But does it really matter if gangsta rap "represents" reality? Unlike white artists, black artists and black entertainers, along with black athletes, often find themselves in the position of being political spokespeople for the "black experience" and black people in general. This state of affairs is one result of the racist exclusion of blacks from the educational system and the bourgeois public sphere as embodied in press organs and governmental institutions. Debates around the responsibility of black entertainers to be role models, educators, and politicians—in addition to being musicians, producers, and poets—involve an ethics of aesthetic practice that cannot always be reconciled with artistic production. A cultural commodity's relation to reality (whatever "reality" might be) cannot be conceived outside the fictionality that adheres to all aesthetic objects and that differentiates them from scholarly or scientific representations of reality. Thus although they may both take "Los Angeles" as their object, Ice Cube's "How to Survive in South Central" does not carry the same truth claim as Mike Davis's exhaustively researched and concisely written City of Quartz (or even Shocked and Bull's essay).
||Shocked and Bull assert that gangsta rappers produce a "Zip Coon Toon
Town" version of Los Angeles, a "coon song Fantasyland." Of course,
it is not particularly insightful to claim that pop songwriters produce
fantasies about different cities, nor is it particularly promising to insist
that pop songwriters accurately depict the totality of social conditions
à la an aesthetic, now presumably obsolete, of socialist realism.
In addition, at least since Sigmund Freud, there have existed theories
about the relationship between fantasies and underlying psychosocial structures.
Thus even if the products of gangsta rappers could be dismissed wholesale
as "cartoons," then at least some accounting would have to be made of the
underlying structure of these cartoons (particularly when they present
us with extremely violent fantasies). Gangsta rap has as much claim to
"reality" as any other cultural artifact—that is, one that is thoroughly
There is already a problem when we look to music produced by and about the black community as representative of reality in Los Angeles as a whole. Millions of individuals from every ethnic group live in Los Angeles. The largest ethnic group, in fact, is Latino. Unfortunately, hip-hop or rap produced by this community, and nominally accessible to the Anglo community, has only appeared recently in the form of Cypress Hill, probably the most popular Latino group (along with L.A.'s Los Lobos) since Santana's heyday. As has been shown repeatedly, the riots were multi-ethnic. In fact, more Latinos were arrested than blacks.16 Moreover, hundreds of refugees from Latin America, having fled U.S.-backed repression in El Salvador and Guatemala, were detained and deported to uncertain fates by the authorities in the aftermath of the turmoil. The ranks of these disenfranchised in Los Angeles have no voice as widely broadcast and consumed as that of the gangsta.
It is not surprising then that Cypress Hill has chosen this genre for its highly successful brand of AK- and Glock-laden horror tripping. This violence comes to the consumer through a thick haze of pot smoke. Cypress Hill too participates in the pretense of reality (the lead rapper is named "B-Real") characteristic of the gangsta tradition, but it does so by emphasizing the irrational inscrutability of this reality. Thus their first major hit, "How I Could Just Kill a Man," declares that "here's one thing you can't understand." Similarly, their most recent single, "Insane in the Brain," stresses that they pose a threat to others, and the social order at large, because they're "loco." This celebration of the crazed, druggy killer can easily be read as an identification with that psycho figure who is the maniacal "other" of bourgeois social normality.17
The psycho can draw on a vast reservoir of shock value (just as a reputation for craziness acts as an important deterrent against other men in macho circles). As much part of the gangsta genre as "reality" (think of the Geto Boys' "My Mind's Playin' Tricks on Me"), this insanity functions as a rational response to a dangerous and unstable social environment. To fault performers who claim psychosis (recall Ice-T, "I'm a nightmare walkin'/Psychopath talkin'," in "Colors") as the position from which they speak for not representing "reality" seems somewhat pointless. More fruitful than a critique of this music based on its faulty depiction of the real would be a critique of this celebration of insanity based as a singularly gendered obsession. The fantasy of losing it, of stepping over the limit of reason and civility, of surrendering oneself to the intoxication and ecstasy of violence uninhibited by the strictures of reason, is an important component of male subjectivity (which herein seems to cross boundaries established by class or skin color). Madness, among men, is something that must be endured and overcome (unless one is completely overwhelmed and obliterated by it). The flip side of this adventurist relation to the insane is the wholesale projection of insanity onto women as one legitimation of their exclusion from certain segments of the social order.
We have already seen how bell hooks conceives this projection of insane wildness onto the bodies of young black men. It should be pointed out that the spectacle of another body crossing that limit tends to exercise a greater fascination than the prospect of actually taking one's own body over the line. At the same time, it is important to search out the material basis for this insane investment of the real. Ice Cube, on The Predator, links it explicitly to white racism, the history of which, he says, is "still affecting us mentally." Likewise, on a recent collaboration with the speed-metal band Slayer, Ice-T sings/screams, "Injustice drives you crazy/It drove L.A. insane." That is, this insanity that speaks through the voice of rap music is not simply a brand of psychic exoticism; it is the mental state produced by the process of racist oppression to which these bodies are subjected. The radical decentering of the subject, either through the use of drugs or through the use of semiautomatic weapons (and what could be more decentering than "a hole in your fuckin' head"?), which finds its expression in rap, a decentering celebrated by poststructuralists and postmodernists everywhere, results from an intensely decentering material configuration of the real. The insane distortions of gangsta rap actually make their representations realistic. It's just a pyschorealism thing.