Beats by Dre, Rap Music and Violence Against Women
Recently, Michel'le Toussaint, the one-time girlfriend of rap mogul Andre "Dr. Dre" Young and mother of his son Marcel, premiered her Lifetime biopic, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel'le. This movie brings to the forefront, Dre's history of violence against women, which is quite ironic due to the fact that story was not included in his own biopic, Straight Outta Compton.
Some critics were of the opinion that Straight Outta Compton glorified N****s Wit Attitudes (N.W.A.) — a highly aggressive, violent and sexist gangsta rap group that had Dr. Dre as its producer. In addition to the lack of screen time for Michel'le, Straight Outta Compton also received backlash for not documenting Dr. Dre's assault on Dee Barnes and rapper-turned-rocker Tairrie B.
Once again, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge & Michel’le shone a spotlight on Dr. Dre’s past and the violence, misogyny and sexism enshrined in rap music—especially gangsta rap—as produced by N.W.A. To have an understanding of where rap music is at this very moment, it is important we review the origin of rap music.
The Birth of Hip-hop and The Origin of Rap Music
In her work Rap Music and Street Consciousness, author Cheryl L. Keyes traces the origin of rap music to hip-hop. Hip-hop is a youth art movement which evolved in the South Bronx, New York, during the early 1970s and was comprised of four elements: Disk-jockeys (DJs/turntablists), emcees (MCs), break-dancers and graffiti writers.
The style delivery of the DJ and the rhythm of the MC gave birth to a musical form that makes use of rhyme, rhythmic speech and street vernacular loosely chanted over a musical soundtrack. This musical form became known as rap, and is one of the most vital forms of popular music.
By the late 1970s, rap music had begun to attract the attention and as rap progressed, sub-genres began to emerge such as political rap, commercial rap and gangsta rap.
The earliest hip-hop pioneers and moguls such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were known as socially and politically conscious rappers. They articulated their ideas on social-political issues such as poverty, drugs, police brutality and other racial and class inequalities in their music.
Based on the history above, rap music can be seen as part of a larger ideological process of persuading the population that heterosexual male supremacy is natural and normal. Rouen Collins in his work Hegemonic Masculinity Rethinking the Concept, considers rap to be one of the contemporary "controlling images" used to subordinate black women. Consequently, William Oliver argues that rap's sexist lyrics "provide justifications for engaging in acts of violence against black women." During this time, groups like Eric B. and Rakim and Public Enemy, and songs like “Fight the Power” came into prominence with heavy radio play and rotations on shows like Video Music Box.
However, with political rap came the introduction of gangsta rap which depicted and promoted a lifestyle of sex, drugs and violence within inner-city America.
Photo of N.W.A. taken by the Los Angeles Times.
Things Fall Apart: Gangsta Rap & N.W.A.
The history of gangsta rap music can be traced directly to artists such as Ice-T, Schooly D and KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions. However, Ice-T’s "6 'N The Mornin'" released in 1987 served as the blueprint for the gangsta rap music style. Following in the steps of Ice-T was the group N****s Wit Attitudes (N.W.A.).
N.W.A., founded by the late Eazy-E, billed itself as "the World's Most Dangerous Group". With Ice Cube as its chief lyricist + writer and MC Ren as the group's hardcore center — the term "gangsta rap" would eventually be coined by Dr. Dre, N.W.A's rapping-producer who gave rap music a whole new meaning.
No doubt N.W.A. raised the level of obscenity, violence and misogyny in rap music through their lyrics and the images they portrayed. In a critical analysis of N.W.A., Lenon Honor carried out an assessment of four N.W.A. albums: N.W.A. and the Posse (1987), Straight Outta Compton (1988), 100 Miles & Runnin' (1990) and Niggaz4life (1991).
He found out that in total, the four albums disrespected women 553 times, used the n-word 385 times, called women "bitches" 208 times, disrespected men 157 times, committed violent acts against men 88 times and committed violent acts against women 31 times.
Focusing on the themes of violence against women in rap music, it can be said that Eazy-E's and N.W.A.'s "Boyz-N-The-Hood" affected gangsta rap music's depictions of violence and misogyny in a major way.
The above-stated songs gave thematic centrality to assault and signaled the coming age of gender-based conflict as a staple of the genre. In N.W.A.'s "A Bitch Iz A Bitch," money-hungry or stuck-up women are subsumed under the same solution: "Slam her ass in a ditch." Eazy-E "slapped the ho" and proudly proclaimed himself a "woman-beater" "Boyz-N-The-Hood" suggests corporal punishment for women who "talk shit" to a member of the male sex.
Dr. Dre presents the same identical message in "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang," one of 500 songs selected by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame committee that shaped rock-and-roll. MC Ren hits, with a shoe, women who complain.
Fast forward to the year 1999, Eminem's Slim Shady LP, which Dr. Dre produced, won the Grammy for the Best Rap Album of 1999. On the Slim Shady LP, there are violent and misogynistic lyrics that are found in 11 of the album's 20 songs. Worst still, nine of the 11 songs depicted Eminem killing women, with drowning becoming a new modus operandi of sorts. Furthermore, violent and misogynistic lyrics are enhanced by an act of infanticide. Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP became the fastest selling rap album of all time.
From N.W.A. to Slim Shady, some rap music still promotes violence against women. This begs the question why does rap music especially gangsta rap have to disrespect women?
Photo of Dr. Dre taken at official Dr. Dre website.
Hegemonic Masculinity, Capitalism and Rap Music
Ronald Weitzer and Charis E. Kubrin in their work Misogyny in Rap Music suggests that rappers whose songs portray women negatively are influenced by three major social forces: larger gender relations, the music industry and local neighborhood conditions. According to them the most diffuse influence is the larger gender order, which includes the cultural valorization of a certain type of masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity has been defined as attitudes and practices that perpetuate heterosexual male domination over women. It involves ‘‘the currently most honored way of being a man and ideologically legitimates the global subordination of women to men’’.
Hegemonic masculinity exists alongside and in competition with ‘‘subordinated masculinities,’’ and to remain normative, it requires ongoing reproduction via the mass media, the patriarchal family and other socializing institutions. Media representations of men, for example, often glorify men’s use of physical force, a daring demeanor, virility and emotional distance.
Based on the above, rap music can be seen as part of a larger ideological process of persuading the population that heterosexual male supremacy is natural and normal. Collins in his work, Hegemonic Masculinity Rethinking the Concept, considers rap to be one of the contemporary ‘‘controlling images’’ used to subordinate black women, and Oliver quoted in Clark, Joshua, et al argues that rap’s sexist lyrics ‘‘provide justifications for engaging in acts of violence against black women.’’
Despite the presence of hegemonic and subordinated masculinities, artists are also influenced by pressures from elites within the music industry. The music industry is which is focused on maximizing sales and has led record industry moguls to encourage provocative, edgy lyrics.
The pressure for artists to rap about hardcore themes is perhaps most evident in gangsta rap. Supporting this claim, Carmen Ashhurst-Watson, former President of Def Jam Records, stated thus:
The time when we switched to gangsta music was the same time that the majors [record companies] bought up all the [independent] labels. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. At the time that we were able to get a bigger place in the record stores, and a bigger presence because of this major marketing capacity, the music became less and less conscious (Ashhurst-Watson, quoted in Hurt 2007).
The bias fostered by record companies is summarized in the kind of rap music that gets the greatest airplay on radio stations. Hip-hop historian Kevin Powell points out that ‘‘in every city you go to in America ... [rap stations are] playing the same 10-12 songs over and over again. So, what it does is perpetuate the mindset that the only way you can be a man—a black man, a Latino man—is if you're hard. To denigrate women. To denigrate homosexuals. To denigrate each other. To kill each other.’’ (Kevin Powell, quoted in Hurt 2007).
This once again proves that while some men may have certain biases towards women, the media also helps in promoting and justifying these biases by playing rap music that promotes violent against women regularly.
The initial intent of rap music was to provide a platform for black voices to be heard. Sadly, the commercialization of rap music accompanied with the hegemonic masculinity has led to the degrading of black women in media and society.
Today, some rap music echoes and amplifies racist and sexist representations of black women. Thereby celebrating negative assumptions against women and intensifying problems of gender oppression.
Unarguably, gangsta rap as epitomized by artists such as N.W.A. through their delivery of content directed towards degrading black women, to a large extent influenced the way black women are depicted in the rap music industry and seen in society.
N.W.A.’s legacy lives in rap music that portrays violence against women as acceptable and challenges men and women’s perceptions of how they should treat their partners in a relationship.
While Dr. Dre apologized for his assaults on women, it is important to ask why black entrepreneurs such as he, who have built empires from degrading black women are not held accountable by society and the buying public.
In conclusion, this article agrees with Clark, Joshua, et al that changing the way women are represented in rap music requires in part changing the conditions under which it is created.
These conditions lie at the intersection of three important forces: socio-economic disadvantage and associated gender relations in local communities, the material interests of the record industry, and the larger cultural objectification of women and associated norms of hegemonic masculinity.
As black women we can begin the change by educating ourselves on the true meaning of black girl magic, music, what true love is and refusing degrading narratives.
Adebisi Adewusi is a Nigerian-based writer who has worked with African Feminism, Okayafrica, SheLeadsAfrica and others. You can find the latest and greatest from Adebisi by following her (and us!) on Twitter @biswag.