Monday, October 30, 2006
Anthony Vital's bullet-riddled body was recently found by police in a field outside Lawrence.
At first, no details were released. Police didn't announce the cause of death until three days into the investigation. But that didn't stop some locals, armed with deep-seated stereotypes, from forming their own conclusions.
Vital-otherwise known as "Clacc" of local rap group Da BombSquad-had fallen victim to hip-hop.
Or at least that's what some reader posts to the comment boards at ljworld.com insisted.
An Oct. 17 post read:
"the facts have not been released, but considering he was considered a gangster rapper I am guessing he got shot. Sometimes it's just too easy to know what happened."
Another, posted the next day, read:
"Another crap-singing (I meant to say rap) wanna-be with assault charges against him. Tsk-Tsk Ho-Hum what do you expect. These people seem to run around in circles of violence. They adore it. They sing it. They love it. They live by it, and they die by it. Sounds to me like I'm glad he's gone."
That comment ignited a week-long online debate that became less about Clacc and more about the stereotype that black people + rap music = violent criminals.
Those who knew Clacc have been hit hardest by such remarks. Richard Thomas, a.k.a. GQ the Country Bunkin of Da BombSquad, was a longtime friend of Clacc.
"Unfortunately, my friend was one of those statistics that ended up being one of those stereotypes. So it's kind of ugly from that perspective," GQ says.
"The people that's just like, 'good riddance,' they don't know Anthony, they ain't never heard his music, they not his fans. He's just a dead rapper, it's nothing to them."
Nevertheless, those who harbor negative stereotypes about the so-called "rap lifestyle" believe the facts support their views. Indeed there has been a string of local incidents that, at least on the surface, could serve to deepen existing stereotypes.
In just the last year: a 46-year-old man was shot to death outside of the Granada following a hip-hop concert there; gunshots have been fired inside Last Call during the club's popular hip-hop night; in the parking lot outside the same club, police have seized several weapons including a sawed-off shotgun and an AK-47; and now a Lawrence rapper is found murdered.
As incidents like these become more frequent, area nightclubs are starting to take measures to preemtively ward off more violence. Before entering Last Call, for example, patrons must pass through a metal detector that ensures (according to the club's answering machine-listen) "the safest nightclub experience anywhere." Other bars in town have implemented new dress codes that would seem to specifically target hip-hop crowds. Banned attire includes jerseys, baseball caps turned sideways, and baggy pants and jackets that cover back pockets. (The few local clubs that reportedly impose dress codes did not return repeated calls for comment.)
Jeffrey Mack, a KU English doctoral student who taught a class on hip-hop culture, calls the dress codes "silly."
"I don't think moderating dress is going to change anything," Mack says. "I think they're focusing on the wrong thing:this stuff perpetuates the whole myth, negative stereotypes."
The myth, Mack explains, is that all hip-hop music glorifies violence, promotes gangbanging and drugs and misogynistic sex and crime and so on and so forth. He says that people view only a small part of the hip-hop spectrum and judge the entire genre based on a few artists. The rap artists that get the most visibility are also some of the most controversial.
"We overlook people like Mos Def, and we overlook people like Common," Mack says. "All these people that have certain consciousness and social responsibility embedded in their art, they aren't talked about a lot."
High-profile, controversial gangsta rap acts like Public Enemy and NWA, Mack says, formed as a sort of "social response mechanism" in the '80s.
"They had a reason behind it," Mack says. "They sort of centralized themselves in relation to that oppression, to say, 'I'm not going to take it anymore, I'm not going to be beaten by the police, I'm not going to be abused by the system. I'm my own man."
Now, Mack adds, that gangsta rap movement has evolved into less of a social response mechanism and more into a profitable subgenre of music. 50 Cent, Eminem and Snoop Dogg all rap about violence. But does that mean that even those rap artists are promoting violence or perpetuating it? Are such lyrics at all related to actual murders?
Yes and no, Mack says. But mostly no.
"The way that we look at hip-hop now is the way that we should look at a lot of things in American society. I mean, sex sells. Violence in movies sells. You've got Saw one, two and three, you're chopping people's feet off, know what I'm saying?" Mack says. "I think it's interesting that people are singling out one art form and sort of overlooking some of the others."
GQ of Da BombSquad admits that when it comes to the content of his raps, it's all about the, er, Benjamins.
"We live in a college town," he says. "If the college students wanted to hear 'peace my brother, let's just love one another,' then that's what we would rap about. 'Cuz we want them to buy our CD. That's what our whole CD gonna be about.
"But when people go to the club and they want to hear about smokin' and they want to hear about girls poppin' they butt and the drinks they gonna drink:they not gonna buy your CD if you're talkin' about 'get right, my brother.' So as the artist, I got to pick and choose. Am I in the music business or am I a musician?"
GQ, who grew up in South Central L.A. and moved to Kansas at 13, has seen firsthand what most Lawrence hip-hop fans only hear about through white ears.
"By the time I was 18, I had so many friends that I grew up with in L.A. either in jail or went to the penitentiary or done killed somebody or killed, already dead," GQ says. "I'm here in Kansas and it's like 'Dang! It's sad to hear that, but I'm glad my mama sent me out here!'"
Aaron Yates, a.k.a. rapper Tech N9ne, had similar experiences growing up in Kansas City.
"I grew up in Wayne Minor Projects, you know what I'm sizzlin'?" Tech says. "I'm not afraid to say I've sold crack before, but it wasn't for me. I sold it for a family member. I've been through all those gangster things. I grew up in a Blood neighborhood:I've seen gangsters die, I've seen dope dealers die, I've seen them go to jail. I've got an understanding that that ain't the kind of life that I want to lead."
Both rappers say that in order to be "real," they have to address those life experiences, however bitter, in rhyme.
Tech adds that he doesn't see his sometimes-violent lyrical content as glorifying violence. Instead, he says, he's telling his audience what not to do. At the end of some songs (for example, one in which he recounts the night he took 15 hits of ecstacy), there's a disclaimer ("this is my fucked up life").
The question might well be: Should rappers be held responsible for what they say? In a nation founded on free speech, why is hip-hop targeted as the scapegoat art form that stirs up the most trouble among youth?
Why aren't video games like Grand Theft Auto, movies like the Saw trilogy, and, as Sean Hunt (a.k.a. Lawrence rapper Approach) adds, country music similarly targeted?
"Listen to Johnny Cash records," he says. "Johnny Cash is killing people in every record he ever made. It's just like, he's an American hero. Your average urban minority is a menace:Music is music. It's entertainment just like anything else. Arnold Schwarzenegger kills a million people in his movies, yet he's governer, you know?"
But while he tries to fight rap's bad rap, Approach says that he feels a social responsibility as an artist.
"If you're making music, if you're making anything that puts you in the spotlight, you've gotta be sure you're representing yourself in a responsible manner. If you're presenting the harder aspect of music, the harder aspect of life, you've also got to be arming the kids with 'Hey, this is what I've come from, these are things I've seen, but here's ways to achieve outside of these things," Approach says.
Approach is by no means a gangsta rapper. He admits that he doesn't look like "the big, intimidating black rappers" you'd see on BET or even in Da BombSquad. He also raps to mostly white crowds (Lawrence's population, after all, is just 5 percent black). He says he's sure that if anything every happened at one of his shows-a pistol-whipping, a drug bust, etc.-he'd be automatically classified as "just another rapper having people get shot at his shows."
Approach partly blames the media for the popular equating of rap with violence.
"You can't say a shooting took place out on Mass Street. It had to be a shooting related to a hip-hop show being played at the Granada that had no fights, no incidents," says Approach, who has worked as the Granada's assistant manager.
He remembers when, early this year, the Granada, and especially hip-hop music, took the blame for a shooting that took place 20 minutes after the club had closed and the concert had ended.
Violence like that can leave local clubs scrambling to boost their public image. Hence, dress codes and metal detectors. But there's not much you can do to stop people who come to public settings specifically to cause trouble.
GQ says that Kansas City hip-hop scenesters come to Lawrence to do just that. He explains that their scene already has "a stamp on it." Insurance companies charge more money there to insure hip-hop shows, which GQ says is forcing the K.C. scene to spill into Lawrence.
"To get a hip-hop show, they gotta come to Lawrence," GQ says. "It's so expensive to put on a hip-hop show in Kansas City because of violence:They want to tear the club up (in Lawrence) so we don't get to come back and perform in front of our crowd. I think it's a matter of competition."
Travis O'Guin, who manages Tech N9ne, also says that insurance rates are getting high enough to make him wonder if there's discrimination at work.
"It's specifically targeted at hip-hop, I mean specifically," O'Guin says. "It's at the point where someone needs to take action and say, 'Hey, what's really going on? What type of discrimination are you really putting on this?'"
The problem with the discrimination is that it's not targeted at only the hip-hop groups that attract what O'Guin calls the "hardcore gangster" crowd. It's targeted at all hip-hop, regardless of lyrical content, audience makeup, or the venue's record of violence.
But Tech N9ne, who doesn't have a track record of violence at his shows, admits that some of the discrimination, the negative stereotypes, are "well deserved."
"A lot of us rappers give other rappers a bad name, you know what I'm sizzlin,' because this is from the street. And it is going to bring that element. But I can't imagine in Lawrence, Kansas," he says. "Hip-hop ain't takin' off. We don't have Def Jam Midwest, we don't have Universal Midwest, it's like what are we doin' down here.
"What is rap doin' that'll kill you down here? What has rap done for Clacc that made somebody want to kill him? That's a weird thing to say."