Rap After the Riot: Smoldering Rage And No Apologies
By Jon Pareles, The New York Times
Ice Cube does some gloating on his new album, "The Predator." "Anything you wanted to know about the riot was in the records before the riot," he says in an interview-style interlude. "All you had to do was go to the Ice Cube library and pick a record."
He's right: "Death Certificate," released on Halloween in 1991, not only articulated the rage surrounding the beating of Rodney King, but showed exactly where the flashpoint would be in the April riots in Los Angeles. The album included "Black Korea," which revealed the deep resentment between Korean shopkeepers (whom Ice Cube, in one ignorant flourish, described as "chop-suey-eatin' ") and blacks, who felt they were being treated more like potential criminals than customers; when the riots came, Korean businesses became targets.
The album was vengeful and divisive, airing deep-seated prejudices and treating ethnic groups as if they were warring gangs that could never share turf. But it was also prophetic, which may be one reason "The Predator" shot to No. 1 on Billboard's album chart upon release at the end of November. In the wake of the riot, people had been waiting for rap's next bulletin from the front.
Before South-Central Los Angeles went up in a billion dollars' worth of flames, the only voices from the area that most Americans had heard were the swaggering storytellers of gangster rap. Taking violence for granted, flaunting ugly attitudes toward women and homosexuals, savoring gory details, gangster rappers weren't documentarians or responsible spokesmen; they were pulp auteurs, exploiting America's appetite for violent entertainment while dropping enough local details or "reality" to sound credible.
When Los Angeles burned, the reality dwarfed gangster rap's tales of drive-by shootings and petty but deadly feuds. Yet amid the violence, the rappers suddenly seemed like experts. And as the immediacy of the riots faded, rappers are again the voices most likely to be heard outside the ghetto. They are not diplomatic or conciliatory with the outside world; they have little to say about the riot victims or about rebuilding burned-out areas. That's for politicians and community leaders to take care of. Rappers talk about how they feel.
Hip-hop is by far the most topical zone of popular music, so it was inevitable that the riots would make their way into rap's fall releases. For the most part, Los Angeles rappers have preferred to stay with their usual postures and material, with increasingly redundant tales of crime, sex and battling machismo. Although explicit post-riot raps are greatly outnumbered by more typical gangster material, they have been emerging on new recordings over the last month. They suggest that the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King has left enduring anger and that racial and ethnic polarization has only increased.
There are no apologies, just a few second thoughts. On recent releases, gangster rappers like Ice Cube vent rage and vow retribution, while noting with approval the post-riot truce between the two most entrenched Los Angeles gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. More politically inclined rappers, like Paris (from Oakland, Calif.), ricochet between fantasizing about terrorism and trying to draw broader lessons from the carnage.
The usually outspoken Public Enemy (from New York) plays defense. In "Tie Goes to the Runner" on the new album "Greatest Misses," Chuck D says he's "not surprised at all about the riots," but his only word about the situation is to insist that raps like "Black Korea" didn't create the problems: "This was predicted, not self-inflicted/ By the rap out of the 'hood that kicked it good." Sound bites from news coverage of the riots also appear as signs of authenticity on efforts like "Whut? Thee Album" by Redman, a performer from Newark who starts the album by placing himself in a "psycho" ward, talking out his sociopathic fantasies. The album includes "News Break," in which a fictitious interviewer asks Redman about the reaction to the riots. "Yeah, they still mad," he says, and threatens the interviewer.
As with the rest of hip-hop, pluralism reigns. But the sentiment they share is that it took an all-out insurrection to get the attention of a white power structure.
Ice Cube, the best-known voice of South-Central, is involved not just on "The Predator" but on a forthcoming album by a rapper called Kam, due in February, and on an all-star post-riot single called "Get the Fist," which Mercury Records released but made little effort to promote. Sales of the single, a sequence of snippets by Ice Cube, Yo-Yo, Cypress Hill, Kam and others, benefit the Brotherhood Movement, which was formed in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots and is currently working to rebuild South-Central. But it's obvious why Mercury didn't try to turn it into another "We Are the World"; "Get the Fist" is probably the most belligerent charity single ever made.
It starts with on-the-spot defiance -- "I'm black and I'm proud to be lootin' in your face" -- and moves on to calls for black unity against the police and whites: "Not black on black/ The other color gets beat." "Get the Fist" also includes part of Ice Cube's riot commentary from "The Predator," "We Had to Tear This -- Up." In the complete song, between news bulletins about the verdict and the riots, Ice Cube raps about looting ("Now I got a laptop computer") and fantasizes about killing the policemen who beat Mr. King and the jury members who acquitted them. He concludes that the riots were necessary for blacks "to get some respect."
Kam's single "Peace Treaty," due in January, praises the gang truce but starts out discussing the riots: "It wasn't just the blacks, everybody was looting and had each other's backs. . . . We all had a hand in the cookie jar and took it far enough to make a statement."
Paris echoes that sentiment on his second album, "Sleeping With the Enemy": "Don't be tellin' me to get the nonviolent spirit/ When I'm violent is the only time you devils hear it." Those lines are part of "Bush Killa," Paris's vision of assassinating the President, a calculated provocation to draw attention to what he sees as genocide against American blacks ("I hope he thinks of how he done us when he's laid to waste/ From guns given to my people for my own kind").
Talking about the riots themselves, in a simulated telephone conversation that opens "Long Hot Summer," Paris and a friend dismiss those who are looting sneaker stores as "tired" and worries that in the aftermath of the riots, blacks will benefit as little as they did after the Watts riots. "If we don't think about things that we need to do for ourselves," he says, "this is just going to happen again and again and again and again." But in the rap that follows, he plays a gun-toting guerrilla stalking cops, with a chorus of "rat-a-tat-tat from my gat."
In cities where pistols are used to settle schoolyard arguments, it's pointless to wish for gun control in rap lyrics. And while no one should take such songs literally, they do reflect a pathology born of all-American myths and of smoldering frustrations. Weaned on the image of the frontier gunslinger who can single-handedly clean up a town, or the Rambo who can refight and win the Vietnam War without a shirt, rappers aren't the only ones who long for decisive action backed by armed force.
Rappers have all sorts of motives, ethical and unethical, to remind the outside world about their frustration, and in the commercial realm of popular culture, no motives are entirely unmixed. A rapper can identify with his or her community, hoping to shock listeners into paying attention to real troubles, and simultaneously realize that contention and notoriety and sensationalism will publicize and sell recordings. For rappers who portray their characters as gunslingers and guerrillas, there's also a large component of machismo, the determination to convince the archetypal street-level listener that the performer is as "hard" as the competition.
Post-riot raps don't offer practical solutions to urban unemployment, declining education, drugs and crime, any more than governmental bodies have. Instead, they shout and snarl about escalating desperation that makes all sides seek scapegoats, raising friction and shutting off the possibility of dialogue.
Amid the gunplay and vengeance fantasies, the raps make one thing clear. While April's flames may have been quenched, the hostility that ignited them has not gone away. "I do want the white community to understand our community more," Ice Cube says on "The Predator." "I've given so many warnings on what's gonna happen if we don't get these things straight in our lives." His conclusion: "Armageddon is near."