What Up, Gangsta?
A rough week for hip-hop prompts a needed conversation about gangsta rap and violence
On the song “Piggy Bank,” 50 fires lyrical “warning shots” at rappers Nas, Jadakiss, and Fat Joe. 50 claims the record was provoked by the latter two’s appearance on the song “New York, New York” with his nemesis Ja Rule. Entirely offended, 50 felt he had no recourse but to launch into a musical tirade of clever putdowns and empty threats. Riiiiiight…
Even a child could see through the charade. Nervous after being outshined by the debut of his labelmate, The Game, 50 resorted to the tired gangsta rap formula of starting beef with another rapper (or three). Clikkity clank! And for good measure, on the eve of his album release, 50 Cent headed to New York City’s Hot 97 “urban” music station to air out more beef (or promote his album) by publicly excommunicating The Game from his G-Unit crew—calling him, amongst other things, a fake gangsta. Clikkity clank!
The Game, a rap rookie, still knew how a hip-hop veteran should respond. He and his entourage, also in New York and taken by surprise by 50’s comments, made their way to Hot 97. At the door, a scuffle broke out between the rappers’ respective entourages, leaving one man shot and hip-hop with another black eye. Clikkity Clank!
Buoyed by a swirl of controversy and publicity, 50 Cent sold 1.1 million albums in four days—the formula works every time. But in the effort to avoid having a black person shot or stabbed every time the G-Unit releases an album, perhaps we should look at what fuels this increasingly prominent part of hip-hop.
The “real” hip-hop heads will invariably rush to the standard defense of this bulletproof vested minstrelsy, claiming that these types of battles are an integral part of hip-hop. Rap battles, are indeed one of rap’s longest-standing traditions and I have been in more than a few. Moreover, hip-hop battles are derived from a long tradition of black word games that includes “the Dozens.” What 50 has gotten himself into, however, is not really an authentic version of this tradition.
The oldest form of rap battling is friendly competition—i.e., no shooting. Then, there are the battles driven by bruised-egos that resolve an unfriendly dispute in lieu of violence (LL Cool J/Kool Moe Dee, Jay-Z/Nas, etc.). In this, both competitors are well aware of the beef and willing to battle to settle the score. It is a testament to the sheer arbitrariness of 50’s “warning shots” that Jadakiss, Fat Joe, and The Game were all taken off guard by his newfound animosity towards them—and that he was able to make up with The Game the same week. But why does the most fraudulent rap beef end up with the most real violence?
I think the answer lies in the symbiotic relationship between gangsta rap and entourages. At its core, rap is music about authenticity. The best songs are personal, and the death knell for any career is to be exposed as unreal. Thus, rap battles are about proving your opponent to be less talented and more importantly, less authentic.
In gangsta rap, battles for authenticity can take dangerous turns. As the genre moved from stories of petty crime into super-gangster fables, rappers’ real lives simply could not keep up. What passes for authenticity is really a fragile character developed for public consumption. Record labels, rappers, and even (mostly white) consumers to some extent know this—and act accordingly.
Labels and rappers seize every opportunity to reaffirm their “gangsta” credentials to an unforgiving public. Curtis Jackson must be 50 Cent, twenty-four/seven. The problem is that 50 Cent is made up. He is nearly a cartoon—a hulking black superman who performs thug love to hundreds of women, parties incessantly while not drug dealing or murdering; and who, most importantly, is bulletproof. He cannot live up to that image, because it is impossible. Yet he and the public will continue to feed into it, until he is either exposed as fake or sadly forced to live up to his image and die in a hail of bullets.
This is where the entourages come in. Gangsta rap entourages have a special job—to live up to the hype created by this commercialized ghetto gangsta ethos. Since defending their rapper’s authenticity equates to defending their own livelihood, these no-talent friends, who either are already quite gangsta or willing to learn, have no problem engaging in knife-work, gunplay, or fisticuffs against other crews in order to keep their man out of jail yet on top of the gangsta rap heap. And the biggest problem is that there is an endless supply of potential hangers-on. In New York City, nearly half of the black men are jobless, not counting those whom are incarcerated. With increasing restrictions in the job market on ex-convicts, being in a gangsta rap entourage is oftentimes the best thing going.
This leads us to a complex solution for what seemed to be a simple problem. Media outlets need to cut back on their outright promotion and saturated coverage of gangsta rap violence. Record labels need to take more responsibility in guiding this cadre of young millionaires toward more socially responsible behavior (This should not have been the first week I’ve ever seen 50 Cent donate to charity). Also, rappers need to take responsibility for themselves and their entourages to avoid the additional trouble. Finally, we as a society should strive towards creating more opportunities for young black men so that dying for a rapper’s table scraps isn’t the best career option on the horizon.
But to be honest, I doubt that voices like mine will be heard—even after the outrageous stunts of last week—because it seems like nobody wants to hear anything other than the familiar sound of Clikkity clank…
Brandon M. Terry ’05 is a government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.