Today's New York Times Magazine section contains a discussion between one of the original Last Poets, Abiodun Oyewole, and current day rap artist, Ice Cube. The discussion was moderated by Sheila Rule, and makes for some very revealing reading. Oyewole is about 20 years older than Ice Cube, and that gap in age speaks volumes about their different perspectives.
For example, Cube says the older generation "always let the small things or small differences interfere with the bigger picture. If I use the word 'bitch,' to me it's just language." But Oyewole responds that "language does control. Language sets us up for a whole bunch of things. Language incites us. That's why when we used words like 'bitch' in the Last Poets, we made it clear that those words were used not loosely, but _specifically_ to talk about a particular character in the community, not everybody." He continues by talking about how it hurt him when, for their "Real Niggers Don't Die" rap, N.W.A. sampled the Last Poets poem "Die Nigger". He said the Last Poets' point was "get rid of the nigger, you get rid of the bitch, so that the beauty of your folks will emerge." "Real Niggers Never Die" means something entirely different!
Oyewole, who clearly respects Ice Cube, nevertheless crystallizes their differences when he says, "The difference between you and me and then and now is that my whole thing was specifically from a political arena. The Last Poets came on to rebel against a system that had us all in check, whereas the kids like you all have been seen as coming on as a cartoon." He also discusses how, at the time, he had to read Harold Cruse's "Crisis of the Negro Intellectual", had to read thoroughly "The Autobiography of Malcolm X", had to read Chancellor Williams's "Destruction of Black Civilization" because "folks were quoting things out of the pages and I didn't know what they were talking about if I didn't read the book." To which Ice Cube responds, "I'm not really, to be honest, a book person. You know, I'm just inspired by people." C'mon Cube!
I recommend reading the entire conversation. But the generation gap is not just between the two of them. It's a true generation gap of style and substance spanning all of American (and perhaps world) culture. Current day rappers are in it for the money, and style themselves as urban street reporters who report what's "really" going on. It seems they have to out-do each other in that reporting in order to "market" their product. No different than the media in general, frenetically feeding in the shadows of Whitewater in search not of truth but ratings and sales. (It's a current affair!)
While both Oyewole and Cube draw distinctions among the rappers, saying some have substance and try to spread good values while others do not, the conversation left me unconvinced. Being part of Oyewole's generation, I keep hoping for substance and don't see any viable political movement coming out of rap today. Maybe I'm wrong. Of course, you might ask me a few questions about _my_ generation!