By Drew Lindsay
“Tears to Mona Lisa, Medusa to liquid / Flow could make Gandhi grab the burner, wanna shoot shit / Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked / Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pickup…”—Danny Brown, “Pac Blood”
In 1991, Oregon banned all retail outlets from displaying any image of Ice Cube. I wonder how many people remember that. Depending on your age, you might know O’Shea Jackson better as the inspirational coach from Fred Durst’s The Longshots—but if you hung a picture of his face above the “rap” section in your music store in 1991, the cops were going to break down your door and send you to jail.
On one level, it’s hard to imagine this happening in the United States only 20 years ago. From a larger historical perspective, it’s commonplace and predictable. New art forms tend to shock people by breaking rules—rules about how art is made, about things you can and can’t say. People freak out and try to make it stop, and then they eventually get used to it.
It’s easy to pretend that our country is used to rap. Rap is everywhere. Rap is underground; it’s corporate; rap is pop; it’s country, even. The reality, however, is that despite the ubiquity of rap music, we’re having many of the same fights about it we had 20 and 30 years ago. We shouldn’t feel comfortable; there is still a battle going on. People are still trying to kill rap.
There is some urgency to this situation. The sobering reality is that any one of us might be suddenly called upon to defend the honor of a music we have listened to our entire lives. How many of us will be ready? How many of us can articulate what we like and why we like it? What about that one song, though?
When it is our turn to fight, how many of us will accidentally say something that doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense?
On May 15 2015, Killer Mike appeared on HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. Mike is currently the undisputed hip-hop king of saying shit that is worth hearing. But in this interview, in this one instance, he embodied the contradictions critics of hip-hop pounce on.
Maher asked him about Bill O’Reilly’s frequent criticisms of rap—that rap was ruining young people; that rap glorified violence, four letter words, and promiscuity; that young women were having their morals destroyed by the pernicious influence of Beyoncé. Killer Mike, in defense, said that rap wasn’t always violent or negative. He talked about how park jams (the early stages of hip-hop) were specifically an alternative to violence. He said, “We got off course,” implying that rap took an unfortunate negative turn from its non-violent hip-hop origins.
Killer Mike’s Run The Jewels is one of the most exciting groups in contemporary hip-hop—that much is clear at this point. They excel in all phases of the rap game and they maintain a consistently activist voice—aside from musical excellence, their music has a message. If we were forced on the defensive, we would present Run the Jewels as evidence of the maturity and overall health of contemporary hip-hop.
So here’s the problem: didn’t Killer Mike once cut a guy’s lip off in a liquor store, kill him, then feed the cut-up body parts to a room full of stripper-zombies? I could’ve sworn that was him. Didn’t Killer Mike describe his rap as “macabre massacres/killing cunts in my coliseum,” and didn’t El-P tell people who misunderstood his style they could “all run backwards through a field of dicks”? In other words—if we’re trying to defend hip-hop to people who don’t know anything about it, we should be careful not to confuse the shit out of them.
Self-defense is an art-form; learning the art of defense, as it applies to rap music, won’t happen overnight. It will involve a series of conversations and a fair amount of work. In this particular conversation, our goal should be to internalize just this one important lesson: rap is explicit—in every sense of the word—and we just need to just say that. When critics want to link rap to the dissolution of morals in society because rap is dirty, violent, and illegal, our defense shouldn’t be to say, “No it isn’t—PM DAWN.” For the most part, rap music is those things. Let’s just be honest about that.
Instead of pretending that rap isn’t, on the whole, dark and angry and explicit and confrontational, we should make sure everyone remembers that art can be explicit for very positive reasons. Tell the critics not to confuse what a song is about—the subject matter—from what the song is saying about that subject matter. If detractors demand an explanation for rap’s explicit nature, simply tell them that the world of hip-hop is explicit. Ask them what they expected the art to look like.
Make sure everyone remembers that art can be explicit for very positive reasons.
This is not a defense of all rap music; this is a recognition that the good and the bad alike deal in similar subject matter. Most good rap today is explicit art—it’s explicit and offensive and controversial for a reason. Bad rap is the opposite of artistic. It doesn’t make you think. We can argue endlessly about who falls into each category. But when they come for you—these grown-ups with megaphones telling the whole world how hip-hop is destroying everything—let’s be honest about the type of art we are defending.
We all need to look in the mirror. The reality is, we’re all contradictory—even the original creators. We’ve all seen our favorite rappers criticize rap music for being a certain way… and then five minutes later co-sign a rapper that just confuses the shit out of us.
In the meantime, we can get one part of our story straight: rap is explicit and rap is offensive. It doesn’t have to be, necessarily. But it is right now, and arguably has been forever. This is on purpose. Perhaps more rappers will start to accept the challenge of writing songs of explicit positivity (that don’t sound corny as shit), but a good number of the greatest raps of all time have been shockingly explicit, and the great ones have nothing to apologize for.