‘Reasonable Doubt’: A Conscious Hip-Hop Classic Brought to You by Jay-Z and Ronald Reagan

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Consciousness has seriously become a cliche buzzword as of late. It’s become very apparent to major corporations that the appearance of “social consciousness” or affiliation with it, sells. Want to create a buzz for your comic book series? Attach social justice, socially conscious “super writer” Ta-Nehisi Coates to it. Want to create buzz around your video game? Make the lead character a black hacktivist, son of Black Panthers dealing with gentrification. Everyone is “woke.” While consciousness has become the trend, conscious Hip-Hop is nothing new at all.

Let fans of “conscious rap” tell it, conscious rap is the “good” rap. I’d ask, however, what is “conscious rap?” Is it the educated brother quoting Marcus Garvey telling us how to address our problems? Is it the kufi wearing brother who never lived in the neighborhood with the drug dealers speaking on how we shouldn’t sell drugs to our own people? Or is it something different?

jayz-reasonable-doubtJune 25th marks the 20 year anniversary of Jay-Z’s classic debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Besides being an overall great project and introducing a larger audience to Shawn Carter himself, Reasonable Doubt would go on to be an extremely influential album. While Jay definitely wasn’t the first person to approach Hip-Hop from the perspective of the drug dealer, he would be a large influence in what would go on to be labeled “coke rap” (based on its connection to the drug, cocaine) or as the south labeled it, “trap music.”(“Trapping” is a southern term for hustling) Listen to projects from artists like Pusha T, the early works of T.I. and Young Jeezy, you can definitely see how Jay played a major role in the music of these artists. Some would argue this music is problematic; it’s promotion of profiting off the poisoning of our own people. I’d argue that when done right, “coke rap,” as they call it, is far from problematic. When approached in the fashion of a Reasonable Doubt, it’s conscious. The artists aren’t to blame for the problem, we’d have to look elsewhere for the proper placement of the “problematic” label.

Can I Live

“I did an interview with HipHopDX and I told them I was more conscious than every conscious rapper that was rapping,” Glasses Malone replied when I asked him about being labeled a “gangster rapper” as opposed to a “conscious rapper.” For those not in the know, a mere glance over the cover of Glasses’ latest project, GlassHouse 2, might have them questioning Malone’s logic. However, those who have listened to Malone’s music, or Hip-Hop in general, with a critical thinker’s approach, understand; you can’t get any more conscious than the “gangster rapper,” and often, those doling out these labels lack connection to the subject matter clouds their judgment. In an interview I did with MC Ren, he explained where the ‘gangster rap” label came from:

We never labeled it “Gangsta Rap,” and that’s the killer part. Somebody will label you one thing, and it sticks with you like you labeled it yourself. We did an interview one time at Eazy’s momma’s house in the backyard when we were first starting out. I think it was LA Weekly. This white dude came to E’s momma’s house. You gotta think back to when that music came out. This white dude comes out there, and he gets out the car shaking. This is a true story. I saw a picture the other day on Instagram of the photo we took back then. I was like, “Ah, that brought back memories.” Anyway, this dude gets out the car shaking, and we back there—me, E, Dre and Laylaw—and E goes in the house with dude back there doing the interview. He asked if he wants to take a picture, and E says, “I’m gonna go in here and get some guns.” So E goes in there, gets some guns and gave everybody a gun. This dude was so nervous. He was so nervous, he was standing up and went backward. He was shaking so bad, he bumped into some shit in Eric momma backyard. I’m like, “Man, I ain’t never seen nobody that nervous.” The same dude that was nervous like that shaking, wanted to get the hell up out of there, out of Compton… that’s the dude that labeled that shit “Gangsta Rap.” He must have gone home, with that in his head, scared as hell. We just chilling, waiting for the interview. He ran with that, and from that day on, that’s where that whole “Gangsta Rap,” shit comes from.
-MC Ren via HipHopDX

This is MC Ren of NWA fame…MC Ren of “Fuck the Police” fame. If “Fuck The Police” isn’t “conscious” I don’t know what is. To make matters worse, when researching said interview, I came across a summary of Ren’s more recent music, in which the music was described as “conscious” because it spoke on Islam. So when Ren was addressing issues like police brutality, he was a gangster rapper, when he addressed his religious beliefs, he was conscious?

Who has a better understanding of what’s going on in the community than the gangster whose whole life is in the community? We can all turn on the news to get the latest political updates, but can you truly understand what’s going on in the neighborhood if you don’t understand the perspectives of those in it? How can you speak to the neighborhood drug dealer without understanding who the dealer is?

Reasonable Doubt was a 360 degree look inside the mind of the hustler who “made it.” We have to put “made it” in quotation marks because it’s made very apparent throughout the project that while the drug game can be financially lucrative with its fair share of highs, it also comes with its fair share of lows, losses, and consequences. Now, we could debate whether Jay-Z was who he says he was, thus validating or invalidating the views expressed in the music, however, based on what we’ve seen Jay become, it can’t be denied that if nothing else, he has what he would call “a hustler’s spirit.” With that being said, and the cost of being that person, we have to ask; why would anyone choose that life?

“We invite you to something epic…you know? Where we hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation. Through that desperation, we become addicted, sort of like the fiends we accustomed to serving. Where we feel we have nothing to lose..so we offer you…well…we offer our lives, what do you bring to the table?”
-Jay-Z “Can I Live”

Politics as Usual

“Early in the ‘70s and toward the latter part of the ‘70s everything was beautiful because we had ways to have fun and communicate, and those who were underprivileged, the low economic side of life, the government would provide for us, which helped us get by,” Snoop stated in an interview at SXSW. “It was a society and we all needed it and we all had it and we all helped each other. Then when Reaganomics kicked in, certain things were taken away, after-school programs and things of that nature. Guns and drugs were shipped into the neighborhood. So it was a shift of having fun and playing football to selling drugs and shooting at each other. To me, it was a system that was designed because when the Reaganomics era began, that’s when this began.”

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There’s a lot of necessary tidbits in those quotes, but first, we have to break something down. “Reaganomics” is a term used to describe the economic plan Ronald Reagan campaigned on in the 1980 Presidential election. Reagan believed that undue tax burden, government regulation, and excessive social spending programs hurt the growth of our economy. Reagan pushed for a 30% tax cut for his first three years in office, focused mainly on higher income levels. This approach is often referred to as “trickle down economics” because the belief is that with the extra money from tax cuts, the rich would spend and invest more, stimulating the economy, and creating more jobs. Congress approved a 25% tax cut. So essentially, like Snoop said, things like after-school programs were taken away to cover the tax breaks Reagan gave to the rich.

You can go anywhere outside of extremely conservative media and see detailed explanations of how Reaganomics failed everyone but the rich. An excerpt from an article on Salon.com breaks it down pretty simple:

You can see this trend today in America. When we had heavily regulated and taxed capitalism in the post-war era, the largest employer in America was General Motors, and they paid working people what would be, in today’s dollars, about $50 an hour with benefits. Reagan began deregulating and cutting taxes on capitalism in 1981, and today, with more classical “raw capitalism,” what we call “Reaganomics,” or “supply side economics,” our nation’s largest employer is WalMart and they pay around $10 an hour.

The “sense of hopelessness” that motivated people like Jay-Z to hustle was a result of Reaganomics. With Reaganomics putting a hurting on working class wages, and government provided services like after-school programs being cut, the sad reality of a track like “Coming of Age” becomes a lot easier to see. “Coming of Age” finds Jay-Z playing the role of the established hustler, looking to guide the teenage, up-and-coming hustler Memphis Bleek on how to operate. With no after-school programs, the middle class gutted, and their parents often imprisoned due to the “war on drugs” pushed originally by former President Nixon (which would later be identified as a war against the radical left and blacks), then pushed again by Reagan with his unbalanced “mandatory minimums,” children in inner-cities turned to the closest image of success they could relate to, which was often the drug dealer.

Reasonable Doubt gave the perspective of a hustler in a way we hadn’t seen before. Sure, many others had broached the subject, but no one approached it with a similar amount of depth, yet an amount of simplicity that allowed those not involved in the underworld to understand. Some proclaim rappers like Jay-Z promote drug culture, influencing listeners’ behavior, but the reality is politicians and public policy influence the hustlers’ behavior before they think of rapping about it. This is a cycle. Whether the rapper raps about it or not, as “Coming of Age” explained, the hustlers are in the community. Their actions, motivated by the actions of politicians and public policy are influential on younger generations due to the appearance of their success. While it’s clear how the impact of public policy could influence the actions of someone like Jay-Z, what often isn’t addressed is the real problematic issue; where were all the drugs coming from?

gary-webbAugust 18th 1996 the San Jose Mercury News ran part one of a three-part series titled “The Dark Alliance.” Written by journalist Gary Webb, the series explained how back in the 80’s two drug smugglers, Oscar Danilo Blandon and Norwin Menesis, sold massive amounts of cocaine for low prices to the Los Angeles Blood and Crip gangs by way of Freeway Rick Ross (not the rapper), how that influx of cocaine in the black community would start the crack epidemic, and how it was all sanctioned by the CIA to fund their anti-communist rebels, or Contras, in Nicaragua. These were the same Contras Reagan would eventually come out and admit that his team had sold weapons to Iran to fund. Several major media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post worked to discredit Webb’s work, claiming that the amount of money generated was over exaggerated, but there were certain facts that couldn’t be denied. Oscar Danilo Blandon (who also sold weapons to the Crips) was arrested in 1986 by the FBI on drug charges. Somehow, lacking US Citizenship, Blandon avoided deportation. He’s the only foreigner arrested on drug charges in the US to avoid deportation. Blandon claimed that the CIA protected him, allowing to operate with immunity. Arrested again in 92, Blandon served 24 months in federal prison only to be released and employed by the DEA, who would then use him to set up Rick Ross (again, not the rapper). Among several other places, this is documented in the documentary Freeway: Crack in the System.

Essentially, Blandon is tied to the “guns and drugs shipped into the neighborhood” Snoop talked about. While Freeway Rick’s operation started in Los Angeles, at the price he was receiving cocaine for, it expanded into every major market in the country. While Hip-Hop artists like Jay-Z often catch flack for the problems of the black community, you’d be a lot more justified pointing the blame toward individuals like Ronald Reagan. Reaganomics, followed by the influx of cocaine and weapons to fund the Contras, followed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and it’s racially biased mandatory minimum sentencing (which gave 5 years for 5 grams of crack, which was cheap and considered a popular drug in the black community, but required 500 grams of powder cocaine, which cost far more and was considered a white drug) created an environment where opportunities were minimized, and those who you were supposed to look to for guidance were either addicted to drugs, or imprisoned for selling them.

Consciousness is defined as “the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings.” You don’t get that much more awake and aware of what was going on in the streets than Reasonable Doubt. It wasn’t just some big celebration of the drug culture, it was friends being torn apart by “D’evils,” it was other friends murdered over “Dead Presidents,” it was “Regrets.” I’m sure there are a million quotes about dark times creating great art, or artists creating their best work while suffering; a lot of people suffered behind the Ronald Reagan era…and that’s how we got classics like Reasonable Doubt. With that being said, if anything is to be labeled “problematic” about this situation, it shouldn’t be the music.

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