Back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, rockstars were known for their outlandish behaviour almost as much as they were known for their music. You could rely on a huge musical act like AC/DC or The Doors to trash their hotel rooms whilst on tour. Post Malone makes note of this fact in his hit ‘rockstar’, which alludes to the fact that modern day rappers are today’s rockers: “S**t was legendary/Threw a TV out the window of the montage”.
Nowadays, it’s clear that A-list rappers live the same lavish lives and participate in the same shenanigans as their more classic counterparts, with several arguments as to why this is the case. This concept of rowdy counter-culture, rebellious attitude and run-ins with the law has not at all changed, and the fact that many hip-hop and rap artists today come from very rough upbringings means that many of them are no stranger to criminal behaviour. In 2006, the Academy Award for best song was given to the film Hustle & Flow for the song ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp’. Controversial gang affiliated rapper 6ix9ine currently faces a minimum sentence of 32 years to life if found guilty of racketeering charges (on his latest single, ‘STOOPID’, he featured Bobby Shmurda rapping through a prison phone). And of course, in the 90’s, the feuds of Notorious B.I.G and Tupac stemmed from East/West rap rivalry. Both rappers were killed.
it’s clear that A-list rappers live the same lavish lives and participate in the same shenanigans as their classic counterparts
The idea that being a true hip-hop or urban artist requires a certain rough and toughness is heavily ingrained into the culture. The fact that there is an entire genre of music called ‘gangsta rap’ is a testament to that.
A good example of this dichotomy, and the dismissal of rappers that aren’t “hard”, is Maryland MC Logic. Raised in Section 8 housing, he was surrounded by addiction, racism, drugs and domestic abuse his entire life, and dropped out of school as a teenager to pursue his dream. But he doesn’t seem to talk about his upbringing in the same boisterous, braggadocious way that other rappers might. For example, Bronx native Pusha T is the opposite, using his drug dealing career as a central theme in his music. Logic prefers to build a following by rapping about injustice, racism, equality, and acceptance. His third studio album, ΞVERYBODY, was based on this: “I’m discussing…the fight for equality of every man, woman, and child regardless of race, religion, colour, creed, and sexual orientation… we are born equal, but we are not treated equally.”
Logic doesn’t talk about his upbringing in the same boisterous way that other rappers might
In order to fully understand the core of this trend, it’s important to look back through the pages of history and trace the roots of urban music, rap and hip hop. In doing so, you’d end up in the Bronx in about 1970. It was the poorest congressional district in the USA. It was also a hotbed of crime, arson and unrest following the civil rights movement. The heart of hip hop beat to the rhythm of the inner city – and was founded and formed in a culture where music was an escape, an outlet for the youth, and carried heavy political undertones. Given that Patient Zero of hip hop has such a rich history, it’s no surprise that many rappers experience similar run-ins with the law on their ambitious paths to stardom, and the ‘come up’ is a journey synonymous with this genre of music. In the inner city it is not uncommon to find oneself amidst illegal activity, and many A-list rappers have tangled with the law before, and during, their fame. Some even have gang affiliations. Snoop Dogg is a known Crip, Chris Brown claims Blood ties, as does Lil Wayne, and the list goes on; all three of whom have been arrested multiple times. Snoop Dogg was even acquitted for murder in the 1990s.
The heart of hip-hop beat to the rhythm of the inner city and was founded in a culture where music was an escape
It would be reasonable to expect that, after their rise to fame, a criminal charge, an arrest or any other similar legal trouble might jeopardise a musician’s career. Overwhelmingly, it seems as though this is not so. The late XXXTENTACION had a loyal cult following despite his objectively heinous criminal behaviour, and Chris Brown still puts out songs that get millions of hits on YouTube despite his history of domestic abuse.
There is constant argument surrounding the ability to separate the art from the artist. Should you stop listening to The Weeknd because he was arrested for assaulting a police officer? What crime is the most damning, and where is the line drawn? What about the late Mac Miller’s DUI hit and run charges; can you still guiltlessly ask the DJ to play ‘When in Rome’?
It would seem that there is a cut-off point in terms of what an artist can get away with before being blacklisted by the musical community. Some hip-hop fans I interviewed say that offences relating to drugs and financial crimes are victimless, because drug use is a personal issue, and financial crimes like tax evasion are against the “institution”. The only types of crimes that students actively took issue with were those against other individuals, specifically referring to assault, battery and other similar crimes, because they are “an instance of one person doing direct harm to another”.
So how big a star does a rapper have to be to get away with a crime?
Ultimately, it is up to the individual listener to make that decision, and that person’s standards of what is or isn’t acceptable. There can’t be a rule book that collectively epitomises the standard of moral behaviour required for a “get out of jail free” card from a general population of listeners. It is up to you.