The Blog

Lyrical Madness

You may have heard the news recently that one of the founder members of A Tribe Called Quest, Phife Dawg, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 45 due to complications from diabetes. For those not familiar with Tribe, they were one of the most influential music acts of the past 30 years, helping to pioneer 'conscious rap' or 'alternative hip hop' with the likes of De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo, The Beastie Boys, The Jungle Brothers and, more recently, the excellent and shockingly underrated Jneiro Jarel and even Kanye West before he went all...Kardashian on us. Although hailed as 'one of the most intelligent and artistic rap groups of the 1990s', and being honoured with Lifetime Special Achievement Awards throughout the music industry, Tribe's best known hit here in the UK was 'Can I Kick It', which was the soundtrack for a stunningly successful Nike campaign back in the '90s.

With their socially conscious rap that is a world away from the horrific lyrics of today, the band should have been far bigger than they ever were, and the same can be said of most alternative rap acts of the mid '80s to '90s. I would even go as far as saying that black music at that time, both here and especially in the States, was at its zenith and nearly everything else since then has seen a steady decline in quality and substance. That's not just my opinion, but the opinion of many others too.

One of the biggest things to affect black music since the invention of vinyl is the 'Parental Discretion Advised' sticker that used to be worn as a badge of honour on the front of an album, and certain record producers and labels perhaps believed that if an album didn't have this sticker, sales would be lost. As a result, albums were not only more profanity-laced, they were the soundtracks for drug-fuelled, anarchic, violent lifestyles that have become acceptable in certain parts of black society and culture.

If a hardcore rap album isn't peppered with the words nigga, hoe, mothefucker and fuck, as well as descriptions of murder, rape, gang-bangs, violent retribution, orgies and other forms of sexual deviancy multiple times, then it's not deemed worthy of the name, and record companies are disappointed. The bar for explicit and violent lyrics has been raised to such a level that it's hard to see where things can go from here.

The effect this has had on black people is to set us back years culturally, as this music becomes more mainstream and more acceptable to young, non-black audiences. Meanwhile, black-on-black killings have soared exponentially both here and in the States, to levels that were unheard of in the '60s and '70s when black music finally crossed over to white audiences. Raps about drive-by shootings, murder, armed robberies, drug dealing, pimping and the 'bling' lifestyle that are constantly heard on today's records have subliminally become part of the black psyche and is a major factor in blacks not respecting themselves or each other. How can we, when we're calling ourselves every derogatory term we can think of on tracks that we hope will go double-platinum? I'll go further and ask which other race in the history of the world would ever put up with this?

Can you imagine Frank Sinatra, during his heyday, singing in derogatory tones about his fellow Italian Americans, calling them 'guineas', 'wops', 'Goombahs' or 'dagos'? Or crooning about Mafia mob hits with meat cleavers, axes, daggers and Uzis? Sure, it was a different world back then, but you get my gist.

Fast forward 60 years to Amy Winehouse, the Pride of Camden. Would she have been tolerated by the Jewish community here in London- or anywhere else- if her songs constantly used the terms 'Yids' or 'Kikes'? And sang about having unprotected sex, mentioned her 'pussy', used the word 'bitch' over 40 times in one song and talked about employing 'kikes'? How about a Chinese group calling themselves 'Chinks With Attitude', singing about trying to live outside the law in modern day China? And imagine their story then became one of the biggest films of the year.

None of this is remotely feasible, yet black people put up with it and it's slowly desensitizing our youth and opening them up to casually accepting murder, wanton violence and misogyny to the extent that now a young man will think nothing of beating up a young woman, totally oblivious of the social taboo of hitting a female. With videos that portray women as dumb, stupid objects of lust and only there to satisfy sexual gratification, what do we really expect?

This is one of the side effects of years of listening to the kind of music where criminal behaviour is heralded as the correct, 21st century way of life, and if you happen to get shot along the way or are involved in a mass shoot-out, or are told the words 'Come out with your hands where we can see them!', and you can then rap about it, more kudos to you.

If we as black people continually look down upon ourselves in public like this, why are we even mildly surprised when people of other races do the same? We demand inclusion and stress the importance of diversity, yet the mind-set that makes hardcore rap totally acceptable to us has become our biggest obstacle. Do we have some kind of special dispensation where we will only tolerate being insulted by other blacks? Isn't it high time that we started to respect- and take ourselves- more seriously, which, in turn, will force other people to respect us and take us more seriously, instead of fearing us and prejudging us because of what they see and hear?