Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Conservatism, As Explained by Run DMC

In their hit 'It's Like That'. If there have been better ambassadors for conservatism in the hip hop world, I'm yet to find them.

Let's begin with Run's opening lines:
Unemployment at a record high
People coming, people going, people born to die
Don't ask me, because I don't know why
But it's like that, and that's the way it is
When faced with the many, varied problems of the planet, Run emphasises two strong conservative themes:

1. The insufficiency of human knowledge, and
2. The unchanging nature of the problems that humanity faces

Both of these are anathema to the world's central planners, who revel in the fact that their knowledge is supreme, and a glorious utopia is just around the corner if only we follow their wise prescriptions. If the communists had taken Reverend Run's message to heart, the 20th century might have looked quite different.

The chorus line, repeated many times throughout the song (It's like that, and that's the way it is) are an appeal to see the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Man's lot in life is always unsatisfactory, an observation squaring firmly with John Derbyshire's "Conservative Pessimism".

But rather than stay at this high level, Run DMC have a lot of sensible advice for how to overcome this predicament. They tend to involve personal virtue and hard work, two themes not typically emphasised in the hip hop world.

People in the world try to make ends meet
You try to ride car, train, bus, or feet
I said you got to work hard to want to compete
It's like that, and that's the way it is ...

Compare this with most rappers, whose only conception of how to make money is writing rap tunes or selling drugs. The point of 'car, train, bus or feet' is that these are the means to get oneself to a real job. Selling crack you can do anywhere.

Economic success is emphasised as a means to overcoming many of life's problems, but Run DMC are far from crass materialists:
Money is the key to end all your woes
Your ups and your downs, your highs and your lows
Won't you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?
It's like that, and that's the way it is
Bills fly higher every day
We receive much lower pay
I'd rather stay young, go out and play
It's like that, and that's the way it is
The first two lines here are clearly ironic, as money won't erase all the ups and downs of life. Run himself notes that "I'd rather stay young, go out and play", reinforcing that the rat race is not something that even participants relish very much. But that's not the point. Instead, the point is encapsulated in one of my favourite lines in hip hop:
Won't you tell me last time that love bought you clothes?

But by far the best bit of the whole song is where Run DMC discuss how different levels of life outcomes can be explained by earlier effort:
You can see a lot in this lifespan
Like a bum eating out of a garbage can
You notice one time he was your man
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is
The bum eating out of a garbage can is one of the staple images of left-wing sympathy. But Run DMC take this in a very different direction:
You should've gone to school, you could've learned a trade
But you laid in bed where the bums have laid
Now all the time you're crying that you're underpaid
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is
I love these lines so much. They make the whole song, in my opinion. It's easy to complain that you're not being paid a 'fair' amount. On the other hand, you can raise your wages by making the difficult and costly decision to invest in education. Did you do that? Oh no you didn't! And THAT'S why your wages are low.

When the message comes from pampered silver-spoon elites like me, it rings with a crass lack of sympathy. When it comes from someone who actually raised themselves up, it's much harder to ignore. The reason this message gets out so infrequently is that very few of the people who believe it are in a position to credibly preach it. Only Nixon could go to China, and only Run DMC can tell you that you're poor because you didn't work hard enough.

And while Run DMC are not blind to the many inevitable problems that people face (indeed, the song talks about many of them), they're firmly of the opinion that it's within each person's power to improve their lot:
One thing I know is that life is short
So listen up homeboy, give this a thought
The next time someone's teaching why don't you get taught?
Followed up with more good advice, throwing in the importance of a spiritual base:
Stop playing start praying, you won't be sad
When you feel you fail sometimes it hurts
For a meaning in life is why you search
Take the bus or the train, drive to school on the church
It's like that, and that's the way it is
But having taken such pains to emphasize the ways that people can help themselves, they end with a recognition of Matthew 7:1-2
Here's another point in life you should not miss
Do not be a fool who's prejudice
Because we're all written down on the same list
It's like that (what?) and that's the way it is.
Preach it, Reverend!

For those who think that I'm reading far too much into this analysis and that rap songs don't really have messages, I close with a link to a more modern rap song, Ludacris's song 'Move Bitch', with accompanying lyrics. I leave you to conduct the analysis of that song yourself.

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