By Nicole Ramsey
Rapper Chamillionaire released a song earlier this year called “Hip-Hop Police,” which details the anxiety of being followed and having to monitor what rappers say because the police might be listening. With all of the controversy that has been surrounding rap music, the song gives numerous reasons as to why this type of music has such an impact on society and freedom of speech. The music video for “Hip-Hop Police” gets constant play on music video networks and has brought the issue more to the forefront than ever before.
Rappers and individuals associated with them have mentioned in songs and interviews that the “hip-hop cops” are tracking their every move. The cops are staking out residences and analyzing lyrics in order to keep track of the supposed threats toward these artists and their safety.
What was once one of the most innovative and expressive genres of music is now public enemy number one. Critics by the handful are accusing this music and its rappers of encouraging a culture of violence, crime, and gang activity.
In an interview with MTV News titled “Is the NYPD at War with Hip-Hop?” rapper Fat Joe stated that he was convinced that there was indeed a task force devoted to monitoring these stars.
These “hip-hop cops” are a task force within the New York Police Department (NYPD) that work out of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) and are a part of the division’s Gang Intel unit. With the deaths of artists such as Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Jam Master Jay, along with the arrests of several key rap figures, the task force saw fit to monitor rappers’ activities.
The special unit devoted to these artists first started out in New York, but according to the Miami Herald’s article on the same issue, the unit has since expanded nationwide to cities such as Los Angeles and Miami. The tracking of rap artists has garnered more attention, along with a public uproar over suspected racism and racial profiling.
The unit was created by Derrick Parker, a retired detective for the NYPD, who started it as a way to eliminate the violence within the hip-hop community and to remove any threats geared toward, or coming from, the artists.
“There was a lot of violence here in New York City and in the rap industry,” Parker said. “With the death of Notorious B.I.G., there was a major concern because of the violence, and the vicious threats against the artists. Sometimes the rappers were the victims and sometimes they were the perpetrators. There were a lot of problems here [in New York City].”
Parker often spoke to rappers, not with an intention to arrest, but to talk to them about the people they were involved with, such as members of their entourages.
One such incident was in 2004. Murder Inc., a record company owned by Irving Lorenzo (also known as Irv Gotti) came under investigation for suspected money laundering through his label with local drug dealers. In 2005, he was acquitted on all charges and since then has changed the record label name to The Inc. Many believe that this is an example of why the police unit existed and why there is a need for a unit devoted to these major entertainment figures.
According to the Village Voice, some New York City cops have admitted that this special unit exists, while others have disregarded it and see it as a way for rappers to feel that they are important and feared. The consumers and general public do not know which side to take, and that leaves many people wondering if the “hip-hop cops” unit is a rumor or just a poorly kept secret.
What seems to be one of the main offenses these rappers are caught for is carrying guns without a license, if they are felons. Music journalist Adam Matthews explained that sometimes rappers do not want to hire security, so they hire a friend or someone they know instead. In most cases, if these people are felons they are not allowed to carry guns.
Often, if rappers are involved in a crime or know something about the individuals involved, they choose to keep quiet because they don’t want to be seen as an informer. The “no snitching policy,” or mentality that most rappers and people from the inner city abide by, makes it difficult for the police to do their job, leaving many cases unsolved.
Matthews explained that the “no snitching policy” creates more problems because of the fact that these rappers don’t want to hire cops because they are afraid of how that’s going to look to their fans, peers, and fellow rappers. “They end up carrying guns,” he said.
The animosity between the police and rappers is also one of the reasons why rappers choose to take matters into their own hands.
“Originally, I think, for rappers in hip-hop from the East Coast who lived in slums, rap music back then was an overall expression,” second-year and head of Cultural Affairs Moses Massenburg said. “Now it’s just a way of showing, I have this and I have that and I can kill a cop to get this or I can get around the law to get that.”
Negative attitudes aimed at police are based on the rapper’s mistrust in the cops as protectors. Due to many rappers’ experiences with the police while growing up, they may not see them as protectors so much as fraudulent figures.
Many members of the hip-hop community feel that rappers are being mistaken for drug dealers and crime lords. Cops have expressed that they feel some of these rap stars may have ties to street gangs and organized crime.
“I think because the rappers foster these stereotypes and keep them alive, they allow the rest of the nation to have this perception of African-Americans,” Massenburg said. “I think rappers need to take a look at what they do to the community.”
Because of the unit’s main focus on African American artists, many listeners and rappers feel that this shows racial profiling as well as stalking. Not all hip-hop artists are the same, and the unit insists that it is only dealing with rappers who have a criminal record.
“A lot of people can’t tell if the violence [in hip-hop] is real or not,” Parker said. “There have been too many shootings and too many deaths in the rap community and the department here in New York. We are proactive and we aren’t going to wait for things to happen.”
According to authorities and some rappers, all of the unwanted attention comes with the territory. Rappers who still incorporate violence and drugs into their songs are more likely to be followed by these “hip-hop cops” than your average celebrity.
“I think that anytime you have a group of artists rapping about selling drugs and pointing guns, it makes sense that the police would want to investigate,” Matthews said. “When you have these rappers implicating about shooting people in their videos, they are subject to police inspection.”
Others question whether or not speculation about lyrics is at the core of the profiling, and if so, whether it is a legitimate reason for the police behavior.
“It doesn’t matter how the rap stars are being portrayed,” Ben Carson, assistant professor of music, said. “You don’t have to have a reason; that’s the whole point. We live in a country where we aren’t supposed to have reasons to say whatever we want to express ourselves.”
According to Murphy Holmes, aka Young Murph, a local rapper and graduate of UCSC, “for some of these rappers all publicity is good publicity.”
“That’s what they ask for,” Holmes said. “They make it seem like they don’t want that attention, but they rap about a certain kind of lifestyle that they know the hip-hop police are going to be following them around for. If they don’t follow them around then they wouldn’t be able to complain about the hip-hop police; they use that to their advantage.”
Artists may beef up songs to give themselves more street credibility, and most of the time artists feel that if they don’t continue to uphold this lifestyle, they may lose their loyal fans or be labeled a sell-out.
“I agree that there are artists out there that are putting a negative light on minorities,” said Yesi Ortiz, Los Angeles radio jock of Power 106. “That is why we need to educate those same artists that need to realize how serious of an impact their words can have on the kids in the community.”
Critics feel that the more these rappers glamorize an immoral lifestyle, the more they will be subject to police scrutiny. “Part of the problem within the hip-hop community is [that] it matters who you have around you and how you conduct yourself,” Matthews said.
Holmes compared the ideology to a driver’s license. “With the freedom of being able to drive you have a certain responsibility to follow the rules and laws,” he said.
Not all rappers are subject to being followed; the unit tends to focus only on rappers with criminal history or who display potentially violent behavior. Many rappers are aware of this and choose to follow a different path by rapping about social change and providing an alternative to the sometimes violence-ridden rap songs.
Holmes, who just finished a four-week tour all over the nation, decided to follow a different path and assures us that his music is more genuine and doesn’t specialize in gangster rap, violence, or drugs. Holmes declared that he doesn’t have to worry about that persona.
As the music and the environment constantly change, recording artists strive to reinvent themselves without losing their loyal fans. With the overwhelming demand for socially conscious rappers this year such as Talib Kweli and Common, many fans have switched over to this sound and left the violence behind.
“I think it has gotten a lot better,” Parker said. “The lyrics influence what [artists] think about other artists. Now I think rappers are starting to get a little bit smarter and are starting to let the violence go.”