Earlier this week, Touré published an epic article in The Washington Post detailing “how America and hip-hop failed each other.” The piece explored how the genre that once expressed pro-black sentiments and sang about the ills of drug abuse in the community transformed itself into an art form that glamorizes street life and whose audience is primarily white.
When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism, and social consciousness; it was rebellious and almost always anti-drug. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminal black man. Black nationalism was out, embodying drug dealers was in.
In the article Touré also surmises that the effects of the war on drugs and the influx of crack in the 1980s led to hip-hop’s transformation from “CNN of the Ghetto” to the braggadocios soundtrack about living life on the wrong side of the law.
Hip-hop could have grown into a challenge to the war on drugs, but instead accepted it as a fact of life and told bluesy, or braggadocious, stories about its part in it. In the 2010 smash “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” [Rick] Ross enthusiastically embodies the drug dealer, and in the chorus, likens himself to two gigantic drug-world figures: “I think I’m Big Meech! Larry Hoover! Whippin’ work! Hallelujah!”
This is as far from Melle Mel’s antidrug stories as we can get. Ross is just one of many whose music idolizes dealers, and who carry scars from the drug trade like medals. They swallow the stereotype whole. Ross’s entire career reflects this shift: He is a former corrections officer who took on the name of a legendary cocaine dealer — “Freeway” Ricky Ross — and proclaimed himself “the biggest boss that you’ve seen thus far” in his song “The Boss.” He’s just one of many MCs who have made millions by swallowing the drug-dealer stereotype whole, and thus deploying the drug problem and the criminalblackman myth for personal gain.
In the end, Touré argues that while America failed its urban residents by instituting drug policies that led to the mass incarceration of black men and the breakdown of families, hip-hop also failed America by not continuing to sound the alarm and resisting drug culture, instead it succumbed to the lifestyle it used to rally against.
While Touré’s argument is compelling, Dart Adams, of the blog Hip Hop Wired, says the journalist got it wrong. Although Adams agrees the crack era had an impact on hip-hop, he argues that record labels and the media (including writers like Touré) are to blame for hip-hop’s transformation.
The cover of issue #39 (December ’92) of The Source declared 1992 “The Year Of The Underground.” From that point on if you weren’t hard, reppin’ the streets, keepin’ it real, smoking blunts, drinking 40’s, playing ceelo, selling crack, bustin’ guns, or just keeping it raw or gutter, you were seen as not being down with “real Hip-Hop” by 1993. Touré completely glossed over these occurrences in the world of hip-hop, making it seem as if these changes in rap and its culture occurred almost overnight and they were directly affected by the government’s so-called “War On Drugs.”
Touré didn’t even mention how the Time Warner/Cop Killer Controversy or the L.A. Riots in 1992 affected labels’ staying away from signing conscious rappers and rap groups in the following years (case in point, Paris’ Bush Killa LP being released later as Sleeping With The Enemy on his own Scarface label after being dropped by a major). If you were an outsider to hip-hop culture and weren’t a fan through this tumultuous time you’d simply take Touré at his word, seeing as how he’s the “expert.” That would be dangerous and ill-advised to say the least.
While we can debate from now until Jesus comes home who is to blame for hip-hop’s foray into gangsterism, it’s hard to ignore the effects of both the influx of crack cocaine in the 1980s and the influence of record labels looking to capitalize off of the genre’s growing profitability.