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Postmodern Village
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A Tribe Called West
By Sisyphus “Retread” Jones

Behold, my Brothers, the reinvention of blackademic the elite. On the turntable tonight, the regular turncoat himself, the Ike Turner to the blackman’s Tina, Shelby Steele. And on the mic tonight, laying down the righteous rap, straight outta’ Hahvard Squayah, Cornel West. And dig him, my Brothers, beatboxing so hard he threw out his hip, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Junior!

Or so I envision it.

I envision seething funk to the beat of Marvin Gaye. I envision a seamless wall of ebony blasting from the Marshall stacks.

The reality was something else: the center could not hold, and, despite being drawn together by the sampled beat of those souls that came before, these three split apart before their seminal debut album could even be graced with a follow-up.

The drama, it seems, was between Gates and West on the east coast and Steele on the west coast, over whether the trio’s hip-hop should be “oppositional.” Gates and West were all about embracing a “hardcore Christo-Marxist critique” of the dominant culture in general. Here is West’s approach at work in “Thick Opposition”:

Cultural productions by black people are
in some instances subversive, y’all -
but do not speak fundamentally
of the maldistribution between you and me.
I’m C. West and I’m here to fight
the flatness and banality that might tonight
banish the integrity of our movement
away from the thrust of our development.

This attitude left A Tribe Called West with a phenomenological conundrum not foreign to a pragmatic philosopher like the group’s front man: too much opposition turns record companies off, especially when it’s the financial power structure being attacked. How to “keep it real” (in a quasi-Marxist sense) while at the same time turnin’ that Mutha’ out?

Low End PragmatismSteele’s assimilationist tendencies came to the call, at least early on. Since bands like Public Enemy faded in the ‘90s and a more vulgar but less politically-motivated rap took over, Steele realized that to get a message out at all - any message - they’d have to be the sort of outfit that white parents and the mainstream media loved to hate but that record companies loved. In other words, they had to play well with white teenagers in the suburbs by embracing, as Steele put it, the “traditional rap values“ of misogyny and materialism. Their first album, Low End Pragmatism, split the difference, then, with such titles as “Excisions,” “The Infamous Rate Dope,” “Slow Business,” “Rot Promoter,” “Suck Your ‘Negroe,’” and, of course, “Steve Biko (Profoundly Left It Up).” With Steele able to churn out desirable, danceable, bounceable, car-stereo-rattling beats and mix with the best DJs out there, his influence on the overall sound allowed for West and Gates to be (only sometimes) oppositional but still accepted.

Since the first album chalked up good but not spectacular sales, the group was left again with its basic quandary. Was their middle-of-the-road strategy a measure of their relative success, or was it keeping them from superstardom? West and Gates continued to contend that a stance questioning the existing socio-economic structure, instead of reveling in materialism, was “our indispensable weapon in [our] struggle,” whereas Steele maintained that the main job of a hardcore joint was to be “an indispensable weapon in booty-shaking.”

As the political climate of the nation shifted and the tech-boom moved material values toward ever-greater consumption, West found his control of the group starting to slip. Gates recalls an incident in which West and Steele were arguing over the title of the next album: “Shelby was dead set on it being titled Stanford Marauders, but Cornel preferred Straight Outta’ Hahvahd. According to Cornel, that title was more ironically oppositional while at the same time giving props to Harvard’s then commitment to breaking the color barrier. Shelby thought his title better reflected the middle-class aspirations more proper for a previously oppressed people on its way into the mainstream. They ended up wasting all our studio time trying to find sources to back up their arguments on the Internet. Good thing the studio subscribed to EBSCOhost.” Not long after this exchange, West himself was bounced straight out of Harvard by Larry Summers, and work on the follow-up album, which ended up with the working title Straight Into Princeton, came to an abrupt halt.

Why Liberals SuckAt this time, DJ Steele was asked to produce Ann Coulter’s debut soul album Why Liberals Suck (and Should Die In Painful Suffering). As predicted, the record went double-platinum and earned Steele an award from the Heritage Foundation for “conserving American values” and “making the prosperous safe from socialism and secular humanism.” West and Gates were understandably livid.

The breech came to a head at an Ivy League luncheon. Asked to speak, Steele sent “a shout-out to the Bush administration,” inflaming the already Brie-and-Chardonnay-hyped crowd. Later, the acrimony intensified when an emboldened Steele confronted West. bell hooks was present and gives this account: “Shelby had Cornel backed up against the crab puffs. It’s just like the patriarchy to kick a man of color while he’s intellectually down. At one point Shelby called Cornel’s theory of American pragmatism ‘janky.’ Then I heard the words ‘Uncle Tom,’ and before I knew it, Skip [Gates] was over there trying to break it up with his cane. Well, even a strong assimilationist like Shelby won’t tackle a Brother with a bad knee, and I think he could sense the largely Left crowd turning against him. He pulled up his posse of Stanford kids and Hoover Institute goons and split like an Oreo in the hands of a two-year old.” Police reports show that Steele “flattened” West’s Toyota Prius with his gold-plated Hummer H2 as he fled the scene - though eyewitness accounts vary.

What is to be learned from the sad and strange saga of A Tribe Called West? How can a thickly oppositional rap of the Left emerge among the blinged-out, over ho’ed, thug-loving outfits that pass for hardcore these days? That other C. West, Conye, with his recent broadside against higher education, seems no help here. One can only hope that, as in the past, the true little light will shine up from The Roots.