‘Gangsta Rap’: Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekend, BBC2

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I’ve just been watching a re-run of the Gangsta Rap episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekend. Louis is infamous for craftily highlighting the abnormality of his subjects – usually religious fundamentalists, sex cults or celebrity eccentrics – by acting so unassumingly “normal” himself (read: white, middle class) that they appear to tell their own story. Here he is out to spear a bigger fish, the way in which the rap industry sells social dysfunction to America’s black community.

What the show makes clear, first, is that gangsta rap is promoted by a legitimate industry – a constellation of associated cottage operations (marketing, lyrics, recording, radio, etc). These craft units steer emerging artists towards a market place that demands extreme masculinity, rebellion and violence. They recruit raw material based on a dream of “making it”, a dream which in this case – and this is what makes gangsta rap problematic – is associated with “keeping it real”: dabbling in illegitimate industries like drug dealing and pimping.

In this murky world exploitation seems to be the watch word, as every element symbiotically feeds off each other. Sometimes the exploitation is mutual and sometimes it is not. Aside from his fumblings as a budding, white boy rapper who rhymes “Fiat” with “biatch”, Louis’ main point is that there are black victims here, as the gangsta industry revels in the glamour of the outlaw. Thus there is the black rapper who decides that he needs to keep pimping in order to stay real and avoid the tag of “studio gangster”; his prostitute, who is herself lured with the offer of making an album; and even the college-educated New Orleans black kids who are making porn while playing at the rap game.

In the weirdness of Louisville, rap becomes a hall of mirrors in which rappers pose as gangsters and real drug dealers also pose as drug dealers. Beneath the romanticist affirmations (“keep it real… you gotta have heart”) that Louis encounters, everyone has a financial game plan and publicity agenda (including Theroux), and nobody is quite as they seem.

I am reminded of James Clifford who in Writing Culture described how anthropological explorers conceptually constructed the tribes they claimed simply to report. As a construction, Louis’s Weird Weekend is a white report from the ghetto – still understood as a bitter-sweet gangsta’s paradise. If the elements of tragedy are what keep us watching, what we forget is that gangsta is a variant on two much wider-spread ideologies of western life: the American dream and consumerism. While a select few like Master P make it, as Louis shows, the others can only live in poverty and in hope.