Guns, rap, and silence


Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the April 16, 2001, issue of National Review.

A lot of people were interested in the Sean “Puffy” Combs trial: fans of rap music; celebrity-watchers; connoisseurs of popular culture. But one group of people showed no interest whatsoever: gun-control activists. This was rather strange — a dog that didn’t bark. The Combs case was awash in guns; so is Combs’s world — that of rap or “hip-hop.” But the gun-controllers prefer to ignore this dark corner. Their indifference, or passivity, may be taken to represent a broader failure of liberalism to confront ghetto culture — to look it in the eye and cry, “No!”

Combs — known as “Puff Daddy” — is a major figure in rap, the boss of a record label called “Bad Boy.” (Another label is called “Murder, Inc.” — one refreshing thing about the rappers is their lack of pretense.) The Combs case dominated New York at the beginning of this year, the trial of a century that is still very young. What happened is this: In December 1999, Combs visited a nightclub with his girlfriend (the pop star Jennifer Lopez), a few “associates,” and several of his guns. Someone insulted Combs. Shooting broke out. Three people were injured, two of them badly. Then Combs and his group fled the scene. When the police finally caught up with the getaway car — or rather, the getaway Lincoln Navigator SUV — they found two guns. Combs was subsequently charged with illegal weapons possession and bribery (he had tried to get his driver to accept responsibility for the guns). The rapper’s guilt seemed clear, but he denied everything.

In a now-de rigueur move, Combs hired Johnnie Cochran, the O.J. lawyer, who composed a few new rhymes and flashed his smile at the jury. Combs got off. One of those “associates,” however, was not so lucky: Jamal “Shyne” Barrow — a rapper described as Combs’s protégé — was found guilty of first-degree assault. He now faces 25 years in prison.

So, another day, another rap case — this time, no one died. It’s easy to look away from rap and its nature. But it should not be so, and it certainly shouldn’t be so for gun-controllers. Thug rappers should be their worst nightmare (and a lot of other people’s). Yet the anti-gun activists would rather go after Charlton Heston, rednecks, and other soft targets. It’s far more comfortable to torment the NRA, which advocates not only gun rights but gun safety, than to get in the faces of “gangsta” rappers, who glory in guns and gun violence in song after song after song. Most people, by now, are familiar with rap’s hideous and constant degradation of women (where are the feminists, incidentally?). They are less familiar with rap’s celebration of the gun. Back in 1992, there was a brief furor over a rap called “Cop Killer.” The idea of gunning down policemen is certainly an attention-getter. But if rappers are enthusing only about killing one another, that seems to be another matter, something to be swept under the rug.

Liberals have occasionally been interested in this subject. Tipper and Al Gore were, before Hollywood bit their heads off. Usually, though, when you try to interest liberals in the horrors of today’s worst music, they roll their eyes and recall how their parents railed against “Elvis’s pelvis.” Ah, the two magic words: “Elvis’s pelvis.” Say them, and you shut down any discussion about, for example, rap’s effects on the young. And doesn’t every generation murmur, with a sigh and a shake of the head, “Kids today . . .”? But any sensate being can see that “gangsta” rap — with its sanction, even urging, of rape, murder, and other abuse — has nothing at all in common with Elvis Presley’s swaying hips. It must be, in part, a fear of uncoolness — of fogeydom — that keeps many people from coming to grips with rap. They are perfectly happy to claim that the sight of Joe Camel causes millions of young’uns to smoke cigarettes; but they are reluctant to consider what rap — poured constantly into young ears — might do.