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Monday, February 22, 2016

February 22, 2016: Rap Readings: Public Enemy and N.W.A.

[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On the protest album that helped change rap—and thoroughly changed America.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on rap—not that I would claim to be an expert on most of the topics about which I write here (John Sayles and Bruce Springsteen, maybe, but not most of them), but I am particularly less-well-informed when it comes to the multi-decade history and evolution of rap. When someone who grew up on the genre, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, writes about it, it quickly becomes clear to me how many of the artists who were influential to him are barely (if at all) familiar to me, and how uniquely unqualified I thus would be to judge which artists or records have been the most significant in rap history. But on the other hand, one of the genres with which I’m most familiar is American political and protest music—the more my Springsteen tastes started to include his most explicitly political albums and songs (like most of The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album that I hated on first listen and have come to love), the more I both delved back into artists like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Tom Waits and came to appreciate contemporary ones like Rage Against the Machine and Ani DiFranco. And so I feel entirely qualified to assert that Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) is one of the greatest political and protest albums in American history.

Although I was too young to recognize it at the time, 1988 seems to have been the single most important year in rap’s transition from an underground, fully counter-culture genre to a dominant force in popular music—the Beastie Boys had started the shift a year or two earlier, but ’88 saw the release of both Public Enemy’s album (their second, but the first had been Def Jam Records’ worst-selling album of all time, so it was this second that really broke them) and N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. While there are certainly points of connection and overlap between the two albums, their central voices and styles are hugely distinct, and can perhaps be captured in their two best-selling singles (which I use side by side in my Intro to American Studies course on the 1980s): N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” an intentionally extreme, vulgar, and violent response to police brutality and profiling; and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype,” a sophisticated and media-savvy response to critics’ and mainstream musical outlets’ stereotyping of the group. I think there is most definitely a place and role for both songs in our understanding of (among other things) South Central Los Angeles, life for young African American men, and race in the 1980s, but it is unquestionably easier to fixate on the extremes in N.W.A. and thus miss the serious and social questions behind them; whereas Public Enemy’s song, like their entire album, forces us to engage seriously and meaningfully with its central themes and perspectives.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. The real genius of Nation of Millions, what puts it in the same conversation with works like “This Land is Your Land,” “The Hurricane,” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” is that it weds tremendous popular appeal with cutting political critiques and radical messages; it’s got a beat and you can dance to it, but while you’re doing so your perspective and understanding of American identities and communities, present and past, are being significantly impacted and (at least for someone not a product of inner-city Los Angeles; or, to put it more exactly, at least for me) significantly altered. Political protest music doesn’t have to feel pedantic (I’m looking at you, Neil Young’s “Southern Man”) or explicitly divisive (ditto, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”); it can instead unite its listeners across any and all categories and identities, bringing audiences together and to their feet and then hitting them in their collective consciousness. In the final verse of “Don’t Believe the Hype,” Chuck D raps that he and the group will “rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar/Teach the bourgeoisie, and rock the boulevard,” and that’s exactly the balance that the whole album achieves.
If working with college students day in and day out for the last decade and a half has taught me anything, it’s how centrally important music is to their lives and identities and perspectives; pop culture in general has a big influence, of course, but while I have some students for whom that means movies and some for whom it’s TV, some who are all about various websites and some who read a ton of science fiction (to cite only four of the many pursuits and obsessions I encounter), I would say that music is hugely significant for pretty much every one of them. And that makes it especially important than American Studies scholarship pay particular attention to an album like Nation of Millions, a best-selling work of popular music that managed to engage, with sophistication and humor and intelligence, with some of our nation’s most pressing and complex questions.
Next rap reading tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?

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