Somebody Scream!: Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence In The Aftershock of Black Power
Now that hip-hop is a few years beyond its commercial peak, it’s easy to take its ubiquity for granted, to forget the genre’s rocky, incremental ascendance. It feels like just yesterday that No Limit Records shocked the industry by moving mad units with next to no promotion and jerky, seizure-inducing Missy Elliott videos were flooding MTV and BET, back when those networks focused on music. For a while, cold rocking a microphone and a crowd amounted to a political gesture, which sounds bizarre today given the nihilistic inanity of contemporary rap chart-toppers. With Somebody Scream!, music journalist Marcus Reeves recalls how high the stakes for black America’s most visible musical form really were during its early years.
In Reeves’ reckoning, rap began to fill the void left by a shrinking black-power movement in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Just as Soul Train popularized and disseminated B-boy culture, the Sugar Hill Gang hit “Rapper’s Delight” introduced “America and the world to rap music, giving young black America a taste of its sociocultural destiny.” Not long after that, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five shattered the genre’s party-bop rep with “The Message,” a blunt commentary on the unacknowledged poverty urban African-Americans wrestled with at the time. Following was a sort of consciousness-stakes domino effect, an unconscious passing of batons: Run-DMC coming populist correct on MTV with black machismo, tracksuits, and rock signifiers; Public Enemy militarizing rap into an intellectual, no-bullshit movement inextricably tied to the intent and imagery of radical organizations; N.W.A. “turning rap’s golden age on its ear” and tapping the “bubbling reservoir of cynicism growing” in “post-black power youth” by essentially inventing the profane subgenre known as gangsta rap. Next, in the wake of Los Angeles riots spawned by the Rodney King verdict, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre turned rap both celebratory and controversial, inspiring protests and congressional hearings. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. epitomized hip-hop’s upward mobility, aspirations, and drive to “keep it real”--with fatal results--while Bad Boy impresario Puff Daddy and video director Hype Williams helped lead a charge into wholesale opulence: “Ghetto fabulousness went for the crossover by dressing that discontent in designer name brands and expensive toys, and rationalized it with the desperation of a young black narcotics pusher, driven to the outer fringes of the American Dream by inequality.”
A decade later, hip-hop culture has yet to recover from this seismic shift; talk of banging models, popping bottles, and iced-out jewelry is almost unavoidable in today’s pop rap. No wonder, then, that many of the rap stars of the past decade have worked outside of that mold. Reeves singles out grimy DMX, whom he identifies as an indomitable, relatable symbol of late-20th-century incarceration-as-racism, and Eminem, as a representative of America’s white, working-poor underclass.
What’s worrisome is that Reeves can’t pinpoint an heir apparent, a next-in-line hero to lead the culture forward, to change the game into something progressive yet hard in our darkening recession. His thought-provoking history suggests, though, that help is on the way--if not quite within view.