The Magazine

Getting Out the Phat Vote

The Hip-Hop Summit and the Nu America.

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By MATT LABASH
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CONSIDER THE POOR, maltreated vote. During simpler times, it was merely cast, then counted. But these days, that's no longer good enough. A profusion of voter-registration organizations now scold us in their 501(c)3, purportedly nonpartisan way that we need to "Rock the Vote," "Dunk the Vote," or even, in the case of pro wrestling fans, "Smackdown the Vote." It is enough to make you pine for the healing balm of apathy. And it is no doubt only a matter of time before someone Garrotes or Defenestrates or Disembowels the Vote.

But of all of these, the most curious are those who insist on Rapping the Vote. For politics and hip-hop go together like chocolate and anchovies, or like Dennis Kucinich and Tupac Shakur, the former of whom has cited the latter as being his favorite rap artist. Even though he couldn't name any of his songs, Kucinich claimed he admired the late Mr. Shakur's thug-life ethos, saying he had "an elegant dissatisfaction with the situation."

"It's corny," says Darius Mitchell, and Darius should know. He is a towering black man and hip-hop head who edits an online newsletter,, which sub-specializes in policing the intersection between political and hip-hop cultures. Mercifully, it's not a very busy intersection. Until now, the second day of the Democratic Convention, or rather the day of the Hip-Hop Summit, which for Darius is sort of like Christmas and Mardi Gras and Oscar night all rolled into one.

At the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College, I make his acquaintance in a backstage bullpen, where we are waiting to secure interviews with the talent. Though I like to keep up with what the kids are listening to, I can only recognize a small percentage of the photos on the program. So I turn to Darius for guidance.

Remy Martin is on the list. I joke to Darius that I know him, he makes a fine cognac. "She," he corrects. "That guy is Lloyd Banks," he says, "his single right now is on fire." "It's pretty, hot, huh?" I counter, trying to speak the language. "No, no," he says with a pitying glance, "That's the name of the single--'On Fire.'" "Oh," I say, feeling as though my press pass should read "Whitey W. Whitebread."

"There's Jadakiss," he says, pointing out the rapper who recently suggested in rhyme that George W. Bush felled the World Trade Center. "What about this Benzino fella?" I ask Darius. A look of concern crosses his face. "I hope he's not here," he says, "because him and Jadakiss don't get along. Benzino's crew got stabbed-up a while back." That would be bad, I agree, though I'm secretly pleased, since the Democratic convention has been on the dull side, and it is highly improbable that anyone's crew will get stabbed-up at the National Conference of Democratic Mayors luncheon.

Founded in 2001 by Russell Simmons and former NAACP director Benjamin Chavis, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, if you want to get as wordy about their mission as their promotional literature does, "is dedicated to harnessing the cultural relevance of hip-hop music to serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the well-being of at-risk youth throughout the United States." Which is to say, they set up conferences across the country where rappers get to pop off about politics, all in the hopes of turning out 2 million additional young voters in this election, under the prom theme, "Taking Back Responsibility."

Reporters are herded into a hallway where we fall on the musicians. I make a beeline for Babs, a diminutive female rapper with a straight-razor delivery. Babs was most recently a star of the MTV reality show Making the Band, in which impresario Sean "Puffy" Combs put together a murderer's row of unknown rappers in the hope of making them into a super-group called "Da Band." When they proved stubbornly whiny, incessantly fought with each other, and failed to show up for gigs, Puffy, in keeping with today's theme, had to take responsibility back, putting the kibosh on the whole project.

I ask Babs if Puffy's had any second thoughts. "Da Band is a wrap," she says with finality. Still, even without job security, she felt she had to be here since "it's a big thing--it's more for the kids." I don't take Babs for a current-events buff, but she has seen Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. "Woowwwww!!!" is her reaction to it. I ask her what she holds Bush responsible for. "Everything," she replies, "The war, the World Trade Center, just everything." Was he complicit in the Twin Towers going down? "I think he had a part in it," she says. "There was a lot of people that was involved, but he knew it was going to happen."