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?
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.
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
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.