbited Earth one time in tribute. My idols were Dylan, Zappa, James Brown and Coltrane and I was
discovering Ginsberg, Dada and Cage. That song had the power to enlighten through wordcraft both
graphically real and surreal. And it was driven by the collage medium of the Futurists and Dadaists
on up through Cage and beyond. Plus it had groove, my primary addiction since I was hatched. Rap
was the future of the future and it defined the very essence of NOW. By the time my kid was five
he'd already digested James Brown, the Beatles, Cab Calloway, Hank Williams, Celia Cruz,
Bob Marley, Olatunji and Elvis. Then I slipped in some rap starting with Public Enemy and Tribe
Called Quest. Nine years later, rap is all he listens to and most of it has been a pablum of
sing-songy choruses, kiddie jingle synth hooks, juvenile rhymes with "dirty" words (that no longer
even shock the old folks) and pathetic grooves -- like a gangsta Barney with a cheesy beat. Junior
is too old to take Dad's playlist suggestions seriously, but his summer camp counselor had the
creds to set my little man straight. He now regularly raids my collection.
The few pockets of brilliance and relevance that remain -- mostly underground --
prove the rule that hip hop has become as blandly American as mass-produced, lab-processed
apple pie. The most threatening cultural force mainstream America has faced since Jack Johnson
has become so non-threatening to power, so predictable and so darned cute that any middle and
upper class suburban sixth-grader can accurately mimic every gesture in the lexicon and be
ghetto for Halloween. Even Karl Rove finds it cute. When poverty, prison and lack of opportunity
become fashion statements for the comfortable -- only to be abandoned after college orientation
week -- something very perverse has occurred in our cultural DNA. For well over a decade hip
hop has provided racists with an uninterrupted flow of images to validate their hate. Meanwhile
the mainstreaming of the gangsta minstrelsy has upstaged its backstory of poverty and
hopelessness; an ongoing tragedy no longer able to compete for attention.
Here we have a medium based on words and messages with artists who can sling
them and a gargantuan corporate infrastructure to deliver them to millions of people. But almost
30 years after The Message, hip hop culture is more rigidly conformist than the Eisenhower era
and offers only a micro-variety of flavors in its country of origin (things are more promising
elsewhere). And it has virtually nothing to say that isn't about f--kin', fightin' and blingin'
while anybody with less property than Diddy is struggling to pay the monthly and our tax money
is sponsoring apocalypse. But few rappers find that stuff compelling enough to rage about. The
post-Katrina Kanye West has moved on, having more pressing outrages to vent about. He's
squirting like a baby because MTV didn't give him a space man. And 50 Cent threatens (for
real or for promo) to go home if he doesn't sell more product than West.
It's so typical that our tax dollars -- particularly Mr. West's and Mr. Cent's
tax dollars -- are wasted on bogus congressional investigations into the politicization of the
Justice Department and the war in Iraq when subpoenas should have already been issued to
determine how it came to be that Kanye West left Vegas with only his dick in his hand. And
why has there not been bold bi-partisan legislation mandating the purchase of 50 Cent CDs
by every American adult, child and fetus?
So don't push them 'cause they're close to the edge.
They're tryin' not
to lose their head.
(Ha ha ha ha. Ha)
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