Two decades after C. Delores Tucker called rap lyrics “pornographic filth”, the battle over a culture of incivility marketed to impressionable youth continues. Last week middle-age rapper Rick Ross generated outrage with lyrics that referenced a dangerous new street drug, slipping it in an unsuspecting woman’s drink, and raping her. The pushback was swift, even from within the music industry. But we have been here before.
Just a few weeks ago, Lil Wayne compared the brutal murder of Emmett Till with a violent sex act. Teenage Chief Keef — who can’t seem to get off probation – had a Twitter beef with another young rapper who was later shot to death. Last year, Too Short advised boys how to sexually abuse young girls in a magazine article. Though the hip hop industry has been dominated by males, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Nikki Minaj have brought their own unladylike messaging to the genre.
Time and time again the public has been offended. And artists defend their 1st Amendment right to say what they please, except when they go too far. It seems that uncivilized lyrics and behavior are part of hip hop’s marketing plan. But despite the insistence that hip hop clean up its act, artists and record executives push back, blaming parents, the community and radio stations for having more influence on young people than rap.
“I think that hip hop takes too much of the blame for some of these kid’s actions,” said Michael “Blue” Williams, a music mogul who has represented Cee Lo Green, Outkast and Nas. “I think that while there is a lot of hyper-exaggeration in the music, I think that a kid that doesn’t have a father and his mother is working 20 hours and he doesn’t have anything and he is trying to figure out how to help his mother out isn’t going to go out and get a gun and commit a crime because he heard it in a rap song. He’s going out because he is trying to improve his environment.”
Williams has stepped forward with Guns 4 Greatness, a privately funded gun buy-back/mentoring program that removed 115 guns off the streets this past weekend. “What I would like to do is to offer him an opportunity to learn that there are other ways to improve that environment,” he said. “While music is an influence and has a strong impact, I think the reality is that connection to another person that they are not getting at home because they don’t have a father in more important and can have more of an impact.”
When pushed about hip hop’s relationship to violence Williams replied, “It’s not just hip hop. I get personally offended when people blame hip hop. Hip hop’s violent nature, so to speak, stems from a lot of grandiose postures. I think hip hop can take more responsibility, but we have to start changing our culture and taking a more proactive approach to get our people to a better position.” Williams said the American culture right now is completely involved in getting what they want quickly. “That is what American Idol and all these shows are about. They are trying to get quick rewards without a lot of work. That’s not real. I think we have to start teaching people that you have to do the work to get what you want to get.”
It’s not just American culture, though. Internationally known reggae artist Ed Robinson (with multi-decades in the business) said young people get the message of anti-violence through music, just like they get the message of violence through the music. “Don’t underestimate young people, they are very smart,” said Robinson. When asked if it is the responsibility of other recording artists to carry a message of peace and anti-violence, Robinson said, “Yes it is”. Asked if he thought enough was being done, Robinson said, “No”.
More than a year ago, Ruff Ryders business consultant Geoffrey Atkins who has worked with DMX, Jadakiss and Swizz Beatz said, “Artists are artists. As a company we don’t tell artists what they should say or do. We don’t censor them. We’ve never done that. We came from the streets and we understand that the streets are all about. What we can to do so is inspire people who come from the streets to see there is other things that they can do.”
Atkins gave an overall assessment. “As far as music goes, everybody has their tastes… their likes and dislikes in music. I personally am a big jazz fan, but music is music. It’s creative,” said Atkins. “Anytime you have anything creative there is always going to be criticism of it – whether it is comedy, acting or music.”
But there is a bigger picture. Atkins took pride in Ruff Ryders being an independent label. “We are the only black-owned music company left the United States,” he said. Atkins cautioned that there is a difference between an Indy and a major label. He saw what happened when “as rap or hip-hop grew, everyone was enveloped. All of a sudden all of the majors said, ‘We are going to buy this one out, we’re going to buy that one out. And if we are going to put an artist on the shelf, we put them on the shelf because they are not doing what we want them to do.’”
Atkins said that is why independence is critical. “We are in an industry where we contribute the basic money that is made in this industry, but we don’t have a distribution company,” said Atkins. “People are going to come to us with whatever music they have as independents, but what we are saying is that if you don’t have control over distribution you are not going to be able to change anything in the industry.”
Atkins referred to a DMX song called The Industry in which he “talks about how screwed up” it is. “The industry has always been one where they treated artists like slaves; they did basically what they were told to do,” said Atkins. “When you signed a contract as an artist back in the day, you were told you were going to do five albums and you’re going to make X amount of dollars. You are not going to make any more money until we recoup our money. So if you sign with a major label, you’re stuck. Most [artists] are going to do what [the record labels] want to do.”
“You need to look at who is making those decisions,” said Atkins. “Who are the real decision-makers? Who is behind this?”