[Op-Ed] Streets Is Watching: Rap and Surveillance


via Village Voice

Pop Matters today publishes an essay, “Watching Rap,” which starts like this:

In March of 2008, the LA Times published an article that implicated Sean “Diddy” Combs and his associates in the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur at Quad Recording Studios in New York. A few days later, the Times retracted the article once it became apparent that the author, Chuck Phillips, had relied on fabricated documents and less-than-credible sources. Nevertheless, despite the quick (and embarrassing) retraction, the story got nearly one million hits on latimes.com, more than any other story for the year, and as a result, the story-within-the-story became the overwhelming public interest in the shooting, even 14 years after the fact.

And, after a kind of survey of why one million people would care about this story–the fact the deaths remain unsolved, the allegations of police involvement in Pac’s death, the rise of so-called hip-hop cops, and so on–the piece’s author, Erik Nielson, winds up here: “This recent mainstream interest in the subject may suggest that these kinds of surveillance tactics are new, but the existence of the “hip-hop cops” is really just further evidence of a long-standing tradition of institutional surveillance of rap as a whole–a tradition that has been so pervasive that in many ways it has become intrinsic to the genre as we know it.” So far–great.

It can’t be understated the degree to which this surveillance is weird and threatening and, relative to the amount of crime that actually takes place in the (narrowly-defined) rap community, completely disproportionate. Hip-hop cops are, as Nielson points out, a naked throwback to “the COINTELPRO days of the ’50s and ’60s, when black artists and activists were routinely monitored by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies”–except these days, the New Yorker writes bemused profiles about the cops involved. I have yet to read an even remotely convincing justification for their existence, although Ian Frazier did give it a shot in that New Yorker piece: Fabolous shouts out Street Fam, which is in fact a criminal gang, all the time; Vibe reported on Young Jeezy’s ties to the “ATL street crew” Black Mafia Family. So yes, these dudes knew/grew up with/are still friends with criminals.

Which is where Neilson’s essay takes a turn for the bizarre. “Given the extent to which rap has always been under this kind of pressure and surveillance, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that in many ways it has come to be defined by them. For one, no genre integrates surveillance practices into its themes more than rap music does–just think of the hundreds, even thousands, of songs that address a sense of being watched or followed in some way.” As examples (and he’s right, he had his pick), Neilson offers up Goodie Mob’s paranoia epic “Cell Therapy” and the Firm’s “Phone Tap”– “In the Firm’s “Phone Tap”, the rappers’ voices are distorted to sound as if they are being called in over a cell phone, giving us (the listeners) the same perspective as the federal agent who is tapping the lines. Three rappers who play the part of drug dealers discussing their next deal provide the verses.”

Right–the Firm were pretending to be drug dealers. Hence the surveillance. They were doing Goodfellas. The above, in fact, is pretty much the only time where Neilson explicitly mentions that surveillance and hip-hop come together primarily not at the odd Public Enemy album or “Fuck the Police” counter-programming incident but at the intersection of rap and violent crime. Cops watch rappers because they’re potential criminals, and rappers talk about surveillance because often, they’re talking about potential crimes they might in fact commit. “The fixation with being watched that is generally characteristic of rap” has an explanation beyond the Foucauldian one about to be given, and yikes, here it comes.

Consider cars. They have always been an important symbol of wealth and mobility in African American popular culture–indeed, in global culture–but in rap, they are nearly ubiquitous in lyrics and music videos. One of the appeals of the car is that it affords a kind of privacy–it is mobile (and therefore elusive) and has built-in mechanisms like tinted windows that frustrate surveillance. Even the typical driving position, laid back, functions to obscure the presence of the individual driver, making him or her tough to identify.

Which segues to:

Hip-hop fashion has certainly changed over the years, but one of its enduring characteristics has been that it is way oversized. Rappers wear jeans that are so large that they will ride low on the waist (or even lower), their t-shirts or jerseys are always at least two sizes too large and hang well below the waist, the hoods on sweatshirts are often pulled up, and sneakers or boots are frequently unlaced, making them appear larger than normal. On one hand, these large clothes, reminiscent of the zoot suits of the previous generation, serve to exaggerate the MC’s size and physical presence, but they also serve the obvious function of obscuring or disguising the rapper as well.

And then climaxes at:

Or consider the aesthetic within rap, evident in sampling and voice distortion, that tends to favor a kind of technological mediation between performer and audience, an added layer that, like the alias or the oversized clothes, intentionally complicates, and in many cases obscures, the rapper’s presence.

And so on. Again, Neilson slides in with a relevant lyric, this time Inspectah Deck on “Redbull”: “Behind the tinted windows I lie low / On some hydro tryin’ to slide from the 5-0.” So evasion and deception in rap are actually evasion and deception in criminal enterprises right? But making the argument that criminality is intrinsic to rap (not mine, necessarily) is a lot more sinister and counter-revolutionary than saying surveillance is intrinsic to rap. Ditto for baggy clothes–cf. everyone telling Namond to cut his hair on The Wire cause otherwise he’d be visible down the block. (No mention here of the theory that the baggy clothes trend got its start as an outgrowth of poverty, either.)

“Rap, however, is the true exemplar, confronting the American surveillance culture head on even as it finds new and creative ways to thwart it–and in the process, offering its listeners a valuable insight into what it means to be a black artist in the United States.”

Which is to be surveilled, right? According to this essay, anyway. The tautology is hurting my head.

At some point, in other words, this piece moves from a neat think-piece on the relationship between law-enforcement and rappers to academic treatise on how hip-hop has integrated the panoptic eye into its very soul without stopping at the only part that matters: how and why this came to be. The fact that rappers are prone to slap one another every once in a while doesn’t seem to be justification enough. Read The Dirt–how many arrest warrants could you have spun off that? I understand why Nas did “Phone Tap”; what I still don’t understand is why cops listen to songs like “Phone Tap,” take them literally, and start staking out people’s houses.

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