Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
A rapper releases an enormous hit record, fans go crazy, the song skyrockets into the greater pop stratosphere … and then everyone the song wasn’t intended for — from politicians to school principals to talk-show hosts to religious activists to social-rights organizations — decries hip-hop as a virus attacking civilization’s immune system.
And no, we’re not just talking about the Don Imus incident (see “Hip-Hop On The Defensive After Imus Incident; Sharpton Calls For ‘Dialogue’ With MCs” and “Hip-Hop Hits Back At Imus, Critics: T.I., Snoop, Fat Joe, Common Weigh In” ). Sure, the recently fired shock jock stirred up the latest controversy over hip-hop’s lyrical content as he attempted to defend his insensitive remarks aimed at the mostly black Rutgers women’s basketball team.
Imus told his listeners that rappers routinely “defame and demean black women” and if his remarks had been in a song, it would more than likely have been a hit.
Probably not, I-Man.
Still, major dust-ups over hip-hop lyrics seem to occur every four years or so — whether it’s the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination taking Eminem to task over what it believed were homophobic lyrics or Ice-T and his rock band, Body Count, tangling with Time Warner over perceived endorsements of violence against police. And through it all, MTV News has been there — when Luke Skyywalker exited a Florida courthouse after his First Amendment case, sitting down with Tupac to discuss Congress analyzing his songs, and getting the word from Young Jeezy about his banned Snowman T-shirts.
Now, with Russell Simmons, Oprah Winfrey, the Reverend Al Sharpton and anyone with a blog weighing in on what rappers should and shouldn’t say, we look back — in this exclusive MTV News video timeline — on the artists, the songs and the words that have stirred up such strong emotions.
(For an even more in-depth examination, watch “Hip-Hop Lyrics Under Fire: A Look Back in Anger.”)
1989: N.W.A vs. the FBI
» Offending line: “F— tha police, coming straight from the underground/ A young n—a got it bad ’cause I’m brown,” from N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police.”
» History: These five Cali natives gave just about everyone the middle finger on their debut LP, Straight Outta Compton, but saved the biggest kiss-off for the Los Angeles Police Department. The FBI and Secret Service even sent a certified letter informing N.W.A’s label of the authorities’ displeasure with the song.
» Defense: Ice Cube and MC Ren claimed they were just writing about reality as they saw it in their neighborhood.
» Outcome: “F— Tha Police” helped push their largely underground album — with little video or radio play — into a double-platinum success. However, the controversy led to many show cancellations and even greater scrutiny from legal authorities.
1990: 2 Live Crew vs. the American Family Association, the State of Florida and the Supreme Court
» Offending line: “I’m like a dog in heat, a freak without warning/ I have an appetite for sex, ’cause me so horny,” from 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.”
» History: 2 Live Crew hit it big with the massively raunchy track “Me So Horny” from their As Nasty as They Wanna Be LP. But a lawyer with ties to the AFA filed a motion with Florida’s then-governor calling for the album to be deemed “obscene” and any sale of it a crime — which led to the arrest of a Florida record-store owner and, later, three members of 2 Live Crew.
» Defense: Luke invoked his First Amendment rights and even noted Harvard Professor Skip Gates testified the song had merits based on oral African traditions.
» Outcome: Luke took the case to the Supreme Court, where it was eventually dismissed. Luke went on to record his solo debut, Banned in the U.S.A., featuring the popular title track.
1992: Ice-T and Body Count vs. Time Warner
» Offending line: “I got my 12-gauge sawed off/ I got my headlights turned off/ I’m ’bout to bust some shots off / I’m ’bout to dust some cops off,” from Body Count’s “Cop Killer.”
» History: Ice-T had a successful rap career but had garnered little attention for his hard-rock side project, Body Count, until they released the highly controversial “Cop Killer.” Their label at the time, Warner Bros., and its parent company, Time Warner, denounced the track, threatening to drop the group from its recording contract. A group of police responded by recording “Role Model,” a dis track (of sorts) aimed at Ice and his crew.
» Defense: Ice rallied against the corporation over what he claimed were censorship issues.
» Outcome: Ice-T eventually removed the track — by his own choice, he has said — and eventually parted ways with Time Warner.
1993: Tupac Shakur/ Snoop Dogg and Death Row/ Interscope vs. Congress
» Offending line: “Cops on my tail, so I bail till I dodge ‘em/ They finally pull me over and I laugh, ‘Remember Rodney King?’ and I blast/ On his punk ass,” from Tupac’s “Souljah’s Story.”
» History: Born into the Black Panthers, ‘Pac had a strong sense of anti-establishment long before Vice President Dan Quayle and activist C. DeLores Tucker targeted his and Snoop’s work. Quayle, meanwhile, made ripples in the media while campaigning with President George H.W. Bush and said that Tupac’s words have “no place in society.”
» Defense: Tupac turned the tables on politicians by explaining they also played a role in creating the reality his lyrics depicted.
» Outcome: After protests and considerable public uproar, Time Warner eventually dropped both Interscope and Death Row Records. The two labels immediately entered into a partnership with Universal; Death Row fell apart in the wake of founder Suge Knight’s legal problems, but Interscope’s relationship with Universal thrives to this day.
1996: Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown vs. social activist groups
» Offending line: “I used to be scared of the d—/ Now I throw lips to the sh– / Handle it like a real b—h,” from Lil Kim’s “Big Momma Thang.”
» History: Sex sells, yes, but these two Brooklyn, New York, beauties upped the ante with their explicit expressions of sexuality (to put it mildly) and a get-it-by-however-means mentality. Decency groups heavily targeted Kim and Foxy over the messages they felt the rappers were sending to teen girls.
» Defense: Kim and Fox claimed they were empowering women with their message.
» Outcome: Both rappers weather that particular storm but have suffered significant legal setbacks over other incidents.
2000: Eminem vs. the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Organization for Women
» Offending line: “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a f– or les,” from Eminem’s “Criminal.”
» History: Em burst on the scene in the late ’90s, but when his sophomore project, The Marshall Mathers LP, was nominated for Album of the Year at the 2001 Grammy Awards, GLAAD and NOW protesters rallied outside the venue for days (see “Eminem Protesters Few But Passionate” ). In a display of solidarity and support with the rapper, Elton John angered many in the gay community by performing Eminem’s “Stan” with the mercurial MC during the awards show (see “Eminem: Performance With Elton Was Statement Enough” ).
» Defense: Em claimed his lyrics were misunderstood.
» Outcome: Although Em didn’t win the Album of the Year Grammy, in his interview with Kurt Loder immediately following the broadcast, the rapper said he felt vindicated after performing alongside John and braving the controversy.
2002: Ludacris vs. Bill O’Reilly
» Offending line: “I’m DUI, hardly ever caught sober/ And you about to get ran the f— over,” from Luda’s “Move B—h.”
» History: Ludacris’ raunchy sense of humor garnered the multiplatinum rapper thousands of fans and even an endorsement deal with Pepsi. But after O’Reilly got wind of a few of Luda’s lyrics, he mounted a protest from his cable-news program to call for the soda giant to drop the “Gangsta” rapper from its ad campaign.
» Defense: Luda, with the help of Russell Simmons, trumpeted his notable charity work and pointed out O’Reilly’s detachment from the culture.
» Outcome: O’Reilly’s viewers mounted pressure on Pepsi, and eventually the company dropped Luda (see “Ludacris Barks Back At Pepsi, O’Reilly; P-Roach Antics Not An Issue For Soda Giant” ). Ludacris’ career has continued to thrive, although he hasn’t landed an endorsement deal since and he’s remained a target for O’Reilly as well as Oprah, largely because of his high profile after winning a Grammy Award and appearing in the Oscar-winning film “Crash.”
2004: Nelly vs. the women of Spelman College
» Offending line: “I said it must be ya ass ’cause it ain’t ya face/ I need a tip drill, I need a tip drill,” from “E.I. (The Tip Drill remix).”
» History: Propelled largely by its video play on the now defunct late-night show “BET Uncut,” Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video stirred up the female students on Spelman’s campus, largely owing to the image of Nelly swiping a credit card through the buttocks of a female stripper in the video.
» Defense: Nelly claimed the women in the video participated willingly.
» Outcome: Spelman student leaders removed Nelly’s affiliation from a bone-marrow drive at the school.
2005: Young Jeezy vs. public schools
» Offending line: “Get it, I’m Jeezy the Snowman/ I’m iced out, plus I got snow, man,” from Gucci Mane’s “Icy” (featuring Jeezy).
» History: Jeezy’s trademark ad libs may have caught on quickly, but his Angry-Snowman T-Shirts took the ‘hood by storm. From Harlem to Hotlanta, kids could be seen rocking the menacing Snowman tees, even in school.
» Defense: In interviews, Jeezy claimed the Snowman was just a cool dude and the character represented upward mobility (see “Young Jeezy Explains Symbolism Of The Snowman” ).
» Outcome: His response didn’t satisfy school administrators, who deemed his Snowman a blatant endorsement for kids to sell drugs. The Snowman controversy has cooled down, but Jeezy is still hot.
2005: Cam’ron’s “Stop snitchin’ ” stance vs. the police
» Offending line: Nothing.
» History: Cam angered police and public officials when he refused to cooperate with authorities — a tacit endorsement of the “stop snitchin’ ” attitude — following his 2005 shooting in Washington, D.C. (see “Cam’ron Says He’s Not Sure Incident Was A Failed Carjacking After All” ). The murder of Busta Rhymes’ bodyguard Israel Ramirez at a video set in February 2006 followed a similar pattern (see “Busta Rhymes Issues Statement On Bodyguard Shooting” ).
» Defense: Cam said business interests and the way he was raised prevent him from speaking with authorities and revealing further information.
» Outcome: Critics say Cam’s silence speaks volumes; they feel he’s encouraging inner-city residents to continue their stance against cooperating with police. The MC recently appeared on “60 Minutes” to further explain his stance.
Amid all the controversies of the past three decades, one thing is certain: Hip-hop lyrics will continue to enthrall fans and enrage critics for many years to come.