Michael Eric Dyson on Rap and Hip-Hop
Michael Eric Dyson, named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans, is the author of sixteen books, including Holler if You Hear Me, Is Bill Cosby Right? and I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Michael Eric Dyson: Yeah. No. Conscious hip-hop is not nearly as profoundly and pervasively embraced as it should be. When you have a guy like Mos Def, “You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna, Woody Allen molested and married his stepdaughter. Same press kickin dirt on Michael’s name, show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game...", holding hands. "Now sit back and think about that. Would he get the same dap if his name was Woody Black? O.J. acquitted by a jury of his peers. They’ve been messing with that ** for the last ten years. Is it fair? Is it equal? Is it just? Is it right? Do we do the same thing if the defendant’s face is white? White boys doing well it’s success. I start doing well it’s suspect." "They say they want you successful," he said earlier, "but then they make it stressful. You start keeping pace. They start changing up the tempo." No, we ain’t hearing that enough. We’re hearing from his song Ms Fat Booty. I understand why, “Behind so fat you can see it from the front.” As Arsenio Hall used to say, that’s something to make you go “Hmm.” The gluteus emphasis on maximus to be sure but let’s not reduce women to their behinds. They have brains, souls and spirits after all, but the point is we’d rather listen to one song as opposed to another and both of them are important. Conscious rappers often get outraged by the fact that they are segregated and quarantined as conscious rappers ‘cause that- that’s like vegetables. They’re good for you kids. No, it’s not other good food that you like; it’s the food that’s good for you. And so they don’t want to be made the broccoli of the rap world. They want to be like sweet potatoes too. So when we artificially segregate them that ends up doing a disservice to them because even conscious rappers want to make love some time and have fun and go to parties. Must rap carry the burden of the entire Western black world in terms of its conscience? Black people do not demand, and Americans more broadly and the West even more broadly doesn’t demand, that country music be critical. When is the last time country music had something good to say about social injustice? Nobody even asks--I don’t know--Kenny Chesney, “Are you going to do something serious?” Are they going to go up to Dwight Yoakam: “What do you say about the war?” Are they going to ax <laughs> Alan Jackson, “Is it true? Must we deal with the sub prime mortgage scandal?” So the thing is why is it that we put on the backs of 17, 18, 19, 20-year-olds burdens that we don’t artistically assign to arguably equally enlightened and even more established artists? Now part of it has to do with the fact that hip-hop has sold itself as the stuff, we are the headquarters of the authentic, we are the orbit of the bona fides, black people, so we get a chance to tell you what’s real, what’s true. So maybe some of that bragging is having negative consequences now. Oh, okay. You’re the stuff? Then what are you doing? But having said that, conscious rap by Common doesn’t get nearly as much play even though he had a number one album, thank God, as a conscious rapper, probably the most successful conscious rapper in the history of hip-hop, one of the most brilliant lyricists that we’ve produced certainly, but then you’ve got other rappers in the mainstream, varying degrees of it, from Jay-Z at the ultimate pinnacle of mainstream rap and Nas who has certainly had tremendous mainstream success even as he is seen as an underground artist. Nas says, “It’s only right that I was born to use mics and the stuff that I write is even tougher than dykes. I’m taking rapping to a new plateau through rap slow, my rhyming is a vitamin held without a capsule, smooth criminal or beat breaks, never put me in your box if your *ish eats tapes.” That’s the raison d’etre of hip-hop philosophy articulated by Nas in what? Ninety-three, ’94? So this is a smart guy, an eighth-grade dropout. This is why we have to be very critical of schooling versus education. He didn’t have much schooling but he has tremendous education and learning. I to say that yeah, he’s a consciously informed rapper as part of the mainstream but he still talks about buggery and gangsters and the like because he’s dealing with the whole panoply of interests that occupy the American black imagination or a guy like Jay-Z. “No, my teachers couldn’t reach me and my mama couldn’t beat me hard enough to match the pain that my pop of not seeing me so with that disdain in my membrane got on my pimp game. *** the world my defense came.” Wow. Okay. Now we see what you’re dealing with. When you look at a guy like a Jay-Z or look at a guy like a Nas you don’t necessarily qualify them as conscious rap purely although they are extremely conscious of the social inequities that prevail. I went to see a Jay-Z, Mary J. concert recently and Jay-Z stopped the music, flashed a big face of George Bush projected on to the screen behind him and A cappella recited Minority Report and boy, was it powerful because people actually heard the words and he was critical of the Bush administration and critical ‘cause not- he would have been a bush he would have been another orchid among poor kids, right, and he had been left down. If his jet blew by jet blue he wasn’t, but what about if his jet dropped down? He would have been not a bush but an orchid among poor kids. Right? So I’m messing up his lyrics but you get the point. He’s saying that this is the serious thing. He says-- Jay-Z talks about-- in that song about in truth he didn’t give a dime, he’s- and in truth because he didn’t give his money he didn’t give a dime. He wanted to give money. He wanted to give his time and resources to the people but he says, “Even me, I’m going to be self-critical. I didn’t give the money that I should have given for this or I did give the money but I didn’t give the time so in truth I didn’t give a dime.” He’s self-critical there. All that stuff happens among these kind of rappers as well so I don’t make a hard and fast decision between conscious versus unconscious rap. What was 2Pac? "Somebody wake me I'm dreaming, I started as a seed the semen, swimming upstream, planted in the womb while screaming on the top was my pops, my momma hollering stop, from a single drop, this is what they got? Not to disrespect my people but my papa was a loser, the only plan he had for Mama was to her and abuse her, and even as a seed I could see his plan for me, stranded on welfare, another broken family." He also said, “Much respect to those who break their necks to keep their hoes in check, oh, they will sweat a brother majorly and I don’t know why the girl keeps paging me. She tells me that she needs me, lady take it easy, hate to sound sleazy, I don’t want it if it that’s easy.” Well, see that I get around. He said that but he also said, “Just the other day I got lynched by some crooked cops and to this day them same cops on the beat getting major pay, but when I get my check they’re taking tax out so we paying the cops to knock the blacks out, subsidizing your own oppression to your economic base, high intelligence, critical acumen matched with a kind of desire to see social change occur, ain’t it funny, when it rains it pours, they get money for wars but can’t feed the poor. Man, park where you’re at, brother.” So yeah, we need some. That’s why we still love you ‘cause you made it possible for people to get it. What’d they say? You put it where everybody could get it. You made-- You broke it down. So when look at a Jay-Z or a Nas, a 2Pac, a Biggie, when you look at people who are social critics cum artists or artists cum social critics, then you begin to see that the conscious versus unconscious cannot be so radically divorced and at the same time the conscious rappers just want to get played. They don’t want to dog nobody else but can we get played on the radio? Can we say something? J-Live-- How about Talib Kweli, one of the most brilliant lyricists in the history of hip-hop? “These cats drink champagne, toast death and pain like slaves on a ship bragging about who got the flyest chain.” There you go. How about Black Thought, the most underrated emcee of all time, one of the most brilliant, arguably the greatest live performer of hip-hop in the history of this genre, and you got some great live performers, Jay-Z, Common, Talib. You got some serious live performers, Mos Def, but Black Thought, I mean one of the most underrated and yet one of the most ingenious lyricists of all time, spinning his truth, telling the truth about his people and their struggles. So yeah, we don’t hear enough of that on radio. We hear a lot of this “Superman and their hoe,” then the second, “You don’t have the Superman no mo, you just got a Spiderman that hoe.” Oh, my God. So you mean you’re wasting your time putting that to wax or on a lyric or downloading it on a ringtone as opposed to ringing the tones of democracy and ringing a powerful sound for freedom and striking a blow for justice? What-- And it ain’t got to be highfalutin. You mean in the midst of George Bush rappers ain’t got more to say about that, the mortgage crisis you ain’t got more to say about that, the downturn in the economies? You want to brag about flossing and your bling? That’s why Jay-Z said, “Thirty is the new 20, brother, I’m so hot still, better broad, better automobile, I’m young enough to know what kind of car to buy but old enough not to put rims on it.” Thank you, Jesus. So let hip-hop grow up, let it evolve, but Jay-Z says in one his songs-- He says, “You all are confusing me. I make Give it to Me or Big Pimpin’ and you call me one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. I make some thought-provoking stuff and you ask if I’m falling off.” So he made a song called Ignorant-ish and he says all the-- He says, “Let me give it to you right now, all the stuff I can’t say.” He says, “All right. Don’t make like you don’t like it. That’s what you like ‘cause you don’t like it when I tell you the gangs, the people, your beats did it. Your gangster look did it. Your lyrics didn’t. Your gangster rip didn’t.” I’m messing up his lyrics but the point is he’s saying, “Look. Here I am speaking about something edifying, important, insightful, and then you don’t want to hear me. Oh, that’s old. That’s too-- We don’t want to deal with that. But if I talk about something about pimping and hoes, then you down with it. This is the-- a conundrum we forever face, a paradox even, that is black people in particular but others claim they want, edifying art. When we make edifying art they don’t buy it, they don’t go see it. We make a great movie like Talk to Me from Kasi Lemmons, a brilliant movie about a real historical figure and her take on it. It didn’t do as well as it should have. The great debate is not as it should have and these is- these are great pieces of art but then if we make Booty Call part 25-- I ain’t mad at Booty Call ‘cause part one was great, but we don’t have to be either/or but when it turns out to be we’re either supporting Booty Calls or the other stuff that’s when it becomes problematic and that’s when it gets really, really, really serious. So yeah, to answer your question, yes, there is not enough conscious hip-hop on radio and there’s so much more intelligent and lucid expression that needs to be heard from, and unfortunately they’re not part of the top ten play list.
Recorded on: May 16 2008
Michael Eric Dyson on Rap and Hip-Hop.
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