Hip Hop Drops the 411
By Crispin Sartwell
All that's really left of American public discourse occurs at the fringes: graffiti, independent
films, blogs. And that's why I've replaced CNN with underground hip hop.
What you see on television is paid liberals and conservatives, government officials and
campaign consultants who aren't there at all, lemmings and slaves who echo one of the two
acceptable positions, prostitutes of the mind who peddle their conviction. If you are satisfied,
with regard to Iraq or affirmative action, to hear the same five cliches in infinite repetition, then
by all means.
Even the established poets of America appear to constitute a political party, as they reiterate
other people's analysis of America's forthcoming attack on Iraq.
In contrast, underground hip hop deploys voices of astonishing creativity, force, and cultural
awareness. Rap provides unique possibilities of musical expression: somewhere between speech-making, poetry, and improvisational jazz, it can drive home a message with more cleverness,
definiteness, and sincerity than any other contemporary art form.
Much of the best writing and speaking in the contemporary world is emerging from the world
of alternative hip hop. Groups such as Dead Prez, Demigodz, Mr. Lif, Atmosphere, Zion I, Anti-Pop Consortium, Aesop Rock, Cage, Binary Star, Non-Phixion and many others are saying
something important, saying it beautifully and with urgency. And hip hop has become common
coin among American sub-cultures; there are Latino practitioners (Delinquent Habits, Control
Machete), white (Ill Bill, MC Paul Barman), Asians (Mountain Brothers, Drunken Tiger) and, of
course, black folks of all varieties and opinions.
It's a familiar point that rap is a problematic art form. And I myself, though I still love women
and guns, am tiring of bitches and gats. But the familiar images of gang warfare and conspicuous
consumption essentially arise only in gangsta and pop rap, the rather dull world of DMX, Jay-Z
and Nelly. Those people are ridiculed as poseurs in underground hip hop. But even Eminem,
who emerged from the underground, makes interesting political points, as in his treatment of the
Iraq situation in "Square Dance."
I'll leave you with the words of the astonishing MC Slug (from the astonishing group
Atmosphere) answering to the musical question "what's wrong?" This selection from
"Scapegoat" is not a policy statement, though there are plenty of those too; it's a demonstration
of how to achieve presence in your own words.
It's the caffeine, the nicotine, the milligrams of tar.
It's my habitat, it needs to be cleaned. It's my car.
It's the fast talk they use to abuse and feed my brain.
It's the cat box it needs to be changed. It's the pain
It's women. It's the fight for power. It's government.
It's the way you're giving knowledge slow with thought control and subtle hints.
It's rubbing it, itching it. It's applying cream
It's the foreigners sight seeing with high beams. It's in my dreams.
It's the monsters that I conjure. It's the marijuana.
It's the embarrassment, displacement. It's where I wander
It's my genre. It's Madonna's videos
It's game shows. It's cheap liquor, blunts. It's bumper stickers with rainbows.
It's angels, demons, gods. It's the white devils.
It's the monitor, the soundman. It's the motherf...ing mic levels.
It's gas fumes, fast food, Tommy Hil, mommy's pill
Columbia House music club, designer drugs and rhyming thugs.
It's Bloods, Cips, five, six.
It's stick up kids, It's Christian conservative terrorists. It's porno flicks.
It's the east coast, no it's the west coast
It's public schools. It's asbestos.
It's mentholated. It's techno.
It's sleep, life, and death.
It's speed, coke, and meth.
It's hay fever, pain relievers, oral sex, and smoker's breath.
It stretches for as far as the eye can see
It's reality, f... it, it's everything but me