Tricia Rose is the O.G. Hip-hop scholar. Her book Black Noise (Wesleyan, 1994) is one of the germinal texts for serious Hip-hop studies. Anyone who approaches the culture of Hip-hop from a serious stance must contend with Rose’s work. Her latest book, The Hip-Hop Wars (Basic Civitas, 2008), is a critical look at the debates surrounding Hip-hop, debates that have largely sprung up in the fifteen years since Black Noise was published. Hip-hop music and culture deserves to be taken seriously and looked at critically, and Tricia Rose is down to give it its due.
Roy Christopher: Tell us a bit about your new book The Hip-hop Wars and how it differs from Black Noise.
Tricia Rose: Black Noise was a very academic treatment of the emergence of Hip-hop and its political and aesthetic and social element/impact on black culture and US society. It was about the music and lyrics and the social context. Although it addressed the debates about Hip-hop in the public sphere it was interested in figuring out Hip-hop “on its own terms” and setting an intellectual agenda for understanding what was then an emergent art form.
Hip-Hop Wars is about the public conversation on Hip-hop and how that conversation along with the spiraling downward content of commercial Hip-hop is working together to restore racial stereotype (and therefore undermine real cross-racial unity and equality), dumb down Hip-hop fans and continue the justification of unjust social policies that most negatively impact poor black youth. It is highly accessible, created with bite size chapters and is intended to spark youth engagement with social justice issues through Hip-hop (e.g., gender, racial and class) and to challenge all the stupid arguments leveled for and against Hip-hop in mainstream and Hip-hop media.
RC: Can you briefly explain the “gangsta-pimp-ho trinity” and how you think it came about?
TR: This is a term I came up with to describe the intensely defended most powerful Hip-hop triangle of financially profitable but socially destructive images that have dominated commercial mainstream Hip-hop for over a decade now. I wanted to convey their mutual relationships and I wanted to imply that together they make up the “god” of Hip-hop that is worshipped by record company executives, rappers (present and aspiring) and fans. I also wanted to challenge readers into thinking about how too many of us investment in these images as if they are the truth and that anyone who challenges this is considered outside of the culture and therefore unworthy of serious consideration. As for how it came about, well that’s an answer far too long for this space but in Hip-Hop Wars! But the very, very short answer would be: a) long and powerful history of racial stereotypes that perceive blacks as violent, criminal and hyper sexual, now refashioned for the urban present; b) expansion street economies in poor communities due to chronic and very high levels of joblessness elevates these icons in real life; c) economic value of these images of black people.
RC: I agree with you that the Hip-hop Generation needs “the sharpest critical tools to survive and thrive,” but, as Jay-Z says, they just wanna hear their boy talk fly. How are we to engage Hip-hop heads with the necessary critique of this dear culture?
TR: Black youth have always wanted to hear fly artists talk, style and boast. The issue is not about the style of Hip-hop but its content. Black artists have been incredibly creative without elevating the worst of ourselves, without constant justification of self and community destructive attitudes and behaviors. The whole history of jazz is about fly artists talking (think of the powerful style and linguistic and musical creativity associated with BeBop). And politics has always been conveyed through fly talk. What has happened is that now, this style — this powerful way of making creative pleasure is serving a death imperative. It is what I call “the manipulation of the funk” (funk serving here as a parallel to the idea of fly boy talk; the role of stylistic pleasure in making content pleasurable.
So, the question isn’t why aren’t mainstream rappers political (they are – it is a politics of renegade, community destruction) or how do we get them to be critical (they are critical of all kinds of things, but too often it’s the wrong things!) it is what kind of politics are some rappers pushing when their “fly boys talk.” What kind of critical So the opposite of “bitches ain’t nothing but hos and tricks” or “99 problems” isn’t necessarily Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or Immortal Technique’s “The Cause of Death,” it is something like Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push” or “The Cool” or Common’s “The Corner.”
RC: I’ve asked a few emcees why when one performs angry black music that the audience is mostly white. The answer I get is that it’s a class issue not a race issue. That is, middle- and upper-class folks are the ones with the leisure time to contemplate such issues. Other factors notwithstanding do you think this is an accurate assessment of the situation?
TR: When I watched 50 Cent’s DVD concert in the Detroit area I was stunned to see the mostly white audience when the rear stage cameras were in action. Yes, middle class youth have both the comfort and the educational resources to attend to these issues in a conceptual way and their consumption of radical ideas is given more room and safety. Black rappers with “angry” political content rapping to an all black crowd tends to bring out the police and the FBI; there is a long history of that in Hip-hop alone, not to mention R&B and Soul music in the late 1960s. And, black fans use “local” black radio as a key means for guiding consumption. Back radio (which isn’t local or black owned too much anymore) rarely plays radical political content — which would make it seem organic to black communities (which it is) and give it currency among black youth.
RC: Is there anything else I didn’t bring up or that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
TR: Thanks for asking this. I want to mention the end of the book where I offer six guiding principles for progressive consumption generally and specifically for Hip-hop. I think it is so important to remind ourselves of how powerful, energizing and beautiful creative expression can be. And, to not be manipulated into thinking that the content need not be rough to be valuable (often a culturally conservative position) or that it is “keepin’ it real” when it panders to subcultures of self-destruction and violence (the hyper-pro-Hip-hop defenders). Most of us need a more balanced and forward looking, progressive way out of this. My six principles outline a larger way to think about culture, our past, our communities and our politics in ways that honors the complexity of creativity but refuses to give a free pass to those who let the market rule. So, I’ll close on one of these principles: We live in a market economy, don’t let the market economy live in us.”