Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who has the power?

The Relevant Song and Lyrics

Here's the relevant song, "The Tower," played over some pictures. Lyrics are listed without voice-overs, followed by analysis.

I'm rollin' up in a big grey bus
And I'm shackled down myself that's who I trust
The minute I arrived some sucker got hit
Shanked ten times behind some bullshit
Word in the pen the fool was a snitch
So without hesitatin' I made a weapon quick
Found a sharp piece of metal taped it to a stick
Then a bullhorn sound that means it's time for chow
My first prison meal the whole feeling was foul
It wasn't quite my style but my stomach growled
So I washed the shit down and hit the weight pile
The brothers was swole the attitudes was cold
I felt the tension on the yard from the young and the old
But I'm a warrior
I got my ground to hold
So I studied the inmates to see who had the power
The whites, the blacks or just the gun tower

In a blink of an eye, a riot broke out
Blacks put their backs to the wall
'Cause it was north and south
A gunman shouts and everybody had doubts
Until the bullets started flyin' took two men out
Then they rushed everybody back to their cells
Damn the pen is different from than the county jail
I'm in a one man cell I know my life's on a scale
I wonder if that gunman is goin' to hell
This is my second day I got a ten year stay
I learned my first lesson in the pen you don't play
I seen a brother kill another 'cause he said he was gay
But that's the way it is it's been that way for years
When his body hit the ground I heard a couple of cheers
It kind of hurt me inside that they were glad he died
And I ask myself just who had the power?
The whites, the blacks or just the gun tower

You see the whites got a thing the call white pride
The Blacks got the muscle Mexicans got the knives
You better be wise you wanna stay alive
Go toe to toe with the sucka no matter what size
A fool tried to sweat me actin' like he was hard
I stuck him twice in the neck and left him dead on the yard
It was smooth how I did it 'cause nobody could see
With my jacket on my arm and my knife on the side of me
Bam bam, it was over another fool bites the dust
I went crazy in the pen with nobody to trust
I'm benchin' ten quarters, so I'm hard to sweat
Used a tat gun, and engraved my set
They call me a lifer 'cause I'm good as dead
I live in the hole, so the floor's my bed
And I ask myself again who has the power
The whites, the blacks or just the gun tower

"The Tower," Ice T. From O.G. Original Gangster (1991).

The Relevant Artistic/Art-Historical Commentary

Rap began with a minimalist style, where actual poor people with actual hard lives, no good school-band or music teachers, and no instruments, would resort to the cheapest, most readily-available technique for artistic expression: the voice. Needs no equipment. Like the development of certain forms of White Crane Kung Fu, various Okinawan versions of te, and the more modern karate, rap grew within the boundaries of lack-of-equipment or limitations-of-equipment, and was initially defined by it.

The 21st century west, and western-inspired producers worldwide, have presided over almost the utter destruction of group-singing. Artists sing to their own backup and/or synthesized vocals, lip-sync live performances, and headline acts on their own, overshadowing nameless bands. One of the delights of American hip hop was the substitution of other peoples' voices for instruments that were not available--which could be linked to slave ballads--and the requirement that a soloist have a good voice, because she or he would not be able to rely on recording studio amplification and doubling. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony continues to more popularly exemplify the group aspect, and Ice T is a quality example of the soloist, with a percussionist's vocal delivery and a mastery of natural timing, developed before the recording studio became a pervasive industry crutch.

His artistic perspective is also increasingly differentiated from the industry. American rap developed as mentioned before--a way of sharing music in low-money, low-instrument-access environments. With a little bit of popularity, it gained a smidgen of cultural acceptance as a "party" art form, where artists would rap about dancing, clubbing, and getting together.

In its own way, this could be likened to a betrayal, because carefree "party music," set to frequently corporate-synthesized beats, and used to create a hip atmosphere in establishment facilities, was the very opposite of the thing that had created rap. Nonetheless, it was done genuinely, and fairly, sometimes.

Gangsta rap was a form of truth and purity, speaking to the realities that had birthed rap. Accordingly, it was vilified and rejected by elite culture. Prissy men and academics of all stripes would fuss about how disrespectful it was to acknowledge the existence of desperately poor people trying to deal drugs, kill others, form protection rackets, use non-politically-correct speech, or work in the sex trade. As Ice T put it regarding the resistance to his early lyrics, "Who would tell it how it really was? Who dared?"

Enough attention, though, soon made gangsta rap profitable. The vultures moved in, and during the process of devouring the art form, some truly great snippets of the American ghettos spilled through. Legions of small time rappers were killed in ways almost no one heard or cared about, and many famous faces who wouldn't sell out were killed in mysterious ways by gunmen completely unconnected to the trend of America's history of wacky, random political assassinations, or occasionally, by tragic medical accidents that were completely unforeseen. Ice T, and a few others, were wise enough to extrapolate what they'd learned from small-time crime to big-time, see what elites had waiting for them on the other side, and take steps to protect themselves.

Original Nerd provides an overview of the elite co-option of many social resistance movements. In more detail, the way this played out in rap (besides the elimination of prominent artists) was, the original dancers and gangstas made money, and once they were enjoying their lives, they continued to rap honestly: now, instead of shootings and deals, they talked about expensive homes, cars, and women.

The unfortunate side effect of this--and the one that elites had counted on from the beginning--was that, a few years after the first gangsta rappers had been bought out, rap changed. Now, having purchased the image of ghetto legitimacy from the OGs, and paired that with treasure, IP houses were able to begin taking any personable artist, surrounding him with Cadillac Escalades and professional dancers, order beats and harmonies from thousands of software engineering branches, and produce the preferred product image--without having to worry about so very many of the ghetto children themselves. When rich kids like Puff Daddy started getting into the scene, they couldn't even write their own lyrics, so old-timers or studio writers were conscripted to handle that aspect of things. It wasn't until the faux-surprise of Eminem, when white poverty was allowed out of the box a little, that new rap enjoyed a brief resurgence of addressing topics like urban wreckage, violence, and shattered lives.

Sardonic Excess Becomes Actual Excess

The message of rap was originally political. It was genuinely subversive, challenging the financial structures of domestic society and war, the manipulation of public opinion, and showcasing the much-concealed horrors of urban poverty, often likened--quite fairly--to slavery, fascism, and the police state. The greed required for thriving under unfair capitalism, and that greed's connection to escape from the ghetto, was made obvious. Just like many Americans love to hate George W. Bush because he exposed the unintelligent callousness of foreign policy, Americans loved to hate gangsta rappers for portraying reality honestly. The realest (sic) rap got taken out once it started to hit too close to home, like so many replacements of John Lennon with JK Rowling, and Martin Luther King, Jr. with Barack Obama.

The real brilliance of the job was not in fooling the listening public, which is to be expected, but in fooling many of the artists themselves: having come to associate rap history with the later, wealthier albums of older artists, newer ones felt that they were continuing a tradition by producing "empowering" work about having money, having women, and having Cadillac Escalades. And they were carrying on an American tradition, but one of having been bought out for trinkets. They missed the vital point, namely that when the first set of successful rappers bragged about the stuff they had acquired, they were engaging in morbidly mimesistic dramaturgical deconstructions of late-stage capitalism.

The latter sentence serves two purposes. Firstly, it reminds us of the horror of academic prose, and to a good end: in the early 1990s, when gangsta rap was starting to break the cultural walls of ghetto silence, middle-class academics and media figures were so frothing at the mouth about rap's purported "sexism" that they wasted around a decade criticizing black men for being sexist, while continuing to completely miss the subversively genuine dialogue gangsta rappers were trying to have with the nation beyond the walls. Secondly, latinate aside, the concluding sentence to the last paragraph reminds us of the best critique available of capitalism: the deliberate wallowing in piles of cash. Ridiculous dramatic figures, such as The Simpsons' C. Montgomery Burns, portray the the truth about late-stage capitalism, specifically, bitter, loveless old men sitting on piles of purposeless money.

A thousand academic Marxists at a thousand conferences, and a thousand Women's Studies Teaching Assistants across the hallway of the same Marriott (but in a different conference room), would still fail to produce an analysis of late twentieth century class and gender relations as poignant as many early gangsta rappers' descriptions of interacting with shameless, desperate, or conniving prostitutes, or of having women fawn over their newly-purchased Ferrari Testarossas. Missed for so many years by so many excessively educated ivory towerists was that the renditions were done to ape the success the academy, and its culture, were supporting. Mocking the greed, the self-slavery, and the dehumanization of American society, by portraying its logical extreme--selling yourself to crime, local politics, or a record company for survival; or, alternately, wallowing amidst obscene wealth in a poverty-stricken land--was such a powerful critique that it had to be crushed.

Women, for example, were portrayed as slavishly interested in wealth as a challenge to society: look what you are doing to your daughters. Despite what so many sexually-repressed white male feminists wanted desperately to believe, those black women didn't need rescuing from gangsta rappers. Rappers and dancers would intentionally portray the sad roles society had forced on them, that of exploited exploiters trying to exploit other exploited exploiters, through sex or power. They were quite cognizant of what they were doing, and did not need the academic lectures. As Ice Cube said in his brilliant "When Will They Shoot" from 1992's The Predator: "A black woman is my manager, not in the kitchen; So could you please stop bitchin'?"

The Tower

...which brings us back to "The Tower," and Ice T. Why this song? Because it expressed, in an efficient number of words, and with a deep metaphor, the falsity of managed American race relations, and well-exposed the essential nature of the society from which it emerged. The racial aspect of the Come Together series, and the playing of group against group, is conveyed masterfully here. Consider the lyrical refrain "I studied the inmates to see who had the power; The whites, the blacks or just the gun tower." Obviously, in prison, the gun tower has the real power, right? Not so obviously, though, in 1990s western societies, which were busy romancing each other with politically-correct speech. Missing the forest for the trees, as it were. No matter what congenial arrangements the prisoners of different assumed racial groups come to inside the prison, none of them result in any meaningful change, other than the destruction of the prison.

The Tower kills rioting prisoners, keeping them in control, and it is the horror of the prison structure itself which creates the need for inmates' racialist attitudes and banding. It is an incredible rap not only for its commentary on the prison system, but for the comparisons to society as a whole. That easily, in that few words, that far ago, Ice T conveyed the same message as MLK, and of everyone else who's ever figured out both the initial stupidity of genuine racism, as well as the indescribable privilege and blindness of those who spend generations trying to ascribe racism to actual racial features and skin color, rather than the nature of the prison societies and gun towers that govern human interaction.

At an even higher level of analysis, consider how far he goes in the refinement of his criticism vis-à-vis "political radicalism." Unlike almost all radicals (even ones who have spent 2008-2013 understanding Obama), Ice T doesn't angrily blame white people, male people, tragically-failed black people, American people, "the gunman," or the guards themselves. He wonders if the gunman is going to hell, but doesn't tell us the gunman's race, or condemn the gunman. His critique is focused on the structure. So, he doesn't fall into the trap of blaming the desperate soldiers (or prison guards, as you prefer) who are driven into being the ones to take the shots. The prison warden, the boards of the corporations and states that run the prisons, and the investors and ordinary citizens who quietly acquiesce to the prison: these are never mentioned, on purpose, because the rap guides you to the real conclusion, rather than rubbing an easier target in your face.

Who has the power? If you're able to ask that question, you can better appreciate the waste of, and the outsider's silliness in, focusing on inmate characteristics once you're already under the eyes of the tower.


  1. Thanks for this.

  2. Rap has been turned on its head, epitomized by Pit Bull peddling Bud Lights with Don't Stop the Party playing in the background.

    Perhaps I'm just too far away from what's happening, but in my view music in general has been going through a creative dry spell.

    My thought is that the dry spell has more to do with the dumbed-down audience, preoccupied as it is with smart phones and Facebook.

    Another related thought is that the apparent lack of creative force in music reflects how atomized we've become; there's no need for musical expression if there's no community to share it with.