Gangsters, Hip-Hop and American Culture

By Jack Tuckner, Esq.

Some pertinent questions arise from the event, catalyzed by rapper T.I.’s real-life arrest shortly before the opening of the film American Gangster, wherein he largely plays the fictional equivalent of his apparent real life persona. Why do some facets of hip-hop are so fascinated with gangster culture? Why are we as Americans fascinated with gangsters and gang culture?

As a former public defender and civil rights attorney in NYC for the past 20 years, I’ve represented a diverse array of creative individuals who are increasingly vocal about the perceived connection between hip-hop/rap culture and the behavior of the right wing, conservative Republican base, beginning with the installation of Ketchup as Vegetable, Ronald Reagan and currently exemplified by the Bush Administration’s devotion to the swaggering, conscienceless, narcissistic need to own/rule their turf (the world). Listen to the hardcore lyrics of More or Less, by Shyne, they say, and you can easily chart the parallel courses of action between the outlaw inner-city youths doing what has to be done to turn a buck, even if it means going to jail or killing somebody, and the consumerist corporate culture of today’s America. Or pay heed to the wonderful rap song byImmortal Technique and Mos Def that beautifully melds the music form with the overarching substance of Bushie gangsterism. It’s the culture of high-stakes competition, money and mendacity. Both gangsta rap culture and the Bush business culture represent morally desolate and ethically indefensible pursuits of a buck for money’s sake alone, and to complete the music video analogy, Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face and was as remorseless as Pauley Walnuts when he shot a waiter to death for complaining about his tip in an episode of The Sopranos.

In my view, we are all fascinated with gangster culture, be it in the hip-hop music world, the real life Cosa Nostra (and its many fictional recreations) or our own torture-sanctioning tough-guy government because we all love displays of unconditional power. We love the rawness of it, the liberating, unrestrained id of it all, the way it appeals to our prurient interest at the basest of levels. We live vicariously through this non-consensual power dynamic, manifested in people and cultures imbued with the certainty and blustering arrogance and conceit propelled by the pure testosterone poisoning of absolute power, undiminished by shades of compassion and rational objectivity. Rappers and Republicans; only the latter are prone to pure gangsterism, the former are merely their foils, a Willy Horton distraction, a chimera to deflect the onus and evil onto convenient longstanding cultural scapegoats.