Violent Britain: The last dangerous music on the streets

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The Independent Online

ap is the sound of harsh, unforgiving modernity and it is hard on the untrained ear. Its role as a soundtrack for the violence of the city streets was re-emphasised last week when Tim Westwood, the adio 1 DJ who is Britain's premier exponent of rap on the airwaves, was shot in south London.

The death toll of rap artists - Tupac Shakur, Notorious BIG and scores of lesser talents - had already made it look like a deadly contact sport.

ap articulates a fraught, contradictory lifestyle of spectacular wealth and violent death for wannabes both black and white. It is the last dangerous music and the last music a parent can complain about. That is where its fascination lies.

"It's universal because it's the music of urban environments," says Nihal Arthanayake, a writer for Hip Hop Connection magazine. "And every country has an urban environment. Hip hop is about trying to make the most of limited means. All you need is to be able to pick up a microphone, or use a spray-can for graffiti, or just buy a record."

In black American culture, rap is the music and hip hop the wider lifestyle - the clothes, the movies, the women, the slang, the high-rollers wearing Gucci and drinking Cristal champagne and the lowly soldiers who live or die according to their expertise with rhyme or drug dealing.

Hip hop has its violent and misogynist strains because it sprang from horrendous dysfunctions present in the black American ghetto. The original West Coast gangsta rappers Ice-T and Niggaz With Attitude explained that inflammatory tracks such as "Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin' Ain't Easy)" and "Fuck Tha Police" (sic) were accurate depictions of what went on in South Central Los Angeles. Chuck D of veteran hip hop radicals Public Enemy defined rap and hip hop as the CNN of black America which sonically infiltrated the homes and heads of all youth.

ap records outsold country music in America for the first time last year. Of the top 100 albums in this week's Billboard magazine, a staggering 30 CDs contained pure hip hop and a remaining 29 were somehow hip hop influenced.

In Britain, with our different racial demographics, hip hop holds less sway in the charts. Home-grown versions of rap do not fare as well as imports. But its aesthetic dictates the "b-boy" style which informs the music of everyone from The Prodigy to boy bands like Five, and dresses everyone from Goldie to Ali G, Channel 4's voice of youth.

"Over here, an American band like Wu-Tang Clan may get a No 1," says Ajax Scott, editor of Music Week. "That's why 15-year-old white kids in Surbiton wear Wu-Tang Clan T-shirts. The Clan are more of a brand than a band."

Maybe more than its perceived amorality and sexism, this is the real reason why parents hate the music. Hip hop is naked capitalism writ large, an art form that celebrates greed and achievement with boasts and taunts to rivals. The highest accolade in hip hop is to be known as a "playa", so no wonder Puff Daddy likes to hang out with Donald Trump.