Brave new world

Rap's new polish: sophistication or pandering?

What industry? Does it matter? It's the same industry that's always there, X marks the spot and sign the paper, sign your songs away while we sub Pat Boone for Little Richard. Unlike rock, rap and hip-hop are based in fresh class struggle, close enough to the surface to break the skin.

It's not hard to imagine the reaction of an angry young African-American--the kind of kid who would put his (or her) entire being into solid beats--upon seeing the one thing he thought he had float off toward the Hello Kitty culture of Orville Redenbacker's suburbia. All the rest of it and now my damn music, too.

Franti knows that feeling; he sees it out his window in San Francisco. "Man, we have a black mayor down here now and everybody is kinda feeling good," he says. "But we're the only major city in America that has a declining black population. Increasingly, white people are moving into black neighborhoods, taking over historically black enclaves. People are saying this is good, because retail has returned to the area, but to me and a lot of others this is the beginning of a breakdown in our foundation."

Cheryl Keyes, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, has spent 16 years covering the rap scene and thinks that rap owes its potency to its origins. "Rap grew out of the oppression of the inner city," she explains. "People of color feel that they can't get the protection and the aid they need, so they turn to themselves...[for them] it's like [Public Enemy's] Flava Flav said: '911 is a joke.'"

Born in New York City, midwifed by oppression and inequity, rap and hip-hop have now gone on to impart mad wack house-party happy feet to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed children of the people many might blame for the situation in the first place. The tenuousness of the scene screams at every worry about its future. Nobody worries about the future of rock anymore, except as some ironic, guffaw-inducing bon mot; how long until rap and hip-hop can enjoy a similar acceptance? Where's rap's Hootie, and is that concept as terrible as it first sounds? There's a lot of territory to cover between heaven and hard-core, and it just may be that for now the best strategy is the Rawhide gambit: Don't try to understand them, just play the tape and jam them.

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