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Gangstalicious: How The Boondocks Demystified Hip-Hop

on May 27, 2014, 2:01pm

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Brian Josephs recalls how The Boondocks helped a young boy dispell some of the myths of hip-hop culture. 

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There are four things I remember most about seventh/eighth grade: indecipherable post-9/11 paranoia, general prepubescent angst, G-Unit, and Dipset.

The average 12-year-old in inner city Brooklyn loved to portray this guise of autonomy and rebelliousness to authorities, their peers, and perhaps even to himself or herself. Although we didn’t want to admit it, we wanted a superhero to look up to in order to capture the developing imagination and, in a way, liken ourselves to — this is natural for a child. Superman was too perfect; he couldn’t possibly know about the struggle at the corner bodega. Goku was great, but the ultra-violent, over-the-top battles on the planet Namek were a bit unrelatable. 

Besides, Queens was way closer than Namek. So 50 Cent was the Superman — or rather The Man — that we latched onto. He was a myth personified a street dude who was making a name for himself after famously getting shot nine times. Nine! Ten years later, with a matured worldview, you realize that’s not the greatest thing in the world to happen to a person. But when 50 Cent rose, the story made him untouchable. He was part of pop culture lore, yet he was still ours — the definitive voice of black masculinity. This included all of its negative, pigeonholing connotations. A 12-year-old didn’t have time to think about all of the cons, however. This man could rap.

50 cent

Junior high schoolers wear that image with a sense of pride, and they will gladly verbally and physically (read: beat the shit out of you after church) remind you that you’re not a gangsta. Therein lies a deeper vexation. Subscribe to this idea of blackness or risk being ostracized and being tagged with the dreaded cornball label. There was little affirmation for the middle ground, especially one that waved a finger to the tropes of G-Unit or Jay-Z and Dipset’s glide-over-all confidence.

You certainly wouldn’t think to find such a voice in the Daily News funnies either. But there it was. The lone hip-hop informed comic that was openly critical of everything surrounding it — The Boondocks. As topical as it was, it felt so removed from everything around it. I’m sure there were a small number of similar voices on television — or not, I don’t remember — during the earlier part of the decade. It just felt like the same ones were being regurgitated through BET, UPN (R.I.P., but not really), and MTV. The Boondocks was far apart from the comics surrounding it, too. There was a bald/balding chronically depressed kid (Peanuts), a woman in a sweater constantly worrying about her figure (Cathy), some dog (Marmaduke), and two African-American kids with a scowl hosting Most Embarrassing Black People Awards (guess).

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I didn’t always understand what The Boondocks was trying to criticize; Strom Thurmond was merely a bad guy as far as I was concerned. The political topics were always changing, but the comic strip’s sarcasm for pop culture and hip-hop was a constant. Yet, it was always compelling. The Boondocks never drank the Kool-Aid, but what gave the strip its credibility as opposed to the real-life, more “informed” adults is how it steered away from condescension; it was sympathetic to those who took the Kool-Aid in sips. The series was subversive in a way that made you open your eyes briefly and say, “Oh shit, that’s crazy,” rather than self-righteous shaming.

Part of The Boondocks’ magic was how it was bounded by one worldview that’s articulated/critiqued by several voices. The core voices — Huey, Riley, Michael Caesar (who’s sadly not in the animated series), and Granddad — interacted in a way that was discordant, but somehow complimented each other. Angularly drawn, Riley was the face of every wannabe gangsta 12- and 13-year-old. Normally, a child of that age subscribing to the street life mentality is worrisome, but the fears of a valueless youth are deconstructed here. Riley flosses with a new Blackberry with no one to contact and considers the 50 Cent and Game beef to be a much more pressing issue than the war in the Middle East. Because the only thing worse than hundreds of thousands dying in a war is if one of those casualties is a rapper. It’s presented as absurdly as it sounds.

Huey is the afro’d, informed antihero that a typical striving student wants to be but is too blissfully satisfied to do so. He was the voice of reason in a reasonless society that needed answers that his righteous self couldn’t answer. As smart as he was, he still had to report to his Granddad, who represented one of the many African-Americans who were confused by the world but happy with a roof over their head and wished for their kids to simply act right. Michael Caesar, perhaps the lone straight man (whom I’m sympathetic with because he’s from Brooklyn), is the least mercurial of the four but acts as the balancing force to Huey’s pessimism. It was he who came up with the idea for getting a boyfriend for Condoleeza Rice in hopes she won’t destroy the world. Call it hopelessly optimistic.

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Each of the characters had their own breakout potential, but they worked best when riffing off each other as they provided alternate perspectives of the black experience. Each were open to comedic fodder: Caesar for his yo momma jokes, Riley for being Riley Escobar, Granddad for watching UPN, and Huey for being a revolutionist with limitations, one of which is not having a car. The characters’ relationships with each other were part of this larger, built-in ecosystem much like the hip-hop culture. Gangsta rap was constantly in mainstream discussion, and while The Boondocks didn’t predict the concept of post-racial America, it did show an example of multiple voices living in relation to the central concepts, tropes, and trappings of a hip-hop society. Drake is emotionally frustrated; Kendrick Lamar is the aggressive street poet, and Chance the Rapper is an eccentric. Each artist is different in relation, yet they’ve all managed to become relevant in this crazy culture fixated around a central ethos.

Of course, what’s more important than the quartet’s interactions is the point, or the punchline. The Boondocks took on the state of the hip-hop culture at both an immature level (Granddad noted B2K, an old boy band, sounded like a Burger King meal — kind of true) and a wiser, satirical level. One strip featured Riley telling Huey that, in getting shot nine times, 50 raised the “thug bar” and got rich and famous. So Riley reasons that he must get shot, too, to get his gangsta image out there. He can’t because he lives in the crime-less neighborhood of Woodcrest, which still makes him a “disadvantaged youth.” How unfortunate. And ridiculous. When you put 50 Cent’s image in this light, it takes this power away from him for the readers — the hip-hop heads from all age groups. The Gangsta is more popular, but no more legit.

boondocks Gangstalicious: How The Boondocks Demystified Hip Hop

There are many examples of this sort of folly throughout the comic, but you can see one on “The Trial of R. Kelly”, the animated series’ second episode. Riley and other supporters are pretty much aware the eponymous singer has pissed on a teenage girl. That’s not a good enough reason to not celebrate him, though; she’s able to move out of the way, after all. A vexed Huey scolds the courtroom (and gets ignored) before musing that you can’t blame this one on “the white man”; the injustice of R. Kelly being innocent is the citizens’ fault. Maybe a less racial way to phrase his point is this: Cultural figures only have as much power as you let them.

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Brian Josephs writes for Consequence of Sound, as well as XXL, Myspace, Passion of the Weiss, and Complex. He tweets

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