When N.W.A dropped their incendiary debut album, Straight Outta Compton, in 1988, the FBI fueled its notoriety with a letter condemning songs such as “Fuck tha Police” for inciting violence. The album, with lyrics reflecting the brutal conditions facing black Americans under the boot of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs, eventually sold more than two million copies.
The label that released Straight Outta Compton, Priority Records, estimated that 80 percent of the album’s sales were to white listeners in suburban America. But bored white teenagers listening to N.W.A didn’t necessarily want to understand the day-in, day-out oppression of police brutality—for many of them, the album was a fantasyland, its nihilistic violence and righteous energy providing a chance for them to feel “street” without being exposed to gang violence or racialized policing.
In an extended trailer for the new N.W.A biopic, Ice Cube says, “The same thing that we was going through in the 80s with the police, people going through right now.” Just as N.W.A’s message proved the value of hip-hop as a tool of black protest in the late 80s, the success of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, demonstrates hip-hop’s continued importance as a complex narrative tool for black artists. One of that record’s highlights, “Alright,” has been a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter movement—its stirring refrain, “We gon’ be all right,” has served as a chant in recent protests against police violence.
“Over its history, hip-hop has always been a voice of resistance,” says Northwestern University professor Nitasha Sharma, who’s taught many classes on hip-hop. “It captures how close black people have been to the threat of death, something that’s always been a historical fact but is now more publicized.”
N.W.A found their message of protest lost on most white listeners, and today the relationship between hip-hop, corporate record labels, and white America continues to obscure the music’s subversive function. Of course, big labels influence the types of hip-hop that become popular, but the success of the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, and Chance the Rapper suggests that voices of resistance can still break through.
One hurdle facing hip-hop is the high level of consolidation in what remains of the music industry. Three conglomerates—Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group—dominate the field, and in 2014 accounted for 87 percent of all music sold. Every track on Billboard‘s top 50 Hot Rap Songs last year was released by a Big Three-controlled label. We’re a long way from 1979, when the first Top 40 rap song, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” was released by independent, black-owned Sugar Hill Records.
“When you talk about album and single sales, the white suburban audience showed that they were not interested in the overtly political messages,” says M.K. Asante, a rapper and author of It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop. “They were more interested in the party music and the gangster music.”
During the so-called golden age of hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, rappers used an eclectic mix of sounds and styles, frequently emphasizing themes of Afropositivity, urban decay, and police violence. But this era was eclipsed by the rise of gangsta rap in the mid-90s, which glorified gang violence and misogyny. “The corporate labels turned to the most stereotypical and outlandish examples of black masculinity in ways that were profitable both ideologically and economically,” says Sharma. “It appealed especially to white male youths, who had these fantasies of performing a version of black masculinity.”
For hip-hop historian and author Solomon Comissiong, the golden age of rap was an important way for many of his white friends to begin to understand the black experience. Today, he worries that listeners don’t hear these same messages on the radio, leaving them with stereotypical images perpetuated by commercially successful hip-hop.
“I had white friends for whom golden age music was their entree into black life, and this really benefited them,” he says. “Now, kids are getting a one-sided image of black America without any of the sociopolitical elements that explain where these rappers came from.”
But the success of To Pimp a Butterfly, which places the black male experience in a richer context of historical discrimination and violence, suggests that the image might not be so one-sided after all. Corporate labels aren’t any more interested in real black experience now than they were 20 years ago, but there’s reason to be optimistic that alternate voices are reaching white listeners.
“Even a few years ago, I felt like the radio had a bigger hold on people,” says Asante. “Hip-hop is changing, and that’s an advantage for all the people with something meaningful to say.”