A Brief History of White Rappers

Eminem. Beastie Boys. Mac Miller. Vanilla Ice. They all rap and they’re all caucasian. MTV has this condensed history of white rappers.

White rappers. How many of us love them? To be a white rapper is a tough row to hoe in an industry with a complex overlay of cultural, social, and capitalist demands. Questions get raised: Are you real enough? Does your background matter? Is it harder or easier for you to succeed in the industry because you’re white? Did you just get signed because the record company knows that concerned white parents are way more likely to buy your stuff for their kids than the music made by some dark-skinned dude with diamond grills? Can you say the n-word? Should you? As hip-hop wrestles with its own rapidly altering identity — the kind of world where a street-verified Meek Mill can come for ex-urban Drake and see his own career nearly cave in as a result — it becomes more and more difficult to tell who has what right to be involved in what music.

Rakim, widely considered one of the greatest rappers of all time, once uttered the line, “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” This is the keystone bar of a song, “I Know You Got Soul,” that has become something of a manifesto for hip-hop culture. It’s about skills, not your background, Rakim seems to tell us. You spit your rhymes, and that’s all that matters. If they’re wack, go back and practice until they aren’t. Where you come from, what you look like, is beside the point. (Which is precisely how it came to pass that Meek got eaten by Drake.)

That some people interpreted Rakim’s words as a call to color blindness reflects the kind of idealism that characterized hip-hop in its nascent stages. Even in 1987, when Rakim uttered that line, people were beginning to enshrine the idea of an earlier golden age when the genre — still bereft of big money deals and corporate intervention, and prior to the crack epidemic and its ensuing nihilistic carnage — was nothing more than a beautiful solution to poverty’s most pressing complications. It was an urgent artistic expression magically created from the simplest of ingredients: turntables, microphones, spray cans, walls, cardboard. Crews were just as likely to battle one another with dance and rhyme skills as with gunplay and violence. The art form was driven by a high-integrity devotion to quality and discipline, or so the story goes.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “A Brief History of White Rappers

  • July 19, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Ken Nordine was the first white rap recording artist.


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