I Want My B-E-T
Puff Daddy is winking at me. He is slowly disrobing and his teeth glisten in the moonlight. My heart starts to beat a little faster as he points to his drawers and sez, "I call my pee-pee p-diddy, cuz it's so pwecious!" He sounds like Tweety Bird. That's when I hear a voice in my ear: "Don't believe the hype!" "Whozat?" I mutter, "Harry Allen?" But no, it's Stanley "The Grouch" Crouch, naked and unashamed. "The rap isn't any good for you," he bellows. "You gotta listen to what Wynton's been working on. It's a six-hour jazz opera based on the life of Zora Neale Hurston, comprised of 43 renditions of 'Satin Doll.' " Puffy is slowly putting his pants back on. Stanley can see my eyes glaze over, but he won't give up. "That devil rap will never last, my son." I turn to look at him. "Stanley, that Sermon on the Mount Menckenstylee might fly in the groves of academe, but there's something you got to recognize: ain't nothing like hip-hop music!" I can hear Puffy laughing as he and Stanley disappear in a cloud of smoke.
Then I wake up. Sean Combs is laughing on late-night Black Entertainment Television, which I keep running 24-7 in case there's an episode of Amen on that I haven't seen. I should have learned my lesson a month or two ago when I had a truly frightening dream featuring my mom, Big Pun, and Lil' Kim. I just can't stand to miss anything on a channel that rarely makes mistakes and always comes correct. Chuck D called rap the black CNN, but to me, BET is the black Weather, Sci-fi, and Independent Film channels all rolled up into one ball. One scrappy ball I've been watching Rap City on BET for a decade, and they're still spending the same five-dollar bill on every episode.
Not that it matters. Rap City, just like my second favorite television show of all time, MTV's Headbanger's Ball (canceled because of the grunge explosion just one more thing to blame those dirty hippy bastards for), is all about the videos. And what videos! Rap and metal vids share a few things other than young women in bikinis. They are all about wish- fulfillment and ego-trippin'. Some people, believe it or not, think the very things that make these videos so much fun (gangstas, gats, diamond-studded walking sticks) are somehow harmful to children. What some people forget is that most chidren are so stupid that as soon as they change the channel they forget what they just saw.
And to be fair, for every Westside Connection video (West Coast thug life nonsense starring Ice Cube of all people his days of swarming on any motherfucker in a blue uniform long over the video is him and his beefy pals looking ominous at a picnic), there's something like Gang Starr's "Discipline," a cautionary tale of playas getting played, and apparently blindfolded in toilet stalls by twin hootchie girls who steal wallets. Guru's hook is the line "Instead of preaching death in my songs, I breathe life." For every dumbass video like "Rap Life" by Tash and the Wu's pu-pu-platter-lovin' Raekwon redeemed only by a trip to the racetrack where the jockeys are all, you guessed it, hootchie girls there's "U-Way" by dirty south Outkast krew members, Youngbloodz. Just some old-fashioned rapping and a wholesome football game in this video. That is, until the whole thing stops dead for a full-length commercial featuring Bolt 45, the first 40-oz. sports drink for the serious drinker. The thing is so damn clever even Bill Bennett would have to chuckle.
Without the yin and the yang, any art is dead in the water. And rap, it should be noted, is the only art form to both acknowledge that the war on drugs is a form of genocide and hail the dancing prowess of the Smurf. You need the gangstas, thugs, and smugglers to offset the damage Q-Tip does by being such a cutie-pie. If the evils heaped upon the inner cities of America create an anger upsetting to some (check out Ja Rule's "4 Life," the in-your-face hyperkinetic camera angles of which are practically designed to scare the argyles off of Whitey), too bad. And when one of the most creative expressions of rage popular music has ever known gets dismissed as noise, that's just sad. Perhaps, like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, the freaks and wackos of hip-hop will someday be lionized, and rap will transform itself into toothless chamber music.
Rap music gives you a chance to see and hear something that is still growing and changing at this very moment. It may take one step forward and then two steps back depending on what week it is, but you will always hear something you've never heard before. So, to quote the Afrocentric Sprint long-distance ad, you don't want to sleep on this offer.
Which brings me to Juvenile. When I listen to this Louisiana ruffneck and stretch-Humvee habitué I am reminded of what 16th-century composer and Master of Music at the Vatican basilica, Giovanni Pierluigi Da Palestrina, wrote in a letter to the Duke of Mantua about music's divine purpose: that it should "give a living spirit to the words." This definition of a boombastic liturgical style fits the genius of Juvenile to a T. And if the only three gifts this screwed-up, bad, and beautiful country of ours ever gave to the world were Billie Jean King, Rita Moreno, and Juvenile, we would be conspicuous in our largesse. Having said all that, I should mention that Juvenile is one of the biggest mumblemouths in rap and I only understand about half of what he says. He also owns BET. On any given day, you can see him in the Hot Boys' "We on Fire" (will Juvenile and his Cash Money crew outfox the ATF?), or watch him in B.G.'s "Bling Bling" practicing the latest rap video cliché of throwing wads of cash on the ground (but not riding around in a speedboat), or catch him in his own smash, "Back That Thang Up," wherein all booty is homegrown like Juvenile himself and definitely not from central casting. Or you may catch one of his earlier ghetto tableaux where the pit bulls are picture perfect and the glass on the sidewalks shines like diamonds.
Along with his down-home N'awlins drawl, Juvenile makes good use of the early-'80s electro that's all the rage. Similar juxtaposition of techno-robots in the henhouse helps the sawdust-floor sound of a lot of dirty south recordings thrive. But going from nada to Prada, this month's champ in the Kraftwerk minimalist sweepstakes is Noreaga's "Oh No." It's an amazing song, and its Hype Williams video features arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in boxing, Roy Jones Jr. Williams, the don of rap video, has been lambasted in the past for his odes to the good life. But his dreamy pace and many shades of blue would make he-man director Michael Mann envious.
There really is so much out there it's hard to keep up. Mariah Carey's video for "Heartbreaker" has animation, a ninja catfight, and Jay-Z in a tub. Mary J. Blige's equally mind-blowing "All That I Can Say" has Mary riding an escalator to heaven dressed in a pink cowboy hat and tutu only to find a nekkid Adonis hanging on a cloud. Busta's girl Rah Digga (who says she's "hotter than a region of Ghana") makes a right-fierce 21st-century splash in her "Tight" video. And hell, it ain't even winter yet! I have it on good authority there's going to be one or two more Charli Baltimore videos, and at least 40 more Juvenile videos, before Christmas.
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