Keepin' It Unreal

$elling the Myth of Bla¢k Male Violen¢e, Long Past Its Expiration Date

These were the days when fashion became a health risk. Mothers started shunning Jordans, Lottos, and Diadoras, fearing their sons would come home in their socks, or not at all. Schools ran damage control, implementing uniforms and banning book bags for fear of what kids might be packing. And still the crazy reports kept filtering through—young boys attacking their mothers or smoking each other over an accidental footprint on someone's suede Pumas.

Then the entire dialogue changed. Nationalists declared black males an officially endangered species and screamed genocide orchestrated by the invisible white hand. I was 12 and understandably short on grand theories, save one—the world had gone crazy. One day I was living for Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, the next my older brother was flashing me a hot .38.

The nationalists were right about one thing. It was a white hand fueling black America's dementia—the white hand of crack cocaine. "When crack arrived in the city it increased the level of gun violence. You had lots of young people with the money to buy guns and an arms race came with that," says Peter Reuter, professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and co-author of Drug War Heresies. "It was no longer shoot-ings over territory, but over transactions. The amount of money you could steal from someone was a lot larger now, and the drugs themselves made people more violent."

Crack also had the good luck to arrive in cities just as the rust belts were completely eroding employment. Whereas once a man could support his family with a job at the plant, manufacturing was being phased out by automation and the factories' retreat from the cities. Add Reagan's and then Bush's neo-conservative attack on social programs, and you have the ingredients of an epidemic.

"This is the Reagan/Bush era, when you have massive social disinvestments in schools, and in urban areas altogether," says Robin Kelley, professor of history and Africana studies at NYU. "Reagan cut back significant amounts of social funding in urban areas and expanded the police force. Playgrounds, community centers were no longer getting funded and they were disappearing."

While experts opined on the damage wrought on urban communities, gangsta rap laid out the new reality for the young. "PSK" was the foreshadowing. But when KRS-One growled his murderous vocals over a pulsing bassline ("Knew a drug dealer by the name of Peter/Had to buck him down with my 9 millimeter") and then N.W.A's "Dopeman" hit with its high whistle and crashing drums, a new age in black urban America was ushered in.

Initially, gangsta rap's interpretation of the times was complex. Some acts reveled in the image of boys gone wild, while others deplored the effects of crack on their communities. Most early gangsta rappers, and some of the best (Scarface comes to mind) lived somewhere in between. What was made clear by all gangsta rappers, however, was that the life of crime was becoming a far more appealing career track than flipping burgers.

Harry Holzer, professor of public policy at Georgetown, was involved in a 10-year survey of attitudes among black males toward employment. In 1979, as the manufacturing decline set in, the researchers asked black men whether they had a better chance making a living illegally or legally. Sixty percent preferred to stay straight. When Holzer's team asked the same question again in 1989, the number fell to 40 percent. However hyperbolically, N.W.A's classic Straight Outta Compton, released the year before, reflected this trend.

"Think of a world where people make a choice between work in the legal sector and work in the illegal sector, and make it on monetary concerns and whatever risk they might encounter," says Holzer. "What happened was that the labor market for less educated African American men really disintegrated. The legal sector became less and less attractive, and then with the crack boom, the illegal sector became more attractive. Then there was the glamour. Early on you saw this wholesale shift."

The brilliance of gangsta rap was in how it embodied that shift. Straight Outta Compton's frantic ambience and the sparseness of Criminal Minded translated the chaotic and impoverished conditions of black Americans into sound. And their lyrics outlined the changes that were enveloping the community.

The form was most moving when it eschewed shock tactics that haunted it from day one, in favor of bleak, candid shots. Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand" was a detailed account of why, for black men, the illegal sector so often trumped the legal one. His "Alive on Arrival," about bleeding to death in the emergency room, presaged the health-care debates of the '90s, while "My Summer Vacation" humorously examined the exportation of gang culture nationwide. Ditto for Biggie. At its best, his seething debut Ready to Die bleeds pathos and tragedy. "Things Done Changed" defined the schism between civil-rights-movement African Americans and their cracked-out progeny. Equally astute was Nas's Illmatic, which shunned all urges toward didacticism or shock, instead opting for a wide-angle view of the Queensbridge projects. "NY State of Mind," "Memory Lane," and "One Love" constitute a stark and striking black-and-white photo album of Nas's black America.

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