jeffrey ogbar

jeffrey ogbar

Okay. Name is Jeffrey Ogbar. I'm a professor of history at University of Connecticut and founding director for the Center for the Study of Popular Music. I'm 46 years old, born in Chicago, raised in Los Angeles.

Do you pay attention at all to videogame culture or the game industry? Is any of that stuff on your radar at all?

In a very peripheral way. I don't pay much attention to that. I come across references to it in the popular press if I'm reading a magazine or a newspaper or something like that.

In terms of research, some years ago, after writing Hip-Hop Revolution -- I have a chapter in the book on the cultural wars and I look at allegations that hip-hop has, in fact, been a social danger to its consumers. And as a historian, I contextualize hip-hop. I don't know if you've read the book, but I talked about --

I have. I did.

-- Yeah. So, I looked at a lot of data and I look at the declining crime rates and declining teen birth rates and all sorts of things. So, it got me involved -- and I also looked at mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex. So I started to look at the theories as to why crime was declining, and the book came out in '07 before the Great Recession but when the Great Recession hit, most people who were studying crime anticipated that crime would increase. In fact, in the vast majority of cities it continues to decline. And nationwide, it continues to decline.

So then it kind of forced me to explore this and I came up with this theory that part of the reason crime was declining was a consequence of videogames. And so it forced me to read some literature around videogames, only in the way that I came across an article -- my fundamental argument was that it wasn't the concept of videogames that led to the decline in crime as much as that it consumed the time of that demographic group most likely to commit crimes, being males between 15 and 30 who commit the bulk of violent crimes across the United States. It happens to overlap with the group most likely to consume videogames.

So, for example, millions of 15-30-year-olds increase their videogame usage by 20 hours a week over the course of 20 years playing videogames, this would also be 20 hours a week multiplied by the millions in that demographic not being in physical contact and potential conflict with other males in public spaces. So there would be a necessary decrease in crime. And with the reduction of the first violent incident there is the absence of a retaliatory violent act.

So, you've got three guys hanging out in 1990 and they're outside in the park and they come across three other guys, get in a fight, one guy gets stabbed. There might be a retaliatory act to be expected. Retaliatory violence may account for a third of the instances of someone being stabbed or shot in certain demographic groups. But if that first act never occurs and you have a spiraling downward of crime rates. Then you fast-forward to 2015 or 2016, you have three guys who would spend, perhaps, a third less time outside in the park and more time playing videogames and so that means we can identify a factor in declining crime rates.

So that was my only real academic interest in videogames. And I came up with this idea that I thought was a great novel idea around 2008. I shared it with a lot of friends and people said, "Wow. No one's talking about videogame use at all." So, right around that time I started to circulate this with friends and then around 2011 -- anyway, I'm getting into much detail. All right. [Laughs.]

No. It's germane. Like you said, you wrote about the cultural wars with rap and something that's missing a lot in videogames is it doesn't have these points of connection with the rest of the culture to really understand itself. In games, the big thing people are saying -- it's always comparing itself to Hollywood. But I think it should be paying more attention to rap culture and how it's evolved and assimilated and changed. But you don't really hear people making those sorts of comparisons. When I allege that, how weird or crazy does that sound to you?

I don't think it sounds weird or crazy at all. I mean, because you're talking about -- again, like crime itself and its overlap of demographic groups. I mean, younger people -- the chief consumers of hip-hop music, for example, would be different from the chief consumers of country music, gospel, jazz, R&B. I think that R&B would have a longer demographic sweep. So, you'll meet people who are over 50 who consume R&B.

So, let's look at rap. We don't have to go that far back. Let's go from '85 and look at Run-D.M.C. So, we go from 1985, look at a 30-year sweep of consumption of rap music versus every other genre and the demographic group of rap consumers would be younger than all those other genre demographics all the way up. Although young people disproportionately buy music, you're looking at rock, blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, country music. From 1985 to 2015, if you were to measure it, I suspect the average age of a rap consumer would be younger than anyone else. And also disproportionately male.

And so, then if you overlap that with videogame usage, I would suspect there would be a greater demographic overlap with younger males.

Yeah.

So, I don't think there's any odd pairing.

Yeah.

Yeah.

Oftentimes within the game industry, it can be fairly insular where they give you a hairy eyeball and react by saying, "What are you talking about? Videogames are videogames. You can't compare them to anything else."
I do see some other similar things, weird specifics that have happened. There were congressional hearings. It is marked, from the "outside," at least, with a lot of things you wrote about in your book as far as outsider anger, parts of the culture that are insecure. But to come at it a different way: Have you seen ways that rap was influenced by videogames?

Wow, that's an excellent question. I mean, besides Lupe Fiasco, has that song with Jill Scott where he makes some references? People make similes all the time and references to videogames.

Yeah.

So, I was even -- most recently, a song from Ludacris where he makes references to Tetris. [Laughs.] And I'm trying to think. I've heard people make references, but in terms of any other connection besides the voiceovers. You've had rappers who have performed -- if I recall correctly -- for Grand Theft Auto and stuff like that, people who have had some connection to hip-hop that have had voiceovers. And I don't know. I can't think of anything else, though.

That's okay.

You know way more than I do about this, I would say. So my connections are very thin. So, sorry I can't comment more on that.

No, no, no. Don't worry about it.
For people reading this maybe coming more from the videogame side of things or aren't well-versed in rap, how has hip-hop and rap's central character changed over time? I know that's a really broad question, but maybe you could give a quick overview just as a place to start?

Yeah, so, it's certainly changed over time. I guess there are -- I would think of perhaps three or four major stages where you see shifts in dominant expressions in hip-hop. Hip-hop from its first commercial origins is decidedly festive, it's party music and braggadocious. So, you have a braggadocious style that runs throughout, from the very origins of rap music in the Bronx and the other four elements: Everyone's about being the best DJ, the best b-boy, the best graffiti artist, and the best rapper. So everyone is trying to make his or her art better than competitors and people who share a community. And there's a style about self-promotion that is intrinsic to hip-hop from its origins. So you have that theme that remains constant. That trope of being the best and being better and competitive is constant.

But in terms of the festive party style, that is something that I think shifts by the late 1980’s, early '90s. You have the emergence of two competing expressions of urban male, black, counter-hegemonic, anti-establishmentarian style. And they're typified by two groups by '88. On the East Coast we have Public Enemy, which is this urban, tough, young, black male, subversive, counter-hegemonic expression couched in a black militant theme that is aimed at freeing black people, uplifting the black community, and challenging oppression, racial subjugation white supremacy. So you have that expression.

And then on the West Coast you have N.W.A., which comes out with an urban black male, in some ways anti-establishmentarian, but it is not principally for the uplift of the black community. It's not necessarily challenging white supremacy, although there are references to police brutality. But unlike Public Enemy, they're not quoting the Black Panther Party or making references to Nat Turner or Gabriel Prosser, or other people who have led slave insurrections. They're not making reference to a long history of black freedom fighters. And so theirs is a kind of gangster style that emerges as a contrast to the black nationalist, pro-black, -affirming, resistive militancy that you see with Public Enemy.

And so, around that time, the late ‘80s, there is a veritable tug of war between these two expressions in hip-hop. Both Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton come out in '88. So Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle comes out in '93, then you have the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die in '94 as clear domination of gangsta rap. I see Ready to Die as the East Coast capitulation to the rise of the gangsta rapper.

On the East Coast, you have Lords of the Underground, you have, of course, perennial groups like: Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul., A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of these groups come out and, if anything they're pro-black and about uplift, certainly not about death and destruction and criminality in the black community.  But they struggled to go platinum in a way that West Coast artists come out did as gangsta rappers. There are artists like Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Tha Dogg Pound, Tupac Shakur, Too $hort, of course, N.W.A. All these guys go platinum and Tha Dogg Pound isn't considered by, I think, people who are scholars or hip-hop heads or fans as being a high watermark of lyricism, but they outperform Wu-Tang.

Right? They outperform Wu-Tang, and it's amazing. So there are tales of misogyny, of death, destruction, celebrating death of black people. This becomes a commercially viable expression in a way that being a militant, conscious rapper is commercially inviable.

It is no longer viable, partly because when Ice-T comes out and he was a straight gangsta rapper, but as he moved to criticize the police and he came out with the song "Cop Killer," Time Warner dropped him from the label and he received all this contempt from the mainstream and from politicians. Snoop [Dogg], however, could say, "I never hesitate to put a nigga on his back" in his biggest hit ["Who Am I? (What's My Name?)"] and he didn't get dropped from his label. He wasn’t attacked from politicians running for the presidency of the United States.

And it becomes very clear that the Billboard magazine attacked Ice Cube for saying things that they considered to be offensive to certain white populations. All these gangsta rappers can talk about killing black people all day and even their contempt for women and they don't have the same institutional marginalization and response and it becomes clear what becomes the more viable expression of being authentic and counter-hegemonic or subversive in some way. And so I think that tug of war is won by the gangsta rappers.

So that enters into a new stage. And that stage, the gangsta rap stage, moves from the early '90s up until it mutates, but it's generally a street level, "I'm in the hood doing drive-bys, selling crack, killing ninjas."

My wife insists that I not use the n-word, even quoting people.

[Laughs.]

Killing ninjas.

Yeah, I understand. [Laughs.]

And so you have that whole thing that then shifts, I think, to a more -- as hip-hop accrues, just, literally, I mean, these people like Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt, like that whole gangster style then shifts from a street corner gangster a la what you see in N.W.A. to a more, "Okay, we're gangsters kind of cut from the cloth from the mafioso-type deal."

And then it just becomes this celebration of a lot of the death, destruction, and pro-drug dealing, but in a multinational, cocaine style that we see with Rick Ross.

And I think from the last, I want to say, last 2000's, that's been a dominant trope in a way that no adult male rapper has gone platinum since 1990's without calling women -- or at least having an album where women are called b's and h's. And that misogyny has become such a staple of hip-hop that you used to be able to count the number of albums that have gone gold and higher albums on one hand that call women b's and h's. Now, you can't even count on one hand albums. [Laughs.] They don't exist.

You know? Albums where they don't call women b's and h's. And so there's a shift where misogyny becomes a central expression of commercial hip-hop and the anti-black styles also, the celebration of killing black people has become a little less central but still central.

Yeah.

'Til you have someone like Drake come out. People from Wu-Tang, folks like Ghostface and call him, like, I'm paraphrasing Ghostface: He said something to the extent that you could take a baby's booty, some cotton balls, some really drop snow and all those would be harder than Drake.

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] He has this whole thing about Drake is so soft and that kind of thing. But Drake, I mean, although he does have love songs, he also calls women b's and h's more than -- I mean, I haven't done it myself, but it would be interesting to actually count how many times women are called b's and h's in his albums versus, say, Straight Outta Compton. You know?

Yeah.

And while he doesn't say, "I'm on the corner selling crack and killing black people," he does have the stock misogyny. And on multiple songs he'll say stuff like, "While I may not shoot you in the face, I can pay my boys to do so. I got people waiting to do stuff like that."

This was very different from Big Daddy Kane. It's very different from Rakim. You know? We didn't have those tropes back then. So even then the people that we don't consider gangsta have embraced gangsta tropes.

So, I think that this style now that we have in hip-hop, this last stage, I would argue is in no way, shape, or form ostensibly anti-black expression in pop and music in a way that we've never seen in the United States.

Although you can go back to ragtime all the way up. Even through minstrel shows, which are not expressions coming out black culture -- they didn't emerge out of black culture. The hate of black culture didn't come from jazz, ragtime, blues, R&B, rock 'n' roll, house music, soul, disco. You've never had expressions of, like, anti-black, the celebration of killing black people, the denigration of women like hip-hop. So it's such an anomaly in terms of black expressive culture. I ask the question if we can even see current hip-hop, while an extension of black culture, is it really driven by black cultural values? You know? I don't think hip-hop is, in fact, driven by black cultural values. It's driven by a desire to see anti-black expressions. I can't find any other explanation for it.

It's not determined with how people live their lives. Like, that's why I wrote that book. Polls will show that young black males are the least likely to express misogynistic values. What happens is they're actually the most likely to endorse gender equality, but that this artform is not really a mirror of how real people live their lives.

Thanks for running through that real quick.

[Laughs.] I know. Sorry about that, man.

No, don’t apologize! It's more just so when I ask you about some of other things, it will have more grounding for people reading this who don't know about this stuff.
One of the first things that I hit on when I was thinking about this parallel: To me, at least, it feels like you see less violence in rap in the mainstream, whereas games haven't really gotten over that fixation. I'm not really asking you to answer why that is, or maybe you don't agree with that assertion. But if you do, what did it take for people to tire of violence at the mainstream level in rap?

I listen to a lot of XM radio everyday and I typically listen to Shade 45. And every new artist I hear talks about killing people. I've never seen it and I can't think of anybody -- when I think about artists who are selling, everyone has lyrical violence in their rhymes. I don't know anyone in hip-hop who doesn’t. You can correct me. I don't know anyone who's commercially successful -- except, perhaps, Macklemore.

Macklemore -- and I like Macklemore. I don't know if people are surprised by that. But I genuinely like Macklemore. And he is platinum. So I think I have a little asterisk to that. I qualify my statement when I said no adult male rapper has gone platinum since the '90s without calling women “bitches” and “hoes” because, on his album, he actually didn't call women those names but he had someone on his album, a guest rapper, Schoolboy Q, who did.

Yeah.

Macklemore actually isn't talking about killing folks and he's not couched in misogyny.

Yeah.

I think besides him could be, like, Drake who is grounded in misogynistic tropes, which I think, in some ways calling women “bitches” and “hoes” is so normative that I know to my students they haven't known a hip-hop where that hasn't been the case. So, for them, even though female students often don't think much of having someone like J. Cole. I've had students that are like, "I love J. Cole! He's so nice!" Man, he's wonderful!"

[Laughs.]

I'm like, "He calls women ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’ all the time."

And they're like, "Oh, I didn't know that!" Because I guess they're hearing the radio edits.

And even J. Cole, whom I love, again. J. Cole has songs that talks about -- J. Cole is a cool cat but he also songs about violence. Even his last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and he's not someone people would see as a gangsta rap.

So, not to cut you off, but it sounds like you're saying you don't think rap seems like it's getting less violent in the mainstream?

No. I don't. And I try to be very scientific about my positions.

Yeah.

And I'm also very open because I've had a lot of conversations with colleagues and friends about how people in general, when they take a certain position, whether it's about the Bible, your presidential candidate and what he or she represents, and why they don't like someone in office they find every reason to believe what they're going to believe even not having facts backing up what they believe.

So, I know that people have an unwillingness to believe new things sometimes.

[Laughs.]

So I always try to check myself and say, "Well, maybe I'm wrong here." So I always tell people, "Tell me if I'm missing something here." And that's why I open myself up. I could be incorrect. But unless you or someone could tell me and give me a list of, say, rappers that have gone gold, at least gold. It was easy to go gold, say, in 2002, up until 2002 or so. You could have done anything to come out and be gold for a lot of folks in hip-hop. So I don't even go to the threshold of platinum.

But this one, gold, if we looked at, say, the artists who have gone gold in the last, say, five years and then take any five-year period between now and, say, 1985. Going back. I'm not sure if -- I could be wrong, but I know misogyny would certainly be as constant but I'm not sure if violence would actually be a departure. So, an example would be if jump back to early 2000. You have people like Missy [Elliott] coming out who are big and I think about Ludacris and others who are MCs that we typically don't think of as being gangsta rappers and they, I think, have the classic party music. I think about Redman and Method Man, these dudes, and I don't think violence was a central part of their expressions. But Luda did have stuff about violence and so did Meth and Red. They did have references.

I think a lot of folks are like that now. We don't typically think of Drake and J. Cole as gangsta rappers anymore than we did Ludacris and Redman. But I think that, if you know their music, all of them have songs where they talk about -- excuse my language and lack of a better term -- killin' niggas and shootin' niggas and killin' bitch-ass motherfuckers. So, you have these references that are constantly there. I could be wrong, though.

But I do know, I think that part of it is we don't see the street-level dude running through the alleys a la -- again, to go back to the video of "Straight Outta Compton," I think a lot of times we think of gangsta rap as that. It's, like, typified, this whole apotheosis of gangsta rap expression.

Yeah.

And it's got that street-level dude drinking a 40-ounce and smoking blunts and doing drive-bys with Snoop. That, I think, is anomalous. But if you listen to Rick Ross, who is 100 percent as gangster as anybody. He's like, "I kill black people. I hate women. I sell crack."

[Laughs.]

[Laughs.] You know what I'm saying? There's no getting around that.

Yeah.

Insert

In videogames, I think anytime you try to criticize violence or that there's a fixation on violence, the accusation that gets levied against you is that you're being a prude. But it does get boring. It’s the nature of any one thing being monotonous and pervasive. If we lived in a world where every movie was an art film, we’d be crying out for something to explode.
But I do think the violence in rap is different from the violence in videogames.

Because I don't know enough about videogames it's hard to say. I see the commercials for them all the time and I see either the apocalypse side or the dystopia. And, again, you know better than I, but what I think about is a real-life hood thing like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or something, right? I think about that and I think about the futuristic dystopian world of craziness or I think of perhaps a fantasy Warcraft thing or I think of a contemporary war thing. So I think about these different styles of violence that might be manifested in videogames and I think that in a similar vein, although very different type of expression of violence, I think violence has been constant in hip-hop, but is there a shift from the street-level dude like Snoop ridin' on somebody's handlebars in "What's My Name?" to folks like Meek Mill. Or look at -- not just Meek Mill but his girlfriend, Nicki Minaj. So, Nicki Minaj has a song called "Lookin Ass Nigga," where she is in the video with guns talking about killing ninjas. That's her thing: "I'm killing black people."

Yeah.

And this is, like, recent stuff. And she's the hottest woman out right now. And unlike Lauryn Hill, here is someone who is the most popular woman alive who consistently talks about how: "I like killing black people and I like dating drug dealers who sell crack." [Laughs.]

I mean, that's literally what she's saying. You know?

Yeah.

There's no hyperbole here. And so when I think about -- when I say literally, it's figuratively literally. Literally now has been modified in the dictionary. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

Insert

When I use a term or I use a word, still, you get my point.

But you hear songs where, I'm paraphrasing, but she actually says that, "I don't want to date you unless you're a guy who's selling drugs and making money." So she does say that. And of course she has scores of lyrics or dozens saying something to that effect.

Yeah. But all this is miles away from Super Mario Bros.

[Laughs.]

Or anything where you're, like, jumping on heads. To me, I think that's always been the difference, is that the violence in rap is based on some level of reality.

Yeah.

I did want to ask you about misogyny as well. Have you heard of Gamergate?

No. What's it called again?

Gamergate?

Uh, no. I have not.

It touches on some similar things that we've seen in rap music that goes to definitions of authenticity or that the form belongs specifically to one group of people. But Gamergate was a thing summer 2014 where a group of fans in the game audience banded together and started threatening to kill or rape women making games and also journalists in the game space for covering types of games in ways they didn't like. It was really ugly and pretty bad. Many people in videogames think everyone in the entire world has heard of this.

Hmm.

But based on that very loose and broad explanation I just gave you, maybe it's better to broaden it up still to internet misogyny. Do you see a difference between misogyny in rap and misogyny on the internet? Does it manifest itself in different ways? Does it feel or seem different?

Yeah. I think that the difference is that on the internet you can find all sorts of sordid expressions on the internet and misogyny and sexism and racism. You can find those sorts of things but it's easy to be online and not experience it.

Any single article written anywhere, any city newspaper that has anything to do with race, I don't read the comments section because you can have the worst Neo-Nazi-type scum making comments. And sometimes, as we said, newspapers will just shut them down because it's too offensive. As a rule, I don't read those comments, but I do think most people can be on the internet and visit all sorts of sites without experiencing -- you can navigate the internet without having to touch and be involved in serious misogynistic conversations or trolls or, for that matter, racist folks. Provided you just don't read the comments section, right? [Laughs.] But if you look at -- I think there are a lot of important articles. If you're a fan of The Walking Dead, there are sites you go to where you can find really thoughtful, fun conversations in a community of people were into the show and one can read about all sorts of interesting commentary and points of analysis.

But you can't be a fan of commercial hip-hop and not be exposed to misogyny. I guess to some extent if you're looking at the radio edits only, but you really can't be a fan of hip-hop without being exposed to the most virulent forms of it. Which I think is very unfortunate. There are no expressions in commercial hip-hop, at least, where misogyny isn't found. And increasingly underground hip-hop, a lot of artists back in the day -- like, you'd get someone like Mos Def or Talib Kweli, and you can be a fan of The Roots and these guys back in the early 2000's without having to hear those such things.

But even now, and I make a point to stay up on artists as much as possible. A lot of underground cats have come up that are really good, like, really talented MCs and some of them have some degree of political consciousness.

Yeah.

But it doesn't translate to gender politics. And oftentimes you'll hear them -- like, say, are you familiar with Immortal Technique?

Yeah!

Yeah. So, with Immortal Technique, he's this leftist dude who invades against imperialism and war and international drug trade and all that kind of stuff and despots and of course he was critical of George Bush. And he did all those things, but at the same time he's, like, super-misogynistic. [Laughs.]

I mean, he's like Too Short. You know?

Yeah.

It's a trip, man. Like, that guy has zero gender politics analysis at all.

[Laughs.]

Yeah. I think it's hard. I think hip-hop is really a hard zone as an area free of that.

How often do you think people are being misogynistic because they think it'll make their stuff sell?

Yeah. I thought about that a lot.

So, years ago, in 2007 you might remember Fifty [Cent] and Kanye [West] were coming out with albums on the same day: September 11, 2007.

Yeah.

And at the time, Fifty was bigger than Kanye and he said that he would retire if Kanye outsold him. And of course, Kanye outsold him. Graduation, which is one of my favorites. It's a great album. And Graduation would have gone platinum had he not called women “bitches” and “hoes” those handful of times. He would have been the one dude since 1999 to actually come up with an album that would have gone platinum. So I don't think he had to do it.

But I do think that some artists have a fear of being considered too bubblegum and soft if they don’t employ sexist language. No one considered Rakim or Run-D.M.C. soft because they weren't talking about how much they wanted to kill black people, sell crack, and running trains on “bitches.”

So, no one thought that at all of them. Big Daddy Kane’s "I Go to Work," was a straight party song, and it was a hit for everyone in hip-hop. Like, Eric B. and Rakim’s Follow the Leader did not even have profanity. It is beloved by all in hip-hop. But by the time Hammer and Vanilla Ice came out and they did braggadocious party songs and they had no politics -- unlike Public Enemy, they weren't talking about freeing black people and challenging white supremacy or being conscious. Nor were they like N.W.A., talking about being thugs and in the street.

It became almost impossible for someone to come out and be a party rapper and not curse. It was impossible. So Will Smith did it and people think Will Smith is a big joke.

Yeah. I was about to bring up Will Smith.

Yeah.

I remember Eminem --

Exactly. It became commercially very difficult for someone to come out and just be a straight party rapper after the backlash to Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer.

Yeah.

So, you could come out and be a militant conscious cat and no one's going to call you a sellout or weak or anything. But, to be honest, the majority of the market is white and the majority of white consumers, I think, don't want to hear songs about freeing black people and resisting white supremacy.

I think they just don't like that stuff.

So when you hear thugs, I don't think there's a particular fear they think, "Oh, wow, Snoop said 'never hesitate to put a nigga on his back.' That's cool." But if he said, like, "I never hesitate to put a cracker on his back," I think he knew that he would probably have more resistance saying that. I think that at the end of the day, someone like -- some of these cats that come out now, like, Drake. I'm in Starbucks right now and Drake is singing right now on this song in Starbucks, right?

[Laughs.] Yeah.

For him, I think he strikes a balance with his love songs by having songs where he talks about the “bitches” and “hoes.” And I'm not actually as offended with the n-word. Although I don't use it, I think that this contempt for women I just find discordant with our culture and our values.

Yeah.

Even if they weren't discordant with our culture and values, it's still wrong. Misogyny is not a value I think that's a good one and we can do better. I think that some of them do find commercial viability in expressing it.

The last thing I'll say is if Drake didn't call women b's and h's I honestly think that there are people who might be more prone to calling him corny or bubblegum, to be honest. I could be wrong, though.

This gets to something else I wanted to ask you about. You wrote about this a little bit in your book, but maybe it's not even inherently a videogame and a rap thing. Maybe it's a human thing.
The quote from your book is, "Hip-hop's inherent swagger and boldness is actually quite insecure at times." Can you tell me a little bit about hip-hop's insecurity and how that's shifted and what's helped assuage it, if anything?

Well, I think that sometimes you have a -- you've heard, someone has this line, "Real bad boys move in silence," right? You've heard this line before?

Yeah.

And you will hear stuff like -- there's an old saying that, and it's pretty evident here in New England in West Hartford, where I'm at in this Starbucks where I'm sitting now. [Laughs.] They say that old money whispers. You know? I guess if you met someone from an old-money family with multi-generational wealth, this desire to have ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption will be less apparent than, say, someone who just got signed to a multi-million-dollar deal. Take someone like Meek Mill or one of these cats, like Rick Ross -- or, any of these dudes. Take any -- like, 2 Chainz, right? You take any of these cats coming up from the bottom and they were, like, in poverty and now they have to have these conspicuous displays of wealth. There's a certain degree of, I would argue, insecurity about their position and this desire to prove their worth and their wealth in a way that the grandchildren of a Vanderbilt isn't walking around with multiple chains on and a gaudy watch with diamonds encrusted and everything else or bragging about flying in a G5. Although, they might fly in a G5? [Laughs.]

Yeah.

I kind of think that, similarly, hip-hop creates a fantasy space that is to be understood -- and my fundamental argument is that, as much as I might not like the images that I see in hip-hop or the words that I hear or the misogyny in lyrics and that kind of stuff, hip-hop is really about hyperbole; and it's about fantasy and it's braggadocious style that sometimes ventures into bragging about how much of a thug you can be over somebody else; and it's not to be taken literally.

It's a creative space that people talk about all sorts of things and the dominant thing now is about how much of a thug you are. To be honest, a lot of it is quite funny and creative. I'm not going to front. Like, there are lyrics that I hear. One dude was saying, "When you run up / I’ll leave you on the ground, looking double-jointed as fuck." [Laughs.]

Insert

Just the idea of this dude running up, leaving you on the pavement looking double-jointed as fuck is hilarious to me, man.

This image of this dude, like, with his arms and legs bent all back in all kinds of different ways. And one guy named Celph Titled. Do you know Celph Titled?

Yeah!

He and Army of the Pharaohs -- all those guys are really talented cats. And Apathy, he's from Connecticut. And when these guys rap, they talk a lot about violence and killing people and all that kind of stuff.  And they don't center their work on crack selling as much and they don't have that much investment in misogyny, although it comes up on occasion. But they're hyper-violent, and they're super-creative with their stuff. And Celph Titled has a line where he talks about -- I'm going to bastardize it here, but in some ways he's like, "I'll knock off your head off where you're standin' / And have your face land in the Grand Canyon." And he has this whole thing all this stuff and it's a really interesting, witty rhyme scheme that's really cool and all use rhymes that use rich metaphor and textual illusions, wordplay, metonyms.

And so when Jay-Z and others will spit rhymes about all their shenanigans, the gangster shenanigans, they're still done in a creative way that I think highlights the intellectual underpinnings of their creative work and their poetry in a way that makes hip-hop so valuable in its expressive forms at rap. And I just genuinely -- I find value in it, right?

Yeah.

So I think when it's difficult for some people when I talk about this that I'm pointing out the misogyny and violence and anti-black lyrics and it seems that I'm condemning them. In many ways, I am. But simultaneously, there's a profound degree of creativity and intellectual prowess that's being done with this. You following?

Yeah. I mean, you can have more than one feeling about a thing.

Yeah. Yeah.

[Laughs.]

And so, one of the things that I wish is that I could turn on a radio and hear some really good MCs that are spitting all sorts of the same level of creativity and wordplay and everything else and a bangin' beat and all that and they're not talking about killing black people or their hatred of women. Or their love of selling crack. It would be cool if I lived in a world where I could do that. [Laughs.] But I don't.

This is another set of similar things in videogames. There has always been this pervasive misogyny and this attitude from parts of the audience to the companies that they work for them and that they know best and they know what games should be. But there's been this thing where I don't think that that group of the audience doesn't realize has been quietly indulged by people who were more polite and patient.
So things are at this point in the industry where the audience and I think critics and also some employees, they want to see and provide different types of experiences like you're saying. But these games just cost so much that companies are resistant to shift course because it’s like an oil tanker. I know you can't really answer to that, but when you have a culture around a medium -- as broad as that is -- and you have large groups that would like to see something to change but they're not in a position to do so, what can they actually do?

Insert

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and essentially there's a much bigger investment -- if you look at videogames having said, "Okay, this is a format that works." And there's so much investment, though, in creating a videogame. There's millions of dollars, a whole bunch of technology, and all that stuff to come out with one game that comes out I don't know how often. Madden comes out at least once a year.

Oh. Yeah, every year.

Every year. That's what I figured.

Yeah.

So, if you think about it until the next one comes out, there are guys working, I guess, on 2018 or 2017 and they're working on it so hard, although 16's going to come out near Thanksgiving or something. I suspect that for a critical investment of money and time and expertise with a certain model that they know works, but millions of dollars and R&D and all that.

But when it comes to hip-hop, though, it's not the same thing to come out with an album, man. I mean, these dudes -- what amazes me is for years the proven formula wasn't that you had to talk about anti-black lyrics, right? But I think it's become this thing now -- have you ever seen the documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes by Byron Hurt?

I have, yeah. But if you'd like to explain it for people reading this who haven't, that'd be great.

Okay, so, Byron Hurt, a documentarian -- really good dude, too. His first documentary is Beyond Beats and Rhymes. He looks at hip-hop. Came out around 2007.

And in that, he looks at hip-hop's core character and this obsession with misogyny. A lot of the stuff I've been talking about. Right?

Yeah.

One of the things he does, it's so telling. Maybe this comes in with what you're talking about.

So, he puts a camera -- he goes all around the country and he interviews these people, these aspiring rappers, and he goes to different conventions and he puts the camera on a guy who wants to be signed to a label. And he said, "Hey man, why don't you spit for the camera?"

And he'll go on: "Motherfucker I'm out on the street pullin' straps on niggas / Peelin' back their caps, spillin' brains on the streets / I can see what you're thinking." They had all these things, right?

Yeah.

And they have all these stories about how they killin' niggas: "Nigga, I'm pushin' weight and I'm movin' units / Motherfucker I got trouble at the scales." And it's all this stuff about how much crack they're selling and all this stuff and all this kind of aggression and violence.

So, finally, at a certain point, maybe the fourth or fifth rapper who comes on the camera who's doing this, he's like, "Hey, hey, all right. I put the camera on guys all around the country and ask them to spit rhymes. Every single dude spits the same thing about killing people, selling crack, and how much they hate women. So what's the deal?"

And the guy actually says, "Hey man, I'll be honest." This is a guy who's an aspiring rapper. He says, "I'll be honest, man. I don't sell drugs. I never sold drugs. Last summer I was actually selling water. That was my job. I was out on the streets selling water."

He said, "But when was the last time you heard someone on the radio talking about something conscious? Talkin' about something that wasn't about this. I'm just trying to get put on."

Yeah.

So his whole thing was, "The only thing I hear on the radio is anti-black stuff, so that's what I'm going to spit because I want to get put on. You know?"

And I think that there's a -- while the industry itself, I think it's a different thing. I just think that aspiring rappers kind of see themselves as the only way to get put on is to come out with that -- they need to sound like Meek Mill. They need to sound like 2 Chainz. They need to sound like Waka Flocka Flame or Chief Keef or whoever the newest guy is.

That's why I think that Kendrick Lamar is so important in so many ways because he came out with Good Kid, M.A.A.D City lyrics where he has all the gangster stuff and he talks about being that gangsta life, but it's a critique of it in a way that we don't see with a lot of rappers. So, unlike Chief Keef, Kendrick Lamar has some moral conflict over it, much like Tupac did. So, Tupac would talk about gangster stuff but he would say, "Well, I'm wondering if I'm cursing my unborn children." He's morally battling over his action in a way that we don't see typical from gangster rappers.

And Kendrick Lamar does something similar and in slowly but surely, his subsequent work, he's been moving even farther away from those tropes and offering a more subversive critique of mass incarceration, of police brutality -- he even talks about Black Lives Matter and crime in the black community.

Yeah.

He talks about those things in a way that -- in a thoughtfulness that we need to hear that we absolutely do not hear from most folks. You know? And that's why I think it's beautiful and valuable about someone like Kendrick Lamar, who's a master lyricist, who also can offer some social commentary in a way that we don't have in most other spaces. Now, I do not think at all that if Kendrick Lamar had come out with those messages when he first debuted that we would be talking about Kendrick Lamar.

He would just be one of these score of underground rappers spitting fire. But because he's talking about social issues, I don't think he would have been viable out of the gates talking about that. He'd have been like Murs.

And Murs never was a gangsta rapper. So I think that that's what he would've been, like, one of these cats like, "Oh, this dude named Kendrick Lamar? He just did his fifth album!"

And you'd be like, "Yeah, I know Kendrick. He's a good dude!"

That's what he would be. And sell, like, 30,000 units in a year.

You wrote in your book that there were no shootouts between camps of Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin fans.

[Laughs.]

Which, when I read that early on was like, "I'm going to enjoy this book a lot."

Oh, thank you, man.

I mean, yeah, so what do you think changed? Maybe it's not just one thing, but like you said, you can go online and whether you're a comics fan or a whatever fan, like, it can't be painted in that simple of tone where people are just always fighting with each other.

Yeah.

But with something like that happens in videogames, it's like, you got your own audience threatening to kill or rape you or threaten to kill or rape other people in the audience. Game companies didn't do anything, they didn't say anything. I'm thinking they didn't want to say anything because they didn't want to piss off the "wrong groups of people" or side with the wrong side. But what has changed in our culture? Is it consumer culture? What is it?

I think it's really the anonymity of some of these actions. I believe if you were -- I do believe that Americans are more civilized than ever. I know this may sound strange. But I do think Americans are more civilized than ever.

Yeah.

Going back to the time that Europeans first arrived in North America, I think that Europeans themselves and their descendants are more civilized than ever. And I think that Americans themselves have become more civilized in that they're way less likely to commit mob violence, to murder, to massacre, and I think that even Americans are less likely -- and a good thing, across the board, Americans in the last 20 years have become -- although I had a conversation with a colleague who does stuff around prisons and she concedes, but she's not as optimistic as I am, that Americans are less punitive than we were 20 years ago. And we're less likely to lock people up forever. As you know, there are people in jail for 25 to life for stealing pizza because it happened to be their third strike. So they literally send someone to prison for 25 years to life for stealing pizza and golf club. I mean, it's really mind-boggling.

But people now are critiquing and saying, "You know what? That's not the moral, ethical --" or even if you are completely not invested in morality or ethics, it's not fiscally responsible.

It doesn't even make sense. You know what I'm saying?

Yeah.

So my point is saying this: That if in the 1950's or 1960's or '70s or even '80s, if they had anonymity and you could go online and say what you wanted to say about something, you and I know that the venom, the hatred, the contempt for human life was much more acute back then than now.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

So because we have a new medium to measure some of this stuff you might say, "Wow, we really lost our path." But I think that if you had that medium back in the day, these people would have been way more savage, man. You know what I'm saying?

[Laughs.]

There's no way to get around that fact.

Totally agree. Or Germany in the '20s or '30s.

Yeah. If they had the internet back then? [Laughs.] Could you imagine the kind of trolls that'd be poppin' off? You know? Whatever they'd be saying?

What about with Donald Trump? What do you think that's a reflection of? Because when I look at someone like Donald Trump, I use that as a good example of the most toxic bad-apple "gamer."

Hmm.

It's that rhetoric and attitude. And I think it's a reflection of something. I think it's fear. But I think it's also desperate. But I don't know what your politics are and don't want to offend you. [Laughs.]

Yeah, and I'm a huge fan of Donald Trump and I've been supporting him.

[Laughs.] No, no, I agree with you, man.

[Laughs.]

Yeah, Donald Trump -- I think his appeal. I can't speak for his true intentions, but I think that his appeal is that he panders to fear and ignorance.

So, there's a guy online who was going on about how Obama's the worst president in history. So, I know how people think and they have beliefs and they want to look for reasons to believe them. So, Donald Trump often says how horrible that this is the worst president ever, Hillary Clinton's the worst Secretary of State ever, it's the worst administration ever; the United States has lost its way; we're not respected in the world; we need to make America great again. So, he says all these things and people were cheering him on like, "Yeah, man! We're worse off! We're not respected in the world! Blah blah blah!" He's going on about this stuff, right?

And the fact of the matter is that none of this was scientifically backed up. So, I put out some stats: I said that more Americans have healthcare coverage than any point in the history of the United States and that can't be a bad thing right? We have the longest sustained private job growth in the history of the United States right now. That's not a bad thing.

I said the deficit has actually gone been reduced by $1 trillion since Obama came to office. That's not a bad thing.

I said polls have shown that the United States globally is more respected than under Bush, and that's not a bad thing. So, actually, respect of the United States has increased and the United States hasn't invaded new countries, which is rare. I mean, so if Obama can end this administration without invading a country, he'll be the first one since Jimmy Carter. And then Jimmy Carter was the first one since probably the 19th century not to invade a country. You know? So everyone's invaded countries, all these presidents except for Jimmy Carter. He had a one-term -- we have two terms where President Obama has not invaded a country.

And this is a good thing.

So, you can go down this list of, like, gas price are low, the stock market is high, unemployment is low -- so the idea that people are worse off, in fact, is absolutely not true. Unemployment rate has plummeted and whites have, in fact, benefited the most of the decrease of unemployment rate. And so, the economic stability and everything else -- these people, Trump doesn't have a leg to stand on but what he does, though, is pander to ignorance. He assumes that the people in the crowd don't know any of that data I just gave you. Right?

So, he assumes that they are ignorant, that you don't need to provide any science. They don't need facts. All they need is feeling. And like you said, there's a sense of desperation. So, he knows there's a sense out there, and I think desperation is -- I'm not saying most whites feel this way -- but I think there's a segment of the white population genuinely just feels uncomfortable with a black president. And that might not be the majority of white people, but say if it's 15 percent of white folks, and they're not in the Democratic Party. There are all kinds of studies about voting patterns and racism and stuff. So, there are multiple studies on that stuff, too.

So, if you imagine, say, 15 percent -- you take 100 white people and 15 of them are like, "I don't like black people." Right? They might not always explicitly say that in every setting, but this is what they believe. And then when it comes down to it, they have a black president and they're super uncomfortable and mad about that. And nothing that he's going to do is going to them make happy. Right? And they don't want to know about the longest period of job growth. They don't know about having greater healthcare. They don't know about having more access to college and stuff. They hate all those things. They think increase of minimum wage helps out minorities, all these other things. They don't like that kind of stuff.

And so, when it comes to voting, I mean, they're going to be in the Republican Party, and when it comes down to it, if they vote for Trump, that's 35-40 percent of the Republican Party, man. And that's a substantial -- something like 12 percent of the U.S. population, but they're in the Republican Party disproportionately. They have a disproportionate influence on the electorate. So, studies have shown that you're really looking at about 12 percent of the population is, like, all hardcore Trump. But when you break it down, you think a third of the population are Republicans and then of those third, they're split up between all these candidates and all you have is all these Trump dudes as 12 percent. They're pushing the Trump campaign forward. And -- I guess the encouraging thing is I would say that Trump is fundamentally anomalous and I think that the majority of people -- even the majority of Republicans think that he's a clown and he's dangerous to national security, dangerous to international interests of the United States. He's a danger all the way around.

Yeah.

And mainstream Republicans and white people just don't find him to be a positive, constructive character.

And that's why I think it's encouraging. I think that, say, in 1950’s, Trump would probably be considered a -- this may sound crazy, but I think in the 1950’s, man, or 1940’s Trump would be a moderate. You know? If not a liberal.

[Laughs.]

No man, because my grandparents are from Mississippi and they paid taxes and everything, and, like in many states, they, like millions of other people, they were not allowed to vote. You know what I'm saying? The 1950's, man.

And nobody was coming down to stop that. There was no high school you could go to. This was the United States of America and there was no pretense of fairness.

Yeah.

I think if a guy like Trump, if he had the exact same set of politics that he has now: abortion was illegal, millions of people couldn't vote, women weren't allowed to do all sorts of things, no where in the South could a black person in 1950 attend a flagship university. You couldn't go to LSU or UVA or UNC, no matter how bright or brilliant you were. And there's no pretense of fairness.

I think that Trump would have been progressive back then. So, I think that this is a good thing that Trump is so anomalous now.

I look at it optimistically, like you said you are about it, maybe it's some death rattle of something and we can start moving on. Or maybe that's naive to think.
But if people want to see things broaden up, is the lesson here to take from the story you told about the fifth guy with the water or Kendrick Lamar, that it's just going to take time and eventually someone will slide into the spot with a different attitude and this stuff will take care of itself? Or is there something people can actively do if they want to see an entertainment industry shift and grow?

Yeah, so, I think it was Mos Def who asked that question in one of his songs. He said, "What's up with hip-hop? Where is hip-hop going?" He said hip-hop isn't like a giant in the hills, that we have to be, like, "Oh, hip-hop? Where is it going to go next?" He said we're hip-hop. We're the ones who determine where hip-hop is going. The consumers really can push the envelope, and I agree, and it's hard, though.

A few things. Kendrick Lamar -- as cynical as I may sound sometimes -- I do have a deep sense of optimism about a lot of things and I do feel that someone like Kendrick Lamar and the love that Kendrick Lamar gets from so many people; and he's not just a brilliant artist. But that's one thing. He's a great lyricist. But there's a lot of great lyricists who might talk about foolishness. So, he's a great lyricist, but his Grammy performance this year and then coming out in shackles? That whole thing was such a powerful, powerful piece. And that song, "Alright," is a brilliant song.

And I read an article, and I use this in a couple of my talks about Kendrick Lamar about how Kendrick Lamar's song "Alright" in many respects is an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" was for the Civil Rights movement. It becomes an iconic song that I think represents the irreverence, the temerity, the courage, the raw love of one's justice and life but a bold defiance to those who try to circumscribe that. And I think that it represents a generation of young activists in a way that the somber, mellow, and beautiful style of "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke represents the Civil Rights movement and its own ethos and its own notions of sober realism to the conditions that they confronted, but also a hopeful optimism for what could be. And I think that with Kendrick, we had the possibility for new expressions in hip-hop because he's got so much love. And J. Cole, who is the first rapper to go to platinum without having any features -- it's the first time they say in 25 years that anyone's gone platinum without having any features.

And so, J. Cole is doing very well and -- although both of them still have their gender shortcomings, but they're not centered in the gangsta tropes and both have actually had songs talking about social justice.

Yeah.

And they both had videos -- the video for "G.O.M.D." is I think a powerful video itself, in a slave plantation and all that kind of stuff. So I think that -- I mean, there's some possibility and some hope there. I think, to a lesser extent, Drake -- I don't know if Drake is talking too much about social justice now. I don't expect all my rappers to talk about stuff like that. Like, I love Childish Gambino, and he's not someone who is talking about social justice.

No, not really.

Yeah. But I like to see diversity in hip-hop. I guess, for me, I just don't want to only hear about how many ninjas you are going to kill and how many “bitches” you and your homeboys want to smash tonight.

[Laughs.]

Yeah.

Yeah.

Yeah. No.

I mean, I sometimes think about how often people hate on the mainstream, but the truth is the mainstream makes shifts and new styles and approaches and perspectives more palatable and possible.  But, on the other hand, if these industries wanted to do more to change they could actually change.

Yeah, I mean, I think the industry itself -- the capacity to change is obvious.

So, I think there's less commentary that I hear about the misogyny in hip-hop than about some of the other elements, like the violence.

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