How about that brostep State of the Union address advertisement? Did Tim & Eric direct that thing, giggling the whole time? Nevertheless, contrast it with Republican hero of the moment Marco Rubio (who will soften on some all-important policy or another and be abandoned soon enough), and his perfunctory nods to ’90s hip-hop and Democratic wub-wub-wub is, well, at least contemporary. Maureen Dowd’s “The Rap on Rubio” in the New York Times takes on Rubio’s rap shtick, and acknowledges the only curious element of this recent GOP move: “Gangsta rap used to be a reliable issue for politicians, but they were denouncing it,” she writes, “now Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is praising it.” That’s right-wing progress. One of their members doesn’t vilify expressive pop-cultural art as the end of civilization simply because it’s mostly made by black people.
The “Rubio, hip-hop head” angle hinges on a Spotify playlist that includes plenty of rap music (Tupac, Sugarhill Gang, and others) and this video of Rubio semi-cogently discussing Tupac vs. Biggie. He provides a passable understanding of the sociological components of ’90s hip-hop, and good for him. But do recall the first African-American chairman of the Republican National committee Michael Steele back in 2009 saying the party needed a “hip-hop makeover,” and getting clowned. It’s telling that the tragically clueless GOP of 2013 has leaned hard on Cuban-American Rubio to rep rap. African-American conservatives it seems, must maintain their beyond-reproach Booker T. Washington stance. But hey, this is all just a market-tested, right-wing hustle anyway. A Spotify playlist that nods to hip-hop is the same as Paul Ryan gettin’ his gym on to Rage Against the Machine. Clueless jerks like political music too, sometimes.
Contrast Rubio’s boilerplate insight with President Obama’s nods to hip-hop, chronicled by SPIN here, which seem, however dad-like, organic and sincere. The President brushing dirt off his shoulder was code to the hip-hop generation that he’s down enough, and references here and there to Lil Wayne or calling Kanye a jack-ass (a no-nonsense moment that an Alan Keyes-level nut should admire), never felt too cloying. And an adamant focus on Chicago street violence when most of the county is really just concerned about whether or not guns are wandering into suburban schools, is pointed. That stuff resonates with raps fans who are painfully aware of street violence because the music they love has been dealing with it for decades now. Frankly, Rubio’s rap awareness is about normal for a man his age (he was in college in the early ’90s). That Marco Rubio knows much of anything about rap is just a case for the genre’s significance, not Rubio’s stunning ability to tap into the hip-hop generation(s).
And maintaining the sense that the Republicans must always pine for the good ol’ days of something or other, the Rubio interview finds him commenting on how hip-hop’s values have shifted to partying now. He ignores the knotty politics of, say, Watch the Throne or all the emotive street rap hovering around the periphery of the mainstream. The idea that hip-hop, simply by existing and invading the culture, is inherently political does not occur to him, either. Or maybe ignoring Jay-Z and others makes this cheap rhetoric an easier sell. Plenty of rappers have aggressively supported the president; and towing the “real hip-hop is dead” party line is to not wrestle with the same things the GOP always avoids. Namely, that not all people vote and make decisions with their money in mind. Even ballin’ and blingin’ rappers.
Dowd points out that The Atlantic‘s Elspeth Reeve argued rap’s up-from-nothing angle is very individualistic and Republican-friendly. Many others, including hip-hop-is-the-devil hustler Thomas Chatterton Williams, have pointed this out as well. It’s a good one-liner but it ignores the fact that the policies the GOP holds so dear would never allow the majority of rappers to flex their right-wing libertarian muscles and live “free.” Hip-hop is a warts-and-all kind of genre. Whether it’s Jay-Z spending much of Watch the Throne reminding everybody that his all-American come-up is based on crack sales (an apt metaphor for America’s glorious, exploitation-tinged history) or the nagging sadness in so much “We made it!” rap that remembers dead friends, rap’s addiction to truth-telling is pervasive. Typically, Rubio and the Republican party, who are being destroyed by an ideology-only wormhole of their own creation thanks to never say die Tea Party maniacs and vagina-phobic old whites, have momentarily fallen in love with the idea of hip-hop. But they want nothing to do with its messy reality.