Things Done Changed
Hip-hop isn’t nearly as violent as it used to be, so why won’t the mainstream media recognize this?
Words Jeff Weiss
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of XXL Magazine.
Outside of the 7th Ward in New Orleans, no one knew that Jamal Clay was a rapper until his 2009 arrest for second-degree murder. His anonymity didn’t stop prosecutors from using little-heard lyrics and photos on his MySpace page as evidence that 18-year-old “Yung Mal” was the leader of the Prieur And Columbus Boys gang.
After awaiting trial for nearly four years in the Orleans Parish Prison, Clay was released this April at the age of 22. A new witness had emerged to contradict the prosecution’s shaky case—one that lacked physical evidence and hinged on its ability to convince jurors that the fledgling rapper was a powerful shot caller.
“The prosecution and local media paid his music far more attention than anyone else ever had—just because they thought they could associate violent rap lyrics with the alleged crime,” says New Orleans attorney Jason Williams, who represented Clay. “The local media is still often out of touch and catapulted him into infamy that he didn’t deserve.”
The phenomenon is familiar to Williams, the lead attorney during Lil Boosie’s murder trial and subsequent acquittal last spring. As in Clay’s case, Louisiana prosecutors cited rap lyrics as alleged evidence of Boosie’s guilt. Nor is the phenomenon confined to the South. This August, New York City police officers recorded the biggest gun bust in municipal history: 254 firearms and 19 indictments.
The case broke open when narcotics investigators discovered the guns and cash-filled Instagram of Matthew Best, an unknown Brooklyn mixtape rhymer nicknamed “Neno Best.” The tabloids immediately had a field day trumpeting the misdeeds of the “aspiring rapper.” The message was clear: Whether you’re a national star or a ne’er-do-well with 100 views on your YouTube page, hip-hop music and culture remain vulnerable to mischaracterization.
“When the media says ‘rapper,’ they really mean ‘young Black male.’ It’s part of a larger pattern of demonization and criminalization that dates back for centuries,” says Atlanta MC Killer Mike. “This is a violent country, and because hip-hop is the music of today, it gets blamed. But times have changed. The gangstas behind the rappers want to keep the peace. They know violence isn’t good for business and learned their lessons from Bad Boy and Death Row.”
There’s never been a safer time to be a popular rapper. During the 1990s, long-simmering feuds led to the slayings of icons, 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G. and Big L. In the first half of the 2000s, 50 Cent, Cam’ron and Young Buck were victims of shooting attacks, while legendary Run-DMC DJ Jam Master Jay was murdered in 2002.
But a closer look at the last half-decade reveals that most slain rappers (Dolla, Slim Dunkin, Lil Phat) tend to be largely obscure. According to the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, over 100,000 Americans are shot each year. And despite the numerous awards show clashes and Twitter beefs that often overshadow the music, there have been no recent major incidents among rappers.
Counting music industry executive Chris Lighty, Pro Era rapper Capital STEEZ and Tyga’s artist Freddy E, there have been more suicides over the last year in hip-hop than violent acts of aggression. In fact, music’s most public brawls occurred between R&B singers, Chris Brown and Drake (Editor’s note: Okay, Drake’s not really an R&B artist but…) and Chris Brown and Frank Ocean.
“This is the diplomatic era of hip-hop. Of course, violence still exists. There’s always going to be something at the bottom, and you can’t ignore that this music was started in tough neighborhoods by tough people,” says Wu-Tang mastermind RZA. “But look at something like the Rock The Bells Festival. Ten years ago, you saw a lot of heavily tattooed black and Mexican gangbangers. Today, you still see the same type of people, but they’re no longer banging. The music has become the main source of aggression.”