There’s this ping at the end of each bar of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.” It changes pitch with the bassline. You’ve heard that shit before? Oh man, I’m like Pavlov’s fucking dog when I hear that—my neck becomes an involuntary muscle: it refuses to not snap. I’m a rap Philistine, which, in non-faux-rap-intellectualspeak means I’m a beats man. And that’s one of my favorite beats, ever.
A few years ago I edited a story for XXLwritten by Ben Detrick. It was about the Ben Folds Five, or maybe just Ben Fold's solo group, and how they had begun to cover “Bitches Ain’t Shit” live. The cover was of a piece with the ongoing trend of (mostly) white rock acts covering rap songs: Lykke Li doing Rick Ross, Anya Marina’s take on T.I., etc. As a serious (white) rap journalist, I always looked sideways at those efforts, not because I thought it was an infringement on rap’s underground ethos, or because I had proprietary feelings about rap (a tic I detect in a lot of rap journos), but because they felt mocking to me. Ben Folds could’ve picked any number of rap songs to cover in 2005: “Still Tippin’,” “Stay Fly,” “Shooter.” Instead, he chose a decade-old album track. A particularly, famously, vulgar one. It felt like a joke. But who knows? Maybe he liked the beat, too.
I’m the father of two very young daughters. I also owe my career to hip-hop—more specifically, to my love, and knowledge, of hip-hop. But I have a harder and harder time loving hip-hop lately, because I can’t get past how mean it is to women.
I remember a few lines of Ben (Detrick’s) story being devoted to questions about the preponderance of the word “nigga” in the lyrics to “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” and how Ben (Folds) and the rest of the white guys in his group handled singing them onstage. I seem to recall their solution was to simply go quiet and let the crowd sing those parts. (The fact that their crowds were surely 99% white could be the subject of a different essay.) Of course, it only recently occurred to me how ridiculous it is for people to be worried about censoring racial slurs in a song that features the chorus, “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks/Lick on these nuts and suck the dick.” Of course it was a joke. Duh.
I’m the father of two very young daughters. I also owe my career to hip-hop—more specifically, to my love, and knowledge, of hip-hop. I’ve worked for magazines that cover rap for more than 10 years. The fact that I know that Midnight Marauders and 36 Chambers came out on the same day, that I can pull any number of lyrical references off the top of my head, helps put food in my babies’ bellies and pay their staggering child care expenses. But I have a harder and harder time loving hip-hop lately, because I can’t get past how mean it is to women.
Parenthood personalizes things. It's unhealthy, and you have to check yourself from doing it too much or you'll go crazy, but it's natural: you start to see your own kids in the faces of the children on the news. A car jumps a curb and kills a 4-year-old walking to school with her grandmother, and the newspaper runs a picture of the girl's family at her 4th birthday party. That's a heavy story for anyone; it feels especially heartbreaking if you've just hosted a 4th birthday party yourself.
So the "bitches" and video hoes in hip-hop trip me up more now. Those could be my girls someday. It was easier to bargain with myself when I could say, "Well, they're not talking about my mom, or my sister, or mygirlfriend." That bargain is harder to make these days. And it's not like there are a lot of positive female role models in rap. I dig that Nicki and Trina have made lucrative livelihoods out of taking their objectification into their own hands, but—not to get too armchair analyst here—it looks like that takes a toll.
Ten years ago, I could laugh at the absurdity of pouring champagne on girls in bikinis, probably because that wasn’t a thing in rap videos until I was in my early twenties, and I knew for damn sure that wasn’t what my life looked like. But what about 8-year-old girls? Is that what they think parties are like? Or, perhaps scarier, what about 8-year-old boys?
Misogyny is such an ingrained part of rap music, a cottage industry of defenses has emerged for it. A few I’ve used over the years:
Rap is a part of larger society, more precisely modern pop culture, a culture that’s frequently anti-woman. “I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than to be with another man...” That’s John Lennon (and Elvis Presley before him), not Biggie or 'Pac. If you’re a fan of professional American sports, you should know that at some point you’ve rooted for a wife beater. You don't have to watch a rap video to see women objectified, just wait for the commercial break during a prime time sitcom.
This is undoubtedly the case. It’s also the tried-and-true excuse of underachievers everywhere: “Hey, my shit may suck, but so does that guy’s.”
A lot of the “hoes” and “bitches” described in rap are just that: women who use sex for material gain, and plain old evil, unpleasant females. Poetic license is a powerful thing, and never to be fucked with. In the course of telling a good story well, you should be allowed to use any word, absolutely any word, at your disposal.
But “hoes” and “bitches” are just as often used as a blanket term for all women. And if you’re really trying to be specific with an insult (or even a “critique,” hahaha) then you should find a word specific enough not to denigrate half the people on the planet.
Some number of the “hoes” and “bitches” in rap aren’t actually referencing women. See Dr. Dre’s verse on "Bitches Ain't Shit" or “Bitch Niggaz,” or more eloquently, Bun B: “Now once upon a time not too long ago/A nigga like myself had to strong arm a hoe/Now this was not a hoe in the sense of having a pussy/But a pussy having no goddamn sense/Try’na push me.”
Also valid. And laughable. At least in terms of the argument at hand. Given that the vast majority of references to “hoes” and “bitches” in rap are indeed referencing women.
Fatherhood takes all these points and counterpoints from the theoretical and brings them into the really, really real. It’s also where Ben Folds’ little outsider joke stops being funny. Ten years ago, I could laugh at the absurdity of pouring champagne on girls in bikinis, probably because that wasn’t a thing in rap videos until I was in my early twenties, and I knew for damn sure that wasn’t what my life looked like. But what about 8-year-old girls? Is that what they think parties are like? Or, perhaps scarier, what about 8-year-old boys? There are worse things on the Internet, of course, but they aren’t in the mainstream like hip-hop. President Obama invites Jay-Z to his campaign rallies, not Ron Jeremy, and “Big Pimpin’” (another beat I adore) is on the second page of video results when you Google “Jay-Z.”
The best defense for rap is probably this: Hip-hop is bigger than hip-hop. It’s a genre that’s spawned genres, and it’s not hard to find some corner of it that won’t offend. (Alas, those corners tend not to have beats that kick like Dre’s.) Hip-hop occasionally has nice things to say about women, like "Dear Mama" or Goodie Mob's "Beautiful Skin." I always especially liked the Lost Boyz's "Renee." The positive effects rap has had on the world outweigh the negatives. Many more people have come together and been empowered by hip-hop’s core DNA—confidence, artistry, honesty, PARTY!—than have been harmed by its viler sides. (At least that’s what I tell myself... no, it is what I believe.) Still, I’m going to laugh in your face if you tell me people aren’t influenced by rap lyrics, mostly because I know I have been.
Rap music isn’t really intended for middle-aged fathers to listen to with their daughters. Drake’s probably not making music for me to bump on the way to a ballet recital. Tyler, the Creator is most definitely not.
Rap music isn’t really intended for middle-aged fathers to listen to with their daughters. Drake’s probably not making music for me to bump on the way to a ballet recital. Tyler, the Creator is most definitely not. And that’s a good thing; the vast majority of music made for children is atrocious. I'd like to thank my friends in the Complex Music Department for that Jay-Z lullabies CD they gave me the other day. (Y'all the sweetest!) I'm sorry, though, there is no way I'm playing that simpy shit for my kids.
Remember where hip-hop got its start: the community room of a housing project. In its infancy, rap was, quite literally, family entertainment. Not the Kumbaya-and-a-half-hour-of-Barney-before-bed-at-8 variety, but family entertainment all the same: families and neighbors, fathers and daughters, too, hanging out, dancing to just the best part of their favorite records, while someone shouted toasts and boasts (and disses, too, aimed at men and women alike, I’m sure) on the mic.
I mostly feel sad when I hear the lyrics that make me cringe these days. Like, Damn, I would really like to love this unequivocally, but I can’t. In 10 years or so, I hope to play “Bitches Ain’t Shit” for my daughters. If I’ve done my job, they’ll know it’s not about them or their friends, that it’s some pathetic (but funky) silliness made by some young men (and one woman) who couldn’t think of anything better to say. It won’t be a big deal. They’ll probably think it’s corny. “What is this golden oldies shit, dad?” But maybe in that time, hip-hop will have done its job, too, and on some mixtape someone will have put some better, more meaningful verses to that amazing beat. A father can hope, right?
Written by Jack Erwin