All it takes is one push of a button on the car radio, and I am bombarded by lyrical images of murder, drug use, and the degradation of women. Another push of a button on the TV, and the same images flood the screen. This is not a bad day of news reports or R-rated movies; this is today’s music. The creators of these lyrics are earning millions of dollars, topping the Billboard charts, and winning Grammies. USA Today reports that over 25% of teenagers stated if given only one genre of music, they would listen to hip-hop and rap. The overwhelming majority of these teenagers also claim that they know the lyrics to at least 75% of the songs they listen to. Like it or not, explicit hip-hop music has become one of the most prominent genres of music in youth America. So, if the youth are the future, then the influence of hip-hop is certainly a worthwhile topic to consider.
This extended essay seeks to analyze hip-hop lyrics to answer the question: “What are the reasons for justifying explicit content such as drugs, sex, and violence in hip-hop lyrics?” I will treat this question in a number of ways. I will provide a brief history of hip-hop music to understand the context in which it is created. I will then present several examples of explicit, controversial rap lyrics, and then analyze and compare what professional critics have written in articles and books concerning the graphic content. In this way, I intend to treat rap lyrics like literature by looking closely at its content and drawing inferences and conclusions about the artist’s motivations.
In the late 1960’s, a Jamaican named DJ Kool Herc introduced to West Brooklyn the Jamaican tradition of “toasting” which involved improvised rhymes over reggae instrumentals. The people of New York were not interested in reggae music at the time, so DJ Kool Herc adapted his style by incorporating his toasting with popular instrumentals instead of reggae. His created his new sound by remixing samples from of jazz, funk, disco and Motown soul; and it caught on quickly, especially with young partygoers. The first example of rap was simply acknowledging the crowd at a party with a popular phrase or slang. This was not called rap yet, but was known as “emceeing”. DJ Kool Herc teamed up with two friends known as Coke la Rock and Clark Kent; he would focus on mixing instrumentals while the other two emceed to the crowd. This was the very first rap group, known as Kool Herc and the Herculoids. (Cook) By the late 1970s, artists had starting recording and Rap became a big business. Groups such as The Sugarhill Gang became international hits and sold millions of albums. (Rapworld.com)
Dave Cook effectively explains that rap became popular for several reasons. It offered young urban New Yorkers the “chance to freely express themselves, and more importantly, it was an art-form that was accessible to anyone” (Cook 3). It did not require expensive lessons or instruments, and it could be practiced virtually anytime anywhere. Also, it did not impose any difficult rules; anything was possible as long as an artist was original and rhymed on time to the beat of an instrumental. A rap artist could speak about virtually anything he wanted. In addition, it allowed the artist to easily incorporate his personality: “If you were laid back, you could rap at a slow pace. If you were hyperactive, you could rap at a fast pace. No two people rapped the same, even when reciting the same rhyme.”(Cook 3)
Cook makes excellent points explaining how rap spread so quickly. If rap was accessible to anyone as Cook states, this means even underprivileged inner-city kids could participate as well. However, their rap lyrics would naturally be quite different from original emceeing. Their raps would understandably be more aggressive in nature, since they would often express their harsh tales and their tough lifestyle.
Up until the late 1980s, rap was centrally a party-based style of music. Then a duo known as Public Enemy took a “hardcore controversial stance and a sociopolitical edge, and caused a sensation with their revolutionary and politically charged style of rap.” (Rapworld.com) They introduced themes of black rage and alienation, and rapped about the hardships and frustrations of the black community in America. Another group called NWA based their lyrics on violence, drugs, and guns, bringing attention to real occurrences in inner-city ghetto life. Groups like Public Enemy and NWA received heavy criticism and attention from the media, which is probably why they sold millions of records.
These two groups revolutionized rap and gave it an edgy, aggressive dimension. This form of “gangsta rap” paved the way for other rap artists who also desired to tell their struggles and adversities growing up. The reason these artists have been so controversial is not because of their story but because of their explicit methods of story telling. Several other artists like Warren G, the Fugees, and Nas have been able to take calmer, less-violent approaches to rap about the same struggles. (Rapworld.com) This brings me back to my research question: What is the reason behind the controversial, violent content in these lyrics? According to a variety of magazine and Internet sources, some of the most prominent controversial artists include Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur, and Eminem.
Before analyzing these artists’ lyrics, it is important to understand that rap is written informally, and not many Rap artists create their lyrics in the same way a professional poet would write a poem. Therefore, it isn’t worth much to analyze the rhyme, similes, or metaphors, because their meanings are explicit and self-explanatory. However, rap can still be treated like literature by focusing on the artists of a certain period. Like any literary movement, the 1980s through today has been a period of “gangsta rap”. The following are examples of artists and lyrics from this type of rap.
One of the most controversial songs from the infamous group NWA is “**** the Police”:
“**** the police comin straight from the underground
A young n**** got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
**** that s***, cause I ain’t the one
for a punk m*********** with a badge and a gun
to be beatin on, and thrown in jail
We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell…” (NWA, “**** the Police)
One of 2pac’s most controversial songs is “**** the World”:
“When I was comin up rough that wasn’t even what you called it
That’s why I smoke **** now and run with alcoholics…
I been through, Hell and back, and if I, fell black
then it’s, back to the corner where we sell c****
Some of you n***** is bustas; you runnin ’round
with these tramp=a** b******, don’t trust her
But don’t cry, this world ain’t prepared for us
A straight thug m*********** who ain’t scared to bust”
(2pac, **** the World)
This is an excerpt from Snoopy Doggy Dogg’s “Gin and Juice”
“I got a pocket full of rubbers and my homeboys do too
So turn off the lights and close the doors
But (but what) we don’t love them h***, yeah!
So we gonna smoke a ounce to this
G’s up, h*** down, while you m************ bounce to this…
Rollin down the street, smokin ****, sippin on gin and juice…”
(Snoop Doggy Dogg, “Gin and Juice”
Eminem has been one of the most controversial figures in rap today because of his lyrics. The following is from one of his songs, “Drug Ballad”:
“However, I do show some respect to few
This ecstacy’s, got me standin next to you
Getting sentimental as **** spillin guts to you
We just met, but I think I’m in love with you
But you’re on it too, so you tell me you love me too
Wake up in the mornin like “Yo, what the **** we do?”
I gotta go b****, you know I have stuff to do
Cause if I get caught cheatin then I’m stuck with you
But in the long run
These drugs are probably going to catch up sooner or later
But **** it, I’m on one…” (Eminem, “Drug Ballad”
NWA raps out of rage against the police and the injustices they experience. 2pac preaches about how rough his life has been and conveys his rebellious attitude. Snoop Doggy Dogg is rapping about a party scene that involves alcohol, drugs, and sex. Eminem raps mainly about drug abuse in the example above. Although these artists rap about slightly different subjects, they all contain obscenities and references to drugs, violence, sex, or degrading women. It is not surprising that rap music has come under heavy fire from critics of every sort.
One of the men who has been influential in speaking out against gangsta rap is the Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jackson states “Anyone, white or black, who makes money calling our women b***** and our people n***** will have to face the wrath of our indignation.” (Jackson) The Reverend Calvin Butts, the minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, has also mounted a crusade against explicit music. He held a rally at which he ran over offending tapes and CDs with a steamroller. (Hawkins) In her article, “Celie’s Revene: Hip betrays black women”, Jennifer McLune speaks about her great disappointment with rap. According to McLune, there is no deep reason for misogyny, materialism, or violence. Rap music has become a “betrayal to our imagination as a people”.(McLune) Male rappers ignore the fact that women are also raised in the same environments of poverty and violence, and give them negative, derogatory representations in their music.
Al Gore’s wife, Tipper Gore has taken a stance against rap. In her book, “Raising PG Kids in an X-rated Society”, she takes holds the rap industry responsible for glamorizing sex and violence in material targeted to kids. She has encouraged record companies to label all albums and tapes that have sexually explicit lyrics. She feels that rappers demonstrate a lack of creativity when they use obscene curse words. (Gore) Also, radio stations such a KACE-FM in Los Angeles are adopting policies to ban all songs that degrade women or promote drugs and violence. (Hawkins) In his article, “Bum Rap” Brian Doherty reports that Dick Cheney preaches that rap music is “made to appeal to teens, because it captures perfectly the feelings of outrage and powerlessness that often accompany–indeed, perhaps define-adolescence” (Doherty) Dick Cheney also compared children to fish in a deep sea. He says that violent movies and violent lyrics are like pollutants in the water. As there are many critics who speak against rap lyrics, there are just as many who respond in defense of the music.
Brian Doherty defends rap music. Doherty rejects Dick Cheney’s thoughts, calling his metaphor “terrible, implying against all human beings, even young ones, are in a mindless thrall to what they see and hear.”(Doherty) Although rap music can be reckless or outrageous, it is still artistic and morally serious. Doherty feels that political critics such as Cheney, cannot properly criticize rap because they often do not know what they are talking about. If they haven’t listened to it personally, then they do not know enough about it to criticize. (Doherty) Kevin Powell responds to critics who say that rap music glamorizes, fosters, and promotes violence and hate. Gangsta rap arose as a response to poverty, ghettos, materialism, single mothers, and immorality. These issues existed before rap, and did not come as a result of it. (McLune)
Many rap enthusiasts feel that rap functions as a voice for a community without access to the mainstream media. They also feel that rap serves to create self pride, self help, and self improvement by communicating a sense of black history “that is absent from other forms of other American institutions”(Nieliwodski) People who defend the gangsta rap argue that no matter who is listening to the music, the rap’s are justified because they accurately portray life in inner city America. (Nieliwodski)
Being a rap enthusiast myself, I agree with people such as Doherty and Powell who defend the music. However, I also agree with many of the arguments that critics make against rap.