Saturday, October 25, 2003

My response to JILL LEOVY's piece about "bad" neighborhoods generated two responses over at LAOBSERVED.COM, the excellent LA media site run by KEVIN RODERICK. It's a daily stop for me and I alerted KEVIN that INTHEHAT had something to say about LEOVY'S SLATE.COM piece. He graciously linked my comments on his site and hence the responses over there. If you want to see the two comments in the original, go to LAOBSERVED.COM and scroll down to the mention of INTHEHAT.

The first comment by MEXREP agreed with my observations without reservation. Another reader named MR. RICEY agreed generally but had some observations of his own which I quote. "He [meaning me] overlooks the economic reality of many people, particularly kids, in those neighborhoods who don't have a fucking thing to eat in the house, crappy clothes, broken toys and their parents are AWOL in prison or on the street while a poor granny tries to do her best for 9 kids in a tiny house. It's all too common, too, and it certainly feeds the cycle of crime and despair."

While I like people to agree with me, I love when people force me to refine my observations and think harder. All of what MR. RICEY says is true. Children, who are the most vulnerable and heartbreaking of all victims, certainly are by definition poor. Or at least as poor as their families. Unfortunately, as MR. RICEY alludes to, these children are victiminized by the very people that brought them into the world and are supposed to be providing for them. My point was, that it's not this vague notion of "society" or the real notion of "poverty" that victimizes them. Society, at least the one in which I live, provides a level of plentitude and opportunity not found anywhere else in the world. Parents who want to do better for their children are not condemned to the sort of can't-get-out-of-it poverty found elsewhere in the world.

Kids in "bad" neighborhoods are victimized mostly and most profoundly by their parents (or lack thereof). In other countries it's the whole society that screws kids. Think of the AMERASIAN kids of VIET NAM, the FERAL BABY GANGS of the FAVELAS, the UNTOUCHABLE kids of INDIA or the kids living in TIJUANA shacks. In those cases, the kids are deeply scarred from a young age and there's not a single ray of hope in their lives because even if their parents "wanted" to be better providers and caretakers (which most in TIJUANA clearly do and vote with their feet), social mobility is non existent. The parents there are just as screwed as their kids. Hope is non existent and in a situation like, I'm surprised there hasn't been an armed revolution, let alone a youth gang problem.

Back to our own BARRIOS and HOODS. While our safety net with regard to kids is imperfect at best, the avenues of improvement for the parents are there and available to anyone. I won't go into the anecdotal success stories of immigrants making good. But they're abundant.

If you read the ART BLAJOS book, BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT or MY BLOODY LIFE: THE MAKING OF A LATIN KING by REYMUNDO SANCHEZ, you get the message that the events that scarred them happened at home, not on the street and not because they didn't have "things." The gang life was a result of lousy homes, not a cause. These books also illustrate that in each of their lives, SOCIETY did intervene to the very limits of legality and practicality. In BLAJOS and SANCHEZ' case, they were taken out of bad homes and put into foster homes. BLAJOS says that he got "armloads" of toys for CHRISTMAS from department stores and generous donors. And he and others from the YA were invited into upper class homes for Christmans dinners. And you know what? He stole stuff from those houses because as much as he wanted the toys, he wanted his parents to be doing this for him. Not strangers. He wanted loving parents. And there's no government program that makes those.

Almost every gangster I've ever interviewed has been through the foster home system. Foster homes, if we remember, were supposed to be the humane and smarter alternative to the state-run orphanages.

Generally speaking, every street gangster in trouble with the law is a graduate of that system as well as the youth correctional system, diversion programs, drug rehab programs and other programs up to and including YOGA, THEATER ARTS and TRANSCENDENTAL MEDITATION. Believe it or not, those programs are readily available right here in LA COUNTY for kids in trouble. And I'm all for anything that works. Unfortunately, very little works to ameliorate a situation casued by lousy parents.

My contention is that despite the best intentions and the most enlightened programs, there's no government program that will adequately substitute for a solid, stable, loving family.

The best we can do under the current system is take the kids away and provide them with something that at best isn't as much of a mind fuck as their family lives. There's more that can be done. But then we get into an area of individual freedom and giving government the kind of power over parental rights that's currently scaring the bejeezus out of people who look at the PATRIOT ACT as the demise of the US CONSTITUTION. How much power do we want to give the government when addressing the problem of lousy parents who are victimizing their children and will eventually turn them into tomorrow's predators?

So yeah, poverty in a very general sense, may conribute to criminal behavior to some degree. But my contention is that it's not the lack of money or NINTENDOS. For the most part, criminality is the result of the violence, neglect and abuse children experience at the hands of mom and/or dad long before they pick up a gun.

I'd like to hear more on this. Especially from young people who are on the front lines and facing this situation for real and not from the theorizing comfort of my centrally air conditioned house. Then again, they probably don't have a computer and web access.
In an earlier post about SURENO RAP, I asked the question why that genre wasn't getting the same regular coverage as BLACK GANGSTER RAP, especially from the ALT MEDIA who seem to have a charter to seek out the cutting edge and the new. I received an excellent answer from reader HENRY SHEEHAN who has written for alternatives for 25 years. I won't paraphrase because he makes a solid point that makes sense and does it better than I could. He states:

"Editors at these paper tend to be middle-aged and white themselves, and already wrapped up in one particular school of music or another. They're not affirmatively keeping SURENO coverage out of their papers, but their lifestyles and tastes make it very difficult for [them] to encounter it or a young Hispanic writer who is interested in it. In my personal experience, these papers never engage in any sort of outreach to members of minority communities and, though they'd probablly deny it, their staffs don't have terribly different perceptions of those communities than anyone else does."

This sounds like a thoroughly reasonable explanation. I asked for someone to answer the question for me and Mr. Sheehan did. Thank you.

I also got another response from a SURENO RAP fan who wondered where the hell I'd "been at" for not mentioning POCOS PERO LOCOS, the webcast that specializes in SURENO RAP and the fact that POWER 106 here in LA runs POCOS PERO LOCOS (a SURENO RAP show) on SUNDAY NIGHTS BETWEEN 8:00 and 10:00 PM. It's hosted by KHOOL AID and JOHNNY CUERVO (check out POCOSPEROLOCOS.COM). I should have mentioned that, and I plead guilty to not being more complete. But that sort of speaks to my point. With LA's humungous LATINO population and all those SURENOS out there, isn't it odd that there's only a single 2-hour radio show once a week on the dial? With the body of SURENO RAP work extant, a station could easily fill a four hour daily show and get nowhere near as repetitive as the eye-glazing boredom of classic rock stations.

You SURENOS out there, and I know you read this, let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

In a story that just ran on SLATE (here's the URL JILL LEOVY of the LA TIMES makes an interesting observation. Actually, she makes many interesting observations but I'll address only this one. I'll get to the others at another time. She talks about covering crime in SOUTH CENTRAL LA and about the neighborhoods she visits and drives through. And she says this:

"It's hard to convey the tranquility and normalcy of these neighborhoods -- the skateborading kids, the Pizza Huts, the garage sales -- while still presenting a truthful picture of their crime problems. I fact, what many people in Los Angeles think of as this city's 'bad neighborhoods' are in many way indistinguishable from those with milder reputations. They brim with aspiration and middle-class comfort, even as they distill every kind of despair."

I don't know how long LEOVY has been going into these neighborhoods or if she's made this observation before, but it reminded me of the drive with my two DANISH visitors, MADS and KLAUS. I'd been driving them through SOUTH CENTRAL and then we made our way to NORTHEAST, avoiding the freeways to give them a taste of what LA was like at the street level.

We stopped in the hills above GLASSELL PARK where we had a view of a hazy downtown. It was dusk and there was something of a purple sky and LA was trying to do it's best to remind the two DANES that it was the inspiration for BLADE RUNNER. Lights in the houses began winking on, and people were coming home and parking their RANGER pickups and MITSUBISHI MONTEROS and MADS finally asked "Is this the bad neighborhood now, Wally?"

I told him we'd been driving through "bad" neighborhoods all day. Both of them sort of gave me the fish eye like I was trying to pull something over on them. They were dubious. They mentioned things like the houses being in decent shape and the yards well kept and a lot of the cars on the street were new and there were BIG WHEELS in those yards, and some swing sets and PATIO CLASSIC barbecue grilles and all the rest of the stuff we take for granted, even in "bad" beighbohoods. But to a EURO these are not the indicators of poverty or despair. It's what they wish they had. MADS told me that he's 31 and makes a good living with the DANISH BROADCASTING COMPANY but he can't afford to buy a car. They have a 300% luxury tax on cars. So a $14,000 COROLLA in the US is something like $42,000 in DENMARK. When I indicated to him that in the US even a guy with a steady job at MACDONALD'S can probably get a good used car for under $10,000 he said something to the effect that it made him feel poor and underprivileged.

They were still giving me the dubious look so I took them over to the corner of YORK BOULEVARD and ALDAMA. And I indicated that in a five block radius, I could point out half a dozen murder locations and countless assaults and robberies. In a five minute drive I could show him over a dozen murder sites that I knew of. There were certainly more that I just never researched. I drove them past a house owned by a legendary MEXICAN MAFIA dynasty that was three generations deep. The house was midly neglected but hardly any different from the other houses on the street. And yeah, there we kids on bikes and grandmas on the porches and people socializing and there wasn't a stumble-bum wino or addled heroin addict in sight and there weren't feral dogs eating corpses or women selling their babies to buy food.

If what we have in these underprivileged neighborhoods is poverty, it's uniquely AMERICAN poverty. Poverty unrecognizable as such anywhere else in the world. This is not the hovel poverty of HAITI or the living in a shack made of cut up oil cans of MOGADISHU or even the packed tenements of NEW YORK at the turn of the century. This is the poverty of driving a car a few years older than you'd ideally like to have. Or the poverty of owning only one pair of NIKES as opposed to a pair for each day of the week or only having one or two games for the GAMEBOY instead of a whole drawer full.

In CODY SCOTT'S famous book MONSTER, he states that he grew up on a nice street with trees lining the sidewalks and clean, unbroken pavement and that his mother's flower garden was the envy of the neighborhood and that she always had the money to buy him nice clothes and the expensive cologne that he liked to wear to impress the females. As he admits, it really wasn't the lack of any material possessions that drove him to join a gang and kill. In a candid passage, he says that gang banging was exciting. It was a rush.

I remember once interviewing the family of a gang murder victim. They lived in a small but well maintained rental house. Their son was loosely affiliated with a gang and had been killed when he flashed a gang sign at rivals. The family had had some tough times. The father couldn't find work, the mom had never worked and the other kids were too small to work. But in the living room they had a monster of a big screen TV. And there was a new iMAC hooked up to a BROTHER printer and they had web access and cable. They owned two vehicles -- an 8-passenger van for family trips and a smaller sedan to commute to work. When the dad could get work, that is. In a roundabout way during the course of the interview, I steered them to a question about poverty and they believe themselves to be poor and lacking many advantages. And I'm convinced that they really do believe that they're poor. But they're poor only in relation to some ideal they see on TV. To most of the industrialized world they're doing okay. To most of the rest of the world, they're filthy rich and overprivileged.

Maybe it's that phenomenon of walking into a strange house and noticing the smell that the residents have long gotten used to. To MADS and KLAUS, even the worst of our hoods seem fairly benign and frankly far better than they had been led to believe. And maybe that's why it took them no time flat to realize this and it's taken LEOVY quite a bit longer.

As I've said before, poverty is not necessarily at the root of gang crime in LA and in the US. At least it's not the kind of soul-grinding poverty the rest of the world knows all too well.

Monday, October 20, 2003

We recently got an email from a female reader who wanted to know why the Hispanic gangster culture hasn’t produced the same kind of gangster rap as the BLACK gangs like the BLOODS and CRIPS. I answered her by saying, in a very nice way of course, that she was clearly out of the loop on this topic. The fact is, there’s a huge body of Hispanic gangster rap music. And it’s been around for a long time.

In case other readers were wondering the same thing, I can direct you over to SURENORAP.COM. I’m not sure who runs the site or whether they’re just distributors or producer/distributors but they have a long, long list of CDs available, all of them falling under the heading of gangster rap, specifically SURENO rap. We’re assuming that they don’t include rappers from the NORTHSIDE on their roster.

While a lot of SURENO RAP I’ve listened to over the years is pedestrian, predictable and barely worth listening to, there are a few artists who stand out by virtue of their creative lyrics and sound. If you want to get your feet wet in this genre, the artist who is probably most worthy of attention is KNIGHTOWL. What began for In The Hat as pure research into SURENO gangster rap evolved, thanks to KNIGHTOWL into a grudging admiration. The guy is talented and knows how to craft words and create sounds worth listening to -- even if you don’t like what he’s saying. Listening to KNIGHTOWL is an education in the gang life and a legit music experience.

Granted the guy is raw and in your face. Some tracks from his KNIGHTMARES CD should give you an idea of what he raps about. Here’s a sample of tracks: THIS BE SOME GANGSTA SHIT, I WANNA FUCK ME SOME HOES, IN LOVE WITH A GANGSTA and WE DO THIS FOR THE STREET. From the SHOT CALLER CD we have FOOLS YELL FOR MERCY, STILL BANGIN, BALDHEADED FELONS and I MURDER MUTHA FUCKAS. These tracks are not for the squeamish but it’s interesting music and in my unprofessional, non-music-critic opinion, this is as good if not better than most of the BLACK gangsta rap.

Another CD worth considering is a compilation called ENTER THE DARKROOM that blurbs itself as the tightest tracks from 1989 to 1995. There’s some solid tracks in there and some not so, but it gives the interested listener a sampling of styles. Other CDs that might be worth your while are LIL CUETE’s THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY OUT and ESTILO SURENO’S BLUE RAGGIN’ SURENOS.

What’s odd about SURENO RAP is the almost complete lack of airplay. At least compared to BLACK gangster rap. I’ve looked for SURENO RAP all over the dial in the LA radio market and I’ve never come across anything like these CDs. If anybody out there knows any different, I’d like to know about it.

As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a SURENO rap star that has broken out of the underground the way SNOOP and other black acts have. Even the so-called ALTERNATIVE papers like the LA WEEKLY has never done anything resembling a fair job of covering SURENO RAP. This probably has a lot to do with the lack of airplay and the fact that MTV has completely ignored this genre. Or it might have to do with a lack of guts. We’re fairly sure that even underground radio or the politically correct college radio stations may not want to deal with the fallout if they play tracks like I JUST WANNA FUCK ALYSSA MILANO (DUKE, THE BARRIO LOVE album) and TASTE FOR MURDER (DEE-ROLL, from the P.F.L. album). Is the "alternative" media being timid, or even spineless by ignoring this music? You be the judge.

Also, Sureno Rap has yet to produce the equivalent (at least in sales and market penetration) as DEATH ROW.

Frankly, the lack of airplay and exposure on media like MTV is baffling and I suspect it has to do with some subtle form of racism. I may be wrong and I’m willing to eat my words but somebody will have to show me why BLACK GANGSTA RAP has found wide acceptance (they teach TUPAC lyrics in college courses these day) and SURENO RAP is relegated to the underground.

As always, your comments and observations on this are welcome.