On Public Enemy’s 1989 smash “Fight The Power” idol topplers Chuck and Flav vilify Elvis “The King” Presley and John “The Duke” Wayne as symbols of an ongoing plot to strike blackness from the historical record. The song’s lyrics suggest in unsubtle terms that the incessant valorization of white faces continues the racist work began by centuries of stamp-honored “rednecks.” The newer media are frighteningly powerful and pervasive, indeed, but also quite frail – if we follow Public Enemy’s logic we are led to believe that a pointed “fuck you” performed to a slamming beat can undo some of this racist nonsense.
Critics have long suggested that rap stands at odds with, and yet is incurably smitten by, good ol’ American popular culture (read: “white” or at least “comfortably familiar”). I am not inclined to disagree. Public Enemy’s fiery invective denounces pop culture’s propagandistic potential while making great use of it. The video sees Chuck and Flav swagger in front of a mural of Malcolm X, successfully announcing themselves as the new American heroes. In aligning themselves with icons of the ’60s and ’70s (partly depotentiated by the passage of time) a palatable revolutionary posture is created. Soon thereafter, Brand Nubian pulls the same stunt, beads and African medallions knock dookie gold chains off their pedestal, and “X” hats are ubiquitous.
“Fight The Power” gave the rap world full permission to not only satirize or subvert America’s heroes, but to mercilessly defame them. Rappers followed suit gleefully. Ice Cube’s “Gangsta Fairytale” takes the long censored genre and slaps it back to its bawdy origins while showing impressive initiative in slandering Mr. Rogers, the formerly bulletproof symbol of all things white, Protestant, positive, and milquetoast. Two Kings In A Cypher’s “Daffy Was A Black Man” is a humorous if implausible assault on the racist implications of Warner Brothers cartoons.
Such songs demonstrate a degree of sophistication and seem to encourage critical thought, or at least, a smarter, more active form of consumerism. However, they are in my opinion somewhat less intellectually honest than those which display an unabashed enthusiasm for pop iconography (early Das Efx comes to mind). Because even if Superman is a Nazi deep down … your angriest revolutionary second grader still enjoys the movies. And yet those rappers who revel in pop culture while only tackling race in the subtlest or most fleeting manner (or not at all) leave me cold. Mostly because I can remember television providing a perpetually disconcerting glimpse into race relations from age four onwards.
Enter the Juggaknots. They are probably best known for “Clear Blue Skies,” a song usually embraced as a poignant examination of inter-racial dating when it is actually a bizarre ventriloquizing stab at white racism. Its notoriety notwithstanding, “Clear Blue Skies” is a cake walk compared to “Generally,” a dissection of the racial subtext of The Dukes Of Hazzard television show (1979-1985). “Generally” differentiates itself from other rapped critiques of pop culture because it selects a difficult target, a television show replete with racially charged iconography (the good ol’ boy protagonists drive around in their Confederate flag-emblazoned car named “General Lee,” for Christ’s sake) that was somehow enthusiastically embraced by kids of all races.
Rapper Breezely Brewin’ breaks the show’s appeal down to morsels so tiny one is inclined to smack his forehead upon arriving at the same realizations as his scandalized narrator – the show was crazy fun and the toys were great! Car chases and clever wholesome lawlessness are nearly impossible to resist. The passive viewer is easily sucked in to the show’s ideological premise – that the illegal activities of “good ol’ boys” should be overlooked because naturally “they wasn’t meaning no harm.”
The brilliance of the song lies in its performance of a gradual reckoning. The narrator begins by bemoaning the current state of children’s entertainment. During his digression – and Brewin’s rapid, nearly garbled rhyme style can sound very meandering to an untrained ear – he is reminded of his fanaticism for Dukes. He waxes rhapsodic about the protagonists’ cunning and the show’s unending excitement until he randomly stumbles upon the potentially racist implications of Uncle Jesse’s veneration of the Duke clan. The transition occurs so quickly and is performed so smoothly the listener is tricked into believing he is directly participating in Brewin’s “conversation piece,” moving along at the exact speed of thought.
Of course, Brewin’s narrator is actually omniscient but his poetic techniques hasten the delivery of several telling observations apart from the obvious truth that the modern media can be quite a dastardly trickster. Brewin’ implicates himself and by extension the listener in a web of deceitful racism. Before revealing the ugly truth the narrator implores the listener to “stop fronting” because “you had the toys,” The active consumer is reduced to passive enabler of racism; seemingly rebellious movements and heartfelt affinities seem very tainted after listening to “Generally.” This is a much riskier move than denouncing a figure like John Wayne who was far removed from anyone’s pedestal of cool by 1989.
“Generally” is a mind fuck similar to the one it exposes, but the sophistry can be forgiven because the discerning listener (can the Juggaknots attract any other kind?) is rewarded the jewel of a song that is reflexively critical. The tendencies of the so-called “hip-hop generation” — to valorize lawlessness while zealously seeking the affirmation and allegiance of a mob (“represent for the clan”) and slavishly revering the symbols of past and current oppression — are placed in the crosshairs alongside America’s racist hypocrisies. In locating a most hideous truth underneath our superficial wistfulness, Brewin’ skewers America’s peculiar form of amnesia and pathologically romanticized view of its past. But like Chuck and Flav, he also provides us with a glimmer of hope in the final verse, a charged realization of anger at being duped and an assertion of a new frame of mind.
All in under four minutes.
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