Some thoughts on the politics (and the nature of the cultural appraisals) of West Coast Rap from the 80’s-present

I recently read a book that made me consider how white cultural writers/reporters/etc. write about rap and while (in this case) are usually inclusive of the historical context of the works, they sometimes miss a larger point in a very (alarmingly so) large tapestry of social injustice and this text, in part, describes the splintering of N.W.A. and the departure of Ice Cube from the group, who would go on to work with Chuck D of Public Enemy (notoriously political, and deeply vocal about the political narrative of Black Americans), to produce AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

The author goes on to characterize the other members of N.W.A. (most prominently Eazy-E and Dr. Dre) as being more “apolitical” in their future efforts. He highlights Dr. Dre’s financial ambitions, alongside his desire to leave the business of the record industry to someone else to focus on production (itself a technocratically-political ideal; focus on creative pursuit while, ideally, another process — in the case of Dre, first Eazy and then Suge Knight, as the heads of their respective labels-manages how one gets paid for that labor), and boils Eazy’s piece of this narrative down to the following, when asked if he believed racism existed elsewhere outside of Compton:

“The black police in Compton are worse than the white police. Chuck D gets involved in all that black stuff, we don’t. Fuck that black power shit; we don’t give a fuck. Free South Africa; we don’t give a fuck…We’re not into politics at all.”

This is not an apolitical, or even apathetic, statement if you consider each part of the above quote’s implications; it’s a reflection of how things were, and frankly, if one considers the conditions in places like Flint, MI, still are, and one could come away feeling similarly about the performative nature of merely speaking-out about (in the late 80’s) Apartheid being considered lower-boundary of “being political”, but not about domestic state violence (i.e. police brutality, something not ignored by NWA’s contemporaries, but their focus on it is used to lend credence to the charge of being apolitical). Not to say these are mutually exclusive concerns, but the quote spoke to a sense of almost existential fear for those in their community when asked about racism elsewhere, to the exclusion of the landscape described in Straight Outta Compton’s first 3 tracks, rather than the nihilist statement of unconcern the author (and many other authors who have repeated this quote in various other texts I’ve come across over the years) seems to suggest it is.

This effort came on the tail of the topical Straight Outta Compton which detailed, but did not seek to expand beyond, street life in Compton after the rise of gangs in the area, in a Los Angeles dominated by an out-of-control LAPD. This record (quotidian abuse was pre-Rodney King, pre-OJ Simpson (itself a case inextricable from the misconduct of officers before and during the investigation) Los Angeles, where, while the Daryl Gates’-led departmental abuses largely went underreported, and the narrative laid forth by the LAPD (with the Watts Riots of decades past in recent cultural memory) allowed, as these artists saw it, white supremacy to run with it. The record spoke to the inherent misrepresentation in the media of the situation, as they, the citizens, experienced it.

My point in detailing this is that, for white social critics, it’s easy to try to categorize something superficially apolitical as such, particularly when the speaker lets you off the hook as a reporter/cultural essayist/etc. by saying as much to bookend a statement that obviously didn’t quite jive with that self-characterization (the intent in doing so can have its on value; in this case, to differentiate NWA’s message, not that Eazy-E didn’t understand the import of what he was saying, or that it didn’t follow logically). The distinction failing to be made by this author was that being apolitical, and being politically active are two different things, and frankly, terming the latter with the language of the former, is dismissive of scope. The reason I highlight this is because West Coast hip-hop had no more prominent example of this kind of political analysis than Tupac Shakur.

Tupac clearly understood the work of Niccolò Machiavelli (a topic he spoke of at length in interviews, and influenced a posthumous album which has been the subject of many conspiracy theories linking the two texts), and while he was much more outspoken on a much broader range of topics than Eazy-E, the message was effectively the same when it came to the Black experience in this country: The Prince, the Machiavelli text, is (in some interpretations) intended to be (possibly satirical, but the framework still applies) a treatise on succeeding in the world as it is rather than as it should be (or even how it’s purported to operate). The way labels like Ruthless and Death Row operated in the 80’s and 90’s spoke to this way of thinking; that they both successfully secured major-label distribution despite government and parent group outcry, and produced some of today’s top selling artists, speaks to that kind of machination, and I’m sure none of the principals would disagree that they had to do more to game the system to be given a shot at success than more “respectable” genres. This is not a political correctness debate, the content was not at issue in accessibility, though it was cited as such; it’s an issue of performative meritocracy — if questionable content is allowable by, for example, Guns ‘N Roses and other contemporary hard rock groups of the time, then why not similar content from NWA? —masking other biases.

That this struggle was racial is, ironically, not only highlighted, but exemplified by how the industry and white Americans, nearly a decade after the gangsta rap genre had peaked in commercial and critical success, were outraged all over again by the work of Eminem, the most prominent white rapper.

I saw this post a couple of weeks ago by the fine folks at Genius commemorating the release of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 17 years earlier:

and it got me thinking about the album’s top hit, “The Real Slim Shady”:

At the time, I was in Elementary school, and came away with the impression he was lamenting his treatment by the hip-hop establishment as a white man, but now, 28-years-old, I have different take on this track; maybe, while literally, it speaks to his frustration with feeling excluded for being white in a space where white people didn’t feel the need to create in order to tell a certain type of story, but the hypocrisy he points to chiefly comes from other white people, and says more about their anti-Black attitudes than it does about, either, Eminem or the hip-hop establishment at the time. Whether or not this was the intent, a discussion around an album overdue for critical reappraisal’s (despite having been well-received at the time, it was absolutely overshadowed by controversy, and frankly, largely-white music critics, even a decade-and-a-half after the inception of this sub-genre of rap, did not forsee this album becoming as canonical as it has) cultural significance, another 17 years later.

He points to the conduct of Tommy Lee, Carson Daly and Fred Durst with women (one flashpoint for controversy in rap that is, to be sure, problematic, but sees unprecedented levels of normalization in the above cases; ranging from consent issues, to slut-shaming, to domestic abuse), the relative perceived vulgarity of Tom Green’s comedy, the notion of respectability advanced by Will Smith’s music (i.e. that hip-hop doesn’t have to be “disrespectful” or profane; that Smith is black, apparently, was enough for many white critics of rap to suggest there was a “good” kind of rapping, and that NWA was not it). He doesn’t seem to think himself above this conduct (he’s received a lot of criticism to this point, and while largely not held accountable for some of what he’s claimed to have done, he does not deny it), and to the contrary, doesn’t understand why he’s the outlier (one guess) in a field of white misbehavers.

The answer is that none of this is specifically more apt to racialize than the way being (or aspiring to be) a rapper is; the question this answers is: “Will Smith can make rap accessible to white people, so why can’t a white man ‘know better’ and do the same?” Whereas spaces like “un-PC” comedy and casual misogyny (and even normalized domestic violence) are very big parts of American social life, and while problematic behavior is omnipresent across many groups, it’s glossed over, as Eminem highlights, among white celebrities in a way not excused for other groups (at which point, a rigorous standard is upheld; whether or not this standard is fair is not at issue, that it’s not applied fairly, however, is.)

Eminem is judged very harshly for being responsible for all the same things his peers in the industry have been (gang violence, etc.), but as he notes, he’s being looked to by other white people to somehow rise above and be better than the peers whose art form he is trying to contribute to, and in their eyes (as he perceives this), he is the problem, because he is white, and thus, should be, at least, as “good” or respectable as someone like Will Smith, while performers in white spaces (i.e. comedy) are given social latitude unheard of for a black performer (or, in this case, a white guy operating successfully in a genre where white performers are not, necessarily, the norm) without extreme cost.

Ultimately, does this come down to (critically, culturally) treating these narratives as fiction or hyperbole (rather than memoir), as a function of the same systemic issues that casts doubt of even verifiable injustices in the news today, and because it deals with uncomfortable realities for Americans that are the result of that dismissal protecting a long, unjust history that has its fingerprints over many of the conditions being dealt with today? I’d argue that it does; whatever you’d like to call it, but these works touch on everything from incarcerations, to political accessibility, to health and human welfare, and that same dismissive attitude that subscribes to a popular, but misleading narrative of American history, that colors the perceptions of how contemporary news and the incredibly recent past (and even the documentary evidence of injustice at the hands of the state, and other citizens, and the motivations for such being institutional, systemic) by detractors, for their own ends (i.e. comfort with the reality their quorum — racial, economic, et. Al-concludes is the right one).