In Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, Tacoma-born writer Jason Tanz scours the country to examine the complex love affair that white audiences have with rap music (and vice versa). From New York's controversial Kill Whitey dance parties to Snoop-bumpin' radio stations in Wisconsin, Tanz turns a curious eye to the ways white audiences (who, according to some, account for as much as 70 percent of all rap sales) approach and appropriate contemporary black popular music. Tanz will be in Portland on Tuesday, February 20 to read from Other People's Property, so we thought we'd take the chance to talk to him about Ghostface Killah and the racial divide.
MERCURY: Tell me about your first experience with hiphop growing up as a Jewish kid in Tacoma.JASON TANZ: When I first heard it, I was totally terrified. I didn't even grow up in the city of Tacoma—I grew up in the suburbs, so rap was this totally alien force to me. And I was intrigued by it, but I was also scared as shit. It didn't speak to me until I heard Public Enemy. I was really concerned about race at the time, and Public Enemy definitely seemed to force a lot of stuff onto the table that a lot of people weren't talking about.
How did you feel about Public Enemy's anti-Semitic comments at the time?
I wasn't thrilled, obviously, but I trusted Chuck D when he said, "I'm not anti-Semitic," I believed him. To me, the benefits of the group and what they kind of forced out into the open far outweighed some of the more questionable comments they made. I just wanted to take it for what I could get out of it and the stuff that bothered me—I just wouldn't dwell on too much.
Can you talk about the differentiation you make between wiggers, whom we're all familiar with, and Wegroes, a term you coined?
Everybody's familiar with the idea of the wigger. Wiggers are viewed as people who, while outwardly exhibiting the accoutrements of what they perceive as blackness, are actually pretty distant from [authentic black culture]. The stereotypical wigger doesn't actually know any black people—he just wears the clothing and listens to the music and presents himself in a certain way.
But I do think that there's another aspect of that character, and that is someone who is legitimately trying to connect and invest in the black experience. He's a little more sincere and outreaching in his efforts, so I call that person a Wegro for lack of a better term.
You visited an upstart rap station in Green Bay to witness the mechanics of how hiphop is marketed to white audiences. It reminded me of Portland in that our hiphop station bills itself as "Portland's Party Station" rather than a rap station...
And I never thought of that as an anti-racial marketing move, but it certainly makes sense.
Absolutely. One of the things that I wanted to show with that chapter is it doesn't take an active act of appropriation to appropriate. It doesn't take a Vanilla Ice. The sheer number of white kids who are listening to hiphop is going to exert some influence. The fact that you are a "rich" market means that you now have control over how this music is presented and where this music goes—because you're a relatively rich white person and advertisers want to reach you more than they want to reach poor black kids.
Why do you think that, aside from Eminem, white audiences haven't embraced a white rapper for any sustained amount of time?
I think it goes to show, frankly, that in the public mind, hiphop really is tied into this idea of blackness. It arose, at least in the popular imagination, as this black person's CNN, and though this seems like a kind of naïve standpoint of what hiphop is today, the idea that "the streets" get to determine what hiphop is, is a really intriguing kind of mythos. I guess the short answer is that to some degree, hiphop has really been able to maintain its mantle as authentic black music despite all the forces that have worked to undermine that. And, on some level, I think that that's what people are expecting when they get it.
In my neighborhood, there's a fascinating microcosm of two 12-year-old kids who live across the street from one another—one white, one black. It's so interesting to watch them interact because the white kid very effortlessly and unselfconsciously apes what we think of as black fashion and speech. Sometimes it really gives me hope that hiphop is essentially making these kids color blind...
But, then on the other hand, I wonder how much of it is a loss to the African American community—that their culture has just been assimilated.
You're really talking about two different levels. You're talking about the individual interaction between a white kid and a black kid, and wondering if hiphop helped ease that interaction, and I think yeah, it probably has. How couldn't it?
At the same time, there's the question of "is that enough?" We can believe if we all individually wake up tomorrow all somehow colorblind, then everything will all be okay and hunky-dory, but I don't think that's true. I think you're dealing with 400 years of history that have led us up to this point, so you're not going to be dealing with some blank slate. You're dealing with an inherited set of not just attitudes, but economic realities as well. The idea that we, individually, can cure ourselves of this history through listening to hiphop is a little naïve.
One theory that I didn't come across in the book as to why white kids love hiphop so much is simply because it's the best form of popular music in America over the past 15 or 20 years, and there's a very simple aesthetic love for it.
It's a valid question. But I don't look at hiphop, at least in the book, as an aesthetic object. I look at it as a cultural, social, and racial object. There are limits to that approach. At the same time, I don't think that music exists in a vacuum. If you had a kid that was raised in a box, and not allowed to listen to music for 20 years and then they came out, and you played them hiphop and you played them rock and you played them classical, which one would they be drawn to? I don't think you can necessarily say hiphop because it's the best form of popular music. Part of the reason hiphop is great popular music is that it comments on previous forms of music and that it carries a social meaning. When you hear hiphop coming out of a car, you think something. And at least part of what you think, I would argue, is "black." So, I'm not sure that it's so easy to separate the aesthetics from the social meaning of hiphop, but I do take the point.
Final question: What's your favorite rap album of the moment?
I'm like a lot of those indierock internet blogging guys who like Ghostface's Fishscale. I'll put myself in that category.