Why the NYT’s ‘The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap’ Piece Is Just as Bad as Those Maddeningly Persistent ‘Translating Hip-Hop’ Gags


When, a few weeks back, Fuse.Tv ran a piece called “JAY-Z’s ‘DOA’ – Translated for the Hip Hop Impaired,” they were carrying on a dubious tradition that dates back as far as the ebonics culture wars of the 1990s, if not to the dawn of rap itself. Witness the not-so-coded jive talk with which Fuse introduced their piece: “In an effort towards global peace and understanding — or at least enabling you to see eye-to-eye with the fam — I attempt to decode the mystifying language of the coolest cat out there, JAY-Z, on one of his biggest hits, ‘D.O.A.'” “Fam” and “cat” there of course tipping the whole game–black people talk funny! But Fuse, at least, were trying to promote a Jay-Z concert they were televising in the near future. What’s the New York Times‘s excuse?

“Call It Ludacris: The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap” is the headline of the Week in Review piece that ran in the paper yesterday. The premise being that there’s something “reassuringly familiar about political talk radio”–it’s a lot like rap! How so?

    I’ll admit that the parallels between Jay-Z and Rush Limbaugh do not seem obvious, and to grasp them you need to look beyond the violence and misogyny that have made rap a favorite target of the right wing. (Come to think of it, perhaps each of these realms will be chagrined to be likened to the other.) But as soon as you dig beneath the surface, the similarities between talk radio and gangsta rap are nothing short of uncanny. And these similarities are revealing, too.

But before we get to the revelations, let’s examine the kinship. For great careers in both businesses you’ll need:

EGO Extolling your greatness is nearly as crucial to rap as it is to talk radio. One consistent theme of Jay-Z’s lyrics is the genius of Jay-Z’s lyrics. He claims a charisma that is almost mystical and skills on the mic that make him the “Mike Jordan of recording,” “the Bruce Wayne of the game,” a “god.”

Rush Limbaugh peppers his show with self-adulating incantations that would seem right at home on a Snoop Dogg track, calling himself “Chief Waga-Waga El Rushbo of the El Conservo Tribe,” “doctor of democracy,” and “a weapon of mass instruction.” Both he and Jay-Z have referred to themselves as “a living legend.”

And so on. (The next hed is, unbelievably, HATERS.) And though there is something patently insulting about comparing Jay and Rush–i.e., comparing a guy who just did a concert that raised over a million for the New York Police & Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund to a guy whose on-air demagoguery laid the ground for an idiot like Joe Wilson to publicly heckle a sitting president, among other, more major sins–it’s the assumption underlying pieces like these that’s truly objectionable. That assumption being: that “gangsta rap,” as the Times calls it, needs to broken down into condescending bullet points so that the at-home audience will be able to comprehend the strange and foreign folkways of global pop stars like Jay-Z. Whose record is, by the way, currently #1 in the country. His 11th overall. Which means that Jay-Z has been one of the most popular and commercially successful artists in music history. He trails only the Beatles. And yet this is the level on which the Times engages with a genre that is encoded in the DNA of anyone born within the last 30 to 40 years.

    Once you subtract gangsta rap’s enthusiasm for lawlessness — a major subtraction, to be sure — rap is among the most conservative genres of pop music. It exalts capitalism and entrepreneurship with a brio that is typically considered Republican. (Admiring references to Bill Gates are common in hip-hop.)

Rappers tend to be fans of the Second Amendment, though they rarely frame their affection for guns in constitutional terms. And rap has an opinion about human nature that is deeply conservative — namely, that criminals cannot be reformed. The difference is that gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.

Finally, rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored.

Not to get too worked up over an intentionally contrarian piece whose sole intention is pretty much to get people worked up. But the patent down-talking and condescension toward a genre that is itself light years beyond the Readers Digest, ghetto-anthropology, ogling-the-natives treatment it gets here is at a minimum offensive and at a maximum complicit in the whole Birther/otherization of African-Americans that is such an immediately and stressfully percolating force in 2009 American politics. Which is to say: Don’t do this. Unless you want to forge some unholy kinships of your own.

Call It Ludacris: The Kinship Between Talk Radio and Rap [NYT]