Ever since that ridiculous Don Lemon rant which included the typical digs at hip hop in those deluded call outs to the dubious politics of respectability, I have been thinking about ways that hip hop has differed from the stereotypes often used to depict it when it is referred to in the same breath as the “problems of the black community.” I know I probably shouldn’t legitimate such criticisms by arguing against them, especially since they are flawed at their very basis, but I can’t help it. The thing is whenever it is convenient for a critic to do so, hip hop culture and the rap music industry are conflated (even though the former is about a diverse group of people participating in a cultural practice and the latter is about the narrow commodification of that culture into rap music that is for the most part consumed by white kids).
Regardless, for the couple of weeks or so since this whole kerfuffle started I have been repeatedly listening to one of my all-time favorite rap records, Boogie Down Production’s By All Means Necessary (1988), which stands out to me as a record that tries to consciously address a variety of issues in the communities of people listening to it, while not sacrificing the braggadocio and arrogant subjectivity that so often gives the genre its energy and fun. The record is particularly important in my estimation because it came out in a kind of interregnum period in hip hop. It bridges the gap between the old school sound of artists that came before KRS-ONE and his crew and the various groups that would emerge and crossover in the years immediately following its release. From the opening track, the album seems to address this present and eminent change to “what we call hip hop” and to the issues that effect its community, from the way rap was being represented (“My Philosophy”) to the government’s profit from drug trade through corruption and the War on Drugs (“Illegal Business”) to the spread of AIDS (“Jimmy”) to the characterization of hip hop as “violent” (“Stop the Violence”).
I think that the album functions through a brilliant use of discursive tension. Looked at through the lens of the two seemly contradictory discursive tendencies: 1) to construct an argument as if by reason, and 2) passing from one thing to another, ranging over a wide field, we can see how the rapper can not only deliver his polemic against the ills afflicting hip-hop culture and the rap industry, but to claim that the very rap being spoken is an immediate example of what is good in rap. It is an ideal example of the ability to both critique hip hop through the formation of arguments, and to partake in meandering wordplay that is the genre’s common form. In other words, the shit is complex—sonically, rhythmically, and in terms of content.
The opening track, “My Philosophy” is a great example. While ostensibly rapping about his philosophy on the industry and the futility of the battle raps that marked the beginning of BDP making a name for itself, he also uses the attention and responses to those early songs like “South Bronx” and “The Bridge is Over” (both included in their debut Criminal Minded) as a way to establish his own credibility.
This is my philosophy: Many artists gotta learn
I’m not flammable, I don’t burn
So please stop burnin’, and learn to earn respect
’cause that’s just what K.R. collects…
You got to have style, and learn to be original
and everybody’s gonna wanna diss you
Like me, we stood up for the South Bronx
and every sucka MC had a response
The irony here is that while KRS-One is using the attacks on his previous records as a means to establish his credibility, but he is also putting down as unoriginal and petty those newer artists who try to make their name by attacking those who are already established—>which of course is exactly what he did to become well known. He is riding a line between outright condemnation and participation in the rap tradition of answer records that develops a discourse in the genre. In this track he connects the wackness that he accuses other rappers of practicing with the pressures of the market for rap records. He argues that it shapes blackness into a caricature. He instructs the listener:
Some MCs be talkin’ and talkin’
Tryin’ to show how black people are walkin’
But I don’t walk this way to portray
Or reinforce stereotypes of today
Like all my brothas eat chicken and watermelon
Talk broken English and drug sellin’
See I’m tellin’ and teaching real facts
The way some act in rap is kind of wack
and it lacks creativity and intelligence
but they don’t care cause the company is sellin’ it
It’s my philosophy, on the industry
Don’t bother dissin me, or even wishin’ we’d
Soften, dilute, or commercialize all our lyrics
Cause it’s about time one of y’all hear it
As far back as 1988 (and even earlier), there was already a realization that rather than continuing to develop as a part of folk culture, the rap music industry was looking to duplicate what sold in order to capitalize on it. If what made rap popular then was access to a sense of authenticity through the reinforcement of stereotypes then that was exactly what was going to be marketed. Among those stereotypes was the narrative of black criminality that would take hold of the public’s imagination through the 90s. There is another irony in that with their first record, Criminal Minded BDP created what many consider to be the first so-called “gangsta rap” record (the first rap album cover to picture its artists holding guns), so in having unwittingly participated or even precipitated the very criminal stereotypes that are among those that they are now condemning, BDP had to correct its course and address its previous depictions of violence in the songs on By All Means Necessary.
On the title track of Criminal Minded, KRS-ONE raps, “We’re not promoting violence we’re just having some fun,” and it seems as if their sophomore effort is dedicated to explaining that, especially in light of the shooting death of DJ Scott La Rock between albums. The opening track on side two of By All Means Necessary,“I’m Still #1” (which I consider a companion song to “My Philosophy”—addressing the rappers who came before him, as opposed those coming up at that time) includes the lyric, “This beat is now compelling me to explain in silence / why my last jam was so violent.” That “silence” is interesting because it is not true silence, but rather denotes that he is not going to bother with a detailed explanation or justification for songs like “9mm Goes Bang.” While he does go on to say “It’s simple: BDP will teach reality,” this is not the simple justification that many gangsta rappers would use in the 90s to excuse their narratives of glorified violence, but puts that violence in the context of the lyric “It’s not about a salary, it’s all about reality” (a line that NWA would later sample) from “My Philosophy.” That is, the reality he speaks of is not one narrowed down to a solely violent attitude, but that he sees as a part of his adopted role as “T’cha” and “philosopher.” In other words, the lyrics here are proleptic, as he is addressing the very problem with that excuse in the years to come—that the violent reality ostensibly being demonstrated for the sake of verisimilitude is complicated by the profitability of that violent content in terms of selling records. It can only maintain its veneer of “reality” through predetermined ideas of the criminality of black life. Songs like “Stop the Violence” and spoken word tracks like, “Necessary” contextualize violence in the history of oppression and collusion that created the kind of environments wherein hip hop was born and reminds the listener that other music forms (like rock) depict violence or have had violent events related to them without being as widely and resoundingly criticized as promoting violence.
And yet, despite this attempt at enlightening listeners, KRS-ONE still throws some jabs at other (more) popular rappers, because that is what rappers do. They call out unnamed “suckers.” He raps:
Who gets weaker? The King or the teacher?
. . .Teachers teach and do the world good
Kings just rule and most are never understood
If you were to rule or govern a certain industry
All inside this room right now would be in misery
Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” may have come out three years before this record, but I think it is pretty clear that KRS is at least in part calling them out as the most popular rappers at the time and the first of the crossover mega-successes from the hip-hop world. It is really a kind of rarefied diss if you think about it. He seems to be saying that rather than a hierarchical monarchical top-down approach to defining hip hop that a true teacher exposes his students/listeners to the discourse of hip hop’s many voices. As it was, Run-DMC was defining what hip hop and rap was for many people first being exposed to it through them and that led to things like the term b-boy being divorced from “breaking” to just meaning any hip hop head. (I once saw a clip of Crazy Legs from the legendary Rock Steady Crew discuss Run-DMC along these lines, but my googling has failed me in finding a source). I am not saying that is Run-DMC’s fault. I am not trying to diss them, but that is the danger if only one voice gets heard as representative of a community. With By All Means Necessary, KRS-One was not only trying to bring access to multiple voices, he was trying to lyrically enact that multiplicity.
Furthermore, the fact that “My Philosophy” beeps out the curse words when other tracks on the record leaves them in, suggests a conscious awareness on the part of KRS about the possibility of radio airplay. He is not ignoring the market, but wants to get in it to address it on his own terms. For a later example of this kind of knowing play off the tensions within rap discursivity, check out one of my all-time favorites, “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know” from KRS-One’s 1995 self-titled record, which he claims is for “[his] core audience, fuck the rest of the market,” but that nevertheless was the most successful of his songs on the Billboard charts.
It behooves those of us who love hip hop—to whatever degree we participate in the culture—to take KRS-One’s example and argue with rationality, but also with the passion of braggadocio, with arrogant certainty even, that hip hop is not one voice or one thing or one attitude, but a community of many voices. And most of all, it is not just rap.
As a quick postscript, I do want to add that as big a fan of BDP and KRS-ONE’s work as I am, I do not accept everything he has had to say uncritically. He, too, has occasionally made poor choices in how he expressed himself or made problematic suggestions—but again, I would no more take his voice as representing all of hip hop as I would anyone else’s.