For many African Americans of a certain demographic the sixties and seventies were the golden age of political movements. The Civil Rights movement segued into the Black Power movement which begat the Black Arts movement. Fast forward to 1979 and the release of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." With the onset of the Reagan years, we begin to see the unraveling of many of the advances fought for in the previous decades. Much of this occurred in the absence of credible, long-term leadership in the black community. Young blacks disillusioned with politics and feeling society no longer cared or looked out for their concerns started rapping with each other about their plight, becoming their own leaders on the battlefield of culture and birthing Hip-Hop in the process. In Somebody Scream, Marcus Reeves explores hip-hop music and its politics. Looking at ten artists that have impacted rap--from Run-DMC (Black Pop in a B-Boy Stance) to Eminem (Vanilla Nice)--and puts their music and celebrity in a larger socio-political context. In doing so, he tells the story of hip hop's rise from New York-based musical form to commercial music revolution to unifying expression for a post-black power generation.
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Marcus Reeves has covered youth culture and politics for over fifteen years, in publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Vibe, and The Source.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rap music and black power. People have been making the link between the two for years. But to anyone who has witnessed the evolution of commercial rap music since the release of “Rapper’s Delight” and “King Tim III” in 1979, an in-depth exploration of rap’s rise in the aftershock of black power would have been appropriate twenty years ago. That’s when rap and black nationalism were being merged, purposely, by rap artists like Rakim and the group Public Enemy. But rap had only been on the national airwaves for close to a decade, and we would soon discover that that was just one of many developments within a music—rap, the poetry, and hip-hop music, its big beat accompaniment—born of urban decay in the South Bronx. (The catalyst for the community-based cultural movement rap sprang from, hip-hop, was a response, author Jeff Chang would later write, “to the politics of abandonment and containment.”) Rap was still testing its artistic, philosophical, and commercial boundaries, figuring out the limits between honestly “representin’ ” its core audience and chasing the almighty dollar. Time for such observations wouldn’t come until after rap had reached the new millennium, a few years after it had hit its commercial apex, solidifying itself as a bankable art—a part of a bankable hip-hop culture—and as the popular voice of America’s black, brown, and white underclass. (Those huddled masses yearning to breathe free and, one day, be rich enough to drive off in a Bentley.)
As rap had generated that much heat, it was natural that the genesis for this book began during a summer heat wave. It was a 90-plus-degree day in August 2001, two weeks before 9/11, and I sat in Brooklyn’s Jay Street subway station. Staring at the newsstand kiosk, I was struck by the covers of The Source and Vibe. They sat next to each other in the neon-lit display window, and both covers sported an image of rap’s hardcore king, DMX, the heir apparent to Tupac Shakur. At first I was amused by the realization that, although one magazine displayed a photo and the other a colorfully expressionistic painting, the two rival publications in essence had the same cover. Then I found myself escaping the discomfort of the oppressive heat by thinking deeply about how folks—especially black and brown people—loved DMX. And I don’t mean just his music or his showmanship, but DMX the man, and what he represented: an authentic, rebellious, avenging spirit articulating the angst, anger, joys, trials, struggles, cold-blooded ruthlessness, and brash confidence of his environment. Or, as many hip-hop heads (thug and non-thug) call it, “the streets.”
The previous night, I had been watching MTV’s celebrity-insider show Diary, featuring the MC. Aside from the usual footage of the artist cracking jokes and having fun (and conflicts) with his entourage, the most revealing segment was DMX’s show at Howard University in Washington, D.C. The fervor with which people responded to him, young black women crying as if he were a thug Jesus Christ and young black men intensely mouthing his lyrics—absorbing his hardcore persona as if he had the answer—showed DMX was a mouth for a voiceless segment of society. More a leader, so to speak, than a mere pop star. Granted, I’d already been aware of X’s allure, having interviewed him shortly before the release of his 1998 CD It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. But the sight of DMX casting his spell over that audience stuck in my head and, when I saw the magazine covers, turned over in my mind until the thoughts avalanched into a larger, broader idea. (Having such moments had become a habit since I’d begun my journalism career in the early 1990s, writing about hip-hop culture and politics for magazines like The Source and The College Entertainment Revue.)
Sitting in that heat, I began mentally charting rap music’s rise to prominence through its icons. I also began mapping the evolution of the MC’s role, from nuevo entertainer to cultural/racial spokesperson and sociopolitical lightning rod for black America after the demise of the black power movement. That struggle, having been a part of black popular culture until the mid-1970s, was black America’s final collective push toward progress, self-determination, and self-expression, especially for its urban underclass denizens. (Thus my concept for periodically referring in this book to black America, heading into the days after that revolution, as post–black power America.) It was toward the end of black power that hip-hop culture—breaking, graffiti, DJing, and rap music—formed in the South Bronx, reshaping African-American culture for a new, emerging generation, a post–black power generation. And within the void left by the struggle’s end, particularly the disappearance of grassroots advocacy on behalf of the young and the poor, rap music and the MC—especially the hardcore rap star—emerged in the early 1980s as the chief articulator of black urban life. This book developed with my understanding that, as Amiri Baraka (né LeRoi Jones) wrote in Blues People, “each phase of the Negro’s music [is]
issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological environment.”
And in the years following the struggle for black empowerment, that musical expression, as many acknowledge, was the poetry of rap recited to the beat of hip-hop music. It was the vehicle providing hope and a future for so many MCs like DMX, an ex-con and former stickup kid, to rap their inner thoughts and, inevitably, use those words to affirm the struggles of their fans. The only difference, though, between now and when I was, ahem, younger (having the same catharsis from the Furious Five and Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy) was now rap music was a major force within American pop culture. It had become a billion-dollar business, outselling country music. Lauryn Hill had swept the Grammy Awards with five wins in 1999, and the headline “hip-hop nation” graced the cover of Time magazine. Meanwhile on MTV, the hardcore MC was in video rotation as much as his/her rock music counterpart, and 75 percent of all rap music was being purchased by white consumers. For all intents and purposes, rap music had arrived. But it had also grown rougher since I was younger, as MC after MC, encouraged by the fact that black thugness was rap’s biggest appeal to a pop (read: white) audience, marketed and sold their gangland music and backgrounds—fabricated or not—as “real hip-hop.” (More than poetic and verbal dexterity, which was the case in my day.) Despite how much a mainstream juggernaut rap music and its thug fascination had become, the music was still the unmitigated voice of young black and brown folks, talking loud and telling their story.
The map of that journey I’d taken in my head solidified into this book, covering hip-hop culture and rap music’s emergence from the death of black power, moving from New York–based art form to commercial music revolution to unifying expression for a post–black power generation and, eventually, the world. At its crux, this journey is an observation—in the old style of “New Journalism,” you might say—of the hardcore MC’s ascent out of rap music’s commercialization, becoming the prototypical “man/woman of the people.” The signposts for this historical metamorphosis over thirty years are the icons of the music, the poets who epitomized, revolutionized, and transformed their particular era—in other words, the artists who were at the forefront of the various movements within rap music, and whose artistry, image, and music most embodied the social, political, and economic moments that called them to success. Comprised of my personal accounts as a music journalist—having interviewed several of the artists—and as a fan and member of the post–black power generation—having observed and been impacted by the same events that shaped the culture, the music, and the people—the essays in this book are as much a personal journey as they are a professional one. I no longer have the love or connection to rap music I once had; every hip-hop fan has a moment when, for them, the music kicked the bucket. But I do, as a writer whose career (and adolescence) was inspired by hip-hop, have a deep need to keep folks’ eyes on the music’s legacy. (Especially at a time when the average cash-focused rap artist doesn’t give a shit about history or culture or integrity.)
Now that the music is firmly embedded in American popular culture, the purpose of this book is to put rap’s journey into a sociohistorical perspective, one that looks beyond the controversies currently engulfing the genre—the foul language, violence, misogynistic lyrics, the corporate manipulation—to critically examine rap and its pioneers holistically. It’s a story that couldn’t be written without including the tale of a black generation whose story the music told. It’s the revision of their dreams that made the music speak, and it was their perseverance, by any means necessary, that keeps rap music relevant and evolving. So despite what views folks may have about the direction, or lack thereof, of rap or rappers, this book will help readers see the genre for what it is: a hard-rock vessel carrying the hopes, anger, disappointments, attitude, and history of post–black power America.
Excerpted from Somebody Scream by Marcus Reeves. Copyright © 2008 by Marcus Reeves. Published in March 2008 by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All rights reserved.
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