Can’t Knock the Hustle by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 24, December 2005]
BOOKS / MUSIC
Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap, by Eithne Quinn, Columbia University Press, 2005, price £15.
This superb book presents a fascinating and comprehensive account of the development and mainstreaming of what came to be called gangsta rap, showing how and why the political engagement of preceding American civil rights, Black Power and soul/funk generations shifted towards a disillusioned and apparently individualistic culture glorifying drugs, violence and misogyny. The author convincingly shows how, from its origins in the urban blight of 1980s California, the class-conscious Crips and Bloods LA gang-related realism of NWA, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr Dre cross-fertilised with African and blues lyrical traditions of trickster, badman and pimp (represented for example by Ice-T, the Geto Boys and Tupac Shakur) – challenging for commercial supremacy hip-hop subgenres such as the party pop of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, rock crossovers like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, and the more explicitly politically conscious Black nationalist afrocentricity of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Integrated into the historical texture is the parallel emergence of new forms of industrial structure and organisation prompted by the entrepreneurial guerilla tactics of independent record labels grass-rooted in neighbourhood networks of enthusiasts and artists, which succeeded in maintaining significant degrees of autonomy while simultaneously circumventing all corporate and state offensives to silence and/or recuperate them. This puts into context more recent developments in the worldwide commercial takeover of MTV-style ‘hip-pop’, such as ghetto fabulous bling-bling aspiration (Puff Daddy/P.Diddy, Jay-Z, etc) and the grotesquely exploitative nihilism of 50 Cent et al and the proliferation of wannabe studio gangsters. However, Quinn’s subtle and insightful analysis also consistently highlights the persistent presence of radical impulses and voices in the music and lyrics which sensationalist headlines, racism and pro-censorship coalitions conveniently ignore.
Of course, an academic study of the production of cultural commodities and their intrinsic qualities can only speculate on how the music resonates with its audiences’ lives in becoming popular, and Quinn resorts to concepts of subcultural superiority rather than social class in understanding rap’s appeal. This rather undercuts her implication throughout that hip-hop has gained and retained the affiliation of lower-class youth worldwide for over twenty years precisely by renouncing and travestying both conformism to respectable social hypocrisy and the packaged taste sold to elitist niche markets by multinationals. Major record labels are obviously primarily concerned with pandering to the pocket money of middle-class white kids seduced by stereotypical racialised exoticism, and the profitability of the results dovetails nicely with the requirements of governments and sundry pressure groups for moral panics and scapegoats. But the book rightly emphasises that, to those at the bottom of the heap, the ramifications of global postindustrial – as well as local dog-eat-dog – barbarisms are far closer to lived reality than glossy fantasy. So rap’s narratives represent postmodern folk tales of these benighted times – with all the violent exaggeration, ambivalence, desperation, potential and yearning this implies – for millions in the ghettos, estates, shanty towns and projects of every continent; and in the UK just as much as the US.