Well, here we go again. In 1989 N.W.A got blasted for a song called ”F— Tha Police”; this year’s hip-hop controversy swirls around a rank rap beginner, Sister Souljah, and one of the genre’s canniest veterans, Ice-T. Sister Souljah was denounced by Bill Clinton for her remark in a May 13 Washington Post interview: ”If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Ice-T got slammed by police associations in Texas and other locales after they discovered a song called ”Cop Killer” on his current album, Body Count; in their wrath, the police are threatening a boycott of everything produced by Time Warner, the corporate parent of Ice-T’s record label (and this magazine).
But what’s really intriguing is that rap isn’t attacked even more strongly. In 1989 even N.W.A’s bitterest enemies didn’t notice that Boogie Down Productions was suggesting (in the song ”Bo! Bo! Bo!”) that killing police might be ”the only way to deal with racism if you’re black.” Now, lots of rap — the vast bulk of it-isn’t violent at all. But if even a few top-selling rappers have been talking for years about killing police, why isn’t the whole nation on red alert?
The truth, I’m afraid, is that even rap’s most vehement enemies aren’t really paying attention. If they were, they’d notice that rappers explain their antipolice songs as retaliation for real-world police attacks against blacks. Remember Rodney King? Rappers will tell you, in fact, that they themselves have been repeatedly harassed. So who you gonna believe? The police worry that they’re being set up for assassination by inflamed blacks; Ice-T thinks he and the people on the street for whom he speaks are the victims. Many people will want to call his over-the-top fantasy of revenge irresponsible. But to discuss the issue without acknowledging the genuine feeling among African-Americans that they are mistreated by police would be ignorant, if not hypocritical.
Ice-T, in any case, is a complex character. Sometimes he sounds like a hip-hop equivalent of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, in which eyeballs fly through the air to great, gross comic effect. He can also retail bitterly compassionate parables of street kids lost to gangs and drugs. But you won’t find those on Body Count, maybe because Ice-T, a lifelong Black Sabbath fan, made the record with his own heavy-metal band, and that glorious musical indulgence — you can hear his delight on every moment of every track — sends him right through the roof.
Sister Souljah, for her part, is a committed politico who, in her first and only album, this year’s 360 Degrees of Power, shouts speeches over music, with little attention to normal rap rhythm or rhyme. She’ll prod black women — and all in the black community — to be strong (”If you have 10 friends there should be at least five different businesses that you can put together”). Then she’ll tear into white people, whom, with little apology, she clearly hates. She should go fight Ice-T, who (in ”Momma’s Gotta Die Tonight,” the most deliriously nutso song on Body Count) imagines he’d beat, burn, and dismember his own mother if she were racist enough to teach him whites were no good.
But look. It’s hardly news by now that some rappers are sexist, homophobic, and even anti-Semitic, though that offense against human dignity hasn’t been denounced nearly enough. Where were the headlines when Ice Cube endorsed a book published by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, blaming Jews for the slave trade? (At least now that Sister Souljah’s getting her 15 minutes of anti-fame, we’ve learned that in a Columbia University speech two years ago she gratuitously parodied white antagonists as ”Mr. Goldberg” and ”Mr. Feinstein.”)
But should we reject all rap because some rappers are bigots? There are bigots everywhere — and the fracas about scary rap language blinds us to the much more scary reality that makes rappers angry. Long before Los Angeles burned, rappers warned us of trouble ahead, starting at least 10 years ago with the quietly frightening refrain of one of the first rap hits, ”The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash: ”Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge.” Now we’re hearing stronger language: ”You try not to let this stuff drive you crazy. You’d be trying to kill every white person in the world.” No rapper said that. Those are the words of a 25-year-old black hairdresser, quoted by The New York Times in a June 22 story about two adjoining Chicago neighborhoods, one white, one black. The people in the white neighborhood mostly don’t like black people, though they don’t know any and don’t want to; the people in the black neighborhood tell detailed stories of racism. Rappers didn’t teach this hairdresser what to say; it was people like her who taught them. We’re in trouble if we let even their ugliest lyrics stop us from listening.