Rap culture: the dark side - shootings, drugs and misogyny

What is hip hop trying to say?

September 5, 2005
Hilary

In the delusive fantasy world of music videos, women are pets to be walked on leashes and given names like 'bitch' and 'hoe'. Oddly enough, the line between this warped fantasy world and reality are blurring. And everyone is listening.

Hip hop music and all its entities is the fastest-growing percentage of the population, garnering a 13.8 percent chunk of 2002's album purchases. This genre is marketed to teens of all races and its popularity has never been more contagious. The roots of hip hop date back to 1970s New York, making this genre respectively young to the music industry. Rappers, break dancers and graffiti artists form the subcultural core of the second most popular music genre, reports the Recording Industry of America.

Nelly, 50 Cent, JA Rule, R. Kelly, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg--the big names in hip hop dominate without even really trying. We have been bombarded with album after album defined by danger and illegality. Female artists such as Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot are in on the action--rapping about sex, drugs, pimping, bitches and violence; a wide assortment of oppressive and derogatory topics--and yet we gladly buy their albums and attend their concerts. In a realm where women are thong-wearing lap dancers you can't help but wonder why we pay attention to it. What does it all mean?

Look a little closer; listen a little more carefully. The meaning is right in front of you.

Verse 2: 50 Cent (Dr Dre)

"I'm down for the action, he smart with his mouth so smack em  You holdin a strap, he might come back so clap em  React like a gangsta, die like a gangsta for actin  Cuz you'll get hit & homicide'll be askin, 'Whut happened?'  OH NO look who clapped em with the FO'FO'  20 inch rims sitting on LOW PROS  Eastside, Westside niggaz  OH NO, I'm Loco Even my mama said,  'Something really wrong with my brain' Niggaz don't rob me they know I'm down to die for my chain G-UNIT! We get it poppin in the hood G-UNIT! Muthafucka whuts good? I'm waitin on niggaz to act like they dont know how to act  I had a sip of too much Jack, I'll blow em off the map With the mack, thinkin its all ra  Til that ass get clapped and Doc say 'It's a wrap'

 -- Lyrics from 50 Cent's "If I Can't"

Meet 50 Cent. You probably already know him. If you are familiar with the club circuit or mainstream radio, you will have heard his lyrics before. If you watch MTV, you will have seen his skin-clad music videos. If you read the papers a few years back you probably heard that 50 Cent was shot nine times. One hitting his jaw—he is now afflicted with a slight (but noticeable) speech impediment.

50 Cent (a.k.a. Curtis Jackson) was born into the drug culture of the 70s. Raised alone by his drug-dealing mother, Curtis Jackson was instantly immersed in the dangerous lifestyle that accompanies narcotics. When Jackson was only eight years old, his twenty-three year old mother was "found dead under mysterious circumstances." Subsequently, Jackson was taken in by his grandparents. His youth included a long rap sheet; inevitable, I suppose, if you started dealing crack at the age of twelve. In 1994, he was convicted of possession of a controlled substance and served seven months of a three year sentence in juvenile detention.

Flash-forward some years and Curtis Jackson is now 50 Cent. His latest album (released under Eminem's Shady Records label) Get Rich or Die Tryin' holds the title for best-selling debut album – it nearly skyrocketed off the charts within two weeks of its release in February 2003. Get Rich or Die Tryin' was a '9 million copies worldwide' kind of success--during its first week within release, it sold more copies than all the other top ten albums put together. 50 Cent quite possibly might score best album of the year at the Grammy's. 50 Cent also happens to be the most controversial hip hop artists of the moment. The well-publicized feud between 50 Cent and fellow rap star Ja Rule is still going strong. Their threatening lyrics are lobbed back and forth with each new album—-and the world is listening.

"You can find me in the club Bottle full of bub, look Mami, I got the Extacey, in to taking drugs I'm in there having sex, I ain't into makin' love So come give me a hug, if u into gettin' rubbed... ...You that fagget ass nicca trying to pull me back ride When it dark, Well be pumping in the club, its on I wit my eyes on my bitch, if she smiles, she gone"

-- Lyrics from 50 Cent's "In Da Club"

Read any biography written about 50 Cent. Gang-related violence, drug-dealing, the list goes on. However, somehow, his is rap sheet has become an asset; something to be admired. The dangerous lifestyle that could have proved fatal (50 Cent was shot nine times in his old neighborhood in Queens in April 2000) is being glamorized by record companies. Album covers and posters depict 50 Cent wearing a bulletproof vest and a gun holster. Oh, and he's holding (or pointing) a gun.

"That paranoia stays with you: that it's possible that it will happen again. That is why I take precautions. I travel in a bulletproof car and I wear a bulletproof vest, always." 50 Cent says. A violent past that most people would rather dismiss is being marketed by record executives as sexy, hip and cool--all because it has a good beat and you can dance to it. 50 Cent is a success because his violent history makes him "real."

"Don't know what you heard about me But a bitch can't get a dollar out of me I spit a little G man, and my game got her A hour later, have that ass up in the Ramada

I holla at a hoe til I got a bitch confused She got on Payless, me I got on gator shoes I'm shopping for chinchillas, in the summer they cheaper Man this hoe you can have her, when I'm done I ain't gon keep her

Man, bitches come and go, every nigga pimpin know You saying it's secret, but you ain't gotta keep it on the low Bitch choose with me, I'll have you stripping in the street Put my other hoes down, you get your ass beat"

-- Lyrics from 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P."

The video for "P.I.M.P." has an equally misgynistic music video which depicts women dressed like "hoes" or "bitches"--bikinis, thongs and spike heels. In the uncensored, X-rated version, the women are all topless. In the UK, they banned the first version of "P.I.M.P." Eventually, the record company released a censored version where they stuck a tiny top on each woman. This version is currently being aired there but only after 9PM because the lyrics are still considered too explicit for primetime viewing. "P.I.M.P." also shows two women being "walked" on leashes–-repeated again at the MTV Music Video Awards. The constant dehumanizing of women in the media and especially in hip hop culture has become mainstream. The meaning (regardless of whether or not it's a 'joke'), is being taken a little too literally.

The New York City middle school incident involving a 12-year old girl and a 12-year old boy stirred controversy among many communities when the girl was caught performing oral sex on the boy in a school stairwell. The sexual arrangement was organized by a 13-year old girl who was pimping out her 12-year old friend. Hip hop's influence and the effect of pimping and prostitution in the media has spawned activists around the country to take a better look at what lies beneath the surface.

Meet Snoop Dogg. Or, maybe you already know him. His first solo record Doggystyle went multi-platinum in the early 90s and is a well-known face in hip hop. Not known for his lyrics, it is said that Snoop Dogg made the gangsta lifestyle seem not only cool, but "fun as hell" with his racy music videos. Decked out in wigs, he is known for his many comical guises. When asked about his alter ego 'Big Jeffery The Pimp' he replied, "He's this character I came up with, he's bigger than life. Mutherfucker's got a 747 jet that he ride on by himself. He flies the mutherfucker too, and he's the bartender, for real. Plus he's the pimp, he make the bitches do what they do."

Snoop Dogg also made headlines back in 1996 when he was acquitted of the 1993 murder of gang member Philip Woldermariam. Prior to his career as a hip hop artist, Snoop Dogg was Calvin Broadus, a promising, young basketball player, but, "gangbanging, drug dealing, and jail time soon ruined his chances at athletic scholarships." In 2001, Snoop Dogg ventured into the adult entertainment industry. For his Doggystyle Vol. 1 DVD, he recorded misogynistic pornographic videos to accompany his music tracks.

The paramount dilemma is lack of responsibility. No one wants to take it upon themselves to uphold the responsibility of censoring what we watch, download, or listen to. The burden of protecting society from harmful elements is too heavy. If parents cannot monitor their own children, how can anyone contain the rest of the world from it? The media's breadth is densely expansive; censorship can't keep up with the media's increasing influence. Containing all material deemed unsuitable would be impossible and costly. People are either too curious or too easily influenced. Pimping, drug-dealing, misogyny; it sells. North Americans easily buy into media; our industries rely on shock, on bare skin and on sex. The bottom line proves it.

"The worse it gets, the better it sells" wrote one major national newspaper in response to the growing popularity of hip hop and rap. Shock value is what the record industry is selling. The more shocking it is, the more we pay attention, and it's that attention that the entertainment industry thrives on. Publicity (whether good or bad) is publicity nonetheless. It's what sells records and puts the names out there. Press, articles and books are devoted to the phenomenon of hip hop and rap music and its popularity with the masses. Some people like it; others hate it. But then again, some people hated The Rolling Stones. Some people thought Elvis was risqué. What changes our perception of good or bad? That question will always be asked. The controversy lies in the music's content. The danger lies in society's continuous desensitization to it.