An Excerpt from Eric Harvey’s ‘Who Got the Camera?: A History of Rap and Reality’

It’s hard to find two sectors of popular culture that reflect the democratic possibilities, consumerist ideologies, and emotional flare-ups of American life more than reality TV and reality rap,...
By    October 21, 2021
Photo via University of Texas Press

Support truly independent journalism by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon.

The following is an excerpt from Eric Harvey‘s newly published ‘Who Got the Camera?: A History of Rap and Reality’ via the University of Texas Press, © 2021.

In April 2012, more than fifteen years after his death, Tupac Shakur once again performed “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” with his erstwhile collaborator, who by then was going by the name Snoop Dogg. The setting was the thirteenth annual Coachella Festival, the multi-day music and arts event that drew fans from around the world to the rolling green hills of Indio, California, two hours east of Los Angeles. Shakur’s presence came courtesy of an expensive, realistic holographic projection that replicated his vocal timbre and body movements with eerie accuracy. When the reconstituted Shakur appeared onstage and yelled, “What the fuck is up, Coachella?!” the effect was uncanny and, for many, quite moving. Lindsay Zoladz compared the effect to the Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous appearance in Puff Daddy and Ma$e’s 1997 “Mo Money Mo Problems” video and the glowing ghost of Eazy‑E in Bone Thugs‑n‑Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” clip. (Zoladz also noted that Eazy‑E had been revitalized by the same technology, with motion-capture performances staged by his children and supervised by his widow, Tomica.) “Holography could prosper only in America, a country obsessed with realism,” wrote Umberto Eco in an essay about wax museums. “If a reconstruction is to be credible, it must be absolutely iconic, a perfect likeness, a ‘real’ copy of the reality being represented.” The man who had devoted the final five years of his life to a performative project of scandalous Black American realism had been resurrected by holography, a technological phenomenon that made him even more quintessentially American than his Las Vegas death.

Well before his 2012 performance, Shakur had ascended to a rarefied level of American cultural memory: the eternal presentness of the prematurely dead. As Greil Marcus wrote about Elvis’s second life, Shakur “made history” while he was alive, and “when he died, maybe people found themselves caught up in the adventure of remaking his history, which is to say their own.” By 2012, Tupac’s posthumously released albums outnumbered those issued during his short life. His image and “thug life” mantra had reached iconographic status in officially sanctioned and bootleg form, and because his murder was still unsolved, numerous documentaries and homemade YouTube videos had proffered their own theories about what really happened in Las Vegas. In 2003, Shakur’s story was made into an Oscar- nominated documentary and book, aptly titled Resurrection, with both productions supervised by his mother. Five years after Coachella, Shakur was granted pop music’s two most hallowed forms of cultural enshrinement: he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a moving induction speech delivered by Snoop, and had his story retold through the biopic All Eyez on Me (also supervised by Afeni), which was, appropriately enough, acclaimed less for its screenplay or direction than for Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s uncannily accurate embodiment of Shakur.

Hip-hop is known for paying loving tribute to its fallen soldiers, and Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 revivification of Shakur at the end of his album To Pimp a Butterfly provided a sonic equivalent of the Coachella hologram. After reading a brief spoken-word piece titled “Mortal Man,” Lamar channels the spirit of Shakur, in a way. Lamar had found an unpublished audio interview with Shakur from November 1994, two weeks before the rapper’s life and career were irrevocably altered by the Quad Studios shooting. With Afeni’s blessing, Lamar spliced in his own questions to Shakur’s responses, characterizing himself in one pseudo prompt is “one of your offsprings of the legacy you left behind.” The conversation, so to speak, touches upon some of Shakur’s favored topics: how the American system “take[s] the heart and soul out of a [Black] man,” how one needed to balance self-enrichment with the good of the community, and how the next Black revolution would be infinitely more deadly than the 1992 LA uprising. Like the hologram, Lamar’s conversation with Shakur was more impressive for its technological novelty than its actual content. “The excitement you feel while listening to it comes from the idea of the two talking, not from what’s actually said,” wrote Jay Caspian Kang. After the pair’s brief exchange, Lamar reads a poem written by a friend but finds Shakur unresponsive when he finishes, as if the medium has lost contact with the spirit. The album concludes with Lamar urgently reaching out: “Pac? Pac?! Pac?!!”

Though their music and public personas were quite different, it wasn’t out of character for Lamar to position himself as Shakur’s heir apparent. The magnetic, Compton-raised rapper’s critically adored 2012 breakthrough LP, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, established him as what Kang called hip-hop’s latest messiah figure. More than any Black artist since Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., Kang wrote, post–Good Kid Lamar was faced with the impossible burden of representation: “He must create something that feels as though it has grown organically out of his city, but that is at the same time universal. His work must feel political, but not overtly political. He should be an example and a savior to the young Black people who listen to his music. It’s an impossible role to inhabit—at least while the hip- hop messiah is alive.” As with Shakur, the messiah crown—previously granted to Rakim, the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Shakur, and one of Lamar’s most prominent inspirations, Eminem—weighed heavily on its recipients. Correspondingly, a prominent theme of Lamar’s Good Kid follow‑up, To Pimp a Butterfly, was the emotional toll of his status during a time of incredible tumult in Black communities across the country. Combined, the two albums launched Lamar’s career and resurrected Compton as one of hip-hop’s most hallowed real-world stages after a decade and a half of relative invisibility.

Born in Compton during the summer that Ice‑T released Rhyme Pays and Eazy‑E dropped “Boyz‑n‑the- Hood,” Lamar came of age not during the heyday of Los Angeles reality rap but after the legend had been established. His streets were controlled by Bloods and Crips and poisoned by crack, but to the rest of the country, they could have been a film studio’s back lot. Subtitled “A Short Film by Kendrick Lamar,” Good Kid sounded nothing like N.W.A’s sensationalistic tabloid rap, but more like the hood neorealism of the Watts-raised director Charles Burnett, whose films shunned violence, comedy, stars, and happy endings for a quasi- documentary, psychologically complex presentation of Black lives. In his predecessors’ tradition, Lamar incorporates skits into the album, but they are not comedic and sound nothing like news reports. Instead, they trace the contours of the mind of a young man trying to balance responsibility and social conformity. Seamlessly sequenced into the flow of the music, which is more brooding and darker than the bright G‑funk of The Chronic or Doggystyle, the skits include an answering machine message from his hectoring parents and a detailed portrayal of his friends plotting a crime. Distrustful of gang life’s nihilistic machismo, surrounded by various forms of extreme addiction, and fixated on achieving an affective equilibrium, Good Kid codifies a millennial gangsterism, expressing “the vulnerabilities of young Black men at risk and as risk in the postindustrial ghettos of urban America.”

Though Lamar chose mostly to work with unknown collaborators on Good Kid, a few reality rap OGs appear on the album: MC Eiht shows up on the album’s title track—which shifts midway to a beat that recreates Ice Cube’s “Bird in the Hand”— and Dr. Dre appears on the album-closing track, “Compton.” Dre had spent most of the 2000s holed up in the studio, taking business meetings, helping launch the careers of superstars Eminem and 50 Cent, and founding the Beats by Dr. Dre headphone line with Interscope and Aftermath partner Jimmy Iovine. In January 2014, Dre and Iovine launched the music streaming service Beats Music, which was bought by Apple a few months later, along with Beats Electronics, for $3.2 billion, making Dre, he claimed in a viral video, rap’s first billionaire. Dre’s Aftermath label released Good Kid, and as Jayson Greene noted, Dre was the album’s “most visible benefactor and most unsettled presence,” having “availed himself of the fresh- career oxygen Kendrick’s rise has pumped into his atmosphere, lumbering out of his corporate airlock to stand with Lamar on magazine covers.” Indeed, “Compton” was Good Kid’s sole inauthentic moment, a bright, wide-screen victory lap at the end of an album that otherwise communicated precious little that warranted celebration.

Dre was not there to play a role in Lamar’s passion play but to portray Dr. Dre, the entertainment mogul and industry icon. The same year that Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, Dre and Cube used their industry might to will the long-gestating N.W.A biopic into existence. Released in August 2015, Straight Outta Compton wove the narrative threads and urban legends surrounding the “World’s Most Dangerous Group” into a carefully curated Hollywood narrative. Directed by Friday’s F. Gary Gray and executive-produced by Dre, Cube, and Eazy’s widow, Tomica, Straight Outta Compton portrayed a series of momentous events in the life of the group, each of which was freighted with the burden of historical importance. The film’s opening scene, set in the mid-1980s, sees Eazy confront some uncooperative, heavily armed customers in a Compton rock house. What is shaping up to be a deadly interpersonal battle is quickly interrupted by state-sanctioned violence when one of Daryl Gates’s batter rams barrels through the home, allowing Eazy to make his dramatic escape—and for N.W.A to eventually exist. The film also retrofits the group’s lyrics and other iconic terminology into its dialogue: Eazy is called “ruthless” at one point, and Cube, played by the real Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson Jr., mutters “Fuck tha Police” lyrics while being slammed on the hood of a car. One of the film’s most noticeable nods to period-specific jargon comes during its first pivotal moment, when Eazy bails Dre out of jail, and the budding producer tries to convince the budding entrepreneur of a business opportunity. “That shit, the reality raps? That’s what I’m talkin’ about, man. That’s it,” Dre tells Eazy.

Much more than reintroducing N.W.A to a new generation, Straight Outta Compton was critically and financially successful: it was named one of the National Board of Review’s top ten films of 2015, and its screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. With worldwide receipts of more than $200 million, Straight Outta Compton surpassed Walk the Line as Hollywood’s highest-grossing music biopic and bettered Keenen Ivory Wayans’s 2000 horror parody Scary Movie as the highest-grossing film helmed by a Black director. The film’s theatrical release was accompanied by the kind of promotional tie-ins that showed just how deeply the iconography of N.W.A had been incorporated into popular culture and the synergistic reality of the twenty-first-century entertainment industries. To coincide with the film’s release, Dre put out his first album in sixteen years, simply titled Compton, with a long list of cameos that cast Black Los Angeles as a wellspring of diverse musicianship—Kendrick Lamar, the Oxnard-raised multi-instrumentalist Anderson Paak, and the Compton-born rapper the Game— and reintroduced several reality rap charter members, including Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Above the Law’s Cold 187um. Compton reached no. 2 on the Billboard album chart, but anyone seeking to stream it had to create a paid account with Dre’s corporate home of Apple Music, which was seeking to boost its subscription numbers by affiliation. Streaming services were not the only online platforms involved in the film’s rollout: Beats by Dre partnered with Universal to release a promotional app called Straight Outta Somewhere, which allowed fans to reconfigure the film’s title logo into a reflection of their own hometown and post it on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. “It wasn’t about Compton as a place anymore, it became about being proud of where you’re from,” a Beats employee said. On social media platforms, even the most geographically and culturally specific identities become pliable forms of self- expression, and Straight Outta Compton was no exception. Six million people downloaded and personalized the graphic in the app’s first week alone, turning a tabloid-saturated statement of civic pride and vulgar protest into the dominant communication form of the 2010s: a viral meme.

The press surrounding the film wasn’t all celebratory, however. The Straight Outta Compton promotional blitz also had to account for a significant element of the N.W.A story: Dre’s 1991 assault of Dee Barnes. At the time, the group had blithely incorporated the beating into their star image of pitiless Black antiheroes, but the mid-2010s were a very different landscape for conversations about violence against women. The Los Angeles Times reported that while the original Straight Outta Compton screenplay contained a scene depicting the Barnes assault in which Dre “fling[s] her around like a rag-doll, while she screams, cries, begs for him to stop,” Gray said it was cut from the film “because they wanted to focus tightly on the group.” Four days after the film’s premiere, Barnes herself wrote a stirring article for Gawker that reflected on the film and offered her depiction of the event that was left on the cutting-room

floor. “I didn’t want to see a depiction of me getting beat up, just like I didn’t want to see a depiction of Dre beating up [the Ruthless-signed R&B singer] Michel’le, his one-time girlfriend. . . . But what should have been addressed is that it occurred. . . . Like many of the women that knew and worked with N.W.A., I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history.” A couple of days later, Dre issued a formal apology, followed by an official statement from Apple, the world’s largest technology company, which counted Dre among its most prominent spokespeople.

In 2016, Kendrick Lamar inducted N.W.A into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “It was dubbed gangsta rap, but what it was for me was an intimate look at what was actually happening in our community,” Lamar said. “Chuck D once said that hip-hop was the Black CNN, and N.W.A represent that to the fullest: bringing inner-city life to the forefront and making the world pay attention to our realities.” The next year, Snoop inducted Tupac Shakur as the sixth rap act to earn the honor, joining Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (inducted in 2007), Run-DMC (2009), the Beastie Boys (2012), and Public Enemy (2013). The Notorious B.I.G. was inducted in 2020. Like the transformation of “rock star” into a generic descriptor of skill in any field, the acceptance of hip-hop into the Hall of Fame coincided with “gangsta” being turned into a synonym for “badass,” used as an ironic nod toward one’s whiteness, or simply used to express enthusiasm. In the online DIY marketplace Etsy, one can purchase a baby onesie reading “gangsta napper,” yoga gear proclaiming oneself a “spiritual gangsta,” and coffee mugs emblazoned with the motivational phrase, “Drink some coffee, put on gangsta rap, and handle it.” Gangsta rap had not only ascended what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall called the escalator of cultural prestige (biopics, Hall of Fame coronations) and been transformed into raw material for digital reappropriation but had fully crossed the linguistic threshold into a casual component of everyday vernacular.

Whether “gangsta” was fated for such a transition or it was triggered by the career choices of the rappers themselves is an unanswerable question, but it is fair to excuse millennial and younger fans of Ice Cube, Ice‑T, and Snoop Dogg for their ignorance of the fact that these men were once among the nation’s most provocative and scandalous public figures. Though he still released the occasional album and toured, by the late 2010s Ice Cube had long transitioned from gangsta notoriety to mainstream Hollywood bankability with Friday (which spawned two sequels) and the 2002 film Barbershop (which also generated two follow-ups). In the early 2010s, a meme circulated online comparing two photos of Cube: In the “then” image, Cube brandished an AK‑47 with a terrifying glare in his eyes. In the “now” shot, he struck the same position with a fishing rod and a goofy smile, in a still from the 2005 family caper Are We There Yet? While the current generation knows Cube as much for playing Captain Dickson in the reboot of 21 Jump Street as for writing “Fuck tha Police,” Ice‑T, who once threatened the profits of a global corporation with a song about killing police, has proven even more willing to play against type, portraying NYPD officer Fin Tutuola on the NBC police drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit since 2000. Of all the reality rappers to have parlayed their 1990s ignominy into twenty-first-century pop-cultural omnipresence, Snoop Dogg’s trajectory has been the most unpredictable and enjoyable. He has cohosted multiple seasons of a cooking show with Martha Stewart, as well as hosted a TBS reboot of the 1970s game show The Joker’s Wild. Unlike Cube or T, however, Snoop maintains an active recording schedule, releasing thirteen full-length albums since the turn of the millennium, in genres ranging from reggae (2013’s Reincarnated, as Snoop Lion) to funk (2015’s 7 Days of Funk, with Dam-Funk) and gospel (2018’s Bible of Love).

While reality rap was transformed into light entertainment fare and nostalgia, multiple new forms of reality programming took over television. In May 2015, the Washington Post published an online story commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the pioneering reality game show Survivor that chronicled the breadth of twenty-first-century reality television programming. “The extreme success of Survivor officially ushered in the era of reality television, and nothing has ever really been the same,” the story opened. “It opened the floodgates. Everyone, particularly broadcast networks, wanted a piece of the success and massive fortune they sensed was around the corner.” By 2015, the story’s headline noted, there were more than three hundred reality shows on offer, on broadcast and cable networks alike, which the authors split into ten formats: competing for prizes, talent competitions, dating and love, family, autobiographical, ridiculous people, life improvement, businesses and careers, hidden camera and trickery, and shows about wives. Though the piece briefly noted The Real World in its introduction, it made no mention of reality television’s formative tabloid era in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Survivor’s cultural ubiquity and influence were powerful enough to erase the memory of the crop of programs that invented the format.

A close look at the Washington Post story’s accompanying time lines, however, revealed that the first wave of reality rappers had adapted well to the new televisual landscape. The “family” category included Joseph Simmons’s MTV show Run’s House; Snoop Dogg’s Father Hood, which aired on the E! network; and Luther Campbell’s Luke’s Parental Advisory, which aired for a single season on VH1; while neglecting to include Ice Loves Coco, which ran on E! for three seasons. In the “dating and love” category was Flavor of Love, VH1’s take on NBC’s sensation The Bachelor, spawned by Flavor Flav’s relationship with the actress Brigitte Nielsen, which itself began on another reality show, VH1’s Real World–inspired The Surreal Life. Flavor of Love’s March 2006 season finale drew nearly six million viewers, the highest-rated show in VH1’s history. The Post article’s “talent” category contained Making the Band, which was overseen starting in its second season by the executive then known as P. Diddy, whose playfully domineering tone earned its own satire on Dave Chappelle’s eponymous sketch comedy show. The story left out VH1’s soapy Love and Hip Hop, which traced the dramatic lives of people in and around the industry’s New York base. An immediate hit, Love spun off subsequent versions set in Atlanta, Hollywood, and Miami, and a season-six star turn helped launch the career of future chart-topping rapper Cardi B.

Two decades into the twenty-first century, it’s hard to find two sectors of popular culture that reflect the democratic possibilities, consumerist ideologies, and emotional flare-ups of American life more than reality TV and reality rap. Is there any more fitting predecessor for reality television’s mantra “I’m not here to make friends!” than the performative pugnacity of hip-hop beefs? In the first decade of the 2000s, hip-hop culture and reality television climbed to the forefront of technological changes and popular trends. While reality producers were pioneering TV‑internet convergence, user-generated content, and corporate synergy, rap became “the most accurate arbiter of the zeitgeist, of the consciousness of the people and the age,” as Greg Tate put it in 2016: “Insofar as this moment is defined by sex, shopping, terror, and virtual life and death, hip-hop remains our most prophetic cultural pulse taker, raker, and shaker. Bush, bin Laden, 50 Cent, Paris Hilton, Fox News, ringer tones, and the iPod shuffle—these are actually what constitute our real world, people—a world of loops, break beats, random bombings, bootleg videos, faked realness, and manipulated fears; it’s all of a piece, it all runs together nicely.”

The dizzying, endlessly recombined modern world of culture, technology, and politics was born from the tabloid culture that exploded in 1986 and collapsed under its own weight in 1996. That era’s fusion of technologies and industries, information and entertainment, acting and being, hard news and light distractions has so thoroughly permeated the mass communications ecosystem that it evades recognition. What reality rap and reality TV created then is the taken-for-granted way that we learn about distant others, distract ourselves, and participate in political discourse today. Out of this landscape emerged Donald Trump, a pure product of 1980s and ’90s tabloid culture and its 2000s reinvention as a vehicle for celebrity rehabilitation, who used social media to avoid the prying political press and give his millions of followers the populist sense that he was talking directly to them. While Ronald Reagan used racial dog whistles and TV spectacle to make himself the first hyperreal president, Trump directly appealed to the racist fears of a population unwilling to accept the nation’s first Black president to make himself the nation’s first reality president.

More than twenty years after Ice Cube asked, “Who got the camera?” the answer is, “Everyone, everywhere, at all times.” The talk shows and camcorders that revealed hidden truths about the darker corners of 1980s and ’90s American life are the smartphone cameras and social media platforms of today, only orders of magnitude more accessible and pervasive. While the widespread use of these technologies and platforms transformed the conduct of social life and helped eviscerate the economic infrastructures supporting print media, they were also revealing the horrifying extent of police brutality and murder that made Rodney King’s 1991 beating look comparatively tame. While Barack Obama served his second term in office, a new generation of political activists wrangled these platforms to organize for infrastructural change in a nonhierarchical, intersectional way and were attacked in the streets by local police departments that had been militarized beyond even Daryl Gates’s wildest dreams, by officers who increasingly imagine themselves “as soldiers in a battle with the public rather than guardians of public safety.” In 2020, the most politically contentious year since 1968, the thirty-two-year-old song “Fuck tha Police” felt more terrifyingly relevant than ever.

Used with permission from the University of Texas Press, © 2021

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!