Tricia Rose on The Hip-Hop Wars, Race, and Culture – Part 1

by Latoya Peterson

In the Noir Issue of Bitch Magazine, I interviewed Tricia Rose about her new book The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-Hop.

My interview assignment was 2,000 words. The transcribed interview came back as 6,000.

This is the overflow.

Latoya Peterson: You’ve had other works published, including Black Noise, which was a very influential book discussing music and culture and how that plays out in the black community. So why do you choose to work with music to explore both black culture and youth culture?

Tricia Rose: The category of youth culture to me tends to be racialized youth culture. From my vantage point, when you’re looking at African-American history and cultural expression, music is of extraordinary importance to that history. It is disproportionately rich and complex and dynamic and influential and innovative. And I say “disproportionately” to say that not everyone has such a rich, modern musical legacy. Some ethnic and racial and religious and national groups have literary or dance or film legacies, but when it comes to music in the modern world, people of African descent in the Diaspora in particular have an enormous contribution….if you are thinking twentieth century alone there are not too many American musics that have not been directly influenced or are in fact constituted as an African American tradition. Jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, hip-hop, even dance music – techno and the like.

It’s just an incredibly rich tradition. It also has a profound connection to a history of culture in oral traditions of social commentary. [...] In African American music and culture, you find not just good music, but music that plays a role in commenting on and creating critical consciousness about one’s social world.

LP: In your book, you write, “gangsta rap music is a post-industrial black culture industry with job openings and a chance for upward mobility. This is a fascinating way to frame the discussion because so much of hip-hop has become about the business side of it. Some have argued that it has come to step in for the industrial [labor market] void we have. So, instead of having progressive job growth in inner cities, other industries have come and filled in that gap of losing jobs to off-shorting, like the hip-hop industry or underground industries like the drug game. Can you comment more on the idea of rap music being an industry and providing people with upward mobility?

TR: Beginning in the twentieth century, when industrialization begins to flourish, you develop industrialized music cultures, in that you develop products, right? Music became something you could buy and sell. And once that happens, the record industry begins to take hold, and then [music] begins to be an industry for artists that was not the case before. [...] For post-industrial, isolated, urban black youth, rap music, and to a lesser extent athletics, have become an alternative form of upward mobility, a way to get of the hood. What makes rap music problematic in this way is that it is not just an industry that creates opportunity, but a form of opportunity creation that is also a trap.

It creates a trap for it’s followers because of the icons it celebrates. So rap as a “way out” has become attached to the tail of a street economy, that “gangster” rap has been defined by. So it’s not just rap music and the industry that’s a problem, but the fact that what we are selling is profitable. And what is profitable, what makes it an industry, is its constant sale of pimps, hos, gangsters, hustlers, drug dealers, criminals. It’s a grab bag of what we would call in the old days the red light district – it’s that underground economy.

Then you’re talking about a set of icons that celebrates a lifestyle that ultimately either reflects or celebrates a lifestyle that is extraordinarily self-destructive, and more importantly – to my mind – destructive to the entire community. It makes the sustenance and the maintenance of healthy, strong, progressive, stable communities more difficult. I mean, the already existing joblessness, the criminalization, the just appallingly bad schools, the hunger, the poverty, all of these circumstances are horrible. But [these ills] are not helped by a sort of market based churning out of constantly sexy, exciting, and interesting images of black people as street hustlers, hoes, and pimps. So it creates an avenue of revenue that is [intrinsically] destructive. And that’s a very different thing than to just say rap music is a product.

LP: Let’s focus a little more on what you talk about when you say “destructive to the community.” Now, that’s also a complaint that comes from people who are anti-hip-hop, who feel as though it represents the worst of black youth culture and there is an assumption that [hip-hop] feeds dysfunctional tendancies. I noticed that you argued against that idea in the book, but at the same time favor that diagnosis by talking about how you can embrace certain sides of something, but not have it corrupted by the will of the market. Can you talk a bit more about the community aspect and how that plays into the idea of the “authentic voice?”

TR: I am treading a fine line here, and the problem is that people hear critiques of hip-hop in such a simple lens, partly because that’s what’s been offered, that it looks like I’m saying hip-hop is community destructive. What I am saying is the constant narrowing and over-representation of gun toting stereotypes about young black youth is destructive.

LP: I agree!

TR: I didn’t say hip-hop was destructive, I said the constant over-emphasis of what are community-destructive icons. Since when is a street-based or even regionally based drug dealer not destructive for a community? Increasing the number of consumers, for him, is destroying the community. The more drug addicted people you have, the less stable and the more problematic community you have! Nobody’s for drug addiction!

You know, when we’re talking about crack, when we’re talking about heroin, when we’re – I mean, we aren’t talking about a little weed on the side! We’re talking about a major drug industry that is partly available and interesting because it’s one of the only industries that a long of young people feel that have access to and it actually pays well. But it also destroys the community! It destroys human relationships, family relationships, and people’s lives.

And prostitution!

First of all, it should be legal so it can be regulated so that women can reap the primary reward. But for the most part, it is attached to an exploitative dynamic where men control and often physically or verbally dominate women. So to me, the problem is that hip-hop identifies with these icons so profoundly that a lot of fans in hip-hop have been really encouraged by the marketplace to celebrate and develop attachments to these figures to such a degree that they think when you critique that [behavior] you’re critiquing hip-hop.

Now to say that “hey, I’m from a tough neighborhood and these things have happened to me,” that’s one thing. But to have a constant sense of “I’m a hustler, I’m a hustler for life, I sold drugs so that I could then sell you this rap music that only raps about me selling drugs” is a very circular, problematic tendency. And more important than anything else is the lack of honest admission among many of what I call hip-hop hyper defenders.

I mean, this is not true of all fans.

But those who hyper defend everything and anything hip-hop, like one of the things that’s really troubling is that they don’t even acknowledge the degree to which this gets into a legacy of the ways black young people have been represented across the last hundred and fifty years. That the very stereotypes that drive the profit for hip-hop -among mostly white consumers I might add – are the same stereotypes that have driven consumption of images of black people for the last 150 years. So you know, this isn’t about black authenticity.

The second thing is that the right wing and conservative forces have chosen to turn extraordinary forms of neglect and active destruction of black communities [into a talking point.] To deny all these [truths] and instead pretend these are cultural traits, that being a pimp, being a ho, being a hustler are some how black in origin. I spend a lot of time talking about the absurdity of this because it’s ridiculous! It’s like, I slap you in the face, you get a swollen eye, and then I write a book that says, oh, black people have one big swollen eye, it must be from Africa.

Can we get some common sense around here? And some honest reflection?

So, we’re trapped. We’re trapped between the “swollen eyes from Africa” constituency and the “I’m a hustla for life and that makes me real, and I’m authentically black because I sell drugs to my neighbors and shoot down other young black men in the street and slap bitches and hos.”

LP: Unfortunately, you’re right. Let’s talk a bit about the marketing of this kind of hyper aggressive masculinity. I’ve seen it called destructive masculinity as well. I notice in the intro to your book, you did make a large distinction between commercial hip-hop and other kinds of hip-hop. For the purposes of the book, you’re focusing more on mainstream radio airplay, is that correct?

TR: Right.

LP: I’ve found – just from being a hip-hop listener and consumer of hip-hop culture – that it seems like there was a very clear trend from the time when hip-hop was beginning to become a strong cultural force. So this was post ’83, post the avant garde era, the experimental era where there were multiple genres within hip-hop. And it appears that the more popular hip-hop got, the narrower and narrower the representations [of hip-hop] on radio got.

So whereas before, you had someone like the Notorious B.I.G. and he’s rapped about dealing drugs, and he has that line at the beginning of “Juicy,” where he talks about the people who “called the police on him when he was just trying to feed his daughter.” But those kinds of rhymes did go through his thought process and his pain at doing these things as well. He had another track called “Suicidal Thoughts” or “Everyday Struggle” where he talked about killing himself for the deeds he had done, and not feeling as though he could make it, and having that level of introspection.

And it seems like, over time, this formula that they sell for hip-hop has been distilled down into a smaller and smaller equation. So whereas there was once reflection over these deeds – not just telling the story and recounting it, but reflection, remorse, loss, and things like that in the original gangster rappers like N.W.A., Tupac, Biggie to what we have now. The people on the airwaves now barely bother to reflect if they do so at all. [They] show no remorse, glorify this lifestyle, and at the same time not have the same lyrical depth that their forebears had. Do you feel like that’s a kind of a function of the market as well as just changing pace? Some people would say this is just where we are right now, it’s just a change in pace…

TR: The problem with that is that we’re not here just on some random state of affairs. What happened in the period that you’ve described is a dramatic transformation in the consolidation and control of musical outlets. So one of the things that drops out of all these discussions is somehow, we like what we like, and it doesn’t matter that its played 150 times a week on Power somebody or WKYS somebody else. It does matter!

Now, that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be some taste involved, we make choices. But if there were a wider range of things were constantly played, then we would make a wider range of choices. And what happened in 1996 was the Telecommunications Act, is that autonomous, black-owned, local radio is nearly killed. What takes place is a massive consolidation of large conglomerate ownership of nationwide outlets for different types of genres/slices of the radio listening audience.

And so hip-hop, there’s an appendix in the book that lays out who owns what [...] but right now, there’s been a direct consolidation. They have a vested interest in consolidating their playlists because that allows them to cut staff, to repeat certain promotional devices across the whole country. I mean if they’re playing a lot of Jay-Z and they get a promotion for Jay-Z on the radio in New York, well it’s easy! You can use that in LA and in Memphis and in Detroit. But then that means Detroit rappers aren’t getting as much airplay, right?

Now, that’s one form of impact.

The second thing is that gangster rappers themselves begin to talk less about suffering, sorrow, and the complexities of a problematic choice, like being a drug dealer or a hustler, and they feel less and less ambivalent about that. I mean Biggie and Tupac were both really important for their expression of that pain and ambiguousness. And conflictedness. But that begins to fall away, and the simultaneous rise of their success as a genre speaks to not just people’s willingness to celebrate these icons, but white desire for this kind of unproblematic consumption. You have to really ask some fundamental questions about white fan consumption of hip-hop. It just rarely gets asked! What is it about this that’s so exciting? You can sort of make some excuses for black young people liking it, but what is it about this that makes it so exciting and interesting?

It’s not only that this piece of the puzzle — the gangster street hustling piece — has gotten bigger and almost eaten every other sub-genre but it’s also that the content of that subgenre has been narrowed, contained, and lost a level of critical self-reflection. As I said in the intro, I think if Tupac showed up today and tried to get a record deal, he’d be labeled a conscious rapper! He probably wouldn’t even be on the radio! So this is not just about human taste. Taste is cultivated. Partly by– especially when you’re talking about a genre that’s dominated by major global organizations.