Hosts of NPR's "Louder Than A Riot": Rodney Carmichael (L) and Sidney Madden (R)
Photo: NPR's Christian Cody and Joshua Kissi
Rhyme & Punishment: How NPR's "Louder Than A Riot" Podcast Traces The Interconnected Rise Of Hip-Hop And Mass Incarceration
Here's a big theory: The dramatic surge in mass incarceration in the U.S. is intertwined with the explosive rise of hip-hop music and culture.
Here's an even bigger theory, this one falling closer to the conspiracy sorts: Record labels, which allegedly have investments in the private prison system, purposely market criminal behavior via rap music to increase the prison population and, in turn, boost their profits.
The latter conspiracy theory has been circulating around hip-hop circles and the wider music industry for nearly a decade. In 2012, at the height of the hip-hop blog era, someone wrote an anonymous letter describing a "secret meeting" in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry discussed the aforementioned symbiotic relationship. The letter exploded on the internet, sparking heated debates around the validity of the note itself as well as the underlying trigger warnings contained within it.
Whether the letter is real or not and whether that "secret meeting" ever happened, the conspiracy theory revealed a lot about the fear and paranoia surrounding the many ways the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black Americans and people of color, NPR Music staff writer Rodney Carmichael explains in the debut episode of "Louder Than A Riot."
"There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered," Carmichael tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. "Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I'd really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things … But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well]."
Launched this week (Oct. 8), "Louder Than A Riot," the first narrative podcast series from NPR Music, explores the wide-spanning issue of mass incarceration through the lens of hip-hop music and culture, as told by the artists, journalists, legal experts, activists and music industry executives who've experienced the hyperincarceration phenomenon and were directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
Each week, the limited-series podcast will dissect a different aspect of the criminal justice system—the probation and parole system in the U.S., the growing power of prosecutors and plea deals, the practice of RICO laws on street gangs—and its wider, often detrimental, effects on Black America and other communities of color.
"Louder Than A Riot" continues a long-running conversation that the hip-hop community at large has been chronicling for decades, from the reality rap and social commentary within Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 hood anthem "The Message" to The Source magazine's "Hip-Hop Behind Bars" 2004 cover story to Kendrick Lamar's eye-opening performance at the 2016 GRAMMYs.
"We just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years," Carmichael says. "This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years … To me, the answer to the question, 'What's louder than a riot?' It's actually hip-hop."
"Louder Than A Riot" co-host Sidney Madden, a reporter and editor for NPR Music, hopes the show will lead to real-life change.
"Our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be ... one of those things that's put into the world that wakes people up to things that they've had the luxury to be asleep on," she tells GRAMMY.com. "My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it's going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society."
GRAMMY.com spoke to "Louder Than A Riot" co-hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden about the show's expansive look into the sociopolitical issues within hip-hop culture, rap's long-running and contentious relationship with the criminal justice system and the artists and rappers continuing the conversation today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
"Louder Than A Riot" examines a very big idea: the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. That's a heavy theory that is perhaps not obvious to many everyday music listeners and hip-hop heads. Can you tell me about how you got to this theory in the first place?
Rodney Carmichael: Well, I think it's important first to recognize the fact that this is not the first time that this intersection has been explored. [The] Source magazine did a few classic annual issues back in the early 2000s ... Hip-Hop Behind Bars [in 2004] .. where they really explored what felt like was becoming a really big deal. Obviously, the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black America and other communities of color [like] Brown America. With hip-hop coming from those communities, it's just a reflection of that inequality. It's always been in the music. It's always been something that the culture, I think, has recognized in terms of the injustice built into the systems and the systemic inequality.
I don't necessarily think the connection is new. I think there hasn't been enough conversation about how, in some ways, there feels like there's this interrelated thing going on between the two of them at times. That was part of it ... kind of recognizing that this has always been something that's talked about. I think mass incarceration—we're not the first to say it—is really one of the biggest, most pressing civil rights issues of our time. It's gotten to a point now where it's a bipartisan issue: criminal justice reform.
People on the right and the left, sometimes for different reasons, have coalesced around this issue and [are] realizing that a lot of the really tough-on-crime policies that were prevalent during the Drug War era and afterwards, through the '80s and '90s, got us to this point where we incarcerate more people [at] a higher percentage of our population than any other nation on the planet. It's a problem, and it's been impacting us the most, and hip-hop has been talking about it the most. So why not explore those two?
Sydney Madden: It's funny because now it's considered a bipartisan issue to be against mass incarceration without trying to take any responsibility as to how we got here. So many policies that were enacted in the '80s and '90s are really showing that boom in population, and the chickens are coming home to roost. But the whole time, way before there was any sociological study or political pundit trying to advocate for these things, hip-hop was pushing back. You can see it through the lineage of the lyrics. You see it through a lot of artists who talked about it, whether it'd be in interviews or artists that went through cases themselves, whether it be 2Pac or Shyne or Beanie Sigel, Lil Wayne, Lil' Kim, Gucci [Mane]. I mean, even now like JT from the City Girls, Bobby Shmurda, Tay-K.
It's so funny because I can rattle off all these names. They seem like different cases, but none of these cases happen in a vacuum. The topic does seem a little bit sprawling when you first hear about it, but that's the thing about the podcast that we're going to take you through. We're going to take you through the timeline of how these numbers in America and for the population surpassed a million and ballooned to even 2 million [prisoners] now and 4.5 million people living on parole. And then, how at the same time, hip-hop became the most dominant, most consumed, most commercialized and profitable genre while it was still pushing back at all of these things at its core. [The podcast is] really about the parallel rise between two American phenomenons, and then how they connect with each other.
We take you through that timeline in the show, and then we break down real-world cases for you throughout history to give you a real proof of concept the whole way through. So it does seem a little bit overwhelming, but then every subsequent episode of the podcast is going to become more and more clear that the [criminology] in hip-hop is really a microcosm of the criminalization of Black America as a whole.
Let's jump off that. The podcast traces a few key moments in American history that contributed to the rise in the prison population and also coincided with the rise of hip-hop. For example, the first episode dives into the War on Drugs during the Reagan era, which, as you report, affected incarceration rates. How far back and how current does the podcast travel? What are some other key moments or developments that the podcast examines?
Madden: The podcast really does start with a lot of the roots of sociopolitical critique that hip-hop has always been about. We start with "The Message" [from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] in '82 and Reagan's re-imagining of the War on Drugs. Then we go through the '90s. And then, when we start to deep-dive into cases is really at the turn of the century. Every case that we explore has a specific theme, but it also gives you the specific time marker of where hip-hop is at in the marketplace and where it's shifting and growing into its own ...
And then, we take you through a lot of cases every decade. We get really contemporary with it at the end. The final episodes, which are going to be airing after this [2020 presidential] election is over, it's going to be very contemporary in [terms of] talking about the fight for reforms right now and the fight for abolition right now. We try to do a lot of time traveling with you, but not too much that you get whiplash.
So it's not going to feel like a college course.
Madden: It is not. It's not "Hip-Hop 101." It's not "Crime and Punishment in America." It's history and context and contemporary cultural takes all in one. That's the secret sauce of it all.
Carmichael: We try to cover 30-40 years in [the first] episode. It's probably our least narrative episode, but almost all the other episodes are going to be narrative. We're going to be telling stories about a specific person who has been impacted by this interconnected rise, and who's been caught in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system. It's not going to feel academic at all. These are stories. We know that hip-hop loves stories. It's a genre full of storytellers. So we're trying to connect these big, broad issues and communicate them in a way that the culture eats.
Madden: Absolutely. Rooted in culture. Rooted in reality. Pretty much all the cases that we dive into, we have artists at the center of it; we have interviews with them. We have interviews with all the connected players, from people on the industry side, the people in their management camp, their marketing people, their friends growing up. A lot of rappers' parents make appearances in this show as well as people on the law enforcement side. So you can get a full picture of not retrying an artist for a specific case, but really the larger sociopolitical umbrella that all of these things happen under.
The podcast opens with a story about an anonymously written letter that describes an imagined scene in a supposed "secret meeting" in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry meet to discuss how the marketing of rap music could promote criminal behavior and in turn increase the prison population, which would ultimately boost profits for the prison system and its record label investors. There's a whole conspiracy theory about this. When was the first time you heard about this conspiracy theory? And where does each of you stand in regard to the validity of this "secret meeting"?
Carmichael: I think I heard about it pretty much at the time that this anonymously written letter first hit the internet, which was 2012 … There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered. It was a really interesting debate that I think, in a lot of ways, captured a lot of the angst that certain generations of the culture were going through at the time. Hip-hop was evolving, and everybody didn't necessarily like the way it had changed from the golden era to where we were at that point.
Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I'd really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things. But this is also an age that we're currently in where there's a lot of weight put into and onto conspiracy theories … Us being journalists, we wanted to make sure that we treated this conspiracy theory in the most journalistically sound way; I think we ultimately do. But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well].
Madden: I'll definitely echo what Rodney is saying. I want listeners to hear what our take is and the culture's take is in the episode. But in terms of actually learning about the letter itself ... I didn't learn about it immediately ...I want to say I found out about it a year or two after, but it's because somebody was having a debate about it …
It was a bit mind-blowing, but also like, "Hmmm, I could see that. That's right on the money." … This is the time of Kendrick [Lamar's] Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city. This is the time of [Meek Mill's] Dreams and Nightmares or Big K.R.I.T.'s Live From the Underground. There were so many things already happening in the music and the lyrics that legitimized this connection.
Rodney, at the end of the debut episode, you borrow a part of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote in which you say, "If a riot 'is the language of the unheard' … then rap is the definitive soundtrack." What's the significance of the show's title, "Louder Than a Riot"?
Carmichael: We wanted to pick a name that spoke to this wake-up call that 2020 has become. But also, it really connected with [how], just historically, the fact that hip-hop has always been a voice for the voiceless. That quote just came to mind because it's interesting to see now how protests and things of this nature, which have always been politicized, but in this current age are continuing to be politicized in a way ...
I think the key is that as America seems, in a lot of ways, to have awakened to a lot of the inequality that was exposed this summer in terms of the George Floyd protests and the Breonna [Taylor] protests, we just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years. This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years. True, it makes a lot of money now, and it's evolved in terms of how much it's been accepted within mainstream America. But in terms of this politicization, it's always been something that has been disregarded and dismissed by those in power. To me, the answer to the question, "What's louder than a riot?" It's actually hip-hop.
Speaking of which, "Louder Than a Riot" drops during a very critical time in American politics and culture. You have nationwide protests advocating for racial justice and denouncing police brutality. You have the major label complex and the wider music industry reanalyzing its exploitative history and relationship with Black music and Black creators, specifically. What is the significance of "Louder Than a Riot" dropping amidst all of this turmoil and ongoing demands for change? What sort of impact do you think the podcast can make amidst or contribute to this wider cultural conversation?
Madden: We've thought about this a lot. I think one thing that people might not know right off the bat listening [to the podcast] is that this has been something that we've been developing as music journalists ... it's been years leading up to this. But in earnest, we've been developing and reporting and researching this topic for the last two years. The fact that the drop of this show was colliding with this moment in history, it just reinforces our thesis so much more, and it gives me a renewed sense of guidance and purpose ... A lot of what America is waking up to right now and is being forced to face and grapple with right now, hip-hop's been telling y'all.
There are so many moments, whether it's a rally cry, a protest chant or policy change—you're going to hear the seeds of that in hip-hop the farther back you go. That's what we're doing with people. We're showing you where the seeds of this whole movement came from, contextualizing it in a way that is urgent but also digestible and malleable.
I often think about who we're making this podcast for, and so much of it is people who've been in tune with it, but also people who just had the luxury to enjoy hip-hop without ever feeling challenged by it. And it's like, no—hip-hop is challenging all the things that are not great in America for Black people. Hip-hop is rebelling against that, and hip-hop is showing resilience against that …
In terms of impact, I would say everyone has a different metric of success. But I would say, our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be ... one of those things that's put into the world that wakes people up to things that they've had the luxury to be asleep on ... My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it's going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society.
Ultimately, what does the podcast set out to do or what are the questions the podcast aims to answer?
Carmichael: If you're a hip-hop fan or especially if you come from the community that hip-hop originated in, we already understand that mass incarceration and the criminal justice system hit us harder than any other community in this country. That's one thing to just have that general knowledge or that general understanding. But to really get into the weeds of the system and understand how it works and how it goes about disproportionately impacting us is another thing.
With each story that we're telling, we get to focus on or highlight a different aspect of the criminal justice system that an artist is being impacted by, whether it's the probation and parole system in this country, whether it's the power of prosecutors and plea deals and getting into the nitty-gritty of why some 90-plus percent of criminal cases end in plea deals and don't go to trial and how that impacts the turnout of these cases, the sentencing, et cetera, et cetera …
Each spot along the way, it's just a really revealing, eye-opening thing to really be able to allow people to have a better understanding of how the criminal justice system works, and usually not in our favor.
Who are some rappers and artists continuing this conversation and analyzing these issues in their music?
Madden: For me, I've been a Kendrick fan since day one ... He was like a prophet in some ways. And it's so great because he's getting inspired while he's alive because he's one of the best [artists] we got. Killer Mike is another one who's always been on time with it, whether he was speaking in an interview or dropping so much knowledge in a single verse that it kind of makes your head spin.
From the younger generation, I think a lot of people don't give Vince Staples enough credit because maybe he's a bit snarky, but he gives you so much focus riddled with commentary, and he breaks it down for you in a way that never adds that, "I'm going to explain what I already said," type of thing. Noname out of Chicago. She's 'bout it, 'bout it a hundred percent in her lyrics and also in her intent and in her activation. Her starting the Noname Book Club as a force for learning … I think those type of actions and those types of motives are what's going to push us forward and propel this conversation way beyond the series' 10 episodes. Some of the people I named just now for you are actually featured in the series.
Carmichael: I just want to say: All rap is political to me. It's interesting. You hear a lot of conversation today about the fact that hip-hop is not as political as it used to be. "Where are the Public Enemys?" and whatnot. But I'm from Atlanta, and trap, which really originated here, is one of the most political art forms that I think has emerged out of hip-hop and out of Black America. Hip-hop, I think, nowadays and rap in general and trap, to be more specific—its political point of view is more about giving you a version of reality that we as a country often are not willing to look at or not willing to deal with. It's very much a political point of view.
When we think of a lot of the marginalization that is happening in this country—[for example], Atlanta, for many years running, has been the income inequality capital; the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider here than anywhere else. That's reflected in music that is giving a voice that wouldn't otherwise have a voice. The irony is that Atlanta is also considered the Black Mecca, and it's considered to be a place where Black folks, especially, have more and better opportunity to succeed and achieve than anywhere else in the country.
And the truth is that both of those things are true. A lot of Black folk do not fit into that narrative here. A lot of Black folk have been historically overlooked here if they aren't in the middle class. What could be more political than them being able to have a platform to express their woes, their frustrations, their hopes, their dreams, and all of that? I think just because it doesn't meet the moral code that America professes to go by, it doesn't mean anything, especially if they've been left out of the moral concerns of America.