W hat's a brother gotta do to get a message through?
Ice-T, a pioneer of Los Angeles gangsta rap, asks that question in the opening minutes of "Body Count," the album by his new heavy-metal band of the same name.
The line, echoing a persistent theme of rap activists in recent years, expresses the frustration of trying to get the power structure in America to respond to the social and economic woes of America's inner cities.
Chuck D., the leader of New York's Public Enemy, has long said rap music is like a communications network for black Americans, who are denied regular access to mass media outlets. Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube refers to rap as the "CNN of black America."
If so, the network has never had a better opportunity to be heard. Aware of how little progress was made after the Watts riots of more than two decades ago, a troubled, shaken mainstream America may be motivated this time to look for new voices in the search for solutions--including some of the forceful and articulate rappers who are viewed as heroes in parts of the black community.
That's why the riots that were ignited by the verdict in the Rodney G. King beating trial on April 29 may well serve as a dividing point in rap. From now on, there will be pre-'92-riots rap and post-'92-riots rap.
For those who have rejected the raw, street-spawned music as exploitative and contrived, it is time to recognize the genuine artistic impulses of the field's most gifted figures, including Ice Cube and Chuck D.
At the same time, it's no longer enough for rappers to convey just the anger and rage of the inner city. Those emotions were amply documented for the world to see in the sobering, heartbreaking footage of burnings, looting and beatings. To continue to serve as a network of information and change, rappers must explore the challenges and consequences facing the community, both inside and outside the 'hood.
"Body Count," the bittersweet title track in the new album, may stand as the final expression of pre-'92-riots rap. Against the gentle sound of a single, tender guitar, Ice-T deplores the gap between the American Dream and life in the world he writes about.
"You know sometimes, I sit at home . . . and I watch TV . . . and I wonder what it would be like to live someplace like the Cosby show (or) Ozzie and Harriet . . . where the cops come and get your cat outta the tree and all your friends died of old age," he says.
"But you see, I live in South-Central Los Angeles and unfortunately. . . ."
A dramatic pause is broken by an explosion of guitar-shrieking heavy-metal music that reflects the chaos and tension of urban life. The wistful understatement of Ice-T's voice gives way quickly to fury:
You know what you'd do
If a kid got killed
On the way to school
Or a cop shot your kid
In the back yard . . .
I hear it every night,
The tension mounts . . .
On with the body count.
It's a striking track--as angry and unsettling as anything Ice-T has ever done. Yet the promise and purpose of that song aren't maintained. Elsewhere in "Body Count," Ice-T touches occasionally on social matters, including the anti-drug warning of "The Winner Loses" and rock's racist undercurrents in "There Goes the Neighborhood." (See review on Page 49.)
All too often, however, he and the band do nothing more than offer another version of the sexual bravado and horror-film exclamation of crude heavy metal.
That's why the album, perhaps inevitably, falls into old-school consciousness. The new era in rap will be defined in the coming weeks as artists return to the studio and reflect on the events of recent weeks.
That doesn't mean that it isn't useful to listen to some of the key albums in the development of '80s rap, especially the Los Angeles gangsta rap albums that tapped into the building frustration and despair that eventually brought Los Angeles to a standstill.
From the beginning, the music--frequently embellished by the sounds of sirens and gunshots--was widely criticized as contributing to the lawlessness of youth. Even an FBI official accused one group in 1990 of encouraging violence against law enforcement officers. But it wasn't the records that triggered the riots in Los Angeles. It was a court decision. Rap was merely the messenger.
Grandmaster Flash's brilliant 1982 single "The Message" was, for all practical purposes, the starting point of socially oriented rap as we now know it. Though revolutionary at the time, the East Coast record offered neither a violent sonic assault nor the urban anger that was later to surface in rap. Instead, it was a stark, disheartened look at conditions in the ghetto:
It's a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.
Despite those anti-rap forces who argue that the music isn't really the voice of militant inner-city youth, but something created to tantalize suburban teens, "The Message" was clearly aimed at a young, urban crowd. There was little chance that pop radio stations would play it, and the white rock audience in the early '80s still tended to associate all black music with the pop enemy: disco.
Ironically, it wasn't music that probably contributed most to opening a door for rap in the '80s. It was concert violence. When 41 fans were injured during a gang skirmish at a Run-DMC concert in 1986 at the Long Beach Arena, everyone from the media to anxious parents to curious suburban teen-agers began taking notice.
This was a time when few Los Angeles residents outside of hard-core areas understood the extent of the gang problem in the city, so they found it hard to accept Run-DMC leader Joseph Simmons' accusation that the concert violence was a symptom of larger social problems, not a byproduct of rap.
Outsiders could, however, understand the image of gangs and rap. Though Run-DMC's songs were often pro-education and anti-drug, the group members themselves wore black hats and black clothing that looked gangster-ish.
Sensing a marketable image, other rappers began incorporating gangsta sensibilities in their songs. Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One, one of rap's brightest and most positive forces, even posed with a Uzi on the cover of his "By Any Means Necessary" album in 1988.
But the rap album that electrified the pop world was N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" the following year. This wasn't just music that employed gangsta imagery as part of a wider thematic canvas, this was music done from the gangbanger point of view--without apology.
As such, the album was as unflinching at times as some of the riot scenes on television. Sample lines from "Gangsta, Gangsta":
Since I was a youth, I smoke weed out
Now, I'm the ------ that you read about.
Taking a life or two,
That's what the hell I do
If you don't like how I'm living,
Well, ---- you.
This is a gang and I'm in it.
The commotion over the album centered on whether all this was healthy for kids--a reasonable debate, but one that often failed to recognize just how massive the gang problem was in Los Angeles. The hard-boiled collection was tailored for a hard-core crowd and it connected so strongly that it sold 500,000 copies its first six weeks in the stores.
"Most of the rap records at the time avoided cuss words and stuff like that because they wanted to get on the radio," Ice Cube, N.W.A.'s best rapper, has said, looking back on the early days of the group. "But we were just trying to appeal to our own crowd . . . the homeboys down the street. We needed to talk about stuff that other people are scared to talk about.
"Everybody and their mother was selling drugs so we thought we'd do a song called 'Dopeman.' I wrote it and it was kind of funny, but it was also hard and serious. When people took to it, we knew that was our avenue . . . the way we needed to make records."
What N.W.A. didn't plan on was that the tough, X-rated language and no-holds-barred images would also catch on with suburban teen-agers, and it was that audience that helped push sales past the 2-million mark. That suburban acceptance also forged an alliance between metal, punk and rap.
If N.W.A.'s game plan was largely commercial, there was an artistic impulse fueling Ice Cube himself and it was documented in his 1990 solo debut, "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted." Where "Straight Outta Compton" is valuable from a historical standpoint, it is severely dated now. Not so with Ice Cube, whose music continues to haunt.
His "Most Wanted" was built around a series of fiery expositions about racism, poverty, gangs, drugs and police. It was sometimes ugly and disturbing, especially the apparent misogyny. But the album, which was voted one of the year's best in a Village Voice poll of U.S. pop critics, also had the feel of an artist trying to better understand the anger in himself and around him.
"People sometimes act as if we are making up the stuff we talk about on the records . . . that we are trying to be controversial and shocking," he said shortly after the album's release.
"It is controversial and shocking, but it's also real. . . . Not the kind of (polite) stuff you (usually) hear on TV or the radio. We're speaking in the language of the neighborhood. The homeboys know exactly what we're saying. Most (whites) don't know what goes on in this world. They don't even see these streets. The record will be as close as most people get to us."
Ice Cube returned last year with "Death Certificate," another essential--and even more controversial--work.
Even some early supporters were offended by Ice Cube's fury this time, including an especially troublesome 45-second track titled "Black Korea," which warned that Korean merchants need to show more respect to black customers or face a national boycott or the prospect of their stores' being burned down.
Yet Ice Cube, who won acclaim as an actor in John Singleton's film "Boyz N the Hood," was moving in much of the album from the rage to causes and solutions, a process that he needs to continue addressing in his next album. He pointed fingers at both the power structure for failing to improve conditions and to his neighbors for not taking more responsibility in their own lives.
In "Bird in the Hand," he chides national leaders, black and white, for failing to accomplish more in the areas of education and job opportunity.
Do I have to sell me a whole lot of crack
For decent shelter
And clothes on my back?
Or should I just wait for help
Or Jesse Jackson and
In "Man's Best Friend," he employs humor to talk about the dangers of life in the urban combat zone.
Man's best friend? . . .
It used to be a dog like Lassie
But now in '91,
It's a gun if you ask me.
But the most important moments may be the unity messages such as "Us," where he points a finger at the community:
All you dope dealers
You are bad as the police
Because you, too, kill us . . .
You ain't built us a supermarket
So we could spend money with the blacks
Too busy buying gold and Cadillacs . . .
Sometimes I believe the hype, man,
We mess it up on our selves
And blame the white man.
Ice Cube isn't pandering to or exploiting his audience. Like such veteran rap forces as Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy as well as such promising newcomers as the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, he now has a chance to help educate and heal. Rap's most important chapter is about to begin.