Hip- hop eats its young Essay: Children of the gangsta rap generation, left to raise themselves, push natural rebellion to its violent limits.

March 17, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

What is it about popular music that lends itself so readily to a culture of violence?

Parents have pondered that question since the mid-'50s, when teens rioted to the strains of "Rock Around the Clock." But it has become especially pertinent in recent months.

In rap, fans have been shaken and critics disturbed by the drive-by murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G. In rock, parents have been so upset by the sexual content of Marilyn Manson's act that there have been attempts in several states to stop the group from performing -- including a well-publicized effort on the part of Oklahoma governor Frank Keating. Popular music hasn't seemed this alarming in eons.

Nor has that aura of danger been detrimental to the artists' popularity. Last year, Manson's million-selling "Antichrist Superstar" entered the charts at No. 3, while Shakur's posthumous, double-platinum Makaveli album, "The Don Killuminati," debuted at No. 1. And industry insiders are already certain that the Notorious B.I.G.'s last album, "Life After Death," is guaranteed to top the charts after its release next week.

All of which has left many observers wondering what on earth could be the appeal of such violent, repellent music. But as any teen-ager could tell them, the edgy, anti-social aspects of these acts is the attraction -- and always has been.

"I don't know what it is within youths that propels rebellion against their parents," says producer Bill Stephney, president of the New York-based hip-hop label StepSun Entertainment. "Whatever it is psychologically that produces that rebellion probably pushes them toward rebellious music."

"But rebellion is relative to the larger society," he adds. "If even 'Dancing in the Streets' had a tone of anarchy to it, relative to its day, then relative to a very violent society, the music of Biggie or Tupac or some of the other artists today has to rise above just ordinary violence to be extreme."

Some of that has to do with the sound of the music. For decades, young people have been drawn to music that is harder and louder, more aggressive and in-your-face than what their parents (or even their older siblings) listened to. For instance, when Detroit rock legend the MC5 was developing its sound in the mid-'60s, its members wanted to make music with such rhythmic drive that the Motown sound paled in comparison.

"The Motown stuff was a little tame for me," guitarist Wayne Kramer told Fred Goodman in the book "Mansion on the Hill." Said Kramer, "We started working on this concept of drive -- the music had forward power. I think it came from the kind of adrenaline you have when you're 16 or 17, when your hormones are pumping so fast that you're almost insane."

That drive -- combined with the radical politics and one of the most famously profane intros on album -- made the MC5's first album, "Kick Out the Jams," one of the most exhilarating and controversial releases of its day. And that dynamic has been replayed again and again in popular music, from the Sex Pistols to Public Enemy to Nine Inch Nails.

Different concerns

If anything has changed over the years, it's the social context. Youth in the '60s had civil rights and the war in Vietnam on which to focus their rage; punk rockers had dead-end jobs and bloated corporate rock to complain about.

Today's teens have far different concerns. "Part of the problem is that this generation, across the board and irrespective of race, doesn't have parents," says Stephney. "It has the adults that biologically produced them, who are around somewhere, but the reason some of these messages and images are so extreme is because these kids are growing up in a vacuum, in their own moral environment, with their own values -- twisted and skewed, and much of it because they're self-created.

"If the music is violent, truly it is a reflection of what is going on. Marilyn Manson is popular because white kids are suffering from divorce, and are suicidal because their parents are screwing up and can't get along with one another. That's a reflection, though much more abstract than what the rappers represent.

"But the rappers are representing an incredibly violent, uncontrolled culture."

"The barbaric violence that was prevalent in 'Braveheart' still exists today," agrees rapper Chuck D, from his home in Atlanta. "Society is still run by this concept of, 'If you can't get what you want, kill 'til you get it.' And I think it trickles down to kids, to what they think is exciting, as opposed to what they think is corny and boring and too regular.

"In this society, violence gets projected, whereas normal, day-to-day living gets downplayed. When a murder happens, that's front-page news. When something positive happens in the community, it's tucked on Page 38."

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