Hip Hop High: Mainstream Black Culture in the White Suburbs

Lauren Sandler

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photograph © 2002 Justin Lane

In the Dean's office of Sachem High School in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, three clean cut boys lean back on folding chairs that line one wall of the lemon-painted room. One boy fidgets with strings of fine gold chain that hang around his neck, another bends over to tie the laces of his Fila high tops, another bounces one leg frenetically inside his huge Tommy Hilfiger jeans. He slumps back, staring at a sign that hangs over the secretary's desk. Written in blue script on 8x10 white paper, the sign reads: "NOT Yo, I need... INSTEAD Hello, Mrs. Batterberry, may I please have... thank you."

Outside the Dean's office, the locker-lined hall teems with white boys swaggering to class in baggy name-brand clothing and baseball hats pushed far back on their heads. Girls toss their blow-dried hair, spewing giggles and reproachful gossip from glossy lips, their gold chains sparkling at the necklines of tight brightly colored tops. Thirteen students—one of Sachem's peer mediation groups—trickle into a classroom to discuss teen issues. Today the students are talking about hip hop.

"Everyone I know listens to hip hop," says Gina, a Sachem senior in a tight purple sweater and iridescent eye shadow, sighing matter-of-factly. Her classmates murmur and nod in agreement. Gina continues, "It's not a statement. It's not what our lives are about. So I like Method Man, Biggie, DMX, whatever. Who doesn't? This isn't political; it's just what we all know."

For several years now, a mass of suburban white teens has dedicated their allowances to the consumption of hip hop. This group far and away leads sales of gangsta rap, almost completely replacing rock as the soundtrack of choice at rec-room parties, in borrowed cars, and in second-floor bedrooms across America. Nightly news magazines hold segments on these kids they call "wiggas" (i.e. white + "nigga"); parents run conferences in high school cafeterias and auditoriums to discuss how hip hop colors their children's behavior. White appropriation of black culture is hardly a new phenomenon; the white jazz-cats of the fifties terrorized mainstream culture with their hep vernacular and behaviors, as did white aficionados of funk and blaxploitation films throughout the disco era. But for today's suburban consumers, black culture pervades pop media with signifiers from a truly distant ghetto.

"It's probably what I get asked about most frequently, this baffled 'What's going on with white kids and hip hop' question," says Tricia Rose, director of African-American studies at NYU and the author of 1994's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. "It's only a logical extension of a kind of relationship that already existed. There's a long history to this; it's not a new thing. What they did was borrow the slang and dances in blackface and at some point they eventually severed their recognition that those were black gestures, I mean, that's Elvis for example. Much of fifties' rebellion is about white kids immersing themselves in black culture and making those codes not just black. Which is precisely what is happening now with hip hop."

But, of course, adopting the codes of hip hop isn't the same as intellectually engaging with the factors that sustain a culture while imprisoning it in a system of inequity. There's Hip Hop the Revolution, and then there's Hip Hop the Corporate Commodity (and a nebulous and frequently debated area that bleeds between the two). As Bakari Kitwana, the author of the new book The Hip Hop Generation, wondered aloud about white suburban hip hop kids over the phone recently, "How down are they, really? Isn't this more like a fascination with Britney Spears?" With a devious chuckle, he answered his own question. "I think we know the answer in many of these cases." The hip hop mainstream of Sachem High hardly challenges his assumption. But unlike mere attention to the style cues of teen pop, here hip hop's goods pervade all aspects of quantifiable youth culture, from what Sachem's teenagers say to what they drink to what they drive to who they worship—but yet who they never quite want to become.


"Yo, yo! Shut up! My nigga's hittin' me up, yo!"

It is a chilly spring Friday night. Eighteen guys huddle in tight circles, smoking joints and cigarettes. Some lean up against their parents' cars, kicking back swigs of Hennessey. Every one of them is white. A black Honda Prelude rattles to the thumping bass of a Notorious B.I.G. track. A kid in an oversized red down vest perches on the edge of an open trunk, sipping from a bottle of Malibu he fished out from a clutter of Nike shoeboxes.

"Who's that?" he asks his friend, who peers out from a huge hooded sweatshirt and matching baseball cap, both emblazoned with Nautica's ubiquitous brand name.

The friend holds a cell phone to his ear and fiddles with a gold chain around his neck. "Yo, it's Manny," he says to the crew. "He wants to know where the party's at."

"Where the party's at" means "what parking lot are you claiming as territory tonight." And tonight, like many nights, the party's in the main parking lot at The Colony, an upscale gated development in Holbrook.

Holbrook, which this group jokingly refers to as "Holbrooklyn," is a middle class community in central Long Island. Holbrook is familiar American terrain, a landscape of two-lane highways and small neighborhood streets that twist their way into cul-de-sacs—the manicured deadends of suburbia. Strip malls dot the landscape at semi-regular intervals, interchangeably offering insurance offices, florists, and fast food joints.

The Colony lies off the expressway on a barren, newly developed highway, tucked away from Holbrook's suburban grid; to enter, you must be admitted by a guard in a white shingled guardhouse. The entrance is paved in cobblestones. To the right of the guardhouse is a landscaped pond. The development, a maze of white shingled siding and stucco, houses professionals and their children. The only non-white person on the grounds of the Colony tonight is the security guard.

Tonight, at The Colony, like in suburban parking lots all over America, the biggest problem is where to get beer. The supply of Malibu is drained, and the crew has already been turned down at the three nearest liquor stores. But while chugging a 40 would be nice, there's always a plentiful stash of weed to smoke instead. The group struts across the asphalt ribbon that winds through The Colony over to the basketball court, which lies about ten yards from the first clump of white townhouses. Under the lamplight, the guys gather to pass a couple of joints around. Their sneakers form a snug circle. Smoke curls and hangs over their short-cropped hair, sweatshirt hoods, and baseballs hats, lingering in the light like in a shot from a rap video. For a moment the mood is silent, somber, ritualistic. Then Tom cracks up, giggles leaking out of his nose with plumes of smoke, deepening into a belly laugh. The circle joins in; chortles crescendo to whoops and high fives.

"Yo! This is the dope shit, yo!"

"Nigga gettin' me all fucked up!"

"Yo, who wants to play some ball?"

An impromptu three-on-three breaks out, more a shoving match with occasional shots on net than a basketball game. The guys yell insults at each other's mothers and girlfriends, laughing hysterically. When a bottle shatters through the sound, everyone looks up more to see who was hoarding the stash than who made the mess. And then, the sound of the inevitable. The whiny creak of a screen door.

A bearded, heavy-set man in his early forties lumbers out to his back steps from the closest home to the basketball court.

"Shit. Not this motherfucker again," the guys quietly rumble, shifting from foot to foot.

"Hey," Mr. Grown-Up calls out. "I'm just here to warn you that I've called the cops. And if you don't want to get in some serious trouble, I urge you guys to get out of here. The cops will be here momentarily. I mean it."

Chris, a tall kid in a baggy red Eddie Bauer sweatshirt, lopes out from one of the circles. Chris is the star kicker—all-county, all-league—of Sachem's football team. He's an icon at the Sports Authority, where he works, at his high school where he is admired, and in this parking lot—his parking lot—a stone's throw away from the condo where his parents are currently sleeping. His stride is confident as he approaches the enemy. "Yo! Hey! I live here! I have as much right to hang with my friends as you do. Who the hell are you to call the cops on us? We're just hanging out."

"Yeah? Smoking pot and yelling and blaring rap all night? Just hanging out?" Mr. Grown-Up turns to go back inside his house. He hesitates, then tosses one last puzzled, angry comment over his shoulder. "Where the hell do you think you are? Where do you think you are?"

A black Acura Integra rolls into the parking lot, to whoops and hollers. A baby-faced kid in a Gap baseball hat and a yellow puffy vest gets out grinning. "Let's get this party started right," Manny declares.

"'Sup, brother?" says Chris, pulling Manny into a headlock. "We're waiting for the cops to show up. Bust this shit up. But we ain't leaving, aight?" Manny nods, and with a wide smile, turns up the track already blaring and thumping from his speakers.

Manny's uncle gave him a copy of Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back when he was five. "I was hooked," he says. "I was this little hip hop kid. Everyone thought it was ridiculous." While rap connects Manny and his buddy Dave, who have both been devoted to hip hop since they were children, it's at the same time the source of a mellow rivalry. It's the old showdown, Larry versus Magic, John versus Paul. For these guys it's two slain rappers: Biggie versus Tupac. And while Dave's reverence for the Notorious B.I.G is quiet ("just let Biggie play, man, it speaks for itself"), the crew crowds around the open windows of the car to taunt Manny as he preaches the gospel of Tupac.

"I really do think, I swear to God, I really do think he's alive." Manny's face is set in earnestness, his mouth tight, his gestures poised in contrast to the guys leaning casually into the car.

"Manny's wack, yo! Resurrecting Tupac. You're wack, boy!"

"Yeah, well he's got all these verses about resurrection, right? Like how he's coming back like Jesus?" Manny shakes his head, pushing his buddies out of the car. "You have to believe it. He's like the most emotional rapper. He's the realest." He starts thumbing through Dave's CDs, pausing quizzically when he finds one by Fleetwood Mac in a collection chock full of gangsta rap.

"That's for the other people, yo," Dave says, suppressing a shy giggle.

Manny laughs, but isn't distracted from his passion. He emotionally gestures at the pages of hip hop albums. "There's so many rappers who like talk about being like being the bad gangsta right? He's what's real. Everyone else pisses me off, like they know about thug life. But he's like the only one who grew up, he was poor, he was so poor it wasn't even funny and then like how he got into art and stuff like that, that's the Mac, man."

"Biggie's for real, too," Dave scowls, as Brian, the kid in the puffy red vest, climbs into the back seat.

"Yeah, but check out this track." Manny rolls up the windows, and turns up the volume. The three boys sit silently, nodding gravely to the beat in perfect unison. This isn't good-time music. This isn't a rock and roll party. It's funereal, foreboding, a sermon in a dark and thunderous church.

Automatic gunfire makin' all my enemies run.

Who should I call when I'm shot and bleedin'.

Indeed the possibility has part a chase in cream.

Dope got me hatin' fiends. Scheme wit my team, just a chosen few.

My foes victim of explosives. Come closer. Exhale the fumes.

We got memories fadin' fast. A slave for cash.

Accelerate, mash, blast, then dash.

Don't look now. How you like it, raw.

Niggas ain't ready for the wrath of the outlaws. Never surrender.

"Awesome," Manny whispers at the end of the track. "I mean, I don't relate to it at all. I know it doesn't have anything to do with me. I mean, like a while ago, like two years ago when he died, I was really caught up in it. I was like way into it. I wasn't acting like a thug—well not too much, but it was a phase of me really wanting to be black and dressing like it and shit like that. But I couldn't be farther from this. I mean, look where we are. Right?"

He flips off his baseball cap and ruffles his short-cropped brown hair. "But it's not like I would trade my life in for Tupac's life. Hell no. Not for a minute. No way. I have it made. I get everything I want except for a car. That's the only thing that's holding me back right now. I'm getting paid for college, and I didn't even do good in school." Manny doesn't feel like he has a lot to rebel against. Unlike Dave and most of these guys, he's close to his parents, even occasionally opting to spend evenings with the family instead of with his friends.

Although Manny's parents are both professionals and his suburban lifestyle is secure and comfortable, they are a world away from the envyspawning material excess of your average hip hop video—excess that generates swells of admiration in the hearts of these young consumers. "The only reason we like them so much is look how they prosper, right?" Manny says, looking to Dave for assent. "They have everything. Check their videos. It's crazy. The cars, boats, bitches. I mean, the hottest cars, yo. It's so like you just want it. You figure listening to it, getting into it—not like you wanna be like them—just like you envy them. It's awesome."

Dave nods. "Exactly."

Manny continues. "But I'd never even go to the hood. Anywhere like that. Fuck that. Especially being white. "

Dave keeps nodding. "No way. I'm with you. Why would I go there?"

Shyly, Brian says, "I'd go. I would. I wouldn't walk around, but I'd drive through. Wouldn't you check it out?"

Dave furrows his brow and pauses to see if Brian is serious. "Hell, man. No way." He sweeps his hand over his CDs. "I've got it all here."

What other art form than music—whether high-brow, low-brow or no-brow—spins such a web of cultural codes? The intensive co-mingling of music and lifestyle, paired with white America's fascination with black America, has led a previous generation down this path of slang and subversion. In the fifties, legions of clean-scrubbed white kids shocked their parents with their mania for jazz, and all the late night, reefer-smoking carnality and danger that such music represented. But in the decades since, the dissemination and consumption of urban culture has entirely changed. For Manny, Dave, and their generation of suburban consumers of urban experience, black culture comes shrink-wrapped and consumerready at chain stores like Coconuts and on MTV. One needs to venture no further than the local mall or the family den to access neatly packaged urbanism. In the fifties, when white youth famously explored the jazz dens and blues bars of America, the experience was a radically different one. Exploration mandated a literal departure from familiar suburban enclaves.

Norman Mailer was hip to the differences between detached consumption and active participation. In his 1957 essay "The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster," he wrote: "In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-à-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to -face with the Negro." Mailer clarifies, "So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out late at night looking for action with a black man's code to fit their facts. The hipster had to be absorbed in the existential synapses of the Negro." For today's suburban hip hop kids there is largely no such physical co-mingling of black and white—no literal adventuring. Instead the immersion takes place in a media existence of black culture that functions as a sort of virtual tourism.

Likewise, the techno-explosion of mass media, and consequently the successful mass-marketing of hip hop, has placed this commercialized arm of urban black youth culture squarely in the mainstream. "The music is really at the center of American youth culture now in a way it hasn't been," says Tricia Rose. "As opposed to being simply black American youth culture, [hip hop] actually has usurped rock as the ubiquitous symbol of white male youth." For Mailer's hipsters, an obsession with black culture was significant precisely because it was obsession with a subculture. This is exactly what he saw as fundamental to what he perceived as the radicalism of that generation of white youth. Mailer lamented an era imprisoned in conformity, "where security is boredom and therefore sickness"; he suggested that the escape from that prison was through immersion in a kind of outlaw black culture. It is easy to update his descriptions of the hipsters of the fifties to the hip hop kids of modern-day suburbia; superficially, the antecedents are uncanny. Yet, according to Mailer, these hipsters were radicals, engaging not just in recreational teenage rebellion, but in a full-out ideological assault on middle class values.

Of course, this sort of cultural immersion is hardly synonymous with political radicalism—and Mailer's black culture fetish has provoked cries of racism from readers (including this one) since the publication of his controversial essay. However, Mailer's ethic represented a start; at least back then there was face-to-face appeal, a desegregating of the physical space of the club, not just an expensively shot and edited lifestyle viewed as pixels in the comfort of a suburban development. And at this point in hip hop's narrative—twenty years since its birth as an underground culture, ten years into its commodification as mass culture, it is hard to see much power lying in what Mailer describes as subcultural subversion of conventionality. "Almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage," he wrote. Hip hop's commercial ubiquity vacates today's white teens of what Mailer deemed to be the source of revolutionary power. Because today's white suburban hip hop devotees seem largely to know nothing about the politics of how their heroes land in jail, for example, hip hop represents no social subversion in gated communities like those in which the Sachem crew parties.

Like Manny says, these teenagers grew up with rap; they were born in the days following the first turntable scratches of the late seventies. Growing up with rap takes away the thrill of discovery, of dangerous liberation, that accompanied freestyling, break-dancing, graffiti-spraying b-boys who are now well into their thirties. White writer and performance artist Danny Hoch describes the difference between discovering hip hop on subways and in underground clubs back in the day, a stark contrast to discovering it at the mall. "It used to be that you had to get up on the train, get into a fight, run from the police, just to get your groove on. It was an active resistance," he recalls. MC Serch of the white rap duo 3rd Bass talks about the death threats he received just for dressing in a hip hop style and speaking hip hop slang—before he even deigned to pick up a microphone. These experiences speak to the sort of cultural risk-taking Mailer describes as central to any cultural revolution; in many cases, they supercede his idiom. When one is actually immersed in someone else's social sphere, it's difficult to ignore the systemic political and economic issues that spawn that culture of resistance.

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Not so with our current "white negroes." Driving Dad's car to the mall for the new DMX CD promoted on the cover of Rolling Stone at newsstands everywhere is hardly a previous decade's equivalent of jumping a barbed wire fence in the projects to be one of the only white kids at a word-of-mouth rap show. Being chased by cops from one parking lot to the next represents no significant civil disobedience for teenagers like Manny.

Saturday night we come as close as we'll get to Mailer's world of interracial immersion in these Long Island suburbs. The convoy of parentowned cars speeds past Carvel, past Ronkonkoma Plumbing and Heating Supply, and down a maze of dark suburban roads that bear storybook names like Tulip Street, Magnolia Avenue, and Prince Charming Road. The cars pass near a recent addition to the Sachem district, a tree missing a significant chunk of its trunk, where a car plowed into it several months before, taking the lives of the kids in the car with it. The tree is adorned with bandanas, their color streaked and faded by wind and rain. The bandanas represent solidarity among Sachem's "gangs," who wear different colors to claim their "set," a declaration modeled on the behavior of innercity gangs across America. In the past year, Sachem has lost thirteen members of its graduating class.

The group pull their cars up in front of a two-story house with a gigantic white Lincoln Navigator out front. Screams and yells compete with the hard thud of the bass pumping from the living room.

"Yo! Keep it down! We can't have the cops coming!" yells a tall, heavy-set black kid with an unkempt short afro, in a white and burgundy Colorado State football jersey. "They call my parents and I'm fucked, man! All of this," he yells, "means I don't get this"—he gestures to the golddetailed Navigator in the driveway.

"What up, Ariel," the gang passes by their host, beating him with back-slaps and high-fives. "Yo, yo, my nappy-haired brother," one of the guys giggles. "Shit, brother, it's a PAAARTYYYY!"

Cherry red shag carpeting runs through every room on the first floor —including the kitchen—and up the stairs to the bedrooms. A wroughtiron gate separates the entryway from the cluttered living room, where a faux-Victorian couch and side chairs dominate, upholstered in sky-blue velvet and covered in plastic. The room is crammed with houseplants in macramé planters, a marble coffee table, an organ, a wheel chair, an exercise climber, shelves of family pictures, and stacks of unmarked cardboard boxes. Rhymes from an Onyx CD bounce off the walls—three stucco, one mirrored.

Three black guys gather around an old plastic boom box next to the foyer. With the exception of their nervous host, they are the only black kids at the party. They lean into each other—their shoulders forming a tight oval that blocks out the frenetic behavior of the white kids around them—and start freestyling over the Onyx track. Shaqwan leads the group. He is a perpetually sober and reassuring but threatening presence at these parties. As one kid says, "Shaqwan is peaceful, but he'll kill ya to keep the peace." He picks up the beat, staring fixedly at his hands that slice the air before him in punctuating gestures. His rhymes speak directly to what surrounds him:

Respect the race in your face

United front I never ever smoke a blunt

Never take a drink and never will I got my fill

And word up look around the room at these kids with their pills.

This circle seems oblivious to the other kids in the room; they're separated from their screams and giggles. "YEAH, I'M THE REAL PIMP," a beefy white guy in a baseball hat hollers over the heads of the circle of freestylers to a pasty-faced friend on the other side. The friend raises his beer and yells over their rhymes, "YOU KNOW IT, NIGGA."

I doubt this party is what Norman Mailer had in mind when nearly fifty years ago he imagined the effect of mainstreaming black urban youth culture. "With this possible emergence of the Negro, Hip may erupt as a psychically armed rebellion," he wrote, "and bring into the air such animosities, antipathies, and new conflicts of interest that mean the empty hypocrisies of mass conformity will no longer work." Now there's simply a new hypocrisy of mass conformity in baggy pants and identitycrashing slang.

Yet Danny Hoch sees possible redemption in this generation of white hip hop fans: he regards black mass culture as the closest shot at radicalism in today's suburbs. "Because there is no apparatus in education in suburban locales for activism, for rebellion, they have to create their own sense of revolution. The only tool they can find is a cultural tool, it's picking up the new Jay-Z album. And through accessing hip hop cultural tools they are at least opening a resistance to the status quo." Hoch also sees how hip hop has positively influenced the actions of his generation of X-ers. "I don't think we knew metaphors of resistance until we started to read the Village Voice or went to college. But now my peers and myself are lawyers and teachers and are trying to make collective change alongside black and Puerto Rican people who also have gone through this, who are now editing magazines and directing firms," he says. "My hope is these kids who don't understand the political relevance of banging DMX in Dad's Audi, thinking that they are keeping it real, my hope is that when these kids go to college they will organize, take the spirit of resistance and not be passive."

Hoch's vision for the future of white hip hop fans does not necessarily correspond with their own sense of the next stage of their lives. Jen—a girl whose face is often set in the grimace of an exasperated homeroom teacher—has the frustrated expectation that her time at SUNY Cortland will be a replication of her high school experiences. Maybe high school—and even college—simply does not provide the intellectual tools to deconstruct the constant strobe of the media world. To Rose, this is just the issue. "The hope is limited to me—especially by the access of any public education on black people," Rose says. "Do they actually have any sense of the history of race in the United States in relation to the largest issues in history? Any idea? And if the answer to that is 'no,' then I don't see how the music can underwrite that level of ideological domination....If they don't understand why there is a ghetto in the first place, why it keeps getting reproduced," she shakes her head and laughs bitterly, "if they don't have any knowledge about that, what's Jay-Z gonna do about it? "

Jen checks her beeper, adjusts her jacket, and applies lip gloss. Her pale blue eye shadow and dark eyeliner draw attention to her moonshaped face. She cuts an athletic figure at just under six feet. Like many of the guys in the crowd, Jen is an athlete; tennis in the fall, basketball in the winter, and volleyball in the spring. Her gas and lipstick money comes from working at Lady Foot Locker in the Smithhaven Mall. Smoking her cigarette, she weaves through groups of guys to a patch of her friends shivering in Ariel's backyard. "Did you catch how Jim like totally ignored me at Taco Bell? I just tried to talk to him and he totally blew me off. I can't wait 'til he calls me and says come over and sleep with me baby. Manny, you oughta try to talk to him and get him on track. I tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't even look at me."

The guys look around, shuffle their feet. She tries again. "Anyone check out the new Black Rob CD?"

Matt perks up. "Yeah. It's the hype."

Stoney shuffles up to Jen and Matt, grinning. "Hey, anyone got a menthol cigarette?"

"Sorry, honey," Jen says.

"Where you going to school, anyway?" asks Stoney.

"Cortland," she replies. "Who isn't? Shit, we're leaving Sachem to go to Sachem. It won't be no different. Wherever we go we'll find parking lots and get drunk and rap and the cops will show up and we'll go home. Right?" Jen shakes her head and surveys the party. "Hell, what do I know. My dad never finished college and my mom never went. They're not exactly letting me know what to expect. I'm on my own."

"Yo, whatever." Stoney ambles over to the next clump of kids, his baggy khakis dragging on the ground. "Yo, what up, brother? You got a menthol cigarette?"