Rappers sing of guns with almost lascivious glee. They express close to an erotic feeling about their “pieces”: “glocks” (for the Austrian manufacturer), “gats” (short for Gatlings), “nines” or “ninas” (for 9-mm pistols), and so on in a long and chilling lexicon. Bullets and clips are lingered over as eyes and lips might be in love songs. Here’s a sample from “Trigga Gots No Heart” by the rapper Spice 1: “Caps [bullets] peel from gangsters in my ’hood. You better use that nina ’cause that deuce-deuce [.22-caliber weapon] ain’t no good, and I’m taking up a hobby, maniac murderin’, doin’ massacre robbery.” There is no end of material like this. The rapper Notorious B.I.G., slain by gun in 1997, sang, “Somebody’s gotta die. Let the gunshots blow. Somebody’s gotta die. Nobody gotta know that I killed yo’ a** in the midst, kid.” And, “Don’t fill them clips too high. Give them bullets room to breathe. Damn, where was I?” Dr. Dre had a hit called “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” whose refrain went, “Never hesitate to put a nigga on his back. Rat-tat-tat-tat to the tat like that, and I never hesitate to put a nigga on his back.”
During the Combs trial, some thought that Shyne Barrow’s lyrics would do the young man no good. They are horrible, but since millions of kids drink them in, their parents might as well know them, too. In “Bad Boyz,” Barrow raps, “Now tell me, who wanna f*** with us? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I bang — and let your f***in’ brains hang . . . My point is double-fours [a .44 magnum] at your f***in’ jaws, pointed hollow point sh** [this is bullet terminology], four point six [?], need I say more? Or do you get the point, b**ch?” In another track — “Bang” — he says, “Niggas wanna bang. We could bang out till the clip’s done, or your vital arteries hang out.” And: “Got my mind right, like Al Pacino and Nino. I head to Capitol Hill to kidnap Janet Reno. Words droppin’ and shockin’, guns cockin’ and poppin’, somebody call Cochran” (that would be the lawyer Johnnie — life imitating art, or is it the other way around?). Barrow continues, “No time to waste, nine in my waist, ready for war, any time, any place. F*** it, just another case.”
Are these words meant to be taken seriously, or are they just play — disturbing, maybe, but basically harmless? Shyne Barrow did, indeed, have a “nine in his waist” at that New York nightclub, and it appears to have been luck that he didn’t kill the people he hit. Moral relativism, however, is rife in discussion about rap (such as it is). Barrow’s lawyer, Murray Richman, made the following, delicious comment to the New York Post last December: “Dostoyevsky wrote about murder — does that implicate him as a murderer?” Or “when Eartha Kitt salaciously sings ‘Santa, Baby,’ does that mean she really wants to sleep with Santa Claus?” This sort of statement is meant to be a conversation-stopper, like “Elvis’s pelvis.” You know: Dostoyevsky, Eartha Kitt, Shyne Barrow — artists all, and liable to be misunderstood by the conservative and hung-up. “Kids today . . .” — ha ha.
Now, gun-control groups are concerned — and why shouldn’t they be? — with laws and loopholes and gun shows and accidents in homes and Charlton Heston and, of course, school shootings, out of which they make hay. They say nothing about hip-hop culture, and next to nothing about popular culture generally. The groups put out a steady stream of press releases: praising states’ “safety initiatives,” trying to shame manufacturers, worrying about “children’s health.” In fact, they seem to burrow into every nook and cranny of American life — but keep mum about the ghetto and its anthems.
Nancy Hwa is spokesman for Handgun Control, Inc. (the Jim and Sarah Brady group). She says that her organization has “called on people in the creative industry not to glamorize guns,” but has not dealt with hip-hop in particular. “Other targets have a more direct relationship with getting your hands on guns,” she says — for example, “sales at gun shows.” And no one group, she sensibly points out, can cover everything. Plus, “when it comes right down to it, you can listen to rap or Marilyn Manson or country music, and, in the end, as long as the young person can’t get their hands on a gun, all they’re guilty of is questionable taste in music.” For Handgun Control, Inc., the issue is “access,” plain and simple.