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Origins in the ‘Hood

Her Infinite Power Helping Oppressed People / We are unique and unequal

Hip-Hop

Holy Integrated Power Having Omnipresent Power / The Watchman’s in the tower of …

Hip-Hop

– KRS-One (Hip-Hop Lives)

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Beginning in the late 1980’s, two notable hip-hop groups stand out in the genre as sociopolitical leaders – standing up for what they believe in (regardless of how they show their belief), and fighting the power: Public Enemy and N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitudes). Both of these groups epitomize the African American experience in their music, sometimes with calls to come together (‘Fight the Power’, Public Enemy), and at other times with calls for agitation against law enforcement through songs like ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Cop Killer’ (N.W.A.). To look at these artists a bit more closely, I will examine ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and ‘Fight the Power’ – two different songs with eerily similar messages.

For full lyrics, see Appendix 1.

In 1988, N.W.A. released the album Straight Outta Compton, which resulted in an enormous backlash from law enforcement – specifically because of the track ‘Fuck Tha Police’. The song’s title is a reflection of its central there and the group clearly succeeded in getting its message across. The FBI’s response to the album’s release (and, specifically, ‘Fuck Tha Police’) was to send letters to police chiefs all over America, singling out ‘Fuck Tha Police’ as an example of criticism of law enforcement, as well as a form of anti-law enforcement propaganda. The album clearly resonated with the audience it represented: Straight Outta Compton was both very popular and influential, helping to create a sub-genre of rap and hip-hop (gangsta rap).

‘Fuck Tha Police’ provides some key examples of the African American experience that I believe remains a prevalent and unwavering theme throughout hip-hop’s trajectory over time. For instance, the first section of the song is a ‘skit’, wherein MC Ren plays the court officer, Dr. Dre plays the judge, and Ice Cube plays the witness. The song is posed as a case, “The case of N.W.A. vs. the Police Department”, and the verses are essentially witness testimonies in the case. The first verse, rapped by Ice Cube, comes in with a hard-hitting drum and bass, a smooth funky guitar line and a high-register synth hit – quite characteristic of 80’s music. However, it’s the lyrics that really hold the message that hip-hop feeds off of:

Fuck the police comin straight from the underground

A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown

And not the other color so police think

they have the authority to kill a minority

Already, the tension that the music brings is heightened by the harsh voice and tone Ice Cube brings – and the lyrics provide a context to the harsh, aggressive nature of this rap group. Coming from Compton, California, N.W.A.’s roots are surrounded by violence, drug use, socioeconomic despair, and victimhood. The first four lines illustrate the depth with which these artists feel subjugation, discrimination, and prejudice. Their music is both a form of truth-telling and the group’s attempt to break the very norms that define their lives and the lives of those in their community of Compton. “Coming straight from the underground / a young nigga got it back cause I’m brown” was a significant political message during the 1980’s. This subject is familiar in rap and hip-hop music, as the African American narrative is a central element to what characterizes hip-hop – as a music genre, as a social movement, and as a political platform. “And not the other color so police think / they have the authority to kill a minority” hearkens back to the suppression and discrimination that African Americans experienced for decades – well before the hip-hop genre became known among mass audiences. Later in the first verse, Ice Cube challenges listeners, but police officers in particular:

Just cause I’m from, the CPT [Compton]

Punk police are afraid of me!

HUH, a young nigga on the warpath

And when I’m finished, it’s gonna be a bloodbath

of cops, dyin in L.A.

Yo Dre, I got somethin to say

Ice Cube resents particular events – most notably, issues with and actions by the police – that he feels are unwarranted, and occur because of the color of his skin. After the chorus (“Fuck Tha Police” x4), there is another ‘skit’-type interlude between the next verse, depicting the African American experience – particularly in Compton – that the members of N.W.A. portray. Again, it signifies the abuse and prejudice they are subjected to on a daily basis:

Example of scene one

[Cop] Pull your god damn ass over right now

[NWA] Aww shit, now what the fuck you pullin me over for?

[Cop] Cause I feel like it!

Just sit your ass on the curb and shut the fuck up

[NWA] Man, fuck this shit

[Cop] Aight smartass, I’m takin your black ass to jail!

This ‘skit’ serves the same purpose as the ‘skit’ of the song as a whole – the entire song illustrates that, while each particular artist has his own version of a ‘witness testimony’, their collective stories (narratives) are consistent as the experience of African Americans – with N.W.A., particularly in Compton in the late 1980’s. The scene of a police officer pulling over a group of African American males “cause [he] feel[s] like it” is, tragically, a seemingly timeless phenomenon that has continually plagued African Americans in the forms of prejudice, discrimination, and intolerance. N.W.A.’s approach in Straight Outta Compton was to expose the hypocrisies facing the subjected and suppressed African American experience, and despite doing so in a raunchy, violent, and aggressive manner, their message seemed to get across to a substantial audience across the country.

If rap music appears to be excessively violent when compared to country-western or popular rock, it is because rap stems from a culture that has been seeped in the fight against political, social, and economic oppression. Despite the theatrics sometimes put on for major-label albums or MTV videos, for many artists, rapping about guns and gang life is a reflection of daily life in racially- and economically-stratified inner-city ghettos and housing projects. Violence in rap is not an affective agent that threatens to harm America’s youth; rather, it is the outcry of an already-existing problem from youth whose worldviews have been shaped by experiencing deep economic inequalities divided largely along racial lines.[1]

Rapping about violence and gang life is not something that N.W.A. chose to do so as to popularize the discriminatory nature of everyday life, but to illustrate the daily indignities and oppression that African Americans experience that are invisible to the majority – primarily white people. This narrative forms a foundation for hip-hop that remains consistent over the years. Over time hip-hop artists both vilified and popularized this violence and ‘thug life’.

Public Enemy took an explicitly political approach to all of their recordings from the lyrics to the samples to the in-your-face, wall-of-sound production. Chuck D [member of Public Enemy] argued that hip-hop was first and foremost a tool for communication and famously proclaimed hip-hop “the Black CNN,” a medium to inform and to politicize Black Americans … According to Alan Light, “Public Enemy was offering an extension of rap’s familiar outlaw pose, but they grounded it in the realities of contemporary urban life, with a sharp eye for detail and a brilliant sonic counterpoint that raised rap to a new level of sophistication” (141). On “Fight the Power,” from Fear of a Black Planet (1990), not only do Public Enemy urge listeners to “Fight the power,” they also explain their rhymes are “designed to fill your mind” because “what we need is awareness.” …Public Enemy not only offered critique of but also raised awareness around current events that smacked of racism and “the good ol’ days, same ol’ ways” attitudes that kept institutional racism operating in public policies (Public Enemy, 1991).[2]

The designation of hip-hop as “the Black CNN” illustrates the narrative that encompasses the genre – the African American experience is an incredibly prevalent – if not the most prevalent – element of the hip-hop genre as it continues to evolve over time. ‘Fight the Power’ is not only about resisting the mainstream, institutional outlet, but also seeking to educate and bring ‘awareness’, as is stated above. Public Enemy, as a hip-hop group, helped to illustrate these issues from the African American perspective, and share them with mass audiences as a form of resistance.

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In the next section, I will discuss a hip-hop artist whose stardom and prominence in 1990’s and 2000’s pushed the envelope of the genre – Mos Def.

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If you would prefer to skip around, here are the different section links: Introduction, Extending the Message, and Kendrick Lamar and the Future of Hip-Hop.

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[1] Blanchard, “The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture.”

[2] Binfield, “Bigger than Hip-Hop: Music and Politics in the Hip-Hop Generation.”

[3] “The Politics of Hip-Hop: Can Rap Change the World?”

(For a full reference list, see the Bibliography)