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Rap: Rap Culture's Sides

Rap Culture's Sides
From the outside, Rap is a monolith - the sound of booming beats and loudmouthed, tuneless egotists chanting. But with rap now in its second decade as the music of urban teen-agers (and, increasingly, of suburbanites as well), it is anything but unified.

While macho boasting is still rap's bread and butter, rap has hooligans and do-gooders, storytellers and self-promoters, romantics and bawdy jesters. The music, too, can be a stark beat or a thick cacophony, and each rapper has his (and, too rarely, her) own kind of delivery. Now and then a rapper even sings.

Rap has maintained outlaw status despite its ever-increasing popularity. As popular music's most direct expression of urban and ghetto life, raps can tell bleak stories with frightening, deadpan realism. Some rappers are on the defensive because the news media sensationalize occasional violence at rap concerts or clubs, presenting musicians and audiences as aggressors rather than crime victims; others, like N.W.A. from Los Angeles, spout unrepentant boasts about gunplay.
Raps also detail uninhibited teen fantasies - sexual escapades, wealth, conquering authority figures - with rhymes that are, too often, proudly sexist and homophobic, stupidly equating strength with ugly putdowns. But among rappers there is a growing awareness of rap's importance as role model and cultural statement.

If, 10 years ago, you asked black people in inner-city areas what they most feared when walking the streets, they would probably have said it was police officers; today they'd reply that it's loud, aggressive gangs of young black boys - who may or may not be criminals, but are deliberately trying to strike terror into those around them, living up to the gangsta-rap culture which has been imported from the US since the late 1980s. "We're from the street," they grunt, "we want respect" (expletives deleted).

For a decade now, backed by the profane, misogynistic imagery of rap videos, these people have been given free rein to hijack black culture. Being black is all about music, sex, guns, drugs and living on "the street", they say, and their message has been taken on board by too many impressionable youngsters.

Nelly, 50 Cent, JA Rule, R. Kelly, Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg--the big names in hip hop dominate without even really trying. We have been bombarded with album after album defined by danger and illegality. Female artists such as Lil' Kim and Missy Elliot are in on the action--rapping about sex, drugs, pimping, bitches and violence; a wide assortment of oppressive and derogatory topics--and yet we gladly buy their albums and attend their concerts.

The dangerous lifestyle that could have proved fatal (50 Cent was shot nine times in his old neighborhood in Queens in April 2000) is being glamorized by record companies.

"The worse it gets, the better it sells" wrote one major national newspaper in response to the growing popularity of hip hop and rap. Shock value is what the record industry is selling. The more shocking it is, the more we pay attention, and it's that attention that the entertainment industry thrives on. Publicity (whether good or bad) is publicity nonetheless. It's what sells records and puts the names out there. Press, articles and books are devoted to the phenomenon of hip hop and rap music and its popularity with the masses. Some people like it; others hate it.

But then again, some people hated The Rolling Stones. Some people thought Elvis was risqué. What changes our perception of good or bad? That question will always be asked. The controversy lies in the music's content. The danger lies in society's continuous desensitization to it.
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