I got a chance to read Brothers Gonna Work it Out by Charise Cheney over the past week while chilling in the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It’s about that period between say 1987 and 1992 or so when hip-hop’s political potential was at its greatest. Or so they say anyway. Cheney’s work is sorely needed, but there are some places where she could’ve done a bit more work.
There were two questions that I had about the golden age that Cheney didn’t answer for me. How “golden” was it? Hip-hop is now old enough to wax nostalgic, to not only talk about the good old days, but to use power to jam those good old days down our throat. Remember the days when DJs used wax? When the MC and the DJ had equal billing? When cats did it for the love of the game, rather than the contract?
When KRS-One came to my yard to speak a few years back, I got a chance to talk to him and to thank him. He IS one of the reasons why I am where I am, why many of us are able to do what we do without compromise. Krisna Best’s post on the Universality of Hip-hop to gets at this in depth, and on the real it wasn’t JUST hip-hop. But there was a moment in the late eighties/early nineties where we realized that we could actually integrate into formerly white spaces without compromise. Hip-hop is at least partially responsible for that.
But when you really think about it, that golden age didn’t really have much in the way of content. In comparison to today? Maybe. But how many artists are we really talking about? X-Clan, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Paris, Poor Righteous Teachers, The Jungle Brothers, Sistah Souljah, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, and even here I’m being liberal (there wasn’t much if any political substance in the Tribe’s work). And none of these groups ever really exploded. It would’ve been interesting to somehow figure out how golden the golden age really was…how many popular political tracks, how many popular political albums, how many groups, not in comparison to now, but within that moment in time.
The second question deals with the content. What exactly did these tracks say? Here’s where I thought that Cheney would go into depth as far as the lyrics. She gives an explanation why she doesn’t do this–she doesn’t want to be reductionist–but I don’t buy it. If the MCs are claiming to represent a certain type of politics, and if consumers are down with them because of those politics, we should be able to get a sense of what those politics are through the music–I mean what else IS there? Because they don’t have a history of praxis, all we really have to go on is their lyrics. And if you aren’t really talking about the lyrics…but you ARE talking about rap, what are you doing?
There are also a few other issues. Errol Henderon wrote what is probably the first academic treatise linking black nationalism and rap music, and Cheney doesn’t cite him at all, missing a real opportunity to talk about where rap could have been had there been more heft to their politics. Further, it’s easy to slap black nationalism around for its sexism, but it isn’t like integrationism is much better. Finally her discussion of what nationalism is/was could be stronger. When you look at nationalism across time you HAVE to look at dominant trends across time rather than differences WITHIN a given point. But still Cheney could’ve done a much better job here.