Saturday 17 March 2018

Is Conor McGregor really a bad role model for kids? He's just following the hip-hop playbook

There's nothing new about the Conor McGregor outrage. He's just following the hip-hop playbook and making the Benjamins

Hip-hop influence: Conor McGregor in a scene from the promotional film he made for Beats by Dre
Hip-hop influence: Conor McGregor in a scene from the promotional film he made for Beats by Dre
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

In a way, it all came together with the three-minute short film/ad that dropped just a few days before the McGregor/Mayweather fight. It was the result of a deal Conor McGregor signed earlier this year with Beats by Dre headphones. A bit of background: the Dre in Beats by Dre is Dr Dre, one time member of NWA, the godfather of gangsta rap, the man who practically invented West Coast hip-hop as we know it, the man who brought us Snoop Dogg and Eminem. Dre revolutionised hip-hop more than once and was probably most responsible for bringing it into the mainstream of white America, turning it into one of the biggest forces in the history of entertainment.

But the reason Dre is one of the richest men in hip-hop is not directly music. It's to do with headphones. In 2014, he and his partner, music industry legend Jimmy Iovine, sold their company, Beats Electronics, to Apple for $3bn.

Interestingly, Iovine thought the deal was in jeopardy, when, just before it was nearly signed, and Iovine had warned Dre to lay low until it was done, Dre posted a video on Facebook that weekend proclaiming himself hip-hop's first billionaire. He couldn't resist the bragging rights. You can take the rap star off the street, it seems, but you can never take the street out of the rap star. When McGregor announced his deal with Beats on social media, after the deal was done, he thanked Dre, Iovine and Bono. An interesting side note here is that Iovine has been a mentor, friend and confidant to Bono and U2 going way back.

Stay with me for a moment here.

The extraordinary evolution of Dr Dre from streetwise gangsta rapper and petty criminal to near-billionaire mogul is not unique in hip-hop. While Jay Z's Tidal streaming service is hardly an unqualified success, it is just one of the rapper's business initiatives to have made him a very wealthy man. And you may not have heard much from Sean "Puffy" Combs aka Diddy recently, but he is another of hip-hop's richest moguls. Indeed, most big-name rappers worth their salt are in the clothing, drinks or leisure business.

Part of hip-hop's obsession with the so-called 'Benjamins' probably stems from the fact that rappers are conscious that black musicians traditionally made a lot of money for white men and not much for themselves, and their determination to break that cycle. And part of it is possibly that lots of rappers started out as businessmen back on the street, so they were always enterprising dudes. The hip-hop culture helps, too. Making money is not only a legitimate aspiration in hip-hop culture, it is viewed as an art form. It is lauded and it is something to boast about. Money is a way of keeping score. And crucially, these guys pride themselves on not being in the show, they are the show, and they own the show.

This is how we can understand the McGregor playbook. McGregor claims he is the show, too. And it's hard to argue. Most non MMA fans would recognise McGregor and know something about him. If they could name or recognise any other MMA stars, it would probably be Aldo or Diaz or another McGregor opponent, and they would recognise them because they fought McGregor. There was even talk at one point that McGregor was going to split from UFC and set up his own sport. And it didn't seem that far fetched. Because for the mass audience, McGregor is the show.

The Beats by Dre video does beautifully something that hip-hop culture has always done, and that is to mythologise the streets. In this case, slightly disconcertingly, the streets of Dublin. St Teresa's Gardens is the backdrop as a young fighter called Liam gathers his crew and heads to the gym for a fight. This is inter-cut with McGregor, the grown up Liam, preparing for the ring - wearing his Beats headphones obviously. The soundtrack to the ad, some of which is sung by a kids' choir from Finglas, is by iconic rapper Notorious B.I.G., murdered in a drive-by shooting. Interesting aside: the murder of Biggie, too complex to get into here, was connected to the co-founder of Death Row records Suge Knight. The other co-founder of Death Row? Dr Dre. There are layers and layers to this.

The short film seems to have gone down slightly better than the recent ESPN article on McGregor that was said to almost comically portray Crumlin as a ghetto. In fact, apart from a few howlers, what the ESPN article did was portray the kind of gangland Dublin we read about all the time. It perhaps exaggerated McGregor's gangsta background, but the problem with the piece largely seemed to be that it depicted a Dublin that most middle-class people didn't recognise. But why would they? It's not the Dublin they live in.

What the Beats ad does, in a slightly nicer way, is to pull off that hip-hop trick of myth-making and romanticising the streets, of underscoring the positive values of loyalty to your childhood friends, never forgetting where you come from, and staying true to your neighbourhood. McGregor has co-opted all these tropes from hip-hop. Indeed, the marketing of last night's fight at time seemed to try and portray McGregor as more 'street', more hip-hop, than Mayweather - Mayweather's father was a hustler and his mother a drug addict and he grew up surrounded by violence.

One of McGregor's defences against recent accusations of racism - he told Mayweather to "Dance for me, boy" at one of the pre-match pressers - was that he couldn't be a racist because: "I've big respect for the culture. All I listen to is rap". UFC fighter Kevin Lee weighed in on this one, accusing McGregor of cultural appropriation, saying that, "he's trying to take from our culture, from hood culture, from hip-hop culture". And you can't deny that McGregor is using the hip-hop playbook. But lots of kids in Dublin would argue that they have a legitimate claim to hip-hop and street culture.

The bottom line is there is nothing new happening here. McGregor is working the game, hyping the show, like so many rap stars before him. And it has always upset middle-class people who found their kids attracted to the gangster aesthetic. And respectable people have always found the carry-on brash and tasteless and so vulgar. This conversation has been going on since Ice T's 1993 album Home Invasion, whose central conceit was how black artists were getting into the heads of white suburban kids and taking over their consciousness. Indeed, go back to the early 1990s and see what everyone from the liberal media to Frank Sinatra was saying about rap music and you'll find echoes of what people have been saying about McGregor recently.

The hip-hop playbook also involves feuds, trash-talking, unsavoury language, and will often, like the recent McGregor/Mayweather showdowns, tip over into using language that is racist and homophobic. The defence of hip-hop has always been that it accurately reflects life on the street, or that rappers are merely playing fictional characters and telling fictional stories in their raps, and novels and movies had violence and offensive themes long before rap.

With McGregor, you'd imagine that for the middle-class kids whose parents are so worried about his influence, their kids get it. They know it's a show. They enjoy the bling and the theatre and the show, and maybe even the fights, but it's not going to send them on some racist or homophobic or violent spree. Hard-core rap was always just a form of ghetto porn for comfortable white kids. It might have coarsened their way of speaking for a while, but it didn't see them end up in a crack house.

For working-class kids, you'd hope that McGregor offers a role model like the hip-hop billionaires do to black kids. You don't just have to be in the show, you can be the show, you can own the show.

And don't forget there is a crucial difference between McGregor as a role model and most rappers. While the rap street myth often involved drug dealing and pimping and crime, the McGregor street myth is about staying out of trouble, about finding a way to get off the streets through discipline, clean-living, being your own man, and shoving it in the face of an establishment that consistently underrates you and looks down its nose at you. And the Beats by Dre ad is about friendship and loyalty and always remembering where you came from. And that, surely, is not a bad message for the kids on the "mean streets" of Crumlin, or anywhere else.

Sunday Independent

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