Early Nineties politically conscious jazz-rap phenomenon Digable Planets may be my favorite rap group. So it was pretty exciting for me when frontman, Ish, released two EPs last year as Shabazz Palaces. I put Of Light on my best of 2010 list. A reader of RapReviews.com recently asked me why I didn’t put the, arguably superior, self-titled album on my list instead. I agreed with the reader; the self-titled is better. But, I couldn’t put it on my list. Because on self-titled, Ish calls rivals “faggots” on “32 Leaves.” I know that, sadly, homophobia is rampant in hip-hop, but I took special notice of it here.
Because, remember who we’re talking about here. We’re not talking about Soulja Boy supermanning ‘hoes, Snoop Dogg slapping bitches, or Jadakiss “stacking chips like Hebrews.” We’re talking about politically conscious, backpacker, indie darling Ish, former frontman of left-wing, extraterrestrial, Blue Note sampling Digable Planets dropping the kind of hatred which is, supposedly, marketed in the mainstream but not in the underground. Indeed, Ish’s slur is yet another indication of the bigotry epidemic in hip-hop. This epidemic transcends genre and chart position. We backpackers like to believe that indie rap is somehow morally superior to the mainstream, but, too often, this is simply not the case.
Especially when it comes to homophobia. Sure, Eminem plays pretty fast and loose with anti-gay slurs. But the underground proliferates that bullshit too. After all, former Def Jux CEO, El-P, was proud to scream “These faggots hit like Teddy Bears,” on “Delorean,” off of the otherwise phenomenal 2002 release, Fantastic Damage. In a taped live session featured on Sage Francis’s Sick of Waiting Tables mix tape, guest Fes One raps that he wants to “smash advocates of gay rights” and then that “frontin’-ass faggots are corrupting real hip-hop.” Qwel brags that it “gets looser than faggot’s anus” on the Typical Cats’ self-titled. Common goes after rival rappers, asserting that “in a circle of faggots, your name is mentioned” on “Dooinin” from 2000’s conscience-rap classic, Like Water For Chocolate.
Those are just a few of many examples of blatant homophobia in indie-rap and conscience rap. But what stands out is that these rappers, especially Sage Francis, El-P, and Common, pride themselves on their left wing politics (or, in Common’s case, his progressive social commentary).
El-Producto’s Fantastic Damage is in large part a response to post-9/11 hysteria. El does not hide his feelings about the right wing, but then employs rhetoric few conservatives, save Ann Coulter, would use publicly. Suddenly, Producto’s subversive repetition of “Whose America?” on Company Flow’s anti-conservative polemic, “Patriotism,” has an unintended irony to it. When El espouses conservative-esque homophobia of his own, the answer to his question, “whose America?” becomes “the right wing’s, El, because you bought into their bullshit and gave it to them.”
To his immense credit, Sage Francis is one of the few MCs who actively protests gay-bashing in rap. On “Gunz Yo,” off of 2005’s A Healthy Distrust, Sage takes to task rappers who brag about guns as a means of compensating for their own masculine insecurities. He comments upon: “a homophobic rapper/unaware of the graphic nature of phallic symbols/tragically ironic, suckin’ off each others’ gats & pistols.” It’s a poignant critique, but juxtaposed with his guest’s use of “faggot” on Sick of Waiting Tables, it articulates the false dichotomy of ‘backwards’ mainstream rap versus ‘progressive’ indie rap. Francis is rightfully willing to criticize mainstream rappers for their anti-gay machismo, but is, meanwhile, willing to feature a member of his crew using homophobic slurs, as if the fact that his mixtape is low-fi and fringey ameliorates the f-word’s repugnance.
Common’s hypocrisy is also all too apparent. Since Resurrection, Common has held himself out as a counterbalancing force to the violence and sexism so prevalent in gangsta and club rap. But, like so many others, he is willing to stand-up for women, but will go no further. I suppose he has a daughter and a wife who he loves, but no gay uncle to help him round out his conscious approach. Indeed, it borders on self-satire for Common to call rappers “faggots” on the same album containing “The Light,” an understated and deeply personal call for gender equality in marriage. But, then again, I guess praising women will get you laid, while standing up for gay folks may not.
All of this begs a more fundamental question: why do we hold rappers to such low standards? Why did Pitchfork.com applaud Drake’s “progressiveness” towards women as “contagious” on Thank Me Later when he and his features in several instances refer to women as bitches and ‘hoes?’ Why was Guns & Roses’ line on The Speghetti Incident, “Faggots and foreigners spreading the disease,” practically a career ender, but when rappers say the same or worse, no one blinks? Why did Michael Jackson’s version of “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” in which he said “sue me/jew me” (likely sarcastically), garner such immense criticism, but it’s taken as par for the course when Jadakiss brags that he “Stacks chips like Hebrews” on “All About the Benjamins?”
I’ll save my pet theories on these matters for another day. What must be acknowledged first is that bigotry is pervasive in rap, and that this bigotry is by no means unique to the mainstream. Granted, underground rap was progressive at its outset relative to mainstream rap – i.e., in that it spoke out against the violence and misogyny part and parcel to gangsta rap. But it’s time for us backpackers to stop patting ourselves on the back and time for us to start catching up to what at least should be the norms of the 21st Century. Fortunately, some, like P.O.S., Brother Ali, Mr. Lif, Psalm One, and, by-in-large, Sage Francis and Talib Kweli, have begun leading the charge. But too many others need to fall in line.
This truly progressive charge must involve no hint of romanticism towards DIY MCs. The Do-It-Yourself ethic, while inspiring in its own right, is not synonymous with decency. And it is certainly not a free pass to drop the same bullshit that should have never been in style in the first place