“There’s a lot of black love in here right now,” the rapper Mos Def announces as he strides happily into Sony Studios on West 54th Street, where a throng of rappers, producers, D.J.’s, and hangers-on have assembled for the recording of “Hip-Hop for Respect,” an all-star single addressing the Amadou Diallo shooting and featuring everyone from members of the Wu-Tang Clan and Brand Nubian to old-schoolers like Doug E. Fresh and Kool G. Rap.
The atmosphere is love-filled, utopian even, which is particularly striking at a time when hip-hop’s current obsessions, thuggishness and playerism, leave little room for the slightest sense of community. “Hip-hop consciousness has taken a turn toward self-glorification,” says the legendary Fresh as he holds court among awestruck young rappers.
Other hip-hop vets agree with his assessment. “Over the past six or seven years, look at the kind of music we’ve been accepting,” De La Soul’s Maseo says angrily. “There has to be room for a righteous cause like this,” adds eighties street-rap legend Kool G. Rap.
While hip-hop’s younger generation isn’t as caustic, there is nonetheless a feeling among the participants that the project’s altruism (proceeds from the single, to be released this month by Rawkus Entertainment, will go to the Anthony Baez Foundation and other anti-police-brutality charities) is an anomaly in hip-hop’s champagne era, a throwback to the days of “conscious” rap that culminated in 1989 with the all-star protest single “Self-Destruction.” “It seems like people in the hip-hop community rarely make records for causes anymore,” says “Respect” producer Rico Wade. “We need to make room for music with a message.”
The session is characterized by an eyes-on-the-prize intensity. Mos Def leads a ragtag crew of underground rappers in the song’s “One Love”-inspired chorus; jazz flutist Najee lulls the studio into silence with his effortless improvisations to producer Wade’s beats; and there’s a surprise late arrival from Wu-Tang’s RZA, who announces, “I’m here because the same cops who shot Diallo shot my brother ODB.”
But a B-boy “We Are the World” it isn’t: “Respect” shows hip-hop at its most militant. Wu-Tang man Cappadonna gives a chilling first-person account of police brutality, promising that he’ll “never surrender to this beast.” And duo Channel Live rouses the gathering with a Funkadelic-inspired couplet: “Free your mind and your ass is sure to follow / look out for tips that is hollow.”