In Bayles’ telling, rap’s old school period was not just prior to the advent of rich sampling, but also prior to what we might call the gangsta-rap scam. Old-school rapping did the dozens, did f-bomb-dropping comedy, did “battle rap” exhibitions of verbal prowess, and was primarily about partying and dancing. But a new tack developed that offered up the gangsta identity. It half-heartedly justified itself as realistic reporting about what was going on in the inner city.
For Bayles, its development had a lot to do with a) a perceived need to “out-black” the emerging white hip-hop competition, particularly the Beastie Boys (whose debut LP outsold releases by LL Cool J and Run DMC), and b) an acquired taste for the shock-tactics of what Bayles calls perverse modernism, derived from punk via the influence of Rick Rubin (early director of Def Jam records and once a member of the punk group the Pricks) and such. Perverse modernism is an approach to art, a self-destructive one, which Bayles traces back to the épater la bourgeoisie, you-made-me-what-I-am-and-now-you-shall-pay, strategies used by the Dada movement, and earlier, by the decadent poets like Rimbaud.
So in Bayles’s account, the gangsta stance was more or less a scam, intended to sell lots of recordings, and as it turned out, to sell quite a few of these to white suburban boys. Consider her use of David Mills’s account of the Geto Boys:
“Houston’s Ghetto Boys did harmless dance raps until…[a] local recording executive caught a whiff of the money gangsta rappers were raking in. Next thing you know, the Ghetto Boys were doing for Houston’s crime-plagued 5th Ward what N.W.A. did for Compton…Rick Rubin…picked up the group for his Def American label, hoping to exploit the tremendous publicity surrounding 2 Live Crew. The re-named Geto Boys combined N.W.A.’s overblown gangsterism with 2 Live Crew’s sexist raunch, plus a new element—slasher movie gross-out imagery…”
Rubin has learned his lesson well. When the manufacturer refused to press the Geto Boys’ first album, he made good use of the publicity, signing with another distributor and bragging, “If the record had been made by a white group like the Beastie Boys, it would never have caused a sensation.” Sensation is, of course, his food and drink: Def American also carries the shock comic Andrew Dice Clay and the thrash metal group Slayer. But the Geto Boys, being black, carry an extra punch.
Fair enough. Gangsta rap to some extent was a scam and a perverse-modernist wish-fulfillment. But can it be regarded mainly as that given the way it caught on so readily? The Nigga-Gangsta became the identity of choice for blacks seeking the most non-appropriate-able and uncompromising sort of racial identity—and it was not opposed with any real firmness by those who cultivated a more political rap identity, a la Public Enemy.
The Gangsta became emulated by tough guys of all races and backgrounds, and gangsta rap became the soundtrack to prove one’s all-around bad-assed-ness, even if in fantasy-fashion. But the all-too-real phenomenon of gang growth in the very late 80s and all through the 90s was linked at the hip with gangsta rap’s bounding popularity. That popularity was centered in the black and Hispanic ghettos, however many recordings were sold to whites. I’ll leave it to the rap experts, but my understanding is that rap’s bragging about one’s Criminal Mindendess and willingness to kill, and further, about one’s general transmutation of the Cool into the Cold, goes pretty far back in hip-hop history. N.W.A. exploding onto the scene circa 1989 was a fulfillment of tendencies already well-afoot, more than it was an ingenious marketing ploy.
And whereas in the early 90s, when Bayles wrote Hole in Our Soul (published’94), one might still hope that hip-hop fans would come to treat gangsta style as a passing fad, one cannot think so today. However the intensity of the rap focus on the gangsta identity may ebb and flow, it now seems a permanent and central aspect of the genre. The popular rapper has to work with and often within the gangsta image, even if he’s seeking to eventually work away from it.
For example, Jay-Z and Beyoncé can present themselves as the first couple of black pop-culture, he can take the break in the Justin Timberlake hit, be a big businessman with Rocawear and such, and even write an acclaimed book about rap rhymes, but the basic outlines of his role continue. Consider, for example, how he shows up in the recent Timberlake video—he and his rapping is displayed as that which reminds us about the power of vice, and its connection to pimp-like hardness. Sure, Jay-Z’s rap there ends with a line that celebrates marriage, but it also ambiguously says that nothing exceeds like excess, and what we repeatedly see him with is drinks, cigars, and strip-club dancers. It’s as if Timberlake can’t let himself be exposed to black scrutiny armed only with his falsetto and romantic song—he needs Jay-Z accompanying him as an emblem of rap authenticity. And it’s as if Jay-Z can’t lend his aide to this slice of romance without reminding us about his days of rakin’ it in with tracks like “Big Pimpin’.” He can’t escape the role that made him. Nor is it clear that he wants to.
Or take a cruder example. A Snoop Lion calling for peace, praise-to-Jah, and “No Guns Allowed” gun-control could not have remained a Snoop Dog, and of course, no-one would be paying this Lion any attention had he not made his name as a Dog.
I’ll agree with Bayles, however, that there is no reason inherent to hip-hop music itself for the gangsta identity and even the act of rapping itself to have become its dominant traits. But I will say that the reason the music developed in a way so congenial to these is because of a certain unhealthy obsession early on, admittedly an obsession connected with bottom-line self-defense needs in the ghetto, with manliness.
A big part of the history of 20th century pop is a move, once the sexual revolution has been unleashed, of male tastes away from the female-attuned (and if a man like Rousseau is right, female-governed) stance of being a man open to dancing and romancing, towards various musical embodiments, white and black, of being a man open to killing. A growing aversion to sweetness in music is a key aspect in the development of hard-rock, and later, of rap. And perhaps everyone really had, from 19th-century classical up through the American Songbook, been overdosing on the Romantic in music. Hard realities had been obscured, and the manliness necessary to deal with them had been secretly denigrated and eroded by all that sweetness. From the cynical player’s perspective, with the women now saying yes so readily, there was no more point to it. If one was feeling angry and hard, there was no reason to hide it. And among males, one had an increasing need to display it.
That story, and its connection to a greater psychic openness to various tyrannic/criminal temptations once the pleasure-seeking revolution sought by what Plato would call the thoroughly democratic man is accomplished, is at least as important to rap as the punk/dada one Bayles emphasizes. But it’s a fairly universal story, for example, detected early on by the British group The Specials (I dread, dread to learn what the future will bring, when we’re livin’, in grim, gangster times…) and as such it does not fully explain the way rap’s gangsta identity was initially developed as a black thing.
So let’s stay with Bayles’s line of argument for at least the remainder of this post, since even if she charitably overemphasizes the “scam” and “shock-art” reasons for the development of the identity, she does admit and explore its connection to the social pathology that has gradually engulfed the black poor since the end of the civil rights era.
She begins her discussion of that pathology by noting
..the observation of sociologist Elijah Anderson that since the early 1970s, poor black communities have lost their “old heads”—meaning the men whose “acknowledged role was to teach, support, encourage, and in effect socialize young men to meet their responsibilities…” …and the “wise and mature” women… In their place, Anderson says, are new “role models”:
“The man derides family values. …In fact he considers it a measure of success if he can get away without being held legally accountable for his out-of-wedlock children. …Self-aggrandizement consumes his whole being and expressed in his penchant for a glamorous life-style, fine clothes, and fancy cars.”
Such patterns of behavior are hardly new in poor black communities, as countless sociological studies and blues lyrics attest. But they have not for the most part been dominant. The question is: What has brought them to the fore?
Again, part of her answer is the mainstreaming of perverse-modernist techniques. Bayles explains this well, especially with respect to the splash the low-talent 2 Live Crew were able to make using shock-tactics, but she more significantly answers her own question by linking the gangsta mystique and the plague of youth violence to a certain souring of Black Power symbolic-politics:
Mark Naison, a professor of Afro-American studies…offers this capsule of the plague’s origins:
“By the mid-1970s, the Black Power movement. …survived on the street largely through a distorted symbolic shorthand: images of crime as rebeliion and working-class (or middle-class) Blacks as ‘suckers.’ The left intelligentsia, caught up in disappointments and fantasies of its own, did little to challenge this destructive ideological brew. …As the lifestyle and language of hustlers was designated a frontier of Black resistance by filmmakers and folklorists alike. …As he community consciousness of the Black Power era faded, restraints against violent assaults on other Blacks, which previous generations of hustlers had respected, fell completely by the way-side. A true ‘outlaw culture’ was now in place.”
Because hip-hop appeared at roughly the same time as the outlaw culture, the two were linked in the popular mind in a way that was, at first, unfair. Although Run-DMC dressed like gang members, their lyrics offered unambiguous counsel against drugs and crime. And in 1986, when one of their concerts erupted into pitched battles between rival Los Angeles gangs, they tried to persuade the media that they did not sanction violence. But it was too late: Rival rappers were already sending the opposite message.
This is where Bayles says that many rappers seized on the “gangsta” mystique as a way to “sucker” the competition. Again, I think that makes the link between hip-hop and gangsta-ism too accidental, too much the result of market calculation, or of white outsiders like Rubin selling the mystique to suburbanites. But as Bayles herself indicates, quite a few rappers were involved in this turn.
She is nonetheless helpful for thinking about the key excuse given, the “reality reporting” one:
As one member of N.W.A put it, “We’re like reporters. We give them the truth.” Here, too, there is clear Afro-American precedent. Indeed, the roots of gangsta rap’s stark realism show up in Lawrence Levine’s distinction between the “social bandit” of white folklore (Robin Hood, Jesse James) and the “bad man” of black folklore (Stagolee):
“Black legend did not portray good bad men or noble outlaws. The brutality of Negro bad men was allowed to speak for itself… They preyed upon the weak, as well as the strong, women as well as men. They killed not merely in self-defense but from sadistic need and sheer joy.”
Yet, as Levine goes on to explain, such legends offered “no hope of social redemption. Black singers, storytellers, and audiences …were not beguiled into looking to these asocial, self-centered, and futile figures for any permanent remedies.” Instead black folklore sought redemption in a very different figure, the “moral hard man” personified by the steel-driving giant, John Henry:
“John Henry is a much more fully developed hero figure than the bad man. In many ways he is a secular version of the Biblical heroes who were traditionally so important in black thought. …the bad man’s contests tend to be individual… While the folk may derive vicarious rewards from his direct, violent approach, they remain separated from his life, in which they are often his victims, and detached from his death which they greet with no particular dismay. John Henry’s epic contest is never purely individual… His victory is shared and his demise is mourned.”
..the moral man’s basic task is to beat the white man at his own game, meaning to prove himself superior according to physical, mental, and moral standards that both races respect… Thus the devoutest hope placed in any black leader has always been that he would take the countless Stagolees of America’s streets and prisons and turn them into an army of John Henrys.
With gangsta rap, however, the hopes of the old leaders and folklore were turned upside down: not only would the genre help increase the number of Stagolees on the street, but it would make them the new heroes: Tupac Shakur’s death, for example, was greeted with widespread dismay. Tupac was a thug, a Stagolee who had apparently hardened his heart to a murderous chill; but, he was also an undeniably poetic man who had perhaps felt some “moral hard-man” aspirations, and if so, was to some degree was a man caught up in playing the role of a thug, in unsuccessfully trying to thread a path between Stagolee and a more streetwise/radical version of John Henry.
Let us return to Bayles’s basic question: What brought all this to the fore? How in the world could so many American blacks come to embrace a form of musical youth-culture and style of manliness whose broad impact became that of a twisted-around minstrel-show, whereby many of the worst features of the racist stereotype of blacks became widely adopted as marks of black authenticity? She has given us parts of the answer, and in doing so has rightly laid a good deal of the blame at the feet of 20th-century radicals, both those in the perverse-modernist art school set, and those in the Black Power one, but I think that, with respect to the American side of the story, we must supplement her account with Shelby Steele’s theory of racial masking.
More on that next. And maybe then I’ll bring Plato and manliness into the mix.