Hip-Hop’s Cadaver Capitalism

How hip-hop glorifies -- and exploits -- its dead.

For some unholy reason, I recently wandered onto Thesource.com, and was immediately plunged into a minor bit of digital pulp theater. My screen suddenly blacked out as helicopter blades, whirling sirens, cracks of menacing thunder, police radio bleeps, and heavy rainstorm effects blared as a lone helicopter searchlight shot across the page, hunting out The Source‘s blocky logo. This muddy, brooding collage was underscored by a rising keyboard line and punctuated finally by a computer speaker-stirring bellow of “Muuuurrrddaaaa.” Over a tinny drum machine, a voice then broke into a refrain of “Murder Inc.,” the name of the record label and crew that includes Ja Rule, Irv Gotti, and Ashanti, among others.

The cover of The Source‘s February issue materialized out of this musical murk, revealing an arms-crossed, ever-shirtless Ja Rule flashing his characteristic expression: a paradoxical come-hither glare. A thick gold rope with an oversized crucifix draped his bare chest, a gaudy show of faith that might be best termed “Byzantine thug.” Above his muscled left pec, a cursive tattoo read “Pain Is Love” — an incredibly apt phrase, equal parts aimless album title, mysterious personal mantra, and perfectly void tagline for the phenomenon of thug chic.

The spectacle that is The Source is a pretty appropriate place to catch thug chic in full blossom. Flip through the pages and your eye might catch such lines as “Unlike a lot of rappers’ names, you can take X-Conn’s literally — he actually served time in prison.” Scan the Web site and you’ll find half-baked news stories, including one that disingenuously equated recent raids on the label offices of Murder Inc. and Suge Knight’s Tha Row with the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the repressive — and frequently violent — ’60s-era campaign lodged against radicals, in particular the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement.

But doesn’t it seem like Murder Inc. and Tha Row have far more in common with the wanton lawlessness of COINTELPRO than with the Black Panthers or AIM? Surely if the Panthers were still around, they’d dismiss Irv Gotti or Suge Knight the same way they dismissed infamous pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim in the late ’60s: as self-interested exploiters of the black community.

I doubt any satire of thug chic could be sharper than the phrase Murder Inc., where industry and race-coded nihilism merge to the benefit of both. Gotti’s successes at refining rugged rap to a mainstream formula are manifest in a glittery wall of platinum records, not to mention the four Grammy nominations the label recently received. Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Nas have also enjoyed success using that formula.

Gotti ultimately followed in the ludicrous footsteps of Puffy (I refuse to call him “Puff Daddy,” it grates my tongue) by transfiguring from a wealthy CEO into a thug rapper, both a riches-to-rags inversion of the Horatio Alger myth and an affront to the art of MC-ing, which isn’t simply picked up at one’s middle-aged leisure. They’ve successfully blended the family-ready entertainer persona á la Young MC or Salt-N-Pepa with the illicit, transgressive appeal of early Ice Cube or Too $hort into a single coherent, consumable package.

Thus, death threats are increasingly half-sung over sappy chords, while tributes to (and posthumously released albums from) murdered rappers are now mainstays on hip-hop charts. It’s cadaver capitalism, and only in this supremely cynical field could no one bother to notice the macabre irony of a late Tupac dissing a late Biggie on ‘Pac’s latest posthumous album, Better Dayz (an appropriately cynical title, I might add).

When Ja Rule, at the end of his new video “Reign,” inserts a nightmarish still of Biggie and Tupac just after playacting his own murder, it becomes clear that he has entered the perverse business of selling his own death. Furthermore, on underground mix CDs, his new song “Warrior’s Words” has him in gruff street rapper mode, hunting Eminem and his daughter “with the sawed gauge.” Finally, the cover of the new XXL has he and Gotti framed in a rifle scope with a headline forewarning, “Murder Inc. fires back at all the [email protected]#haf#*in’ haters!”

Deep in the glossy sheets of the Ja Rule-faced Source lies an editorial by Harry Allen, Public Enemy’s esteemed “media assassin.” Allen glibly refers to Eminem’s mainstream success as a “refinement of white supremacy.” It’s an interesting yet deeply flawed proposition, particularly as published in a partially white-owned magazine that acts explicitly as a promotional vehicle for the likes of Murder Inc. Lord help us if the superficial formula of Eminem=white=white supremacy while Irv Gotti and Suge Knight=black=black radicalism is the only way we’re able to think about rap and race anymore. No, cadaver capitalism, the minor industry that’s risen around peddling the persistent association between blackness and death, is as highly integrated as it is depressingly pervasive.

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