Q: If one comes across a vulgar word in a poem, it makes a powerful statement. In hip-hop, vulgarity is used so frequently that it essentially loses its “punch” and can do little but fill space. Would you say that vulgarity helps or hinders the message of hip-hop songs?
Certainly hip-hop has become much more vulgar over time. You can’t deny it. Some people say, “Well you know it’s always been like that, rock and roll got accused of being vulgar and jazz got accused of being vulgar.” But you can scientifically prove that jazz never, and rock and roll never, ever, used profanity the way hip-hop does or extreme conspicuous celebration of death or misogyny like hip-hop does. I personally am not opposed to people using profanity or anything, but I think…these words only have power because we’ve given them power. They’re vulgar because culturally we’ve determined them to be vulgar. But if you hear it all the time, it diminishes the vulgarity of the word to some degree. When you hear it so often, it sort of seems like a naturally recurring word.
Q: Why do you think white audiences, who you have stated are the major consumers of hip-hop, enjoy the stories of young urban black men? There’s a bad boy style that’s attractive to young people. When they see Snoop singing…they think it’s all fun and games. Some folks embrace the cool style of it.
Q: In your book, you quote Robin D.G. Kelley saying, “…misogyny and stories of sexual conflict are very old examples of the ‘price’ of being baaaad.” So, in other words, in order for rappers to gain a kind of superiority, they have to find someone to make the “inferior.” Is this why they choose women? Some people say that. I don’t think it is that easy. Rappers who celebrate their bad boy style, they really offer an antisocial message that isn’t particularly sensitive to any gender. They talk about killing men all the time. They don’t talk about killing women–they talk about slapping women, or sexually conquering them, and then kicking them to the curve. So it’s expressing a contempt towards women, not a willingness to kill them. There is, however, a willingness to kill men with any infraction, there’s a celebration of killing men. People will say that it’s because they [rappers] are insecure about their manhood so they denigrate women. But, they are actually denigrating people. They are denigrating black people. It’s not about building up their community. It’s about causing suffering.
Q: Do you have a theory for why there is such a focus on de-stabilizing the community?
I think hip-hop’s obsession with celebrating social pathology has partly been connected to the bad boy image that sells in hip-hop. Why their rage has been directed toward the black community has been because they can’t direct it towards the white community. Ice Cube came out with his album Death Certificate in 1991. He has on the cover of DC, a corpse with a red, white, and blue flag over it with a toe tag on a white foot that says Uncle Sam. That’s as subversive as album covers come. When he came out with that album, Billboard magazine did an unprecedented thing—they denounced the album. Guns n’ Roses came out with a song in which Axel Rose said, “I don’t want niggers selling me gold chains.” And that was an exact quote of a white man saying this on an album that went platinum. Billboard never took offense to that. Never took offense to all the songs against women. Dr. Dre came out with a song for the album The Chronic that said, “Officer officer/I can’t wait to see you in your coffin sir.” So the label at Interscope said that is not gonna happen, so he went and deleted it. That same album talked about killing niggers, black people, and talked about b’s and h’s, but killing the officer he had to take off. In the early 1990’s whenever that violence was directed toward the state it became increasingly intolerant. They [rappers] realized “I could be a bad boy and talk about killing niggers and its all fun and games. If I talk about killing cops, then I might be dropped from my label.” So it became commercially lucrative [to rap about these things]. They knew that being a bad boy sold, and being a rebel sold, but you cannot be a rebel against white supremacy.
Q: Would you say that Green Day’s politically infused American Idiot was successful because of the fact that they are white and a rock band? I would like to think that hip-hop has the potential to be political. For example, the Kanye song “Diamonds are Forever.” Lil’ Wayne has a song called “Hurricane Bush.” Eminem has an incredibly political song, “Mosh,” that came out in 2004 about the war. Jay-Z has a song in which he said “We’re rebellious, we’re back home, leave Iraq alone…” He was very clear that he was against the war. You have the expression of politics here and there. I think for those platinum artists like Eminem, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, if they came out with a song like “American Idiot” they could possibly do well, but they just haven’t. But I think they could.
Q: Jay-Z said that words only have meaning that you ascribe to them. But you mentioned in your book that at concerts he would ask his white fans not to say the word nigger. That seems like a big contradiction to me. If you’re saying that you’re going to render it powerless, but then certain people can’t use it, then it has not gotten rid of that power. Your opinion? Well I think Jay-Z and a whole bunch of other people are trying to justify why they use that word and they’ve come up with really weak arguments including that we’ve co-opted it and it’s a term of endearment and it’s no longer a racist word because we use it. That’s absolutely ridiculous. The thing is that Jay-Z and a series of rappers would be incredibly offended if called a nigger by a police officer. They wouldn’t think that the officer is offering them a hug. They know it’s a term of contempt and of hatred and it is a threat. Jay-Z knows that no matter how many times he uses it, he knows when a cop says, “Get out of the car nigger,” he is offering a hostile expression of contempt for black people in particular. You can’t get around that. Sometimes, it’s affectionate and sometimes it’s a term of hatred and contempt, even when used among black folks. I’m unconvinced. They claim it, but I don’t even think they believe it.
Do you think hip-hop collaborations with artists of other music genres will help to elevate hip-hop’s status?
I’d like to see hip-hop grow and evolve and expand and I think that someone like Drake and someone like Nicki Minaj offer some more of hip-hop’s possible directions. Kid Cudi to a lesser degree. Drake, like Kanye, came out without talking about selling drugs and, unlike Kanye, he doesn’t even talk about killing people. I’m a big fan of Nicki Minaj. I love her creativity, her style. I think she has a strong feminist style. To me, it is a breath of fresh air in hip-hop.
1) Favorite rap artists?
Jay-Z and Kanye West
2) Favorite moment in history?
The 1960’s, because of the audacity of the people. Different types of people…who really pushed for freedoms.
3) Favorite quote or lyric?
“If everyone in the hood had a PhD, I’d say that doctor flipped that burger, hella good for me”– I can’t say that’s my favorite, though.
4) Favorite childhood memory?
Related to hip-hop, it would be seeing the Beastie Boys perform my senior year in high school and being surprised to see Run- D.M.C come out on stage as super guests. My head almost exploded.
5) Favorite collaboration?
(after much deliberation) Blackstar’s “Respiration,” came out in 1998. It has Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common. It’s hot.
Interview by Lynnette Repollet