A Bad Rap - HistoryofPopularMusic

A Bad Rap
Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History,
George Mason University
TLC's "No Scrubs" delivers almost exactly the same message as "I
Don't Like no Cheap Man", written about a century earlier and sung by
the great blues artist Bessie Smith.
"I Don't Like No Cheap
TLC, "No Scrubs," 1999
Man," 1897
But a scrub is checkin' me
I don't like no cheap man
But his game is kinda weak
Dat spends his money on de
And I know that he cannot
'stallment plan;
approach me
... I hate to be done
Cuz I'm lookin' like class and
In front of people that's
he's lookin' like trash
sittin' here too
Can't get wit' no deadbeat ass
You's a cheap man, and you
won't do!
It's true that all popular music tends to revolve around the same
themes--love, heartache, jealousy, pride. And all popular music tends
to also explore themes or experiences common to everyone's life-death, money, joy, violence, playfulness, melancholy, sexuality. But
African American musicians have had to make their music under an
unusual set of circumstances.
African Americans combined their various African traditions with
European musical forms to produce a distinctive, vibrant musical style.
Early on, as early as the American revolution, white audiences
recognized the distinctive qualities of African American music, and
began to imitate it.
The most disturbing form of this imitation developed in the 1830s, in
what became known as the "minstrel show." In the minstrel shows
white men dressed up as plantation slaves. Faces "blacked" with
greasepaint, they imitated African American musical and dance forms,
combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness
for, and interest in, African American culture.
As you can see, the images of minstrels were buffoonish and insulting.
But the music they sang, while most often written by whites, drew
directly on melodies African Americans sang. In this way, African
American music first entered into popular culture. Most of the classic
American songs of the 19th century, including Camptown Races, My
Old Kentucky Home, Way down upon the Swanee River, Dixie, and
virtually all songs by Stephen Foster, were written for the minstrel
show. By the Civil War the minstrel show had become world famous
and respectable.
The minstrel show usually made black Americans into grotesques. But
it's also clear that white Americans, then as now, were strongly drawn
towards the creativity and vibrancy of black culture. The minstrel show
allowed them to play out fantasies that ordinary life forbid, but it also
created a vast audience for African American culture--an audience
willing to pay for songs and performances. By the 1890s there were
many African American minstrel performers, all of whom had to "black
up" to make money. Not only did they wear the minstrel's black
greasepaint, they also had to sing songs and act in ways that
conformed to white people's prejudices.
Blackface minstrel shows continued well into the twentieth century.
The first "talking picture" the Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer (1927) was
a blackface film, and major white entertainers like Judy Garland,
Mickey Rooney and Bing Crosby all performed in blackface. At first,
actual African Americans were not allowed on the minstrel stage. But
by the end of the nineteenth century, as the minstrel show became
more respectable, African Americans began performing "in blackface"
as well. In the 1890s, some of the most important African American
composers got their start performing minstrel songs.
The bizarre minstrel show might be easier to understand in modern
terms. Think of white rappers like Eminem, or white rock musicians
who play blues-derived music. There are many white people who love
African American music but don't particularly like African Americans.
When they imitate black musicians, are they expressing admiration, or
are they just stealing? Are they sincerely trying to come to some
understanding of cultural difference, or are they just engaging in
minstrel parody without the make up?
Consider also that the largest audience for rap and hiphop music today
is white, just as, in 1890, the largest audience for sheet music and
music performance was white. MTV, when it shows music videos at all,
tends to show rap, especially hard edged rap that features an
emphasis on violence, hostility to women and flashy materialism.
Record companies, theaters, and stores—the distribution system that
publicizes music and gets it to the buyer's hands—are still
overwhelmingly owned and controlled by whites. Many critics have
pointed out a similarity between the minstrel show of the 1890s and
the rap music of the 1990s
Here are some comparisons of the 1890s with the 1990s
The music of both eras emphasized dialect and slang. Minstrel show
lyrics inevitably use odd abbreviations, truncated spellings, and
apostrophes to try to convey a sense of "authentic" African American
speech. Both styles of music used the word "nigger" frequently.
Minstrel show performers prospered in direct relation to how "real"
they seemed; "real" in the 1890s meant conforming to stereotypes of
laziness and violence. "Real" in the 1990s also meant conforming to
stereotypes of thuggish and criminality. In both eras, "real" meant
"outside of respectable society."
Sean "Puffy" Coombs, the most successful rap artist and producer of
the 1990s, effects a pose of urban thuggishness and "real"
authenticity. But Coombs attended private schools in suburban New
York, and in high school and college played on the football team and
showed a strong interest in entrepreneurship.
In other words, though he goes to great lengths to depict himself as a
dangerous character on the edges of respectable society, and writes
lyrics about crime, sudden wealth, magical attractiveness to women,
and threats of violence, his upbringing and career also conforms to
middle class notions of success and self making.
Similarly, Will Marion Cook was one of the most successful African
American composers and musical entrepreneurs of the late 19th
century. Classically trained, with aspirations towards respectability, he
made most of his money writing minstrel show tunes like Darktown is
Out Tonight, which included lyrics about "tough coons who want to
fight" and ended with "bring out your blazahs/fetch out your
razahs/Darktown is out tonight!." Like Coombs, Cook was both an
extremely talented musician and an extremely successful producer.
Like Coombs, he traded in depictions of African Americans as violence
prone, money obsessed, and thuggish.
These themes formed a staple in minstrel show depictions of African
Americans, as the example below suggests. White people delighted in
seeing African Americans as razor and gun-toting criminals who loved
to drink and spend money in showy ways.
The lyrics to this song describe the figure on the left as he "drawed a
razor from down his back; I aimed that gun an he gin' to squawk.
Another example, from I Don't Allow No Coon to Hurt My Feelings:
I'm going to knock that coon's teeth out and stop him from his
i'll shoot him in the feet and I guess that'll hold his walk
I've cleaned my revolver, honed my razor for the fight
I intend to give some nearbye undertaker work tonight
"Gangsta Rap" lyrics constantly make threats, especially to other
African American, as in this example, from Real Niggas by Puff Daddy
Now how you gon' act wit my nigga?
Just remember there's a gun to your dome
And I will lick shots and run through your home
Or better yet I put your son to the chrome
Turn the music up and unplug the phone
I will kill him, read my lips
You too, motherfucker if I don't see no bricks.
The two forms of music are clearly not the same—there are many
significant differences. However, there are also many similarities worth
No two eras are exactly the same, and there are many differences
between "gangsta" rap and the minstrel show of the 1890s. And of
course, rap music itself is a highly varied musical form, complex and
subtle, with many different varieties and strains.
But both "gangsta" rap and the minstrel show share a fixation with
money, and a sense of African Americans as money obsessed. This
song, Money, was published in 1908
What is it that talks but doesn't make a sound? Money, Money
You may be crazy, you may be lazy, but then you'd like to know
What is the reason, keeps you from freezin, out in the hail and
Money money money all the time...
money money money hear the people cry
you hear it when you're born and till you die
While one of the biggest hits of the late 1990s was Sean Coombs's It's
all About the Benjamin
It's all about the Benjamins, what?
I get a fifty pound bag of ooh for the mutts
Five carats on my hands wit the cuts
And swim in European figures
Fuck bein a broke nigga
Minstrel show tunes generally depicted African Americans as lacking
money, while modern gangsta rap lyrics often involve the rapper
boasting to his rivals about his wealth. In each case, African American
music tends to express values outside the mainstream middle class.
For both black and white Americans, middle class values include hard
work, honesty, dependability, thriftiness and self discipline. Both rap
music and the minstrel show depicted the opposite--easy money,
criminality, flashiness, undisciplined anger.