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Rhyme and Crime: The controversial role of criminality in music.

Why is the mainstream addicted to art sourced from society’s fringes?

In the late 1960s, California’s Gold Star Studios invited a young man to record his first album. A friend of founding Beach Boys member, Dennis Wilson, he had becomes inspired to record something himself. In 1970, Awareness Records released the album LIE to moderate success. Today, one of those copies currently sits at the foot of my bed in a vinyl box. Meanwhile, its composer, Charles Manson, is serving a life sentence for multiple homicide.

The criminal is one of the most intriguing characters in popular culture. A mysterious figure that acts at odds with accepted morals, they attract the attention of psychologists, sociologists and the general public as we attempt to pick apart what seems to be an incredibly unusual mind. Therefore, it is no surprise that many musicians have built their appeal and persona on criminality, whether exaggerated or not. Through intense and expressive lyrical content, musicians explore the dark recesses of criminal life in an accessible mode for their listeners, sometimes extending far beyond superficial appeal.

Themes of criminality run deep within the roots of blues music. Blues, with its beginnings in the late 19th century, took inspiration from the chain gang songs of yore, whose slow beat accompanied the rhythm of pick axes, shovels and sledgehammers. These songs would mostly express the sorrows of prisoners, many of whom were likely to die behind bars. Music was a mode of escapism and deep spiritual contemplation, taking the place of the expressive gospel songs they enjoyed back home.

Blues music bleeds violent hardship. Tales of drug fuelled violent sprees and street shootings depicted a harsh reality for the lower class Black American. Stagger Lee, an African American man convicted of shooting a white man, became a common folk hero in blues music. His ultra-violence and bravado symbolised uncompromising rebellion against white supremacy and became an archetype of the strong, street smart and sly black man, a persona that has carried over into mainstream music, particularly in hip hop.

After its beginnings in the early ‘70s, hip hop came to an interesting crossroads with the release of Ice-T’s Six in the Mornin’ in 1987. Previous pioneers had long used the genre to express their discontent with the treatment of African Americans in the U.S., but it was Ice-T who first delved into the true gritty reality of the black urbanite. Exploring issues of violence, drugs and police brutality, this iconic EP kickstarted gangsta rap, a subgenre whose practitioners include Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G, where criminality was front and centre. Modern day Stagger Lees, both Biggie and Tupac  were killed in drive-by shootings allegedly related to their gang affiliation.

What is key to remember about most of these songs is that they do not generally advocate the criminal lifestyle. While rappers like X-Raided fully embraced their criminality and brutality for their own brand of entertainment, more often the genre acted as a window into the realities of African American oppression in the United States, and gave individuals an art-form that was as accurate as it was empowering and rebellious.

However, for some artists, music is a medium for indulging their twisted views of morality and selling  their ideas, no matter how hateful.

The aforementioned album, LIE: The Love and Terror Cult, was an insight into the mind of Charles Manson and his twisted race war ideology. While it sold poorly upon its release, it is considered a decent album, even garnering positive reviews from Rolling Stone and Mojo. Putting aside the LSD-fuelled delusions and tragic history, LIE is almost a decent listen, remaining highly sought after on vinyl. But Manson’s serial killer status and legacy added a whole new dimension to his music and has inspired others to set their own hate-filled  message to music.

Arguably, the most prominent successor to Manson’s neo-Nazi music is the National Socialist Black Metal genre. Born out of the anti-establishment and predominantly anti-religious (but not necessarily racist) black metal scene, bands such as Burzum, Rommel and Sturmfuhrer created a new voice for the neo-Nazi. Burzum’s Varg Vikernes, the most notorious figure in the metal genre, was himself convicted of murder and arson of multiple Christian churches. Yet while he subscribes to his own form of white supremacist nationalism, Vikernes went on record saying he “hates no one”, a curious contradiction.  Just as with Manson, his villainous status drove the sales of his music, which he still records after his release.

There is something inherently fascinating about the outsider. A musician who has been convicted for truly vile deeds may deter some listeners, but for many others, they trigger a morbid curiosity. The listener becomes somewhat privy to the lifestyle and mental state of the criminal, whether it be a hard life of drugs and police brutality or a hate-filled anthem for ethnic cleansing. Crime songs, like love songs,  have become a long-standing tradition in music, and will undoubtedly continue to entice and fascinate us for years to come.