Of Bullhorns and Lightning Rods

October 23rd, 2012 | Category: Essays, Videos

In the March 19, 1990 issue of Newsweek, they unsurprisingly attack Hip-hop with everything from unfettered racism to ignorant fear-mongering. I say “unsurprisingly” because in March of 1990, rap music was still the bane of popular culture. Yo! MTV Raps had barely started its decade-long run, N.W.A. had yet to release records from their separate ways, Public Enemy was just on the verge of dropping Fear of a Black Planet, and Tipper Gore’s PMRC was advising parents not to let their kids listen to rap. In Newsweek‘s cover story, “Rap Rage,” with the cover copy, “Yo! Street rhyme has gone big time, but are those sounds out of bounds?” Jerry Adler attempts to describe music made by groups “most Americans may never have heard of,”

…music so postindustrial it’s almost not even played, but pieced together out of prerecorded sound bites. It is the culture of American males frozen in various stages of adolescence: their streetwise music, their ugly macho boasting and joking about anyone who hangs out on a different block—cops, other races, women, and homosexuals (p. 56).

Bill Adler (1999; absolutely no relation) writes of the cover story,

It was so off-base that 49 music writers, led by Entertainment Weekly‘s Greg Sandow (and representing publications including Time, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and The Village Voice) wrote a letter to the editors of Newsweek insisting that [Jerry] Adler had “invented a nightmarish and racist fantasy about ignorant Black men who scream obscene threats. This is more than artistic misjudgement. Adler has slandered a major strain of contemporary Black culture” (p. 145).

To the Newsweek‘s left in the photo above is the October 18, 2012 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times in which they do much the same thing over 22 years later, furthering Chicago’s Chief Keef’s place as an ephemeral media lightning rod. All the bias, misinformation, and well-worn themes from the past two decades of mainstream Hip-hop coverage are here, from jail time boosting record sales to record companies exploiting violence. I call Keef’s treatment ephemeral because comparing him to Tupac and T.I.—as Thomas Conner does—is ludicrous and illustrates how little these writers know about their subject matter or care about reporting it accurately. It also shows how desperate their employers have gotten, especially when major news outlets sport inset “tl;dr” boxes in their articles, as if that makes them hip instead of hopeless.

Keef has popularized a rap style called “drill music” that originated in Chicago’s south side. Its use of truncated half-bars made up of single statements chanted one at a time rather than rap’s signature flowing poetry over beats makes it a distinctive vocal expression, possibly only prefigured by other one-offs like early-1990s dis-rapper Tim Dog or NOLA’s hoarse-voiced Mystikal. It’s a style that other rappers sound cramped attempting to emulate, as proven by Kanye West’s remix of Keef’s one hit “I Don’t Like,” featuring the ample vocal skills of Pusha-T, Jadakiss, Big Sean, and West himself—all veterans compared to the 17-year-old Keef. “Mr. West has rarely sounded so out of place,” writes Jon Caramanica, “and the original trumps the remix in every regard. ‘I Don’t Like’ is all hard angles and concrete walls, resistant to whatever nuance Mr. West wanted to add.” The drill sound’s closest contemporary analogue lies in the gang-fueled, club anthems of Atlanta’s Waka Flocka Flame, which feature a little more in the way of flow but are no less clipped and shouted. He’s already outlasted his critics’ expectations though and has made the transition from street tough to entertainer with a sort of gangster’s grace. That shift still remains for Keef, and for argument’s sake, here’s the original house-arrest version of his break-out hit “I Don’t Like” [runtime: 5:09]:

I do like the song as well as his mixtapes, but I can’t say that I hear evidence of a talent like Tupac, T.I., or, more germanely, Tyler, The Creator. Mark Brown opens his Chicago Sun-Times article about record labels exploiting violence such as the gun waving seen above, by writing, “There probably ought to be a rule against a guy like me writing about somebody like teen rapper Chief Keef, the gulf between our worlds so vast that there’s no way I can relate to his life experiences let alone his music” (p. 5). You might be onto something there, Mark. He adds later, “I decided long ago there’s no value in old white guys wagging their fingers about the dangers of rap music lyrics that glorify guns, drugs, violence, and other criminal activity. I don’t like them. So what?” (p. 5) So, why did you just spend nearly 800 words doing just that?

Chief Keef’s raps are like Tweets: one-line, stand-alone missives; all comment, no story. Another Sun-Times article that emerged as I was writing this revisits how social media fuels public feuds. Much has been written about the role Twitter played in Keef’s rise to infamy, mainly due to gang rivalries that bubbled up into the music and possibly resulted in the death of his south-side rap rival Lil Jojo. “THE defining document of hip-hop’s current evolutionary state isn’t a song, or a music video or a concert,” writes Jon Caramanica in The New York Times, “Years from now cultural archaeologists will do much better to look back over the Twitter account of the 17-year-old Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who’s been exploding, or imploding, depending on how you look at it, one short burst of text at a time.” The immediacy of such a channel—someone once called it “the death of the unspoken thought”—lends it to hotheaded responses and eventual regret. “I think it’s pretty likely that instantaneity means there is no chance to ‘count to 10’ in hopes that things might cool off a bit,” says my colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Steve Jones, who’s quoted in the Sun-Times article. “I don’t pin that on Twitter, though, as that is the case with other synchronous media — Facebook, [texting], etc. . . . There’s probably some perceived advantage to the public-ness of Twitter, that it seems like more of a mass medium than other options at this point. It also has the perceived advantage of having messages amplified via retweeting. If Facebook is a wall, Twitter might be a bullhorn.” The bullhorn is the perfect symbol for the nodal point I’m trying to reveal here.

In writing about these articles, I feel kind of like the people who wrote them, like I’ve gone looking for something to be outraged about. And that’s a large part of the problem: If you go looking for something to be bummed about, you will find it. Unless you want to be up on the latest trends in rap music, Chief Keef is really none of your damn business. Journalism is like the postal service: They’re both dying businesses that continually do their jobs more and more poorly. So much so that they’re redefining what it means for media to “go viral” and what it means for someone to “go postal.”

It should also be noted that Newsweek announced last week that they are folding their print edition at the end of the year. I hope it means the end of their shitty rag in all its forms. Fuck them.


Adler, Bill. (1999). Bill Adler’s Top 5 Mainstream Media Rap Coverage Travesties. In Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, & Brent Rollins (Eds.), Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. New York: Ego Trip Publications.

Adler, Jerry. (1990, March 19). The Rap Attitude. Newsweek, CXV, 12, p. 56-59.

Brown, Mark. (2012, October 18). Record Companies Feed Off Violence. Chicago Sun-Times, p. 5.

Caramanica, Jon. (2012, October 4). Chicago Hip-Hop’s Burst of Change. The New York Times.

Conner, Thomas. (2012, October 18). Jail Time Might Not Hurt Sales. Chicago Sun-Times, p. 4.

Conner, Thomas. (2012, October 20). Rappers’ beefs sizzle on social media. Chicago Sun-Times, p. 3.

Many thanks to Stacey Spencer who boosted me the one copy of Newsweek I’ve ever owned and to Zizi Papacharissi and Tim Baker for additional links and input.

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