In 2013, in an interview with RESPECT. Magazine, Brooklyn rapper Soul Khan questioned the abundance of autobiographical, self-centered lyrics in hip-hop. Comically citing examples of biography in other genres, he exclaimed, “The Decemberists get to write about anything they want. The Weakerthans wrote about a cat, through the eyes of a cat! Why can’t I do that?” Although Soul Khan asks the question comically and probably doesn’t have any physical obstacles to writing songs about cats or gerbils or even his thick-framed glasses, his question is worth considering. Why aren’t rappers collectively rapping in third-person, about people or things other than themselves? Or to put it differently, why are rappers rapping about themselves?

“Politics” is often the go-to answer when it comes to questions of rap and it’s not a bad start. Sociologists, historians, academics, rap fans and even rappers themselves often point to the conditions out of which rap largely arises – severe poverty, social and political marginalization, systemic police brutality, poor educational systems – and argue that rappers rap because that’s the only way they can be heard. Given the frequency of these topics in rap relative to other forms of art, and the general racial makeup of rappers as a group, this explanation is hard to oppose.

Yet it has its limitations, especially when you listen to rap that is clearly made for dancing or other activities. If rap itself is inherently political, where are the politics in songs that are clearly made for the dance floor? If you turn to those same historians, sociologists, rap fans and rappers who make arguments about rap’s inherent politics, they avoid this question by strategically citing so-called “conscious rappers” like Common, Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, Killer Mike and soon, maybe even Macklemore. In other words, they cite artists who are explicit about their politics. But if rap is inherently political, political rap can’t just be understood as the rap that tells us it’s political.

“Conscious rap” is far from a coherent category, but even as a generic placeholder, it begs the question of how the politics of an entire genre can be defined by a tiny subset of its artists. Sure, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Macklemore and many more have certainly actively addressed politically-charged topics throughout their careers, but if hip-hop is inherently political, we should find politics everywhere, from the screeds of Lupe Fiasco, to the boasts of Nicki Minaj, to Young Thug’s weird coos, not just where we’re told to find politics.

Redefining Hip-hop’s Politics

What exactly counts as politics? When it comes to discussing politics within art, French philosopher Jacques Rancière offers some particularly useful advice. Discussing the politics of literature as an art form, he writes, “The politics of literature is not the politics of its writers. It does not deal with their personal commitment to the social and political issues and struggles of their times. Nor does it deal with the modes of representation of political events or the social structure and the social struggles in their books.” This is a very atypical definition of politics, but it’s a useful starting point because it thinks of literature as a medium itself, not just a repository for artists’ thoughts. In other words,  for Rancière, literature itself has a politics, a unique way of representing and acting in the world. Hip-hop works the same way.

Rancière justifies his idiosyncratic definition of politics by explaining that his definition is in opposition to the “common view,” which sees politics “as the practice of power or the embodiment of collective wills and interests and the enactment of collective ideas.” Though Rancière does not necessarily discredit this common view of politics, he highlights its limits, writing, “such enactments or embodiments imply that you are taken into account as subjects sharing in a common world, making statements and not simply noise, discussing things located in a common world and not in your own fantasy.”

For Rancière, the common view of politics conceals the incoherence of the allegedly “common world” and presumes that this world is inclusive when it is in fact quite the opposite. In reality, politics in its most familiar form is exclusionary, actively obscuring its boundaries and the formation of those boundaries by treating political discourse as if everyone is on common ground and as if that ground has always been freely open to all.

Take Congressional hearings, for example. Speaking to Congress is allegedly one of the highest political actions that a citizen can make. For Rancière, this would be a bit deceptive. Sure, speaking to Congress is a privilege and a rare opportunity to address our nation’s leaders directly, but the entire idea of Congressional hearings is predicated upon the practice of Congress rarely listening to constituents in general. So For Rancière, politics would be Congress’ habit of listening only at certain times, and even then, only to certain people. Every time a Congressperson deletes an email from a concerned party or scoffs at a guest speaker’s proposal or misses an appointment, that is politics. If you want to discuss politics, don’t just listen to speeches: look at who isn’t invited to dinner parties and luncheons, look for the people who are excluded and marginalized, and see how they get excluded

Hip-hop was born directly from exclusion and marginalization. Birthed in the Bronx, New York City, during the late 70’s, hip-hop emerged on the social, economic and geographic margins and was driven by the people living on those margins. Despite this politicized history, many historians strangely claim that hip-hop didn’t become political until the emergence of groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A. in the late 80’s. One writer, Clarence Lusane, pushes the birth of hip-hop’s politics further, into the 90’s, declaring 1992 as the year that rap “politically came of age.” There is a strange gap in this history. How could rap have existed for 13 years and not have been political?

Even historians who trace rap’s politics to the early 80’s are making similarly strange claims. For example, there’s Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion of “The Message” a “political” song released in 1982 by Grandmaster Flash and the Fab Five. Describing the song, he writes, “Melle Mel’s narrative portrays the transformation of the individual spirit within a context that offers little or no choice or freedom for those contained within it. Within Melle Mel’s text, the fate of the individual spirit living within the parameters of the post-industrial urban landscape has been consigned at birth to live a short and miserable life.”

This description of the song isn’t wrong, but it’s unclear why Neal is so singularly focused on the song’s lyrics. The utter existence of the song itself is a marvel. In a very narrow period of time, young black and Latino youth had gone from being seen as inveterate delinquents to being seen as inherent vessels of cool, all while crack was very quickly infiltrating and destroying their communities. Considering this context, it seems a bit dismissive to focus on “The Message” when the sheer perceptibility of the messengers themselves was a political development. Before hip-hop, these kids and their concerns were largely invisible, inaudible, imperceptible. The destruction of public housing and the decline of factory jobs were literally pushing people to the edges of the Bronx, leaving them dangling on the precipice of poverty.

So the mere fact that these kids were being perceived as people with things to say – which should always be understood as a privilege because not everyone gets a chance to be heard – deserves exploration.  Of course, what they end up saying is also important, but if we follow Neal’s approach, we’re prioritizing the message over the messenger, failing to understand how the messenger even came to be recognizable as someone worth listening to.

“You gotta fight for your right to party”

As hip-hop slowly developed into a thriving commercial genre during the 80s, the hip-hop community grew as well. Yet, as it swelled it could no longer solely be seen [or heard] as synonymous with the marginalized community represented by Melle Mel and the Fab Five. In addition to the residents of the Bronx, the hip-hop community came to include residents of other boroughs of New York City, namely Brooklyn. One particular Brooklyn group, the Beastie Boys, threatened the Bronx’s vestigial ties to hip-hop altogether. Literature scholar Greg Wahl argues that because they were an all-white group, who used to be punk artists, the Beastie Boys were unable to frame their “fight” against law, justice, or free speech “because in hip-hop, such battles are almost always constructed around the boundaries of racial marginality.”

In essence, Wahl thinks that the Beastie Boys’ perceptibility is already established because they are white and subsequently racially privileged. So when they made their crossover from hardcore punk to hip-hop, these privileges carried over with them because law, justice, and free speech were already on their side. This is a questionable logical leap. First, do privileges really traverse genre boundaries that easily? Just a few years ago, Brian McKnight, an esteemed R&B singer,  was mocked when he attempted to dabble in adult contemporary.Likewise, Lil’ Wayne’s Rebirth album, an experiment with rock, was scoffed at for its mere existence. Even Kanye West, riding high from Graduation,  was met with shrugs when he released 808s and Heartbreaks a year later. Sure, not all of of these crossover attempts were particularly good, but their reception suggests that quality wasn’t the real concern. These artists seemed to be criticized not just for their artistry, but for their audacity, the mere presumption that they could create music of another genre. And perhaps they shouldn’t. But even this tiny sample demonstrates how conditional privilege is. All privileges require a scaffolding, an understanding of what is possible and what is allowed and for whom.
Racial privilege is no different. Thus we can ask, how exactly does racial marginality really function in hip-hop? Can hip-hop as a genre really be believed to uniquely empower marginalized people?  For hip-hop, these questions can be answered by considering how the genre was initially founded and practiced.

Founding father DJ Kool Herc offers some insight. Explaining why he sampled breakbeats in a 1978 Billboard article, he said, “On most [disco] records, people have to wait through a lot of strings and singing to get to the good part of the record. But I give it to them all upfront.” As Kool Herc notes, breakbeats, which are characterized by a noticeable increased audibility of percussive elements, occurred during gaps, “breaks,” between the more melodic elements of disco songs.

To put it differently, these breakbeats appeared at the margins of the melody and harmony which dominated the duration of the songs. Because these brief interstitial moments came to be valued by audiences who wanted “the good part,” Herc found a way to oppose the marginalization of breakbeats and make them perceptible at length. Houston Baker gives a more riveting account:

“What Herc, Flash, and their cohort did was to actualize the immanent possibilities of discotechnology. They turned two turntables into a sound system through the technical addition of a beat box, heavy amplification, headphones, and very, very fast hands. Why listen – the early hip-hop DJs asked – to an entire commercial disc if the disc contained only twenty (or two) seconds of worthwhile sound? Why notwork that sound by having two copies of the same disc on separate turntables , moving the sound on the two tables in DJ-orchestrated patterns, creating thereby a worthwhile sound”

The highly technical and genius intervention described by Baker is the primordial political act of hip-hop. By juxtaposing two copies of discs and using their combined breakbeats to prioritize the breaks, simultaneously producing and amplifying their perceptibility, early DJs generated a  new sound, one that brought the margins to life by making them the centerpiece. Herc’s “good part” became a good whole, not just a good moment.

Corresponding with, yet consequential of this technical intervention, was the emergence of the hip-hop community. While Herc notes that there was a demand for this community as indicated by certain disco listeners’ enthusiasm for breakbeats, this community can’t be said to have been recognizable as a community prior to this technical intervention. The hip-hop community emerged only through that intervention’s repetition through recurring parties that actively avoided disco.

It is this intervention in perceptibility that is the fundamental politics of hip-hop, not the desires, frustrations and hopes of the marginalized community that was brought together and maintained by that intervention. To put it bluntly, while hip-hop was created by marginalized minority communities, it had no loyalty to them. In other words, hip-hop’s definition of margins is not synonymous with society’s. Hip-hop intensifies the perceptibility of sonic margins, not demographic margins.

With this rough schematic of hip-hop’s basic politics, we can return to the Beastie Boys. After a stint as a hardcore punk band, the Beastie Boys turned to rap in 1983 with the release of their 12-inch vinyl single, “Cooky Puss.” Notably, the title track samples two of the songs from Polly Wog Stew, their first and only printed recording as a hardcore band. Quite literally, then, for “Cooky Puss” the Beastie Boys had to refashion their music so that it was perceivable as hip-hop. This refashioning of their music and hip-hop’s definition of margins reveal an almost obvious reality: racial marginality – within or outside of the genre – is not the precondition for producing hip-hop. This really shouldn’t be surprising – as history has shown, for better and for worse, anyone can make hip-hop.

So while hip-hop was spawned at and for live, black and Latino parties in the Bronx, the visibility and vitality that it gave to these parties, these communities, was counter intuitively attributable to the communities, not the music. The Beastie Boys’ famous single was absolutely correct: the right to party, to keep the music tied to its intended listeners, took a sustained effort, a fight against the very genre itself. In other words, the black community has kept hip-hop tethered to black life by supporting hip-hop and investing in it financially and socially, policing who could be at its forefront and who it represents, but all this time hip-hop itself has largely been indifferent. These flows ain’t loyal.

“Assume the Position”

If hip-hop doesn’t principally make marginalized people heard, how have so many racially and economically marginalized artists managed to be heard precisely through hip-hop? The legacy of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” offers some answers. Featured on their album Straight Outta Compton, despite not being a commercial single or even featuring all of the group’s members,  “FTP” and its flawless polemic phrase – “fuck the police” – have always had extended lives ( And last year’s slew of publicized deadly encounters with police officers will probably keep the phrase around for even longer).

In the song, N.W.A. challenges the authority of the law by staging a trial in which the law’s representatives, the police, are testified against by the people that they routinely abuse. The song has been extensively discussed by supporters and detractors alike, but these discussions have rarely focused on the song’s frame: a criminal trial. Far from a cheap gimmick, the court proceedings in “Fuck tha Police” are essential to the song’s message and the perceptibility of that message.

Introduced as prosecutors yet simultaneously serving as witnesses, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E simultaneously testify against and prosecute the Los Angeles Police Department. These witness-prosecutors totally transform how the courtroom typically works, making a new court that is explicitly racialized. When Ice Cube is sworn in, the presiding judge, Dr. Dre, asks, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help your black ass?” Ice Cube replies “You goddamn right!” and it’s not a joke. To be black in this courtroom is to be authoritative, to be capable of ensuring that justice is properly enacted. To be black in other courtrooms, this implies, is to lose credibility, to be assured that justice will be miscarried.

By framing “Fuck tha Police” through the lens of a reordered court, N.W.A. counters hip-hop’s severance from marginalized communities by restitching this community and its grievances back to hip-hop. By restaging the grounds upon which their grievances can become intelligible rather than assuming that hip-hop will reproduce them, N.W.A. fastens hip-hop to their grievances and themselves. They make hip-hop carry their message because they can’t count on it to be heard without their intervention.

Rap duo MellowHype’s song “Fuck tha Police” retains both the title of the original song and its celebratory theme of revenge against the Los Angeles Police Department. However, whereas N.W.A.’s version prefaces its revenge with the frame of the kangaroo court, MellowHype’s take doesn’t seem to have a frame at all.  The bulk of the song’s content involves the artists participating in organized crime, rape, hate crimes, mass murder and more.

Nevertheless, in the last few seconds of the song, the featured artist, Tyler, the Creator, offers a frame. Rapping, “All I wanted to do was get that trick down/That sick set, tryna get my kickflip wet/But no po-po did not wanna see/That O.F.W. motherfuckin’ G, nigga this Wolf Gang, fuck LAPD” , Tyler, a known skateboarder, reveals that the song’s excessive violence is all a vengeful fantasy stemming from a charged encounter he had with the police while he was skating. This revelation is more than a dramatic flair. Unable to get revenge on the police as skaters, Tyler and MellowHype depict themselves as criminal masterminds, the “real” antagonists of the police, in order to make their grievances perceptible. In other words, they create a fantasy world where their issues with the police can be understood as legitimate.

“Mrs. Officer,” by Lil’ Wayne works similarly. It’s an interesting example because it’s not a go-to example for hip-hop’s politics, yet for the song’s message to get across, Lil’ Wayne has to work just as hard as N.W.A. and Mellowhype. The gist of the song is that Lil’ Wayne imagines that he could possibly hook up with a cop, but because any kind of positive relation with a cop is taboo, he has to hyper-sexualize this cop to an absurd degree.

This hyper-sexualization is done through references to the police officer’s uniform, Miranda Rights, “driving while black” and even the sound of police sirens. By sexualizing these police-related objects, Lil’ Wayne makes his fantasy and eventual meetup with a cop into a believable reality. It’s downright bizarre and sexist, especially when he likens his sexual prowess to Rodney King’s brutal police beating , but in order for his fantasy to make sense, to be perceptible, Wayne has to actively transform cops into objects of desire. And this transformation is directed against the likely possibility of his message being abstracted by the genre’s indifference to his concerns.

In the end, judging from the actions of the artists keeping “Fuck tha Police” alive and well,  hip-hop’s political possibilities seem limitless, but only when artists first accept the sheer truth that hip-hop doesn’t necessarily care about them. By anticipating this indifference, artists are able to install a gravity into each song that stops the song from drifting into orbit, away from the artists and circumstances that birthed them.
These gravities are not always effective, especially in an age where the success of a song is measured by how far it travels away from its original audience and the experiences that birthed it. Nevertheless, the point of this essay is that the exacting pressures of record labels, genre constraints, and even context are significant, yet ultimately somewhat secondary. More immediately, artists are acted upon by the dark designs of the genre itself.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Kearse is a writer in Washington, D.C. He has previously written for The Toast, Bandwidth, Paste Magazine, and RESPECT. Magazine. He regularly writes about race, music, and movies at The Black Tongue.