Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement by S. Craig Watkins
Sometimes, I read a hip-hop book and don’t learn anything new. That was not the case with this book. Watkins has some great stories to tell and knowledge to drop.
White Hip-Hop Eras
Watkins breaks down three eras of white rap music; Pre-Vanilla-Ice (1973-1990), Vanilla Ice (90-99), and Eminem (99 – present). I’m not sure this is the best way to break down the history, but it does show how different each era was and illustrates the perception of white emcees at the time.
The Beastie Boys are the probably biggest hip-hop group, pre Vanilla Ice. They are, for sure, the most well known. They didn’t hide the fact that they were white, but they never directly addressed this in their song. 3rd Bass, on the other hand, did occasionally make reference to their race in lyrics. In one song, MC Serch even called out some racist practices by saying, “Black cat is bad luck / Bad guys wear black / Must’ve been a white guy who started all that / Make the gas face / For those little white lies /”
There was another group in the pre-vanilla age that went by the name of Young Black Teenagers. They didn’t get released until after Vanilla Ice, which makes their stance on race even more interesting. They outright rejected their whiteness as is apparent with their name and lyrics.
“In the overarching social structure of the United States, white people are born with social advantage. The question, then, becomes one of how white Americans treat this advantage when they record hip hop music, where artists draw credibility from social disadvantage. In the early 1990s hip hop, Vanilla Ice tried to conceal his white privilege and YBT claimed a cultural blackness that set them at a disadvantage among whites.”
White privilege exists in Western society as a whole, but it is not something that was understood on a national level until fairly recently. Since the 1990s, the post-Vanilla age, “subsequent white artists have confronted and redefined their whiteness in different ways.”
Eminem Flipped It
“Eminem inverted the narratives of black artists to show whiteness hindering his acceptance as a rapper. At the same time, he addresses the marketability of his whiteness as a privilege he would not have if he were black.”
He carefully constructed his right to perform hip-hop by showing that he was indeed a part of the culture and that he respected the art.
He anticipated a hostile reception to his race in his lyrics. And like the Beastie Boys or 3rd Bass, he immersed himself into hip hop culture, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. However, he also called attention to his whiteness as a sticking point to people who would criticize him for it. You can even see this in the film 8 Mile, when he counter-attacks by beating his opponent to the punch with some self deprecating humour. Conversely, he acknowledged how his race helped him sell more records. It was a delicate balance that he rode well.
“Eminem’s emphasis on his own whiteness makes his racial position a hardship that he continually must overcome in his rap career. Eminem inverts narratives of racial struggle as he asks listeners to accept that he has been discouraged against in the media, and by fans and fellow music artists.”
I have one more blog post about this book coming tomorrow. Stay tuned!