A followup post to White People And Hip-Hop
First, a little on my background. I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from New York City. My experience growing up was an odd blend of the city and the suburbs. I lived in a posh little corner of an otherwise pretty tough neighborhood. I attended a very fancy school, but traveled there by public bus and/or subway through other tough neighborhoods. My social circle included very suburban white kids and very urban nonwhite kids. As a younger kid, I loved hip-hop. As a teenager, I succumbed to rockism, probably due to social pressure from our racist society, and pretended not to like hip-hop anymore. As an adult, I’m more centered and confident, and have resumed loving it. So I think I have some pretty good insight into why white kids in the suburbs like hip-hop, especially of the gangsta variety. It boils down to the fact that the suburbs are lame, and hip-hop is cool.
Hip-hop is cool in general. So why is gangsta rap cooler than Will Smith or Drake? The big thing is that gangsta rap tends to be musically stronger and more creative. It has grittier beats, denser and more ambitious rhymes, more pointed political and social commentary, and darker humor. It’s also dramatically more offensive, but that’s part of the allure. If you’re a teenager wanting to annoy your parents, there’s no better method than to blast the Wu-Tang Clan, especially if your dad is a mountain climber who plays the electric guitar. I myself have been known to climb mountains and play the electric guitar, and the fact that GZA is directing his ire specifically at me makes listening to the Wu a complex experience. But listen I do, because why would I want to deprive myself of the music?
Gangsta rap is a fantasy of (mostly) masculine power: fighting danger, drinking and smoking pot at will, getting laid effortlessly, defying authority, getting rich without being chained to a desk. It’s the same vicarious pleasure as watching Tony Soprano or Don Draper. If you live in polite society, constrained by the rules of schools and offices, gangsta rap offers an imaginative release for your antisocial impulses, the same way rock used to back when it was dangerous. The movie Office Space nailed this entire idea in just a few seconds of Michael Bolton rapping in his car.
I’ve thought a lot about the difference between gangsta rap and darker, angstier forms of rock. Their respective fan bases overlap somewhat, but the emotional experiences are very different. Punk, metal, alternative and indie rock are about anxiety, despair, depression, angst, alienation and self-loathing. Darker hip-hop sometimes deals in those emotions, but more often it’s about overcoming adversity. Most gangsta narratives are about struggling against life in the ghetto, and very often winning out. For every one Biggie Smalls song like “Suicidal Thoughts” there are ten like “Juicy” or “Unbelievable.” I wouldn’t say gangsta rap is happy, exactly, but it is very often triumphant, confident, and swaggering. I mostly find current rock depressing, but hip-hop makes me feel energized. I’m willing to bet that my fellow white hip-hop fans would agree.