Street Disciples: If I Ruled the World
Trymaine Lee: This episode contains music with explicit lyrics. Coming out of the violence of the ‘90s, rap was firmly commercial. It was becoming America’s and the world’s pop music. But with that commercial success, rap, or at least the rap topping the charts, had begun to largely shed its political messaging in favor of music that was mostly about the trappings of success, sex, partying and money. Hip-hop was headed into the bling era after the Cash Money Millionaires, a New Orleans supergroup that included a young Lil Wayne, who popularized the term and hit song “Bling Bling” by rapper B.G., an anthem to affluence.
Bling Bling, B.G.: Every time I come around yo city. Bling bling. Pinky ring worth about fifty. Bling bling. Every time I buy a new ride. Bling bling. Lorenzos on Yokahama tires. Bling bling. Every time I come around yo city. Bling bling.
Lee: There’s also “Still Not a Player” by Big Pun. The music video starts with the crew taking a helicopter to the club and the lyrics pick up from there.
Still Not A Player, Big Pun: Up in the hot tub, poppin' bubbly. Rubbin' your spot, love. Got you screamin', "Punish me!" But it don't stop, watch the Pun get wicked. When I stick it even Luke be like, "Don't stop, get it, get it!"
Lee: This kind of rap was cocky, it was fun, it was capitalist, and it was where the industry was headed. But the universe of hip-hop at the tail end of the ‘90s was still one in flux, finding its voice in this post-Pac, post-big moment.
In 1998, a bridge year for the music, a song like “Back That Azz Up” by Juvenile.
Back That Azz Up, Juvenile: Girl, you looks good, won't you back that azz up. You’re a fine motherfucker, won't you back that azz u.
Lee: With a dirty south beat, perfect to shake your behind to or at least give it up off the wall. “Back That Azz Up” occupied the same charts as a song like “Brown Skin Lady” by Black Star with its more G-rated salute to black women, set to a slower, smoother rhythm.
Brown Skin Lady, Black Star: I know it sounds crazy. But your skin's the inspiration for cocoa butter. You provoke a brother we should get to know one another. I discover when I bring you through my people say TRUE, all I can say is all praise due I thank you God for a beauty like you. She's a brown-skinned lady.
Lee: But perhaps no single album or artist in that pivotal moment in hip-hop spoke to the contradictions of what the music was on the verge of, a struggle between consciousness and capitalism, self-awareness and self-aggrandizement of women as props and women deserving props than “The Miseducation” of Lauryn Hill.
Archival Recording: You know, when dropped her album, I’ve listened to it for, like, you know, just straight, I would listen to it all the time.
Archival Recording: And it was just so powerful, so raw.
Archival Recording: I remember being in the club and hearing “Lost Ones” for the first time and absolutely losing my mind.
Lost Ones, Lauryn Hill: It's funny how money change a situation. Miscommunication leads to complication. My emancipation don't fit your equation. I was on the humble, you on every station. Some wan' play young Lauryn like she dumb. But remember not a game new under the sun. Everything you did has already been done. I know all the tricks from bricks to Kingston.
Joan Morgan: Like absolutely losing my mind. And I’m Jamaican, so that line, I was hopeless. Now, I’m on hope road. I think I might have just, like, completely mind-exploded and they might have had to collect me and put me back together on the dance floor.
Lee: Joan Morgan was born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, just like Kool Herc, the father of this whole hip-hop thing.
Morgan: My earliest memories of hip-hop are going to, like, neighborhood, what we used to call jams, usually in, like, a schoolyard or the recreational outdoor area of the projects.
Lee: Joan loved hip-hop, but she didn’t always see her experience as a black woman reflected in the music, especially as gangster rap got popular. So, when Joan became a journalist, she brought that nuance to her coverage.
Morgan: As a feminist and as a black woman who loves black people and loves black women and honestly loves black men, I wanted hip-hop to do better.
Lee: Joan had been in the business for about a decade when “The Miseducation” of Lauryn Hill dropped. It was Lauryn Hill’s debut solo album. Before that, she was part of the hip-hop trio The Fugees, along with Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, known for their innovative, eclectic, genre-stretching musicality in songs like “Ready or Not,” where Lauryn seamlessly blended singing and rapping.
Ready or Not, Fugees: Ready or not, here I come, you can't hide. Gonna find you and make you want me. If you don't smoke sess, lest. I must confess, my destiny's manifest. In some Goretex and sweats I make treks like I'm homeless.
Morgan: For real hip-hop heads, we all wanted to know how long the Fugees were going to last because it was so apparent that Lauryn was going to go solo and had to go solo.
Lee: “Lost Ones,” the song that blew Joan’s mind in the club, is interpreted as a diss track to her former band mates, specifically Wyclef, with whom she was romantically entangled.
Lost Ones, Lauryn Hill: Now you want to ball over separation. Tarnish my image in your conversation. Who you gon' scrimmage, like you the champion? You might win some but you just lost one. You might win some but you just lost one.
Morgan: “Lost Ones” is one of the greatest battle records of all time. But she was so thoroughly indisputably immersed in her excellence and her confidence in that. She just answered all of the questions like she just shut it down.
Lee: “Miseducation” was a massive, critical and commercial success. Within a month, it already gone platinum.
Archival Recording: And the Album of the Year is --
Lee: And in 1999 --
Archival Recording: -- “The Miseducation” of Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill.
Lee: -- it became the first hip-hop album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Archival Recording: Amen, Amen.
Lauryn Hill: Amen.
Archival Recording: Amen.
Hill: Wow. You know what? This is so amazing. I thank you, God. This is crazy because this is hip-hop music and --
Archival Recording: Come on.
Hill: -- you know what I mean? It’s like --
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Hill: You know.
Lee: “Miseducation” sounded different from lots of the other commercially popular hip-hop music at the time. Lauryn Hill threaded her rap with reggae, R&B, and the burgeoning sounds of neo-soul. And she was one of the pioneers of melodic rap. All of those elements come together in “Everything Is Everything”.
Everything is Everything, Lauryn Hill: Everything is everything. After winter, must come spring. Everything is everything. I philosophy. Possibly speak tongues. Beat drum, Abyssinian, street Baptist. Rap this in fine linen, from the beginning. My practice extending across the atlas. I begat this.
Lee: Today, you can hear her influence across hip-hop from artists like Drake, Lizzo, and Doja Cat. But back then, there was no template for this kind of versatility. And it wasn’t just the music. The lyrics were vulnerable, political, conscious, feminist, hidden themes that bling era artists didn’t really rap about.
In the megahit "Doo Wop” or “That Thing,” Lauryn Hill gave her take on what she was seeing in society, the dynamic between black men and black women, money and materialism.
Doo Wop (That Thing), Lauryn Hill: The second verse is dedicated to the men. More concerned with his rims and his Tims than his women. Him and his men come in the club like hooligans. Don't care who they offend popping yang like you got yen. Let's not pretend, they want to pack pistol by they waist men.
Lee: In another part of the song, she turns her attention to other women, who often in rap lyrics and videos, had become accessories, the so-called video vixens, with their bodies curvy, their clothing revealing were no doubt sexualized, appalling or appealing, depending on who was telling it. Lauryn had a message for the sisters.
Doo Wop (That Thing), Lauryn Hill: Showing off your ass 'cause you're thinking it's a trend. Girlfriend, let me break it down for you again. You know I only say it 'cause I'm truly genuine. Don't be a hard rock when you really are a gem. Baby girl, respect is just a minimum.
Lee: One of the other most popular female emcees at the time, Lil’ Kim, had no problem reveling in her sexuality. Matter of fact, she oozed it, it was her trademark. Lil’ Kim turned heads in her barely bare outfits and twisted ears with her explicit, masterfully delivered lyrics. Kim was a bold braggadocious lyricist who wielded sex and money with the skill of a samurai.
Crush on You (Remix), Lil' Kim: Ayo shorty, won't you go get a bag of the lethal. I'll be undressed in the bra all see through. Why you count your jewels thinkin' I'ma cheat you? The only one thing I want to do is freak you. Keep your stone sets, I got my own baguettes. And I'll be doin' things that you won't regret. Lil Kim, the Queen Bee, so you best take heed. Shall I proceed? Yes indeed!
Rosa Clemente: I think they were reclaiming their own sexuality.
Lee: Rosa Clemente is a hip-hop activist and journalist, who recognized the power of artists like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown, whose their bodies and their rhymes in equal measure.
Clemente: I was never one of them, that I was like, “Why they act in this way?” I’m like, “Because that’s the only way they’re going to get a studio album made,” because I was also, like, so these men can, like, talk about their penis all the time every time they’re at a show, but because Lil’ Kim is rocking what she wants, she’s not a good emcee. It’s like, no.
Lee: Lil’ Kim and Lauryn Hill represented different paths for female rap artists in the late ‘90s as hip-hop was deciding what it wanted to be in this new era of excess.
Morgan: You know, but here’s the thing, like, if you ask the average female hip-hop fan of that time, we love both for different reasons. That kind of good girl, bad girl, this is the right representation of black womanhood in hip-hop versus the wrong representation is really a miscast and a misread because female and black womanhood has always been more complicated.
Lee: But the industry had records to sell, and even though “Miseducation” was a massive success, a very complicated Lauryn Hill would retreat from the spotlight. A new era of hip-hop was rising, but before one would eclipse the other, Lauryn Hill would team up with Nas to release a song that captured all the hopes and aspirations of a generation caught between the politics of capitalism and liberation.
If I Ruled the World, Nas: Gimme one shot I turn trife life to lavish. Political prisoner set free, stress free. No work release purple M3's and jet skis. Feel the wind breeze in West Indies. I'd make Coretta Scott-King mayor o'the cities and reverse themes to Willies. It sounds foul but every girl I meet to go downtown. I'd open every cell in Attica send em to Africa. If I ruled the world, imagine that. I'd free all my sons, I love 'em love 'em baby.
Lee: “If I Ruled the World” was released on Nas’ sophomore album. It was written and begged a pretty fundamental question, if hip-hop ruled the world, what would it do with its power? With the U.S. economy booming at the close of the ‘90s, money flooded hip-hop and his corporate interest gobbled up a larger stake of the culture. Rappers weren’t just getting rich, they were getting powerful.
From this era, hip-hop would birth a generation of entrepreneurs who owned the music. They’d launch record labels, clothing and liquor brands, restaurants and production companies. They weren’t just artists, they were moguls. I’m Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America.
By the late ‘90s, hip-hop had taken over, and this newfound power would bring fortunes along with political access and organizing, leading to the election of the first hip-hop president. But that power wasn’t without its complicated or critique. While the system fought to maintain the status quo, artists and activists would use their platforms to demand change. Hip-hop now had the power to become part of the machine or dismantle it. This is part four of Street Disciples: If I Ruled the World.
Archival Recording: Think about it, there probably have never been better times than these when so many people are doing so well in an economy that just gets stronger and stronger. The latest measure are the numbers that are in for the end of 1998 and they’re sensationalism.
Lee: For many in the U.S., the late ‘90s was a boom time, and hip-hop was no different.
Morgan: Those are like the fat years of hip-hop.
Lee: Hip-hop journalist Joan Morgan.
Morgan: You had publicists doing very Hollywood things, like, you were getting, like, flown out places or I wrote a piece, you know, with Pharrell where I’m riding around his Lamborghini in Miami, which was really loud and hard to record. But I’m not going to lie, it was a fantastic, fun, amazing time.
Lee: The poverty rate for black families had dropped to the lowest on record. And even though the Clinton administration had enacted policies that disproportionately hurt black Americans, like mass incarceration and limits on welfare, many felt the kind of optimism.
Morgan: There is this very sort of American dream that hip-hop is still like you can enter in, you can grind, you can work hard, and you can blow up, and you can make it.
Lee: The hip-hop American dream was on full display in the music.
Make 'em Say Ugh, Master P: Na, nah, na, nah. Nigga, I'm the colonel of the motherfuckin' tank. Y'all after big thangs, we after big bank. 3rd Ward hustlas, soldiers in combats. Convicts and dealers, and killers with tru tats.
Lee: Master P dropped the single “Make ’em Say Ugh” in 1998, the same year “The Miseducation” of Lauryn Hill came out. And listening to it now, you can hear the sound that captured where the industry was headed. It was full of grind and hustle, loud and rambunctious, all swagger.
Make 'em Say Ugh, Master P: 'm down here slangin', rollin' with these hustlers. Tryin' to get rid of all you haters and you bustas. Steppin' on cold, break a niggas nose. In the projects niggas anything goes. Breakin' fools off 'cause I'm a No Limit soldier at ease. Now salute, this pass me the doja. Make 'em say, uhh. Uhh! Na, nah, na, nah. Na, nah, na, nah. Make 'em say, uhh. Uhh!
Master P: What’s up, y’all. I’m Percy Miller, Master P.
Lee: When we connected virtually, Master P had on his signature dark shades, and he looked like he was sitting on a throne. He looked every bit like the hip-hop mogul that he is.
Master P: I got into the music business, the rap business, as being an artist, just wanting to be able to tell my story and let my story live on. And so, that’s where that part came from. But I opened up my record store at ’19 in Richmond, California, so it was all business for me.
Lee: Master P moved to the Bay Area from New Orleans where he was raised in the projects. He loved making music, but beyond that, he was, like he said, a businessman. So, with $10,000 that he got from a settlement for his grandfather’s death, he opened that record store in Richmond and called it No Limit. That laid the groundwork for what would become his own label with the same name.
No Limit’s first hit was the 1995 track, “I’m Bout It, Bout It,” a song that he made with his wife and brothers under the group name TRU, about its prowess in the streets and in business.
I’m Bout It, Bout It, TRU: And Mr. Rogers ain't got shit up on my neighborhood. I represent nothin' but G's. From Richmond, California all the way back to New Orleans.
Master P: We was just being capitalized on for our talent. You had some of the greatest artists in the world like KRS-One, all these guys that was huge. That, I mean, big, big talent. But how much do they make a record? And I start looking that stuff up, and that’s what made me get into the game on the other side, saying, “If I’m going to do this, I got to be able to feed my family and be able to feed other families and give opportunity.” And so, that’s when I took it from the business perspective.
Lee: But for that business perspective and its longevity to really be successful, it meant ownership, and he knew it, so much so that at one point, he even turned down $1 million record deal when he had just $500 in his pocket.
Master P: Well, my grandfather always told me, never do business when you’re desperate. But the deal said that I couldn’t use my name for seven years. I didn’t have the rights to any of the stuff that I was creating, so I feel like that was a red flag right off the top.
Lee: Everyone told him he was crazy for turning down the deal, but Master P bet on himself. He moved back to New Orleans, taking No Limit with him and doubled down.
Master P: That’s why I really got into the marketing side of this to say, when I start putting the gold, No Limit tanks with the diamonds and stuff on the back so people could know our brand.
Lee: From their signature logo of a blinged out gold tank to their brightly colored CD cases, No Limit stood out. By the late ‘90s, No Limit had multiple artists with billboard hits, including Master P himself.
So, late 90s, you released Ghetto D, “Make ’em Say Ugh,” like, puts you on the map beyond just the south and west, east coast, everywhere. At that point, did you realize that something was happening that was big? Was there a feeling in the industry that black folks, especially young black people, were starting to take over?
Master P: Yeah. So, I realized one thing, that my concerts start getting bigger and bigger. And in the audience, it wasn’t just blacks. I went to Tyler, Texas, and did a concert. It was 20,000 white kids. And I was almost, like confused, like, “Is this my show?” It was like, “Oh, they know the music.”
Master P: We’re not new, that I hadn’t crossed over that night. Everything was changing. I realized that I turned into an international store.
Lee: And then fortunes aligned for an opportunity much bigger than that check he turned down just a few years earlier.
Master P: And it’s a blessing I was able to acquire Snoop Dogg at that time and to grow my brand and my business.
Lee: When Snoop left Death Row Records after Tupac’s murder and disagreements about royalty payments, he went to No Limit. In the ’98, Snoop released his album, Da Game Is to Be Sold, Not to Be Told., which sold half a million copies in its first week.
Snoop Dogg, Still A G Thang: My game trump tight especially when it bump like Four DPG's gettin' crazy. And No Limit is the label that pays me!
Master P pushed no limit beyond music into other ventures like sports management, movie financing, and at one point, a phone sex business. And in 1998, Forbes listed Master P as the highest earning rapper, earning over $55 million that year. He was just 28 years old and with the self-proclaimed ghetto Bill gates. And more than 20 years later, Master P is still looking for ways to be bigger than just music. His latest venture, a partnership with Snoop, to create a new brand of breakfast cereal.
Master P: Got some of the best cereal in the game, that’s the Snoop Loopz. And the most important thing, Snoop Momma, the oatmeal, and so Momma Snoop Oatmeal.
Lee: And it’s not just about the money, it’s about the fine expectations and creating a legacy that will last.
Master P: That’s what I keep talking about, the economic empowerment part because now, we have to own or control something now. That’s why I say it’s so important to be chairmen of these companies. It’s so important to be able to have a control, you could put other people on. We’re teaching our culture. Let’s do something bigger than this, so it’ll be around when we’re not around.
Lee: Writer Nelson George remembers how in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Master P wasn’t alone in making these kinds of moves.
Nelson George: I remember when the idea of a CEO entered hip-hop, like, what?
Lee: Yeah, right.
George: Everyone was very big about being a CEO of their company. So, that’s a huge change. And I think that hip-hop is very, very good in giving people an idea that, “I can own my own stuff.” That’s major.
Lee: There was Sean “P. Diddy” Combs with his label Bad Boy, his chart topping singles, and what would become a super successful fashion label, Sean John, and eventually, his liquor brand Cîroc.
Jay Z, who also had his own label. His clothing line Rocawear, a chain of luxury sports bars, and later, tech companies and partial ownership in the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. He’s been outspoken about why he thinks wealth accumulation is an important political statement, like here on CNN Business in 2010.
Jay Z: We have an acquired wealth hand down and give the opportunities to, like, the next generation. So my goal is that my next generation can have a better start than I had.
Lee: Then there are artists like Ice-T who went from rapping about gang life to actually playing a detective in movies and on primetime TV.
Ice-T: When I first got to SVU, I was a hot hand, OK? More times than I like to admit, I wanted to put a bullet in one of those sicko’s heads.
Lee: Or Ice Cubes who shared his hardcore image to star in and later write and produce a slate of family friendly movies and TV shows.
Lee: Today, a long list of rappers have amassed a fortune, in some cases, more than a billion. But not everyone was looking to build an empire. During the mogul era, although most of the industry was determined to get rich or die trying, it became harder for rappers with an explicitly political message to break through. But they were still there making waves.
The Pistol, Ded Prez: We ain't trying to hear shit but what? Cash money. The whole world operating off of cash money. To all my niggas with a whole lot of cash money.
Stic.man: Blast you with the pistol. If I have to, in my mind it’s all about cash in the fistful. We weren't anti-getting money, you know what I mean? It’s just what we get money for. You know what I’m saying? What are our values? Why are we getting money?
Lee: Stic or Stic.man is one half of the hip-hop duo Dead Prez. Stic grew up in a small conservative town, about 30 miles outside of Tallahassee.
Stic.man: The hedges of our school was confederate flag.
Lee: He loved hip-hop, and started writing rhymes, mostly battle raps early, but in ninth grade, a teacher got in his ear.
Stic.man: So, my teacher, Ms. Greene, she caught me in the hallway and just stopped me one day and she said, “Every time I see you, you’re always rapping. But what y’all be talking about? You don’t be talking about nothing. You don’t even know your history.” I was like, “Whatever”. And then she goes, “I bet you don’t know that this year, this is going to be the first year in the history of this school,” a racist school I went to, “that you will have a Black History Month assembly.”
Lee: Ms. Greene said she’d sign him up to perform at the assembly, but he had to write something about black history.
Stic.man: She took me to the library, I skipped lunch, and she gave me these three ebony pictorial, leather-bound brown books with the gold writing. And she said, “Check these out.” I took it to the crib, put on some instrumentals, and start flipping through the pages and just it blew me away, bro. I’ve seen my cousins, I’ve seen my pops, I’ve see my brothers, I’ve seen the Panthers for the first time.
Stic.man: (Inaudible) with the (inaudible) shells on. And so, I’m just putting the pieces together and I pour all this out into what eventually became my song, and it was called “Black As I Can Get”.
Lee: But the big question is, do you remember some of the rap?
Stic.man: The only line I remember is, I just - I said, “I ain’t no Uncle Tom, the hell with Uncle Sam.” Like I remember saying that.
Lee: Stic graduated and started hanging around Florida A&M University and HBCU in Tallahassee where he met M-1.
Stic.man: He wasn’t rapping yet. He was like fly beat boy from Brooklyn, Jamaica, North Carolina.
Lee: In each other, they saw a fire. They got involved in activism and fashioned themselves as these throwbacks to the Black Panthers with things like canned food drives and cop watches. Stic and M-1 became a rap duo, and they moved to Brooklyn to try and crack into the business. Finally, they got a meeting with Loud Records, a Sony imprint, but they knew their revolutionary political rhymes weren’t going to get them a deal.
Stic.man: We pimped the system. So, the way we use the Sun Tzu tag that we gave Loud stuff like what Mobb Deep was doing, stuff like what Wu-Tang was doing, like (inaudible), you know what I mean? As soon as we got that deal, we was like, this is the only record we ever going to get to make.
Lee: So they pulled a bait and switch, didn’t use any of the demos that landed them a deal, and instead, they made their classic debut album, Let’s Get Free.
Stic.man: People are telling us, “Get rich, get rich, get this, get that.” There nobody’s saying, “Let’s get free,” because if we get free, we ain’t got to get rich. You know what I’m saying? We want to get rich because we caught in the system, and money is oxygen.
Lee: Dead Prez didn’t hold back. One of my favorite songs for the album is “I’m a African”.
I'm a African, Dead Prez: Somewhere in between N.W.A. and P.E. I'm black like Steve Biko. Raised in the ghetto by the people. Fuck the police you know how we do. Ayo my life is like Roots it's a true story. It's too gory for them televised fables on cable.
Stic.man: Get on the hardest rap label and pose like you got some gangster shit and then do some revolutionary shit when you get there, you know what I mean? So, that’s what “Let’s Get Free” was.
Lee: Stic and M-1 ran up against a lot of resistance as they made the album, even a fight over what to put on the cover.
Stic.man: It was a picture of the Soweto youth uprising.
Lee: In 1976, students in South Africa rose up to protest the mandate that classes be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the white supremacist apartheid regime. Hundreds of kids were killed by the state, but it was a pivotal moment in the fight for freedom.
Stic.man: And they had the AKs pointed up in unity. And so, we wanted that to represent our music, our album, our movement. And they was like, “You can’t use that. It’s guns.” And we like, “Huh?" “So, I thought y’all was against apartheid and all this.” But they were just front and it was like, Walmart, ain’t going to let you have that in there. And I’m like, “Walmart sell guns.” Like, “Come on.”
Lee: The next shelf over there, they got guns right now.
Stic.man: So, in the historical context of it and all that, right? And I remember we was having this little debate in the office, and I happened to look past the dude that was the gatekeeper, and, like, in the corner of his office, there was this doll, this black plastic doll of a woman, like a sex toy. And I - it just caught my eye, like, “Yo, what is that?” Right? And they were like, “Oh, that’s a promo doll for, I won’t say the group name, I leave them out.” It was like, that’s their promo doll. They throw those around at shows.
Lee: Come on.
Stic.man: And I said, “Y’all could objectify black women like that and throw that around, and that’s cool, and that’s okay, but we can’t celebrate black youth standing up.” You know what I mean, in history.
Lee: Dead Prez threatened to not release the album without the picture, but the record company wouldn’t back down, so they came up with a compromise.
Stic.man: They was like, “Well, you got to put a sticker over, right? You got to cover up the guns, right?” And we was like, “Yo, tell you what. If we agree to the sticker, you got to agree to us writing what’s on the sticker.” We ended up saying, “This artwork was censored by the powers that be for its political content.”
Lee: We reached out to Sony, who declined to comment on specifics, but reiterated that Loud Records has not been affiliated with the company for many years. We also reached out to the Founder of Loud Records, Steve Rifkind, who said he didn’t remember any specific conversations with the group around their album cover. He did recall, though, his Head of Sales telling him that Walmart wouldn’t buy the record. He also said he has no recollection of the promotional sex style that Stic is referring to.
One of the best known tracks from the album is called "Hip-Hop", an unfiltered denunciation of the music business and its exploits. It came about after the label wanted a single. But Dead Prez didn’t want to buy into the whole commercialist record distribution formula until one day --
Stic.man: So, I was sitting. In the studio on my ASR-10, and I was being sarcastic, and I thought back in Florida like the rattling “15s in the Trunk,” (inaudible), you can’t - that’s all you hear, right?
Lee: Barely hear it. You barely hear it, yeah.
Stic.man: And something made me just say, “I’ve been playing around with a little baseline and warped it.” And then all of a sudden, M and a crew of dudes of the Homies came in the studio. And everybody in the room was like, “Yo, this is crazy, right?” So, M-1, he heard it a certain way. So, he went in the booth and came out with, “One thing 'bout music: when it,” you know.
Hip-Hop, Ded Prez: One thing bout music when it hit you feel no pain. White folks say it controls your brain. I know better than that, that's game.
Stic.man: Once he got in the pocket on it, I was like, “Oh, this is - we got something here.
Hip-Hop, Ded Prez: Matter fact, who got the gat? And where my army at? Rather attack than not react. Back to beats, it don't reflect on how many records get sold. On sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Whether your project's put on hold. In the real world; these just people with ideas.
Stic.man: And so, when I went to write my verse, it was like, “How do I follow up?” What I felt when M, what he did, so what is bigger than hip-hop? Our lives, our cause, our communities, we got it twisted, we following the rappers. You know what I mean? The rappers supposed to be following the community.
Hip-Hop, Ded Prez: These record labels slang our tapes like dope. You can be next in line and signed and still be writing rhymes and broke. You would rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Bimmer, a necklace or freedom?
Lee: Dead Prez’ hip-hop was a huge success. All that tension had sparked something really special. The song came out in 2000, the last year of Clinton’s presidency. The boom times and the relative feeling of safety that defined the late ‘90s was about to come to an end, starting with the bitterly contested, controversial election of Republican President George W. Bush.
Archival Recording: In time of peace and prosperity like this, it’s possible for the country to have such a division as they do.
Archival Recording: Stop - Doris, Doris, Doris, Doris, Doris.
Archival Recording: Uh-oh, something happened.
Archival Recording: George Bush is the President-elect of the United States. He has won the State of Florida according to our projection.
Archival Recording: Apparently, a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center here in New York City. It happened just a few moments ago. Now, we have very little information.
Archival Recording: America today is on bended knee in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn. This nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey --
George Bush: Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.
At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
Archival Recording: One, two, three, four, we don’t want your racist war, five, six, seven, eight, stop the bombing, stop the hate. One, two, three, four.
Lee: An antiwar movement not seen in a generation emerged, and Dead Prez was right onboard.
Stic.man: Don’t be fooled. Don’t get lost in the sauce. We felt compassion for anybody on any soil that lose their life and ain’t had nothing to do with it. You know what I mean?
Lee: Dead Prez took Bush on directly with their song, “Know your Enemy”.
Know Your Enemy, Dead Prez: George bush is way worse than bin Laden is. Know your enemy, know yourself. That's the politic. FBI, CIA, the real terrorists. Know your enemy, know yourself.
Stic.man: So, our response was always stay woke before woke was a thing. Stay woke.
Lee: Soon, this anger spread beyond the rebels into more mainstream liberal circles. President Bush had implemented significant cuts to income tax that disproportionately benefited wealthy Americans and widened the racial wealth gap. The prosperity at the end of the Clinton administration was over, and black Americans faced an unemployment rate that was double that of white people. And people in mainstream hip-hop, the emerging black moguls who had largely kept out of politics in favor of making money were starting to realize that they wanted to make a difference. They had to harness their power.
Alexis McGill Johnson: Political people understood that they could move records, they could move shoes, they could sell out venues. They weren’t convinced yet that they could actually turn people out. And so, translating that influence culture into the other currency of politics had to be proven.
Lee: Up next, hip-hop hits the campaign trail. That’s after the break.
A quick reminder this episode contains several instances of profanity.
Johnson: I remember the first time my parents played the message. They made us listen to the lyrics. And to me, it just really captured, you know, the continuity of, like, growing up, listening to The Last Poets into the poetry and the beat of hip-hop that really, I think, was the soundtrack for me.
Lee: Alexis McGill Johnson is a longtime political activist and organizer, and she’s currently the President of Planned Parenthood. The 2000 election had historically low youth voter turnout, and many young people were feeling disillusioned with the government. Hip-hop seemed like a tool that could change that. It had influence and it had infrastructure. The same money and mechanisms that were making rap music the powerhouse that it was could make a difference in a new way.
Johnson: On any given Tuesday, the record industry put out a record, and that wasn’t by accident. They put out a record because Wednesday was when Billboard numbers drop. And so, they had a whole mechanism set up to do that. Whether they were early on talking to the local influencers, the barbers, the club promoters, they had the radio that that would be on constantly during drive time, connecting to people directly where they were. And so, that whole marketing apparatus of literally creating a market for an album, we have the same apparatus to turn people out on a Tuesday. Why can’t we turn people out on election day because that’s just the first Tuesday of November?
Lee: In 2004, Alexis teamed up with Diddy, who was looking for ways to broaden his impact beyond music and fashion. He tapped her to run his nonpartisan political action group Citizen Change. That summer, just months away from the Bush-Kerry race, Diddy announced their big campaign.
Archival Recording: Vote or Die, that’s the new campaign slogan targeting 18 to 30-year-olds to get out and vote on the next election.
Lee: Diddy was on The Today Show shortly after his announcement.
P. Diddy: This vote is life or death. When you vote for a candidate, you’re putting the lives of yourself and your families in their hands. And we have to take this voting process seriously. And a lot of people have died for the chance for us to have the right to vote. I don’t know if we appreciate it that much and --
Johnson: Puff’s message was, like, this is literally life and death, right, what we’re seeing up here, like, if we don’t actually engage in the game, they will continue to forget us, right? We are the forgotten ones. They will continue to essentially keep us in prison without jobs, without access to education, to raise our families. And I think that that is really what people saw as an important entry point into the conversation.
Lee: Diddy did interviews about Vote or Die on network news shows. They sold t-shirts. They held events across the country, and they got coverage on channels like VH1 and MTV that reached huge segments of young people, uh, and it worked.
Johnson: We would secure, like, 10,000 registrations in a week, like that --
Johnson: -- in political line is, like, insane.
Lee: Even well-established politicians to notice.
Hillary Clinton: So, I really think that this year, more than any other, young people have their entire futures at stake.
Lee: Here’s then Senator Hillary Clinton in an interview with MTV News at a 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Clinton: This is a direct impact on their lives, and I believe your slogan Vote or Die is accurate.
Johnson: When you look at the data of who turned out young people and people of color, the youth vote increased like significantly. And that was driven by an increase in participation among young black and Latino women.
Lee: In fact, 2004 had the biggest turnout of voters under 30 since 1972.
Johnson: But, you know, at the end of the day, the candidate that many of them might have voted for did not win.
Archival Recording: NBC News now projecting George W. Bush as the President of the United States.
Lee: Ultimately, it wasn’t just young people of color who turned out big. It turned out among nearly every demographic increased. More than 120 million Americans voted in the 2004 election, more than any other election in history to that point. And because President Bush was so popular with white folks, he defeated John Kerry. But just months after President Bush took the oath of office for a second time, disaster struck.
Archival Recording: And good evening from a battered and soaked City of New Orleans and those windows --
Lee: In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Southeastern United States, and New Orleans was hit especially hard.
Archival Recording: And the human misery is just getting underway. Millions are without power, many without homes at all.
Lee: When the poorly maintained levees broke, Lake Pontchartrain flooded huge swaths of the city. And black families who were already more likely to be living in poverty and who had a harder time evacuating during the storm were hit the hardest.
Archival Recording: They are just left behind. There’s nothing offered to them. No water, no ice, no sea rashes, nothing for the last four days.
Lee: As the news showed scenes of devastation and desperation, President Bush had Air Force One fly over the city on his way back from a vacation rather than landing. A photographer captured the moment as he looks on from the sky. Democrats and Liberal pundits immediately criticized them for seeming detached from the disaster unfolding on the ground.
As New Orleans struggled, NBC held a televised concert to raise funds for the Red Cross to help hurricane victims. There were performances from Wynton Marsalis and Tim McGraw and a long list of celebrity presenters. The evening had stayed mostly on message until Kanye West had his turn at the mic.
Kanye West: I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, it says they’re looking for food.
Lee: Standing next to Mike Myers, Kanye looked directly into the camera.
West: George Bush doesn’t care about black people.
Lee: The reaction was immediate. Many criticized Kanye for his words, but others praised him for sharing what many in New Orleans and across the country really felt. In the years since, President Bush has insisted he’s not a racist and called this moment one of the worst of his presidency. And it definitely was a turning point.
Bush’s popularity had already been declining since reelection, and he never recovered. And after years of erring on the apolitical side, mainstream hip-hop artists started to speak out through their music, like Jay-Z in his 2006 song “Minority Report”.
Minority Report, Jay-Z: The next five days, no help ensued. They called you a refugee because you seek refuge. The commander-in-chief just flew by. Did he stop? No, he had a couple seats. Just proved jet blue he's not. Jet blew by the spot. What if he ran out of jet fuel and just dropped.
Lee: Or Lil Wayne who’s from New Orleans on his song “Tie My Hands,” which has a very different message from the Cash Money music that got him famous.
Tie My Hands, Lil Wayne: They try to tell me keep my eyes open. My whole city under water, some people still floating. And they wonder why black people still voting, cause your president's still choking. Take away the Football team, the Basketball team. Now all we got is me to represent New Orleans, shit.
Lee: And in 2008, all of this momentum finally had somewhere to go.
Barack Obama: Where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America.
Lee: Senator Barack Obama had announced he was running for President the year before with a message of hope and change. He was the candidate, the Vote or Die generation had been waiting for. He was charismatic, had lived all over the world, had been an organizer in Chicago, and was a young black man.
Master P: For me, I want to tell you, I was one of the first with Barack Obama. You go back and look.
Lee: Master P was one of the first big names in hip-hop to get behind Obama.
Master P: My grandparents always told me that they wish they could see a black president in the White House. They never got a chance to see it, but I got a chance to be on the forefront with him, all his financial people. I started off on the radio calling in. I wanted to do my part.
Lee: Soon, artists like Jay-Z were hitting the campaign trail.
Jay-Z: I want to tell you, I go for Barack Obama.
Hey, this is Jay-Z. I want all my people in Michigan to go out and vote.
Lee: And Obama didn’t just rely on rappers for their support. He leaned on them for their cultural currency, like when he brushed his shoulder to show how little he cared about the haters.
Obama: When you’re running for the presidency then you’ve got to expect it, and you’ve just got to kind of let it.
Lee: Referring to Jay-Z lyrics, “Get that dirt off your shoulders."
Dirt Off Your Shoulder, Jay-Z: Don't forget that boy told you. Get that dirt off your shoulder.
Mark Anthony Neal: I don’t think Barack Obama gets elected President of the United States in 2008 without hip-hop.
Lee: Historian Mark Anthony Neal said hip-hop helped Obama appeal to voters of a variety of backgrounds.
Neal: What hip-hop did was to provide something that white kids could embrace and not be afraid of. So, when those white teenagers and white college students who listened to hip-hop in the 1990s, right, saw a black man running for President in 2008, they have been engaging in listening to hip-hop culture i.e. black culture for more than a decade.
Lee: In many ways, President Obama was America’s first hip-hop President, a guy from a certain generation and sensibility, shaped by the unflinching eye of the message, the rebellion to fight the power, the unbounding oratory of Illmatic and the audacity of No Limit, all with Jay-Z swagger.
When Obama won, the spirit of celebration and pride was palpable, captured with songs like “My President is Black” by Jay-Z.
My President Is Black, Jay-Z: My president is black, my Lambo's blue. And I be god damn if my rims ain't. too.
And Inauguration Day was full of A-list stars like Jay and Diddy. Even the Queen Bee herself performed.
At Last, Beyonce: At last my love has come along.
Lee: What was it like for you, given all the organizing work you’ve done around the hip-hop community to see Barack Obama in the White House and rappers are actually in the White House and they’re partying at the White House? What was it like for you to witness that?
Archival Recording: Yes, it’s like - I mean it’s mind-blowing. Are you kidding me? It’s mind-blowing. You think about these institutions. You’re talking about a White House that was built by slaves, not just to have a black President there, but to have a community who helped put him there, be recognized and seen and understood, because we all have the same cultural language, right? Like, that’s what hip-hop does.
Lee: But unsurprisingly, there was immediate backlash to a black President. America is always going to America. The ultra-conservative Tea Party formed, birtherism took hold, and within two years, the Democrats had lost control of the House, leading to years of legislative inaction. The country did reelect Obama in 2012, but by then, the criticism wasn’t just coming from the likely suspects.
Stic.man: His energy, his presence, his emcee style, how he was working that room, it caught my attention, like, this is special.
Lee: Stic from Dead Prez was of two minds when it came to the first black President.
Stic.man: I felt, like, I really wish I could, like, believe in who this is and his sense of balance and moderacy and, you know, all this stuff. Like, he had that effect on me. But because I’ve been trained, and I know how the game go, it’s like you’re still in that same seat. You still represent the interest of a system that’s based on the oppression of our communities.
Lee: Some black leaders started to feel like Obama hadn’t done enough for black families. Black people were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to white people. The racial wealth gap was at a record high, and despite the success of the Affordable Care Act, black families were still less likely to have health insurance.
The pushback even made its way to Obama’s second inauguration, when rapper Lupe Fiasco performed a song with an anti-Obama message at an inaugural event. And while most mainstream hip-hop artists didn’t stray from supporting Obama, conscious rappers like Tef Poe had never fully gotten behind him.
Tef Poe: I didn’t change my stance towards the American President just because he was black. I thought it was cool, but also, I saw the political theater in it. I had Barack these records. You know what I’m saying?
Poe: White house genocide, see the evidence? I don't care if he is black. Mother fuck the president. Democrat, Republican, really ain't no difference.
Lee: Tef Poe grew up right outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and quickly became a fixture on the local rap scene. His big break came in 2013. He got to compete on Freestyle Fridays, a rap battle contests on BET’s, hip-hop video countdown show, 106 & Park, and Tef went undefeated.
Poe: Look me in my eye. Let me say it's not all right. You not Jesus Christ. You go down twice.
Lee: Tef was able to turn that exposure into a national tour. But on August 9, 2014, he was back home in St. Louis for a brief stop.
Poe: We were going to be doing a southern hip-hop tribute party where we’re going to be playing, like, all the greatest classics, Master P and all that stuff. And I got online to promote the party. I saw people on Facebook initially talking about somebody being shot in Ferguson.
Lee: That somebody was 18-year-old Michael Brown. Tef shared a post from Mike Brown’s stepfather where he was holding a sign that read, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son.” Tef had a pretty big following after his victory on 106 & Park and thought maybe he could help raise awareness. He fired off some tweets calling out police brutality that started to gain some attention then stepped away.
Poe: I kind of had got online for a second, got back offline and went on with my day. Then my little brother calls me and says, “Yo, you heard about this guy they shot in Ferguson? He’s still outside.” I said, “Dude, that was hours ago. What do you mean, he’s still outside?” He said, “Bro, dude still outside. They got him outside on the ground.”
Lee: The police left Michael Brown’s body on the street to bake in the summer sun for four long hours while a crowd seethed around it.
Poe: By the time I got down there and saw what I saw, I knew it wasn’t going to be normal situation. The blood is still there and the sun was still up you. So, I just have a vivid memory of seeing his blood soaked up into a mud puddle. So, yeah, after that, man, I kind of processed it real quick. I did the math on this one real quick. I said, “Police up there getting ready, people down here deeply, emotionally distraught.” And one thing you know about being black in America, you cannot publicly grieve. You’re supposed to go back in the house, grieve quietly. Maybe some people show up and help you pray about it. But guess what? Some people praying about it don’t got no power.
Lee: Tef and a swelling angry group of people gathered there to grieve defiantly. Armed officers met their pain with more violence.
Poe: I remember the sun going down and the sirens was so - there were so many sirens. And this is the first time I see dogs. Some are canine German shepherds. I see white police officers getting out waving double barrel shotguns. They drive directly over the exact spot where Mike Brown’s body had been at. Some people, I’m assuming his family, had put some roses or, like, flower petals on that exact area. But when those cops came down there like that, man, I mean, it shifted the energy into a whole different way.
Lee: That night, anger boiled into rage, and a heavy handed response from police crushed down like an anvil. Over the next several weeks, Ferguson burned.
Archival Recording: We’re going to go back to Trymaine Lee because there seems to be some movement there on the street.
Lee: Oh, gees, oh.
I was there --
Archival Recording: Trymaine?
Lee: -- as a Correspondent for MSNBC.
Archival Recording: I’ve tried to get away from the smoke. I can barely breathe. My nose is burning. My lungs are burning. I can’t (inaudible). My eyes are numb and burning. You can’t escape it. The clouds of tear gas kind of engulfs and everything.
Obama: We lost a young man, Michael Brown, in heartbreaking and tragic circumstances.
Lee: Obama addressed the situation in Ferguson the day after I was tear-gassed. And as he did so often during his presidency, he walked a fine line between supporting his black base and attempting to appease more moderate voters.
Obama: There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism or looting. There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protesters in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.
Lee: And so, when I met you, you know, on the street to Ferguson, and I met you as an organizer, a protester, or someone who’s there who happened to be rapping, like, I didn’t meet you as rap first, it was like you in the streets for real. So, if I could turn to you to get the truth about what’s going on and get the truth of the spirit and all that. But it also did shape your music. Moving forward after Mike Brown, how did that shape what you were doing musically?
Poe: I took a lot of time off of music because I didn’t want to be perceived to be somebody finessing the situation. And also at the time, we really did think to be real about it. We thought that was the revolution. After a certain point, we got so entangled in it. We really believed it was the revolution. That goes back to, you got to make choices. Am I going to be a rapper or a revolutionary? Am I trying to get paid or am I trying to revolutionize?
Lee: Tef Poe decided to be both. In November of that year, during the second round of uprisings, when a grand jury declined to bring charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Mike Brown, he released this song.
Poe: This ain't your daddy's civil rights movement. No, this ain't your momma's civil rights movement. (inaudible) revolution. These other rappers rap about this shit but never do it. God bless my village.
I see people out here having the opportunity to have a little bit more of a life than we had.
Lee: At its essence, hip-hop has always been a form of activism. The music has followed the black oral tradition of speaking into existence our collective cultural selves, our dreams, our deep traumas and triumphs. We partied and paid homage. We fought back and fought ourselves, and we did it with conviction, with turntables and microphones, fresh fits and gold chains. We did it on the streets and in the C-suites while rhyming about popping bottles or popping cops. We even did it in the White House.
Hip-hop has been the voice of generations and of America. One year after the uprising in Ferguson, Kendrick Lamar released “Alright,” speaking in a new way to the hopes that and frustrations of his generation.
Alright, Kendrick Lamar: Alls my life I has to fight, nigga. Alls my life I. Hard times like, yah! Bad trips like, yah! Nazareth, I'm fucked up. Homie, you fucked up. But if God got us then we gon' be alright. Nigga, we gon' be alright. Nigga, we gon' be alright.
Lee: The song was a commercial and critical success, proving once again that politics would never leave the music. But more than making money, it just made sense. At its heart, hip-hop is a megaphone and well into the 21st century. It would continue to be the soundtrack of protest, including the 2020 uprisings after the murder of George Floyd, which lit a match of righteous anger around the world.
Archival Recording: And I think it could do more, like, I’m always going to bet that hip-hop can do more, that if we pushed it a little bit further, I think the possibilities are endless.
Lee: Next week, we’ll bring our series to an end as we travel through one of the most politically contentious periods in recent American memory. We’ll look to where hip-hop is headed and take one more look back at what hip-hop has given us all.
Archival Recording: Hip-hop gave me life, it gave me a career, and hip-hop has given me a sense of belonging. It’s a beautiful thing, man. It’s a beautiful thing. I can’t ask for nothing else better.
Lee: Join us for Street Disciples Part 5: We Gon' Be All Right. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod. You can tweet me @trymainelee. And you can write to us using the email is email@example.com. And please take a minute to review Into America on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Mike Brown, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs and Janmaris Perez. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I’m Trymaine Lee. We’ll be back next Thursday to wrap up our series Street Disciples.