MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: A new study says there may be bias on the basketball court. Some people are crying foul. But first, as the universe knows by now, radio host Don Imus lost his job over words many consider offensive. His defenders say he was just emulating words commonly used by hip-hop artists, most of them black. But most buyers of hip-hop are white. And so we wondered, for white fans and performers of hip-hop, what responsibility, if any, do they have for the shape of hip-hop today. It's part of our series Hip-Hop: Under Fire.
Here to talk about this, three certifiably hip men: MC Serch is a hip-hop producer who rose to fame during the '80s with the group 3rd Bass.
Mr. MICHAEL BERRIN (Host, "The (White) Rapper Show"): Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Serch, you first, why do think you're into hip-hop and rap?
Mr. BERRIN: Well, I know why I'm into hip-hop. Growing up in Far Rockaway, Queens, that was the music that me and my friends listened to. Getting, you know, third and fourth generation tapes of the Kangel Crew(ph) and the Albino Twins and Grand Wizard Theodore. And then go into music in our high school and watching Slick Rick and Dana Dane and Jay Cool from the Fresh 3 MCs and Doug E. Fresh. So I'm here because that's the music I grew up on.
MARTIN: Did you feel immediately, Serch, that this was something for you? I know it's something you listen to but, you know, sometimes, there's a difference between being part of something and standing outside of it and appreciating it. Did you always feel like you were part of it?
Mr. BERRIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, like I said, we're products of the environment. Like that was the environment in Far Rockaway, Queens. That was the music. That was the culture that was emanating from the streets that I walked to and from every day. And then when I took the train from Far Rockaway to Harlem to go to school, this was what I was enveloped in.
MARTIN: Adam, what about you? Why does rap speak to you?
Mr. ADAM MANSBACH (Author, "Angry Black White Boy"): I think, initially, it was the politics and the poetry of it that grew me in. Hip-hop was the thing that was articulating to me that there was another universe outside of the white suburbs that I grew up in. I had a sense that there was something complacent, hypocritical about whiteness, and hip-hop circa 1985, '86, '88 was the thing that was speaking most articulately to that. And it was one of the only sites in American life that I could find where whiteness was made subjective. You know, white people tend to - we walk around thinking, like, white is normative. It's, like, white unless otherwise specified. And hip-hop dislocated that.
MARTIN: So when you listen to it, do you experience it from the inside out, like you feel like you are a part of it, or are you very conscious of your whiteness when you listen to it?
Mr. MANSBACH: It's both at once. I mean, fast-forward 20 years and hip-hop is no longer a site of visibility for whiteness, white kids have walked into hip-hop like it's our parents' living room and thrown our feet up on the coffee table. And I've been involved in it for about 20 years so I'm simultaneously feeling very inside and very outside. But at the same time I'm aware of its roots in struggle and in protest, and on a larger level I'm aware of the legacy of white cooption of black culture. So I think that I navigate with the kind of duality.
MARTIN: Jeff, what about you? Do you feel that duality also?
Mr. JEFF CHANG (Author, "Can't Stop Won't Stop"): Yeah. I mean, the thing about hip-hop to me is, you know, I kind of grew up with it in Honolulu, Hawaii. So we got it exported to us years after Serch was first experiencing it and probably about the same time that Adam was getting to it. And the thing about hip-hop to me is that it actually ended up speaking to how a lot of us in Hawaii were feeling at that time.
There's a lot of development, for instance, that was going on. And it followed a period in which the music in the islands was really about land struggles and returning to the countryside. You know, there was a lot of development during the '80s and I realized when I saw Beach Street and these (unintelligible) island kids spray painting graffiti that a lot of the energy that I was getting from that probably had to do with me being real mad about development, you know, going on.
I think that gave people voices in that way. I mean, a whole bunch of us started doing graffiti. Over time, I've seen a lot of people, you know, stretch out with their voice. I'm not white. I'm Chinese and Hawaiian. But hip-hop has given voice to a lot of people like me.
MARTIN: Jeff, I'm asking you to put your critic hat on, as well as your appreciation hat on.
Mr. CHANG: Okay.
MARTIN: Do you think that there are still some ambivalence about non-blacks embracing hip-hop as an art form? Which is different from the way we feel about other groups embracing predominantly European art forms. For example, we wouldn't consider it strange for, you know, the fact that Condi Rice plays classical music. The fact that Yo-Yo Ma plays classical music, Awadagin Pratt is a classical pianist. We don't consider that strange that these are people of color who have embraced predominantly European art forms. But do you feel like there are still some ambivalence about it going the other way, whites or non-blacks embracing a predominantly black art form?
Mr. CHANG: In those instances, with Condi Rice and Yo-Yo Ma, you're talking about a culture that's been validated as high art. And for so many years in this country, black culture hasn't been validated as high art. It's always the primitive, it's always the other, it's always, you know, stuff that is not necessarily considered to be fine culture, even though it is the dominant portion of American culture.
And I think also, too, that there is a natural reaction on the part of many African-Americans that, you know, this is getting away from us.
MARTIN: Serch, what about you? Do any of the guys that you've worked with and rap, worked around with, have they ever accused you of being an appropriator of their culture?
Mr. BERRIN: It's funny, I never really got that because when I was coming up, it was first as a spectator. And writing rhymes, you know, like privately. And then becoming a participator in the culture. And I always have people test me. I mean, when we were coming up back in the early '80s as MCs, this was a battle culture. This is about who is better, who is doper, who is flier, who is fresher. And so you always had to be ready if you were going to step up and be an MC.
MARTIN: So your experience is that if you're expressing something authentic, people will appreciate it and they look past race. That's your experience as a performer.
Mr. BERRIN: Yeah. I mean, that's always - exactly.
MARTIN: Adam, do you ever envision an ethical question here, about suburbanites embracing pain in a way that has nothing to do with their own lives?
Mr. MANSBACH: I think there are certainly ethical questions in play. I would never go as far as to say that a music that was created to be appreciated by everyone should be limited or off-limits to anyone. I mean, if you go back to the original tenets of the culture, it was always meant to be expansive and embracing peace, love, unity and having fun, spread to the four corners of the Earth.
The Zulu Nation was instrumental in actually making that happen. So there was never supposed to be any limitation, but a lot of times, the pathology in place for white kids was one of consciously or subconsciously wanting to escape from whiteness, from white privilege.
MARTIN: Jeff Chang, clearly, the genie is out of the bottle - that certain forms of expression having been put out into the mainstream, they're not going to be ceased to be discussed, right? So the argument is, is that hip-hop and rap validated a certain form of expression, and now it's out there. You can't contain it to a certain community. And, taking Adam's point, that it does imply certain moral double standard, but even, sort of, setting that very interesting point aside, that the genie is out of the bottle now, that if the culture has learned to, kind of, accept these words, what happens next? And do the non-black people who participate in hip-hop, who are the majority of the buyers, do they have some responsibility about how the culture now uses this kind of language?
Mr. CHANG: Well, you know, that's true. You can't put the genie back into the bottle. And what I think that we've been asking for as audiences, as fans of hip-hop for a long time, has been a lot more balance in terms of what's being released by the major labels, a lot more balance in terms of what's being played on the radio stations. And if we, as sort of fans of the culture, can go out there and advocate for that stuff - as people how they've been doing, you know, sometimes, in protests and demonstrations, and sometimes by just turning the stations off. It's a type of situation in which, you know, at some point, the message has got to get through. So - and I don't think that we only have power as consumers.
I think we have power as folks that, you know, believe in this as something that's vital, as something that speaks the truth when truth needs to be told, and is something that can actually transform folks towards, you know, looking towards a better society. I think, in the end, the best thing about hip-hop is that it creates the potential for empathy. And out of that, you get a situation in which, you know, a lot more people can understand a lot more people. And that's better for everybody in the long run.
MARTIN: Adam, final word from you. Is there any conversation that you would like to see white people have about hip-hop?
Mr. MANSBACH: Absolutely. I think that white people need to stop running from white privilege. Stop pretending that it doesn't exist and start thinking about how we use that privilege in transformative ways.
For instance, certain things that I can say without recrimination, a person of color would be ignored if they said, because the assumption would be that they're speaking from a narrow kind of self-interest, that they're just still complaining.
So, you know, for me to assert that racism is still very much in effect, still one of the most pernicious and persistent problems in American life, is in some ways paradoxically taken more seriously because it's not from self-interest in theory for me to say it.
MARTIN: Serch, you know that Russell Simmons has made the suggestion that he's not going to tell artists what words to say. But what he is saying is that if you're going to clean versions of albums, that there are certain words that should cease to be used in the public domain. What do you think of that proposal?
Mr. BERRIN: I mean, I always thought that that was right. I always thought that as artist, you should be able to say whatever you want to say. But to protect the innocent, because not everybody wants to hear what you have to say.
With all due respect, with 3rd Bass, we never really used that language anyway. So it wasn't a problem for us. If we use one of the seven naughty words, we just eliminated it from a radio edit. And he's absolutely right. Like if you don't want that content on your radio, then forget about that it draws an audience, forget about that it draws in advertisers. Forget about all that.
Either recreate the balance on your radio station to put out and promote, you know, positivity, even if it's on a negative record by eliminating those words, or to stop playing those records altogether and go with the Talib Kweli, go with the Mos Def, go with the Jayla, go with other artists that promote different kind of agendas and different types of morals.
MARTIN: And as white artist, did you specifically avoid using those words because you believe it would be offensive if you used them - or you just didn't feel it?
Mr. BERRIN: My mama raised me better, period. I mean, no. My mama raised me better. I always said like, you know what, if I'm embarrassed to play this in front of my mama, I can't put this out.
MARTIN: That was MC Serch, host of VH1's "(White) Rapper Show"; Jeff Chang, author of "Can't Stop Won't Stop"; and Adam Mansbach who's the author of "Angry Black White Boy."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.