|Back to Hell
You know it's Hell
The question of representation has two sides. On the one hand, we understand representation to mean "depiction." Thus Michelle Shocked objected to the way in which South Central was portrayed in gangsta rap. She and Bart Bull found this representation inaccurate. On the other hand, there is a political meaning of representation that implies advocacy. Ice-T employs this sense in"Message to the Soldiers":
Representin' the tattooed tears
Other brothers locked with no choice
Left in the bowels of the devil with no voice.
Ice-T and his band Body Count made headlines after the riots when the police discovered that they had produced a song entitled "Cop Killer." The song was denounced as an incitement to homicide against cops, and the media furor increased the popularity of a somewhat obscure record and eventually led to the "voluntary" withdrawal of the song from the record. On this album, Ice-T repeatedly appropriates heavy-metal motifs to describe the contemporary situation of young urban blacks. The phrase utilized in "Message to the Soldiers," "bowels of the devil," appears here as the title of a song that blends satanic scatology with blunt social criticism. The "devil" in this case is the prison system:
let me tell you what that motherfucker eats
his stomach's filled with black souls
his guts made out of steel and concrete.
|the urban guerrila who is free views the penal establishment of the enemy as the inevitable site of guerrilla action designed to liberate his ideoloical brothers from prison||One such environment is downtown's Skid Row, what Davis calls "probably
the most dangerous ten square blocks in the world," or, more simply, "Hell."20
This "outdoor poorhouse" is the perfect counterpart to the general penal
environment of what Adorno referred to as "open-air prison": late
capitalist society. One way that the "open-air prison" works is through
the practice of "tagging" or "collaring" convicted offenders with electronic
tracking devices. "Coincidentally," this was exactly what happened to Dr.
Dre after he was convicted of assault last year. He was made to wear an
ankle bracelet that the police could use to track him. Of course, this
still allowed Dr. Dre to work on promoting his incredibly successful album
and to produce Snoop Doggy Dogg's forthcoming recording. The setup of "plantation
L.A." comes shining through in the figure of an electronically monitored
Dre hard at work increasing the overall profit of the culture industry.
The final irony is that Dr. Dre, according to Rolling Stone, lives
in a $1.5 million house in an enclosed community at the edge of the San
Fernando Valley. His body stands astride the boundary connecting the two
carceral worlds (inside and outside).
The Chronic begins with Dr. Dre's benediction: "Here's to the niggas that was down from day one. Welcome to Death Row." In the first instance, this refers to the name of his record company: Death Row Records. In the second instance, it refers to the "open-air" death row of the Compton streets. Mumia Abu-Jamal, currently on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of a policeman, pointed out in a recent interview that 40 percent of those on death row in the United States (approximately 1,250 out of 2, 800 people—only 28 of whom are women) are black men.21 As black men make up only 6 percent of the population, Abu-Jamal says, "I don't think that those results can be obtained by any way without racism being a factor." Like Ice-T, Dr. Dre's recording introducing the excarcerated population to death row serves to represent a small but intensely repressed population, a population that has no public voice, a population that inhabits Hell.
|Of course, this is also part of Dre's "hellified gangster lean."
Coming from death row just means that he and his crew are killers. Yet
the fact that both Dre and his protégé, Snoop Doggy Dogg
(who spent three years in and out of prison in his late teens and recently
was arrested for murder), have had numerous "run-ins" with the law means
that they speak from a standpoint directly impressed/constructed by the
penal system. As Ice-T implied, it is the educational alternative for black
Snoop Doggy Dogg says, "I learned a lot [in jail], but then again, that's
not the place to be learnin' it. It wasn't no substitute for college."
Ice Cube's The Predator begins with a small piece entitled, "The
First Day of School," which basically consists of a prisoner's-ear-view
of the procedure that must be endured as part of the induction into prison:
the strip search. At the moment that the officer tells us, "Now bend over
and give me two good coughs" (in preparation for the requisite rectal exam),
the first song on the disk, "When Will They Shoot," kicks in. This opening
moment sets the entire album within the prison context. It also reveals
the educational function of prison, an important ideological state apparatus
deployed in disciplinary action against the black community in the United
If prison finds a body in the "bowels of the devil," and prison has become the generalized form of social space for the underclass, then this outside space must be in Hell. The continuity of the prison's interior and exterior is the subject of a rap by Da Lench Mob entitled, "Lost in tha System." This piece details the Kafkaesque ingestion (and regurgitation) of a more or less innocent man into the belly of the beast. At the beginning of the song, the narrator is stopped for running a red light. There is a warrant out for his arrest, due to some unpaid parking tickets, so the cops haul him in. The court sentences him to two weeks for this infraction, but he gets in a fight and ends up doing thirty days, in solitary confinement. Out of solitary, he's transferred and another fight gets him two more years, and so on. The song is a travelogue through the penal world of California, from the L.A. County Jail to the Westside Correctional Facility out by Magic Mountain, to Chino, Folsom, Tehachapi, etc. Eventually he gets out, and the song ends with the lament, "I'm back on the street still lost in the system." Being outside is just another way of being inside, just as being inside the suburbs means being outside the Hell-world of the carceral city. Heaven interpenetrates Hell and vice versa.