Hip-hop, the High Life, and the Big House

On Friday night I decided to hermit myself in my room and watch the documentary Planet Rock: The Story of Hip-Hop and the Crack Generation. The documentary examines the connection between the rise of crack cocaine in urban environments and the burgeoning genre of hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. The creation and widespread selling of crack cocaine allowed for many early hip-hop artists to get their start and similarly, as the hip-hop market grew bigger into the 1990s, the use of crack cocaine slowed down.

As a self-proclaimed hip-hop connoisseur and historian, the linkage between drugs, prison, and hip-hop are abundantly clear. Even so, I really enjoyed the documentary because it connects hip-hop with a lot of what we have talked about in class, included great personal stories and experience, and like any great hip-hop documentary, was narrated by Ice-T. However, before diving into this blog post, I believe that it is important to make the disclaimer and clarify that my discussion of hip-hop is largely dealing with African American communities. While hip-hop has reached across many racial, gender, and class boundaries, the origins of hip-hop rests mainly in black urban communities. Similarly, the documentary focuses on black hip-hop artists and black urban centers.

When put into conversation with the readings, Planet Rock best connects with Loic Wacquant’s, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh.” Wacquant details the increasing ghettoization of prisons and the imprisonment of ghettos, which I think also relates to the creation and expansion of hip-hop. More than most genres, hip-hop is a story teller’s genre. It manifested with story tellers from the boroughs of New York City detailing their lives and struggles of their environment. One of the earliest examples of this is Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” Hip-hop eventually spread to the West Coast, namely Los Angeles, where similar struggles were expressed through the music. The earliest hip-hop artists coming out of “ghettoes” in New York City and Los Angeles used their music to give accounts of drug use and abuse, violence, and incarceration.

In 1986, as a result of the pervasion of crack cocaine in ghettoes throughout the country, President Ronald Reagan declared a tightening down on the War on Drugs started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. The documentary pays great attention to the subsequent efforts of the government to crack down on drug usage and the effect that had on urban black communities. As the war on drugs intensified, more militant messages in hip-hop developed resulting in the creation of a sub-genre of hip-hop, gangster rap. Gangster rap developed as greater divisions within black and Hispanic communities caused often violent strife between rival gangs. The intensification of law enforcement’s role in lower income black neighborhoods and the ensuing crack down on drug users and dealers is a common theme in many older hip-hop songs. One prime example is KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police.” The increasing employment of law enforcement in minority communities is not only a common theme in hip-hop, but also an example of the imprisonment of ghettoes, as argued by Wacquant.

Both Wacquant and Planet Rock examine the militarization of the ghetto by law enforcement. For instance, the documentary pays particular attention to the use of battering rams in L.A. in order to raid drug houses. Similarly, Wacquant details the need for armed guards in public spaces like public housing and public schools. I thought the discussion on public schools was especially interesting because Wacquant talked about rather than trying to better students with a good education, public schools in ghettoes have become a place where students are just held to be kept out of trouble, like prisoners in a prison.

The other side of the Wacquant’s article looks at the ghettoization of prisons. The changing nature of the prison system is reflective of the major overcrowding in prisons and the overrepresentation of black inmates. The changing structure of prison has resulted in gang rivalries and violence within prisons. Wacquant talks about five characteristics that make prisons more like ghettoes, but I believe three highlight the greatest similarities: the racial division of everything, the transformation of the “convict code” to the “code of the streets,” and the purging of the undesirables.

This side of Wacquant’s argument relates to the expansion of hip-hop for several reasons. The birth of gangster rap and the increasing militancy within hip-hop glorified violence at a time when gang violence in ghettoes was at an all time high. Similar to gang loyalty and the “code of the streets” was the advent of the West Coast- East Coast hip-hop rivalry. Emcees and hip-hop fans were pitted against one another based on geographic location or turfs. This rivalry saw the deaths of many hip-hop staples, most notable Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

The connection between hip-hop, prison, and the ghetto has been well documented in the last thirty years. However, I think that using Wacquant’s essay on the prison and ghetto to look at the history and expansion of hip-hop offers a new perspective. Planet Rock and my love of hip-hop led me to write this blog, but I also believe that growing up in California has made me keenly aware of the overcrowding and the unfair overrepresentation of African Americans in prisons. Just some interesting food for thought to end my post, California spends billions of dollars on its prisons and significantly less on public schools. Long live hip-hop!


One thought on “Hip-hop, the High Life, and the Big House

  1. Having watched this documentary as well, I agree with what you are saying Alex. The documentary does a great job of linking hip-hop music to depict the struggles surrounding life within the black community. I think your connection to Wacquant’s article is extremely valid and prevalent and relates to a lot of the violence happening today in many cities around the United Sates. I think too, the theme of violence, in particular gang violence, and law enforcement relates to Jim Petro’s comment: “justice is not blind.” I took this to mean that while law enforcement is created for protection and to bring forth justice, it is often times biased. Furthermore, the statistics on incarceration rates and criminal backgrounds shared with us from Petros supports this claim in regards to the continued criminalization of drug possession. The documentary articulates how it was easy to turn to becoming a drug dealer because it was such a quick way to make money in an environment where opportunity was minimal; therefore the imprisonment for the violators of drug dealers is another form of racism.

    And of course, who doesn’t love a documentary narrated by Ice-T?


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