Dr. Dre has worked long and hard to establish himself as the epitome of hardcore rap. Hence the following line from his multiplatinum album The Chronic: "This is dedicated to the niggaz that was down from day one."
Whether Dre himself fits that description is a matter of some debate, especially among aficionados of rapper Eazy-E--who, like the good doctor, was part of N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude), arguably the most influential SoCal gangsta act. Ever since Dre left N.W.A., he and Eazy have been involved in an exceedingly immature feud that may have reached its apotheosis with E's latest EP, It's On (Dr. Dre) 187UM I Killa. Many of the eight tracks on the disc exist only to dis the man the liner notes refer to as "my bitch Andre (Dr. Dre) Young." Nastier yet is the inclusion of an early Eighties photo of Dre taken while he was a member of the World Class Wreckin' Cru, an extremely dorky dance band. Eazy kindly labels some of the portrait's more interesting details--eye shadow, eyeliner, lipstick. An arrow pointed at Dre's crotch adds the final insult: "Nuthing but a she thang, baby."
On the surface this attack seems merely silly. But it also symbolizes the growing importance of credibility--or the appearance of credibility--in music aimed at the youth culture. Particularly in the fields of rap and alternative rock, performers whose popularity is predicated in large part on their street smarts and I'm-just-like-you personas are jumping through hoops to convince music buyers that untold fame and wealth hasn't changed them. What results from these futile efforts are gestures that are generally as amusing as they are ineffective.
In the early days of rock and roll, maintaining this facade wasn't necessary. The Horatio Alger rule was in force: As long as artists pretended they were still "down to earth," they could move into mansions in the wealthy parts of town, ride exclusively in limousines and soar in private jets, above the little people. They weren't seen as two-faced, but as evidence that talent, drive and initiative could catapult a nobody from the depths of poverty to the heights of high society.
This began to change with the rise of punk rock in mid-Seventies England, a country that has long sported a rigid class system known for stirring up resentment. The Sex Pistols did their part both by attacking the beloved monarchy in songs such as "God Save the Queen" and by slagging Mick Jagger and other superstars who had abandoned their working-class roots in favor of glitz, superficiality and an endless series of models-turned-girlfriends. As a result, scenesters who prided themselves on hipness began to wonder about the believability of beloved millionaires singing about heartbreak and loneliness.
Sometimes, targets of abuse such as the Rolling Stones, who released 1978's fine Some Girls at a time when they were said to exemplify all that was wrong with rock, used the criticism as creative inspiration. Others, like Rod Stewart, dismissed the carping as so much folderol--and the current crop of alternative rockers, to whom the Pistols, the Clash and other punky idealists are idols, remember the arrogance of Rod and his ilk.
Unsurprisingly, avoiding the impression that they, too, are guilty of the same type of behavior is proving difficult for those artists who have suddenly gone from being underground nobodies to multimedia successes. For example, Pearl Jam tried to underplay the release of its second album, Vs., which had record first-week sales of more than 900,000 units, by refusing to issue a single or a video; by turning down an interview with the establishment's favorite magazine, Time; and by insisting on playing live in mid-sized, general-admission halls rather than larger arenas. The result? Radio programmers have made the song "Daughter" a de facto single; the band's previous videos are still being played to death on MTV; Time put the Jam's Eddie Vedder on its cover anyhow; and the use of smaller venues during recent live dates created problems of the sort that led to the cancellation of one of three November dates in Boulder and meant that many fans had to pay hundreds of dollars to scalpers for the privilege of getting through the doors. Unbowed, Vedder tried to maintain regular-guy status by giving out his home phone number to listeners of a syndicated radio program. The line was soon so swamped that he had to change his number a day later.
Nirvana, whose ultrapopular Nevermind album woke up the record industry to the sales potential of alternative albums, took an even more extreme tack when it came time to make its new record, In Utero. The group hired noisemeister Steve Albini to produce the disc, and gladly aided his efforts to make its sound as harsh and uncompromising as possible. This decision resulted in a first-rate release that helped the act retain its alternative credentials, but scared away many of those drawn to Nevermind in the first place. Its sales were so comparatively disappointing that, by the end of 1993, Nirvana had participated in an episode of MTV Unplugged--the very kind of trendy showcase most observers would have expected them to shun.
But at least alternative musicians don't have to go to jail to prove they're as tough as their lyrics. Such is the state of hip hop that a rap sheet is nearly as important as a good rap album. Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy's Flavor Flav have all recently been threatened with time in stir, in part because they allowed the hard-bitten characters they portray in their songs to bleed over into real life. To young fans who also have a hard time separating fantasy and reality, fights with the law make their heroes seem bracingly dangerous and far more genuine than other pop stars. Too bad being sentenced to a stretch in the pen puts such a crimp in touring plans.
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Even without being arrested, the members of Naughty By Nature have found themselves imprisoned by the requirements of rap stardom. To demonstrate solidarity with their homies, they've continued to live in the run-down section of East Orange, New Jersey, where they were raised. But this choice has made it impossible for any of them to leave their residences without causing a parade of well-wishers to instantly congregate around them. They acknowledged in a recent interview that they may have to move simply because their neighbors have made coming and going all but impossible.
Similarly, rappers who made their reputations with profane, relentless street stories are trapped by fans who see any deviation from this approach as a betrayal. MC Lyte, for instance, was rejected by her up-to-then-loyal audience for the crime of varying her musical and lyrical palate. She responded by making her most recent album, Ain't No Other, more hardcore than anything she's ever done. But this in itself is constricting, as Ice Cube's new Lethal Injection proves. In an effort to top discs such as The Predator, he's made many of his latest songs (especially the misogynist anthem "Cave Bitch") so self-consciously offensive that they lose much of their power. Cube may be trying to establish his earnestness, but he's turning into a cartoon in the process.
Eazy-E has put himself in the same position, thanks to a public-relations miscalculation. As the second trial of the Los Angeles police officers charged with violating motorist Rodney King's civil rights was winding down, Eazy publicly announced his support of Theodore Briseno, one of the cops charged with beating King. Even though Briseno was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in the case, the act of embracing a boy in blue didn't go down well with E's rap peers (ex-Geto Boy Willie Dee called him a sellout) or South Central-ites who see the police department as a tool of racial oppression. To many, this act put the lie to Eazy-E's street-tough pose just as effectively as Eazy put the lie to Dr. Dre's.
So do either of these artists have credibility? Sure--just as much as money can buy.