Mixed messages don’t keep it real


For a culture that rallies around the idea of keeping it real, there sure are a lot of mixed messages in hip-hop these days. The business side of music, the world of vertical integration and corporate synergy, has collided with the protect-your-rep street credibility of today’s rap stars. As a result, there is a troubling level of duplicity involved in the messages being sent to hip-hop fans. That fact on its own isn’t a terribly ominous sign, but the fact that a sizable market segment of rap fans have not shown an ability to discern the mixed messages therein… well now, that’s another story. When style becomes more important than substance, then the truth becomes – say it with me – chopped and screwed.

Houston, we have a problem.

Enter rap entrepreneur and marketing genius Mike Jones. His rise to fame in the Houston rap scene was aided by an unorthodox tactic: prominently using his actual cell phone number in songs, videos, and wearing it on T-shirts. In an interview with MTV, he explained that he resorted to that tactic because shady promoters were booking shows in his name without his permission. They would take half the money, and fans would get angry when he wouldn’t show up. He decided to publicize his phone number to elimination confusion and prevent impostors from cashing in on a common name. That, combined with his repeating his name over and over in his songs, helped to build his brand as an up-and-coming rapper. Thus, Jones has become quite the success story.

As a matter of fact, the Mike Jones saga is one of overcoming obstacles and triumph against the odds. Or, at least, that’s how it reads in the mainstream press. In that same MTV interview, he thanked the Lord for getting him out of the Houston criminal element so he could start doing something positive with his life. And in an Associated Press interview, Jones credited his grandmother as being an inspirational figure in his life, someone who believed in him when everybody else thought he was crazy. She was the one who told him to use his real name as his stage name, and she encouraged him to use other forms of guerilla marketing in order to become successful. Jones feels so indebted to his grandmother that he immortalizes her memory with his song “Grandma,” the final track on his successful major label debut, Who Is Mike Jones.

It’s all pretty heartwarming stuff, until you get into the details of it. Then, at some point, the polish begins to fade. Really, Mike? Your grandmother inspired you to visit strip clubs while you were underage, and write customized raps for each of the strippers to dance to? That’s what she would be so proud to see if she were still alive?

Essentially what Mike Jones is saying is that he thanks God for allowing him to exit his criminal past so that he could instead use his God-given talent to more easily facilitate the exploitive transformation of women with low self-esteem into sexual objects. His message is that he believes in honoring the woman who helped raise him by dishonoring the other women who raise his, uh, (*cough, cough*) vital organ.

A while ago, the venerable Snoop Dogg — he of Chrysler commercials and “Soul Plane” – made headlines when he started his own Southern Cali youth football league. At the urgings of his two sons on the roster, he volunteered two years ago to be a “daddy coach” for the Rowland Raiders. The team was a resounding success under his leadership (they won the title), but the experience whet his appetite for bigger things. Frustrated with some of the restrictions the current league imposed on his team, including registration fees that he thought were cost prohibitive for many local kids, Snoop started a new league.

As you might imagine, this caused quite a stir, not only because his Rowland Raiders were known to get the star treatment (high-tech bus rides, extravagant gifts, etc.), but also because – not coincidentally – Snoop’s celebrity status gave him a mighty leg up on everyone else when it came to recruiting the best players. That advantage was taken to another level when he formed his own league, and since then, the hemorrhaging of good players has shown to be detrimental to established community teams. That was the case for the Long Beach Poly Junior Jackrabbits, the team Snoop played for as a youth. Even the Rowland Raiders, his former team from last year, found itself bereft of its best players. Apparently tradition and community can’t compete with a team bus that blares out “Drop It Like It’s Hot” from three blocks away.

Now I’m not necessarily judging Snoop’s motives here. His motives may be pure. I mean, he’s getting older and so are his kids, so maybe this is one way he’s trying to become a better father. But if Snoop wants us to believe his whole family man act, then he’s gotta go all the way with it. He can’t trumpet fairness and responsibility (in wanting to have lower registration fees) on one hand, and at the same time engage in renegade recruitment tactics that eliminate any element of fairness. He can’t extol the virtues of youth football, talk about how it’s gonna help keep them out of gangs, and talk about how his football coach helped instill in him respect for God and religion … while at the same keeping “Drop It Like it’s Hot” as his team theme song – a hit single that perpetuates the gangsta image that made him famous in the first place.

In other words, if Snoop wants us to believe that he’s a changed man, then – what a concept! – he’s really going to have to change.

For both Mike Jones and Snoop Dogg, the messages are mixed up. They’re standing up for what’s right – but only a little bit, and only when it’s convenient.

These types of mixed messages would be unbelievable if they weren’t so common.

Take a look back to 2003, and the furor over rapper Nelly’s entrepreneurial venture, Pimp Juice. After his hit single extolling the virtues of an aphrodisiac, Nelly decided to release an energy drink to capitalize on the publicity. When media watchdog groups had a collective heart attack over it, he tried to spin it positively by – I wish I was making this up – sponsoring a college fund and making the word ‘pimp’ an acronym for Positive, Intellectual, Motivated Person.

Now I can understand how language is inherently a malleable, social construct. Words that used to mean one thing can evolve to take on additional meanings. This is why the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” may not be as popular as it used to be, because people are less and less comfortable singing the line, “don we now our gay apparel.”

Nevertheless, some meanings are too tied up in a particular cultural context to be effectively redefined in another way. If Nelly really wanted to redefine the term “pimp” to be a positive, intellectual, motivated person then he wouldn’t shoot videos to his music that objectify women, videos like his “Tip Drill” in which he swipes a credit card through a woman’s thonged behind.. The fact that he still does, and yet wants us to believe that he’s left his old pimpin’ ways to become a new kind of P.I.M.P… it means both his ignorance and audacity have reached stratospheric levels.

It didn’t used to be this way. It used to be that rappers would engage in whatever forms of debauchery their brains could imagine, without pretense or equivocation. Take Naughty By Nature’s 1991 anthem of adultery, “O.P.P.” A party jam if there ever was one, its basic message was, hey, I’m out get as much sex as possible, and I’m not interested in a relationship. The title itself referred to Other People’s Property (or, more to the point, Other People’s Privates). The only way you could possibly extract a positive message out of that song was if you got fleeced, like my parents did, by one of the many street vendors selling hats and T-shirts emblazoned with O.P.P. on the front. They were told it stood for Our People’s Progress.

Now I’m amazed that those street vendors were able to tell such a bold-faced lie with a straight face. But at least the rest of us knew it was a joke, which was why my brother and I made sure my Dad never wore his “O.P.P.” hat out in the community where he could be seen. Being young and culturally relevant, we knew what was going on, and we weren’t going to let our Dad get played by some hustler pushing secondhand goods.

But who are going to be the gatekeepers for this next generation? Where are the regular folks who can recognize a bad idea when they see one? I don’t know… but if there were more of them, then maybe Bryan Hughes and Joyce Jackson of Howard University wouldn’t have needed to craft an essay describing their “P.I.M.P.ness” in order to win Nelly’s $5,000 Pimp Juice scholarship. Talk about some serious rhetorical gymnastics… hard-working responsible college students having to call themselves pimps so that a popular rapper can get a few laughs and push more product.

Ridiculous.

What’s worse for me is that there are no voices from within hip-hop’s elite decrying the ridiculousness of what was going on. I give Kanye West credit for coming out against gay bashing and criticizing Bush for his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, because these were both things that needed to be said – particularly by someone with his level of social profile. And I was particularly impressed with his addressing of the diamond trade (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”) on his latest album, Late Registration. But if Kanye really wanted to attack hip-hop’s sacred cows, he could start by saying this, the next time some rapper wants to call himself a pimp:

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen. Contrary to popular opinion, a pimp is not a positive, intellectual motivated person, or a sharply-dressed player who always gets the ladies. A pimp is, in fact, an incredible lowlife who preys on women, exploiting them both sexually and financially. All positive connotations of this word should therefore be stricken from the record. The next cat wearing pinstripes and a fedora who calls himself a pimp should be brutally raped and have all of his wages garnished before he decides to make that lifestyle his personal trademark.”

I would love it if someone big like Kanye West had the cojones to say that. But I’m not holding my breath. Frankly, he would have too much to lose to take a stand like that. It’s fine and dandy to record “Jesus Walks,” where a hustler is depicted as still having a vital relationship with Jesus. But it’s another thing altogether to take a stand against the crimes that same hustler perpetrates. This is why even though I respect Kanye West quite a bit for his artistic virtuosity and his social consciousness, his messages are mixed, too. He’s traveled a lot further down the road of reform than his chart-topping counterparts, but he’s still got work to do.

And it’s no wonder that even Kanye West mixes his messages. Because radically dedicating one’s self to a truly countercultural idea is inherently risky if you also want fame and fortune to go along with your cult following. I’m reminded of LMNO, the lead emcee from the marginal hip-hop group Visionaries. You know what LMNO stands for? Leave My Name Out. Here’s a cat that values substance over style. The reason why you’ve probably never heard of him before is because he’s not prostituting his identity for airplay and residuals.

Think about that, and then read the lyrics of my man Phanatik from his rap called, “Me”:

This is reason # 73 / not to get hung on on the actor, the rapper, the pastor, the reverend, and me / whoever claims to be long on the throne / needs to bring long lasting satisfaction that’ll never leave you alone / you know them sad and lonely nights / your superstar in his souped-up car ain’t comin’ to hold you tight / (why?) he don’t even know where you live / and you ain’t gonna go see him (why not?) / you don’t even know where he lives / but they know outta sight means outta mind / so they spend mad dough on ads and radio time / it’s like they’re trying to be (where?) everywhere, everywhere a person can stare / billboards, TV screens… the mirror / but I ain’t playin’ that game / sayin’ my name fifty times in one rhyme so I’ll remain in your brain … don’t let them make you think you need them, they’re sittin’ there thinkin’ ‘bout how much they need you.

I included those lyrics for those of you who were wondering if I was just going to crabbily kvetch about everything that’s wrong instead of highlighting something that’s right. Because at last, here’s a guy who gets it. If you’ve never heard of him, pick up his album, The Incredible Walk. It’s full of thought-provoking rhymes, and not once is his message contradicted.

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t highlight the Phanatik just because he was talking about God. Say what you want about 50 Cent, but he’s not walking around pretending to be a family man. He goes all the way with what he believes. And I respect that, even if I don’t respect his views. You don’t have to be all about God or whatever if that’s not what you’re about… but if you’re going to be about what you’re about, then don’t mess around and half-step with it — be about it.

There’s a Master P joke in there somewhere, but I’m just gonna let it pass.

I’m G*Natural – thanks for mixin’ it up with me.

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