Could Hip-hop Heal America's Racial Divide?

It may be our last best hope...or not.

| May-June 1999

Last July, the future of youth culture was chillin’ in the parking lot of a hip-hop concert in suburban New Jersey. Smokin’ Grooves, the only annual package tour featuring rap artists, was in town, and as far as the eye could see, in varying shades of pale, were white boys and girls, jocks and nerds, preps and stoners, lounging against family-size cars, getting their brewsky on, or queuing up to be frisked. All the acts—Wyclef Jean, Busta Rhymes, Cypress Hill, Gang Starr, Canibus, a reunited Public Enemy—were black and Latino, and inside, some black and Latino fans pushed to the front of the stage. But outside, it was a Caucasian invasion. As a security guard waved our car forward, a friend joked, “Are we at the right venue?”

That same week, the country’s No. 1 pop band was a group of thirtysomething white rappers called the Beastie Boys. Noreaga, a practically unknown underground rapper, boasted the No. 3 pop album. Barenaked Ladies, a heretofore annoying group of novelty-rock spazzes from Canada, were at No. 6 on the strength of their first rap song, “One Week.” Three of MTV’s top five videos were from hip-hop artists. In fact, you could have picked any week in the past year and built a similar case. Like losing your virginity or blaming your parents, hip-hop, for today’s average kid—black or white—is just another part of growing up.

“Why shouldn’t [white kids] be exploring us? That’s the way it’s supposed to be, you know,” says the Grammy-nominated rapper Busta Rhymes, a.k.a. Trevor Smith. “If we’d grown up with a different mind-set, then all this shit wouldn’t seem so strange. It would be normal and natural for white kids to be idolizing and imitating rap stars. But the powers that be have created all these barriers and segregated us and brought us up not to appreciate each other’s cultural significance, so everybody looks at these white kids like they’re out of their motherfucking minds.”

Though grunge had ties to a rock tradition that many parents could grasp—Nirvana loved the Beatles, after all—hip-hop has always been another matter entirely. Ever since Run-D.M.C. matched screeching guitars with minimal drum-machine beats and turntable scratching (circa “Rock Box,” 1984), hip-hop has sounded like the rebellious truth for increasing numbers of white youth.

“If you’re a white kid, it’s hard to get your parents riled up these days playing rock ‘n’ roll,” says Fab 5 Freddy, a.k.a. Fred Brathwaite, an original host of Yo! MTV Raps when it debuted in 1988. “But if you got some Tupac blasting in your room, your mother’s gonna be mad at you, and that’s cool. You’ll be like, ‘Shit, I’m just listening to this black guy talking over some beats and my mom is terrified!’”

White fans no longer listen to hip-hop on the sly or surreptitiously rhyme in front of the mirror; they form bands and rhyme on MTV. Pop’s most imaginative artist, Beck, works on the assumption that hip-hop is his generation’s folk music. Rock’s fiercest guitarist, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, proudly mimics a stylus wrecking vinyl. Hanson’s 1997 sandbox smash “MMMBop” was livened up by a DJ scratch. The pervasive slanguage of hip-hop is not just a goofy racist punch line anymore, it’s simply how kids communicate.

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