How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip Hop: A People's History of Political Rap (Part 1 of 2)

Derek Ide I Social Movement Studies I Analysis I June 4th, 2013

Disclaimer: The language expressed in this article is an uncensored reflection of the views of the artists as they so chose to speak and express themselves. Censoring their words would do injustice to the freedom of expression and political content this article intends to explore. Therefore, some of the language appearing below may be offensive to personal, cultural, or political sensibilities.

Introduction: Historical Phenomena, Hip-Hop Culture, and Rap Music

Historical phenomena never develop in a vacuum, isolated from reality; nor are they mechanistically manifested from the historical material conditions lacking the direction of human agency. Rather, historical phenomena are products of a specific environment at a particular time period that have been molded, processed, and transformed by human beings who attempt to define and control their own destiny. The culture fostered in the grimy streets of the South Bronx during the 1970s is no different. Heavily influenced by the economically and socially oppressed ghettoes, along with the echoes of the last generation's movements for liberation and the street gangs that filled in the void they left, the South Bronx provided the perfect matrix in which marginalized youth could find a way to articulate the story of their own lives and the world around them. In this historically unique context, a culture would be created through an organic explosion of the pent-up, creative energies of America's forgotten youth. It was a culture that would reach every corner of the world in only a couple decades; this is hip-hop.

Many people mistakenly narrowly define hip-hop as a particular style of music. The reality, however, is that Hip-hop is an extremely multifaceted cultural phenomenon. As hip-hop pioneer DJ Kool Herc explains, "People talk about the four hip-hop elements: DJing, B-Boying, MCing, and Graffiti. I think that there are far more than those: the way you walk, the way you talk, the way you look, the way you communicate." [1] Indeed, each component presents its own unique history, heroes, and tales of resistance; each acts as a distinct piece of a larger puzzle. Viewed in its totality, hip-hop is undoubtedly a global phenomenon, reaching across the borders of nation-states and touching entire generations. One integral aspect of this culture, familiarly labeled rap, is the musical element which combines MCing and DJing; it is "is the act of speaking poetically and rhythmically over the beat." As Black intellectual Michael Eric Dyson eloquently explains, "Rap artists explore grammatical creativity, verbal wizardry, and linguistic innovation in refining the art of oral communication." [2] The characteristic east coast sounds of New York City, the intricate Hip-hop scene in France, the nascent grime subgenre in London, and the politically charged rap developing in Cuba demonstrate just how global the influence of rap music truly is.

Hip-hop was born from the ashes of a community devastated by a capitalist economic system and racist government officials. At first independent and autonomous, it would not be long before corporate capitalism impinged upon the culture's sovereignty and began the historically familiar process of exploitation. Within a few years the schism between the dominant, mainstream rap spewed across the synchronized, consolidated radio waves and the dissident, political, and revolutionary lyrics expressed throughout the underground network would develop, separating hip-hop into two worlds. Rapper Immortal Technique frames this dichotomy in a political context emphasizing the opposition between the major label "super powers of the industry" and the "underground third world of the street." [3] Indeed, the stark difference between the commodified songs and albums pumped out by the mainstream rap industry and the creativity and resistance exemplified in the underground movement cannot be overemphasized.

Hip-hop's glamorized, commercialized image, made familiar through every aspect of pop culture and privately centralized radio stations, is viewed by some as a justification for the prevailing "boot strap" ideology derived from thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and the dominant ideological formulations supporting them. Time argues capitalism allowed for "rap music's market strength [to give] its artists permission to say what they pleased." [4] Indeed, some argue that one's ability to market a product in a capitalist society is what has allowed rap music to flourish and become as large of an industry as it is today.[5] This simplistic view, however, ignores one crucial aspect; the culture has been manipulated by a handful of industry executives for capital gain. Meanwhile, hip-hop activists who advocate for social change, formulate political dissent, and fight for economic redistribution have been systematically marginalized and excluded from the mainstream discourse. Corporate capitalism, aided by neoliberal deregulation and privatization, have stolen the culture, sterilized its content, and reformatted its image to reflect the dominant ideology. Independent, political rap containing valuable social commentary has been replaced with shallow, corporate images of thugs, drugs, and racial and gender prejudices filled with both implicitly and explicitly hegemonic undertones and socially constructed stereotypes. Hip-hop has been underdeveloped by the mainstream industry in the same sense that third world countries were underdeveloped by traditionally oppressive first world nations: it has been robbed of its content like a nation is robbed of its resources, its artists exploited like a country's labor is exploited, and its very survival hinged upon complete subservience to an established political, economic, and social institution. The following is an outline of a culture's musical resistance to subjugation by the economic, political, and social authority of American capitalism and its ruling elites.

The South Bronx in the 1970's and Material Conditions in Hip-Hop's Birthplace

Until 1979 with the release of Sugarhill Gang's six minute track titled "Rapper's Delight," hip-hop's musical component, rap, had not spread far beyond the South Bronx where it originated. To highlight 1979 as the year rap music began, however, would be a disservice to not only historical accuracy, but to any serious understanding of the roots through which hip-hop music blossomed. Comprehending the rise of a culture inevitably entails a holistic approach where the political, economic, and social institutions and conditions are analyzed to derive an understanding of their effects on the thoughts, ideas, and actions of the generation who created the culture. Therefore, the rise of hip-hop is inevitably linked with a host of changes during the 1970s to the political economy and the dominant ideology supporting it. These changes include the fading of the nonviolent civil rights movement and the subsequent black power movement, a massive restructuring from the failed Keynesian economic policies of state-interventionism to neoliberal, trickle down economics, the prodigious deindustrialization and the resulting unemployment, and the abandonment of urban spaces by government divestment and white flight. The Bronx of the early 1970s provides a paragon for such conditions and how they impacted the residents of these urban spaces; these conditions, however, were not limited to one area but were widely represented in many urban areas during this decade. Hip-hop culture, springing from such a particular set of conditions, would spread like wildfire into other areas where a similar combination of political and economic changes was rapidly advancing.

As Akilah Folami explains, "Historically, Hip-hop arose out of the ruins of a post-industrial and ravaged South Bronx, as a form of expression of urban Black and Latino youth, who politicians and the dominant public and political discourse had written off, and, for all intent and purposes, abandoned." [6] These youth were alienated from decent employment opportunities and confined to under funded schools with little community resources; New York would suffer immense job losses coupled with decreased local and federal funding for social services. [7] The South Bronx alone would lose:

600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average. The official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent. Youth advocates said that in some neighborhoods the true number was closer to 80 percent.[8]

Such conditions would leave "30 percent of New York's Hispanic households...and 25 percent of black households…at or below the poverty line. [9] This massive loss of employment was not the only contributing factor, however. Urban renewal programs, such as the one directed by elite urban planner Robert Moses, helped fuel white flight and suburban sprawl along with subsequent capital divestment from the city. Moses would go on to plan and build the Cross Bronx Expressway, which would "cut directly through the center of the most heavily populated working class areas in the Bronx," tearing apart the homes of some 60,000 Bronx residents. [10] Utilizing "urban renewal rights of clearance," Moses and local legislators would effectively enforce economic and legal segregation of poor and working-class Blacks and Latinos whom were pushed into "tower-in-a-park" model public housing units where they "got nine or more monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon-to-be crime-ridden 'parks'."[11] Thus, it was deep within these hellholes of poverty, unemployment, segregation, and desperation that hip-hop's first birth pangs would be felt. As hip-hop historian Jeff Chang poignantly explains, it's "not to say that all hip-hop is political, but hip-hop comes out of that particular political context." [12]

The enormous influence of material conditions on hip-hop are lucidly illuminated with the 1982 release of a song titled "The Message" by pioneering rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Hesitant at first to record such a "preachy" rap song by a self-titled "party group," eventually Melle Mel, the lead rapper of the group, decided to give it a try.[13] Thus, the group helped to pioneer "the social awakening of rap into a form combining social protest, musical creation, and cultural expression."[14] Although not the first to provide social commentary on institutional racism and abject living conditions, as evidenced by earlier rappers such as Kurtis Blow, Brother D and the Collective Effort, and Tanya "Sweet Tee Winley,[15] "The Message" would provide the first mainstream, commercial success to speak seriously on these issues. The immense frustration and alienation of being confined to run-down ghettoes presents itself repeatedly throughout the song. Wrapped in each and every line is piercing social commentary on the condition of America's rotting inner city slums. The song opens by describing the horrendous conditions found specifically in the South Bronx during this period but could also be applied most the nation's abandoned urban centers:

Broken glass, everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care / I can't take the smell, I can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice / Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat / I tried to get away, but I couldn't get far / Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car [16]

The sentiment expressed in the last two lines of being unable to escape the projects is one that runs consistently throughout the history of Hip-hop. Tupac, nearly a decade later, would articulate this despair further in his song "Trapped" where he speaks to the agonizing feeling of hopelessness and anger at being segregated into ghettoes and harassed by police.[17]

Dyson notes that as rap evolved it "began to describe and analyze the social, economic, and political factors that led to its emergence and development: drug addiction, police brutality, teen pregnancy, and various forms of material deprivation."[18] The Message takes up many of these issues and more, commenting repeatedly on the terrible state of education children in the projects are confined to. One line provides an explanation of how in the ghetto one rarely gets more than "a bum education" alongside "double-digit inflation." Another verse tells the story of a young boy who exclaims to his father that he feels alienated and dumb at school, due at least in part to his teachers' attitudes towards him; as the child explains, "all the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper, if I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper." In this succinct rhyme, the postulation put forth by educational theorist Jean Anyon that working-class and poor students are pushed into occupations which perpetuate the existing class structure is brilliantly summarized.[19] The despair and bleakness of abject ghetto life is articulated in a rather percussive manner in the last verse, "You grow in the ghetto, living second rate, and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate, the places you play and where you stay, looks like one great big alley way."[20]

Although "The Message" was not the first social commentary on ghetto life to be produced, it was the first mainstream success to reach a broader layer of listeners and proved that socially conscious rap had an audience. By the early 1980's hip-hop had already exploded onto the scene through particular mediums in certain areas. Graffiti had already provided a way in which alienated and seemingly invisible youths could make themselves visible outside the Bronx through creative, counter-hegemonic acts that signaled to the ruling authorities they were claiming their own space. Break dancing, or B-Boying, provided an outlet for youths to engage each other in peaceful competition and while it "did not dissolve the frustrations of being poor, unemployed, and a forgotten youth, it certainly served… as a catalyst to increasing the youth led community based peace effort." [21] However, it was rap music that, arguably, would have the largest impact in the future:

At a time when budget cuts lead to a reduction in school art and music programs, and when vocational training in high schools lead to jobs that had significantly decreased or no longer existed, "inner city youth transformed obsolete vocational skills from marginal occupations into the raw materials for creativity and resistance," with "turntables [becoming] instruments and lyrical acrobatics [becoming] a cultural outlet." [22]

This cultural outlet would not remain isolated in the South Bronx for long. Neither would it be confined to simply describing the harsh reality of living in the projects.

Afrocentricity, Black Power, and Hip-Hop's New School

Hip Hop was originally honed in house parties, parks, community centers, and local clubs by pioneers such as DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. Independent record labels were quick to pick up on the enormous buzz generated by this new street sound. Small record executives, with their ears to the street, realized that "there were potentially many more millions of fans out there for the music," but they needed a way to push it from the traditional arenas where spontaneity reigned into the lab where Hip-hop could be researched, developed, and put into radio rotation. [23] Rap had to "fit the standards of the music industry" and labels had to pursue methods which in which they could "rationalize and exploit the new product" to "find, capture, package, and sell its essence…Six-man crews would drop to two. Fifteen-minute party-rocking raps would become three-minute ready-for-radio singles. Hip-hop was refined like sugar."[24] The laws of capitalism dictated that the art form had to be commodified, manufactured, and sold to a market. After the initial commercial success of "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message," corporate encroachment would quickly invade Hip-hop sovereignty. This seminal musical format would act as a medium through which two distinct worlds would mesh; young, black youth who aspired to spit rhymes and find a way out of their seemingly despondent condition would be introduced to nascent white record executives, opening what ostensibly appeared as new, untested feasibilities to previously marginalized artists. As early Hip-hop head and B-boy Richie "Crazy Legs" Colon would comment, "it was getting us into places that we never thought we could get into. So there was an exchange there... [but] that was also the beginning of us getting jerked…that's a reality." [25]

The struggle over control of the culture would be a reminiscent theme for the next decade. Dissident rap presenting a critique of the political economy would briefly touch mainstream society in the early and mid 1980's before being stifled and ostracized. In the next few years, the crossover of rap acts like Run-D.M.C. and the rise of overtly political rap groups such as Public Enemy, along with lesser known but highly controversial artists such as Paris, would trigger intense debate over the nature of Hip-hop and the direction it was headed. Passing from the pioneering old-school, a new era of Hip-hop would develop consisting of a fresh blend of Afrocentricity, cultural nationalism, calls for a neo-Black power, and a focus on the African diaspora. It would delve into the questions of race and racism and the legacy of slavery, along with a critique of institutionalized forms of oppression and ideas of what methods could adequately challenge them. It also presented artists with the first taste of corporate control over creative expression, a tension that would remain a prominent theme throughout the history of rap music. Any definite time frame would only succeed in confining the progression of Hip-hop into arbitrary, categorical stages that lack accurate representation of the often overlapping and dynamic evolutionary process of the art. However, in the mid 1980s it became apparent that rap was burgeoning into uncharted territory.

Afrocentric rap, advocating a unique mix of cultural nationalism and Pan-Africanism, can trace its roots to Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, an organization of reformed gang members who attempted to take back their streets through the creation of innovative cultural outlets, many of which would develop into early Hip-hop culture. Bambaataa "started to believe that the energy, loyalty, and passion that defined gang life could be guided toward more socially productive activities…he saw an opportunity to combine his love of music and B-boying with his desire to enhance community life." [26] After some initial musical success, however, tensions began to mount between Bambaataa and the man who signed him, Tom Silverman, founder of the independent label Tommy Boy Records. Bambaataa recounts, "The record companies would try to tell us what we should make, what we should do…We said, 'Listen, we're the renegades, we sing what we want to sing, dress how we want to dress, and say what we want to say."[27] This sort of outright resistance to artist manipulation worked for a time, when artists dealt primarily with small, independent stations during the nascent stages of Hip-hop's development. Later, however, when the corporate structures completely enveloped the art, it would be nearly impossible to individually challenge such enormous institutions.

Queens rap trio Run-D.M.C. "is widely recognized as the progenitor of modern rap's creative integration of social commentary, diverse musical elements, and uncompromising cultural identification"[28] into what would become known as the New School of Hip-hop. [29] Fueled by Jam Master Jay' complex, percussive beats and brilliant lyrical deliverance, Run-D.M.C. would burst into the mainstream by signing a distributing deal with Colombia records.[30] Bridging the gap between rap and rock, Run-D.M.C. appealed to a wide range of audiences from rugged, street hustlers to well-to-do white kids in a desperate search to branch out from the cultural confinement of suburbia. As their album Raising Hell rushed to platinum status, they catapulted rap music into mainstream discourse and charted a new path for commercial success. The group presented an interesting dynamic where, challenging corporate-driven consumerism with lines such as "Calvin Klein's no friend of mine, don't want nobody's name on my behind," [31] they simultaneously promoted a specific style of apparel with tracks such as "My Adidas" that would break with previous, flashily clad rap artists and forever tie Hip-hop's look to the styles of the street. Raising Hell would end with "Proud to Be Black," a track emphasizing African history and the struggle against slavery while documenting the historical progress of black people. Involving themselves in specific struggles or causes, such as doing benefit performances for the anti-Apartheid struggle, [32] they did not shy away from political issues.

On "Wake Up," the trio echoed calls for democratic participation of the masses, full employment, fair wages, and an end to racial prejudice that would be familiar to any socialist activist. They provided a glimpse of the shape a truly humanizing society could take:

There were no guns, no tanks, no atomic bombs / and to be frank homeboy, there were no arms… / Between all countries there were good relations / there finally was a meaning to United Nations / and everybody had an occupation / 'cause we all worked together to fight starvation… / Everyone was treated on an equal basis / No matter what color, religion or races / We weren't afraid to show our faces / It was cool to chill in foreign places… / All cities of the world were renovated / And the people all chilled and celebrated / They were all so happy and elated / To live in the world that they created… / And every single person had a place to be / A job, a home, and the perfect pay…[33]

The song is haunted by the chorus proclaiming that all the hopes and desires for the fanciful world articulated are "just a dream." The group switches gears on "It's Like That," citing unemployment, atrocious wages, ever-increasing bills, and the struggle to survive within the confines of a capitalist political economy. At the end of each verse they communicate their prodigious frustration manifested from the despair and helplessness prevalent in oppressed communities, leaving the listener with little hope for change: "Don't ask me, because I don't know why, but it's like that, and that's the way it is!"[34] Grand ideals aside, Run-D.M.C. ultimately did not pursue a confrontational approach to the dominant institutions in society and, thus, their commercial success in part reflects their desire to integrate into the established system rather than attempt to dismantle the established structures.

Ideas of collective social change would be articulated more thoroughly by artists such as Public Enemy. Coming from a relatively well-to-do, although still highly segregated, post-white flight neighborhood, Public Enemy's ambitions were to "be heard as the expression of a new generation's definition of blackness."[35] As opposed to artists who may record a political song or sneak a witty, politically charged punch line into a mainstream hit, Public Enemy would focus entire albums around counter-hegemonic themes reflecting their constantly evolving political philosophy. Their Black Nationalist ideology did not go unnoticed in their first album, but it would augment over time as the group developed their own conception of a new Black Power. On It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet they delved deeply into race relations, the oppression of the black community at home and abroad, and brought into question entire institutions of society they viewed as perpetuating racism. The group also spoke openly of their support for Palestinian liberation and against U.S. imperialism. On "Bring the Noise," they challenged black radio to play their music and on "Party for Your Right to Fight" they evoked images of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party in a "pro-Black radical mix"[36] while aiming verbal invectives at J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for their historically repressive roles against the black community.

Public Enemy undoubtedly pushed political hip-hop to a new level. Their intense, in-your-face rhymes promoted a historical revival amongst black youth previously separated from prior cultural developments and struggles of the past. However, as Dyson points out, this can lead to rappers hoping to emulate the methods of the past without a critical analysis of its strengths and weaknesses or, worse yet, to promoting vacuous calls to past movements' cultural icons intended to draw reverence without attempting to augment the organizational infrastructure required to proactively challenge oppressive institutions. Still, given the tyrannical nature of the society in which they lived, the group labeled themselves "the Black Panthers of rap" [37] as a symbolic expression of their hostility towards the system. However, the framework within which they operated, borrowing large portions of their theoretical interpretation of society to the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, did not allow them to adopt the Panthers' revolutionary, socialist critique of the political economy. It was replaced instead with a form of black militancy aligned primarily with a narrow conception of Black Nationalism. Public Enemy would drastically differ from the Panthers who had come to reject Black Nationalism as a racist philosophy, aiming their crosshairs more broadly on capitalism[38] and arguing racism was a byproduct of that particular economic mode of production.[39] Regardless, Public Enemy's prodigious contributions to political hip-hop cannot be ignored. They fostered political discussion and pushed hip-hop to embrace black liberation. Yet, they would fail propose a cohesive, theoretical alternative or method through which this could be achieved.

Other times, political hip-hop took the form of cathartic, impulsive depictions of violence stemming from the wrath manifested within oppressed black communities. One example, Oakland rapper Paris, who adhered early in his career to a form of Black Nationalism similar to Public Enemy's, would seek a sort of lyrical revenge against individuals and institutions he found oppressive and exploitative. Through songs like "Bush Killa," where he fantasized about assassinating then President George H. Bush, he would decisively embrace a black militancy that challenged the past legacy of King's non-violence: "So don't be tellin' me to get the non-violent spirit, 'cause when I'm violent is the only time you devils hear it!" Later in the song he goes on to poignantly express his disgust with the predatory nature of military recruitment while uniquely mimicking the famous line from Muhammad Ali, [40] "Yeah, tolerance is gettin' thinner, 'cause Iraq never called me nigger, so what I wanna go off and fight a war for?" [41] Presumably due to the radical nature of his music, Paris was dropped from his record label, Tommy Boy, after parent company Time Warner reviewed the content of his album.[42] He distanced himself from the Nation of Islam, and thought that they were "more concerned with what was wrong with society than with how to change it." [43] Nearly two decades later, and still rapping under his own label, Paris would go on to develop a political stance that, while still bonded to certain aspects of his previous Black Nationalist thought, would become decidedly more working-class in its orientation, emphasizing class struggle and interracial solidarity rather than a simple black-white dichotomy.

The 1980's were, undoubtedly, a time of creativity, diversity, and cultural exploration within the musical realm of Hip-hop. Artists even tested the waters with politically significant album covers. Paris placed a potent photo of riot police choking a black protestor in his 1989 releaseBreak the Grip of Shame.[44] Rapper KRS-One, paraphrasing Malcolm X on his album title By All Means Neccesary (1988), poses on the front cover in a fashion reminiscent of Malcolm's famous photograph; Malcolm, standing with AK-47 in his right arm and peering out of the drapes with his left, symbolized the vision of armed self-defense and intellectual self-determination. KRS-One, adorned in a fashionable outfit and carrying a more contemporary Uzi, personified these principles Malcolm so vehemently defended throughout his life. [45] Chuck D of Public Enemy explains, given the group's extensive list of politically charged album covers, that sometimes "the covers were thought out more than the songs."[46] Corporate control was illuminated in this artistic arena as well when hip-hop trio KMD attempted to release an album titled Black Bastards which featured a "Little Sambo"[47] character being hung; Elektra, their label, quietly rejected the album and its politically charged album artwork.[48]

Some rappers, such as Rakim, toyed with abstract ideas of personal and spiritual development, meshed with political Islam and the elitist vision of the Five Percenters, a group who believed that a gifted five percent of the world's population was destined to fight against the exploitative ten percent on behalf of the ignorant, backwards eighty-five percent.[49] Others, like rap group Naughty by Nature, found unique ways to tie in urban culture and style to the historic legacies of the past. On one of the group's most political tracks, "Chain Remains," rapper Treach vividly explicates on the cultural significance of the chain commonly worn by black, urban youth, tying it into the past history of slavery and the prison-industrial complex:

Bars and cement instead of help for our people / Jails ain't nothin' but the slave day sequel / Tryin' to flee the trap of this nation / Seein' penitentiary's the plan to plant the new plantation… / Free? Please, nigga, ain't no freedom! / Who's locked up? Who's shot up? Who's strung out? Who's bleeding? Keep reading / I'm here to explain the chain remain the same / Maintain for the brothers and sisters locked / The chain remains…[50]

The last verse ends with an incendiary call to revolution, although the terms for which are not specifically outlined: "the only solutions revolution, know we told ya', the chain remains 'til we uprise, stuck in a land where we ain't meant to survive." Despite calls for racial solidarity and social empowerment, the violence found in poverty-stricken urban areas often followed artists into the realm of entertainment.

When violence broke out at various rap venues in 1987, the hip-hop community was quick to respond with a Stop the Violence Movement. A group of artists organized a project "that would include a benefit record, video, book, and a rally around the theme."[51] On the record "Self Destruction," a wide assortment of rappers came together to urge black youth to "crush the stereotype" and "unite and fight for what's right,"[52] by stopping the senseless violence that plagued the black community. Unfortunately, it was not a sustained political campaign and, as Jeff Chang argues, Stop the Violence "was always less a movement than a media event." [53] KRS-One, re-launching the Stop the Violence 2008 campaign in a similar fashion, disagrees, claiming Chang's interpretation is "inaccurate history and fake scholarship."[54] Regardless, media event or movement, Stop the Violence provided another example of rappers attempting to take control of their communities and control their own destinies.

New School Hip Hop was defined by its seminal, independent spirit of artists' attempts to maneuver within the confines of an ever-increasing hierarchal, corporate, top-down structure. Indeed, as Chang notes, "Rap proved to be the ideal form to commodify the hip-hop culture. It was endlessly novel, reproducible, malleable, and perfectible. Records got shorter, raps more concise, and tailored to pop-song structures." [55] The infrastructure needed to solidify corporate power over the culture was being rapidly built but originality and autonomy would not yet be completely shattered. The day would soon come, however, when creativity and free political expression would be stomped out and replaced with denigrating images of black men, as self-destructive gangsters and intellectually bankrupt drug-pushers, and black women, whose sole contribution is their sexual appeal, vigorously promoted by the dominant ideology. Generally, during this period artists would attempt to hold on "to the Black Panther ethic of remaining true to Blackness… to the people in the lower classes" while, on the other hand, rejecting the Party's anti-capitalist stance; "Rappers wanted a piece of the American pie while staying grounded to the urban culture, and wanted to speak in their own voice and on their own terms."[56] Given the political, social, and economic conditions of the mid-1980s, this was no surprise.

The sort of individualistic response exemplified by New School artists was developed within the context of a detrimental political vacuum left by the simultaneous failure and systematic repression of revolutionary left groups of the 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of political organizers, rappers would view themselves as reporters whose primary vocation was to give the voiceless a form of expression and relay the conditions of ghetto life to the rest of the world. Public Enemy articulated this concept when he explained that rap was "Black America's CNN, an alternative, youth-controlled media network." [57] Tupac would echo this concept, "I just try to speak about things that affect me and our community. Sometimes I'm the watcher, and sometimes the participant," he commented, and likening himself to reporters during the Vietnam War, he explicated on his role, "That's what I'll do as an artist, as a rapper. I'm gonna show the graphic details of what I see in my community and hopefully they'll stop it." [58] Rather than broad-reaching, collective social change achieved through organized resistance, rap music would act as a means to express counter-hegemonic, yet radically individualized forms of resistance that captured the very essence of the urban youth existence. This concept would be carried further into the realm of musical performance:

Rap…found an arena in which to concentrate its subversive cultural didacticism aimed at addressing racism, classism, social neglect, and urban pain: the rap concert, where rappers are allowed to engage in ritualistic refusals of censored speech. The rap concert also creates space for cultural resistance and personal agency, losing the strictures of the tyrannizing surveillance and demoralizing condemnation of mainstream society and encouraging relatively autonomous, often enabling, forms of self-expression and cultural creativity. [59]

It was this anti-authoritarian impulse, fostered in the hard streets of Los Angeles where police brutality was rampant and socioeconomic conditions were dire, that galvanized the next phase of Hip-hop which would take the nation by storm.

How Capitalism Underdeveloped Hip Hop: A People's History of Political Rap (Part 2 of 2)


[1] DJ Kool Herc quoted in Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop, (New York City: St. Martin's Press, 2005), xi.

[2] Michael Eric Dyson, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, (New York City: Basic Civitas Books, 2004), 408.

[3] Immortal Technique, "Death March" The 3rd World, 2008, Viper Records. DJ Green Lantern makes the opening remarks.

[4] Ta-Nehisi Coates, "Hip-hop's Down Beat," Time, accessed 5 April 2009; available from,9171,1653639,00.html; Internet.

[5] David Drake, "The 'Death' of Hip-Hop," Pop Playground, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet. Implicit in Stylus's 2005 article about the "death" of hip-hop is the idea that capitalism allowed for hip-hops growth. They argue the history of hip-hop cannot be separated and "well-behaved politicos with either leftist or moralist agendas" only "imagine a fictional past" since "capitalism was involved from the second it spread, from the moment a rhyme was laid to wax capitalism was there." While this is partly correct, as hip-hop developed within the confines of a capitalist society, and was thus influenced by the dominant ideological forces that perpetuate such a society, the early independence and autonomy from corporate capitalism and the art form that developed without the profit incentive, but instead for reasons of pure enjoyment (Kool Herc house parties) or political and social transformation (Zulus) shows that hip-hop and capitalism can not only be separated, but at it's earliest stages were separate entities.

[6] Akilah N. Folami, "From Habermas to 'Get Rich or Die Trying': Hip Hop, The Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the Black Public Sphere," Michigan Journal of Race and Law, Vol. 12(June 2007) (Queens, NY: St. John's University School of Law, 2007), 240.

[7] Folami, Habermas to "Get Rich or Die Trying," 254.

[8] Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop, 13.

[9] Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America 27 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 28.

[10] Rose, Black Noise, 31.

[11] Chang, 11-12.

[12] Jeff Chang interviewed by Brian Jones, "Interview with Jeff Chang, Hip Hop Politics," International Socialist Review, Issue 48, (July-August 2006), accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[13] Craig Watkins, Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005), 21.

[14] Dyson, Michael Eric Dyson Reader, 402.

[15] Chang, 179.

[16] Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message," The Message, 1982, Sugar Hill.

[17] Tupac Shakur, "Trapped," 2Pacalypse Now, 1991, Jive. Tupac, who, originally just repeating stories from his peers, would have a violent run in with police not long after he released the song. Accused of jaywalking, Tupac would be knocked to the ground and have his face slammed into the concrete, leaving life-long scars across his right cheek bone. After a long court battle, he finally settled with the police department for a small sum. "You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion / Happiness, living on tha streets is a delusion… / Tired of being trapped in this vicious cycle / If one more cop harrasses me I just might go psycho / And when I get 'em / I'll hit 'em with the bum rush / Only a lunatic would like to see his skull crushed / Yo, if your smart you'll really let me go 'G' / But keep me cooped up in this ghetto and catch the uzi… / They got me trapped / Can barely walk the city streets / Without a cop harassing me, searching me / Then asking my identity… / Trapped in my own community / One day I'm gonna bust / Blow up on this society / Why did ya' lie to me? / I couldn't find a trace of equality…

[18] Dyson, 402.

[19] Jean Anyon, "Social Class and the Hidden Cirriculum." Journal of Education, 162(1), Fall, 1980. Online version available here; Internet.

[20] Flash, "The Message."

[21] Folami, 258.

[22] Ibid., 257.

[23] Chang, 133.

[24] Ibid., 134

[25] Ibid., 177

[26] Watkins, Hip Hop Matters, 23.

[27] Chang, 190.

[28] Dyson, 402.

[29] Chang, 255.

[30] Ibid., 204.

[31] Run-D.M.C., "Rock Box," Run-D.M.C., 1983, Profile/Arista Records.

[32] Chang, 218.

[33] Run-D.M.C., "Wake Up," Run-D.M.C., 1983, Profile/Arista Records.

[34] Run-D.M.C., "It's Like That," Run-D.M.C., 1983, Profile/Arista Records.

[35] Chang, 249.

[36] Public Enemy, "Party For your Right to Fight," It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988, Def Jam/Columbia/CBS Records.

[37] Chang, 248.

[38] Bobby Seale, Seize the Time (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1997), 23, 256, 383.

[39] Fred Hampton, "Murder of Fred Hampton, Reel 1," accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet. In this clip, Hampton is talking to a church crowd about how Blacks and the Black Panther Party should interact with Whites and White radicals.

[40] In 1966 Muhammad Ali, in his denunciation of the Vietnam War and U.S. attempts to draft him, explained "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong… No Vietcong ever called me nigger." For more information, see here:; Internet.

[41] Paris, "Bush Killa," Sleeping With the Enemy, 1992, Scarface.

[42] Peter Byrne, "Capital Rap" San Francisco News, accessed 5 April 2009; available from; Internet.

[43] Byrne, "Capital Rap," 2.

[44] Andrew Emery, The Book of Hip Hop Cover Art, (Mitchell Beazly, 2004), 95.

[45] Emery, Hip Hop Cover Art, 133.

[46] Ibid., 81.

[47] "Sambo" is a racial slur for African-Americans in the United States but the image of the Little Black Sambo became famous after a children's book by Helen Bannerman was published in London in 1899. The original story can be found here:

[48] Emery, 112.

[49] Chang, 258-9.

[50] Naughty by Nature, "Chain Remains," Poverty's Paradise, 1995, Warner.

[51] Chang, 274.

[52] Lyrics for the song can be found here:

[53] Chang, 274.

[54] KRS-One interviewed by Brolin Winning, "KRS-One: You Must Learn,", accessed 5 April 2008; available from; Internet.

[55] Chang, 228.

[56] Folami, 263.

[57] Chang, 251.

[58] Tupac Shakur, "Tupac Resurrection Script - The Dialogue," Drew's Script-O-Rama, accessed 5 April 2008; available from ; Internet.

[59] Dyson, 403.