Beating The Rap

Two white boys crossed the racial divide and earned credibility in a world dominated by black musicians.

September 17, 2000|By Crispin Sartwell

"Y'ALL LOOK LIKE you never seen a white person before," says the white rapper Eminem at the beginning of his hit song "The Real Slim Shady." That line captures and reverses an experience that many African-Americans have had, the experience of being treated as a "representative of the race." A black man who walks into a department store in an exclusive white suburb or a black woman who becomes one of the few minority employees at a software firm knows what Eminem felt like the first time he stepped onto the stage at a black club and started rapping. His existence was defined by his race.

The year 2000 will be remembered in pop music history as the year that white rap came of age. Two of the best pop albums of the year so far are Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP" and Kid Rock's "History of Rock."

The former is, and I'm serious about this, a work of literature: It is absorbing though extremely disturbing. In it, the most violent and self-destructive recesses of the post-adolescent soul are explored without apology or hesitation and Eminem's astonishing words are underpinned by producer Dr. Dre's beautifully menacing fragments of melody. Eminem is the first white rapper who can hold his own with great black artists such as Notorious B.I.G. and Snoop Dogg.

Kid Rock's album, on the other hand, is notable not because Kid Rock is a great rapper, much less a literary figure, but because it is a coherent synthesis of many diverse elements of the history of American pop music.

Kid Rock's songs bring together heavy metal, southern rock, country music, hip hop, and even gospel and blues.

But these albums are as notable for what they show about the state of race in America as for their artistic distinction. Pop music is a place where issues of race are worked out publicly. It is a key form of public speech - a scene of persuasion and transformation, especially among young people.

Exploitation and celebration

The history of American pop music is punctuated with white musicians who have either stolen or copied black music. Benny Goodman's big band sound, Eric Clapton's blues guitar, and the disco sound of the Bee Gees all have black roots. While whites who play black music often feel liberated by the experience, many blacks view it as just another rip-off by whites with mediocre talent.

Going back to ragtime and Scott Joplin, blacks have been on the cutting edge of the American music scene. Elvis Presley and even Hank Williams played in styles that owed their distinctiveness to Black America. And white audiences have often preferred to get their black music from white people - even when the white performers were inferior to the people they tried to imitate.

Black musicians have responded to the theft of their music by developing new styles to stay ahead of their white counterparts. When white folks thoroughly mastered swing, for example, cutting-edge black musicians came up with a new jazz style, bebop, that baffled white musicians. In recent years, there has been reggae and rap.

The ascendancy of white rappers takes up a complicated place in this history, which is itself a complicated combination of exploitation and celebration.

Because more and more white musicians are incorporating rap into their various styles, it's quite possible that black musicians will come up with a new musical style.

White musicians have been rapping since the early 1980s, so it was just a matter of time before genuine talent arose. Eminem's work is profoundly different from the mostly pale imitations of black music performed by such artists as Vanilla Ice (who's now playing hard-core punk music), Snow, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, or for that matter Pat Boone, who scored big in the 1950s with Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti."

On "The Marshall Mathers LP," Eminem collaborates with several black rappers, and being produced by Dr. Dre (an original member of NWA, the inventors of gangsta rap) gives him immediate credibility.

Eminem is the first white rapper to get much airplay on black stations because he's probably the first, with the possible exception of the Beastie Boys, to really deserve it. He says "I'm a commodity/ because I'm W-H-I-T-E." Whiteness is something Eminem plays with, jokes about.

Black rappers have been playing around with blackness for years and they act out, often with great irony, the racist stereotypes that define black men. Eminem shifts the racial dynamic when he toys with his whiteness in a musical world defined by blacks. He leaves you with the question: How can a white man be a black stereotype?

Whiteness is not the norm

Here is the basic premise of American racism: We (white people) are average, typical human beings - we are the norm. You (black people) are aberrant and defective. You belong to a race and we're simply humans.

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