It should come as little surprise that conspiracy thinking circulates in rap music. This black musical form—comprising rapping MCs, record-spinning DJs, and studio producers—first emerged in America’s deteriorating urban centers in the late 1970s. From these subcultural beginnings, it has developed and diversified into a mass market form, while sustaining vital connections to black lived experience.
Reasons why rap music, which has deep roots in black oral culture, should include conspiracy motifs extend all the way back to the first coordinated conspiracy directed against black people in the United States: the slavery system of race-based labor exploitation.
In the contemporary era, white supremacism is of course less state-sanctioned, following gains made by blacks culminating in the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century. However, though often harder to identify, institutional discrimination and race-based prejudice are still widespread in contemporary America.
Many black and working-class Americans have lost ground economically over the past thirty years, casualties of rising inequality and free-market fundamentalism. These social conditions have given rise to new kinds of conspiracy stories and “urban legends” (Turner), which found rich and varied expression in rap music.
Rap’s conspiracy mode was often highly politicized. Black nationalist rap, peaking in the years around the turn of the 1990s, compellingly critiqued white power structures, often construed as a vast conspiracy. The highly influential group Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet (1990), the title playing with white fears about black power.
The title of the group’s follow-up album, Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black (1991), sensationally casts political struggle as a global race conflict. Other groups aestheticized their distrust of official knowledge and dominant structures in less pointedly political ways.
East Coast ghettocentric rapper Prodigy, from Mobb Deep, among many others, fashioned images about clandestine power elites: “Illuminati wants my mind, soul, and my body / Secret society, trying to keep an eye on me” (rapping on LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya Remix,” 1995).
In more pedagogic and religious terms, Poor Righteous Teachers released an album entitled New World Order (1995). These artists shift between fantastical, other-worldly visions and more socially driven expositions of frightening actual world order developments: technologized surveillance and exploding incarceration rates (Smith and Fiske).
For rapper Coolio, the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles became a “penitentiary culture” in the 1980s, its bounds traveling well beyond the many actual prisons located in “Fortress LA” (Davis).
Of the more psychologized and hallucinatory rap portrayals, Tupac Shakur, Geto Boys, and Wu-Tang Clan are notably inventive. Houston’s Geto Boys are best known for their 1991 hit “My Mind Is Playing Tricks on Me,” which, according to Source magazine, “took us on a terrifying trip through the mind of a gangster under the gun.”
Tapping into the masculinist paranoia of “ghetto survival,” such tracks were highly compelling, telling tales of insomnia, heavy alcohol consumption, suicidal thoughts, and paranoid delusions.
Wu-Tang Clan’s hallucinatory journeys, by contrast, were much more expansive and surreal. This nine-strong collective from Staten Island, New York, launched its esoteric, black-nationalist philosophy of “living mathematics” on its debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993).
Adopting a dizzying array of personas and monikers (leading rapper Method Man is aka Johnny Blaze, Iron Lung, Johnny Dangerous, etc.), Wu-Tang combines Five Percent philosophy (an off-shoot of the Nation of Islam religion) with manifold pop-cultural references taken from Mafia lore, ufology, children’s television, and above all martial arts.
The recipe produces paradoxically gritty but trippy albums and a full-blown but coded conspiracist mode. Notable examples include the age-old mysticism of GZA’s Liquid Swords (1995) and Method Man’s mentally claustrophobic and apocalyptically titled Tical 2000: Judgement Day (1998).
As rap flooded the mainstream in the mid-1990s, rap stars continued to mobilize apocalyptic, conspiracy-laced images to less political ends. Busta Rhymes, for instance, offers Armageddon-style prophesies on his best-selling albums, When Disaster Strikes (1997) and Extinction Level Event (1998)—usually amounting to high-decibel boasts about his own vocal prowess.
The style and themes of celebrated video director Hype Williams are also decidedly futuristic, including his award-winning clip for Tupac and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” (1996), which depicts a dystopian future-desert of campfires and rusty cyber-technology reminiscent of the Mad Max films.
Although politically conscious and alternative rappers continue to deploy conspiracy themes to express and explain the confounding experiences of America’s black youth, mainstream acts more routinely explore the grandiose, explosive, and marketable dimensions of power, conspiracy, and paranoia.