The Lowdown On Hip-Hop: Kids Talk About The Music

Every rap song is a testament to the power of talk. So what better way to get into the music than to discuss it with a group of teenagers? NEWSWEEK invited 12 New York City-area students-black and white, city dwellers and suburbanites-to share their views on rap at the magazine's Manhattan headquarters. The black teens were Dwight Chapman, 19, from Borough of Manhattan Community College; Trevor Trotter (a.k.a. GizmO), 18, graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx; Deonna McWilliams, 15, a student at Manhattan's Cathedral High; Robert Jackson, 14, from the Fieldston School in Riverdale; Jessica Jenkins, 16, Uniondale High, Long Island, and John Bailey, 15, the Anglo-American International School in Manhattan. The white teenagers included Daniel Morris, 16, and Bree Pinsker, 16, both students at Ossining High; Jeff Neale, 13, entering New Rochelle High in the fall; Scott Smith, 18, a 1992 graduate of the Collegiate School in Manhattan; Erik Berkule, 18, from Cornell University, and Rob Steinberg, 18, graduating from Forest Hills High, Queens. Moderating the discussion were Jon Shecter, editor of The Source, a hip-hop monthly, and Diane Cardwell, executive editor of Volume, another hip-hop magazine, scheduled to begin publication in September. Here's how the group came down on a number of rap-related subjects.

When people talk about hip-hop, all they talk about is, it's violent. One thing that's often overlooked is that hip-hop music tells real-life stories. I see it the same way as country music, because country artists, they talk about what happens where they are. You live somewhere, all you have is just yourself, a harmonica and a guitar. The only thing you can talk about is what happens to you.

I live in the Bronx. When rappers speak about being pulled over by the cops-it's like, whenever I walk out of my house, and I'm with a group of friends, the cops will come and ask you what you're doing, they'll search you, they'll hold you up against the wall. When I listen to [a rap song], I sometimes think back in my mind, yeah, that's happened to me a few times. Then again, I can hear another song like [Naughty By Nature's] "O.P.P.," and they'll say, "Are you down with it?" Rap is so vas really categorize it anymore.

Rap is searing people now. But if you remember back to the '60s and '70s, when everybody became hippies and had their own dress and music, people got seared. It was just that kids wanted their own identity. They wanted to be noticed, they wanted to be understood. All of this [now] is just people crying out for help.

There was one incident at my school. We got a lot of students together and we had a little rap session in the auditorium. We were rapping about what happened to Rodney King and people were rapping about stopping violence and preaching equality and thin like that. We called up the newspapers to come and see. [One newspaper], they said, is there a riot? We said no, we're just having a peaceful get-together. Well, is anybody famous there? We said no. "I'm sorry," they said, "it's just not good enough."

If they're going to talk about the media helping us improve race relations, then they have to talk about everything, what's really happening, and not just the badstuff.

Violence sells, but you also have to show the good things and not enough people do that.

I know a lot of people who listen to rap music who are white. More and more white people are starting to listen to it.

I got into rap a couple of years ago because I have a lot of black friends who listened to it. I turn on the radio and [most music] it's mindless, it drives me insane. The words are so stupid. Every song sounds like I love you, hon. [Pap] has like real stories and real things. It's interesting to listen to and I respect it as a form of music.

I think whites are the people who really need to listen to rap because they're the ones who don't know the message.

I've got one friend and he's sickeningly prejudiced. But he listens to rap because he likes that violent thing. He likes to hear about the guns, the violence. Then he'll say something terrible about another friend of mine who is black.

But they go hand in hand almost. His racism is directly related to his interest in black people, the self-destruction in the black community.

There are some blacks who really hate the fact that some white kids are listening to it. They can't stand it. But sometimes, to me, they're almost ignorant because they're like holding stuff in. They've got to understand that this is our culture, and we've got to let them know.

I think when white people listen to rap, and then they try and act black, I think between black and white people, it causes more tension.

It makes rap more meaningful when white people listen to it, because they can understand more about what black people are going through. When positive rappers talk about police brutality and how they're put down, or how they go for an interview and they automatically see you're black so you're not going to get this job-when white people hear about this, and black people express it in a good way, it helps bring people to unite more.

I know people who don't listen to the lyrics, they listen to the beats and they drive around and they've got big speakers in the back, and you hear the bass coming miles away. They play Das EFX; it sounds really good when they're rolling up.

I don't know what other people do; I sit in my room, put on the stereo really loud and I just sit there. It kind of relieves tension and pressure.

Where I go to school, I'm almost like a minority with a few friends. We're all white and we like rap music. People look at me like, what are you doing? That's their music. But how ignorant are you? It's only music. It's rhymes, it's bass lines, it's all that. A lot of times, people look past that.

When rap first evolved, it became a dance, like break-dancing and stuff like that. Some rappers today don't make music to send a message. They're just rapping because it's a different kind of music. It's stuff that people could dance to. An example is Kris Kross. They have a hit record called "Jump." They're not setting an example or expressing what real life is and stuff like that. They're just talking about music and how it makes you want to jump and move and dance.

I know black kids who listen to heavy metal.

In the school that I go to, everybody listens to sort of the same general music, blacks and whites, they all listen to the same music. A couple of my black friends, they listen to some of the heavy metal that I listen to. Some of my white friends, they started listening to rap.

Public Enemy did a song with a [heavy metal] group called Anthrax. I liked it, because they have the heavy bass in there and the heavy drums and it's sort of a rap with a lot of beat.

I think [rap] is part of the mix now. It's more in the pop culture. C+C Music Factory, it's a house music group, has a rapper inside; TLC has a rapper inside. A lot of groups coming out now are mixing the musics in the group to make it so everybody can listen to it. You have some groups that have a rapper, a singer and somebody who plays an instrument. So everybody can listen to one album and hear something they can appreciate.

Gradually, people are coming to accept black, because it's only now that you'll see Felix and Oscar ["The Odd Couple") rapping in a TV commercial. I just saw the commercial where they had a rapping Bart [Simpson]. I feel that rap is making an impact, although the media does tend to go to the negative side.

The first time I heard a St. Ides [malt liquor] commercial, I heard a whole slew of rappers. When it played again, I realized it couldn't have been later than 9 o'clock, so there were still little kids listening. When you have big-name rappers like lee Cube and all his cronies talking about " get your girl in the mood quicker and get your jimmy thicker'-- little kids believe whatever they hear. And most stores, if you want St. Ides and you're 13 years old, if you have the money, they don't care. It's bad.

I think it helps a lot. I know times when I've been walking down the corridors at school and I'll be singing, and there'll be a Hispanic kid, black kid, we'll all be singing the same song. That kind of helps because everyone is on one level.

The white kids at my school, [when they're listening to] N.W.A or whatever, they'll have a black friend with them, bopping their head along with them and just chilling with them. It does form a bond with someone.

There was a time when you watched "Soul Train" and you would see nothing but Afros. Now you watch "Soul Train" and see blacks, whites, Asians, everybody dancing. People say white people can't dance, Asians can't dance. But you see them on "Soul Train" having a ball.

Sometimes I wear my pants down, the hat backwards. I don't consider myself black when I do that. I think racism will stop when people stop identifying people by their skin color and what they wear.

Racism won't end until people start to really understand what's going on and stop this bickering. I mean, rap definitely will help it heal. But it's got to take a lot more to end racism.

No matter what it is, it's still just music. And if you try to put something else on that, then you're just setting up expectations that may not come true.