Rock critics get snooty about rap’s rise because try-hard suburban white boys mugging in the mirror, dreaming of a bitter life, have co-opted the pain of the urban black man. Trust-fund honkys in pick-ups, so the criticism goes, have no right to sing-along about biches, drive-bys and low-riders. It’s “appropriation”, don’t you know.
True enough, if you go in for that sort of thing, but that analysis misses the ‘hood for the tweeds. In the 1980s, black rap gave suburban white boys a safe space: finally, a pop-culture that mum, dad and their Peter Pan mates found intolerable. Public Enemy were one of the few Festival Hall gigs you didn’t have to worry about bumping into the biology teacher.
Back then, young shavers blaring U2, or if they listened to 3RRR, Nirvana, were likely to be ordered by their parents to turn it up. My middle-aged father broke his knee at a Gun ‘n’ Roses concert, and I recall baby-sitting while Fleetwood Mac/Bob Dylan/ Bruce Springsteen/ Dire Straits toured. Even as a 12-year-old I realised my parents were forking out for fag-end desultory world concerts barely different from colonial circus tours of yesteryear. It was a grim time for callow youths.
So, as a child of the children of the revolution –the lot who made a virtue of civil disinclination, got free education, generous government jobs, cheap housing and yet remain the most self-absorbed generation — I salute black rap as one of the few youth movements savvy enough to mystify Baby Boomers because it challenges their shibboleths.
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In 1990, when Malvern/Vaucluse boys cranked up any of the working-blue hip-hop acts, it meant banishment. Finally, something our bong-head parents couldn’t tolerate: music that was too black, too strong, too male, too sexist. Disaffected loose-pantsed boys from Strathfield to Strathmore, repeating delightfully nasty lyrics about women. Drugs celebrated as an experience, but also a business. The full pantheon of rude words — all of them — employed simply to be offensive. Gen X, wearied by a culture that well in to the 1990s was still claiming the Rolling Stones were cutting edge, finally pissed off their sagging parents.
And the muscular rap of the 1980s and 1990s is still giving today. Smug Gen Y hasn’t quite worked out whether rap is exploitative or the the roar of the oppressed, and they turn themselves inside out worrying about the misogyny. It makes for good viewing.
Corporate rock had a few early nibbles at mainstreaming rap with Blondie and Vanilla Ice, but it was mostly a suburban alt-culture and even meekly added to by Brooklyn schnooks, The Beastie Boys. But Hucksters knew the future wouldn’t be denied. Dr Dre – surely the most aggressive pop culture profiteer of the last quarter century — created Eminem, empowering every son of a suburban middle-manager to say it loud and proud: I’m a victim too.
Still, the moment was lost forever.
Because of this it is somewhat disconcerting to see the recent flagellation of those involved in blackface contoversies: a middle-aged white dressing up as Flavour Flav at his mate’s 45th ain’t no mocking: it’s the forgotten generation’s idolisation of heroes who baby boomers couldn’t capture.
Whatever Section 18C might say about bronzer in a bottle Ambre Solaire, it is altogether backwards that black pop-culture heroes, from Chuck D to Michael Jordan, can’t be lauded through dress-ups because of a blackface controversy from a century ago that has nothing go do with Zone 2 80s youth anyway.
PJ Murphy is a Melbourne journalist who doesn’t think his kids will ever deem him a boring old fart. In that he will find himself sadly mistaken