By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
When two commercial airplanes hit the World Trade Center's towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was fast asleep. I woke up that day and e-mailed a question to publicist Kathryn Frazier about the new Aesop Rock album, Labor Days.She responded that I please try back later "in light of today's tragic events." Huh? I clicked onto sfgate.com and saw a photo of one of the towers with a spark flashing beside it, as if a missile had hit it. So I sleepily walked into the living room, turned on the television, and proceeded to watch CNN for the next several hours.
I have never dealt with death very well. Those first few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., left me numb and speechless, not angry and upset. Meanwhile my fellow writers in the Bay Area were hard at work writing impromptu essays, calling each other and sending out mass e-mails. Oliver Wang posted a screed, "A Rant on Hip-Hop's Relevancy," on Hiphopsite.com that claimed, "Now is the time that music and all art should matter, should seek to make a statement, create an effect. And if it doesn't, it's a waste of everyone's time." Following Wang's train of thought, Darren Keast wrote an essay for the East Bay Express, "Hip-Hop Disconnect," with the self-explanatory subtitle, "Hip-hop may be the universal language, but its artists need to find something to say." These sentiments amused rather than inspired me. When I tried to write my own halfhearted take on 9/11 for the San Francisco Bay Guardian,it was summarily cut at the last minute.
So I sat on the sidelines and watched as the hip-hop community's attention was easily diverted from trying to encourage artists to write more songs about the terrorist attacks; to the Jay-Z vs. Nas beef; to Eminem's Oedipal urges; to arguing over whether or not Definitive Jux was a "real" hip-hop label; to Justin Timberlake's makeover as an urban music superstar; to the alleged magnificence of 50 Cent; to the federal investigation of Murder, Inc., etc. 9/11 turned into some slick shit for an MC to drop in his rhyme, like when the Diplomats claimed "It's that 9/11 music right here" on their "Ground Zero" track earlier this year.
And as for all that talk about addressing the war on terror? Ghostface Killah was first out the gate in December of 2001 with a brief verse on Wu-Tang Clan's single, "Rules." "Who the man behind the World Trade massacres, step up now!" he roared. "Mr. Bush sit down, I'm in charge of the war!"
The next year brought Mr. Lif's Emergency RationsEP and "Home of the Brave." "Headline: Bush steals the presidency," he raps. "He needs the backing of the media what could the remedy be?/The country's headed for recession reminiscent of the Great Depression/Are lives worth a world of power? Easy question/Planes hit the towers and the Pentagon/Killing those the government wasn't dependent on/It's easy to control the scared so they keep us in fear/With their favorite Middle Eastern demon named Bin Laden this year." It was a rare recording that dealt head-on with the helplessness many feel in this post-9/11 world. This year's debate over the war on Iraq brought more songs from Zack de la Rocha and DJ Shadow ("March of Death") and the Beastie Boys ("In a World Gone Mad"). (Many can be found at www.daveyd.com commentarylantiwarsonglist.html.) It is doubtful if any of them received radio airplay, but they were hotly traded around the Internet and galvanized the protest groups that helped derail the Bush administration's search for international help in its invasion of Iraq.
So has the hip-hop community become more politically aware, more responsive to its audience's need for discourse and leadership? I don't know. Now that I live in Miami it seems I'm a million miles away from those debates. Those who buy winter homes here and fly down from New York to party on South Beach are trying to escape the internecine rivalries that have turned mainstream rap culture into one big soap opera. There are a handful of artists, from Jay-Z's involvement in Musicians United to Win Without War coalition to Mr. Lif's political recordings, who aren't completely lost in self-absorption; the rest just want to live their lives in a country that hasn't been invaded in over 50 years and hasn't had to deal with car bombings and violent political upheaval. For now that's enough.