Why You Can't Ignore Kanye

More GQ than gangsta, Kanye West is challenging the way rap thinks about race and class--and striking a chord with fans of all stripes

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That the "urban demographic" needs "superficialness" could be read as two euphemisms away from racism. But Dash, an African American who thinks exclusively in shades of green, is merely letting the world in on what's accepted as social fact by much of the record industry. Hip-hop was born in the '70s as party music and evolved in the '80s into that rarest of pleasures--socially relevant party music. But in the mid-'90s, the genre came to be dominated by people like Snoop Dogg (sample track: Murder Was the Case), the Notorious B.I.G. (Ten Crack Commandments) and Jay-Z (Rap Game/ Crack Game)--excellent rappers with a shrewd eye for journalistic detail but, to put it bluntly, ex--drug dealers. "Rap changed a lot in the last few years," notes comedian and hip-hop fan Chris Rock, who says he listens to The College Dropout while he writes jokes. "In the early days, the best rappers weren't necessarily from the hood. Run-D.M.C. was from Hollis [Queens, N.Y.]. Eric B and Rakim were from Long Island. They lived next to the hood."

When the hard stuff sold well (hard stuff, in any medium, always does), the record labels, never bastions of original thought, asked for more. Soon rappers who had never got a speeding ticket were referring to themselves as pimps and hustlas, and what had started as ghetto reporting with a touch of caricature metastasized into caricature with no tether to reality. The result was a torrent of albums about the joys of acquisitiveness (bling, if you must), consequence-free violence and compliant women.

All that was complicated by--and you had to know it was coming--race. Statistics consistently show that 70% of hip-hop is consumed by young white audiences, but a century of anecdotal evidence is similarly irrefutable: white kids think it's cool to be black, which means the other 30% sets the trends and runs the show. With the market mired in thuggery, African-American consumers' could choose to: a) propagate a nasty stereotype of themselves for white kids to pin their libidinous fantasies on; b) not care; c) start patronizing the danger-free, supernice, superboring rappers at the liberal humanist fringe; or d) give up.

"I stopped listening to hip-hop 10 years ago," says Darryl McDaniels, the D.M.C. in Run-D.M.C. McDaniels points out that Run-D.M.C. rhymed about everything from materialism (My Adidas) and higher education ("I'm D.M.C. in the place to be/ I go to St. John's University") to Santa Claus (Christmas in Hollis). "We weren't choirboys, but we had multiple points of view. This past decade it seems like hip-hop has mostly been about parties and guns and women. That's fine if you're in a club, but from 9 a.m. till I went to bed at night, the music had nothing to say to me. So I listened to classic rock." What brought McDaniels back from his diet of John Mellencamp and Bob Seger was Jesus Walks. "When I heard it, I just stopped in my tracks," says McDaniels. "I thought, 'This song is about everything! This feels alive!'"

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