Found on the Fringes

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I have a confession to make: Despite my collegiate feminism, my vehement opposition to sexism and discrimination of all kinds, sometimes I can't help but enjoy music that promotes misogyny, violence and other forms of political incorrectness. If the song's beat catches my attention, the rhythm can feel like an injection of aural pleasure and I don't seem to mind exposure to the impurities laced within.

One of my most listened-to tracks this summer, "NoHoe" by local rapper D-Lo off of his 2009 album The Tonite Show, certainly falls under this category. In the song's music video, D-Lo and his crew are just chilling when our leading man receives a text message from his "bitch" (his words, not mine) telling him that business is booming on the track (where the hos and prostitutes, uh, you know). Then, the thunderously percussive, minimalistic beat begins to blast its irresistible bass.

Born out of the legacy of hyphy - the Bay Area's fun-loving hip-hop movement that peaked in the mid-'00s- local, club-worthy rap with a gangster aesthetic abounds on the Internet. With all their catchiness and nearly farcical lyrics, the likes of D-Lo and collaborators such as Sleepy D don't seem to invite a much deeper reaction than amusement despite their offensive, oft-violently themed music.

However, a new release by hyphy heavyweight Mistah F.A.B. made me rethink the cultural implications of blatantly irresponsible versification. Known for such speaker-rattling songs as "Super Sic Wit It" and "Ghost Ride It" (which popularized the term "ghost ride the whip"), Mistah F.A.B. recently came out with a song and music video that have steered his "Yellow Bus" in a diverging direction from the rambunctious raps typical of the Freestyle King of the Bay.

"Fuck the World," which F.A.B. premiered on his YouTube account a little over a week ago, narrates a troubled inner-city teenager's life struggle and subsequent descent into hard drug use and street violence. But rather than glorifying gunfights or narcotic revelry like countless rappers young and old, Mistah F.A.B. rhymes in an urgent voice shrill with tension, squinting in somber disappointment as he paces around a cemetery. One scene depicts a young man holding a gun to another's chest during a squabble; later, as loitering youths, streetwalkers and neighbors defiantly gaze into the camera, the chorus sounds: "He's like, fuck the world / Life don't mean nothin' / He ain't listenin' / How you tell a teen something?"

While Mistah F.A.B. has recorded his share of Ecstasy-addled pimping soundtracks, "Fuck the World" is perhaps his most explicit attempt to bring attention to the problems of youth violence in crime-ridden areas like his hometown, Oakland. With the streak of gang-related murders in Berkeley, Oakland and across the Bay so far this year, the video resonates with the pain and resulting cynicism and apathy rampant among young people in the forgotten corners of society.

As a student of comparative literature, I learned long ago not to conflate the author of a piece with its narrator. But while D-Lo and his group HBR Click brag about making guns go "Blaaaat" over their infectious, thumping beats, it's difficult to listen with detachment and ease knowing the reality of the recent killings and the day-to-day violence "Fuck the World" recalls. Rappers may take on exaggerated personae in their verses for the sake of entertainment, but that fantasy can feel too close for comfort to a cruel reality.

Despite my squeamishness, I remind myself that, when it comes down to it, the intrinsically egotistical yet public nature of all art forms is a paradox. Like the stick-thin fashion models, graffiti artists and other instigators of art world contention I discussed in my column this summer, rappers like F.A.B. and even D-Lo feel out society's fundamental beliefs with their intimate, subjective act of creative self-expression.

Am I going to stop cranking up D-Lo's The Tonite Show? Not now, at least. Even though I don't agree with the gender politics or methods of conflict resolution (or lack thereof) that D-Lo raps about, the beats are really damn good. And while the guns-money-bitches attitude of hip-hop prevails among many prominent rappers from the Bay Area and beyond, as long as there are voices like Mistah F.A.B.'s to make the other end of the spectrum heard, there's no reason not to turn up the volume and submit to the slap of the bass with suspended belief.

That's why I chose to go diving into the obscure alleys of the artistic world, tunneling through the local underground and coming up for air and pop cultural oddities. Away from the demands of corporate marketability, I hoped to touch a place that exists only in the moment when the artist and the spectator can act freely, whatever that means to them. I'm not sure if that place exists or whether I'll ever reach it, but the glimpses I've caught have always been out here on the fringes.


Rap a blatantly misogynistic goodbye to Nastia at [email protected]



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