“I’m a rapper. And I am a gangsta. And I do what I want.”
Lil Wayne told that to Katie Couric in 2009, the footage would later be played during a CBS special for the GRAMMYs. Even with a nationwide smash single, this interview was the one that put a face to the voice for a lot of mainstream America. The man that had all their kids singing about lollipops had more ink on his body than a Hell’s Angel, the crude and outspoken tongue of a poetic sailor and the attitude of an outlaw. That same year Wayne raised eyebrows for what was hidden in the secretive double cup and plead guilty to gun possession for a incident that occurred in 2007. Wayne was by all means famous, popular but with enough edge to make him seem a bit dangerous. To the outside world that viewed rap music from afar, he indeed appeared to be a gangster that did whatever he pleased.
As Couric later said, she was nervous about interviewing him. Wayne was the perfect cross between rap and rock star - the problems with drugs, a rebellious streak and a complete disdain for rules and authority. He was not the next mainstream darling but a martian with two middle fingers and a million dollar smile sitting on a bank account fattened by teenagers eager to play music their parents didn’t approve of.
Hip-hop is an artform constantly under scrutiny, mistakes can be dire, the wrong lyrics can enough to disband brands and hurt pockets. Reebok swiftly cut ties with Ricky Rozay when unsolicited mollies started appearing in champagne glasses, Mt. Dew couldn’t run from Tyler, The Creator fast enough when some drew links between his commercial and domestic violence. Public outrage doesn’t allow for conversation, the people want action, a phenomenon Ludacris felt back in 2002 when Bill O'Reilly brought an end to his position as spokesman for Pepsi. He demanded that America boycott Pepsi while painting Luda as a terror who, “Degrades women, encourages substance abuse and does all things that particularly hurt the poor in society.” Apparently raunchy rap lyrics are worse for kids’ minds than sugary soda is for young obese bodies. Ludacris wasn’t a menace to society, more like the crude uncle that slipped you booty magazines and told dirty jokes, but all it took was one man with a platform to tell the world he was ruining children for the big bosses to severe ties.
“However, Ludacris, like a cursing Pied Piper, can lead children into a lifestyle of defiance and destruction that could ruin them for many years – perhaps forever. And like the decadent mercenary he is, he’ll laugh all the way to the bank doing it” - Bill O'Reilly
Fear brings discomfort, misunderstanding, angst and panic. Fear is what keeps many rappers from swimming in the mainstream. The right image could be the difference between boycotts and endorsement deals, the wrong image could forever sever ties with corporate America. Even an innocent snowman can be corrupted when aligned with a rap artist. Young Jeezy had school systems across the country in a frenzy over a snowman with an attitude - once parents learned of the tie to cocaine he was the new public enemy number one. USA Today wrote a post about the shirt’s nefarious ways, anti-drug organization National Families In Action considered it a, “Phenomena in which parents have no idea what their children are exposed to. There is a code that children are aware of but not parents.” A wholesaler acknowledged that despite the controversy the product was one of his biggest sellers across the country. Hated by parents, loved by the kids and the streets, Jeezy gained worldwide attention for having an incredible debut album and making Frosty frown. Now too dangerous for global brands Jeezy would have to turn to his own corporate thuggin for his income.
Ice-T knows something about how controversy can be turned into profit. He put the fear of a revolutionary into the heart of the American government with his song, “Cop Killer.” In 1992, Ice-T and his rock band Body Count put out their self-titled album right before the L.A. riots, his gritty, graphic protest song escalated in the aftermath. Not only Ice-T but also his label, Warner Bros, came under fire from critics, the police, even President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle chimed in with their distaste for the record and its message. This was no social media backlash - concerts were boycotted, death threats were made, local police in North Carolina threatened retail stores that their emergency calls would go unanswered if the Body Count album stayed on the shelves. With lyrics like, “I'm 'bout to bust some shots off, I'm 'bout to dust some cops off” it was bound to attract eyes from the biggest of bosses. While some argued that The First Amendment gave him freedom of speech and that the real issue was police brutality, those voices were the minority. Warner was accused of using the controversy to sell more records, and it was true that every protest only drew another curious ear to the album.
Sales of Ice-T's "Body Count" album surged dramatically last week in Texas and Southern California after law enforcement agencies and political candidates in those areas called for a ban of the rapper's controversial "Cop Killer" song. Ice-T's sales jumped an estimated 60% in Los Angeles, where Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and the Los Angeles Police Protective League had urged Time Warner, the distributor, to stop selling the album. "We completely sold out of 'Body Count' this week," said Darrin Mercado, store manager of Crain's Records on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. "I think the controversy over the album is really stirring things up. "After all, the album has been out for a couple of months. Now, all of a sudden, everybody's asking for it." - L.A. Times
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Looking back, it’s incredible that Ice was able to transition from pointing blame at the badge to wearing one on television. It wasn’t simply an event you could sweep under a rug, this man set the world on fire and thanks to the passage of time was able to escape with only a few bruises. Ice-T never lost a step, he just grew older, less controversial and was able to maneuver through the entertainment industry as if the government didn’t once have him on their shit list.
Ice Cube is another rapper whose disruptive and daring days came at the beginning of his career. He was a strong, outspoken black man that was relentless on the microphone. There was no filter, no sugarcoating, no compromising, he rapped about race, his surroundings, and the world from the pit of his fiery gut and didn’t care who felt offended. N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police” came before Ice T’s “Cop Killer” and received attention from the FBI. That was just the beginning of Ice Cube pushing buttons and stirring things up. Famously, when N.W.A. decided to play "Fuck the Police" despite the police's demands that it get left off their set list, "police rushed the stage and the group fled.”
Cube’s no holds barred approach came with it’s own controversy, after the release of his album Death Certificate, any images of Ice Cube were banned from the state of Oregon. He was illegal in all retail stores, even the St. Ides Malt Liquor that he was endorsing. There was more to Cube than just being a rapper, other passions were pursued, and now there’s an entire generation that will know Are We There Yet before Death Certificate. He got older, less resistant to accommodation and was embraced by those in the mainstream. There’s no way “No Vaseline” and Ride Along could come out during the same year but that doesn’t discredit who he is. We can appreciate both sides of Ice Cube because they both are necessary as examples of how far hip-hop can take you even when you don’t play by their rules - even if those Hollywood studio checks don’t start clearing until you play by their rules.
Once rappers are seen as safe, when they stop being “gangsters that do whatever they want,” that’s when they’re embraced. It took Wayne seven years after the his interview with Katie Couric to be featured in a Super Bowl commercial. It was the biggest night in advertisement, the deepest depths of the mainstream, and Lil Wayne was seen alongside George Washington in a scene for Apartments.com joking about The Jeffersons and apple pie.
He is no longer the rapper that spent a year at Rikers for gun possession or defending the substance in his Styrofoam cup. The times have changed. When the big suits who only care about making money and protecting endorsements bring your name up in meetings and it doesn’t leave the room in a state of awkward discomfort, you’ve made it. You have officially entered the safe zone. It wasn’t until 2011 that Eminem appeared in a commercial that played during the Super Bowl. 15 years ago, every time he opened his mouth there was outrage. He was foul mouthed, graphic, and unapologetic. A bigger target than Jeezy’s snowman. Now the world is accustomed to his offensive humor. There’s very little about Eminem that is shocking now. In America’s eyes he’s about as dangerous as a can of Lipton ice tea.
The only other notable rapper that made an appearance in a Super Bowl commercial was Drake. Drake doesn’t have a terrifying bone in his body, he embodies squeaky clean, the kale of rap. Even when he's in a heated “beef” he can release a diss song where profanity is scarce and hits on radio. If his career continues at this pace he will surely be performing “Hotline Bling” during Super Bowl 58. Pay attention to the ad, he teams up with T-Mobile to shoot a video for "Hotline Bling." The company comes with changes, they practically butcher the entire song and Drake agrees willingly to do whatever will make them happy. He’s the ideal rapper, the kind that will bow to their every whim, placing the company's vision over his artistic integrity. Popular with kids but safe enough to make the face of your product, he’s the rapper of their dreams.
To gain entrance into the deepest depths of the mainstream media you have to be a rapper that simultaneously appeals to the young and be innocent enough to be tolerated by the old. By being endorsed by a company that’s willing to pay millions to be viewed during the Super Bowl, Wayne has somehow joined the rankings of rappers who white people don’t find frightening. In an age where album sales are down, label deals are worth less and less, endorsement deals are major for artists trying to do more than survive in this music industry. If Future and The Weeknd can team up with Apple after singing about theirdrugs for the last few years there’s opportunities that are possible without being Danny Tanner, but tellingly the only destruction Future and Abel have wrought is on themselves. You don't see them arrested, they don't make headlines for outrageous statements, despite their vices, they're thoroughly Apple-able.
With all the strides that hip-hop has made in the last decade, it’s still fighting some of the same battles to be accepted as a form of art. There’s still a big part of America that wouldn’t be able to stomach Kendrick Lamar performing “Alright” even though he’s one of the biggest artists of our age. Tyler, The Creator is being banned from entire countries for lyrics he rapped almost five years ago. There’s always going to be a Bill O'Reilly, Tipper Gore, or someone who has a knee-jerk fear reaction when thinking of rappers. That’s why we need balance - let Drake be Nelly if Kendrick can bare the weight of being Ice Cube. The mainstream isn’t for everyone to swim in, some voices don’t need that stage to reach the ears that need to hear them.
It’s all about progress. The old become the landmarks for how far the culture has gone and the new arrive, ready to be adored by children who will hopefully grow into adults that won’t be such pricks.
By Yoh, aka Henny Killer, aka @Yoh31
Photo Credit: 2DopeBoyz