Who Killed It?

Nas and the right wing vie for the heart of hip hop

When Nas declared late last fall that “hip hop is dead,” it's doubtful he anticipated the genre's demise would be expedited by a 67-year-old shock jock with a penchant for racist banter. But after Don Imus' now infamous screed on “nappy headed hoes” on an April 4 broadcast of his radio show, something unexpected happened. Rather than engage in a dialogue on racism in the talk radio hemisphere — a subject ripe for discussion — the right-wing Hannity/O'Reilly/Scarborough cabal managed to shift the debate toward values and vulgarity in rap music. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough suggested a boycott of the New York Times for its positive reviews of so-called gangster rappers Crime Mob. Fox News pundit Sean Hannity called for producer Timbaland “to be fired.” Headline News' Glen Beck, meanwhile, went even further in declaring hip hop a form of slavery, adding that those who support the genre are tantamount to slave traders.

On the whole, it was a neat trick by the right-wing blowhards. Rather than address their attitudes toward race and gender, these white men made the Imus scandal a referendum on hip-hop culture. Two weeks after his firing, Imus' words were buried under venomous denunciations of hip hop. Never mind the distinction between political speech and artistic expression, nor issues of privilege and stature. We had an old-fashioned witch hunt on our hands.

But perhaps most disingenuous was the right's attempt to portray the genre's extreme artists as typical of every emcee. For the better part of the music's history, hip hop has sufficiently self-policed. From Jeru The Damaja to Bay Area groups such as Blackalicious, hip hop is its own biggest critic. And no emcee has articulated the genre's contradictions better than Nasir Jones.

With sleepy eyes that mask an aerobic flow, Nas sounds like both the kid on the corner slinging rock and a revolutionary perched on the steps of the nation's capital. Instead of negotiating this apparent contradiction, Nas allows his persona to splinter, and he spent his first five albums alternating between flashy club anthems (“Hate Me Now,” “Street Dreams”) and quieter, more contemplative fare (“Black Girl Lost,” “Project Windows”). Eventually, Nas' raps matured, and by last year's Hip Hop Is Dead, the emcee had become the genre's elder statesman. He was both enthralled by the music that gave him his voice and appalled by what the genre had transformed into.

On “Carry on Tradition,” Nas declares, “Hip hop been dead, we the reason it died.” He adds that it was murdered by a lack of imagination: “It's because we can't see ourselves as the boss/ Deep-rooted through slavery, self-hatred.” This argument mirrors one made by author Jeff Chang, among others, that while hip hop has a plurality of voices, major labels generally focus on the lowest common dominator in their estimations of market trends. Of course, this assumption isn't entirely false, and Nas admits as much on “Let There Be Light” when he raps, “I can't sound smart/ cuz y'all run away/ They say I ain't hungry no more/ And I don't talk about yay/ Like there's no other way for an ex-hustler.”

If nothing else, the Imus/hip-hop discussions illustrate how racism and misogyny are still ingrained in our society, and that rappers such as Crime Mob are merely giving a voice to this undercurrent. It's far easier for the Scarborough set to hang the messenger rather than address deeper societal problems, and it's doubtful that the debate over hate speech will turn into a true conversation about the ills that face black and underclass individuals in America. After all, a witch hunt is far easier a task, but it's also less likely to result in any viable solutions.

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