Over the last twenty or thirty years, historians have tried to situate the United States in a more transnational frame, avoiding stories about “American exceptionalism” and thinking about how events unfold only within our borders. Instead, Thomas Bender, Charlotte Brooks, Stephanie Smallwood, Andrew Zimmerman, Robin D.G. Kelley, and numerous others, in their own ways, have demonstrated how events, capital flows, and politics within the U.S often reflected the force of political, economic, and social currents extending beyond domestic affairs. In an a well regarded essay for the Journal of American History (JAH), Kelley argued that black historians, due in part to discrimination and the history of forced removal from Africa to the New World, had long practiced the newly dominant paradigm of transnational history. If current historians of American history have just begun to endeavor a transnational approach, black intellectuals enacted such techniques over 100 years ago. Denied entrance into elite institutions (with some notable exceptions), limited in their domestic rights, subject to the history of slavery and active in social movements/diasporas, black writers located themselves within an international perspective. Having endured the harsher aspects of nationalism, Kelley points out most resisted the United States’ attempts at imperial expansion and jingoistic rhetoric. They turned to non-state actors and social movements to sustain their communities and scholarship. This adjustment created a far different historiography from that produced by institutional white authors.
One can see then how late twentieth century rap, likewise, served as both a town crier for the failures of Reagan era governance, particularly in the nation’s cities, and bellwether of globalization. The very fact of being black under a president who one could argue embodied what many might consider the White American ideal led many to adopt a skeptical stance regarding not only government but broader society. Fashion in the Reagan Era, whether country duds or Valley Girl neon, reflected white tastes as did pop culture more generally. The biggest shows in the 1980s, Dynasty, Dallas, the Dukes of Hazard, and the Brady Bunch (re-runs), embody the era. Yes the Cosby show debuted in 1984, which also led to a Different World in the magical year of 1987 (you’ll see in a moment), so rays of sunshine existed, but in general culture remained rather monochromatic. In this way, two rap groups from that period best represent the two political poles of the decade: Public Enemy and NWA.
1980s – P.E. and NWA
Public Enemy incubated by Long Island’s “black belt” developed a compelling strain of Afrocentric black nationalism. In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Jeff Chang identifies the Long Island universities serving the suburb’s black belt as nodes for interaction and ideology resulting in East Coast rap legends like Public Enemy and Rakim. One might add, by drawing on the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Chuck D espoused politics that indicted the state for slavery, segregation, and continued discrimination, while also underscoring the transnational perspective promoted by the radical movements of earlier decades. As result political parties were not really the problem, rather from Public Enemy’s perspective, American government stood as the enemy. In a recent interview with Mother Jones, Chuck D called all government “a cancer.” Whatever his personal stance regarding Reagan, Chuck D saw the structure as the issue, after all white Democrats and Republicans alike had marginalized black and non white voices. Moreover, behind Chuck D’s leadership, P.E. recognized a certain transnationalism due in part from the influences of Black Power figures like Stokely Carmichael.
In contrast, N.W.A.’s “poems celebrated pushers, played bitches, killed enemies and assassinated police. Fuck delayed gratification, they said, take it all now,” notes Chang, “excess was the essence of N.W.A.’s appeal.” Granted, the group’s music, obsessed with violence, sex, and drugs, seemed apolitical, but Public Enemy, Easy E and others argued that rap functioned as a news source, or as Chuck D famously argued, “Black CNN.” N.W.A.’s shocking depiction of urban life for black America, many have pointed out, served as a mirror to the nation over the effects of deindustrialization and New Right economic policies. Arguably the biggest rap figures of the 1990s, Snoop Dog, B.I.G., and Tupac dealt more within tropes established by N.W.A., perfecting and refining gangsta rap in more radio friendly ways. While Pac recorded the occasional political tinged anthem like “Holla if you Hear Me”, often his lyrics aimed at small “p” politics like the pro-woman message of “Keep Your Head Up” or self improvement of “Changes”. Biggie eerily predicted the explosion of the World Trade Centers on “Juicy” (really a recall to the 1993 failed attempt) but that was hardly intentional. Much like Tupac, Biggie’s music focused more on psychological struggles, guilt, death, depression, and the possibility of redemption. In general, one could argue their lifestyles represented a sort of political statement but nothing as coherent as P.E. or N.W.A.
The Recent Past – Killer Mike, Kendrick Lamar, and Jay Z
Unsurprisingly, recent hip hop artists have developed some opinions on Reagan. “I’m dropping off the grid before they pump the lead/I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead,” Killer Mike growls at the end of R.A.P. Music’s “Reagan.” In a recent interview Mike expanded on this distaste for the late president. “[T]here is an active marketing campaign to lionize Ronald Reagan and I’m here to say that it is a lie. That’s all. He was filth. He was slime. And there was nothing good about him other than him giving us the King Holiday.” The Atlanta rapper stands as the most recent, and perhaps most vocal, example of this popular culture dissent. From Jay Z to Kendrick Lamar, hip hop artists have pushed back against public discourse that explains drug dealing and inner city crime as part of a “culture of poverty.”
“He vigorously championed renewal of the nation’s military strength yet the renewal was curiously hollow,” reflected Michael Sherry in 1995. ” Militarization continued, but geared less to the wider world and more to Americans’ sense of their own needs, to the point that they waged ‘war’ more within their own borders than against external enemies. That inward turn, developing since the 1960s, marked the 1980s even more.” Few populations experienced this inward turn more than African Americans nor were more affected by the deindustrialization that haunted characters in songs by the Drive By Truckers and even later era Springsteen. Countless numbers of scholars, William Julius Wilson perhaps the first and most notable, detailed how industry’s retreat from urban America crippled metropolitan economies, the damage falling squarely on black America.
Military expansion brought federal investment to the suburban and often whiter Sunbelt. The militarization that drove Western expansion as military installations and private defense contractors brought industry and economies to places like San Diego and Orange County to name only two, also incubated the New Right conservative movement that Reagan embodied. In the 1960s, defense industry workers, white collar conservative professionals, notes Lisa McGirr, embraced figures like Barry Goldwater and established capital flows from the nation’s capital to the burgeoning Sunbelt.
This not only reshaped the West, it also expanded a military industrial complex into less obvious aspects of life. As former military and defense professionals rotated in and out of work, notes Jennifer Light in From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold Ear America (2003), many turned to urban planning, bringing with them the tactics, techniques, and technologies of military defense. In the wake of Vietnam, domestic urban unrest, and racial conflict, police commissioners in places like Los Angeles pronounced a war on crime and adopted tactics deployed in S.E. Asia on urban areas. Want an insight into Reagan’s views on such issues? His stance on Vietnam displayed little regard for that nation’s civilians and clear support for the military industrial complex that birthed Southern California. During his 1966 campaign for California’s governorship, Reagan asserted U.S. forces should “level Vietnam, pave it, paint stripes on it, and make a parking lot of it.” When Reagan tear gassed student protesters at the University of California Berkeley and belligerently chastised them, it seemed to fit with his general stance on militarization. Inner city rioters, most often Black or Latino, one could argue in Reagan’s formulations, amounted to Vietnamese insurgents disrupting American lives.
“They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror/ but all it really did was let the police terrorize whoever, but mostly black boys,” snarls Killer Mike on the song “Reagan”. Few populations endured such paramilitary tactics like urban African Americans in the 1980s. “Thanks to Reaganomics, prison turned to profits, cause free labor is the cornerstone of U.S. economics, slavery was abolished unless you are in prison.”
Domestically, the trend of turning surveillance and intervention inward, a trend Jeremi Suri argues was not unique to the U.S. but occurred in France, China, and the USSR, accelerated. With municipal revenues declining, over the past ten or fifteen years, urban police forces have adopted increasingly aggressive SWAT team tactics. For example, in the 1980s, researchers counted approximately 3,000 SWAT teams total for all the nation’s police departments, by 2012, the number had ballooned to 50,000. The explosion in SWAT team deployment stemmed from the intersection of the War on Drugs and Terror. Following 9/11, from 2002 – 2012, federal grants doled out $35 billion for state and local police. Moreover, the Pentagon continues to pass on surplus hardware to metropolitan law enforcement at “virtually no cost.” While some need for this sort of intervention remains necessary, SWAT teams now break up cockfights in Arizona and illegal poker matches in Maryland, not exactly the work of the angels. The War on Drugs, a cornerstone of the Reagan presidency, has provided its own incentives for this kind of paramilitary enforcement. Due to civil asset forfeiture laws, SWAT teams can claim very liberal parameters for confiscation. “Rules on civil asset forfeiture allow the police to seize anything which they can plausibly claim was the proceeds of a crime,” the Economist pointed out in March 2014. Indeed, property owners must sue to get their items back, often this money stays with police departments who use it to beef up their own weaponry. This perverts law enforcement such that it disproportionately focuses on drugs at the expense of rape and other serious crimes while targeting low income populations at distorted rates. In 1986, the federal Asset Forfeiture (AFF) fund held $93.7 million, by 2012 the Seized Asset Deposit Fund, directly related to the AFF, contained almost $6 billion. Apart from these financial incentives, others like the ACLU argue that it leads to dangerously aggressive law enforcement. When off duty cops wear t-shirts emblazoned with “We get up early to beat the crowds” or “You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down,” it might be a coping mechanism for a dangerous job but it also might be representative of this darker turn. One researcher found at least 50 innocent civilians dead from such tactics.
All of this of course started well before Reagan, Vietnam and the police tactics of the 1960s laid the groundwork, the War on Drugs, 9/11, and the War on Terror enabled them to blossom into the kind of urban pacification believed to be effective policing, but America’s 40th president practically laid the bread crumbs for his successors to follow. One wonders if American interventions abroad have had the kind of blow back effect like that of Vietnam. For example, as in S.E. Asia, Afghanistan and Iraqi insurgents have used asymmetrical warfare resulting in military tactics and procedures aimed at putting down such threats. Domestic law enforcement, for the reasons stated already, amplified such armed paramilitary intervention. Killer Mike’s examples from the 1980s are simply the bridge to modern methods deployed today.
Creating the Problem
“Welcome to the vigilante, 80s so don’t you ask me,” Compton’s Kendrick Lamar barks in the first verse on “Ronald Reagan Era” off of his 2011 album, Section 80. “I’m hungry, my body’s antsy, I rip through your fucking pantry.” Lamar’s narrator compares himself to rap ’80 icons like Big Daddy Kane and ’90s/00’s porn star Mr. Marcus and haters to Marcus Camby who like the former Knick are “washed up.” The violence of 1980s L.A. seems more a balance between racist cops and drug induced gang mania, “Heart racin’, racin’ past Johnny because he’s racist, 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves off the porch with a machine gun blowtorch.” Killer Mike spreads the blame around too. “So it seems our people starve from lack of understanding, cause all we seem to give them is some balling and some dancing,” he rhymes. “And some talking about our cars and imaginary mansions, we should be indicted for bullshit we inciting, hand the children death and pretend its exciting.”
For Mike, the danger of Ronald Reagan extended beyond police brutality into one’s world view. The very ethos of what Mike considers Reagan America not only punished urban America but led rappers to internalize the era’s values. “And I feel that in that verse, I’m challenging rappers to get off the Republican shit. Like, rappers really be rapping some Republican-ass shit. ‘I got mine, I got mine, you got to get yours. You hate me because I …,'” Killer Mike noted recently. “No, I don’t hate you because you got rich. I hate you because you didn’t buy the bodega and give me a job.”
The Don of rap in the 2000s, Jay Z, has taken his own shots as in the Neptunes produced “Blue Magic” off of 2007 American Gangster. Like Lamar’s “Ronald Reagan Era”, Jay hypes another icon of 80s hip hop while also dropping 1987 (Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, NWA, Ice T all dropped albums that year) into listeners laps, “It’s ’87 state of mind that I’m in (mind that I’m in), In my prime, so for that time, I’m Rakim.” Everyone wants to “bring the ’80s back,” he flows, “That’s okay with me, that’s where they made me at.” Slinging drugs, spinning “pots”, the narrator carved out a space for himself amidst the burgeoning prison industrial state that Killer Mike highlighted and academics like Heather Thompson have documented. He’s even got correction officers, ones that “slipped, became prisoners, trees taped to visitors.” Jay Z’s narrator took the structure and flipped it to his own ends. “Can’t you tell that I came from the dope game? Blame Reagan for making me into a monster,” he tells the listener. Like Mike, Jay Z looks beyond his neighborhood and city, he sees a system that reaches into other nations, doing dirt on its own. “Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra, I ran contraband they sponsored, Before this rhymin’ stuff we was in concert.” Ironically, for a New York rapper, Jay Z identified one of the driving forces of gang violence in 1980s Los Angeles, displaced gang members from U.S. backed interventions into Central America settled in Southern California and brought their own brand of mayhem and chaos. In the eyes of some artists, the results cascaded over the nation. “Thank God for the books that were written that connected the CIA and Oliver North with basically a triangle trade of death where arms had to get to the Middle East, drugs had to come out of Central America and up into California to be disseminated throughout the nation,” Killer Mike told interviewers. “It destroyed my community.”
In the end, surfing pop culture’s musical waves for anti-Reagan pronouncements might seem like an obvious exercise “Hey guess what punks hated Reagan!” or “Did you know Killer Mike has an ax to grind with American history?” but in reality later musicians and rap artists have provided a more textured understanding of the era and a means into discussions of corporate influence, urban policies, law enforcement tactics, and the domestic effects of war. Considering the kind of hagiographic reverence that politicians and other figures seem to uphold regarding Reagan, one should thank groups like DBT and rappers like Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Killer Mike for giving us accessible new perspectives regarding the Reagan Era’s contradictions and perhaps its more damaging aspects.
Editor’s Note: Come back on Wed. for a follow up piece that looks at N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, and the complexity of Compton, CA.
 Robin D. G. Kelley, “’But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950, Journal of American History Vol. 86, No. 3 (1999) pg. 1046-1077
 Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, (New York: Picador, 2005), pg. 319
 Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War: The United States since the 1930s, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1995) pg. 392.
 Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
 Jennifer Light, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 2005).
 Michael Sherry, In the Shadow of War, pg. 393.
 “Armed and Dangerous,” Economist, March 22, 2014; “Cops or Soldiers”, Economist, March 22, 2014.