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May|June 2002
Bum Rap By Christopher Hawthorne
Shoddy Construction By Benjamin Wittes
Kenneth Starr Responds By Kenneth Starr
Chains of Command By Beth Hillman
Silence! By David Luban
No Exceptions? By Michael Ignatieff

Bum Rap

To the untrained ear, hip-hop conveys nothing but contempt for the law. But it's not disrespect you're hearing, it's a plea for fairness.

By Christopher Hawthorne

Last fall, a few minutes after facing a judge inside a Washington, D.C., courthouse, a young African-American man slipped onto an escalator and glided toward the exit. Clearly relieved to be on his way out of the building, he started rapping some lyrics from "Izzo (H.O.V.A)"—the title is a play on the word Jehovah—by the New York hip-hop star Jay-Z. The song, which hit number eight on the pop charts last year thumping from car stereos and college radio stations, includes these lines:

Cops wanna knock me,
     D.A. wanna box me in
But somehow, I beat them charges
     like Rocky . . .
Not guilty, he who does not feel me
Is not real to me, therefore he
     doesn't exist;
So poof—vamoose, son of a bitch . . .
Not guilty!

In front of the judge, the young man had been allowed to speak only long enough to enter a plea—guilty—to a collection of minor charges. Rapping on the escalator, though, he could make his case on his own terms, however loud, naïve, or bitter. He could smile and boast. He could beat them charges like Rocky.

Rap—also called hip-hop, a term that more broadly describes urban youth culture, from fashion to slang—emerged from the street corners and house parties of the Bronx in the late 1970s. The music offers suspects and defendants a shadow world where they have autonomy and authority. Rappers talk a lot about "representing," a term for respect and loyalty that also has definite legal meaning. They represent their neighborhoods and their extended rap families; they take on the role of advocate for restless, unheard listeners. Rap songs brim with expected rants against justice delayed and fairness denied. But they also offer a surprising dose of restrained, precise appraisal, as if musicians were putting the system on trial.

Plenty of whites, Hispanics, and Asians who have never set foot in a ghetto or a jail buy rap CDs. But rappers largely stand in for, and up for, young black men. Thanks mostly to the "war on drugs," on any given day roughly one African-American man in three between the ages of 20 and 29 is behind bars or on probation or parole, according to a 1995 study. Frustrations about issues like police brutality and racial profiling leave many other blacks disillusioned with criminal justice as well.

As the rapper Mos Def says on his 1999 album Black on Both Sides, for young black listeners "hip-hop is prosecution evidence"—a rhyming, damning collection of charges against the system. Rappers' rage and prosecutorial zeal are often bound tightly together. Take the 1988 single "Fuck tha Police" by the Los Angeles group N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude). Infamous for its loud stridency, the song bluntly calls for a "bloodbath/Of cops dyin' in L.A." Those lines are often Exhibit A for politicians who think music should be rated for violent and sexual content. What most white critics have missed, though, is that "Fuck tha Police" is carefully arranged as a trial: "N.W.A. vs. the Police Department." Dr. Dre, N.W.A.'s lead producer and one of the most talented musical impresarios of his generation, plays the role of judge. Another rapper is the bailiff. "Won't you step up to the stand and tell the jury how you feel about this bullshit?" he asks. In response, other members of the group give raw, enraged testimony about how the L.A. police have harassed and mistreated them. In turning the tables on white prosecutors and judges, the rappers are most interested in who gets to speak and how. The song is a free-speech fantasy, not an irresponsible call to violence.

"Fuck tha Police" drew the attention of young people, politicians, and the media—evidence that music remains the best art form for drawing a crowd. It's also among the easiest, cheapest kinds of art to produce. In 1986, C. Don Clay, a criminal defense lawyer in Oakland, Calif., who also practices entertainment law, helped a young Oakland rapper named Todd Shaw (he calls himself Too Short) start a shoestring record company called Dangerous Music. This was in the earliest days of the CD; Shaw made his first album, Born to Mack, in cassette form and sold it himself—out of his car, on Oakland street corners, even on the crosstown bus. Before he was signed by Jive Records the next year, Too Short managed to sell 150,000 copies of Born to Mack, nearly all of them in Oakland, a city with a population of about 350,000. Those sales figures—and what they say about hip-hop's ability to transmit a musical message—are astonishing.

Still, that message is rarely a pure call for reform. Plenty of rap is rife with misogyny and materialism, as in N.W.A.'s "Gangsta Gangsta," which makes the point by saying that "life ain't nothin' but bitches and money." Rappers who don't rhyme about violence or "bling bling"—flashy displays of jewelry or cash—tend not to sell very well. Good social message or bad, though, rap is among the most effective soapboxes ever invented. In rock 'n' roll, lack of clarity often makes for appealing, sometimes sexual, mystery: You're not always sure what's being sung, and that's not a bad thing. But rap is written to be understood. It offers "freedom of expression, the ability to vent our frustrations by way of a beat, by way of the lyrics for the beat," says C. Don Clay. As Mos Def raps in a song called "Umi Says," "I don't wanna write this down/I wanna tell you how I feel right now."

Some of the most piercing rap narratives tell stories from the perspective of the young, hounded black man by casting as a predator the city where he lives. Subway cars run back and forth over well-worn tracks, rattling symbols of no escape. In "Trapped," Tupac Shakur rhymes, "Can barely walk tha city streets/Without a cop harassing me, searching me/Then asking my identity/Hands up, throw me up against tha wall/Didn't do a thing at all." The narrator winds up killing a cop; his act is the violence of the cornered, not self-defense but not really murder, either. In Shakur's hands, the narrator feels both rage and contrition: "Who do you blame?/It's a shame because tha man's slain/He got caught in tha chains of his own game/How can I feel guilty after all tha things they did to me/Sweated me, hunted me/Trapped in my own community."

Shakur was the son of two Black Panthers. The words "thug life" were tattooed across his stomach. In 1996, at the age of 25, he was shot to death in a car on the Las Vegas strip while waiting at a red light. His closed-in world could not be more different from the frontier, so essential to folk and country music, which offers a continual, if sometimes illusory, means of escape. The signature Johnny Cash sound snippet is the harmonica that opens "Orange Blossom Special," the title cut from his 1965 album. It represents the blast of a train in wide-open country, "the fastest train on the line," which allows Cash to lose the same "New York blues" that followed Shakur to Las Vegas. In Merle Haggard songs, ramblers keep moving to stay free of the law. "First thing I remember knowin' was a lonely whistle blowin'," sings Haggard, who was born inside a converted boxcar in central California and did time in prison on a burglary charge.

Rappers can break away and build on their success by heading to T.V. or the movies. In the process, some blur the cultural line between police and bad guys. For years, Ice-T personified the street criminal in his music. "I'm a nightmare walking, psychopath talking/King of my jungle just a gangster stalking," he rapped in the 1988 song "Colors." These days, Ice-T can be found on television, playing a detective on the "Law & Order" spinoff "Special Victims Unit." And he seems right at home. To a remarkable degree, his law-enforcer self resembles his old law-breaking one. He has seen the same things, knows the same things. But he's become a lot less confrontational, maybe because now that he has the power to say more, he can afford to say less.

Still, most rappers look at the police through the eyes of young men on the street who watch warily as cops cruise by. "The police department is like a crew/It does whatever they want to do," KRS-One raps in a 1988 song called "Illegal Business." It's hard to imagine a rapper doing a song like "American Skin (41 Shots)," which Bruce Springsteen wrote after four New York City cops shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old West African immigrant, in 1999. Springsteen, who is most comfortable singing in the voice of blue-collar America, identified with the emotions of the shooters as well as the victim. Mos Def, on the other hand, organized a benefit album after Diallo's death that featured 41 rappers; the proceeds went to teaching young black men how to avoid danger if aproached by the police. (It's too soon to tell if the gratitude toward law enforcement that followed the attacks of September 11 will maker rappers softer on cops, but it's likely that these days a song like "Fuck tha Police" wouldn't get major-label backing.)

Rap gives its own edge to old rock and folk songs written by white musicians that draw on the sympathies of black listeners and the stories of black defendants. In 1954, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a pair of white songwriters and dedicated leftists, wrote "Framed" for one of the first rock 'n' roll vocal groups, formed by black musicians and called The Robins (later, The Coasters). The song is about the "victim of someone's evil plan" who gets turned in by a stool pigeon. Black listeners were more likely to get the point. "If you're a 10-year-old black kid listening to that record in 1954, 1955, you say, ‘Yeah, that's the way it is, my daddy told me about these things,' " the music critic Greil Marcus says. "If you're a 10- or 15- or even 20-year-old white kid, you think, ‘This is really funny, this is Amos and Andy, this could never happen.' And, of course, it could."

Another classic example is Bob Dylan's 1976 "Hurricane," a tribute to the black boxer Rubin Carter, who was framed a decade earlier for the murder of three whites in Paterson, New Jersey ("Number one contender for the middleweight crown/Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down"). With the trial a "pig-circus," Carter "never had a chance" to beat the charges. In "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," Dylan's sympathies were reversed. Released in 1964, the song tells the story of a 1963 Baltimore murder from the perspective of the victim, a 51-year-old mother of ten who "emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level." Her killer was an upper-class socialite named William Zant-zinger (spelled Zanzinger by Dylan) who committed the murder "with a cane that he twirled round a diamond-ring finger."

As the narrator, Dylan isn't surprised when Zantzinger reacts "to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders," or when he gets out on bail. But when the verdict is announced, the lyrics build to a finale that would convince any jury of listeners that the system failed Zantzinger's victim. Voice weary and tone sardonic, Dylan sings about the judge presiding in the "courtroom of honor":

And he spoke through his cloak most
deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly for penalty
and repentance,
William Zanzinger [here Dylan pauses]
... with a [another pause]
... six-month sentence.

Dylan, Shakur, and Mos Def all attack the criminal justice system with anger—and with deep, almost frantic rationality. The songwriters want not anarchy or revenge but to hold the legal system to its own standard of fairness. The best songs about the law call for more facts and more reason, for openness and predictability. Music often speaks as the law's conscience, but these songs aren't promoting a utopia or gangsta's paradise. Just a place where the punishment fits the crime.


Christopher Hawthorne is a writer and editor whose coverage of the arts has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Slate, and Metropolis, among other publications.

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