MUSIC MAY 21, 2013
Once a year, some conservative media outlet feels peeved about the arts and publishes a listicle enumerating how a certain form or genre is inherently—often secretly—conservative. These exercises are mostly absurd, shouting out, "We will not be silenced!" when there is no danger of that at all. This year, rap got added to the list.
Last week, the American Enterprise Institute began running research fellow Stan Veuger's "21 greatest conservative rap songs of all time." One wants to write off articles this wholly unnecessary as clickbait, which they often are. In rap's case, however, it's possible that there's a more pointed aim. While the AEI list is risible, filled with errors and (probably) trolling, its reach seems a bit more significant than attempts to turn movie characters into Republicans to fill those yawning Reagan- and Heston-sized voids.
In 2008 and again in 2012, Barack Obama won well over 90 percent of the black vote, and while a black man on the official Democratic Party ticket isn't likely to occur quadrennially from here on out, those numbers are a problem for conservatives. Under normal circumstances, one assumes that a political party's response to demographic antipathy is to alter its programs to attract members of the disaffected group. The GOP's strategy, on the other hand, harnesses the sort of high-efficiency out-of-the-box thinking we associate with free enterprise by telling those groups: "We already appeal to you, you just don't know it."
AEI has about as much solid intel on Nas as it did on Iraq.
In his list of (as of the time of writing) nine of the "21 greatest conservative rap songs of all time," Veuger jettisons all context, cherry picks certain song lyrics, links them to certain GOP talking points, and declares a shared philosophy. He takes discrete nuggets of dubious conclusive value, hangs them out listlessly in an informational void, and conflates them into character, ideology and movement. It's like noting that you have a ballpoint pen on your desk and concluding that you are not only a college student but that you also—because the tip, bottom cap and ink stick can be removed from the hollow pen tube to turn it into a straw—like to do rails of coke off your school books.
A cursory glance at Veuger’s list reveals unforced errors that render the whole thing comical on even a small scale. For crissakes, the first artist he listed was Justin Bieber. And not any of his more plausibly hip-hop work but rather his doing an update of "The Little Drummer Boy." It's actually less of a stretch to conclude that Aerosmith is a hip-hop group because they were in Run-DMC's cover of "Walk This Way."
Then there's the matter of the artists who made the list. Busta Rhymes, Eminem, Nas, Jay-Z and Wyclef Jean all supported Obama in 2008. Out of his initial nine entrants, Veuger's list consists of five pro-Obama artists (one of whom, Eminem, appears twice), a Brazilian group, and a dead man who was raised in a Black Panther household. STRONG WORK, SIR. The only enigma is Dr. Dre, unless you've actually heard Straight Outta Compton.
The errors actually get pretty funny the more you dig into the list:
Bieber, "Drummer Boy."
Veuger attempts to frame this as a treatise about personal charity vs. government "handouts," but it's a Christmas song that mentions charity in the same way every other Christmas song does. "Do this once a year and you're cool." Okay. One can't imagine why Veuger would pick this tune instead of the one Beiber did with Raekwon where he implies that he has a black girlfriend on the side and smokes weed constantly.
2Pac, "Keep Ya Head Up."
Veuger manages to see this song as an anti-feminist, anti-abortion screed with a Cosby-esque, stern talking-to to young black men. Really, it's about strong single mothers—something of an embarrassment to the Republican Party, which is hostile not only to women but to the sorts of programs that help strong single mothers thrive even in low-income brackets. More to the point, celebrating strong single moms and endorsing two-parent households isn't exclusively conservative. For instance: "I was raised by a heroic single mom... But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present, but involved. ... My whole life, I've tried to be... what my father was not for my mother and me. I want to break that cycle where a father is not at home." Barack Obama said that on Sunday at Morehouse College.
Eminem, "Role Model."
Eminem is a nice choice: a guy who routinely wrote lyrics about raping women and murdering gay men. Veuger gets a little cute when he quotes the ultra-violent lines about beating up Hillary Clinton and calling her a "bitch" without also quoting the "hate fags? the answer's yes" line. Also, it's fair to point out again that homeboy's name is Stan and, through just nine entries, he's riding so hard for Eminem that he might as well be stuffed in his trunk.
Dr. Dre, "Still D.R.E. "
This forgettable entry from an increasingly irrelevant post-Chronic career confirms every suspicion that this list was created by typing "rap" into YouTube and writing about the first 21 results. Apparently this song exemplifies "conservative values" because Dre talks about hard work in it. Not only is Dre still one of the "Fuck Tha Police" guys from NWA, but post-NWA, all his lyrics mean one thing: "Dr. Dre is still the best." Trying to extract any more meaning from them is like close-reading a cereal box. More to the point, if you're the party of hard work and personal responsibility, you may want to check if it's pretty well-known in the rap community that Dre has never written more than a vanishingly small fraction of his own lyrics anyway.
Cidinho e Doca, "Rap das Armas."
Veuger writes, "Few songs present a principled defense of Second Amendment rights. ... A song from Brazil ... best expresses the sentiment that gun ownership finds its ultimate justification in self-defense against totalitarian government.” First of all, it's tough to see how Brazil is reflective of America's Second Amendment. Second of all, Veuger trots out the old right-wing canard that somehow the Second Amendment legally validates an insurrection against a government, which is definitionally a violation of the laws of said government. As Gary Wills points out in his thorough demolition of modern conservative Second Amendment scholarship, it's logically impossible to use the laws of the government you reject to legalize your actions against it. Lastly, "cops are bad and tools of group suppression by the state" isn't a uniquely conservative idea, nor particularly popular among modern Republicans. 2Pac's Black Panther parents, far likelier to have been unaccountably hounded or victimized by police, could have revealed this to you.
Nas, "I Can."
Nas is the only artist on this list who has explicitly recorded a song insulting Rupert Murdoch. Trying to cast him as a "conservative rapper" is probably the zaniest thing in this entire pile of crazy. Half of this song is about the power of education to uplift youth out of shitty circumstances. Veuger seems to think it's about No Child Left Behind. He also seems to think the concepts of hard work and responsibility are limited to those who self-identify as Republicans. Either way, y'all, do you want to quote lyrics incessantly? Nas' next record included the line, "What is destined shall be / George Bush killer til' George Bush kill me." The American Enterprise Institute has about as much solid intel on Nas as it did on Iraq.
Wyclef Jean, "Perfect Gentleman."
Wyclef was caught in a giant scheme wherein his "charitable organization" paid him for his services, to the tune of millions. He also owed over a million dollars to the IRS in back taxes. In a sense, then, maybe he is a conservative rapper, especially when you add his ambition to become the leader of Haiti despite any semblance of plan, organization, or goals. Veuger peppers his analysis of the song with this flaccid bit of trollery: "Passing judgment is further complicated by the second verse, in which a stripper named Hope (a reference to President Clinton’s activities in the Oval Office?)..." Ho ho ho! This is sort of like saying, "In 1989, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney wrote the hit single 'Veronica' about a woman suffering disorienting memory loss from Alzheimer's (perhaps a reference to the entire second Reagan administration???)." The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" is about Strom Thurmond's illegitimate black child. Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" is the GOP congressional group photo. This game is easy when content is irrelevant.
Jay-Z feat. Beanie Sigel, "Where Have You Been?"
This song's inclusion is intended to be shocking, due to Jay-Z's well-documented support for President Obama. But the author's assertion that "abandonment and abuse are moral equivalents" aside, let's just enjoy Veuger's picking a song with Beanie Sigel on it. In 2002, Beans was arrested on a federal weapons charge for driving around in an SUV filled with guns. He served a year in the federal pen, was released, almost immediately punched a guy in the face and broke his eye socket, then got arrested again. Six months later, Beanie was arrested for attempted murder after shooting up a club and injuring two people. The trial resulted in a hung jury, but a year later, he was charged again by the feds for driving around in an SUV full of guns. Just a couple of years ago, Beanie was also charged with tax evasion to the tune of $1 million, and pled guilty, but before he was sentenced he was arrested again for swerving across the lanes on a freeway while carrying a loaded .38, thousands of dollars in cash, and a giant cache of pills and syrup. Throughout all of this, Sigel has done multiple stints for failing to pay child support. Now go back and read Veuger's writeup again, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Eminem feat. Dr. Dre, "Guilty Conscience."
Everything said about these guys earlier still stands. Veuger writes a line toward the end of this entry that reads, "Say what you want about the tenets underpinning Dr. Young's interventions, at least they suggest the existence of an ethos." In this case, the ethos is "only take advantage of women who are older than fifteen," but that's beside the point, really. Veuger implies that rap music—an art form heavily influenced by struggle and poverty, has heretofore had no "ethos." He does so, because the one it's had is not the one he'd like to see. Rap simply moved along the currents of pop culture, insubstantial and tossed about, until the gentlemen cited above finally anchored it in a conservative reality. Veuger found rap's rescue inside rap. He has saved us all.
Why try to win the hearts of a mass of people when you can just hackishly deconstruct their art and claim that they're already on your side? Rap suffers from exploitation enough as it is. It's nauseating when white suburbanites use $3,000 computers and $1,500 software suites to mix samples of video game noises to make nerdcore songs about being nostalgic for Sega. Putting sampling in service of "art" like that is gross, especially when you consider part of the genesis of sampling was artists needing music and only having records and the family turntable at hand—not $4,000 for drums, bass, guitars, amps, mics and a van.
If Veuger had an ounce of cleverness, he could have argued that sampling represents a clever market-driven bit of ingenuity on the part of the creative and economically marginalized to break the bonds holding them. But these are the things you miss when you write about a genre and demographic you have no interest in understanding. He either passed up this opportunity because his intended audience would likely construe sampling as theft, or because his entire frame of reference for rap is wealthy, mainstream artists and producers suctioning vast swathes of creativity upward because they can, and because their attorneys are bigger than yours. That's a conservative value, too, but he probably wants to avoid mentioning it.
There is a price for appropriation and conflation of musical roots without context or understanding. Nerdcore rappers are widely loathed, but at least they're making music. For someone like Veuger and a piece like this, the price is instantly revealing an almost imperial indifference and will to plunder: You take the meaning and entertainment you want from a subject people, then define their value according to your own, without their input or consent. You ignore all else. Veuger has sampled only the most meager scintilla of the rap pantheon, and the only thing he's succeeded in making is mistakes.