And They Say Gangsta Rap Is Violent

Baltimore’s Normals is one of my favorite used bookstores. When I was there on Sunday, Ella Fitzgerald was singing “To Keep My Love Alive,” a Rodgers and Hart song from the  “Great American Songbook“:

I could not help but laugh at this amusing little ditty about a serial black widow and said to DJ Mills, who had put Ella on the stereo, “And they say gangsta rap is violent.”

This led to a long and fun discussion of songs from supposedly respectable genres of music.

Although introduced (as a last minute addition) in an anti-capitalist German play, “Mack the Knife” became an honorary “Great American Song” when  Die Dreigroschenoper became a big off-Broadway hit as The Threepenny Opera in the 1950s. Of course, the version most people know is by Bobby Darin:

In 1959, just as Darin was climbing the charts, WCBS-New York banned “Mack the Knife” (all versions, not just Darin’s) in response to a 17-year-old’s knifing of two teenagers.  Program Director Hal Moore said:

The glamorization of lawlessness as expressed in the lyric is not to be condoned.  There is little doubt that records are of particular importance to teen-agers.  We feel that in not airing the lyric we are fulfilling our duty as broadcasters to the public.”*

Bobby Darin was gangsta!

And then there are gangsta, excuse me, outlaw country musicians like Johnny Cash, whose most famous line may very well be, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” The cheer following the line is from Folsom Prison inmates.

The characters in gangsta rap songs may brag about shooting each other for some pretty stupid reasons, but they always have some reason. (Why do so many assume rappers are like their characters, while we recognize Johnny Cash was playing a role?)

And of course, the only justification needed to “shoot my old lady” is because he “caught her messing ’round with another man,” at least according to Jimi Hendrix, along with the many other rockers who sang “Hey Joe”:

So gangsta!

* WCBS bans all airings of “Knife” lyric.  (1959, September 7).  Billboard, p. 12.


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