How America and hip-hop failed each other

From The Washington Post:

If you’re wondering why hip-hop has often been angry, sneering, nihilistic and dystopic, you can blame the war on drugs, and how it feels to be on the wrong side of it.

President Nixon announced a war on drugs, but it was President Reagan who started the modern battle in 1982, when hip-hop was in its infancy. This fight would not only shape the black community but also mold hip-hop, a music and culture whose undercurrent remains black male anger at a nation that declared young black men monsters and abandoned them, killing any chance they had at the American Dream.

As Nas rhymed on the recent song “Triple Beam Dreams”: “I would be Ivy League if America played fair.” Instead, he’s trapped in a virtual prison. “New York is like an island, a big Riker’s Island,” he says in another recent song, “The Don.”

In the early 1980s, most of the socially conscious hiphop records mentioned drugs as one of the many problems affecting black Americans, not the central one. When they did touch on drugs, they were almost always depicted negatively; doing drugs was a character failing, and the songs usually portrayed the speaker as a bystander trapped in a ghetto, observing it, not participating in its ills. They were like griots, storytellers. Take Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which begins: “Broken glass everywhere!” — a mirroring James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken window theory,” which holds that a building with broken windows invites serious crime because it signals neglect. The song offers a litany of societal ills, with drugs being just one of them.

Run-DMC’s 1983 hit “It’s Like That” follows that pattern, discussing inner-city troubles from a bystander’s perspective and focusing on economic woes, not drugs. “Unemployment at a record high,” Run begins, and he and DMC go on to rhyme about dropouts, homelessness and street violence, never overtly mentioning drugs.

Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” from 1983 is one of the few early hip-hop songs to deal directly with drugs. Mel focuses on cocaine rather than crack, which was not yet a major problem in American cities. Mel speaks in the first person and breaks the bystander norm, taking on the role of a user, although ultimately as an artistic device rather than truly implicating himself as later MCs would. And he uses the song to implore listeners to avoid cocaine — unlike so many future MCs who would try to make selling and using drugs look sexy.

Continue reading the rest of the story on The Washington Post