Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ice KKKube's Aesthetikkk Merit:
Big Fukkking Deal

I wrote the first published report on the offensive content of Ice Cube's Death Certificate, but not in the belief I was performing a public service. I was just doing my job. I knew the most politically divisive rap album ever was certain to incite immediate outrage, and since the politics of rap is The Voice's beat, I figured Rockbeat might as well break the story. The idea was to get the facts in, dis the motherfucker, and get out; later--or better yet, never--for hand-wringing debate. The claim that Cube "merits extensive discussion in the press," as his public relations firm puts it, seemed little more than a liberal piety in this case, and that I remained a passionate supporter of the underlying principle--not just that it's more fruitful to air conflicts than to suppress them, but that it's a prime function of art (and journalism) to violate the borders of received discourse by giving offensive opinions and emotions a voice--didn't render it any less toothless. Because whether Cube knows it or not, and I think he does, his overarching message--at least to white people, an increasingly inescapable qualifier in hard rap--is that our pieties and/or principles don't mean shit.

Needless to say, Ice Cube soon turned into a GN'R/2 Live Crew combo regardless--Ice KKKube, call this version, since if he doesn't care what I write about him I'm not so sure I should spell his name right. So here I am, doing my job and wringing my hands simultaneously. The assignment depresses me mainly because I'm not superhuman enough to follow up the hopeless commentary I've been reading the way Mother Nature intends, with a clearly superior alternative. Initially I was also bummed by the prospect of listening to the music again, but that dissipated when I put Death Certificate up against a talented field of current pretenders--ghetto bastards Naughty by Nature, daisy-age bad boys Black Sheep, Bronx hard Tim Dog, and Cube's Oaktown cousin Del tha Funkee Homosapien.

I wasn't surprised when Cube smoked them--if he weren't a serious talent, his offenses would barely signify. But I was annoyed when pleasure and occasional amazement weakened my moral resolve. Cube's voice is as muscular as Chuck D's without the oratorical resonance and polish; his attack is fierce, his music almost as nasty with his own Lench Mob working the mix as when the Bomb Squad took him solo. Death Certificate is nowhere near as patchy as Straight Outta Compton, and less pathological on the whole than Amerikkka's Most Wanted, which dazzled many peace-loving nonsexists into the kind of it's-the-ugly-truth rationalization that's fallen out of favor this time. Though Cube takes pains to repress the soft feelings of Kill at Will's "Dead Homiez," his songs show new depth and spirit anyway.

For one thing, his misogyny has become less corrosive, pathetic though the advance may seem. "Steady Mobbin'" reprises the usual street-mackin', but for all "Givin' Up the Nappy Dug Out"'s graphic caricature, its "slut"/"ho"/"hooker"/"nympho" is almost a partner in sex crime, a reformed "nice girl" whose Catholic schooling did her daddy no good. And though "Look Who's Burnin'" promulgates the lethal sexist myth that blames women for VD, its reality principle is also a woman--a nurse whose matter-of-fact authority has no precedent in male rap. The gangsta stories on the neatly labeled "Death Side"--check the hospital horror of "Alive on Arrival"--go down in political contexts that could conceivably counteract the allure of their tough boasts and pungent detail. And on the so-called "Life Side," the antigang "Color Blind," the indulgently cautionary "Doing Dumb Shit," and the let's-get-our-dumb-shit-together "Us" are several steps up from the self-destructive self-advertisement of such past rallying cries as "Gangsta, Gangsta" and "Rollin' Wit' the Lench Mob."

So hubba hubba and big fucking deal. Death Certificate has Aesthetic Merit. One could even grant it Redeeming Social Importance. And hey--You Can Dance To It. Its Good Qualities still don't come close to making up for its Offensive Content. As you've probably read, the worst of it is slurs against Asians and Jews, though its ingrained, ideological contempt for homosexuals isn't really any better. But I'll also mention that I can't think of an album, not even Professor Griff's Pawns in the Game, that talks more shit about white people. The Nation of Islam clearly provides cultural focus for alienated blacks whose needs are misunderstood by outsiders (black and white) when they're addressed at all, but that's no reason for anybody more centered, Afrocentrists included (cf. Molefi Kete Asante or Chancellor Williams), to sit still for "devil" shit, much less "Horny Lil' Devil"'s sampled epigraph: "You are the prince of darkness, archenemy, father of evil, hellborn, demonic, savage, fierce, vicious, wild, tameless [?], barbaric, ungovernable, uncontrollable . . ." Is it just defensive for me to suggest that demonization works against not only racial harmony, an ideal many blacks have learned to distrust, but also the realistic thinking that makes effective racial competition--and conflict--possible?

That none of the album's mostly white critics have come down hard on this point exemplifies the bind we're in--the bind of devising an effective rhetoric, of doing some good instead of just decrying what we define as evil. It's relatively simple to articulate one's objections. But making yourself understood in the world is hard, and making yourself credible to Ice Cube and his target audience is almost impossible. Hence the general compulsion to simulate an objectivity few whites can really be feeling--not when they're also feeling threatened, or insulted, or hurt, or merely read out of the good fight. And since blacks know better than to place much stock in white protestations of fairness, this strategy naturally backfires.

Take James Bernard's reply to Billboard's sententious, ill-expressed, but not totally wrong-headed anti-Cube editorial, which stopped just short of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's call for a retail boycott (a boycott the magazine specifically declined to support) by suggesting that retailers "must decide" whether the album is "fit to sell." Bernard wants to know why Billboard didn't protest "when N.W.A talked about `taking niggers out in a flurry of buckshot,'" or complain about the verse where Eazy-E gets lynched as well as the death threat against his "Jew" manager and the torch threat against disrespectful Korean storeowners. And indeed, the Eazy-E point left Billboard hemming and hawing--the mag's counterclaim that the lines weren't clearly literal made it appear that the words just hadn't hit home, probably for the racial reasons Bernard suspects. But Bernard is just as disingenuous to pretend that all "fantasies" are equally fictional, even though Cube's threats against Koreans are presented as political program while N.W.A's against blacks (which Cube probably wrote, by the way) are macho brags. And he makes no allowance for the tendency of rap Afrocentrism to discourage white comment on intrablack relations.

It's that tendency--the not unjustified yet finally disabling belief that white pieties and/or principles don't mean shit--that renders commentary on Death Certificate so hopeless. I oppose censorship and have serious problems with boycotts--I like to believe that if I were a retailer, I'd sell Death Certificate with a written explanation of why it's inhumane to define groups or individuals by racial label, which says all anybody need know about why I'd make a shitty retailer. But practically speaking, the clear and present response of white people to protest and hand-wringing will almost always be attempts to censor and boycott--plus racist panics like the one James Ledbetter reported, in which a Channel Five newscaster referred to the slaying of a Korean storekeeper in L.A. when in fact a Korean storekeeper had killed a black customer. The clear and present responses of most black people, meanwhile, will range from indignant demurral to cynical indifference to embarrassed regret--a regret white outcry has a way of transmuting into defensive solidarity. And if they care about rap they're going to feel under internal and external pressure to be what Cube calls "true to the game" rather than one of Chuck D's "sellout blacks." Like I said, a bind.

What makes the bind even more uncomfortable is that the futility of protest doesn't mean it's any more acceptable to act like nothing's happening--to succumb to the attraction separatism holds even for antiracist whites. During the black-power era--soon we may call it the first black-power era--we experienced an all but irresistible temptation to sit back in our parallel universe and ignore whatever we couldn't uncritically support, which often meant anything hard, be it the breakdown of the Panthers or James Brown's "Mother Popcorn." In music, the eventual result was a resurgent racism that harked back to the segregated pop charts of the early '50s, so that less than a decade ago we defined progress as getting "Beat It" on MTV. Black-power rappers, who will need white dollars until economic self-sufficiency is more than a slogan and will still want them after that river is crossed, have convinced themselves that such a blackout can't happen again--that the market, musical necessity, and just plain history are all on their side. I wish I was so sure. But even if I shared their confidence, I doubt I'd ever disengage again.

It isn't just that I don't want to miss the next "Mother Popcorn." It's that like any thinking biped with his head screwed on straight I often believe I have an in on the truth, and consider it possible that a portion of this faith will prove justified. Since I'm a beneficiary of racism whether I like it or not, it seems completely just to me that my judgments and values don't carry much weight with the alienated artists and audiences on rap's edge, and completely appropriate for their input to influence the way my ideas evolve. I would never argue with the African American impulse to create autonomous structures. And I understand that "the human" is an idealist category, exploited by whites to impose an illusory pseudo-equality whenever they fear blacks may be gaining on them and meaningless to African Americans who figure that if they're going to be defined by their race they might as well make the most of it. But when I think something sucks I'm not going to shut up about it.

Which is very heartfelt and all, but doesn't get me any closer to effective rhetoric--except perhaps by suggesting that with no such rhetoric available, my recourse has got to be indirect communication. Only other African Americans have much chance of making humanist arguments stick with blacks who believe white pieties don't mean shit, and they won't have it easy. One telling characteristic of rap's dialogue with admirers from outside its milieu--which since rap began as rebel music from the ghettos and projects, as a class as well as a racial expression, means not just white pop intellectuals of all ages and alienated young white rock fans of all classes but also most middle-class blacks--is that the oppressed dominate the conversation. Blacks whose political perspectives extend beyond simple racial solidarity, if racial solidarity is ever simple, are obliged to prove themselves by doing a lot of listening. And it's across the souls of these usually middle-class African Americans--by which I mean their minds, consciences, and emotional cores more than their essential blackness, if there is such a thing--that the most crucial battles over Death Certificate and its inevitable successors will be waged. I don't envy them.

So the rest of this is for James Bernard, the Source editor and law student who interviewed Cube for the rap mag before reviewing Death Certificate for Entertainment Weekly, where he wrote: "I'm not arrogant enough to wag my finger at someone for stridency or incorrect language when many of his friends are dead and many of the rest are either in prison or standing on the corner surrounded by burned-out and dying dreams." This sentence infuriated me--"moderate" Zionists offer the same specious defense for Third Reich survivors turned Israeli rightwingers, "He doesn't mean arrogant," I snorted. "He means brave." But as I think about it I suspect that at the very worst he meant "confident." Bernard loves "the breadth and emotional pitch" of Death Certificate, which he says "puts often perplexing outbursts of black rage in a larger context, making what often seems irresponsible or wrong-headed into something we can understand." But as an outspoken opponent of rap sexism, he also attacks the album's "homophobic undertone," and calls such epithets as "cracker" and "Jew" "truly alarming." For a guy walking point in this battle, publishing those words took guts.

I'd like more, of course. I hope Bernard gets to write sometime about the peculiar objectifying weight of the noun "Jew"--not as derogatory as "kike" or "nigger," but more derogatory than the adjective "Jewish," establishing a distance that mixes contempt and awe in unpredictably combustible proportions. Maybe he could even lay out the way Cube's standard defense--"I respect Jewish people because they're unified; I wish black people were as unified"--feeds off the myth of conspiratorial power at the heart of anti-Semitism. And though his review never mentions the 45-second "Black Korea," to me Death Certificate's most disturbing song, I'd like him to ask himself (not for the first time, I expect) whether Cube's assault on "chop-suey-ass" "Oriental one-penny-counting motherfuckers" isn't "black rage" as black hatred, the very hatred Cube's panicky enemies get so much mileage out of condemning--that is, whether Cube's jingoist, nativist rant isn't as worthy of the triple-K as any other Amerikkkan outrage.

The damage is done, and well-meaning white lefties can't do any more about it than self-righteous white liberals. No matter how much we complain, this record will encourage black kids (and not just in the so-called underclass) to blot out their perceived race enemies--which means any nonblack in their field of vision who pisses them off, including legions of racist operatives and who knows how many relatively innocent bystanders--with the kind of demeaning stereotypes that so rightly enrage these kids when aimed at them, and that the well-meaning so rightly denounce when they're launched by Axl Rose et al. Racist/sexist speech is an effect of oppression far more than it's a cause. It won't be eliminated until racism and sexism are eliminated. But it still sucks--and human beings shouldn't shut up about it.

Village Voice, Dec. 17, 1991