Rapping Rappers

CLARENCE PAGE

July 02, 1992|By CLARENCE PAGE

Washington. -- Here's one cheer for Vice President Quayle and the 60 mostly Republican members of Congress who called for a boycott of rapper Ice-T's incendiary rock tune ''Cop Killer.''

Just one.

They don't deserve any more until they begin to match their outrage over Ice-T's tune with some heartfelt outrage over the deplorable problem of police brutality and harassment it tries to portray.

And they'll deserve three outstanding cheers when they match their outrage with action.

Don't hold your breath waiting. Mr. Quayle and cronies fall over themselves rapping rappers these days. It's an easy way to look righteous on the cheap. But they haven't got a clue about the role government needs to play in finding solutions. Or they don't care. Here's a taste of what the fuss is about:

I got my 12-gauge sawed off.

I got my headlights turned off.

I'm about to bust some shots off.

I'm about to dust some cops off.

Cop Killer, but tonight we get even.

I got my brain on hype.

Tonight'll be your night.

I got this long-assed knife,

and your neck looks just right . . .

I'm about to kill me somethin'

A pig stopped me for nothin'!

Police organizations and other sympathetic parties have called for a boycott of Time Warner Inc., Ice-T's label. That's their right, but their boycott has a lot of catching up to do. Thanks in part to the publicity their protest has given ''Cop Killer,'' sales of the album doubled to 410,000 copies in the boycott's first week.

Maybe, if only for the sake of argument, we elders in the over-30 generation should stop trying so hard to shut all these young rappers up. Maybe instead we should take a look at what this one, for example, is trying to tell us.

That's what Gerald M. Levin, the company's president and co-CEO, tried to say in a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay to defend the offending work. He said ''Cop Killer'' was, like many other controversial rap and rock numbers, theater. Ice-T didn't feel this way, says Ice-T. But in this number he expresses the view of those who do.

Mr. Levin may have a point, but he lacks credibility. For all his First Amendment pieties about the need for young rappers to be heard, everyone knows Time Warner and other major record companies didn't care about what angry young rappers had to say, either, until they found out it was profitable.

Black and white kids alike made rap a success through word-of-mouth. For years it was considered too raw for radio stations or MTV to play or for anyone but small cottage-industry labels to record and sell. In other words, rap started out like rock. The young found out about it through their own grapevines and (( had to have it because it was like them: rebellious and guaranteed to annoy their parents.

Unlike Mr. Levin, rappers can be very candid about their motives. Ice-T boasts on his ''Original Gangster'' that ''William Morris is my agency. I'll never go broke, got property.''

And Sister Souljah, who annoyed Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton enough for him to criticize Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition for letting her appear at a Washington convention, urged fans on a black New York radio station to buy her work so she could prove to Sony that ''revolutionary music'' is ''profitable.''

Governor Clinton showed genuine courage in making his speech persuasively before a crowd that was not eager to hear it. It was far more courage than Vice President Quayle shows by speaking only to friendly audiences.

But the Rainbow Coalition and Mr. Jackson received more criticism than it deserved. Sister Souljah was only one member of a 15-member panel on youth attitudes.

Witnesses say Mr. Jackson was just as hard on the angry Sister Souljah to her face as Mr. Clinton was a day after she left. According to another panel member, American University Law Prof. Jamin Raskin, Mr. Jackson told her she needed to have a greater appreciation for the history of non-violence in the civil-rights movement. He also asked her to make good on her boast to register 500,000 new young voters by fall. She didn't argue, Mr. Raskin says. But, caught off-guard by Governor Clinton, Mr. Jackson chose to defend Sister Souljah. His pride was his undoing.

In fact, maybe the rest of us should do what the Rainbow Coalition was trying to do and give a little listen to the message rap is trying to convey like an underground press of the '90s. Rolling Stone writer Jon Katz asserts that much of rap, rock and even movies like ''JFK'' represents a ''New News'' for today's teens and twentysomethings that speaks to them with greater candor than Dan Rather can dream up.

He has a point. Since Sister Souljah provides a rare voice for today's most extreme and alienated militancy, it was important for her view to be represented on the panel, if only to be argued and debated.

Similarly, Ice-T's ''Cop Killer'' virtually predicted the anger that exploded after the Rodney King verdict. Instead of trying to silence it, we should take the time to help our children argue against it, if we can.

Ice-T's rap may be vulgar and vile by normal decency standards, but it's also theater. Only the problems it portrays are real. They call for solutions, not posturing. Politicians, take note.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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