They're trying to make hardcore rap disappear," says rapper Chuck D. in "The 13th Message." This track, which he describes as a "P.E.S.A. -- Public Enemy Service Announcement," is the first thing heard on the "CB4" soundtrack. But unlike the movie, which pokes fun at much of the rap industry, Chuck D. isn't kidding at all.
By "they," he doesn't mean some amorphous specter of establishment disapproval. He blames black radio, which is "trying to make hardcore rap disappear by making the rap DJs obsolete." He complains the government wants hardcore to "vanish," pointing out that "The whites who consider themselves the establishment . . . fear that rap is the beginning of cultural overthrow." He even claims that President Bill Clinton "wants to see hardcore go ghost."
Are "they" out to end hardcore, to "make it final for the vinyl," as Chuck D. has it? Coming at a time when N.W.A. alum Dr. Dre has the country's No. 1 single, and both he and Naughty by Nature have albums in the top five, many of the industry would answer Chuck D.'s accusation by saying, "Don't believe the hype."
"I don't think it's anything organized," says Timothy White, editor in chief at Billboard. "It's just a reactive thing. I think anybody aware of it has a strong opinion about it, or even a range of strong opinions. That's the nature of the music."
Others, though, are not so sanguine -- and with reason. "I think the perception that hardcore is under siege is definitely correct," says Robert Christgau, a senior editor at the Village Voice.
"The attempt to chill political speech is real," he adds. "Even though I don't always agree with the politics [of these records], I think it's ominous."
Need evidence? Just look at the last election. George Bush and Bill Clinton may have differed on how to fix the economy, but both agreed that the politicized raps of Ice Cube, 2-Pac and Sister Souljah were dangerous and divisive.
Then there was Body Count's "Cop Killer." It wasn't a rap song, but was denounced as such because the group included rapper Ice-T. Likewise, it was Ice-T who pulled the track after police organizations mounted protests, threatened lawsuits and reportedly even phoned in bomb threats against Warner Bros. Records, the label that released the Body Count album.
But the greatest threat to hardcore rap has been on the corporate level. Part of the police strategy against "Cop Killer" was to mount a boycott against Time-Warner, the media giant that owns Warner Bros., and the aftershock of that campaign is still being felt. Several rap acts have been ordered to re-record songs that could be construed as being anti-police, and at least one, the Boston-based Almighty RSO, was dropped after
releasing a cop-bashing single.
In January, Warner Bros. dropped Ice-T from its roster, citing "artistic differences" over the cover art for Ice-T's new album, "Home Invasion" (see accompanying review). But a "well-placed source" told Billboard that the dispute wasn't because anyone at the label had problems with the album or its art; it was that "corporate wanted it changed."
For "corporate," read "Time-Warner."
Feeling the pressure
Even rappers without ties to large corporations are feeling the pressure. Take the Geto Boys, for example. Because their label, Rap-A-Lot, is distributed by the independent Priority Records, the group has so far had no trouble releasing "Crooked Officer" as a single, or in getting the video shown on the equally independent BET. But MTV, which is part of the Viacom conglomerate, refuses to show the clip even after the group changed the song's chorus from "Mr. Officer, crooked officer, I wanna put your ass in a coffin, sir" (as on the album) to the less controversial "Mr. Officer, crooked officer, why you wanna put me in a coffin, sir?"
Obviously, it's difficult for any rap act to get air play for a single that seems to threaten the police. But as Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys explains, "Crooked Officer" is not an anti-police diatribe, but a protest against corrupt cops.
"It isn't just something that we came up with just to mess with all police officers,"' he says. "Because not everyone is crooked, not everyone is bad. We're not doing a song that's about killing cops. We're talking about killer cops, cops that are going around abusing their authorities. That's all it's basically about."
What angers Bushwick, though, is that the people feel more threatened by raps than by movies dealing with the same subject. "Look at 'Serpico.' That's a true story about the New York City police department trying to kill this one honest cop. They have to keep changing him from police department to police department, hoping that none of the crooked cops would kill him.
"Then I was watching 'The Godfather,' where Al Pacino says, 'You're not a cop. You're a dishonest cop, you're a crooked cop, that makes the force look bad.' And it's true.
"But when we write about this, it's considered something to create a revolution and mass riots in the ghetto. I don't comprehend that. What's the difference?"
In one sense, there's no difference at all. As Timothy White points out, a repugnant movie can be just as dehumanizing as a repugnant recording, and any attempt to balance musical excess by citing its cinematic equivalent is simply wrong.
"If it's a true callous diminishment of the human experience and human dignity, then it doesn't matter how bad it was in terms of something else," White says. "It's worthless. So that endless kind of score-keeping is really a decadent exercise."
Who is listening?
But why are some records singled out for criticism while others go unscathed? Rap activist Phyllis Pollack feels that the answer has less to do with what's being said than with who happens to be listening. "You have to look at who it is that's assaulting hip-hop and hardcore rap," she says. "The people who are doing this do not understand the lyrics, the culture, or the vernacular. They don't understand when they hear things on the radio about 'a 187 on an undercover cop,' or whatever."
And what is "a 187 on an undercover cop"?
"That means to blow away a cop, smoke an undercover cop," she says. "It's police code, actually. The only people who are going to understand that is cops. But they're too busy going after Ice-T."
Would-be censors aren't the only ones irritated by hardcore rap. "The fact of the matter is that a lot of the people who don't like hardcore are black, and not old, either," says Christgau. "That is to say, if it's kids and they buy a Shai record instead, that's all it means to them. With college women or buppies, it's a somewhat different, more conscious, ideological matter. It seems to me that among black women, there has been an increasing consciousness at every level that this stuff has got to stop."
And on a certain level, the artists themselves realize this. Ice-T's "Home Invasion" begins with the warning, "This is not a pop album," and many rappers wear the uncompromising severity of their music as a badge of honor. As Chuck D. says in "The 13th Message," hardcore "is not a matter of skills, but a battle of wills."
No wonder, then, that Bushwick Bill sees criticism as a form of positive reinforcement. "It just lets me know that we're on the right track," he says of anti-rap attacks. "When you're doing something stupid, nobody pays attention to you. When what you're doing looks like it could turn into something, then they want to mess with you.
"So if we were to be singing songs like 'Parents Just Don'Understand' or 'Baby Got Back,' it would be acceptable."
Does hardcore have a future? Given the growing number of retail chains that shy away from carrying controversial albums, it seems clear that certain hardcore albums are going to be harder to find as time goes on. On the other hand, as long as albums by artists like the Geto Boys, Public Enemy, Ice-T and Ice Cube continue to sell in the millions, someone somewhere is going to find a way to get them into the hands of consumers.
PD At the same time, it's equally apparent that as rap continues to
evolve, the notion of what it means to be "hardcore" will continue to change. As Christgau notes, the straight-up gangsta approach -- "singing about criminal activities in a celebratory way" -- is on its way out. "There aren't actually very many people who do that anymore," he says. "That has gone out of fashion, even within the hip-hop community."
"If you're going to be a gangsta, be an intellectual one," agrees Bushwick. "Gangsta music [now] is telling you to elevate above the street norm and get an education."
Beyond that, there's a growing sense within hip-hop that to be hardcore in the truest sense is to make music that speaks directly to specific parts of the African-American community. "This 'We don't give a damn about the white audience' attitude is the hardcore attitude," says Christgau. "They're ready to do a certain limited thing that only young black males really are interested in. That seems to me to be a vital and important change, speaking sociologically. But it doesn't produce a whole lot of good music -- just as metal doesn't."
Perhaps. Or perhaps it will produce music that, like heavy metal, doesn't much interest white, intellectual rock critics.
Either way, it seems Chuck D. is right about one thing: Hardcore will never die.