The ‘N’ word, and the demise of conscious rap

by Lee Pinkerton

publicenemy

The first rap concert I ever went to was L.L. Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1987LL didn’t leave much of an impression, Rakim disappointed, but my young 18 year old mind was so blown away by Public Enemy’s righteous anger and they became my favourite group in rap, and favourite live show in any genre.  I made it my business to see them every time they performed in London. Through the references in their lyrics and album sleeve notes, I was turned onto Malcolm X, The Nation of Islam, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, and the conscious rap of that era shaped my politics and the world view that I hold to this day.

Farrakhan’s a prophet that I think you ought to listen to.”

Now fast forward to 2012.  Rap music has come of age and rap groups now perform in arenas.  The hottest rap concert of the year was Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne tour.  They sold out five nights at London’s O2 Arena, and as a finale they shut the place down with four encores of the track Niggas In Paris.

Kanye West - Watch the Throne

Kanye West – Watch the Throne

Much as I love Jay Z and Kanye, as much as I love their album, and as much as I love that track, I’m not comfortable with them going all over the world, performing that song, and using that word in a context where white people who like hip-hop think its now okay for them to use that word too.

The use of the term by Black people amongst themselves is still controversial, but its hard to argue against when comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used it so artfully in their stage shows through the years. But for white people who might be reading this and are feeling conflicted as to when it might be appropriate for them to use the term, let me give you some guidance.  NEVER.

Stepping back from the ‘n-word debate’ for a moment, whatever happened to conscious rap? Chuck D was not pleased when Jay and Ye released Otis, the first single from their collaborative album.  He argued that it was insensitive for them to be rapping about their thousand dollar watches and million dollar lifestyles at a time when the world is in recession, and thousands of ordinary folk are struggling just to pay the bills.

“New watch alert, Hublots/ Or the big face Roley I got two of those/ Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?/ Maybach bumper sticker saying ‘What would Hova do’?

Sadly, no one seemed to be listening, because nowadays Chuck D is no longer the frontman for rap music’s most high profile group, but, like a hip-hop Bill Cosby, has been relegated to the status of a kill-joy uncle grumbling from the side-lines at the family BBQ.  “Ahh shut up complaining Uncle Chuck.  Have another piece of chicken, go sit down with the old folks and let us young kids have some fun”.

But many of my generation agree with Chuck’s viewpoint.  When we cut our musical teeth in the late 80’s and early 90s, rap was music of the revolution, a force for positive change.  Rappers wore Africa pendants and Malcolm X caps, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power provided the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s greatest film Do The Right Thing, and the lyrics of KRS 1, Rakim, and Brand Nubian provided the running commentary to our daily struggles.

In the 21st century, rap music has become the theme music for conspicuous consumption. No longer quoting from the Qu’ran but instead reading from the pages of GQ and Forbes magazine.  The Golden Era led by Public Enemy gave way to the Bling Era led by Jay Z, and the Dirty South sound that now dominates led by Rick Ross.  As Talib Kweli put it on the Reflection Eternal album….

“These cats drink Champagne, to toast death and pain,/Like slaves on the ship talkin’ bout who got the flyest chain.”

Sadly, looking back on those glory days of the Golden Era, I realise that conscious rap was just an aberration, merely a temporary blip.  Rap was always about ‘flossing’ and bling, or rather bragging and boasting as it was called back in the day.  The very first rap record, Rappers Delight, released in 1979 by the Sugar Hill Gang, was little more than 15 minutes of braggadocio.

For those too young to remember, here’s a quote.

“You see I’m six foot one and I’m tons of fun and I dress to a tee/ You see I got more clothes than Muhammed Ali and I dress so viciously/ I got body guards I got two big cars,  I definitely ain’t the wack/ I got a Lincoln Continental and, a sun-roof Cadillac.”

Photo of Eric B. & RakimRemember that EPMD stood for Eric and Parrish Making Dollars, and Eric B and Rakim’s first album was called Paid In Full. Jay and Ye are just carrying on the tradition, only now they are talking about private jets rather than sun-roofed Cadillacs. When people who are used to having nothing, get a little something, they just can’t help showing it off.

But another important development is that not only are those angry conscious rappers of the 90’s now middle-aged men, but those independent record labels that developed the genre, either no longer exist, or have been absorbed into the majors. Whilst those iconic labels like Sleeping Bag, Profile and Def Jam were headed by people from the culture who wanted to accurately reflect it on wax, these major labels just want to market and promote more of what sold big last year.

A similar thing happened in soul music. That socially conscious music of the 70’s that we love to hark back to, was just a blip disruptingthe steady stream of ‘baby I love you’ lyrics that predominated from the 1950s right up to the present day. Stevie Wonder might have been talking about  Living For the City and Jesus Children of America in 1974, but by the 1980s he was back to singing I Just Called to Say I Love You.  Marvin Gaye might have been asking What’s Goin’ On? and Save the Children in 1971, but by 1982 he was back to singing Sexual Healing and Rocking After Midnight.  There must have been something in the air in the 70s and the 90s that woke Black people up and prompted them to look around and consider their circumstances.  But that mood was soon lost and we returned to our slumber.

The truth is that Black music is more often something we use to forget our problems rather than address them.  A soothing lullaby rather than a rousing alarm call.  As the saying goes,

‘some people would rather die than think, and sometimes they do’.

Lee Pinkerton was born in London, the child of Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants. After studying Sociology and Psychology at University he spent the 90s as a music journalist, first as a freelancer for magazines such as Mix Mag, Echoes, and Hip-Hop Connection and then as the Arts Editor for ‘Britain’s Best Black newspaper’- The Voice.
In addition to this he also wrote a book the Many Faces of Michael Jackson published in 1997.
His latest book The Problem With Black Men examines the causes of the social problems facing Black men in Britain and America today.
He can currently be heard as a regular on-air contributor to the ‘ACE show’ on BBC Radio Derby and his political polemics and cultural criticism can be read on the blog-site The Black Watch and his daily musings on Twitter @_Runawayslave.

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6 replies

  1. This was a good read.

    As a black man, whether I enjoy hearing N**** in Paris depends on where I am. If I’m in a majority black club I can’t help but enjoy the energy of the track, but when i’m in a majority white situation, I don’t even nod my head. How can I? That would only further confuse those white people who may mistakenly believe that they too can use the word, when they are best advised not to.

    As the article alludes, Hip Hop, despite how one-dimensional it appears in the mainstream, is a highly complex and politicised art form. I fully agree that Jay Z and Kanye West were insensitive to the implications of using the N-word in party track. Especially when it was accompanied by a video predominately featuring white people.

    Unfortunately, there aren’t enough articles on the evolution of the n-word, or the predictable degradation of all music forms of black origin once corporate interests show an interest. For many “rap fans” today, it must be really hard to imagine a time when Malcolm X was synonymous the culture. This is why we need more debates on the topic.

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  2. Great article Lee (as usual).
    I still think it’s a little unfair to modern rappers. Hip Hop is no longer small business and as Zanna says, when the big corps get involved, they are much more interested in promoting stuff that plays to stereotypes that they understand. The likes of Lowkey and Akala will always struggle to get massive play because the record companies assume audiences are not into conscious stuff.
    You can chase money or you can have a message. Very few artists manage to do both.

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  3. This is so true. The confusion over the use of the n-word is an issue that’s spreading from music into sports (ie. the incognito/Jonathan Martin scandal that’s just blown up in the US) and so inevitably into everyday life. I’ll be honest, I hate the use of the word full stop, regardless of the skin colour of the person using it. I didn’t always feel this way though, and I admit its use is a complex thing (Dean Atta had an excellent programme on Radio 4 recently exploring this very issue).

    But anyway, I couldn’t agree more on the journey hip hop has taken over the last 30 years. On the one hand there’s something exhilarating when you consider how a music genre so counter-cultural – at least at its inception – has managed to kick through the door of the mainstream and pretty much take the wheel. But then you take a step back and look at it, the lyrics, the prevailing message of it all, and can’t help but feel disappointed.

    Hip hop was conceived in the 60s. Born in the 70s. And then grew up in the 80s, becoming aware of itself, of its power, and developing the ambition to change things, to make a meangingful difference.

    And so, like this (excellent) article says, when you look at where the genre stands now – the billboard records, the grammy awards, the sold out venues, all things that ought to be reason for celebration – and consider what the music has become since that Chuck D heyday, you can’t help but wonder where it all went so wrong.

    It’s more successful now than it’s ever been, yet for all its glitz and bling has regressed and strayed from what it had the potential to become.

    It’s an irony that doesn’t make you smile. But just makes you mourn, strangely, for something that is still living. Because you begin to wonder whether hip hop, in its own way, has become the new opium for the masses. A part of the very thing that, at one time, it hoped to overthrow.

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  4. Well said !!! Been sayin this for years !!!

    Lest we forget the political voice of our forefathers in music, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, The Lost Poets, Marvin Gaye etc. etc.

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  5. It is still here, one just has to look.

    I completely agree with you. I attended a Pharcyde concert and the two white German boys behind were screaming the N-word to the point where I had to turn around and give them the look my mom used to give when I was fucking up in public. They realized I was offended and they calmed down.

    I no longer listen to or support acts like Jayz. He has proven as of late that his music is not for people like me.

    Basically, the music is there.. these days it is just not so mainstream.

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    • V good point… interesting to think about why it is not in the mainstream. Do you think this reflects the increasing(?) control of big record companies, in the sense that corporate culture always tends to reinforce the White supremacist status quo?

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