Hip-Hop legend Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour) is often quoted as having said “Rap music is CNN for black people.” This attribution is so routine and commonplace that it even shows up in summaries of his solo album “Autobiography of Mistachuck” when copies of it are up for sale via online retailers like eBay. Even though I’d swear I remember him saying this myself, I looked around extensively for the first radio, print or video interview where he uttered this famous quote and couldn’t find it. I suspect it may pre-date the world wide web, which formally came into existence in the early 1990’s, and which in those nascent days did not have millions of bloggers sharing every word a rapper said to every media outlet. Regardless of my at least temporary inability to authenticate the quote, it carries the air of authenticity when compared to Public Enemy’s own musical catalog. Chuck and his compatriots used hip-hop music as a camera lens and focused it on urban blight, gentrification, inner city violence, disenfranchisement, poverty & racism.
Let’s take this quote at face value for the purposes of this editorial, even if it turns out to have been said by a like-minded artist – say KRS-One or Ice Cube – rappers who like Chuck D seemed to make “white America” uncomfortable in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Why were they said to be uncomfortable? It wasn’t just that their children were listening to music laced with violence and profanity. Ghettos do not spring forth fullborn from the head like Athena did from Zeus in Greek mythology. They are born of racism, and thrive due to “white flight” to the suburbs, and it’s a cycle that plays out over and over when the low cost of living in blighted metropolitan areas is inviting to new groups of immigrants. It’s an easy problem to ignore if you never lived in an urban neighborhood or your family “made it out” of the hood generatios ago, but when rap music became black America’s CNN, it became very hard to pretend the problems didn’t exist or were simply fictitious exaggeration. With so many rappers talking about common problems like racism and police brutality from New York to Houston to L.A., it was clear that “CNN” wasn’t just covering it for entertainment value – it was meant to be a wake up call.
As the internet and hip-hop’s popularity grew in the 1990’s and social media grew in the 2000’s, “CNN” slowly turned into “TMZ.” Hip-Hop music is still capable of focusing a lens on things that society as a whole would rather ignore or pretend don’t exist, but more and more of the rap that gets “broadcast” focuses on trivial and superficial matters. This isn’t an editorial putting blame solely on the artists, because there are plenty of rappers who are providing intelligent and informed coverage of things they see, know and experience on a daily basis. The rise of TMZ in the 2000’s though reflects a rejection of the using the camera lens to cover important issues, something that even celebrities themselves mock. TMZ’s version of “news” is which famous people are dating, who is pregnant and who isn’t, who gets into fist fights at clubs or sporting events, and what people who have a lot of money are spending it on. The music of today’s popular rappers like Future and Drake unwittingly matches that obsession with trivial and superficial matters – hanging out with celebrities, spending lots of money, feuding with other rap or sports celebs.
The shift of our collective attention from news to “celebrity gossip” is reflected accurately by the shift in what gets broadcast in hip-hop on mainstream media outlets. It’s not as though the real news isn’t out there and isn’t being covered, it’s just not being disseminated to the degree the superficial BS is. Even CNN isn’t really CNN any more. Watch the channel for a few hours on any given weeknight, or even their sister channel Headline News, and you’ll find they are filled with so-called “reality” TV programs and “talking heads” giving you their opinions ABOUT the news as opposed to the ACTUAL news. TMZ did not spring forth full born either, and if CNN looks more and more like TMZ, it’s because that’s what the consumer demands. The reason superficial rap that doesn’t discuss social issues sells so well is exactly the same.
We as hip-hop consumers are the ones who can shift this focus back to rap music being more like CNN, or at least the CNN of old, where the stories being told were “important” and had instructional value in their focus on that which makes people uncomfortable. In fact at a deeper more philosophical level we need to embrace BEINGuncomfortable, because when you’re not then the bad things in this world don’t change. We’re not nearly uncomfortable enough with what goes on in Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine or Libya. That may be asking too much of the average hip-hop listener, to have a global perspective on the lives of people ruined by terrorism and war, but there’s an undeclared war on the streets of cities like Chicago and Detroit as well. Rap music that points the lens at the violence and films it with an unblinking eye is still being made, but if we choose “TMZ” over “CNN,” all the reporting that’s being done is just being blithely ignored. Don’t blame hip-hop artists for making vapid music when it sells, blame yourself for not buying something with more meaning. Otherwise when we say “rap music is CNN” we’ll be talking about Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew.