Brown University professor Tricia Rose wants you to know that no one is right about hip-hop. In her new book, The Hip Hop Wars, Rose takes on all sides, arguing that fans and detractors alike have advanced illogical, dishonest and offensive arguments about why the genre is bad and why it's great. She spoke to TIME about how radio is killing hip-hop, why artists need to take more responsibility and what the music used to be like.
The rapper Nas released an album several years ago titled Hip Hop Is Dead. The first line of your book is "Hip hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill." Why do you think that? Many people would say it died a long time ago.
When Nas said hip-hop is dead, it was really a way of making the statement I think that I'm making. He obviously doesn't think it's entirely dead, or he wouldn't continue to labor there but he is concerned about it enough to put people on notice that it is in the ICU ward. It was more a metaphor than a reality. But I think that there is no question that commercial hip-hop that is dead. But there is an incredibly rich world of hip-hop that has been literally buried. I tell my friends and students, That's why they call it the underground because it's in fact buried. But it's not dead; it's an underworld. It's like the Matrix, an alternative world that has its flaws but is part of a living force.
Coincidentally, I was watching the concert movie Dave Chappelle's Block Party the other night, in which he puts on a bunch of these alternative hip-hop artists that you talk about in your book Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Kanye West. Other than Kanye, why don't these artists sell as well as the Jay-Zs or the 50 Cents?
There's a long history of a particular pleasure in consuming the ideas of black-ghetto-excess dysfunction. It used to not be ghettoized in setting because black people weren't always urban people, but the same images can be found in American history for centuries. So this idea that a certain kind of sexual deviance or violent behavior defines black culture has had a huge market in commercial mainstream culture for at least 200 years. Also, sexist images, which hip-hop has a lot of, seem to do very well across the cultural spectrum. So sexuality and sexual domination sell. Racial stereotypes sell. The market is more consolidated, which makes it easier for those images to perpetuate themselves.
And those artists we just mentioned don't traffic in those stereotypes, so they don't fit into that corporate, consolidated structure, don't get airplay and therefore don't sell, right?
That's right. And of course it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. They deny this. They say that they don't influence sales, that there's no payola, that there's no influence on content. But there's ample evidence that that's false. If you play a song enough, you start singing it. It's really almost that simple. From what I understand, stations used to play a song on average about 40 times a week. It's up to 140 times a week now.
Look, I don't want it to seem like I'm bashing everything about Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, because I'm not. I think they're both very talented. If you look at the metaphors Lil Wayne produces, they're amazing; they're very creative. It's the substance. What are you making metaphors about 24 hours a day? Same thing with Jay-Z. Even he has acknowledged that he's "dumbed his music down" so that he can sell records. This economic imperative has had more of an impact on hip-hop than [on] rock or soul or R&B.
This is what hip-hop is now. What did it used to be?
It was mostly for fun and for play. It wasn't primarly an economic industry, where people got involved more for money than for creativity. It had live community origins. When you really produce music in live community settings, you can't get away with a lot of what they get away with in studio-generated spaces. You had block parties where you had multigenerational consumption. You have 12-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 70-year-olds, all at the block party. They live there. They're hanging out. They're not going to listen to a lot of the kind of commercial hip-hop that we're talking about, where people are just rhyming about killing everybody who gets in their way and never caring about a woman I'm not going to use bad language here; what's the point? but you get it. There's no way that's going to be acceptable. So there's a kind of community-regulation factor in early hip-hop.
And when I say early, I don't mean really early. I give it the first 10, 12 years. It also had a lot of political content. And I don't mean just "Burn down America." A lot of it was about education and learning more about your history and asking questions and making better choices and trying to change society for the better. Yes, there was a lot of anger, but not by any means was it the dominant frame of the genre. Again, it's hard to tell this to people when they turn on the radio and they get T-Pain.
There seems to be the tendency, when people complain about what they hear on the radio, for artists to say, "Well, if you don't like it, just turn it off." There's that shift in responsibility from artist to fan. Is that a disingenuous defense?
I think it is disingenuous because they know that this isn't just about turning off one song. You would have to turn off all commercial black radio. You'd have to shut down all of your children's and your own investment in MTV, BET, VH1. You would basically have to unplug from society as a whole. So they know this is not going to happen. They know you're not going to do it because that means rejecting the entire system, not just a given artist. There's also this idea that parents need to watch their kids more. Well, O.K., I agree, some parents are not very good at watching their kids. But a lot of parents are deeply struggling to figure out how to watch their kids and hold down three part-time jobs with no benefits. And they don't really need artists making their job harder by creating an allure, an excitement, for behavior that is completely self-destructive. Artists tell you to turn off, but they really depend on you doing the opposite. And I say, Let's take them up on it. They'll change their tune because they need an audience. They need us.
In these hip-hop wars, what's one of the more prominent arguments from critics that you counter in your book?
Hip-hop causes violence. This is a very common argument that's been made pretty much from the beginning. There are a number of things that are wrong with this. One is that it posits an incredibly simpleminded causal relationship between music that has violent narrative in it and actual violent action. Hip-hop takes the bigger weight for this problem than anyone else. And the reason it takes such a big weight is not because it's any more violent than slasher movies or than horror movies or action movies in general but because there is a denial about the violent world that we created in post-1960s black America. These are communities whose stability has been profoundly disrupted. And when you destabilize communities, violence always goes up.
The hip-hop-causes-violence camp is incredibly dishonest about the profound role of structural racism, of economic disadvantange that has been produced over decades. It's not just personal, lazy behavior. It's a dishonest way of dumping on hip-hop a set of conditions that we are responsible for as a nation. That being said, that doesn't mean that a constantly violent narrative is a good thing. I'm not suggesting there shouldn't be a challenge to it to some degreee. But it's not the source of the problem. It's a red herring.
So, are both sides wrong then?
Definitely. The critics are a little bit more wrong than the defenders. But overall, both arguments have enormous flaws. The defenders are the most wrong about gender and sexism, and the haters are most wrong about issues of violence and culture. I'm very upset about both sides in this war, and I think the only way out is for the rest of us on the sidelines to get involved with an educated, sophisticated position. You have to be subtle, not extreme, in thinking about what's right and what's wrong when it comes to hip-hop.