Like most everything else in pop culture, music is political, even when it’s not directly intended as such. That goes doubly so for rap and hip-hop music, genres that have been associated with both African-American culture and their specific concerns since the music’s inception. The genres have slowly succeeded in bringing mainstream attention to such concerns while broadening their popularity, but not without enduring their fair share of controversy from more conservative-minded listeners and radio stations.
Let’s look back at some of the popular hip-hop tracks once deemed so controversial they spurred censorship from one or more music outlets.
1. ‘Cop Killer’ by Body Count
Before he started playing a NYC detective on Law & Order: SVU, rapper Ice-T served as the frontman of the rap-metal outfit, Body Count, whose anti-law enforcement hit, “Cop Killer” provoked a controversy so prevalent it even earned the ire of then-President George H.W. Bush. Police departments boycotted the single while Al Gore’s censorship-prone wife, Tipper Gore compared the song’s message of violence to anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.
Ice-T responded to the outcry by removing the offending song from the group’s album and giving it away as a free single instead.
2. ‘F*ck tha Police’ by N.W.A.
Few bands embraced the fear-mongering media portrayal of hip-hop artists as malicious thugs in the 1980s as effectively as N.W.A. As with Body Count, they provoked the most anger by decrying police brutality in no uncertain terms. The FBI sent a letter of disapproval to the band’s management, while radio stations the world over banned airplay of the song, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The employees of the affiliated Triple J radio station responded by going on strike and playing N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” on repeat until the ban was lifted.
3. ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ by The Shamen
“Ebeneezer Goode” was a controversial 1992 hit in the U.K. that combined heavy dance club beats and hip-hop lyricism with an added hint of wordplay directly appealing to club-goers. “‘Eezer Goode,” the chorus repeats, a phrase that is strikingly similar in sound to “Es are good,” an apparent reference to the common club drug, Ecstasy, which the verses only seem to confirm.
The BBC initially banned the song due to its myriad of not-so-subtle drug references, though of course that didn’t stop it from enjoying a long and fruitful run on the pop charts.
4. ‘Born Free’ by M.I.A.
Two years after her song “Paper Planes” became a hit despite its oft-censored gunshot sound effects, English recording artist M.I.A. shot a music video for her 2010 single, “Born Free,” without the approval of her record label. The video depicted a systematic government-sponsored genocide of red-haired people.
Most critics praised the disturbing video while others denounced its graphic content, prompting its ban from YouTube in both the U.S. and the U.K.
5. All songs by Eminem
The more famous you are, the more likely you are to offend people. Eminem has always embraced this aspect of his public persona, using songs as a vehicle to taunt those who might be offended by his off-color lyrics, which commonly include themes of violence against women and homosexuals. All of his songs were banned by the U.K.’s University of Sheffield in 2001, sparking a vocal response from members of the student body who opposed such censorship.
6. ‘By the Time I Get to Arizona’ by Public Enemy
The music video for this B-side release from protest rap pioneers Public Enemy, depicted the band members killing Arizona’s then-governor Evan Mecham, who refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.
The video aired on MTV only once upon its 1991 release before it was banned from the airwaves. Depicting the assassination of a man who once said, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday” was apparently bad for business.
7. ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-a-Lot
Today, “Baby Got Back” is a novelty classic that just about everyone knows, but it initially spawned a storm of controversy for its lusty, sexually-explicit lyrics about ample posteriors. The music video was banned on MTV for its lyrical and visual content, and then only aired after 9 p.m., though by modern standards such a rule seems downright silly, if not entirely pointless.
8. ‘Red Nation’ by Game
The video for “Red Nation,” the 2011 single by Game featuring Lil Wayne, shows the pair standing beneath a downtown Los Angeles bridge surrounded by flickering road flares and billowing smoke. That striking visual setup was enough to get the video banned from airing on either BET or MTV, both of which claimed the video made the rappers appear too “gang-affiliated.”
Granted, Game has been tied to the Bloods in the past, but it still seems like an odd complaint to make in the realm of rap music.
9. ‘Ride’ by Ciara
The music video for Ciara’s hit, “Ride” foregoes the usual high production value in favor of a stripped-back setup that highlights the singer’s choreographed dance moves. Unfortunately, those dance moves were deemed too overtly sexualized by the BET, who didn’t air the video after suggesting edits and receiving no response. The video was also banned by most TV channels in the U.K.
10. All songs by Rage Against the Machine
The 2001 Clear Channel memorandum was a long list of songs that shouldn’t be played by radio stations for risk of traumatizing listeners in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. The document includes many questionable choices, including a blanket judgment of all the songs ever released by the politically-outspoken rap-metal group, Rage Against the Machine.
Of course, a ban that encompassed songs like John Lennon’s “Imagine” didn’t last forever, and I’d wager that Rage Against the Machine was flattered by such a negative corporate assessment of their songs.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
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