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.
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.
Ted Pascoe speaks for Do It for the Kids!, a gun-control group in Colorado. “We don’t address it,” he says of the rap issue. “We have enough trouble with the Second Amendment without attacking the First as well.” Meaning? “Well, there is a perception in this country that individuals enjoy the protections conferred by the Second Amendment. But that amendment only confers on states the right to maintain militias. So the individual has no standing in court to make Second Amendment claims. However, Americans tend to believe they do have the right to bear arms. So, it’s troublesome, because whenever you start talking about passing stronger gun laws, a lot of folks — even if they’re not involved in the issue, or vested in it — can invoke the Second Amendment and sometimes effectively take the wind out of your sails.” A stance against rap, says Pascoe, would only bring trouble: “The large number of gun-control groups don’t want to be seen as attacking every element in the Constitution, or more than one. I think that the First Amendment contains rights that we do enjoy — that individuals have First Amendment rights.”
The confusion of rights and responsibilities — of “what you got a right to do and what is right to do,” as the supreme fogey Bill Bennett puts it — is an old one.
Andy Pelosi, who represents New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, says that his group “really focuses on legislative issues — we’ve done a little bit of violence in the media, but not rap.” He reflects that “it would be unfair to look at one genre without looking at the others. You could make a case about heavy metal, alternative rock — you wouldn’t want to single out just rap.” This would, indeed, be a painful step for most liberals. It would involve a clash of their pieties: gun control — outright demonization of the gun — and a taboo against taking issue with black culture in any of its aspects. The old “No enemies to the left” might mingle with a new slogan: “No enemies among blacks” (with Clarence Thomas and the other Toms excepted, of course).
The country is engaged in a great debate over gun control; but there should be no disagreement about the awfulness — why not go all the way? the evil — of the most violent, dehumanizing, and desensitizing rap. The inner city is bleeding from gun crime. White America should probably think harder about the perpetual Columbines taking place in ghettos. Of course, many excuse rap on grounds that it merely reflects life on the mean streets. And whether this stuff has bloody consequences is an open question. In 1993, a rapper called Masta Ace, talking to the St. Petersburg Times, said, “It’s like a Schwarzenegger movie — you don’t come out wanting to shoot anybody.” But he quickly had a second thought: “I think it does shape mentalities and helps develop a callousness to where you could really shoot somebody and not think twice about it.”
Sure: There’s only so much a gun-control group or conservative alarm-raisers or anyone else can do about (what might be termed) hate rap. But activists, who love to talk — it is their principal activity — might at least talk. A group called the Campus Alliance to End Gun Violence proclaims as its number-one position, “Gun violence disproportionately preys on the young. Silence kills. We must speak.” Well, all right: Minus a right-wing militia or two, there is only one class of people — an extremely wealthy and popular class of people — that actually exalts gun violence. So . . . ?
–From the April 16, 2001, issue of National Review.