The American musician, singer and songwriter, Jimi Hendrix, who is venerated as the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music stated:
“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music”. [i]
This essay will focus on the American record producer, rapper and entrepreneur Andre Romelle Young, known by his stage name Dr. Dre.
This artist is recognized as a crucial figure in the propagation and subsequent commercialization of the West Coast G-funk, which is a sub-genre of hip hop music that emerged from Los Angeles and the American West Coast at the start of the 1990s decade. Through the body of work produced by this hip hop maestro something has changed in this world, for his and the ensuing generations. The aim of this essay is to illustrate how Dr Dre and NWA, via his and their discography, have been a catalyst for social change, defining medium for generations and a symbol to define individual meaning.
Dr. Dre has been consistently active in the music industry since 1984 to the present day. The period from 1986–91 was marked out by his membership of the American hip hop group Niggaz Wit Attitudes [N.W.A.], who are credited as the most important group in the history of rap music.[ii] They originated from Compton, California, which alongside southern Los Angeles County in general, has been tarnished for its dense cluster of gangs and gang violence. Further compounded by crime and a crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s; this is the backdrop in which the influence of NWA’s work must be understood and the black urban experience for the African American.
NWA were revolutionary in the use of explicit lyrics used to serve up social commentary that expressed the experiences and conditions of African Americans who were marginalized from mainstream society. These people, who were relegated to the outer edge of society were racially stereotyped, accused and condemned as a blemish on population as they struggled for survival in violent ghetto conditions where gangs and urban violence was endemic. The political landscape of the 1980s-1990s in the United States of America was one that was defined by the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior. These two Republican presidents were very much conservative in the policies they pursued. This resulted in a period of colossal hardship, in particular for Black Americans, as the US Government through social-spending cuts, other budget initiatives, and the taxation laws reduced the incomes of the very poorest, slashed welfare programs and disregarded the concerns of Blacks and the poor.[iii] This era saw a dramatic fall in the standard of living and employment opportunities, particularly for African Americans. The living conditions in the inner city ghettos worsened. Further adding to these problems was the increase in growing crime; drug use, in particular the devastating effects of crack cocaine; teen pregnancies; and sexually transmitted diseases. It is this social and cultural context from which rap music sprung in order to give
“voice to the voiceless, a form of protest to the oppressed, and a mode of alternative cultural style and identity to the marginalized”.[iv]
The revolution that was Hip Hop gained durability partly due to the low cost in production and ease of distribution. Importantly, black artists and producers controlled the means of production, which meant that the white mainstream musical industry could not contain and control this black art form. Thus the controversial lyrics of NWA, including “Fuck tha Police”, perhaps NWA’s most infamous song, from their debut album titled “Straight Outta Compton”, in 1988 could be communicated relatively free of censorship. Needless to say the establishment denied NWA’s music any airplay, yet conversely the media coverage compensated for this. The revolutionary and explicit lyrics questioned ideas and institutions that were deemed to be sacrosanct. And it was this very idea of questioning the social status quo, maintained by state institutions, that was the most salient factor of its mass appeal, not only in the US but globally. The disenfranchised, the poor, social outcasts and the down trodden now had decibels; they could articulate, they could communicate, via images, sounds, and attitude that defined Hip Hop what the experience of everyday life as a matter of sheer survival was all about.
NWA -Fuck Tha Police:
Hip Hop was not bound by geography. Council estates in UK cities, during the 80s decade, such as London, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool, were seen as areas with serious social and economic problems. The local African-Caribbean communities were suffering particularly high unemployment, poor housing, and a higher than average crime rate. The Hip Hop culture sang their language. In fact, Hip Hop spoke to all those who felt deeply alienated and rebellious. Not only did it cross geographical boundaries but also racial ones. Young suburban whites could also identify with the message transmitted from the black ghetto. It gave rise to “the wigger” subculture: whites who appropriated black culture.
The Hip hop genre of music has spawned a number of sub-types, which all include the domineering style of music production or rapping. Many ethnic groups have appropriated Hip Hop so permitting them to voice their respective messages that they want to communicate to a wider world. At the very heart of Hip Hop and NWA’s music was the idea that through music the goal of social betterment of black people could be achieved. Two decades later the driving force behind the Hip Hop culture is not the achievement of this noble objective but money. Amidst the continuing process of commercialization of the genre, the conditions that led to the creation of hip hop are still present in the urban cities of the United States. Worse is the fact that these conditions are now being simply caricaturised, glamorized and to a large extent ignored. Some commentators have stated that Hip Hop has now stopped being a culture and became an industry.
The strength of the West Coast G-funk and Hip Hop musical genre lay in the subculture that sprung forth. It encompassed style, fashion, and attitude, which defined a way of life, and still thrives to this day. One of the most important cultural outcomes Hip Hop has invoked is its ability to have bought much needed dialogue to issues effecting the Black American community in a manner that no other popular art form as managed to do. What is undeniable is that the betterment and the opposition to the exploitation and oppression of black inner-city youth may not have been fully achieved by Hip Hop, as defined by the music of Dr Dre and NWA, did in its own small way contribute to the swearing in of Barack Obama, who was once hailed as America’s first hip-hop president.[v] Sir Isaac Newton remarked in a letter to his rival Robert Hooke, in the 17th century, with regards to his work on optics that
“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.
Likewise President Obama, the first African American leader of the US, if he recognizes that he has reached the summit of US political offices with the help of others, must acknowledge Hip Hop as a Giants upon whose shoulders he has stood.
West Coast G-funk and Hip Hop is an idea and
“…the history of how we think and act is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives.”[vi]
“a weapon in battles to create a cultural basis for new nations, to transform alliances and identities within already existing states, and to unmask the power imbalances that give regions, languages, and ethnic groups very different relations to the state they supposedly all share”.[vii]
NWA and Dr. Dre in the late 1980s – early 1990s every much used this artistic form as a nuclear warhead.
The completion of this essay has been relatively easy in some respects. My passion for the music championed by the likes of Dr Dre and the late 1980 – early 1990s Hip Hop movement has helped me keep the motivation to complete the exercise. There is much that has been written in this area, the relationship between Hip Hop and the Black Urban experience, which is readily available via the Internet. The References below show the range of books, journals and newspaper articles on the subject domain. Internet searches did reveal a multitude of personal blogs and twitter feeds, many from ardent fans that have been following the 30 year journey that Hip Hop has been on. Although many of the views expressed were passionate I steered clear of these because I wanted to access sources that were academically credible. Dr. Dre continues to be a prolific producer and entrepreneur in the music industry it would have been interesting to have investigated his biography, post NWA to date, to see if he still personally believed and pursued the ideals he communicated so effectively on the “Straight Outta Compton” LP. I largely suspect that he, amongst other founding fathers of the genre have stopped contributing to the culture and have been giving to the industry.
I began the process of completing this essay by looking at other artists that could have been considered as vanguards of social change. The Sex Pistols were an example.
My provisional research findings on the punk band, from the late 1970s decade show that there is much similarity between them and the Hip Hop genre that I finally settled on as a choice. Both were reactionary. Both were of their time. Both inspired many sub genres to be spawned. Importantly both used the art that they produced to change a world that they saw as stagnant that failed to address the concerns of their generation. Both were a catalyst for social change, defining medium for generations and a symbol to define individual meaning. Perhaps the conclusion is that all good Art should not only be about the appreciation of the artist’s competency in producing an aesthetically pleasing work that is a gratification on the human senses but one that instigates social change, that challenges the status quo, that may be morally, politically and socially corrupt.
[i]Brainy Quote (2013) Jimi Hendrix, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/j/jimihendri195416.html#m0KTA8hJqcBTgPa3.99
[ii]White, M. (2011) From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press
[iii] Ferguson, T. and Rogers, J. (1986) Right Turn, New York: Will and Wang
[iv] Best, S. and Kellner, D. (1999) Rap, Black Rage, and Racial Difference, Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1999, available at: http://enculturation.gmu.edu/2_2/best-kellner.html
[v] Nielson, E. (2012) How hip-hop fell out of love with Obama, The Guardian, Thursday 23 August 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/aug/23/why-hip-hop-deserting-obama
[vi] Michaels, F.S. (2011) Monoculture, Red Clover Press
[vii] Lipsitz, G. (1994) Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, And The Poetics Of Place, London: Verso