Radical Rhythms: The Relevance of Rap

Against the Current, No. 61, March/April 1996

Tyrone Williams

WHAT DOES RAP music as a genre have to say to and about leftist politics in general? This question might strike many as odd, if not irrelevant, since many commentators on the lyrics of rap music dismiss them out of hand as, at best, inconsequential in terms of leftist politics or, at worst, reactionary in their glorification of street violence, misogyny and money-grabbing.

In general this criticism is indisputable. Rap music, like all kinds of popular music, is a part of the private business sector. It is sold because it will sell, and what sells is precisely street violence, misogyny and money-grabbing.

And yet, like other kinds of popular music, rap does offer a limited but useful critique of some of the dominant ideologies under late capitalism. As a critique of two pillars of late capitalism–the autonomous individual and private property–consider an aspect of rap that is rarely analyzed in and for itself: the music.

Specifically, one aspect of the music–the phenomenon of sampling–not only makes rap relatively unique as a genre of popular music but also works againstany reactionary or negative lyric content in a rap composition.

Sampling–transferring pre-recorded tracks (rhythm, vocals, etc.) from one source (records or tapes) to another source to create a collage of sound–practices a democratic radicalism that contradicts negative content in its lyrics. This was especially true in rap’s infancy when rappers sampled tracks from old rock, soul and pop recordings without compensation to the “original” artists.

This early practice implied that music could “belong” to a public community–e.g. American popular music artists–outside the domain of private property.

I am not saying that this was the “intention” of these early rappers. In all likelihood they sampled tracks from pre-recorded sources without compensation to the artists simply because they didn’t want–or couldn’t afford–to pay royalty fees.

However, “intention” is not the issue here. The point is that the actual practice of sampling opens up a constellation of voices and sounds, a community of different aesthetics and perspectives, such that in any one rap recording one can hear a cross section of American pop music, some of which is aesthetically and politically “opposed” to rap music.

Yes–these other voices are often “buried” under the dominant vocals of an egoistic self-regarding individual or group. But the presence of other voices, other musics, however muffled by the controlling interest of the predominant voice and music, attests to their relevance in the present recording. Moreover, these other voices and musics can even be heard as a critique of the predominant voice and music.

How, one might ask, is this possible? Why would a rapper include other voices and musics that criticize him or her? The answer is twofold: indifference and irony.

By indifference I mean that rappers sometimes include snatches of lyrics or music from other recordings that, to them, might seem obvious and certain in meaning.

Unfortunately for them, language is not indifferent; it is difference itself–which is to say words always mean more than what any one individual might want to mean.

When Public Enemy sings “Don’t Believe The Hype,” by which they mean don’t believe the media’s representation of the group, they remain indifferent to the way their detractors could read that title: don’t believe the group’s hype of itself.

Subversive Powers of Language

For those more conscious of the power of language to always differ from itself, irony is a mode to recast songs and turn them into social or political statements. Thus the Stevie Wonder pop song, “It’s A Shame,” originally recorded as a lovelorn lament by The Spinners in 1975, becomes, in Monie Love’s 1990s update, a feminist statement about abuse.

No longer is it a shame that a woman fools around on a man–one of pop’s oldest lyric clichés–but rather, now, for Monie Love, it’s a shame that a woman allows a man to abuse her.

Thus in any rap song, a dialogue–or even polylogue–between the artist and the “other” voices, musics, sounds, viewpoints, versions, etc. calls into question the authority of the singular person espousing his or her views. By giving their recordings a “history,” indebted to the musics and voices that preceded them, these rappers, intentionally or not, undermine their own authority.

Nonetheless, rap is unique only in degree, not kind, from other kinds of popular music. Reams of paper have been spent showing how certain blues and jazz compositions are melodically similar to–if not identical to–other blues and jazz compositions. In fact, this was one of the first criticisms lodged against pop and rock music. Hordes of rock musicians made a fortune by simply attaching their names to melodies that had long circulated in blues and jazz communities unauthorized, without copyrights.

Music Is Theft?

The debate over who stole what from whom has been acrimonious not only because economic considerations were at stake–who gets a royalty on the basis of a held copyright–but also because the Romantic notion of an “original” genius who creates something that has never existed before is ingrained in even the most progressive or enlightened members of the “counterculture.”

Never mind that one of the articles of faith of rock and pop–three chords and two-and-a-half minutes–already implied that originality was not the issue. Never mind that the criterion of pop and rock innovation was always ingenuity: how much one could do with so little. It is precisely popular music’s simplicity and its essential borrowing and stealing from itself that explains, in part, its popularity, its sense of a community in which anyone could become the next rock or pop phenomenon.

Sampling simply takes this form of borrowing/stealing to its logical conclusion: why copy a riff when you can just lift the real thing and integrate it into your “own” recording? And if it lifts a multitude of melodies, riffs, and vocal phrases from a multitude of sources, the resulting collage can function as a community of one’s own–which is never simply one’s own.

Which is also to say–a pandemonium of disagreements, conflicts, tensions and contradictions–like all democratic communities. To hear this conflict and tension, however, means that one pays as much attention to the structure of the music as one does to the content of the lyrics. It also means that one not only accept responsibility for interpreting a rap song in a certain way but, more forcefully, that one actively engage rap to dramatize its intrinsic conflicts, tensions and contradictions–the effects of any practice that would call itself democratic.

It goes without saying that this form of democratic practice, however radical in its interrogation of private property, is essentially a cultural democracy. But as is so often the case, a cultural practice can serve as a model for political and economic practices, especially since these spheres are interrelated.

The Sampling of Politics

In comparing sampling with the constructions of collage, I have already implied that this plurality of voices has its analogue in other arts: the paintings of Sherry Levine and Robert Rauschenberg, the literary appropriations of Kathy Acker and Maureen Howard, the “language” poetry of Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein. Some of these artists are poetically progressive; some are not. But all of their artistic practices are progressive.

In Cincinnati the city council is comprised of nine people representing different constituencies. There is a mayor but s/he is only a figurehead with no real power. For years the business community has tried to get voters to create a “strong” mayor. Each year the voters have refused to do so.

Cincinnati is a conservative city, politically, culturally and socially. And the nine members of council often represent different conservative viewpoints, with liberal viewpoints coming in a distant second. Needless to add, there are no radical viewpoints. Nonetheless the current structure of the council is itself progressive and, I daresay, radically democratic.

If the practices of sampling, collage and assemblage were taken seriously by leftists, if the challenge and threat implied by this radical coming together of differences were heeded, the effects on how we say what we say would also be radical–which is to say different (from the mainstream). It would mean the end of the dominance of linearity, narrative, and a certain simplicity of analysis that more often than not is analogous to the straight-forward pop and rock music so many leftists condescendingly deride.

ATC 61, March-April 1996