Music loses its thrust for rap’s rage

In the good old days, all it took to shock the older generation was Elvis’s pelvis. Oh, for some good clean thrusting.

Today’s music extreme is “gangsta rap”, in which women are bitches and whores, cops are for killing and gang violence is the best response to oppression. It’s big in America, where it is the beat of young ghetto blacks, and it has a following here.

“We can relate to the lyrics,” says James, 17, of Richmond. “When we get hassled by the five-oh (police), they batter us, and the lyrics say we shouldn’t stand for that.”
Gangsta rap, which in this country is a small offshoot of the more popular and laid-back rap, or hiphop, is black music. It chants the rage of the poor and powerless against the whites who abuse them, but James and his friends have no trouble relating it to themselves.

“We’re poor white guys,” says Shane, 16.

American gangsta rappers Ice Cube and Cypress Hill begin a national tour in Melbourne next Tuesday, and promoters expect them to fill Festival Hall with an audience of 5000. Critics have accused Ice Cube of going soft since he married, had children and found religion, but a copy of his latest album is a shock to the unitiated.

`Lethal Injection’ begins with a Mr White going to a black doctor for a shot. The doctor swabs him with alcohol, tells him to brace himself and look away – and blows his brains out with a gunshot. The baldness of the encounter makes it seem like gratuitous violence, but Ice Cube has explained that “it’s really about killing off the white way of thinking, that mentality”.

To James and his friends – who dress in the rap uniform of oversized clothes and undersized baseball cap – the aggro of gangsta rap is its main attraction. They talk with awe of American rapper Snoop Doggy Dog who “just got done for a drive-by” – that is, was arrested for shooting someone dead from his car.

Michael Bradley, of Central Station Records in Flinders Street, says half the store’s sales is rap music and a smaller percentage gangsta rap. He describes gangsta rap as message music, lyrics with a political edge. Some of the “gangsta” element is real, but much is put on by performers who have never lived that kind of life.

Mr Bradley says there is a lot of straight rap music in which the singers urge young people to keep away from drugs and generally “do the right thing”. “If parents only stopped and listened and didn’t cringe whenever they heard the F-word, they’d find that there are rap groups with brains in their heads.”

In rap the F-word appears liberally. It makes Emmanuel Candi, the executive director of the Australian Record Industry Association, think back to the lyric scandals of his youth in the ’70s. “Remember when they beeped the `Christ’ from `Christ, they’re gonna crucify me’, by John and Yoko? When they beeped the `bloody’ from `the bloody Red Baron’?” Yes indeedy, the times they are a’changin’.

First published in The Age.