Music

Does the Woke Mob Have the Guts to Cancel Rap?

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An anti-Asian song just got censored: fluke or harbinger?

We have lost the original version of the 2014 song “Meet the Flockers,” by the rapper YG. The track disappeared from streaming services entirely for a bit — along with the rest of the album it was on — and then reappeared in censored form. It all started, apparently, with an internal debate at Google’s YouTube, though it’s unclear who made the final decision to alter the song.

In itself, “Meet the Flockers” is nothing to cry over, a second-tier track from a second-tier artist that has been noticed almost exclusively for its racist lyrics. The song purports to be a guide to burglarizing homes, and the first two lines are: “First, you find a house and scope it out / Find a Chinese neighborhood, ’cause they don’t believe in bank accounts.” In the censored version, “find a Chinese neighborhood” hiccups, becoming “find a, find a neighborhood.”

But it makes you wonder how much rap could be wiped from history in the coming years, now that our access to music depends on instant streaming rather than physical media, now that a work’s status as a classic can’t necessarily protect it (just ask Gone with the Wind or Dr. Seuss), and now that black artists are apparently not off-limits for woke cancellation. Even the most casual hip-hop fan can tell you that there are a lot of groundbreaking albums with lyrics that spectacularly fail the PC test, loaded with offensive lines that might not even be released today. And no, I’m not whining about black rappers’ using the N-word.

Racism, homophobia, misogyny: The history of hip-hop, and especially of gangsta rap, is dotted with all of it. “Meet the Flockers” stands out more for when it was released — even rappers have gotten a little less eager to shock over the past decade or two — than for what it says.

YG is not, for example, the first rapper to say something racist on a high-profile release. Ice Cube’s Death Certificate (1991) featured a song called “Black Korea,” about Korean store owners’ profiling and following black customers, and it included racist digs ranging from “oriental one-penny countin’ mother[f***]ers” to “your little chop-suey [a**].” Public Enemy has a history of anti-Semitic lyrics and comments. These are two of the biggest rap names of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and both acts have long been known for politically “conscious” lyrics.

Homophobia also runs rampant through many older rap songs. “Ether,” Nas’s 2001 track attacking Jay-Z, is especially nasty on that front. Not to mention the controversy over Eminem’s profligate use of the “other F word,” which is as old as the rapper’s career. (According to RapStats, artists’ use of that word and its variants peaked in 2002.)

Misogyny? “Slapping bitches” was once a standard theme of gangsta rap, with examples too numerous to mention. Rap legend Dr. Dre has an acknowledged history of hurting women in real life. Some artists have even veered into depictions of sexual violence; DMX warned on a 1998 track that “if you got a daughter older than 15, I’ma rape her.”

Just about all of these songs were controversial when they came out, and they sound worse today. As Stereo Williams wrote for the Daily Beast in 2017, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, the album’s

misogyny, violence and homophobia make it an unsettling depiction of just how casually hip-hop embraced (and continues to embrace) all three. There’s an offhanded hatefulness that even the most captivating sonics can’t diffuse; there is a lot of ugliness on the record, and considering where Dr. Dre was in his life at the time, it shouldn’t be dismissed or discounted as just a character he was playing. Revisiting ’90s hip-hop, even the most acclaimed stuff, can be harrowing in terms of the amount of toxic rhetoric contained in so many legendary lyrics. As much as nostalgia may con us into thinking of the good ol’ days with nothing but adulation and reverence, we need to be moving away from the attitudes on The Chronic, not pining for them to return.

Of course, conservatives haven’t historically lined up to defend gangsta rap either. It’s not like many of us were worried in 1992, when protests and boycotts of Time Warner pressured Ice-T to remove the song “Cop Killer” from the self-titled debut of Body Count, his punk-metal band. (For the record, I was eight years old at the time and took no position that I can remember.)

So why shouldn’t we take a social-conservative win — canceling old rap music whose values we still despise today, erasing it from the services we use to listen or at least trimming out the worst parts? Mostly for the same two big reasons we wouldn’t cancel anything else.

First, antiquated expressions of bigotry are valuable in themselves, for what they say about the places and time periods in which they occurred. There’s no excuse for Ice Cube’s comments about Koreans, for instance — but the black–Korean tensions in Los Angeles circa 1990 he was talking about were very real. The glorified, fantastical violence of gangsta rap is a reflection of the actual urban violence of the genre’s heyday. It also says something about the late 1990s and early 2000s — when I was a straight white American male teenager in the Upper Midwest myself — that Eminem became a huge success at that point while throwing around the word “faggot” incessantly. It’s one thing to argue about a business’s decision to release something offensive today; it’s something quite different to try to erase history.

Second, while artistic genius can be tainted by bigotry and bad behavior, it’s still artistic genius. The rap albums of 30 years ago shape the genre to this day, and in many ways they hold up exceptionally well. Mature fans can recognize what’s valuable in these works even as they cringe at what’s obviously wrong. Both parts of that equation are important, and music no longer transports us to an older time when it’s been “updated” to reflect our current norms.

It’s a weird moment when conservatives find themselves well-equipped to defend the gangsta-rap “canon,” using the same concepts they use to defend Gone with the Wind. But perhaps this is a chance for outreach, and a chance to show where “cancel culture” could lead when it’s taken to its logical conclusion.

Or perhaps the woke mob doesn’t have the guts to cancel a rap work that actually matters.

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