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What the Hell Happened to Hip Hop?

death certificate

Soundtrack: KRS ONE “Ova Here”

Let me start this by saying that I am writing a book on this subject. This writing is a super-condensed and probably oversimplified version of what the book will look like.

I am Hip Hop. Hip Hop is my life. I am very, very emotionally invested in the state of Hip Hop music, culture, and politics (word to the Source Magazine).

I am not the only person in the world who feels that something went wrong somewhere along the road in Hip Hop’s journey. It was really good, then it became something else. What the hell happened?

When Hip Hop started in the early to mid 1970’s, it had a few major themes driving its development. Afrika Bambaataa was a street gang leader. Once he became one of the first Hip Hop DJ’s, he saw an opportunity to use these Hip Hop parties as a way to bring peace to the streets. So members of rival gangs would cross turf boundaries and be able to stand in one another’s presence because of their shared love for the music and the energy of these parties.

Also, the art forms of Hip Hop appealed to the sense of competition of these Black and Latino youth in inner city New York. Their competition based on neighborhoods came to be channeled into new competitions based on who could dance the best, deejay the best, emcee the best, and do the best graffiti art. The competition was fierce, almost violent in its intensity. These young men and women were frighteningly determined to gain bragging rights for being the best at their crafts. But the important part was that actual physical violence declined dramatically.

These things pushed Hip Hop through its first decade of existence. From the late 70’s through the mid 80’s, the music industry brass paid very little attention to this budding art form. That opened the door for small, independent record labels to step in and cash in on what the older traditional industry execs thought was a passing fad. Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, Def Jam, Profile, and Jive were some of the small record labels that released the vast majority of the Hip Hop records in the early 80’s. Most of these labels happened to be owned and/or managed by young Jewish guys who desired to buck the trends of the music industry. As such, they let these young unseasoned rappers do pretty much whatever they wanted to do. And it worked.

Once these labels and their Hip Hop releases started making millions of dollars, predictably, the major labels started rushing to sign their own Hip Hop artists. At that time in the 80’s there were six major record labels who controlled almost all of the music released in the United States: Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony, BMG, Universal Music Group, and Polygram (now that six is down to three). Because these labels initially didn’t know what to do with Hip Hop, they also allowed the artists almost complete creative control. That is, until 1989.

On October 24, 1989 Minister Louis Farrakhan gave a press conference at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C. He said these words on that day:

“I am here to announce today that President Bush has met with his joint Chiefs of Staff, under the direction of General Colin Powell, to plan a war against the Black people of America, the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, with particular emphasis on our Black youth, under the guise of a war against drugs, drug sellers, drug users, gangs and violence — all under the heading of extremely urgent national security.”  

I can imagine how these words sounded to most people who heard them at the time. I was in elementary school. I didn’t know any of this was going on. But there was a lot going on.

In an article, “Street Gangs: Future Paramilitary Groups?” by Robert J. Bunker, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor, National Securities Studies Program, California State University, San Bernardino, published in the June 1996 edition of the Police Chief we read:

“Military scholars recognize that a new form of soldier, with no allegiance to the nation-state, is developing in much of the non-Western world. Major Ralph Peters, U.S. Army, who is responsible for evaluating emerging threats for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, terms this threat, The New Warrior Class. It is being taken seriously enough by the U.S. Army to be included in its perceptions of early 21st-century Army operations.

“This type of soldier, which has developed as an outcome of a breakdown in social organization in many failed nation-states, operates in subnational groups such as armed bands, private armies, crime networks and terrorist organizations. Debate in professional U.S. military and affiliated journals over the past two years has dealt with concerns that this new form of soldier may be developing within the United States.

“Street gangs would be one logical source from which this new form of soldier could emerge in this country. These gangs have developed in failed inner cities, where poverty and crime run rampant and family social structures have been severely eroded.

“Drawing parallels between a city such as Beirut and some U.S. inner-city cores, where many gang members grew up, is not overly difficult. The threat of death or physical harm is significant for a young male growing up in both surroundings, and both fail to provide educational opportunities that can allow for the transformation of this segment of the population into productive and responsible citizens. Today’s pre-teenage inner-city children, termed the ‘super-predators’ by Dr. John J. Dilulio, Jr. of Princeton University, bear a striking resemblance to the child soldiers found in numerous private armies throughout the non-Western world.”

Consider these words from Cedric Muhammad:

“Under the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), in an August 25, 1967 memo it is written that no political activist or individual with an ideology that was perceived as a threat to the establishment should have access to a ‘mass communication media.’

“What is Hip-Hop, if not ‘mass communication media’?

“One of the highest concerns of today’s national security apparatus is the role the rapper serves, in their view, as the spokesperson for the gang.

“Why else has intelligence been gathered and compiled on rappers by agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and even the White House through the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)? The letterhead on many of the documents of the infamous, “rap binder” maintained by the New York Police Department (NYPD) and shared with others like the Miami and Miami Beach Police departments, including the portion pertaining to Jay-Z, is that of The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/hidta/).

“If you look at the surveillance of rap artists from the perspective of COINTELPRO and the current thinking in gang intelligence and military think tanks the words of Miami police Sgt. Rafael Tapanes, in a March 9, 2004 Miami Herald article that ‘A lot if not most rappers belong to some sort of gang,’ is more significant than one might initially think.

“The amount of resources the federal government and some outside of it are devoting to depict Hip-Hop artists and their relationship to crime and street organizations as a threat to the establishment national security is staggering.

“The best example I could give is the joint task force effort against Scarface, James Prince, and Rap-A-Lot Records last decade.

“Had I not personally attended the Congressional hearings regarding them, I would not have believed the extent of the effort myself. One of the most striking things revealed in the hearings was the extent to which the federal government had placed federal informants in not just Rap-A-Lot Records but throughout Houston’s 5th Ward section.”

In the year prior to that Louis Farrakhan press conference there were two parallel rap songs released that really caught the government’s attention. Both of these songs had titles with the initials F-T-P: “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy and “Fuck The Police” by NWA. These groups were the biggest rap acts in the world by the summer of 1989. Their collective message was to fight back against the system, even if it means physical retaliation against the rampant police brutality being experienced by their target audience.

That 1967 FBI memorandum also stated:

“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.

“Prevent the COALITION of militant black nationalist groups.

“Prevent the RISE OF A “MESSIAH” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.

“Prevent VIOLENCE on the part of black nationalist groups.

“A final goal should be to prevent the long-range GROWTH of militant black organizations, especially among youth.”

Black youth being spurred to unite around their Blackness and being willing to use violence in retaliation against the State, and having a national voice who could speak to and inspire all of these Black youth at the same time, that was the government’s worst nightmare. Hip Hop showed them what they were most afraid of. So once things turned in the direction they did by 1989, it makes perfect sense that the highest levels of the government’s national security apparatus would be used to either steer Hip Hop in a different direction, or stop it altogether.

This fear of the government is what led to a partnership between the criminal justice system and the giants of media in this country. The early 80’s saw the Reagan Administration formally declare the War on Drugs. This was already being used to imprison Black youth in record numbers before Hip Hop exploded the way it did later in that decade. It was simple social engineering for them to take the framework they had from the criminal justice system and the War on Drugs and use it to turn Hip Hop against itself.

A few years ago there was an open letter floating around the internet which was claimed to have been written by someone who was a “decision maker” in the music industry in the early 90’s. The authenticity of this letter has never been proven or disproven. However, there is strong circumstantial evidence to believe that it is at least partially true. The letter describes a meeting that allegedly happened in 1991, in a private residence, with representatives from the major record labels.

[T]he speaker went on to tell us that the respective companies we represented had invested in a very profitable industry which could become even more rewarding with our active involvement. He explained that the companies we work for had invested millions into the building of privately owned prisons and that our positions of influence in the music industry would actually impact the profitability of these investments. I remember many of us in the group immediately looking at each other in confusion. At the time, I didn’t know what a private prison was but I wasn’t the only one. Sure enough, someone asked what these prisons were and what any of this had to do with us. We were told that these prisons were built by privately owned companies who received funding from the government based on the number of inmates. The more inmates, the more money the government would pay these prisons. It was also made clear to us that since these prisons are privately owned, as they become publicly traded, we’d be able to buy shares. Most of us were taken back by this. Again, a couple of people asked what this had to do with us. At this point, my industry colleague who had first opened the meeting took the floor again and answered our questions. He told us that since our employers had become silent investors in this prison business, it was now in their interest to make sure that these prisons remained filled. Our job would be to help make this happen by marketing music which promotes criminal behavior, rap being the music of choice. He assured us that this would be a great situation for us because rap music was becoming an increasingly profitable market for our companies, and as employee, we’d also be able to buy personal stocks in these prisons.” 

Again, this meeting may or may not have ever actually happened. But the information presented is real. The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. imprisons its citizens at a rate of about 716 per 100,000 of its national population. Compare that 716 figure with 117 in Canada, 154 in England, 133 in Australia, 159 in Spain, 59 in Japan, 178 in Saudi Arabia, 577, in Russia, and 400 in Kazakhstan. These last two countries brag about having a zero tolerance policy for drugs and crime and how many people they lock up. They still can’t compare with the United States.

It costs a lot of money to lock up this many people. State and federal budgets for prisons can’t handle these rapidly increasing numbers. So that opens the door for privately owned companies to build and manage all the new prisons that the United States needs. Who owns these private prisons?

According to public analysis from Bloomberg, the largest holder in Corrections Corporation of America is Vanguard Group Incorporated. Vanguard also holds considerable stake in some of the media giants. In fact, Vanguard is the third largest holder in both Viacom (owner of VH1, BET, and MTV) and Time Warner (owner of Warner Music Group). Vanguard is also the third largest holder in the GEO Group, whose correctional, detention and community reentry services boast 101 facilities, approximately 73,000 beds and 18,000 employees. Second nationally only to Corrections Corporation of America, GEO’s facilities are located not only in the United States but in the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa.

Adding on to that, the number-one holder of both Viacom and Time Warner is a company called Blackrock. Blackrock is the second largest holder in Corrections Corporation of America, second only to Vanguard, and the sixth largest holder in the GEO Group. You get the picture.

The people making money from the huge number of privately owned prisons are the exact same people making money off Hip Hop. When the Powers That Be saw that Hip Hop was becoming a voice for inner city angst and rage, they used their influence to change Hip Hop from a constructive force to a destructive force.

“For every song that’s recorded we ask for copies of the lyrics from the artist,” Paul Atkinson, former Zombies guitarist and then head of A&R at MCA told the New York Times in 1990. “The recording then gets listened to not only by the A&R department buy by someone in business affairs.”

In a mid-April 2007 interview of Young Buck by Angie Martinez on New York’s Hot 97, Buck told Martinez that Interscope had refused to allow him to include the track “Fuck tha Police” on his new Buck the World album. Buck said “they blamed it on the lyric committee, so I researched to see if it was a real lyric committee. The lyric committee is in Interscope’s building.”

An elaborate plan to dictate the content of rap music was enacted in 1990. I’ve made this too long already so I’ll state this very quickly. By the end of 1992, the witch-hunt for politically provocative rappers and rap lyrics had affected dozens of major-label rappers. Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s Live and Let Die album was withheld. Tragedy was forced to drop a song called “Bullet,” about a revenge hit on a killer cop. Almighty RSO saw their single “One in the Chamba” lose its promotion budget after protests from the Boston Police Patrolman’s Association. The centerpiece of a Boo-Yaa Tribe EP, a song called “Shoot ‘Em Down” that condemned the acquittal of a Compton policeman who had killed two Samoan brothers with nineteen shots, was shelved.

You wanna know why every rap single these days is about drugs and strip clubs? This is why. Those are the subjects that the music industry (and government) Powers That Be are comfortable with hearing from their rappers. There is a lot more that needs to be said on this subject including the rise of Death Row Records, the government assassination of Tupac Shakur, the boring aftermath of Hip Hop’s Golden Era, and the recent resurgence of good music precipitated by the music industry losing its power.

This is a real deal conspiracy. Think about that the next time you sing about how you’re in love with the Coco.

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