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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality'

Eric Harvey's 'Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality.'
Eric Harvey's 'Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

October 14, 2021

The title phrase of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" has been repurposed so many times that most people probably couldn't say what the original 1970 proto-rap was about. As Eric Harvey points out in his new "History of Rap and Reality," Who Got the Camera?, Scott-Heron was reacting by a TV news report about a demonstration that cut directly to an ad for breakfast cereal. With their commercial imperatives, Scott-Heron was saying, mass media could never be counted on to provide the education that was necessary to fuel true change.

Half a century later, that's still a point of debate — but media have changed a lot since 1970, and the rap artists influenced by Scott-Heron have been at the center of a connection between the street and the airwaves. Who Got the Camera? draws a line from Scott-Heron to Kendrick Lamar — and focuses particularly on the era from the late '80s to the mid-1990s, from Straight Outta Compton (1988) to the 1997 death of the Notorious B.I.G.

As Harvey notes, Run-D.M.C.'s mid-1980s ascent to pop stardom was a breakout moment for hip-hop, but their marriage of what artists often argued should be called "reality rap" with party-friendly beats was never an easy fit; in coming years, artists would push the envelope in either direction. On the pop side, rappers like Tone-Loc, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice (whose largely fictionalized street cred horrified hip-hop heads who feared it would become the genre's norm) topped the charts with addictive hooks and silly rhymes; on the street side, N.W.A. and Public Enemy unleashed a torrent of confrontational truth-telling. By the middle of the decade, artists like Biggie, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, and Ice-T had become massively popular among listeners of all races.

Harvey, who is white, opens the book by quoting Ice Cube, who told bell hooks in 1993 that "I do records for Black kids, and white kids are basically eavesdropping on my records. But [...] white kids need to hear what we got to say about them and their forefathers and uncles and everybody that's done us wrong. And the only way they're goin' to hear it uncut and uncensored is rap music."

The author goes on to observe that in Cube's heyday, rap became a kind of counterprogramming to the rise of reality TV. While we now often associate the term "reality TV" with staged game shows and dating shows, the early '90s saw the rise of shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted: programs for which the term "copaganda" was coined. Those shows invited white viewers to identify with the largely white police who were very typically seen patrolling heavily BIPOC communities, presenting themselves as the last line of defense against chaos and disorder.

Ice Cube and Ice-T (but not Vanilla Ice) saw it somewhat differently. Albums like Straight Outta Compton and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted told stories of communities where the police represented true lawlessness, terrorizing Black residents with an all-too-accurate sense of invulnerability. As Harvey notes, the very street gangs so widely derided by the era's politicians evolved from Black Americans' efforts to bind together during the mid-century Second Great Migration to fend off assaults by the white street gangs already existing in the northern cities where they moved to escape the even more dangerous southern U.S.

Like Harvey, I was one of those white eavesdroppers — although I didn't listen as closely as I should have, in part because I'd been scared off by white gatekeepers and in part because I simply didn't know what to make of an artist like Ice-T. Was he really a "gangsta"?

As Harvey suggests, sympathetic listeners who compared reality rap to white crime sagas like the movies of Martin Scorsese were missing the point. While reality rap was entertaining and stylized, it was also highlighting the brutal inequities of structural racism. I didn't hear as much about that as I should have, but like millions of white kids, I did hear. When I bought a KRS-One CD after he guested on R.E.M.’s Out of Time, I heard songs like "Sound of da Police," saying things I wasn't going to hear from Michael Stipe.

The era's reality rap was also rife with misogyny and other problematic aspects. Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," an iconic song and a clarion call for radio stations to amplify Black voices, name-drops Louis Farrakhan, who's been condemned for anti-Semitism and homophobia. Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew wasn't wrong when he said that much of the backlash to his group was fueled by fear of Black men being frankly sexual, but it's also true that the group's lyrics often objectified and degraded women.

Who Got the Camera? is an important history of an incredibly important and complex point in American popular music, but it also points to the need to elevate Black women's voices in a discussion where they've too rarely been given platforms. Harvey cites a 1991 essay referencing 2 Live Crew by Black feminist writer Kimberlé Crenshaw. "I wanted to stand together with the brothers against a racist attack, but I wanted to stand against a frightening explosion of violent imagery directed at women like me," wrote Crenshaw. "My sharp internal division is characteristic of my experience as a black woman living at the intersection of racial and sexual subordination."

(Credit is due to the University of Texas Press for including not just names but key concepts like intersectionality in this book's useful and accessible index.)

The book's title phrase, the title of a 1992 song by Ice-T, has taken on new meaning in the smartphone era. All of us are now potentially George Holliday, who filmed the beating of Rodney King in 1991; in 2020, Darnella Frazier became that person when she recorded the police murder of George Floyd. Harvey tracks the career of Kendrick Lamar, officially knighted (by the Doggfather himself) successor of N.W.A. and West Coast reality rap; the book's unwritten next chapter might track the Soundcloud rappers who aren't waiting around for a Suge Knight, a Puff Daddy, or a Rick Rubin to give them a shot at success. They're sharing their own truths, on their own terms.

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Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

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