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The teacher of my 6th grade music class insisted upon the following point: “Rap is not

music.” She outlined the necessary components of music and pointed out that rap was missing

harmony, melody, and euphony. Artistically speaking, rap was just “noise.” She then launched

into social commentary, illuminating for us the damaging aspects of rap that come about due to

its association with violence, drugs, sex, gangs, and guns. The larger society agreed with my

music teacher. In the late 80s, rap struggled with radio bans, censorship, and Hollywood

derision. Though this black musical genre has gained more respect since then, there continues to

be stanch resistance against it. For example, the slogan of a popular New York radio station is,

“We play today’s best music, without the rap.” The station would ask, “Tired of listening to

this?” Then it would play a sample of loud, boisterous rap so that its listeners can hear the noise

that from which they are being saved. While the radio station is willing to admit that rap is

music, it is considered bad music. My contention is that the persistent disparagement of rap is a

reaction to rap’s racial and radical character. An analysis of the rap group, Public Enemy, and

their song, “Night of the Living Baseheads,” illustrates the way in which artists utilize the form

of rap music to communicate a racially and politically-charged statement.

The negative reception of rap by the white American mainstream, as described above, is a

repeat of the reception of other genres of African-American music. For example, one criticism

against rap is that “anyone can do it” or make it up on the spot; rap music does not require the

skill or polish of other types of music. However, blues, a musical form that commands almost

universal respect today, started out as a “functional” music that was not sung professionally, but

by improvisation by workers in plantation fields. Thus, blues music, like rap, began with a

marked lack of “sophistication.”

When blues first appeared, whites described the music using the adjectives that are now

ascribed to rap: “raucous and uncultivated” (Jones, 30).1 They attributed the “basic ‘aberrant’

quality of a blues scale” to the incompetence of blues singers, to black people’s inability to sing

in tune (Jones, 25). Likewise, jazz, with its unconventional sounds occasionally even consisting
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Leroi Jones, Blues People, (New York: William Morrow, 1963).
of squeaks and screeches, was considered “noise” that came about due to the black performers’

insufficient instrumental training. It took years until mainstream America could accept blues and

jazz as “good music.”

Rap, like blues and jazz before it, distorts traditional European-American musical forms.

Using advanced synthesizer technology, rap artists distort voices and instruments and produce

new sounds never before used in music. The technique of “scratching,” in which a phonograph

needle is dragged across records, produces a sound that was never meant to be produced by a

turntable, just as jazz artists used European instruments to utter sounds that they never meant to

make. The “hoarse, shrill” vocals of blues singers, the screeching of brass instruments in jazz,

and the distortion of voice and misuse of turntables all produce a sort of phonic dissonance and

discordance, a cacophonous chaos that is so opposed to the Western aesthetic of regularity,

harmony, purity, and intonation.

For this reason, rap is irritating, annoying, and even unsettling to many Americans. Their

conscious disdain towards rap is, on some level, an unconscious resistance to the discourse on

race presented by the music. Rap music, just as it is a critique of the Western aesthetic, is also a

critique of the dominant Western culture. With many rap artists re-arranging samples from other

genres of music, from classical to rock, record stores of the 80s suffered great confusion over

which section of the music store they should place rap albums. Just as rap music deconstructed

the categorical orderliness of record stores, it destabilized the assumptions of American society.

Rap is a subversive musical form whose main emotions and themes consist of rage, alienation,

and despair. It arises from the fall-out of mainstream culture, and as such it challenges the

system and the authorities that regulate American society. Evidence for this conjecture can be

seen in the fact that policemen, while they have been the heroes of many mainstream American

movies, appear as some of the most frequent antagonists in rap music videos. During rap’s rise,

many Americans rightly intuited that rap is a threat to order.

Public Enemy, the band that ushered in the era of highly politicized black nationalist

gangster rap, can testify to the fear with which society reacted to them. For a 1988 concert in

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Providence, Rhode Island, the Boston arena refused to book a Public Enemy show, a decision

that was later applauded by the Boston Herald. The very name of the group, “Public Enemy,”

captures the antagonism between rap artists and the establishment. They see themselves in

conflict with the “public,” meaning the government, society, and nation in which they must live.

They call this country “Amerika,” again using distortion, this time syntactical, to utter a critique

on American society. By replacing the “c” with a “k,” in reference to the KKK, Public Enemy

makes the claim that America is a fundamentally racist society. The Public Enemy logo that

appears on all their albums is a silhouette of a young black man in the center of a rifle sight. The

vague silhouette illustrates American society’s generalization and de-individuation of black

people. The rifle sight indicates that the black man is targeted for elimination by the ills that

Public Enemy raps about: institutional poverty, drugs, insufficient education, legal inequality,

and police profiling and brutality. Correspondingly, Public Enemy also “targets” black males,

but their objective is empowerment rather than eradication.

Musically, Public Enemy, like other rap artists, place layer after layer of sounds and

rhythms on top of each other to resemble the dissonance produced by the complex, contradictory,

and multi-layered nature of black urban existence. They repeat this mix in a seemingly endless,

mechanized drudge in order to communicate the incessantly immutable and machine-like quality

of the surrounding society. In the midst of this bewildering confusion of fragmented sounds is

the over-arching and conquering voice of the rapper, who breaks through the sonic morass with

bold, prophetic exclamations and rhymes, asserting a sort of control and confidence over the

turmoil of the background mix.

Public Enemy’s song, “Night of the Living Baseheads,” is an example of the social

commentary and activism that the group undertakes. It begins with a sample from a Malcolm X

speech. This excerpt is an epitaph for the rest of the song. It comes prior to the beginning of the

song, just as a literary epitaph is placed before the book’s beginning, and Malcolm X’s voice is

lower in volume than the rest of the song, just as a literary epitaph appears in a smaller font than

the rest of the text. Because epitaphs are often religious or drawn from the words of a revered

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figure, Public Enemy is upholding Malcolm X as the black people’s prophet and martyr. It is

significant that Public Enemy chooses Malcolm X, instead of someone like Martin Luther King

Jr., thus clearly marking itself as a descendent of the more militant movement of black

nationalism. While Martin Luther King Jr. is an American hero, with an institutionalized

national holiday for him, Malcolm X remains a controversial, and sometimes reviled, figure.

Controversy, rather than standard Americanness, is the quality for which Public Enemy strives.

In the epitaph, Malcolm X says, “Have you forgotten, that once we were brought here, we

were robbed of our name, robbed of our language, we lost our religion, our culture, our god.

And many of us by the way we act, we even lost our mind.” He laments the fact that, after

whites had already wreaked havoc upon the African-American soul, blacks further hurt

themselves with self-destructive behavior. Public Enemy is saying that black youths have “lost

[their] mind” to drugs, and thus are driving themselves lower and lower. The question “How low

can you go?” is sampled and repeated during the song, asking black America how much more

they can possibly harm themselves after a legacy of oppression has already forced them into such

a dire situation. Time and again, the song expresses frustration over the ever-increasing depths

of the black community’s constant self-destruction, in which black people are destroying black

people: “Another kilo / From a corner from a brother to keep another - / Below.”

The song’s name, “Night of the Living Baseheads” is a play on the popular horror film,

“Night of the Living Dead.” “Basehead” is slang for addicts of freebase cocaine. Public Enemy

equates baseheads with the living dead and portrays the drug situation of black America as a

virtual nightmare. The song describes the addicts with horror-film imagery: “some shrivel to

bone / Like comatose walkin’ around.” Just as demons possess the living dead, drugs possess

black youth.

Public Enemy plays upon the word, “baseheads,” with a homonym, “bassheads.” The

song wants to replace “base” with “bass,” to repossess black youth using rap music. Several

lines of lyrics describe drugs, and then the rapper says, “Please don’t confuse this [the drugs]

with the sound / I’m talking about… BASS.” Public Enemy also plays upon the word “dope.”

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The song goes, “This is the dope jam / But lets define the term called dope / And you think it

mean funky now, no.” Initially, Public Enemy uses the word positively, calling their song, “the

dope jam.” In this case, “dope” means “cool,” as well as “information from a reliable source.”

But subsequently Public Enemy refers to “dope” under its other definition, as harmful narcotics.

The tension of the entire song revolves around the double-meanings of base/bass and dope. The

song asks us to make a distinction between base and dope, the drug, as opposed to the bass beat

and the dope jam, the music.

Thus rap music is meant to supplant drugs to reinvigorate the life and soul of black

America. Public Enemy wants their music to supply the black language, religion, and culture

whose loss was bemoaned by Malcolm X. Public Enemy urges the black community to “Stop

illin’ and killin’ / Stop grillin’,” to escape the vicious cycle of drugs. In the song, a background

loop of a two-note tenor horn that constantly and uniformly punctuates the song represents this

cycle in rhythmical form. The rapper says, “Day to day they say no other way.” From day to

day, addicts repeat their errors in seemingly endless succession.

Public Enemy, however, affirms that there is salvation. Each period of straight rapping is

followed by the redemptive beat, a syncopated stutter of “BASS.” Throughout the “BASS”

segments of the song, the rapper inserts words of encouragement like “c’mon,” “yeah,” and

“alright” as the music takes over and liberates the addict. After each “BASS” segment the

realization of the addict’s liberation is represented by an interlude in which the original

background loop falls silent as a completely new background rhythm takes its place. The

rhythmic replacement that follows after each “BASS” segment represents the way in which

Public Enemy envisions that its music can break the incessant cycle of social afflictions and fill

the role that drugs presently occupy in black life. During the interludes, the rapper also inserts,

“We’re gonna get down now,” thus giving the previously examined phrase, “How low can you

go,” a second meaning. “How low can you go” is not only a lament over the black community’s

ever-deepening drug problems, but is also a reference dancing and singing more fervently. Once

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again, a double-meaning captures the tension and conflict between black youth’s social

afflictions and Public Enemy’s redemptive music.

Groups like Public Enemy represent rap artists that have attained a mastery over using

rap as social commentary, political device, and art. The critical and distortionary nature of rap

that fuels the political radicalism of Public Enemy and other gangster rappers produced a harsh

reaction in America. Americans resisted rap as social critique and as music. However, given the

eventual acceptance of blues and jazz, this most recent black musical genre may continue to gain

admirers not only among youth, but also among more conservative elements of society.

Eventually, we may even become familiar with genteel middle-aged folk situated a posh café,

sipping cocktails and listening to rap.

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Public Enemy’s logo

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Public Enemy makes liberal use of the technique of sampling, often using clips of CNN reports

in their songs. By mixing the clip with the harshness of the background rhythm and surrounding

it with critical lyrics, Public Enemy defamliarizes the listener’s perception of the CNN report,

thus revealing the absurdity, irrelevancy, and prejudice of the mainstream media and information

industries in the midst of African-American angst and anger. Public Enemy says that “rap is the

black CNN,” thus rejecting mainstream media and taking up the mantle of distributing

information to black Americans themselves.

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Social conditions had always been intricately connected to black music (Marxist cultural assumption)
in fact, the formalist idea of “Arte pour le arte,” in an American context, is implicitly rascist as it effectively negates all African-
American art

The Music of Black Americans


Eileen Southern
WW Norton & Company
New York
1997

direct heir of R&B, soul, and funk


sound altered by "the use of advanced synthesizer technology and the absorption of unconvetional musical and literary elements."
dj's "began using two turntables at teh same time sot aht with the assistance of a sound mixer, they could lift fragments or
passages of the music from one record and insert them into another. to this mix they added a pre-recorded rhythm track, taken
fromt he orignal record or another one; then, as the record was spinning, the disc jockey recited improvesed verses over the sound
of the music. This "sampling" and mixing becaue essential features of the disc jockey's performance, as did the technique known
as "scatching" permitting the disc jockey to exploit a wide variety of sounds."
gangsta rap associated with violence, drugs, sex, gangs, and guns
“Layer after layer of sounds are placed on top of each other” “repeated over and over again like an unattended machine gone
beserk. It’s the sound of urban alienation, where silence doesn’t exist and sensory stimulation is oppressive and predatory. But
Public Enemy has conquered it… Through the mess comes the redemptive beat… And in the midst of a sonic jungle, there’s
order. As if trying to complete a history of sound, the tracks have elements lifted from Public Enemy’s own earlier songs,
reminding listeners that the group itself is not only part of a tradition but has a history of its own.” (601-602)
embracing chaos and dissonance

the Public Enemy logo is “a silhouette of a young black male in the center of a rifle sight”. “young black males are sighted for
elimination by way of police brutality, poor education, drug access, and trucated economic opportunities. It is a visualization of
police profiling and surveillance” conversely, PE also targets black males, but in an empowering rather than eliminating mission.

song was “Produced in the year and a half prior to the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Malcom X”

“Have you forgotten, that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name, robbed of our language, we lost our religioni,
our culture, our god. And many of us by the way we act, we even lost our mind.”
black youth have lost their minds to drugs. rap music wants to once again give blacks name, language, religion, culture.

Malcolm X excerpt like epitagh (religious significance). significance of Public Enemy as a descendent of Malcolm X and black
nationalism, not Martin Luther King Jr. Even now, Martin Luther King is an American hero while Malcolm X remains
controversial, reviled by many. And controversial is exactly what Public Enemy aims for. a spiritual force

“sharply punctuated by a syncopated two-note tenor horn sample that loops urgently and endlessly.” most of their songs
incessantly and impetuously punctured by a dissonant rhythm repitition in the background. the rhythm, beat, cadence, tempo,
flow is not as smooth.

rap associated with noise, violence, and sex. rap is meant to irritate, annoy, unsettle.

the cult horror film, “Night of the Living Dead”


baseheads equated with dead
“While some shrivel to bone
Like comatose walkin' around”
living dead were possessed, just as drug addicts possessed by drugs
“baseheads”; slang for addicts who smoke freebase cocaine
bassheads “is PE’s play on the powerful possessive capacity of the bass tones in balck music”

play on the word dope: dope can be a positive adjective, meaning “cool”. but it can also mean “drugs”.

“This is the dope jam


But lets define the term called dope
And you think it mean funky now, no”

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“Please don't confuse this with the sound
I'm talking about...BASS”

don’t confuse dope (positive word) with dope (drug)


don’t confuse base with bass
the double-meanings create the tension of the song

music to supplant drugs, music being the life and soul of black America instead of drugs

syncopated stutter of “BASS”

“BASS” part encouraged on by rapper with “c’mon” “yeah” “alright”, as the bass takes over, reconquers the addict

in late 80s, rap endured Hollywood mockery,radio bans, censorship


during a 1988 concert in Providence, R.I., the Boston arena refused to book a Public Enemy show. The arena’s decision was
applauded by the Boston Herald. fear of a large gathering of black youth.

“Rap is the black CNN”

critique of dominant culture


critique of Western aesthetic
black soul through white instruments/technology
resistance, rage, alienation, subversion, fall-out of mainstream culture, despair, reason and the system don’t work, f- authority,
discourse on race
WPLJ: we play today’s best music, without the rap and hip-hop (and they would use samples of boisterous rap songs), so
disparagement of rap still remains widespread among middle-aged white music listeners
PE was the first band to usher in politicized gangster rap

order, black music a threat to order

crime? gangsters?

Tricia Rose, Black Noise, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994

Blues People
“the basic ‘aberrant’ quality of a blues scale” (25)
“these deviations from the pitch familiar to concert music are not, of course, the reesult of an inability to sing or play in tune”
“the ‘hoarse, shrill’ quality of… the blues singers, is thus attributed to their lack of proper vocal training” (29-30)
improvisation, “functional” music
“raucous and uncultivated” (30); the same adjectives can be used to describe rap
“While the whole European tradition strives for regularity- of pitch, of time, of timbre and of vibrato- the African tradition strives
precisely for the negation of these elements.” (31)
“The purity of tone that the European trumpet player desired was put aside by the Negro trumpeter for the more humanly
expressive sound of the voice. The brass sound came to the blues, but it was a brass sound hardly related to its European models.
The rough raw, sound the black man forced out of these European intruments was a sound he had cultivated in this country for
two hundred years.” (79)

black music is deconstructive, it breaks down the assumptions that there is a “right” way to use European instruments, a “right”
way to sing. it breaks down assumptions of what defines music

rage against the machine is the new subversive art form

criticism of reagonomics, hypocrisy; white people also use cocaine

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