Remembering Hip-Hop’s Response to 9/11

It may be unfair to single out rap artists for their response to the tragic events of 9/11. Artists in every discipline, from music to movies to literature and visual art, have struggled to comprehend this defining moment. But in a genre that prizes topicality and ghetto realism, whether it’s a carefully edited documentary or an exaggerated form of musical verité, the halting way rappers chose to address the World Trade Center attacks is particularly glaring.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was mostly silence. The rapid-reaction MP3 infrastructure that swirls around any major event today didn’t truly exist yet, so most of the late-2001 release slate didn’t mention it, including Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (famously released on September 11) and Dilated Peoples’ Expansion Team. However, contemporaneous work took on new significance, including Cannibal Ox’s diary of New York squalor The Cold Vein, Trick Daddy’s condemnatory “Amerika,” and DMX’s street-revolutionary anthem “Who We Be.” Advance artwork for The Coup’s Party Music featured Boots Riley and Pam the Funkstress blowing up the twin towers with a radio tuner, but it was quickly replaced after the attacks and before the album’s November 6 release.

The lone exception to this disquiet was Sage Francis’ “Makeshift Patriot.” Recorded and released several weeks after the attacks as a free MP3, it has a reportorial perspective as he compares the terrorist-manned planes to Trojan horses and recounts how “the fallout was far beyond the toxic clouds where people were like debris.”

By the end of the year, stray references to 9/11 began to appear. “Who the f*ck knocked our buildings down?/ Who behind the World Trade massacre? Step up now,” rapped a newly patriotic Ghostface Killah on Wu-Tang Clan’s “Rules.” On his anti-war song “Rule,” Nas took a more expansive view, rapping, “Lost lives in the towers and Pentagon, why then/ Must it go on/ We must stop the killing.”

This approach prevailed during the next few years, as 9/11 became a throwaway metaphor for urban blight and American resilience. “This that 9/11 music right here, man,” bragged Jim Jones on “Ground Zero” from the Diplomats’ Diplomatic Immunity. (Ironically, the Diplomats also called themselves The Taliban.) On “A Ballad for the Fallen Soldier,” Jay-Z compared a street hustler’s life to someone serving in the armed forces. “They’re both at war,” he observed. “Off to boot camp, they’re both facing terror/ Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan.”

While music about 9/11 has mostly disappointed, the subsequent War on Terror – along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — inspired a wave of memorable critiques against President Bush. “Bin Laden didn’t blow up the projects/ It was you, n*gga/ Tell the truth, n*gga,” chants Mos Def on Immortal Technique’s “Bin Laden,” which along with Jadakiss’ “Why” and Mr. Lif’s “Home of the Brave” advanced the conspiracy theory that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks as a Faustian global power grab.

Meanwhile, 9/11 as an event unto itself has largely gone unanalyzed. Perhaps hip-hop artists are more comfortable with using the U.S. government as a stock villain for all the hardship that has befallen us since that day, from never-ending wars to economic catastrophe, than imagining the complex forces that irrevocably changed 21st-century American life.

(Rhapsody – September 6, 2011)

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