When we were adolescents, our moms weren’t too crazy about rap and hip-hop, which back then meant the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and, er, Blondie’s “Rapture.” But because they were busy and permissive-ish single moms, they never actually prevented us from listening to it. (Elizabeth’s mom, who had four daughters between the ages of 10 and 16 at the time, focused all her censorship efforts on one pop album: Prince’s Dirty Mind.) All the same, they made a point of letting us know that they didn’t think much of music that glorified casual sex, drugs, or violence; music that denigrated women; or music featuring swear words.
Times have changed. Today, most of us are aware that rap and hip-hop are not unique among musical genres in sometimes celebrating sex, drugs, and violence, or denigrating women; and, conversely, that even the most brutal rap song might plausibly be interpreted as a confrontational act of artistic ventriloquism. So when our own kids started downloading rap songs, it was humbling to realize that we were squeamish about it for some very familiar reasons.
Our households enjoy hip-hop. Elizabeth’s husband, a former middle-school music teacher, raised eyebrows a few years ago by hitting "reply all" in a parent and friend’s group email discussion on his heated defense of Akon’s lyrics. Josh wouldn’t go quite so far—he’s tried to steer his kids away from Kanye and Jay-Z in the direction of old-skool hip-hop and alternative and indie stuff. And when he’s driving carpool, even that relatively innocent stuff is verboten.
Why? Because in “Rapper's Delight,” for example, which Josh used to play over the intercom for his middle school back in ’79, we hear Big Bank Hank speculating about whether Superman (a “fairy”) can satisfy Lois Lane with his little worm, then offering to bust Lois out with his super sperm. In L.L. Cool J's "Milky Cereal,” a gay man is described as a Fruit Loop. Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics” and “Chemical Calisthenics” are perfect for kids—except for the N-word. And does Will Smith let his own kids listen to “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” in which a teen picks up a 12-year-old runaway who first tries to seduce him, then accuses him of rape?
We’ve engaged our kids in discussions about the messages in the medium. Afterward, they’ve gone ahead and listened to whatever they wanted—on their headphones, like we did at their age. We’re OK with that. But plenty of parents have banned hip-hop from their homes, which is a shame. So Josh went on a weeks-long quest in search of a playlist’s worth of clean hip-hop. Not radio-censored versions of “dirty” songs, nor hip-hop songs written for children (brrrr), but instead hip-hop tunes that are classics of the genre, yet clean enough for—gulp—Tipper Gore.
Here’s one such playlist, in no particular order, complete with talking points. If it’s heavily weighted to the 1980-90s, it’s because the idea is sharing music you love with your kids.
“Tennessee” (1992), by Arrested Development. At a time when gangsta rap was ascendant, Arrested Development, a group founded by MC Speech and DJ Headliner, wrote songs about peace, love, and spirituality. In this one, Speech reminisces about visiting the American South, and raps: “Now I see the importance of history/ Why people be in the mess that they be.”
“First in Flight” (2002), by Blackalicious. Known for their tongue-twisting lyrics, Blackalicious is a duo that includes MC Gift of Gab. Here, Gift of Gab sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi when he raps, “No need to force the progression, just ride the wind/ You'll know the answer to the Where and Why and When.” Parents might want to point out the guest vocals by Gil Scott-Heron, whose spoken-word performances in the 1970s were a key formative influence on hip-hop.