In my teen years, I was reluctant to reveal my true rap roots — MC Hammer, Tone Loc, Candy Man… and, yeah, that Vanilla Ice guy. Could these people damage my credibility as a fan? They captured my soul and eventually and for the better, introduced me to the bare basics of hip-hop music. Almost immediately, I discovered “YO! MTV Raps,” washed myself of those gimmicky beginnings and allowed my critical ear for the music to develop. Slowly, I also grew cognizant of the surrounding culture. I learned that despite what that dancing white boy had done, there was no shame in advertising my love of the music.
By the mid-90s, I had become disillusioned with the media’s portrayal of hip-hop music (there wasn’t much said about a culture at the mainstream level then), and I found the vibrant independent scene that was bubbling in the underground. In my youth, groups of credible Caucasian rappers had seemed anomalies, but in the underground, black, white, Hispanic and Asian emcees voiced their shared love of hip-hop and highlighted that rap was an inclusive and open musical form. Globally, rap and hip-hop have since exploded, to the point, that in 2007 we might expect a more nuanced approach to the culture than television and print media generally choose to share.
The origins of hip-hop, both culturally and musically, have been well documented. Musicologist David Toop, in his book Rap Attack (1984), was the first scholar to successfully situate rap within the long tradition of African oral culture. He draws connections to West African griots, doo-wop, jive, be bop and preaching, while presenting hip-hop as a culture particular to New York’s South Bronx. Ten years later, Tricia Rose followed Toop with her landmark book Black Noise, laying down the unique social, cultural and economic circumstances that made New York fertile ground for hip-hop’s development. I include this grossly minimized historiography to ground two notions championed by the “Ego trip’s The (White) Rapper Show.” Those are: Rap music is black music, and rap music was born in the Bronx. These are the undisputed truths of hip-hop’s birth, but, in many respects, they deny the complexities of hip-hop’s growth. Race driven coverage does little to advance or endear hip-hop to a wider audience, and in simplifying the broad and varied history of the culture, “The (White) Rapper Show” does a disservice to the positive conversations that hip-hop can stimulate.
“The (White) Rapper Show,” which culminated recently on VH1, played to Ego trip’s strength in satirizing American race relations and stereotypes. Ten hopefuls were brought to the South Bronx, ostensibly to compete, pseudo-“American Idol” style, for the chance to be the next big name whitey in rap. Made to perform a slew of ridiculous tasks, from being tested on their knowledge of black stereotypes to running a thug challenge (leading one contestant to a hospital visit), the chosen 10 ended up looking more ridiculous than credible. The show has been highly successful in generating response, mostly negative, about its intentions and its contribution to the culture. Several rappers have been vocal in addressing their problems with the program and its host, MC Serch. Their concerns lie in the cultural ramifications of the show, more so than in outcome of the program. We can all acknowledge the comedic intent of “The (White) Rapper Show,” but the clichés and hackneyed racial references are more detrimental than entertaining.
“F*** JOHN BROWN.”
Bay area rapper, Dutch the Great, is emphatic over his dislike for the shows’s most publicized characters. Beef aside, Brown works as a fine representative of the show. A man with a gimmick, the self described “Modern-era MC,” was like, the show, so attached to the gimmick that he was unable to take stock of his actions. Sure, both John and the show were at times amusing, but ultimately they both end up failing. And, in the context of this conversation, John Brown is not only disrespectful of hip-hop’s originators (basically stating that meeting Grandmaster Flash was an everyday thing), he is also disrespectful to the abolitionist John Brown for agreeing to take part in this televised fiasco.
Dutch’s overall reaction to the program has been to organize The (Real) White Rapper Album, set to release April 24th. Dutch understands that while the show is “really a joke,” that the program’s intent to find the next great white rapper undermines the difficult task of breaking into hip-hip. “The joke stops in the fact that it is hard enough to be a rapper,” Dutch says, and he believes that those scenes in “The (White) Rapper Show” that will ultimately be remembered have little to do with rapping. John Brown with a dildo in his face, a losing team washing the clothes of the victors, these images, Dutch feels, hinder the hard work that he and others have put in to find a niche in rap. Gathering rappers from around the nation, Dutch states that, “The reason this album was created was to defend the hard work, hustle, and over all development of a race people in hip-hop. This record was not put together to say we are better than the ones who aren’t on it, yet a recognition to the ones who are for their hard work and hustle.” Included on the album are E.C. Illa, “106 & Park” freestyle champ Obnoxious, Bubba Sparxxx, and Haystak.
Haystak’s record on the album, “The Formal Statement,” fluidly addresses his issues with “The (White) Rapper Show.” ‘Stak puts it simply, “The show is a mockery.” For a man who has worked 19 years to put himself in a positive position in hip-hop and overcome stereotypes, Egotrip’s idea of humor, based on exploitation, falls flat. Haystak is eloquent in his discussion of Nashville’s hip-hop heritage, mentioning names like Pistol and Cool Daddy Fresh, who broke new ground in the home of country. As an up-and-coming rapper, ‘Stak says of his race, “When I first got here, I didn’t realize it was that important,” and further remarks, “I didn’t come into this game to ride this white boy thing, but magazines and radio kept asking for one, and they got one, his name is ‘Stak.”
Interestingly, Haystak recalls watching Charlie Pride on television with his grandmother. Pride, an immensely popular black country music singer, was, in Haystak’s memory, never questioned about his race. “He was just super talented,” says ‘Stak, who brings up Pride, and the more contemporary, and much less talented, Cowboy Troy (we can all agree that “Cowboy Troy is a fucking gimmick.”), to highlight that while race has been less publicized in other musical genres, it still hinders the development of rap. “I work to see the day when we can be rappers, not white rappers,” says ‘Stak in reference to the essentially race-less music compiled in The (Real) White Rapper Album. The issues addressed in rap music do not discriminate, and many of the listeners face the same struggles.
For Haystak, and many others, the media’s constant desire to play up a simplified version of black/white race relations in hip-hop is injurious. “How the fuck did 100 Proof and G-Child get on that show?” Haystak questions rhetorically, “They were characters.” And, while they may love hip-hop, they are not representative of the many men and women who choose the arduous task of making hip-hop their livelihood. In this, ‘Stak also takes issue with the shows host, MC Serch, saying “Every time they need a white boy to co-sign some white boys doing idiotic shit, they go to the same one, Michael Baron.”
Unrelated to The (Real) White Rapper Album, Providence based MC Sage Francis, also had issues with the program. Clear in his reading of the program, Sage states, “They had more interest in maintaining a status quo than they did allowing the public access to the talent that is bubbling in the underground.” In this, he echoes the thoughts of Dutch and Haystak, “The (White) Rapper Show” fails in both effectively teaching the public generally about hip-hop’s 25 year history, and by minimizing the contributions of vast numbers of people. Sage’s thoughts on the show have wide implications. “My concern has little to nothing to do with whities in hip-hop. I think it’s sending race relations and society back. Also, I think there has been damage done by endearing wack rappers to the vast VH1 audience.”
As Sage wisely points out, it would be foolish to totally denounce a program for introducing a new audience of people to some of hip-hop’s founding fathers (Kool Herc, Grandmaster Caz and Flash). Recognizing these figures is important, but so is contextualizing how their early achievements lay base for a rapidly evolving culture. I find no fault in the desire to historicize hip-hop, but there is a problem when the accepted history continues to mock many participants in the culture. Dutch put it so nicely, “Hip-hop is a binding fuse of culture, it may not have started as that, but that’s what it has evolved into.” The real issue is that “The (White) Rapper Show,” and the type of thought that allows such a show, hinders the growth of the culture, and not just for the white rapper, but for everyone.
Coming from diverse backgrounds, the three rappers who so graciously shared their time and thoughts with us on this subject, primarily all shared the same feelings. They share the universal struggle of any rapper to build a reputation and a fan base. They understand the inherent issues of being white in hip-hop. They understand that similar issues exist for rappers with other perceived atypical hip-hop roots. And, they understand that hip-hop has evolved and grown in its 25 year history. Ego trip and Vh1 don’t seem to grasp those facts.
Hip-hop has been a great forum for discussing race, and Sage notes, “I think it opened up the discussion more than any art form that came before it. The only way this helps is when the discussion is honest.” Sadly, the discussion so often is reductive. To borrow one of Serch’s corny catchphrases from the show “This is not a game!” Hip-hop is constantly derided in the mainstream media, and until people grasp the complexity of the culture, jokes like “The (White) Rapper Show” only serve to further obstruct positive developments.
Even harping on the (white) in the show is negative. The nature of the show sadly reduces the reactions to focus on white involvement in rap, but we must also remember that legions of Asian, Latino, Native American and other rappers are working to establish and share their voices as well. While this article may have its flaws, I hope that in presenting ideas and sharing the thoughts of Dutch, Haystak and Sage that it may catalyze a more honest discussion of race and hip-hop.