Got a bum education double-digit inflation Can't take the train to the job There's a strike at the stationGrandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Message
I came here with my dick in my hand Don't make me leave with my foot in your ass (Bitch be cool)Mystikal, Shake Ya Ass
"If we stop buying it, if we stop supporting it, then maybe it will change."
Byron Hurt needs you to understand that he loves hip-hop. Nevertheless, the 37-year old documentary filmmaker and anti-sexism activist's latest undertaking, the Sundance-selected Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, firmly takes to task the music he grew up with and got down to. In the documentary, which was filmed over six years and aired recently on PBS's independent film showcase Independent Lens, Hurt questions why the genre has evolved to be largely defined by misogyny, violence, and homophobia.
Beyond Beats has garnered 10 official film-festival selections and includes commentary from and interviews with some of the most influential players in the businesspresent and past: Fat Joe, Talib Kweli, Chuck D, former Def Jam President Carmen Ashurst-Watson, and BET executive Stephen Hill. He also raps with aspirant MCs who shock him with their brutal lyrics. Asked why they don't get past the angry street clichés and cogitate instead on pressing social concerns, the budding hip-hoppers assuredly reply: "[The record companies] don't want to hear that."
Hurt acknowledges their point. In the end, the film offers a simple explanation: economics. With ever-increasing media consolidation comes increased aversion to risk. And if hardcore rapper 50 Cent's multiplatinum The Massacre is any indication, sex, guns, and drugs are staples the major record labels won't abandon happily. But the profits have come at a price, according to hip-hop legend and Public Enemy member Chuck D, who tells Hurt that BET is "the cancer of black manhood."
Gelf caught up with the busy filmmaker, who spoke from Long Island (where he is originally from), Northern Jersey, and Seattle/Tacoma International Airport. In the following interview, edited for clarity, he reflects on the impact of his film, whether or not art is imitating life, self-aware rappers, what we can learn from a Cam'ron mixtape, and why Don Imus probably was an asshole long before his most recent flap.
Gelf Magazine: How do you differentiate between hip-hop and rap?
Byron Hurt: Wow, that comes up a lot. I tend to use the terms interchangeably, although I know the hip-hop purists see that as a problem. Some people think of "hip-hop" as an entire culture. I tend to look at hip-hop as an industrywhat's in the mainstreamand rap as what preceded the first invasion of hip-hop.
GM: How complicit is a person who buys a CDof say, Nelly or 50 Cent, two of the artists profiled in your filmin the degradation of women or homophobia?
BH: Not just those two. You can't just pick on those two, because there're a whole lot of others. Really I think there is a level of complicity if you knowingly buy a CD created by an artist who is hyperviolent, sexist, or misogynistic, or, you know, homophobic. I think it contributes to the culture that makes it acceptable. I think there's the issue of who we are supporting with our money, who we don't support with our money: That's a conscious decision. I think it sends a message that we don't like it. So hopefully the film, and the work that many peoplelike hip-hop activists all over the countryare doing will educate people so that they'll make different decisions with their money.
There are some important things to glean from, you know, a 50 Cent CD. I think that it has to be smarter; it has to have a certain level of hip-hop education or knowledge, so that kids will see something that is telling a true, authentic "street tale" or "street story." [Artists other than 50 Cent] are creating something that is supporting those aspects of black life or poor, working-class life. When I think of artists like Nas, I see somebody who is sort of a storyteller.
GM: The thing is, two of the most criticallyand commerciallysuccessful "conscious" artists, Common and Talib Kweli, have never gone platinum. (Not even close, if I'm not mistaken.) Meanwhile, mainstream rapper MIMs brags that he can go platinum without saying anything on a trackand with the number one rap single in the country now, he just might. With such vested financial interests, how likely is it that hip-hop will reform?
GM: Most of the artists you spoke with generally seem to be older or more established, aside from the aspiring MCs at Spring Bling [BET's annual spring break event in Florida]. Why is this? Certainly there are easier people to track down than the likes of Fat Joe, Mos Def, or Busta Rhymes. Did you try to contact newer, far less establishedthough more currentartists like Yung Joc or Juelz Santana, for example?
BH: Juelz and Joc weren't really hot. I filmed the documentary over six years. They were starting to become hot while I was filming. But I was going to be conscious about the artists I contacted, so I wanted to select artists who had some sort of relevancy to the culture and also had some level of consistency and staying power. I didn't want to chase after an emerging artist, or people who were hot at the time, because in the end I thought it would date the film a lot.
GM: Was there anyone you tried to meet with who wouldn't speak to you?
BH: I wanted to speak with Queen Latifah, but she turned down the interview. I wanted to interview Nas, but I think there was a scheduling conflict. And I wanted to do a sit-down interview with Stephen Hill [the BET Senior Vice-President shown walking away after just a few questions during the film], and that never happened.
GM: Of the rappers you did interview, who struck you as being the most aware of the current situation as you see it? The least?
BH: I definitely feel like Fat Joe is very conscious of all of this. I think he sees exactly what I see. I don't think he's not aware of the current situation or the current state of hip-hop, but I think that he's made a choice to continue to do the music that is going to keep him relevant. And what's going to keep him relevant is hardcore hip-hop. I wouldn't say that Fat Joe doesn't care, because Fat Joe does do a lot of things in the community that indicate that he does care, that he wants to give back to the community. And I think that he sees himself as two different people: Fat Joe the artist, and Fat Joe, a person who cares about the community. And I think he does what he can do. When it comes to the macho image in rap music and hip-hop culture, including the sexism, homophobia, the violent gun-talking, and all of that hyper-aggressive stuff that we hear in his music, I think he's not all that concerned. It's not a priority for him to work against or fight against. I think he sees his significance or his contribution as somebody who is present and seen in the community, doing things on behalf of the community when he can do it.
GM: To what extent do you feel current hip-hop is affecting or influencing American society?
BH: That's hard to say, because I don't really have any empirical evidence. But, anecdotally, I think it does have an impact. Let me say this: Hip-hop, the current state of hip-hop today, certainly doesn't do anything to break down certain stereotypes about masculinity in American society. It doesn't challenge notions of masculinityand that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to show how all of these images, how all of these representations of manhoodin hip-hop, but also outside of hip-hophave become so strong that we don't even question them, we don't even challenge them. The impact is that, I think, a lot of guys grow up listening to this music, watching hip-hop videos (in addition to everything else they see in the larger culture, including Hollywood movies, sports culture, whatever those images that we've seen from the war in Iraq and what have you) reinforce what it means to be a "man." So to me that's the biggest, No. 1 issue that I would like to have on tape: manhood in American culture.
GM: In your estimation, who bears the most responsibility for the current state of commercial hip-hop?
BH: That's always a very difficult question for me to answer, because I haven't really done a thorough amount of research on that. But I was talking to [hip-hop writer] Cheo Hodari Coker today at a hip-hop conference in Massachusetts, and he was talking about who's culpable. In his opinion, the audience is more culpable because the audience is supporting it through the dollar, through what they consume. I tend to believe that we are all culpable and responsible because we contribute in some way. But if I had to say who's more responsible, I would have to say the corporate media. The multinational corporations are distributing a very limited and narrow representation of masculinity and femininity all over the globe, because they're making conscious choices about what they're going to sell, and what they're not going to sell; what they're going to market, and what they're not going to market. And I think that that has a real big impact on the taste of the audience. And the audience has successfully been dumbed down through popular culture.
"I definitely feel like Fat Joe is very conscious of all of this. I think he sees exactly what I see. I think that he's made a choice to continue to do the music that is going to keep him relevant."GM: What's your take on the recent Don Imus controversy?
BH: I think that this is a really important moment in popular-culture history. What's amazing to me is how the voices of people who spoke out and protested and rallied against Don Imus, how those voices were heard. It's a very hopeful time, because it indicates that people can be empowered to raise their voices and effect change. I think it's actually a good thing that's happening right now and I think that Don Imus's sort of shift from his comments about the women's basketball team to hip-hop is a really serious way to deflect his own sexism and his own racism. I see that being something that is done with a lot of men; when they're called out about their sexism, the first reaction or the first response is to deflect the criticism. Which Imus has actually done pretty successfully.
Now the conversation is about hip-hop, misogyny, and sexism, which are indefensibleand I don't defend them on any levelbut I think the conversation should continue to be not only on Don Imus and his comments and the impact that it's had, but also on sexism and racism in American culture, not just hip-hop, because both of those things, including patriarchy, predate hip-hop. I really doubt Don Imus was going home every night and listening to Biggie and Young Jeezy, and that's where he got all of his cues about black women in American culture. I believe that his attitudes about black culture have been cultivated for a very long time, and they really don't have anything to do with hip-hop. I think "hip-hop" provides a very good excuse or cover for his own actions and behavior and attitude.
GM: With that being said, why do you think it's been said that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, for example, don't publicly condemn many of the rappers who have said the same thingor worsethan what Imus said?
BH: [Voice rising] You said they don't? Of course they havethey've been doing it for years. That's the thing that's just utterly amazing to me. That belief, or that thought, is just born out of historical amnesia or ignorance. Because Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have been talking about the degradation of women and hip-hop for many years. And they've done many different things to speak out against it. That's the thing that's really surprising to mepeople are making it seem as if the hip-hop community is being hypocritical, or the black community is being hypocritical, when black people have been speaking out against this kind of stuff for a long time. It's just that it hasn't been newsworthy when it happens, by the mainstream media. And it seems as if nobody seems to care that we have these concerns or these criticisms. So I think that's a false notion.
Just two weeks ago before this Imus thing happened there was a huge rally in Harlem and I think Al Sharpton was a part of that, I'm not exactly sure. But there were people protesting about [G-Unit rapper] Tony Yayo and this whole thing with him beating up a 13 year old boy [AllHipHop]. And within that, people have been complaining about just where hip-hop is right now, with the hyperaggression and the misogyny.I know that Hip-Hop Speaks in New York City has been doing stuff for yearsthere have been panel discussions, there have been conferences completely devoted to gender politics and remedies in hip-hop culture, but when the mainstream media does not pay attention to it, the rest of the culture tends to believe that it's not happening.
"What's amazing to me is how the voices of people who spoke out and protested and rallied against Don Imus, how those voices were heard."GM: In the context of current hip-hop, is art imitating life or life imitating art?
BH: It's such a hard question for me to answer, but I will say that what we see in the cultural life now doesn't always necessarily reflect real life for everybody. It doesn't reflect the lives of the people who are most affected by hip-hop. And that is people of color, black people: young boys and men of color, who are very receptive, and look up to rap artists as heroes, like they are gods. And I'm not saying they're not heroes. I'm not saying that they shouldn't be looked up to. What I'm saying is, there's a lot more to who we are, as men, and as people. There are images and representations of us that you see all the time, on the radio, television, internet, etc.
There are so many guys who came up in the hood, who never sold drugs, who grew up in Bed-Stuy or North Harlem or wherever. We're not all drug dealers, we're not all gun-toting guys, trying to earn a rep on the street. There are a lot of black and Latino men who are good men, who are interested in education, who want to dwell on life outside of hip-hop and outside of sports. And I don't think we really get that.
GM: So I just gotta askwhat's up with the East Coast bias? You've got Mos Def, Fat Joe, Busta Rhymes and KRS-One in the film.
BH: Yeah, yeah. What's up with the East Coast bias? Well, first of all, I'm East Coast-based, and I had a limited travel budget. I guess I do have an East Coast bias, if you want to be truthful about it. I mean, I'm an East Coast kind of guy: I love East Coast hip-hop. That's not to say I don't like things that come out of the West or South or Midwest or whatever, but I didn't feel like I needed to get this cross-cultural representation to get my point across. So I was less concerned about LA or Bay Area artists, or southern rap artists, because I felt like images and issues that I would address in the film transcend all of it.
GM: In some ways your film could be seen as crusading against hip-hop. But in the movie trailer, you mention that you "sometimes feel bad criticizing hip-hop." And in your interview with VIBE last June, you say, "I still love hip-hop." How do you reconcile your feelings with the powerful critique presented in your film?
BH: I look at it like criticizing family members whom you love a great deal, but they're messing up. You want them to be successful and you know that they can be successful. Or, like a little brother who has great potential, but he's distracted by other things. So that's how I look at it. I still love hip-hop.
GM: Who are you listening to?
BH: Right now? In my CD changer I have Nas, I got Lupe Fiasco, Dead Prez, I have Jay-Z, and I just bought the new Hi-Tek CD. That's what I keep in my car right now. But I bought this mix CD with a whole bunch of different artists: 50, Cam'ron, and all these different artists.
There're certain things about hip-hop that I truly admire: the business side, how a lot of these guys are engaging in business. I admire that, I respect that. But still, for me, the hyperaggression that I see is detrimental. Quite honestly, it saddens me. And I fear for what it is all the time.
I love the fact that hip-hop is an art form that people are engaging in back-and-forth, like a call-and-response. I think that it's a good profession, and there are a lot of nuances in hip-hop that are unexplored, that I wish I had the time to explore in my movie. But because the film could only be an hour and because I had a very focused, specific subject matter, I couldn't deal with all of it. But I think my critique of hip-hop goes beyond my film. If there's one regret that I do have, it's that I didn't have enough time to include all of what I think about it.
"I have no idea if my interview had any sort of influence or impact on Jadakiss, but that was the first time that he had made a song that was really questioning social issues."GM: Earlier you said, "Who we don't support with our money, that's a conscious decision. I think it sends a message that we don't like it." But you also mentioned that you just bought a mix CD with Cam'ron and 50 Cent, whom you specifically identify as being hyperviolent and homophobic. How do you explain this?
BH: I explain that by saying that I go out on the road and I teach and I educate people about issues in rap music and hip-hop culture and in order for me to do that, I need to know what's going on out there in the streets. I need to know what guys are rapping about. To be honest with you, I don't buy a lot of mixes. That was out of the norm for me; I bought it because I wanted to hear what was going on right now. I wanted to hear how the beef between 50 [Cent] and Cam'ron and all these other beefs that are taking place right now were playing out on these mix CDs, which is a huge cultural phenomenon. So yes, I have purchased it, but I purchased it more for research purposes than for just pure aesthetic entertainment value. But I generally do not spend money on artists that I don't support, or if I can't condone the content that they're creating.
And I have to say, I actually learned some things from listening to that CD. Lots of things, actually.
GM: What would you say you learned?
BH: It was really clear that by listening to the conversation that 50 and Cam'ron had on the radio, on the Andrew Martinez show on Hot 97, that they are engaging in business. They are fully engaged in the business of making music, and the numbers, the business side of the industry. And I think that is what drives them as artists, at this particular time.
I also learned that within some of the artistsI can't think of anyone off the top of my head right nowI can hear a self-critique. I can hear rappers who are making a critique against the gun talk, the materialism, and all that kind of stuff. You hear rappers talking about how it gets tiring. They're talking about how the rappers talking about killing dudes on records are not real, that it's fake. That it's all basically performance. So to me, that's a good thing to know, that within the genre there are artists who are being critical of all the stuff I examine in the film. You have your mainstay artists who are going to continue to do that and rap about those things, but there are also artists who are sort of pushing back against it at the same time, which I think is a good thing.
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