There is a story going around Facebook and Twitter like wildfire, an 8-paragraph anonymous letter under a picture of the late 1980’s hip hop group NWA (posted at the end of the article). The writer of the letter, claiming to be a former record executive, reveals the intimate details of a secret meeting in 1991 that changed the face of hip hop.
The short version is that this meeting consisted of about 30 of the most powerful record execs at the time, and then some unidentified serious dudes in suits. Everyone was made to sign Confidentiality Agreements, and then told that the big hitters in the room recently invested in the private-sector prison industry, and had a vested interest in filling those prisons. To ensure that business was good, they revealed a master plan to promote gangster rap, which would create gun violence, drug epidemics, and generally the breakdown of society among the African American population, and lead to unprecedented numbers of arrests and, therefore, filled prison cells. And profit.
It’s a neat, convenient, horrific story, and we are ravenous over internet-based conspiracy theories these days, but I don’t believe it.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying those mysterious, serious men in suits (I assume who were CIA or FBI), and those embedded in the nexus of power and ultra wealth in this country aren’t capable of such things, or have done worse. But this story has a lot of holes. Let’s take a look at it from a musical, and then a social perspective.
First off, the letter that this anonymous music exec wrote; he talks about the guilt he’s felt over the last twenty years for taking part in such a meeting, for steering rap towards the gangsta genre. But he was scared to talk about this meeting at the time because of the Confidentiality Agreement he signed, and even more so the repercussions he might face from the CIA or FBI (men in suits), who pulled guns at one point at the meeting. Now he’s decided to come forward, so he wrote this letter, excluded his name, and emailed this letter to a journalist.
He's left a lot of breadcrumbs for someone who wanted to remain anonymous. How hidden is his identity if he’s told is that he was one of 30 major decision makers in the music industry working for one of the big firms in 1991, who came over from Europe in the 1980’s, and quit in 1993? Ummm…that’s about as anonymous as a fat guy hiding behind a skinny tree. I’m sure anyone in the music business at that time could label this guy (if he exists) or any teenager with 15 minutes and Google could compile a short list.
And to speak to the fact that he was European. Europeans learn English in elementary and secondary school, where they are drilled in British English. Old habits die hard, which come out in their writing in subtle ways, like using ou instead of o in words like cataloug instead of catalog. I don’t see any signs that the person who wrote this letter was schooled in British English.
Granted, that might be a reach, and I’m just enjoying playing junior detective. We’re talking about a secret agenda to promote violence among the black community and fill prisons for profit (unfortunately, that part is very believable), so would they really trust a couple dozen outsiders to sit on this information with only a Confidentiality Agreement? A mere piece of paper? According to his account, a gun was drawn at the meeting, but there hasn’t been one single documented conversation, slip-up, or leak to the media about this in the ensuing 20+ years? Shaky, at best.
The story was supposedly emailed to someone named “Ivan” at the website Hip Hop is Read in 2012. I don’t know this person or this site and I’m sure they do a great job, but if you were a high-power music exec with a shaking confession that you’ve been holding on to for 20 years would you first go to….Hip Hop is Read.com? No offense to them, but I tend to believe an email to Rolling Stone, The Source, The LA Times, etc. would come to mind first. In fact, if you were in the industry that long you’d know just about every major music writer, and could disseminate this information with a lot more credibility, in a much less clumsy fashion, by picking up the phone and calling an old friend, off the record.
But let’s say that the Suits and the shady civilians who orchestrated the meetings wanted to promote gangster rap. All they needed to do was influence record company CEO’s in private, who then would create legitimate mandates within their own companies. They wouldn’t need to disclose their malfeasance to a room full of strangers, and take on exorbitant liability. The bad guys are sneakier than that.
Their logic fails in other regards. Supposedly they were going to promote gangsta rap in the music industry, which would grow like wildfire and create horrific societal problems and increased crime rates in the black community, and therefore fill their prisons. The only problem is that both of those conditions already existed in 1991, gansta rap and horrific societal problems in the inner cities and black communities.
This is where scrutiny of the music industry comes in:
I've been a hip hop head since 1986, and for those of us old schoolers, we know that the expression of political strife and inner city conditions was present in rap all the way back to KRS One with By All Means Necessary (RIP, Scott LaRock) in 1987, mirroring Malcolm X’s black power mantra.
Too Short was already firmly on the scene, and even if his music wasn’t political it definitely spouted the misogyny and anti-societal messages that later came to define the Gangsta Rap movement.
Ice-T was singing about killing cops, not playing one on NYPD Blue. His 1986 song “6 In The Morning” is often regarded as the first gangsta rap song, and it would be hard to argue.
Philadelphia’s Schooly D was rapping about shooting people and drug use four-albums deep by 1991, (I still love his song Saturday Night). I seem to remember Paris and Just-Ice and the Ghetto Boys as pretty damn hard.
Who can forget Public Enemy, perhaps my favorite hip hop group of all time, the first group to bring psychological warfare to your radio. They disseminated edu-tainment to the masses with scores of militant, pro-black songs like Fight the Power, Black Steel and the Hour of Chaos, Can’t Truss It and Who Stole the Soul on their albums It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, and Fear of a Black Planet. They were smart, angry, and talented, producing bass-shattering music that was a decade ahead of its time.
These pro-black, politically charged albums were more an outreach of the Black Panthers and Malcom X in the 1960’s and 70’s than they were the birth of gangsta rap. They expressed the ethos of revolution, musical speeches over beats that had everything to do with fists in the air at the 1968 Olympics and the teachings of Huey and Martin, not a gangsta lifestyle of alcohol and drugs, senseless violence, and turf wars.
So when did the Gangsta movement start? Someone who doesn’t know much about hip hop might say right around 1991, the time of this clandestine meeting. But all the way back in ’87 or ’88 NWA had taken hold as the first West Coast group that resonated on the east coast, (at least for me). But Niggaz Wit Attitudes was banned from most mainstream American radio stations, which goes against the theory that the music execs promoted them to fulfill their agenda.
Soon, NWA splintered as Doctor Dre and the DOC (who can forget “I am not illiterate no not even a little bit!” in It’s Funky Enough) left for Death Row Records, and an epic beef with Easy E ensued.
Let’s look at the charts back in those days to see what kind of rap groups were popping up, and if/when there is evidence of gangsta rap first taking hold in popular culture, to the outcome of creating societal problems and increasing incarcerations.
The anonymous internet story states, “As the months passed, rap music had definitely changed direction…gangster rap started dominating the airwaves. Only a few months had passed since the meeting but I suspect that the ideas presented that day had been successfully implemented.”
To test this, I did a search for top 100 Billboard singles for each year from 1989-1995, to track the mainstream rise of gangsta’ rap:
Ice Cube’s songs were definitely the hardest of that bunch so far, but I would argue that he was recounting the perils and pleasures of every day life in South Central LA, not going out of his way to promote his own personae as a violent gang-banger. The other songs were smoothed-out party ballads, even if they did intimately document inner city, West Side life.
Perhaps the G Funk era hit the charts before Gangsta Rap? This was two years after the alleged meeting in 1991, so surely record execs with that much influence could have already steered popular music in that direction. They were making money, for sure, but even those groups were considered incredibly risqué for the era. But I fail to see the rash of people joining the Crips and the Bloods and selling drugs and shooting each other because they listened to Nothing But a G Thang. Let’s keep looking at the charts:
The years and decades to follow brought us a lot of “studio gangstas,” but also a legitimization of gangsta rap thanks in part to Suge Knight at Death Row Records. But he definitely wasn’t part of the music establishment, and the only “investment” he had in prisons was money in his own commissary.
(Sorry Suge…I mean, Mr. Knight, I couldn’t resist. Please don’t fuck me up.)
I see no musical evidence of a shift toward mainstream gangsta rap in 1991 and 1992 spearheaded by the establishment.
So let’s look at this internet story through a societal lens.
For this account to have credibility, there would need to be a significant rise in incarceration rates, particularly among young African Americans, in the years following 1991.
Anyone who can follow a red line can see that the tsunami of increased incarcerations started 10 years earlier, and the 1990’s only followed the established (although disturbingly meteoric) trend of throwing our own citizens in prison.
In fact, from 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people (today the US has only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of it’s prisoners). However, there is no evidence of a shifting cultural morality causing that, especially post 1991.
I think we can all agree that if radical rap music was going to influence anyone it would have been black (in those days) teenaged males. But a look at the percentage of black male high school dropouts per year actually shows a significant decrease in the years 1990-1996, when this gangsta-rap-to-prison plan was supposedly in place:
Percentage of Black Male High School Dropouts.
(Note: Holy shit, dropout rates in the 20 %’s in the 1970’s and early 80’s?!)
Again, there is no credence to the myth of this secret meeting that changed rap and filled our prisons. We can write a whole volume of books on the sociological conditions of African Americans, the conscious construction of the permanent underclass in America, and our astronomical incarcerations rates. But those will be filled with statistics about profiling, police corruption, poverty, and the shift in criminal codes and sentencing that red-lined blacks into cells, not secret gatherings.
Remember that the 1980’s and early 90’s were some desperate times for inner-city minorities in Los Angeles, the epicenter of both the music industry and gangsta rap. Neighborhoods were plagued with blight and hopelessness that one would expect to see in Third World countries. Crack cocaine was infesting the city, and gangs spilled blood over almost every street corner in the ‘hood with a new vengeance.
Arguably, the most dangerous gang wearing blue wasn’t the Crips, but the LAPD. Instead of protecting and serving, they terrorized the city with a well-document reign of corruption, lawlessness, vigilantism, embezzling, and orchestrated violence toward civilians.
The tyranny of the LAPD and nightmarish conditions in the hood came to national consciousness on March 3, 1991, when the police were serreptitously videotaped beating Rodney King to a pulp after a car chase.
The city held its collective breath as the LAPD police officers went to trial, and then on April, 29, 1992 the verdict came down: the officers were acquitted of the charges.
The people couldn’t take it anymore. The city went crazy. And it burned.
By the time the US Army, Marines, and National Guard restored order 5 days later, the death toll was up to 53 people and more than 2,383 were injured, most of them civilians. A large portion of south central LA was in ashes, with more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.
If you want to read an insane account of the gangbanging conditions in LA and the riots, from someone who was there, check out Slipping into Darkness by M. Rutledge McCall.
But does this have anything to do with music? No.
Did songs create these conditions? Hell, no.
I find this kind of internet story extremely dangerous to the African American cause, which, by osmosis, is also the cause of human rights and the colored experience in America.
It lays blame to the fact that we have the highest incarceration rates of any country in the history of the world on a musical form, gangsta rap, and by proxy the subset of young, black, males who embraced that music. So you’re telling me that if these record execs met and decided to promote Country Western music, instead, our jails would only be half-filled and these societal issues in the hood would be less enflamed? That’s ridiculous, and insulting to the plight of real people who struggle against the throat-lock of disenfranchisement every day.
What this internet account has achieved, yet again, is to divide and conquer our attention from the root causes: endemic generational poverty, institutionalized racism, a rotten-to-the-core system of policing and incarcerations, our violent predilections in this country, and a culture of crime and violence that needs to be reprioritized toward education, family, and a new code of morality.
Instead, we’re revisiting the chicken-and-the-egg controversy: does society morph its norms to the messages portrayed in media and entertainment? Does music create behavior?
Again, that is another issue for another article, but to put that notion in proper perspective, this is your homework:
Go into the hood in any city and ask the first person you see hanging out on the corner wearing a red bandana if they are living that lifestyle because of the songs they hear on the radio. Judging by the look on their face, you’ll quickly realize how ridiculous that postulate is. And then run.
As I was writing this, contemplating the themes of depravity and violence in media and its relationship with art, I recalled Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. It’s an ultra-violent depiction of the bombing of the village of Guernica, in Basque Spain, that he produced in 1937. Yet, I’m fairly certain that no one ever accused Picasso of creating a cultural shift toward violence and lawlessness with this mural. Why not?
Is it because our culture has become so intellectually lazy that we can’t even manufacture racist stories correctly anymore?
Perhaps, music execs made far more money selling music than they did filling prisons. Perhaps, Gangsta Rap, with its violent, desperate, and impoverished musical predilections, was a reflection of what these young artists saw on the streets everyday, and that America has far bigger problems than censoring the musical account of that reality.
Is it possible that things were fucked up to begin with, and then art imitated life?
The original internet story:
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Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.