While self-appointed moral guardians have targeted the raunchy rap comedians of the 2 Live Crew, and while cultural commentators, black and white, have wrung their hands about the gun fetishism and violent storytelling of Ice-T and N.W.A., few outside the hip-hop community have noted the new wave of so-called "positive" rappers.
The popularity of Public Enemy alone has demonstrated that there's a vast and growing market for overtly political, Afrocentric message music. Debut projects from X-Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers, whose racial consciousness has a mystical flavor, are among the best-selling rap albums of the summer.
The recording industry hasn't seen anything like this since the early 1970s, when the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Melvin Van Peebles and Gil Scott-Heron put some very radical, very funky and sometimes profane orations on vinyl.
The hip-hop community is duly proud of performers such as Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers, especially considering the frivolousness of most pop, R&B and dance music. But if a strong Afrocentric vibe can uplift a young audience, do critics of rap have reason to assume that "negative" lyrics can have consequences in the lives of its listeners? Can rap proponents continue to excuse even the most violent or sexist tales as either harmless entertainment or merely an objective description of life in the street?
As the hip-hop movement rolls into its second decade, ever expanding in influence, there is much to be debated among those who create, distribute, purchase and care about this music. Perhaps after the First Amendment rights of the 2 Live Crew and all rap artists are secured, we can afford to move the discussion to a higher level.
Boogie Down Productions: 'Edutainment' KRS-One (Kris Parker) personifies hip-hop's moral dichotomy. One of the most respected rappers in the business and an organizer of the Stop the Violence Movement, KRS-One has been profiled by People magazine. Arsenio Hall invites him over to the couch whenever he's on the show. (During Nelson Mandela's U.S. visit, KRS-One delivered a fierce new rap on "Arsenio," with the refrain "Mandela's not free, Mandela's not free. He can't even vote in his own country.") Earlier this year, he even did a three-month college speaking tour. Snippets of his lectures are included on the new Boogie Down Productions album, "Edutainment" (Jive/RCA).
But I've never heard KRS-One answer for "9mm Goes Bang," a song on BDP's 1987 debut LP, "Criminal Minded." The tale of a cold-blooded drug dealer, told in first person ("He reached for his pistol but it was just a waste, 'cause my 9 millimeter was up against his face ... Listen to my 9 millimeter go BANG! This is KRS-One"), this song still stands as one of the genre's most unforgivable. His friend and partner Scott LaRock was killed by senseless gunfire after that album was released, and KRS-One went "positive." Certainly his noble work of the last few years greatly outweighs "9mm Goes Bang," but it would be interesting to hear how he justifies having recorded it in the first place. (Harmless entertainment? An objective description of life in the street?)
"Edutainment" is the best of BDP's four albums, securing KRS-One's place at the forefront of hip-hop. BDP favors spare, Jamaican-style beats, and the music has always been the group's least interesting element. But lyrically, KRS-One is more direct and potent than ever.
"Beef," his argument against eating red meat, is the most startling choice of subject matter for a rap since Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke." "The cow doesn't grow fast enough for man, so through his greed he makes a faster plan. He has drugs to make the cow grow quicker. Through the stress, the cow gets sicker." You may not agree that by eating beef you internalize the stress of the slaughtered cattle, but anyone who has tried to give up red meat will understand KRS-One when he calls beef "the No. 1 drug on the street."
Like "9mm Goes Bang," "Love's Gonna Get'cha" is the story of a young black man dealing drugs, but now KRS-One is more analytical, talking about growing up poor and being lured by the fast money. "I do odd jobs and come home like a slob. So here comes Rob, his gold is shimmery. He gives me two hundred for a quick delivery." The narrator soon becomes a money-making dealer himself. But his brother is shot down by a rival, and in the end, the police waste two of his friends. KRS-One steps out of this drama from time to time to address the listener directly, saying that the "love" of material things will destroy you in the end.
Elsewhere on the LP, KRS-One discusses what he calls the five types of racists, and what he sees as the tragic contradiction in the label "African American." Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for a later project to own "Mandela's Not Free."
"Edutainment" does have its drawbacks. KRS-One has more than a touch of the braggart in him. And he displays, as he did on last year's "Ghetto Music" album, a simplistic cynicism about the police. But here at least is an entertainer whom you'd want to engage in a long, feisty conversation about ideas.
Poor Righteous Teachers: 'Holy Intellect' The approach of Poor Righteous Teachers is spiritual whereas Public Enemy's is political and KRS-One's is intellectual. In fact, they belong to what's called the Five Percent Nation of Islam, a group whose complex theology is little understood by outsiders. I'm told that it has something to do with the capacity of the black man to achieve godhood. One thing's for sure: names are important to the Five Percent. The two rappers in Poor Righteous Teachers go by Wise Intelligent and Culture Freedom. The DJ is Father Shaheed.
The lyrics densely packed throughout "Holy Intellect" (Profile) have a level of meaning I often can't comprehend ("step into the realm of my cipher," for instance), but the Poor Righteous Teachers don't come across as dogmatic. They promote black unity, a "knowledge of self," which, combined with swinging grooves, tasteful samples and swift rapping, makes for a funky, uplifting experience. In the songs "Can I Start This?" and "Butt Naked Booty Bless," Poor Righteous Teachers also exhibit a sense of humor, which contributes to the positive vibe.
Folks who were scandalized by the sexist bull of the 2 Live Crew may take heart in "Shakiyla," rapped over the rhythm of a '70s-style ballad. It is Wise Intelligent's loving, respectful tribute to his archetype of the black woman, "my queen." (At least one black male critic has dismissed it as "mush.") "Shakiyla" brings to mind what a feminist once taught me about "the pedestal and the gutter"; a lofty ideal of womanhood can be as much a tool of male control as debasement.
But hey, it's the sentiment that counts.
X-Clan: 'To the East, Blackwards' Managed by Lumumba Carson, son of the well-known New York City activist Sonny Carson, X-Clan is perhaps the most annoying and overbearing rap group on the planet. Grand Verbalizer Funkin' Lesson Brother J (that's one guy) told a British music writer: "We say in our shows this is not entertainment. If you dig this as entertainment, then something's wrong. ... 'Entertainment' is you shake your booty without any thoughts."
Well, he's right about one thing. If you're entertained by "To the East, Blackwards" (4th & B'way/Island), then something is wrong. Brother J and Carson (a k a Professor X the Overseer) and X-Clan's two other members drape themselves in beads and ankhs, wear leather fezzes, and invoke the name of the Egyptian sun god Ra. They plaster the faces of Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman and others (including their own) on the album cover. But in song, Brother J spends more time insulting white people (referring to them variously as "devils," "cave boys" and "polar bears") than making any cogent critique of society or passing along some kind of useful knowledge.
Lyrically, X-Clan can be as murky as Poor Righteous Teachers, but the energy is very different. In almost every song, Carson steps up to declare, quite pompously, "Van-glorious! This is protected by the red, the black and the green, with the key. Siss-eeee!" By the fifth time he does this, it seems simply ridiculous. (Carson also uttered this incantation on the 1989 album "Black to the Future" by Unique and Dashan, fellow members of Carson's cultural collective called Blackwatch.)
Musically, X-Clan only grooves when it steals big chunks of classic Funkadelic/George Clinton jams (which it does without credit, and presumably without paying royalties).
The real mystery about X-Clan is how this album continues to outsell the Poor Righteous Teachers' "Holy Intellect."