"'Ball of Confusion' by the Temptations really set the pace for rap," says Chicago writer Scoop Jackson of the 1970 hit. "It was the structure of the song, the speed, the repetitive lyrics. They were verbalizing and rhyming at a pace that really hadn't been done before. The politics behind the lyrics stood out. The tone of the song is a lot angrier than anything the Temptations have ever done. I mean, they're screamin' on the church, politics, and education."
In his Knicks cap, blue plaid shirt, and baggy jeans, with a Snapple in his hand and a Welcome to the Terrordome poster on the wall behind him, Jackson looks more like a 16-year-old than the author of a book of social and political analysis. Then again, the subject of his analysis is hip hop. Jackson wrote The Last Black Mecca: Hip Hop, a 99-page paperback just published by Research Associates, when he was a grad student in communications at Howard University three and a half years ago.
"When it was time to do my thesis, I thought, 'I need to challenge something.' I was tired of rap music being dogged by academia," he says over a booming KRS-One tape. "I decided to do my thesis on defending this shit."
He opted to apply Albert Bandura's theory of social learning to rap. "Basically, Bandura's theory says that exposure and socialization can influence your behavior and beliefs; you're influenced by what you see on TV. I just changed the medium." Jackson took random surveys of 40 to 50 students aged 17 to 20 over a three-week period. Titled, "Rap Music and Social Norms: Does Rap Music Play a Role in the Conditioning of Social Values of Our Black Youth?" the survey presented the lyrics of songs by Run-DMC, Kool Moe Dee, Jungle Brothers, Public Enemy, 2 Live Crew, and Ice Cube. Forty-six percent of the students agreed that rap has a direct effect on social values, and 51 percent said they learned something from the lyrics. "This indicates the power that rap has as a tool of constructive influence in conditioning," says Jackson.
The book cites the passage of Martin Luther King's birthday as a legal holiday in Arizona and the reinvigorated popularity of Malcolm X as two results of rap's "constructive influence." "Arizona was the last state to pass the bill for King's holiday," says Jackson. "It went through legislation three times and didn't pass. Public Enemy released the video 'By the Time I Get to Arizona' in November '91, and it caused a major uproar. It showed Chuck D blowing up the governor's office. Then the NFL threatened to pull the Superbowl out [unless the state legislature passed the bill]. They passed [it] in January 1992." KRS-One imitated the pose from a famous photo of Malcolm X on the cover of By All Means Necessary in 1988--"way before the movie or the X caps," says Jackson. The same year, Public Enemy sampled the civil rights leader's voice in "Bring the Noise."
As editor of the underground magazine The Agenda and a free-lance writer for RapPages, Rap Sheet, YSB, Fly Paper, and The Final Call, Jackson's been writing about hip hop culture for four years. But he's been listening to the music since its inception. "Hip hop hit me when I was a sophomore in high school," which was in 1978-'79, he says. "I heard 'Dance to the Drummer's Beat,' by Herman, Kelly, and Life, [and] that set it off. [That song] was different at the time because it was lyricless. The only vocals were the chorus of 'Let's dance to the drummer's beat.' It had a little calypso groove and a strong bass line." It was also one of the first records rappers used to scratch and rhyme over.
After immersing himself in Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang, Jackson went away to Xavier University in New Orleans. That was in 1981, about the time rap started "blowin' up," and Jackson would trade tapes with students from the east coast. "Brothers in New York were lovin' house music and brothers in Chicago were lovin' rap, so we'd trade. They'd bring the actual DJ battle tapes," live tapes from competitions in New York clubs in which DJs would try to outrhyme and outscratch one another.
Jackson's book traces hip hop's progress from braggadocio to political thought. "Rap is a reflection and self-examination of the Black community and the activities that occur in it," he writes in the "I'd Rather B Here 2 Xercize Tha Mind" chapter. "The ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact, the cynical ignoring of the better and the boisterous welcoming of the worst, and the disdain of everything Black that white society places on this particular phenomena, quietly exposes the lack of understanding of the total Black culture."
Shaking his head at these facts, Jackson says, "the [media] distortion is getting out of control because we [African Americans] have no control of the direction of the product; we just create it. We need to own the labels and distribution companies. Latifah, Paris, Chuck D, and Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo own their own labels, so there is a move toward this."
Robert "Scoop" Jackson (who is no relation to Washington senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson) got his nickname because his newspaper-reporter father considered his birth--the day after Kennedy's assassination--bigger news than the president's death. These days Jackson has his own ideas about the presidency: he recommends that Ice Cube run for that office, Sister Souljah for vice president, and KRS-One for secretary of education.
Scoop Jackson will read from The Last Black Mecca: Hip Hop on Friday, August 19, from 7 to 9 PM at Frontline Bookstore, 751 E. 75th St. (651-9888). Admission is free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.