Turning Up The Volume On 'Gangsta Rap' Debate
NEW YORK — IT was an odd alliance from the start: An angry black civil rights leader and an indignant white conservative thinker.
Yet C. DeLores Tucker and William Bennett appear to be making inroads with their war on "gangsta rap," the violent, rhyming beat of America's decaying inner cities.
This week, entertainment giant Time Warner fired the second high-level music executive associated with its aggressive move into gangsta rap. It reportedly also is negotiating to sell its 50-percent stake in Interscope Records, which distributes such controversial artists as Snoop Doggy Dog, Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur.
"I'm delighted," says Ms. Tucker, head of the Washington-based National Political Congress of Black Women. "I have pretty good reports Time Warner is getting ready to divorce itself from this gangsta rap."
One Time Warner executive who wished not to be named implied that Ms.Tucker's impression may be premature. "Discussions are going on," he says, "but does that mean we're going to sever our ties with Interscope? That's only one of many possibilities."
Gangsta rap is the most extreme strain of the "hip hop" culture that grew out of America's inner cities in the last 15 years.
With a driving, repetitive beat and strikingly violent, drug-riddled rhymes, gangsta rap catalogues life in "the 'hood." It often portrays gratuitous violence, rape, misogyny, and the rage of a generation of young black men who now are more likely to end up in jail than in college.
Its message is delivered in the harsh jargon of the streets, and, supporters argue, it's a warning that American society dismisses at its peril.
"They crucified Christ for telling the truth, did they not?" asks George Pryce, a spokesman for Death Row Records, which produces many of Interscope's leading artists, including Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog.
That's an argument Tucker won't tolerate.
"It's teaching children it's cool to murder, it's cool to rape," Tucker says. "The message should be quashed."
What Tucker hears in the music is a racist celebration of rape, drugs, and violence that degrades and stereotypes African-Americans, particularly women. She began her crusade to change it a year and a half ago, but made little headway. It wasn't until she joined forces with Mr. Bennett, a former education secretary under Reagan, that the crusade picked up steam. The two have taken their protest to local record stores, the editorial pages of major newspapers, and the boardroom of Time Warner.
"As corporations moved in, they perverted [rap] and demanded this filthy music," says Tucker, arguing that rap began with a more positive and political message before record executives began hyping the violent imagery. "It has been perverted by them for their own profit centers."
Interscope Records struck back this week by filing suit against Tucker, charging that she tried to destroy the company by scheming to lure away its top producer, Marion (Shuge) Knight of Death Row Records, which produces many of Interscope's leading artists. Industry sources say Death Row is also preparing to sue Tucker. No one at either company would comment, but officials at Time Warner immediately distanced themselves from the fight.
"Based on the information available to us, we do not believe that this litigation is a sensible way to resolve differences," commented a Time Warner spokesman.
"It's a diversionary thing to discredit me," says Tucker, who claims she was only trying to stop the companies from peddling obscene and pornographic material.
But rap's advocates say Tucker is missing the point of the music. Mr. Pryce says the young men and women of rap are modern-day "griots," African wise men who kept the histories of families and villages alive by telling stories.
From Pryce's perspective, Tucker is the pawn of a white status quo bent on destroying successful young rappers as it blames them for its own failure to address the ills of the inner cities.
"It would be better for people to pay attention to the cry of these griots rather than to attack what's being said," Pryce argues.
The debate tears at the heart of the black community. Besides pitting stalwarts of the civil rights movement against successful black executives, it also divides families whose children have learned to "talk the talk," smoke the crack, and pack the guns glorified in gangsta rap.
Ironically, the debate has so far failed to focus attention on the one thing on which both sides agree: the source of the violent, misogynistic images, which is the poverty and despair of the inner city.
"There's no doubt the misogyny is lethal, the sexism is serious, and the machismo is obnoxious and [the rappers] must be taken to task for these realities," says Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of communications studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "On the other hand, the structural unemployment, the rabid gentrification of urban black communities, the escalating imprisonment of young black men, and the economic destruction of poor communities are the realities that feed and drive the social criticism implicit in the best of gangsta rap."
Professor Dyson says the debate so far has lacked any serious sense of history or understanding of the complexity of black culture.
"The development of forms of black art has a long history of coming under attack from reactionary forces in the larger society and the black community," Dyson says. Jazz, for example, was formerly reviled but became revered.
Dyson argues that rap music is the most recent installment of a tradition of vulgar speech and dissonant rhetoric that have long been a part of black popular culture, whether it's the bawdy lyrics of the agrarian blues or the party albums of Redd Fox.
"What's changed is the technology that allows what was formerly a cloistered and secretive subculture to gain wide exposure," Dyson says.
As gangsta rap gained exposure, it has also gained popularity. Billboard magazine estimates that rap accounted for $400 million in sales last year, crossing ethnic and racial boundaries.
SUPPORTERS say rap has tapped a disenchantment with a system that has neither addressed the needs of the inner cities nor those of middle-class Americans of all races. Now, they say, rap is being reviled in political circles by hypocrites.
"Delores Tucker is someone who's committed to what's going on in the black community," says Bakari Kitwana, executive editor of The Source, a leading rap magazine. "But Bill Bennett and Bob Dole, they just say 'rap is bad' without ever listening to the music." Mr. Kitwana says Senator Dole and Bennett are simplifying rap into stereotypes and using them as scapegoats to avoid dealing with violence, sexism, and unemployment in America.
The criticism of rap is "done in a way that is not that different from the way George Bush used Willie Horton in the 1988 campaign," Kitwana says, referring to political ads that featured a black convict. "By highlighting Tupac [Shakur] and others who've had criminal charges against them, they criminalize and stereotype all rappers and ultimately all black youth."
Tucker and Bennett shrug off such criticism. They say they're fighting to save a generation of children from the valid but misguided rage of the rappers.
"All we want is for them to stop selling the pornography and obscenity and start focusing on a positive message," says Tucker, who feels she's winning the war.