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Fight the Power: A New Movement for Civil Rights

Can hip-hop get past the thug life and back to its radical roots?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

jerry quickley, hip-hop poet, performance artist, and war correspondent, has seen hell. It is a post-"liberated" Baghdad street, jammed with beat-up Brazilian and Czech sedans spewing trails of carbon monoxide, clouds of dust thickening in the 125-degree heat. He is riding shotgun in an Iraqi friend's car. "You have no traffic lights because there's no electricity," he says. "You have no police because they'd just be shot or blown up. You can barely breathe." U.S. soldiers fire into the air to clear traffic and scare off would-be bombers, and Iraqi drivers ram into each other as they scramble to get out of the way. "And while this is all going on," Quickley says, "this friend of mine is playing songs by 50 Cent."

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The top-selling do-ragged and body-oiled rapper—whose smash debut was entitled Get Rich or Die Tryin' and whose 2005 album The Massacre occasioned a book, a feature movie, a bloody video game, a bling-encrusted line of watches, shoe and "enhanced water" endorsements, not to mention tabloid headlines about a beef with a former protégé culminating in real-life shootings—warbles through the busted car stereo in a nasal drawl: "Many men wish death upon me."

"Sartre was right," thought Quickley. "This is No Exit."

For many, this is what hip-hop has become: an omnipresent, grisly, übermacho soundtrack. Don Imus unleashed the latest hip-hop backlash when he noted that in calling the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" he was using an argot popularized by rappers. The frenzy of finger-pointing that followed culminated with the spectacle of Bill O'Reilly lecturing hip-hop advocates on sexism and the "n-word" while Oprah berated Russell Simmons and other industry executives.

The talk show circus aside, there's plenty of evidence that people are weary of corporate rap. Only 59 million rap albums were sold in the United States last year, down from 90 million in 2001. According to a University of Chicago study, most youths—whether black, white, or Hispanic—believe that rap videos portray women of color in a negative light. Once a cacophony of diverse voices, the genre now looks like a monoculture whose product, like high-fructose corn syrup, is designed not to nourish but simply to get us hooked on other products, from McDonald's to Courvoisier.

Quickley, though, remains a true believer in hip-hop's transformational potential. For him, it goes back to the summer of 1976, three years before the Sugarhill Gang's breakthrough hit "Rapper's Delight." He was 12 and sitting on a scorching nyc stoop when someone popped in a cassette tape featuring a DJ mixing up bombastic rhythms on two turntables. It rocked his young world. He started visiting block parties to hear DJs spin and rappers rap, and soon learned how to mix. He jumped the subway turnstiles and became a graffiti bomber. After poetry overtook doodling in his sketchbooks, he became a rapper.

To Quickley and to millions of others, the new genre's appeal was visceral. It was a true counterculture, skirting legality and authority with a smirk. It broke down social barriers. DJs mixed Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith with James Brown and the Meters. By the mid-'80s hip-hop looked like the most significant youth movement since the '60s. It expanded beyond the original "four elements"—rap, DJing, graffiti writing, and b-boying (also known, incorrectly, as break dancing)—into virtually every art form and became the lingua franca for an increasingly connected, polycultural world.

Back then, "media assassin" and Public Enemy collaborator Harry Allen coined the phrase "hip-hop activism" to describe the movement's potential to spur social change. But as industry execs began to capitalize on hip-hop's popularity, its renegade spirit was largely suppressed by displays of conspicuous consumption and gratuitous machismo.

But now, with the industry on the ropes and the political sphere energized, the transformative power of hip-hop may finally be reemerging. Over the past decade, hip-hop-based community groups have recharged the social justice movement and launched get-out-the-vote campaigns in neighborhoods most candidates and parties wouldn't touch. (Full disclosure: I have been active in two of these groups, serving on the board of the League of Young Voters and organizing for the National Hip-Hop Political Convention.) Even moguls such as Jay-Z, Simmons, and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs have thrown their weight behind voter outreach. And while the results are hard to track case by case, one massive shift is undeniable: In 2004, half of the 4 million new voters under 30 were people of color—a demographic watershed largely overlooked by the media.

"It's one of the wonders of the world that this little neighborhood thing, that when I started vibing on it was maybe 10,000 kids running around the city, has completely changed the face of the planet," Quickley says. "All the corporations and commercial interests try to tell you otherwise, but I've seen it go down like that in my lifetime."

Bronx Beats to Suburban Streets
Hip-hop began in the Bronx, a borough ripped in two by Robert Moses' Cross-Bronx Expressway. Stranded by deindustrialization, half the Bronx's white residents fled; the borough was left for dead by city officials. Slumlording and arson reduced housing stock by four blocks a week. In the abandoned tenements, gangs replaced families.

But an unprecedented 1971 gang peace treaty unleashed the creative explosion that became known as hip-hop. It didn't start out as an explicitly political movement—more like a set of pastimes poor kids devised to celebrate their survival. They spray-painted aliases on walls and subways, rapped Jamaican-style over funky Afro-Latin-influenced groove records, and danced to the percussive breaks. "To go from running down the block to escape a gang to being able to walk any block freely, that's one of the greatest joys," says Tony Tone, a gang member who quit and became part of the pioneering rap group the Cold Crush Brothers. "Hip-hop saved a lot of lives."

This Bronx scene spread across the country, remixed and revitalized in each community, and by the late '80s, hip-hop was articulating an emerging post-civil rights worldview. Rap artists like Chuck D and KRS-ONE spotlighted the effects of crack and violence on inner-city youths and openly questioned why black community leaders were neither addressing these urgent issues nor mentoring young leaders. Carmen Ashhurst was a filmmaker who, in 1988, went to work for Def Jam cofounder Russell Simmons (whose brother is DJ Run from RUN D.M.C.). To her, the motivation to switch genres was clear: "Getting control of our images," she says. "This was young people who at that time weren't being listened to by anybody. Rap became a de facto voice of black America." Or, more accurately, voices. A 1991 Public Enemy tour included acts as disparate as L.A. gangsta pioneer Ice T, style maestros A Tribe Called Quest, and future actors Queen Latifah and Will Smith.

By then, every pundit and politician had an opinion about rap, whether they'd listened to it or not. Some commentators valued rap's truth-telling, but not all understood its shit-talking. Battle-rhyming—boasting about yourself and denigrating your competitor—has been a source of vitality and innovation for the genre. And as far back as the Sugarhill Gang, the braggadocio included brand-name dropping and talk of having "more money than a sucker could ever spend"; there was always an aspirational aspect to this poetry born of poverty.

But songs like N.W.A.'s 1988 "Fuck tha Police"—a prescient condemnation of the racist lapd—scared people. In the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots, a rising tide of anti-rap sentiment cohered into a full-blown culture war as conservatives like Bob Dole joined Tipper Gore, civil rights leaders like C. Delores Tucker, and key Democrats like Carol Moseley-Braun and Joe Lieberman in an alliance to stamp out so-called "gangsta rap." Lobbies like the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Rifle Association forced record labels to drop "politically sensitive" acts like Paris, Kool G. Rap, and Intelligent Hoodlum.

The plan backfired completely. As with rock and roll a generation before, being attacked by a bunch of parents was the quickest way for hip-hop to gain cred with a wider audience of kids. By 1995, rap was one of music's best-selling genres.

For entrepreneurs like Simmons, rap's new crossover appeal represented an enormous business opportunity. "He sold the concept to the mainstream that hip-hop was a lifestyle, not just a music," says Ashhurst, who became president of Def Jam in 1990. By 1999, Simmons sold his share of Def Jam to concentrate on "the urban aspirational lifestyle" market, where, he told me, "there's always room for growth."

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