From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It’s not about a salary ... rap, race and resistance in Los Angeles
Rap has without doubt been the most innovative and radical music in the last decade. A music form which has not been afraid to borrow from other styles such as jazz, funk, rock and world music, it is the sound of young black America and increasingly that of white youth.
It has not avoided criticism – much has been written by the press on the sexist and racist lyrics of some rap. In recent years the American establishment, and to a lesser extent the British, have become paranoid about the so called links between rap and violence. LA’s ‘gangster rap’ is at the forefront of the controversy.
Brian Cross has, with the aid of interviews – with rappers such as Dr Dre, House of Pain, The Pharcyde, Ice T and Cube – photographs, documents and essays, located west coast rap within the political and economic conditions of LA and its surrounding areas.
Ever since jazz there has been a sharp division in musical styles between the east coast and west coast of America. The east has been associated with a much harder sound. With jazz it was the backbone of the bebop sound of Charlie Parker and Max Roach, with late 1960s rock the wizardry of Hendrix. The west was associated with the more laid back, mellow sound of ‘cool jazz’ of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan and the flower power era of the late 1960s.
Early rap appeared to develop in the same way. Whilst the east coast was notorious for the political rap of Public Enemy and KRS1, all the west coast had was tame electro. By 1986 it was all to change.
If the east coast had the raw funky soul beats, the west coast had the sales. With the emergence of NWA, gangster rap was now the LA sound. Cross argues that the music of NWA, Cube, T and a host of others was the product of LA police racism – in 1986 the LAPD killed 32 black and Chicano males – immigration, poverty and a gang culture.
The LA gangs first sprang up in the 1950s to protect blacks and immigrants from racist gangs. By the 1980s they were fighting each other for control of the drug markets.
The result is a music which is angry and influenced by a variety of cultural sounds. Just a brief glance at the recently emerging rappers shows this. Cypress Hill are fronted by a Cuban, House of Pain are Irish-American and Kid Frost is Chicano. Rap is still one of the few ways out of the ghetto for black and Hispanic kids.
Like me, anyone interested in rap music will enjoy this book. Brian Cross has written one of the few decent books on the subject. The recent LA riot marked a turning point in America’s history. Public Enemy’s Fight the Power was its anthem. If future struggles develop, rap will be the cheerleader.
Last updated: 8 March 2017