Last week, the rapper Scarface gave an interview accusing white, Jewish executives of orchestrating a conspiracy to destroy hip hop and make black Americans look dumb. A longtime fan of his music, I was offended, and saddened that someone who wrote such evocative lyrics could resort to such rank nonsense. I wrote a piece calling Scarface out, and, courtesy of Twitter, he responded. Yesterday, we had a long phone conversation in an effort to get to the bottom of his claims.
Scarface’s first point, and one which I have no reason to doubt, is that his interview has been edited, leaving out comments he’d made expressing his admiration for Israeli-born executive Lyor Cohen, producer Rick Rubin, and other influential Jewish players in the hip hop scene. “These are white people who embrace the culture like I have,” he said. His feud, instead, is with record label executives who are “so old and so white they don’t care about the craft or the culture of it, it’s only the money that matters.” Even though I pressed, he did not explain why he chose to single out Jews in the way that he did in his original statement.
But what followed was a searing and passionate argument about the contemporary state of hip hop. For the sake of brevity and clarity, I’ll condense it to its key points: hip hop used to have many tributaries flowing into its main stream, but with its rise in popularity over the last decade or so, all but the most commercial acts have effectively dried out. This was the doing of record executives—many of whom are white, many of whom are Jewish—who cared about little else but making a buck. Not caring much for the craft itself, they promoted what Scarface called “blackface” and “boot-shining shit,” or the crassest and least complicated practitioners of the art form. Having done so, these executives have corrupted hip hop culture. “If you continue to force people to eat shit,” Scarface said, “they going to think shit tastes good. They’re going to love shit. So when a steak comes, they’re not going to like it. They won’t even taste it.”
In part, Scarface added, this shift has to do with technology. Hip hop, he said, used to be sold in neighborhood mom-and-pop shops, which served not only as centers of commerce but also as arbiters of taste. Now, music is promoted and sold online, which puts blacks at a disadvantage. Scarface argued that the Internet was far slower to catch on among his family and his community; the best existing data on this question supports his assertion, suggesting that blacks are considerably less likely to own a computer or access the Internet than whites.
Scarface is right about all of this. He’s correct to assert that hip hop today is far from the multi-faceted, varied, and far more democratic game it was in the 1990s, when the form was still in its toddlerhood, corporate America paid far less attention, and love of the craft was often paramount to anything else. This, of course, is also very much the story of rock n’ roll, which thrived as a counter-cultural undertaking of the young and disaffected and was soon swallowed by the money men, or of computer games, beginning life as a hobbyist’s haven and quickly becoming a profit-driven enterprise. It’s the story of America, and it can be told in two words: Money talks.
What, then, to do with Scarface’s sharp words? What to make of his intimations of a conspiracy? Having had the opportunity to talk to him, I have to say that I’m convinced that he harbors no real prejudice against Jews or whites. And while I saw his characterization of hip hop’s travails as sentimental—as I’m want to do anytime I’m faced with a general complaint that the world just isn’t just—I understand why this turn of affairs would cause great dismay to someone like him, who’d been a daring hip hop pioneer. I still lament his decision to originally single out Jews in particular as culprits in this drama, and I don’t share his theories of conspiracy, but I do share his grief over the countless stellar rappers whose voices are drowned by the din created by lesser artists with bigger marketing budgets. And maybe this agreement, and this shared passion for the music, could be, as they say in the yeshiva, the beginning of redemption.
Related: Requiem for a Racist Rapper
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.