In 1991, rapper Ice Cube bashed his then nemesis, Eazy-E on his dis song “No Vaseline” with the line “I’ll never have dinner with the president,” mocking Eazy for his participation at a $2,500-a-plate dinner with President George H.W. Bush.
Nineteen years later another rapper, who, like Eazy, told tales of drugs and violence, would visit the president at the White House, which helped him seem more powerful, cool and connected. As Jay-Z has even bragged about having “Obama on the text” in his lyrics, hip-hop’s role in politics and elections has evidently changed greatly between the time Eazy-E met with President Bush and the time Jay-Z met with President Obama.
In 1991, associating yourself with the president was as bad as having dinner with the KKK or hanging out with the police. In the ’90s, hip hop was still a strong counter cultural movement and rappers like Paris, X-Clan, BDP, Public Enemy, and Poor Righteous Teachers would regularly attack the system and the president that headed it.
The White House and the government returned the favor, attacking hip hop. Vice President Dan Quayle famously attacked Tupac Shakur and blamed his music for influencing a man to kill a cop. Then-President Bush and 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole also attacked Ice T’s “Cop Killer” song and pressured Time Warner to drop the song from Ice T’s album.
Even Democrats would use hip-hop as a scapegoat, with presidential nominee Bill Clinton criticizing rapper Sistah Soulja for reverse racism over her comments after the L.A. Riots and former vice-president Al Gore’s wife, Tipper Gore, testifying in Congress against 2 Live Crew and criticizing Ice T’s “Cop Killer.”
In 1995, Dole and former Bush drug czar William Bennett joined forces with African-American Democratic Congresswoman C. Delores Tucker to launch a campaign to force Time Warner to divest from Interscope Records, for putting out Tupac Shakur and Death Row Records.
Despite succeeding in having Time Warner divest from Interscope, the campaign failed miserably. Tucker’s well meaning critique was ruined by his collaboration with right wing politicians who made it seem like another Republican attack on the black community. The campaign only helped give more publicity and media exposure to “gangsta” rap. Tupac would join Death Row Records and Interscope would be bought by Universal Records and make billions off of “gangsta rap.”
Still, while the misogyny and violence of gangsta rap grew after the anti-Time Warner campaign, the political element shrunk greatly. Gone were the political undertones and anti-establishment creeds of “gangsta” rappers Tupac and Ice Cube, as well as political rappers like Public Enemy, as they were replaced by rappers whose only goals were “money, cash, hoes.” While rap remained a threat to public decency, it was no longer a threat to the system as a whole.
Rap’s most devastating critique of the president in the 1990s came from rapper Paris, with his song “Bush Killa,” in which he attacked U.S. foreign and domestic policy while rapping from the perspective of Bush’s assassin. Paris’s label, Time Warner, refused to put the song out. Paris would eventually stop rapping and join the corporate world as an investment banker.
Paris’s transition from revolutionary rapper to stock broker reflected rap’s transition from revolutionary art form to a corporate-backed business. Rap was no longer against the system, rap became part of the system.
The same billion-dollar media companies that donate to both the Democratic and Republican parties began to control the promotion and distribution of rap music. Rather than social change, hip-hop’s bottom line became the almighty dollar as rappers began to emulate the corporations that fed them.
While George W. Bush provided great fodder for attacks and mockery from the media, hip-hop was noticeably mostly absent from the attacks. Eminem bashed Bush before the 2004 election in “Mosh” and rappers Immortal Technique and Mos Def accused Bush of being complicit in 9/11 in “Bin Laden.”
But it wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that Bush became a real target for the rap community. Hip-hop’s most infamous attack on Bush did not come from a song, but from an unrehearsed moment at a telethon for Hurricane Katrina when Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” As simple as it was, the statement hit a nerve and reflected what millions of African-Americans had been feeling about Bush and the presidents before him.
Katrina also inspired previously apolitical rapper Lil Wayne to record his most socially relevant song to date, “Georgia Bush,” in which he viciously criticized George W. Bush and the police department, echoing statements from the anti-Bush and police songs of the early ’90s while still bragging about moving cocaine.
A lot has changed in the 20 years between Eazy-E’s and Jay-Z’s presidential meetings. In ’91, the president was an old corny rich white man who had previously run the CIA; in 2012, the president is a youthful black man with swagger who used to be a community organizer in Chicago.
Back then, hip-hop was a counter cultural movement with strong pro-black and anti-establishment undertones. Today hip-hop is a corporate sponsored, capitalist, largely apolitical art form. Most popular rap songs deal with partying, drug dealing, violence, sex and materialism and rarely deal with any social or political issues.
Today, associating yourself with the president is something which brings adulation in hip hop, not scorn. Jay-Z famously bragged about having “(President) Obama on the Text” which was more of an endorsement of Obama’s celebrity than his policies, given that it came after Jay bragging about bringing Michael Jackson to Summer Jam.
The role hip-hop played in Obama getting elected was more of a showcase of rap’s marketing power rather than its political force. While rappers echoed the images and slogans from the campaign, very few hip-hop Obama supporters actually brought up issues of the presidential campaign. Just as the genre has marketed clothes, beer, beverages, deodorant and cars, it also helped market the president in 2008.
The front man for hip-hop’s support of Obama was Will.I.Am, a protege of Eazy-E’s who was once signed to Ruthless records. Still, Will.I.Am’s brand of rap was diametrically opposed to Eazy’s. Will.I.Am was a pop rapper whose music was largely clean and inoffensive and rarely dealt with controversial issues, making him a very safe choice as a spokesman.