What the White Boy Means When He Says Yo
Read Charles Aaron's groundbreaking November 1998 essay on how rap became an unauthorized bible for white kids everywhere
In July of 1998, the future of youth culture was chillin’ in the parking lot of a hip-hop concert in suburban New Jersey. Smokin’ Grooves, the only annual package tour featuring rap artists, was in town, and as far as the eye could see, in varying shades of pale, were white boys and girls, jocks and nerds, preps and stoners, lounging against family-size cars, getting their brewsky on, or queuing up to be frisked. All the acts — Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes, Cypress Hill, Gang Starr, Canibus, a reunited Public Enemy — were black and Latino, and inside, some black and Latino fans pushed to the front of the stage. But outside, it was a Caucasion invasion. As a security guard waved our car forward, a friend joked, “Are we at the right venue?”
In September of 1990, the future of youth culture was a chunky rapper screaming sarcastic obscenities over deafening breakbeats at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. When Ice Cube ripped up the Apollo stage with his heckler’s anthem, “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate,” the virtually all-black crowd leapt to its feet, squealing and laughing. Back then, racial and sexual slurs were breaking bones like sticks and stones, and the song’s infamous call-and-response chorus — “Fuck you, Ice Cube!” — crushed all that pop-culture name-calling down to its nasty, uncoded essence. Cube wasn’t speaking truth to power (nobody bought that schtick anymore). He was talking rebellious trash to the mountain of garbage that passed for truth and power. He was a punk; this was a punk rock show. Hell, this was a Sex Pistols show. And Ice Cube, bless his hatefully charismatic machismo, was Johnny Rotten with a farmer’s tan.
So I squealed and laughed like a dutiful audience member. But mostly I wondered, “What am I doing here?” I’d been to lots of hip-hop shows at the Apollo — Doug E. Fresh, Eric B. and Rakim, Juice Crew, EPMD, etc. — but this was the first time I’d felt so badly out of step. For me, hip-hop had always been a two-sided single — sophisticated musical pranks on the A side, and I-am-somebody identity politics on the B side. But this was neither. This was a spiteful ego-trip. Ice Cube asked us to gob him, then laugat the absurdity of it all. Big muthaf*&#ing deal.
I’d been in denial about all this ever since N.W.A’s outrageously hyperreal 1989 album Straight Outta Compton (penned mostly by Ice Cue and producer Dr. Dre) redefined hip-hop “reality” to emphasize ghettocentric futility. What that meant, in my reality, was that white stereotypes of black people were being blown up, restyled, nd thrown back in white people’s faces. White America’s favorite phantasm — the sexually potent, paranoid, heavily armed, balck male outlaw; in N.W.A’s words, the “Gangsta” — was back, bigger and deffer than ever. I tried every justification in the book, even deciding that Straight Outta Compton was the best album of the year because nothing else sounded so pissed off. But ultimately, I couldn’t relate. It just didn’t fit my notion of hip-hop as a poignant antidote to sickly, smug “white” culture. It did not reflect my experience (or narcissistic expectation) of black people. “Get a clue, fool,” I thought I heard Ice Cube taunting as I slouched down 125th Street to the subway.
The next year, N.W.A.’s Niggaz4life stormed the charts, and then The Predator, Ice Cube’s ’92 solo album, debuted at No. 1; forever after, media hand-wringing about rap’s corrupting effect on America’s youth was cranked into high gear. It became conventional wisdom that record companies designed cartoonish black artists to cater to white consumers (like record companies could ever hope to be that efficient). The black gang member joined the black welfare mom in campaign sound bites. After the Los Angeles Riots stepped off on April 29, 1992, gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube and Ice-T were transformed, overnight, from profitable entertainers into social prophets and ghetto reporters (literalizing Chuck D’s metaphor of hip-hop as the “black CNN”). It was during this period that the music shifted from a politicized form of pop art, with multicultural dreams similar to those of rock’n’roll, into a racial and political issue. Blacks and whites were inevitably distanced from each other. Teeth gritted, I wrote piece after piece defending the First Amendment rights of rappers to metaphorically assassinate the establishment. And I don’t regret a word of it. At the time, it seemed like the only way left for a white guy to participate in the music.
These days, such issues seem ancient, even quaint. Hip-hop has now loomed over the youth-culture landscape for almost two generations, and though it’s still politicized, the music is no longer framed by racial confrontation. Despite being consistently dismissed as a dysfunctional teen phase — especially for white kids — it is commercially stronger than ever. During the early ’90s, its preeminence flowed directly from so-called gangsta rap; in the post-riots years, hip-hop’s major players have been more than just projections of an angry-white-man’s fantasy. Deceased antiheroes Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were far too complex to fit any record-company master plan. The Fugees’ 1996 album The Score, a melodic masterpiece of hip-hop populism, has sold 18 million copies worldwide. Fugee Laryn Hill’s solo album is a virtuosic reproach to anyone complaining that the genre lacks songwriting vision; fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival wryly mixed one-word manifestos with boyish mea culpas. The quixotic Wu-Tang Clan continue to spin baroque ghetto yarns. Puff daddy’s lavish pop-rap hypnotizes the bubblegum set as well as older R&B fans. Busta Rhyme’s dancehall-inflected bug-outs boast a Mick Jagger swagger. Missy Elliott and Timbaland socialize over slinkily eccentric syncopation. Lil’ Kim gets freaky with every sexist fetish ever conceived. Goodie Mob and OutKast chant down the South’s dark spirits. The Roots teach funky seminars on hip-hop semantics. The indie-underground cuts crazy new edges. Is it any surprise that white music fans are flocking such a multitude of fresh personas and sounds, a multitude that does not exist in rock?
Why shouldn’t [white kids] be exploring us? That’s the way it’s supposed to be, you know,” says Busta Rhymes, a.k.a. Trevor Smith, the Grammy-nominated rapper whose second solo album, When Disaster Strikes (released in 1997), has sold 1.6 million copies. “If we’d grown up with a different mind-set then all this shit wouldn’t seem so strange. It would be normal and natural for white kids to be idolizing and imitating rap stars. But the powers that be have created all these barriers and segregated us and brought us up not to appreciate each other’s cultural significance, so everybody looks at these white kids like they’re out of their motherfucking minds.”
Though grunge had ties to a rock tradition that many parental units could grasp — Nirvana loved the Beatles, after all — hip-hop has always been another matter entirely. Foregrounding stark rhythm and a declarative, non-singing voice, it found a way to cut through the usual pop-rock pitty-pat. DJs took technology’s instruction manual and phreaked it like cyberpunks before William Gibson regretted coining the term. Ever since Run-D.M.C. matched screeching guitars with minimal drum-machine beats and turntable scratching (circa “Rock Box,” 1984), hip-hop has sounded like the rebellious truth for increasing numbers of white youth.
“If you’re a white kid, it’s hard to get your parents riled up these days playing rock’n’roll,” says Fab 5 Freddy, a.k.a. Fred Brathwaithe, an original host of Yo! MTV Raps when it debuted in 1988. “But if you got some Tupac blasting in your room, your mother’s gonna be at you, and that’s cool. You’ll be like, ‘Shit, I’m just listening to this black guy talking over some beats and my mom is terrified!'”
Today, Ice Cube is no longer the future; he’s the unwitting patron saint of a new generation. He’s a featured guest on the chart-topping new album by California rap-metal arrivistes Korn, and his songs have been covered by Korn and Florida rap-metal contenders Limp Bizkit (he shares management with both groups). Thousands of white kids will scream “Fuck you, Ice Cube” in basketball coliseums nationwide on this year’s Family Values tour, which also includes Korn and Limp Bizkit.
White fans no longer listen to hip-hop on the sly or surreptitiously rhyme in front of the mirror; they form bands and rhyme on MTV. Pop’s most imaginative artist, Beck, works on the assumption that hip-hop is his generation’s folk music. Rock’s fiercest guitarist, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, proudly mimicks a stylus wrecking vinyl. Hanson’s 1997 sandbox smash “MMMBop” was livened up by a DJ scratch (courtesy of white hip-hop elders the Dust Brothers). The pervasive slanguage of hip-hop is not just a goofy racist punch line anymore, it’s simply how kids communicate. And naïve old hip-hop gringos like yours truly no longer slip up to the Apollo in search of cultural revolution. We cringe in fear that our nieces and nephews will come begging for designer loungewear because they saw Puffy and Mase flashing it on MTV.
Sometime after the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the hip-hop kid — oversize clothes, syrupy slang, skateboard double-parked outside — emerged as the ’90s embodiment of youthful, white alienation. And, as a result, he’s become a flashpoint for politicians and media cynics who insist on pushing the same tired teen “analysis”: numbed and perverted by a Godless barrage of abusive imagery via music, television, film, Sega, and the Internet, otherwise well-adjusted Billys and Beckys have sunk to new depths of anti-socialism. They emulate gang members and shoot up school cafeterias. They wear baggy pants and have unprotected sex. As mindless dupes of the corporate infotainment matrix, our innocent spawn are being debased by dark, unchecked forces, and something must be done!
But when you break the racial encryption of this rant, you face an unavoidable reality — millions of white kids are defining themselves through nonwhite culture. Demographically, there’s no mystery — the terms “majority” are busily playing musical chairs. From 1970 to 1990, the white population in the U.S dropped almost ten percent, while the black population rose slightly, the Hispanic population doubled, and the population of Asians and other nonwhites tripled. The nonwhite middle class is now a substantial suburban presence. Despite pressure to choose “black” or “white,” Americans identify themselves more and more as mixed-race or biracial. Hip-hop, during this period, has mirrored the country’s multicultural shift, becoming a pitched battle of race and identity, often fought over in mind-boggling detail. Merging as the radical (re)vision of pop-rock that punk never managed, it is the crucial cultural influence for Generation X and beyond. It was here years before magazines such as this one anointed grunge the “voice of a generation,” and it’s been here for years afterwards. The music-industry numbers are undeniable. According to a SoundScan study, 71 percent of rap music is purchased by white consumers, and R&B (which includes rap) was the top-selling musical genre overall in 1997, at more than 100 million units. Hip-hop style is pop style — Teenage Research Unlimited reported in October ’97 that baggy pants were “in” for 78 percent of white teenagers — and fashion designers such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger court hip-hop’s imprimatur. From Nike to Sprite, sampling and selling black cool to white consumers is the get-rich-quick scheme of the decade.
For the original black and Latino B-boys who scraped out an urban existence 25 years ago in the South Bronx and Manhattan, hop-hop culture was comprised of four elements — break dancing, graffiti writing, MCing, and DJing — along with a flashy, seat-of-the-pants fashion sense. Today’s white hip-hoppers, with considerably greater resources, attach an endless array of lifestyle statements (tattooing, skateboarding, snowboarding, body piercing) and entrepreneurial projects (fashion, rave promotion, Web design). Their subcultural diversity is bewildering. There’s the slam-dancing mooks with their buffed-up chests and testosterone poisoning; the immaculately made-up chicas with their go-on-girl strut; the ska-crazed buds with their bong hits and sunburned tattoos; the rave aesthetes, with their selfless mysticism (the anonymous DJ) and prosaic loathing (the problematic MC); the cooler-than-you indie-underground geeks, with their vinyl jones and extensive mailing lists; the bored ex-punks and indie-rockers, with their creeping irrelevance; the aging true-believers, with their quiet politics and encyclopedic knowledge. And this is a wildly superficial list.
Then, of course, there’s the classic “white homeboy” routine — i.e., acting a fool in daddy’s car. Musically inept groups such as the Kottonmouth Kings and Insane Clown Posse, who parade around the suburbs rapping like psychotic pimps, are the most extreme offenders. Sadly, this phenomenon has become the definitive prototype and enduring mass-media cliché. It has also led to the widespread use of the word “wigger” — a nasty slurring of the epithet “white nigger.” “Wiger,” like “nigger lover” during the Civil Rights era, was firs used by whites who objected to other whites embracing black culture. Now, it’s also used by whites who embrace black culture to call out other whites who defame black culture. Either way, one timeworn fact remains. With race and class so intertwined, and white kid (wigger or not) who idolizes an African-American flaunting a fat bankroll, will always get under somebody’s skin.
While many publications, including SPIN, have sincerely chronicled and bemoaned the so-called death of alternative rock as a relevant, creative genre (circa 1996, say), what actually faded with alt-rock is a belief in rebel style that exists independently of African-American culture. This was the secret legacy of punk rock (indie rock and grunge) in America — it offered a handbook of cool for whites that basically ignored the existence of black people. What’s happening now is that rock’n’roll is going back to its miscegenated roots. Like suit-and-tied black professionals donning kente cloth and attending the Million Man March, rock’s white fans and performers are undergoing an intense re-darkening process.
In recent years, a boatload of white scholars have dissected the flimsy foundations of “whiteness” and “blackness” (purely American economic inventions). Two of the more pugnacious palefaces, Harvard’s Noel Ignatiev (editor of the journal Race Traitor) and The University of Minnesota’s David Roediger, have even called for an “abolition” of “white” culture. They argue that such an animal doesn’t exist; our bloodlines are too mixed. Even famously cranky hip-hop-phobic essayist Stanley Crouch asserts that America is undergoing an unprecedented “cultural miscegenation,” a blending of speech, style, and gestures that will result in us being “far and away for comfortable with human communality and variety.” The New York Times reported in February that, while adults’ television viewing habits split along color lines, their kids watch black and white shows equally. Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey are arguably America’s two most admired celebrities. Quentin Tarantino, perhaps the ’90s’ most imitated filmmaker, is a self-proclaimed product of black pop culture whose movies hinge on a volatile racial frisson. Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown star Samuel L. Jackson describes Tarantino this way: “He’s like my daughters’ little white hip-hop friends. They’re basically black kids with white skin.”
In a cheeky Baltimore Sun column, novelist Ishmael Reed wrote that President Bill Clinton seems to be “if not black, a white soul brother,” and that so many whites rag of him because he’s an “n-word lover.” In fact, it often seems as if Clinton’s only sincere impulse is his compassion for African-Americans. Then there’s the nutty spectacle of White Soul Brother No. 1’s Hollywood counterpart, Warren “Super Lover B” Beatty, who released the guilt-ridden political farce Bulworth earlier this year, in which a senatorial candidate undergoes a ’60s-liberal meltdown and begins telling “the truth.” And how does Beatty portray said truth? By romancing black people and “rapping,” of course! His reward? The beautiful black female lead (Halle Berry) booty-dances with the Senator and reassures him, “Come on, Bulworth, you know you my nigga!”
Not since pre-Civil War blackface minstrelsy has popular culture been such a racial free-for-all. And there’s certainly no shortage of opinions on why this is a) evil; b) liberating c) inevitable; or d) good for a few laughs and that’s about it. Blacks remain suspicious of whites who identify too closely with African-American culture, primarily because those same whites often want to boost the culture wholesale. Traditionally, this suspicion has taken two forms—the Elvis Syndrome and the White Negro Problem. The former has to do with money and fame and goes like this: Elvis Presley, a “white” man, became the biggest pop star of this century by singing and dancing like a “black” man, and from the Rolling Stones to New Kids on the Block, the process has repeated itself as blacks create and whites luxuriate; any white artist who follows such a path is suspect (for the hip-hop era, see the Vanilla Ice Virus, which includes fabricating your past). The second has to do with social status and sex and goes like this: in 1957, as the Beat Generation went pop with the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, novelist Norman Mailer wrote a widely cited essay for the political journal Dissent called “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Ennobling white “urban adventurers” clued into black “existential” dread via the “Negro jazzman,” Mailer posited a Sexual Freedom Ride for any white kid with the appropriately cool droop. Foreshadowing Bulworth’s let’s-have-sex-until-we’re-all-the-same-color doggerel, Mailer insisted: “I believe it is the absolute human right of th Negro to mate with the white.”
Usually when you read an article about white kids who appropriate hip-hop — be it rapping or forming faux-gangs — Elvis and Mailer are invoked. These folks tower over the subject like priapic parents while smug journalists shrug off the phenomenon as nothing new and rather embarrassing to boot. Of course, it is nothing new. In his groundbreaking 1993 work, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott could’ve been nodding at the “wigger” (or the “gangsta”) when he wrote “if…we are to understand anything more about popular racial feeling in the United States, we must no longer be satisfied merely to condemn the terrible pleasures of cultural material such as minstrelsy, for their legacy is all around us.” The minstrel shows of the 19th century (in which both white and black performers wore the cork mask to fulfill audience fantasies), like pop culture of the 1990s (in which both whites and blacks customize their personas to “keep it real”), probably tell us more than we want to hear about our democratic experiment. Blackface was an exorcism of prejudice, self-hatred, forbidden lust, and genuine respect; it threw up feelings onstage that couldn’t be expressed anywhere else. These days, on the Jerry Springer Show (or Jenny Jones), nothing sets off studio-audience alarms like the spectacle of a white hip-hop kid. “Uh oh!” the racially mixed crowd inevitably hoots, “Before you start talking about anybody, you ought to check yourself in the mirror, ’cause I don’t think you know if you’re black or white!” Cue to women waving two snaps up. Similar who-do-you-think-you-are? Scenarios are now a familiar teen-movie trope — see the moronic rappers-on-a-bus flick Ride, or the summer-lust vehicle Can’t Hardly Wait. To suggest that a white kid’s immersion in black culture might be a natural, even progressive, step is to risk charges of malicious naïveté. Buy maybe what’s maliciously naïve is to expect American teenagers in 1998 to have any idea who they are.
It’s Saturday night in our fair Christian southland and the white kids are surrendering to the beat. In fully sweaty sway, youthful couples at Jacksonville, Florida’s Club Five spoon their smoothly tanned bodies to the DJ’s studio-gangsta thump. Dateless boys play the wall, eyes hooded beneath Florida Marlins and Jacksonville Jaguars caps, shoulders shifting in rhythm. A weaselly wanna-B-boy with floppy brown bangs wearing a Fuct pentagram T-shirt up-rocks in a break-dance semicircle. As the groove deepens, a kid in a Wu-Wear baby-tee and pigtails winks at her neo-rave nymph partner.
Both girls dip their hips and mouth along to the booming lyrics: “Bow down ’cause I ain’t a hater like you/ Bow down to some niggas that’s greater than you.
An hour later, Jacksonville prodigal sons Limp Bizkit — rapper/singer Fred Durst, guitarist Wes Borland, bassist Sam Rivers, drummer John Otto, and ex-House of Pain DJ Lethal—flip the crowd’s infant funkiness and give it a loud spank. A mosh pit of signifying monkeys, the Bizkit lurch from sludge-metal to funky breakbeats, grasping for a groove. Durst, sporting a pointy goatee, armfuls of tattoos, baseball cap, baggy shorts, suede Adidas, and an identity crisis as deep as the Atlantic Ocean, howls his version of hip-hop’s keeping it real incantation: “Your hideous behavior / Hate what God gave ya / Fakin’ all the flavor…Wanna change yourself / Because you’re sick of yourself / Well, I’m sick of you too!” Splashing out of control like a fly plopped in buttermilk, the “kid” — he’s 28, yet seems 21 — so badly wants to replace Marilyn Manson as the symbol of suburban America’s worst fears that it’s almost poignant. Mr. and mrs. Charlie, latch your screen doors: It’s the white B-boy ya love to hate!
The next day is a balmy April afternoon at Durst’s modest, ranch-style spread in a rural residential area northeast of town. A crew of about ten friends and hangers-on are slumped together to, as one Bizkit kibitzer puts it, “Chill dawg.” Out back, the front seat of a car, its blue upholstery shredded, rests next to a skateboarding half-pipe. A large wire cage, home to two hulking bull mastiffs, is tucked in the far corner of the yard. Later, we’ll drive over to Durst’s parents’ house for a band barbecue.
“Dude,” announces Durst, “you know you’re in a boon-ass town when the biggest cheer of the night is for Jerry motherfuckin’ Springer.” He’s referring to the spontaneous “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” chant that broke out after a reference to Limp Bizkit’s appearance on Springer Break, the MTV summer fleshfest hosted this year by the talks-show tricknologist. Perched on a vinyl recliner, Durst is watched over by a framed velvet Elvis, while Springer blares its version of American reality — black and white transvestites yelling at each other — from a wide screen TV.
Home to Lynard Skynard, Molly Hatchet, and a lot of asphalt, Jacksonville, Florida, was once described by a Georgia homeboy as “the official red neck of America.” It’s one of those New South sinkholes where they plant a bunch of shiny hotels and office buildings downtown and why no culture grows. Soon after Fred Durst’s birth there in 1970, the family moved to Orlando, then Cherryville, North Carolina, before settling in Gastonia, N.C. It was just down I-85 from Charlotte, that black music became his lifeblood.
“The school I went to, Ashley Junior High, was right across the street from our house, and it was, like, 80 percent black. Everybody white was either mad redneck or prep, so I ended up in the ‘black’ category,” says Durst, now sitting by the pool behind his parents’ house. To our left, Dad (a retired narcotics officer) grills burgers; Mom sits on a picnic table strumming an acoustic guitar. Durst’s seven-year-old daughter (from a failed first marriage) plays badminton with a handful of brats on a patch of grass across the way. “See, I was the type of kid who was into everything—Kiss, Michael Jackson, ‘Double Dutch Bus,’ fuckin’ Willie Nelson. But mostly, I was born with this need for beats It was weird, a lot of white kids resisted that…”
Around 1983, hip-hop flipped Durst’s script forever; he threw himself into all of it—music (rapping over Black Sabbath licks he played on guitar, mixing beats on Technics turntables he got for Christmas); breakin’ (his dad built a dance studio in the garage, his crew Dynamo 3 performed on a Fresh Fest sidestage during a Run-D.M.C. set); human beatboxing (after peeping the Fat Boys on Soul Train); and graffiti writing (tag name: Whippy Whip). Floored by the ’84 film Beat Street, he started wearing Puma sweatsuits — maroon, with the gray sleeves — and B-boying at Eastridge Mall.
But music was far from a colorless paradise.
“Let’s face it, in North Carolina at that time, there was still a heavy racial thing going on. There was a ‘black’ part of town where white people didn’t go. And I was going over to my black friends’ houses because they were getting these dope records from New York — Cold Crush Brothers, Fearless Four, Treacherous Three, Soul Sonic Force. And before long I turned into this alien — the ‘nigger lover.’ I heard that so many times. White girls wouldn’t date me because I was hanging out with black people. I was scared to go to white parties. It was the worst, man.”
Then, in late 1986, a second bomb dropped. The Beastie Boys, a trio of white boho pranksters from New York City (abetted by suburban rabble-rouser/producer Rick Rubin), released the punk rock-rap hybrid License to Ill, which immediately became the top-selling hip-hop album of all time, chilling at No. 1 on the pop charts for seven weeks, and making hip-hop forever safe for the suburbs. Suddenly, every hip-hop-hating whitey was fighting for his right to party. And even though Durst respected the Beasties as originals who lovingly goofed on hip-hip (and American pop culture in general), he was unforgiving of the Gastonia bandwagon.
“When I finally got to high school, all the white kids jumped on the rap thing hard dude. Suddenly everybody’s walking around trying to rap like Run-D.M.C. in these stupid little clown voices. Then they’re riding around bumpin’ [2 Live Crew’s] ‘We Want Some Pussy’ in these big-ass, country-club cars. I was like, ‘Great, now the rednecks and preps who wanted to beat me up for listening to hip-hop are making a joke out of it.'”
Though his passion for hip-hop never faltered — he’s recently talked with Dr. Dre about recording a solo project — Durst obviously bears the mar of the Beastie era. “Subconsciously, getting into hip-hop, I think I was probably rejecting this hateful, white, close-minded world. I don’t know. But I will say this, I felt special. I was like, ‘Wow, I get it.’ I was so srue that this music was where the world was going.” When that same hateful, close-minded world adopted hip-hop and devaluedit, he locked himself in his room.
Purging his rage with skateboarding and punk rock helped, but Durst is still a nervous work in progress. With Limp Bizkit, he says he needs to simplify his raps so mainstream white rock kids can follow along. Actually, it sounds as if he’s still trying to convert his buttheaded high-school rivals.
“Dude, I got knowledge on hip-hop because I lived it,” says Durst, tearing up a hamburger while Styx’s “Come Sail Away” blasts from his parents’ pool room. “I’m not a fucking phony, and that’s why I sing about phonies. And half the people at my shows, the songs are about them. It’s ironic? Of course, it’s fucking ironic. I’m, like, you’re standing there singing my shit, but this song is about people like you who act like they get it, but they don’t get it, and I really want them to get it, but they’re not going to.”
Obviously, hip-hop is no clear window into African-American life; it’s just the most popular. Chart topping rap capitalists such as Master P speak for little but the economic vitality of the Gangsta Entertainment Complex, and white kids kicking Ebonics and wearing Kangols will not end racial discrimination. Real social problems exist that hip-hop will never touch. Our Civil Rights-era sense of reparation has been squashed; in 1996, the typical black household had a net worth of $4,500, a tenth of the white household figure; poverty among black children is at 40 percent; young black males are murdered at a still startling rate — 111 per 100,000, according to 1995 figures. All of which puts impassioned white hip-hop heads — such as sampling maestro DJ Shadow, a.k.a. Josh Davis, from Davis, California; or Eminem, ak.a. Marshall Mathis, a Detroit-based MC whose first album is produced by Dr. Dre; or Company Flow’s El-Producto, a.k.a. Jamie Meline, a New York City-based MC/producer — in an odd position. Sure, whites have participated in hip-hop — as fans, promoters, writers, breakers, DJs, producers, photographers, label owners, and rappers — for as long as the art form has existed. Still, in 1998, hip-hop Caucasoids of all persuasions are usually lumped together as interlopers or charlatans, self-conscious of both the music’s expanding white audience and their role in that expansion.
Says Shadow, “Growing up [in the late ’80s] I was very bitter as a fan because I saw how hip-hop was actively suppressed and distorted, and I felt like it was my duty not to misguide anybody about the roots of the culture.” El-P adds, “When people ask me abut being white in hip-hop, I tell them, ‘Look, you can’t pretend.’ The reason a lot of white people play themselves and just get it wrong is that they have the arrogance to think that they can identify with the experience of the black man or woman in America; not just empathize with it, but feel it. And you can’t go there. Otherwise, you’re sabotaging and belittling the experiences of the people you claim to love.”
Writing of white 1920s jazzmen such as Bix Beiderbecke, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) explaining it this way: “The real point [was] not…the white American’s increased understanding of the Negro, but rather the fact that the Negro had created a music that offered such a profound reflection of America that it could attract white Americans to want to play it or listen to it for exactly that reason.”
Fab 5 Fredy has been as responsible as anyone for translating hip-hop culture to mainstream white America. The classic, early-’80s, New York B-boy flick, Wild Style, is the story of how Freddy brought white hipsters uptown to black and Latino clubs, and how he then broguth black and Latino graffiti writers downtown to white art galleries. He draws a direct line from early beboppers to rock’n’rollers to rappers.
“Jazz musicians in the ’40s were seen in the same light as rappers today; they were the scourge of the earth,” says Freddy. “But white kids couldn’t see Charlie Parker on cable TV at all times of the day. He didn’t have the pulpit…Unlike Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf, Tupac and Biggie were promoted as the baddest stars out there. So part of the rebellion becomes racial; that’s America. These kids are rebelling against a society that says they shouldn’t have anything to do with black people. So they’re like, ‘Yo, I’m gonna get down with the illest niggas I can find!'”
Popular culture’s racial dynamic is evolving madly, and for folks born before 1970, that is often threatening or downright baffling.
“Hip-hop is the only popular culture that takes seriously the relationship between race and democracy in America,” says Henry Giroux, a professor at Penn State University and author of Channel Surfing: Race Talk and the Destruction of Today’s Youth. “This music has had a grip on white kids for 15 to 20 years, and everybody calls it pathology and that’s that. Are all these white kids just idiots who are being duped and manipulated by the record industry? Who is cynical and arrogant and detached enough to believe that? Sure, some kids are just latching onto the moronic gangsta elements, but the vast majority are caught in some middle spaces where they’re trying to figure themselves out.”
Corporatized or idealized, hip-hop is the American Dream and African-American Nightmare rolled into one fat-ass blunt. It’s not Elvis because black artists remain preeminent; white rappers, aside from the Beastie Boys, and maybe House of Pain or 3rd Base, haven’t won anything. It’s not a rerun of jazz or the blues because it represents raw-boned sorrow and opulent success, often bestowed by black executives. Hip-hop rules the world of youth and pop culture for a reason — it’s talking about what everybody’s thinking. White and black kids know this, even if they can only articulate it by getting stoned to the gills, rejecting proper English, profiling like ghetto supastars, or nodding their heads when Tupac screams on their car stereos that he doesn’t “give a fuck.”
Danny Hoch may be the most race-conscious man in America. You get that feeling that the 27-year-old, Queens, New York-born actor really does look in the mirror every morning and remember that he’s white (or at least a Jewish new Yorker who’s classified as white). But then he starts talking — his B-boy patois flits from streetcorner-haughty to artsy-insidery to wide-eyed revolutionary — and the confusion flares all over again. As one of Hoch’s racially ambiguous characters might inquire; “Who does this crazy-ass motherfucker think he is?”
“When I was 12 years old, I thought I was half-black and half-Puerto Rican,” said Hoch earlier this year, just after his one-man show, Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, finished previews at New York City’s P.S. 122. “No fucking way I thought I was a Jewish white kid. Then, when I was 17 or 18, I left New York City for the fist time — I went away to the North Carolina School of the Arts [in Winstom-Salem]—and that’s when I met real white people. Beer, Domino’s pizza, the mall, backyards, guys going, ‘Hey, dude, let’s score another six-pack!’ I was like, ‘Is that me? Am I that guy?”
In Jails, Hospitals, & Hip-Hop, and his 1994 Obie Award winning piece Some People (which was produced as a 1996 HBO special), Hoch embodies a head-spinning spectrum of characters who deftly reflect his own childhood in the “middleclass projects” of Lefrak City, Queens, “the geographical center of the most multiethnic county in the world.” Dubbed “Iraq,” “Left Back,” or “Left Crack,” it was once home to Boston Celtics’ guard Kenny Anderson, as well as rappers Capone, Noreaga, and Akinyele. Hoch grew up speaking in all sorts of tongues. His mom was a speech pathologist, his godmother was Cuban, his next-door neighbors were African-American, his best friend was Puerto Rican and Israeli, his running buddies were Pakistani, Filipino, West Indian, and Colombian.
“All these cultures were converging in New York in the late ’70s, early ’80s, as they are now in the rest of the country,” he says. “But among the youth, the prevailing culture was hip-hop. It was the only American culture to really embrace. The parents were trying to assimilate and couldn’t, because their accents were too thick, or because they couldn’t speak English at all. So the kids spoke hip-hop — graffiti, break dancing, MCing, DJing. It was this very powerful, common language of defiance.”
Hoch emphasizes with his characters to heart-rending ends, and the variety of detail, both vocally and physically, can be unnerving (is this guy wearing a wire 24-7?). Some are obviously not white, such as the Havana engineering student who (in flawless Cubano Spanish) asks a white new York tourist to decode a Snoop Doggy Dogg vulgarity (she doesn’t speak hip-hop or Spanish to his dismay); others are left undefined, such as the light-skinned Harlem street vendor (of O.J and Bart Simpson T-shirts), who gets a beatdown from a hair-trigger cop when he won’t answer the question, “What are you?”
Although Hoch obsesses over the essence of his characters, he never tries to “disappear” into them (putting on a baseball cap is his big costume change). At all times, he is fully present—the goofy white boy full of hip-hop chutzpah. In Jails, Hospital’s opening rap, “Message to the Bluntman,” he cuttingly boasts, “I know I ain’t black to you / But I can take your culture, supe it up, and sell it back to you.” When he performed that piece on MTV, rapper MC Lyte, according to Hoch, was so enraged that she threatened to “go to her car and get her gun.” Unlike a stand-up comic, Hoch refuses to climb on a pedestal and ridicule stereotypes; he knows he’s implicated. His gift is in revealing how America’s cherished stereotypes fall apart, comically, tragically, and inevitably. Lost in the briar patch of race, trapped our thin skins and flaed bodies, we try to talk our way out. And we fight over language — who owns it, who gets to use it.
The program for Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop quotes KRS-One, first and foremost, then offers up a B-boy testimonial titled “Peace to My Audience!” — it’s signed, CASEROC, Hoch’s graffiti tag. When we met for lunch at a pseudo-Middle Eastern boite in the racially mixed, boho enclave of Willimasburg, Brooklyn, Hoch wore a black and-white-camouflage cap, PNB Nation T-shirt, African beads, baggy pants, and combat boots; he could’ve been an assistant director on a Brand Nubian video, circa 1990. The conscious rap-era of that time, when every bright-eyed kid with a mic adopted a Muslim name an gave shout-outs to Afrocentrism, confirmed Hoch’s dream of hip-hop as “culture of resistance”
Despite lapses into big-city elitism, Hoch has also cultivated a kinship with white hip-hoppers in the suburbs and rural areas. He’s currently working on a screenplay, “White Boys,” based on kids like his character Flip Dog, an awkward wannabe gangsta rapper from Montana. “If hip-hop can be a tool for white kids to defy their racial destiny, that’s amazing. They may look corny and say some really stupid things, but I think they’re making a genuine effort not to inherit the racism of their forefathers. Their souls tell them it’s not right.”
When David Ellis was a kid, his soul told him to spray-paint the letters “S-H-O-C-K” on the side of his daddy’s chicken house. Born the son of a Presbyterian minister in the piedmont North Carolina boondocks — “the square mile where we lived wasn’t even on the map” — Ellis, a.k.a. Skwerm, was one of the “real white people” that Danny Hoch would later meet at art school. But growing up, Ellis was better known for getting jerked on the public school bus.
“I was real quiet and small and skinny and I’d get beat up a lot,” he says sheepishly. “Plus there was definitely some ol’ backwoods redneck-type shit going on out there. I think I was trying to address all that somehow [with graffiti]. It was like, ‘Yo, I have a voice, listen to this!'”
On a school trip to Paris, Ellis tried to visit the Louvre, but it was closed for construction. Loitering by the temporary plywood walls outside the museum, he was transfixed by a riot of colorful, spray-painted letters. Asking around, he discovered that New York City graffiti artists Phase II, Futura 2000, and Blade had just passed through town and left their calling cards. “From that moment on, you think I was checking for statues by Michelangelo?” says Ellis. “Naw, no way. I was working on letter forms, B.”
Ellis had heard hip-hop on a college radio show from Raleigh, but after his Paris experience he was obsessed. He caught the documentary Style Wars, a chronicle of early black, Latino, and white graffiti writers from New York City, on public television. Mix tapes of new York radio shows — Red Alert on Kiss-FM, Mr.Magi and Marley Marl on WBLS — began to appear at school. Hip hop’s birthplace soon became Elis’s mecca. “I fantasized about New York, no doubt. A lot of kids were moving down South from the City and they were all into hip-hop, so that was real cool. But there were also these horror stories. Crack was real big then [in the mid-to-late ’80s], and brothers and cousins were getting killed on playgrounds and shit, so the parents were sending the kids down to North Carolina to live with their grandparents. The irony was that the parents had fled to the South a generation before because of racism.”
As Ellis got older, the ironies of being a New York-style B-boy in the South stacked up. “I’d see all these civil rights documentaries of white people from the South and be paralyzed by certain feelings like, ‘Man, I’m white, I’m from the South, am I a racist?’ I think you’re always, subconsciously, trying to separate yourself from things that you think are wrong, and the hip-hop scene seemed like a very deep place that could be an answer to a lot of what was wrong.”
Tobacco barns became Ellis’s subway trains, his canvas. He’d throw up graffiti pieces for classmates to check out in the morning as they passed by on the bus. With money from picking tobacco, he bought two wack turntables and a Pyramid mixer; he got into break dancing. “I was listening to ‘Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel’ on my Kmart boombox and the crickets and tree frogs and chickens and woodpeckers were in the background, and I was feeling that shit, man. I was looking down at my fat laces and burgundy pressed Lees and I knew this was the shit, creatively, in every way. This was going somewhere.”
Now, at 27, Ellis remains a restless hip-hop product — hates Puffy, loves Mos Def. He lives with his girlfriend in a shambling downtown loft in Manhattan and paints huge, captivating collage pieces, which he regularly shows around town. Like Hoch, he worries critics will downplay the importance of hip-hop on his life and art. “I understand Marcel Duchamp because of hip-hop; he would’ve been putting crazy ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ pieces up on the Paris Transit System.”
Above all, hip-hop helped Ellis come to terms with his own history. “Where you live has a big impact on you,” he says. “Our house was, literally, on a long dirt road. The kids I mostly played with, went fishing with, were black and Cherokee and white. That’s where I came from, and that’s why hip-hop made sense to me. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up around mostly white folks, and I think it’s a shame that other people do. Maybe the white kids who are getting into hip-hop now are feeling like it’s a shame, too.”
No matter how carefully this article is written or read, it’s still likely to be reduced to the “wigger story.” So, to beat the rush, I began inventing distinctions between “wiggers” and “wiggas” — e.g., “wiggers” are true-schoolers who are genuinely interested in black culture and have genuinely risked making fools of themselves; “wiggas” are fascinated wannabes who play it safe and and get jiggy in the safety of their own cul-de-sac. Wiggers don’t try too hard to prove they’re down. Wiggas, like Quentin Tarantino, never shut up about it (to the point of allegedly punching a black woman who disagreed with him about the depiction of African-Americans in films). The Beastie Boys are O.W.’s, Original Wiggers, because they were there in the beginning, they’re still here, and they wrote the Wigger National Anthem, “Sabotage.” Sometimes, though, like at Smokin’ Grooves, when thousands of stoned white kids think it’s just so cool to fire their little imaginary pistols into the air during Cypress Hill’s “How Could I Just Kill a Man,” the joke isn’t so funny anymore. Wigga, please!
But how kids act in groups at concerts is much different from how they act individually; and the way they act individually is much different from the way they act around parents, bosses, teachers, or reporters. When I wandered up to a 16-year-old John Rappa (yes, that’s his real name) before a Smokin’ Grooves concert at Universal City, the movie theme park just north of Los Angeles, he was sitting alone on a concrete bench smoking — butt pinched between thumb and forefinger, elbow pointed out jauntily. A tiny slip of a boy, he sported an oversize Eddie Baur T-shirt, low-slung Hilfiger jeans (beeper in the right side pocket, pack of cigs in the left), and dusty beige skater sneaks. Full of bluster a few minutes ago when he was talking to a black kid he’d just met, his acne-wracked face softened after I identified myself as a SPIN writer.
“Hip-hop was just what was on the radio when i grew up,” he says, squinting, his blond hair a spiky crew cut. A small gold stud sparkles in his left ear. “I remember getting really, really caught up in it when I was, like, nine. It was my music, you know?…Grunge never really appealed to me; it always felt dirty and depressing, all that holes-in-your-pants shit. I liked the attitude and, I guess, the lifestyle of hip-hop.”
What did he think the attitude and lifestyle was about? “You know, hanging out, smoking weed, talking shit about cops, and listening to Cypress Hill. Or riding around in a car with your friends, acting rowdy and listening to Tupac…It’s like, rappers know what’s real, they know how fucked-up things are, but they also know you have to say ‘Fuck it’ sometimes and have a party too.”
Rappa says he never felt conflicted about being white and listening to hip-hop: “Maybe I thought it might be easier to blend in sometimes if I was black, but I never really wanted to be black or nothing like that.” Maybe he’s a new breed, a kid who sees the Beastie Boys as father figures, unconsciously thinks and talks with hip-hop’s knowing edge, yet doesn’t understand all the fuss about black and white people not getting along. A teenager who adores the “lifestyle” but can’t really buy into it. Or maybe he’s just a half-pint who hasn’t yet gone through the wringer of the real world.
Molly Hein is only a few years older than Rappa, for instance, but her experience is a world apart. Now a student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, Hein grew up “bilingual in punk rock and hip-hop” in New York City’s Washington Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood north of Harlem. Her world changed color at 16 when she and her divorced mother moved to the lily-white suburbs of northwest Washington, D.C. “I was going to a private school with all these kids who had grown up in the suburbs, and I got to see how racially isolated they were; it was a wake-up call. That’s when I really got into hip-hop. I think I was reacting to the shock.”
At Hampshire, she’s helped bring Noel Ignatiev to speak, and even formed a campus group to discuss white racism and classism. Unfortunately, the group tanked. “Everybody here is so politically correct and self-satisfied and like, ‘Hold on, man, I’m not a racist.’ Nobody wants to admit that they themselves have ever benefited from racism, especially at a left-wing, alternative hippie college.”
Hein — who briefly joined an all-female hip-hop crew, and worked with the New York-based Prison Moratorium Project (a nonprofit, hip-hop activist group) — admits to moments of I’m-the-only-white-person-in-the-room conceit, as well as periods of total self-flagellation. “I guess I’m a socially conscious wigger,” she says, laughing. “I’m obsessed with the politics of everything I’m doing; I never just have fun. And I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, because I’ve met my fair share of big-pants-slangin’ white kids who are completely unaware of what they’re doing… I know I’m projecting my own fantasies and cultural baggage. But that’s what everybody does, in a way. Hip-hop is great for that; there’s no better art form.”
Many white hip-hoppers, myself included, still wrestle with an age-old disease, which I call, only somewhat ironically, “double unconsciousness.” It’s the white flip-side to W.E.B. DuBois’s turn-of-the-century diagnosis, “double consciousness,” which suggests blacks in America are “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” and feel a sense of “twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls; two thoughts; two unreconciled strivings…” Conversely, double unconsciousness means failing to look at oneself through the eyes of others, and living under a delusion of “oneness,” the myth that if you, as an individual, don’t behave in an actively racist fashion, the you’re not shaped by racism. The doubly unconscious refuse to acknowledge how certain institutions (education, housing) constantly watch their backs. They want extra credit for entertaining different points of view. They love black music, talk to a few black friends, and believe they are developing an understanding of black people (when in fact, they are only developing an image of themselves). Dead Giveaway: If a white guy exclaims, “I’m not a racist!” or, “But a lot of black people feel the same way I do!” he’s doubly unconscious.
Nobody’s pondered this Ofay Shuffle more deeply than the hyper, balding graffiti writer from Chicago named William Wimsatt, a.k.a. Upski. In fact, he’s just about the only person who’s bothered. His unjustly overlooked 1994 book Bomb the Suburbs — which followed a fire-starting May ’93 article in the Source titled “We Use Words Like Mackadocious (and Other Progress From the Front Lines of the White Struggle) — constructs a case, in hilariously explicit detail, for white people (himself included) who desperately love, or think they love, hip-hop and black culture. Then he trashes the joint. The cool fool caught in the middle, Upski’s always getting his hands and knees dirty; he doesn’t want anybody relaxing. In the spirit of Danny Hoch’s “Message to the Bluntman,” he wrote the following coda to the Source article’s deft evisceration of wigger hypocrisy: “Let me offer this advice to black artists: Next time ya’ll invent something, you had better find a way to control in financially, because we’re going to want that shit.” The Source — today’s most successful hip-hop magazine, which was developed in the late 1980s by white Harvard students David Mays and Jon Schector — wouldn’t print the coda. As Upski wrote in his book, “It was the key to the whole article, the only part that might give a few of us white boys our one precious glimmer of self-doubt.”
What’s encouraging about Upski, and why he’s still ahead of the curve in terms of understanding whiteness and hip-hop, is that he’s so proudly unhip. He’s spastic, vulnerable, and poorly dressed. He doesn’t try to impress you with arcane knowledge. He doesn’t drop names. He actively campaigns against gratuitous use of slang. And for somebody who’s spent so much time actually journeying through the B-boy killing fields, he’s almost maddeningly guileless. When I finally reached him by phone — he’d just moved from his parents’ house in Chicago to his girlfriend’s Manhattan apartment — he said sweetly, “Wow, I didn’t know anybody still cared.”
The next week, we’re walking through the West Village, and he’s manically going off about his new book, tentatively titled Urban Life, Home Schooling, Hip-Hop Leadership, and Why Philanthropy is the Greatest Art Form of the 20th Century. I ask if he feels bad for making all those white hip-hop kids look like such bozos. He grins and laughs. “I have clowned wiggers over the years, I admit it; but in general, I think it’s a great thing for white kids to get into hip-hop. It’s had an enormous impact on my life. It caused me to look at the world in a whole new light.” But Bomb the Suburbs’s sharpest jabs are directed at his own moony, childhood illusions about the power of black style — formed mostly while attending Kenwood Academy, a public magnet school that was about 90 percent black, and the University of Chicago Laboratory School, which was 60 percent white but boasted the sons and daughters of Chicago’s African-American elite. “America is such a racially charged place that white people are afraid to mess up,” he says. “Our biggest fear is being embarrassed. We’re scared of making a racial faux pas. I want to make it okay to mess up; I sure made my share of messes. I mean, why are we trying to convey to the world that we know what we’re doing? We need to start from scratch and mess up a lot!”
There’s an old TV-Detective-show adage that if you want to find the truth, follow the money. So it made sense to set up a meeting with Jimmy Iovine. The proverbial “Brooklyn street kid” who hustled his way into the music biz, Iovine became a high-profile producer in the ’70s and ’80s (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Tom Petty) before founding Interscope Records, which has been home to Nine Inch Nails, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Marilyn Manson, 2Pac, Limp Bizkit, etc. “Teenagers ten-to-15 years ago, who would’ve looked to rock’n’roll as their first choice of music, now listen to rap,” says Iovine. “Hip-hop is more reflective of how kids feel today, bottom line. It feels more exciting, more potent, more to the point. Both lyrically and sonically, it’s keyed into kids’ emotions. Sure, you can put out a pop-rock record and sell a few million copies, but the record that kids have the day it comes out is hip-hop.”
A slight, wiry guy in wire frames, golf cap, lime-green velour pullover, jeans, and Nike trainers, Iovine is known to many as the white man who did business with Suge Knight (and got out in the nick of time). We’re sitting in his intimately cushy, 12th-floor office on L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard — fat vinyl sofa, coffee table with an immense bowl of fruit, wide-screen TV, stereo system, and framed family photos on every available surface. An assistant brings in hot tea and announces that Rick Rubin (!) is waiting. Iovine grabs a green apple from the bowl, chomps, and leans over.
“So, what do you need from me?”
Considering there’s an ex-Beastie Boy in the bullpen, I cut to the chase. “Aren’t white kids who listen to rap, on some level, rejecting their whiteness?”
Iovine fidgets and kicks back on the sofa. “I don’t feel that. I think the best hip-hop feels accurate to these kids’ emotions, not literally, because most of these white kids haven’t had the same experiences as these artists, but emotionally. When I was a teenager in the ’60s in Brooklyn listening to [Jimi] Hendrix and Sly Stone, I thought they were singing about my life, even though they weren’t.”
But don’t you think there’s a big difference between, say, Kurt Cobain as a rebel hero and Tupac as a rebel hero?
“No, I don’t. I think it’s all about alienation and honesty, and they both expressed that.”
But doesn’t hip-hop’s success mean a big racial shift?
“I think it means that a lot of rock music doesn’t feel provocative, and I hope we see more that does. For instance, I’d like to see more rock bands dealing with what’s going on in the cities and ghettos.”
But isn’t that about race?
Iovine flashes one of those wincing, why-ya-gotta-bust-my-balls? industry smiles, but he pushes on. “I don’t think it has anything to do with color. I know you do. But I think there’s a big difference between why white kids are listening to hip-hop and why black kids are making it.” Those are two entirely different questions.
The intercom beeps. “Rick Rubin is still here for you,” the secretary chirps impatiently. “Look,” says Iovine, “Does racism still exist?” Sure, it does. I grew up in a very hot period, the ’60s, in a heavily ethnic Italian neighborhood that was squared off by other Italians, you know what I’m saying? But that doesn’t reflect who I am today. I don’t live my life, you know…I can’t explain it…well, I can explain it, but…”
What Iovine’s saying, but not saying, is that music opened his eyes to race and American society, and heightened his sensitivity to people unlike himself. As a ’60s guy, he likes providing a forum for impoverished black kids to express themselves, but he wonders if the materialism, misogyny, and nihilism that linger in rap music aren’t the real white appeal. Though he’d never say it, I’d bet he believes, deep down, that the thing a white kid gets from listening to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic is the cheap buzz of spitting “bitch” or “ho” or “motherfucker” into the pot-hazy night.
Of course, that’s just one white man’s opinion.
Back in the day, white kids (like me, and Fred Durst, and Elvis, for that matter) generally had to make a point of crossing over racial lines, especially if we didn’t live in an urban melting pout. Today, the racial lines are crossing over us. “I work with a lot of artists inside and outside the hip-hop world, and I’m telling you things are gonna change, you have no idea,” enthuses Karyn Rachtman, an industry player who put together the music for Bulworth, as well as 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack, which paired alt-rockers with hip-hoppers. “The hip-hop structure of making music is completely subsuming rock — the beats, the production, the ways of expressing yourself. And the cutting-edge film directors I work with, they all think in terms of hip-hop.”
Be that hyperbole, white kids today are being restyled and reoriented by black popular culture, whether they like it or not. The choice they have is whether to resist the process, and what bothers parents and the cultural establishment is how little these kids are resisting. What worries me is how white hip-hop kids’ familiarity with black pop culture tends to give them a false sense of familiarity with, and knowledge about, black people. Neither black nor white rock fans assume that most white people are like, say, Dave Matthews or Sarah McLachlan. But most white hip-hop fans tend to think DMX or Method Man represent some essential quality about black people. This isn’t necessarily their fault — society’s arrested racial development is due most of the blame—but it is an assumption that needs to be questioned, regularly. So when I see the autonomous white hip-hop enterprise the Beastie Boys have constructed—which seems to feel more strongly about cool sneakers and Tibetan monks than exploring their relationships with African-Americans — it strikes me as an enormous denial. Then again, the Beasties, like so many of us, aren’t that hyped about being racial martyrs. They just want to live.
Black people are quite intimately aware of racial lines crossing over them and martyr complexes and just wanting to live. As Tony Green, a Jacksonville-based music writer who also attended the Limp Bizkit show, told me, “Great numbers of black kids have been crossing over into white society for years. We’re like agent provocateurs — we know what white kids are like, but they don’t know anything about us. Until a generation of white kids goes through what we’ve gone through,” he says, “things won’t start changing. These Limp Bizkit kids need to come home with me and go to church.”
As we chase the Illuminati into the next millennium, and as racism evolves as quickly as racial demographics, anything’s likely to happen. Discrimination could become less acceptable, the suburbs could become less isolated from cities, concert audiences could become more integrated, radio formats could become more diverse, and Fred Durst might get caught singing “I’ll Fly Away” at a Sunday A.M.E. Service. Or not. But the so-called hip-hop generation — white, black, or otherwise — is doing everything in its power to mock our culture’s stuttering fear of racial progress. When a kid’s identity crisis is ridiculed or blamed for the minstrelsy of the past, racism’s foundation is only reinforced. Okay, so much of young white America looks like a bunch of foolish twits playing dress-up. But are they really any less confused than you?