Why Chuck D was right about Hot 97

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By now the Chuck D/Hot 97 beef has been well-documented by blogs, and anyone with access to Twitter can see the back-and-forth exchange that’s spanned several days.

Long story short, Chuck D blasted Hot 97 for this year’s Summer Jam show, calling it a “sloppy fiasco” and criticizing the liberal use of the n-word, questioning where Hot 97 would be if the concert had been filled with Anti-Semitic and gay slurs. He wants urban radio to “get it right or be gone.”

Ebro Darden and Peter Rosenberg of Hot 97 responded, and a war of Twitter words ensued.

On the surface this seems like just another social media spat that will be forgotten tomorrow, but in reality it runs much deeper than that.

This is not just about a sloppy show or racial slurs. It’s not about Summer Jam or Hot 97 or Ebro and Rosenberg. It’s not about specific hip hop radio stations or specific hip hop concerts. It’s about what all of these things collectively add up to. This is about what “hip hop” has become, and Summer Jam was just the most visible example.

This is about the fact that a culture that was based on peace, love, unity and having fun, one that served as a form of self-expression for marginalized and oppressed people, has become a corporate-controlled means to reinforce the very oppression it was created to fight.

This is about the fact that we openly degrade ourselves through hip hop, that our “values” have shifted from life-affirming qualities to a death program of promiscuity, anti-love, drug use, drug dealing, materialism, violence and criminality, and people who claim to love hip hop promote these “values” every day.

It’s ironic that Hot 97’s tag line is “where hip hop lives” because if we’re talking about hip hop culture in its original, true form, Hot 97 is not where hip hop lives, it’s where hip hop dies. And Hot 97 is just one of many corporate “ambassadors” of hip hop that are actively killing the culture’s essence every day.

Granted, I don’t think that Ebro, Rosenberg and their Hot 97 counterparts are evil people who wake up every morning with the intention to destroy hip hop. I don’t think their actions are malicious. I do think they operate under a banner of ignorance and general lack of awareness about black history, racism, stereotypes and the social implications of art, and they’re guided more by selfish motives than social conscience.

Because it’s not terribly difficult to see how mainstream hip hop is helping to destroy black people if you have a basic knowledge of:

  • black history in America
  • how stereotypes have been used to demonize and destroy blacks since slavery
  • the similarity between black stereotypes invented during slavery and the stereotypes that dominate mainstream rap, generally focused around criminal and sex-crazed behavior
  • how stereotypes equating blackness with danger lead to biased Stop and Frisk policies, lengthier prison sentences and the murder of unarmed blacks 
  • how propaganda was used during the Holocaust to vilify Jews and other “undesirables” and justify Nazi atrocities
  • how art can be used as propaganda
  • how minstrel shows were used to degrade blacks for entertainment and profit
  • the fact that control of black art such as jazz music has always been wrested from black hands
  • the fact that every movement that represented black progress has been infiltrated and destroyed by an outside organization, usually one operated by the government (COINTELPRO, for starters)
  • hip hop’s power to sell product, start trends and shape values, thoughts, actions and lifestyles, especially among impressionable youth of color
  • the fact that art, especially music, has immense social power and has been a driving force behind numerous social causes, from anti-Vietnam War efforts to the Civil Rights Movement
  • the fact that the late Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor and an accomplished pianist who was allowed to perform concerts in the concentration camps, said “Music was our food. Through music we were kept alive.”
  • the fact that music can keep people alive, and it can also help them die

Anyone who considers any of these facts should be able to connect the dots and realize that art has the power to influence people and shape society, and hip hop is doing both in a destructive fashion.

Again, no one is saying the DJs and execs at Hot 97 are solely responsible for destroying hip hop. But they are responsible for actively promoting this increasingly toxic music and feigning ignorance about its toxic effects.

Of course, Ebro and Rosenberg have defended Hot 97 with a variety of justifications and mostly illogical insults and excuses that deny their responsibility and dismiss Chuck D. This is not a surprise. People who gain their notoriety and draw their paycheck from a corrupt system are not likely to question that system — especially if they lack a strong sense of integrity and personal values.

And even if, say, Ebro did wake up one day, have an epiphany and decide to fight the power, he’d be fighting the power all the way to the unemployment line. Ebro may appear to be powerful, but in reality he’s just a pawn carrying out the mission of those who actually have power. If he decided to buck the system, he’d be quickly replaced by some other chump who’s willing to get with the program and make excuses about how the program isn’t what it really is.

Expecting Ebro and Rosenberg to bite the hand that feeds them is unrealistic and pointless. As Chuck D has repeatedly said, they are not the problem. The real problem is their bosses and their bosses’ bosses. And that’s who we never see or hear from. The corporate bigwigs are never involved in the Twitter beefs. It’s always the pawns on the front lines who get caught in the fray, but who is sitting in the office dictating the strategy? That’s who we need to attack.

The bottom line is the hip hop culture we created has been hijacked and turned into an anti-black propaganda machine, with rappers acting out a modern-day minstrel show while unseen executives reap the rewards. These high-level execs are the real enemy. But what are we doing to stop them? Who is going to war with them? Besides Chuck D, who is sticking their neck out to attack a system that’s milking hip hop for profit while destroying its essence?

I don’t know how we regain control of hip hop, or if we ever can. Withdrawing all support from corporate, whips-and-chains slavery rap like the kind that Hot 97 specializes in would be a start. Working to promote hip hop’s true essence and values and bring the diversity, creativity, authenticity and knowledge of self back to the culture would be another crucial step. Beyond that, I think a collective independent movement needs to take shape.

Wherever we go from here, I hope people actually take Chuck D’s words to heart, because it’s important to understand what’s at stake. This is not just trivial drama or a juicy tidbit for the blogs. This is a battle for the soul and essence of hip hop. Either hip hop’s original values and aims will be resurrected, or they’ll rot in the corporate trash heap known as mainstream rap. The question is: Which side are you on?

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Lauren Carter is a writer, editor and creative consultant based in Boston. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and check out her blog at www.bylaurencarter.com. For more information about her writing, editing or consulting services, email her at bylaurencarter@gmail.com.

Rap Rehab says:

Alan, I think hip-hop plays a much larger role in black culture than country. Check your radio dial and you will see how few options there are programmed to young people of color.