Music has received, let’s say, a bum rap when it comes to accusations - particularly from the media - that the more extreme genres cause and promote criminal activity.
It’s no surprise that the correlation between crime and music has been squarely focused on rap and hip-hop, as Zach Goldbaum investigates in SBS Viceland’s Noisey. Metal and rock have also been in the firing line. But the reality isn’t so black and white.
One of the most popular genres in the world is characterised by stories of crimes committed by gangbangers.
If you believe right-wing pundits it’s the music that’s a key cause of crime, others argue that as rap’s popularity increases, crime in the USA decreases.
So does music create crime or does crime create music?
It’s a grey area when the two are so inextricably linked in a never-ending cycle. Hip hop and rap artists may write about what they know - crime born out of entrenched social issues, disadvantaged neighborhoods, police brutality etc.
“Gangsta rap forced America to confront the issues in its ghettos, and its realities were shocking when presented so explicitly on a recording that white suburban teenagers coveted,” said Chicago Tribune music critic and writer Greg Kot of N.W.A’s seminal 1998 album ‘Straight Outta Compton’.
There’s no denying some artists have been involved with gang culture with the bullet wounds to prove it, but there’s also as much bluster and swagger in the lyrics as an air hanger of bling.
Zach Goldbaum, host of SBS Viceland’s Noisey, visits the forefather of American hip hop, the dancehall movement in Jamaica and finds that the genre, for disadvantaged communities particularly, is more a cohesive force than a divisive one.
The popularity of dancehall music with its provocative lyrics is born in part from generations raised in a gangster culture. Leading artists are looked up to and the proceeds of dancehall music are an economic staple for poor neighbourhoods.
Dancehall artist Ding Dong tells Goldbaum that the genre is sold as dangerous because that makes for controversy. But he says that’s not the reality with the dancehall music a connective tissue in Jamaican society.
But more than just ‘Persona Rap’ and the swagger that goes with it, crime has nonetheless seeped out of dancehall in a startling way with several high profile cases blighting the genre, no more so than that of Vybz Kartel, real name Adidja Palmer. Kartel was jailed for life for ring-leading the 2011 murder of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams over gun theft. A text message presented in court described in gory detail how the group chopped up Williams “fine fine.”
Metal is, by a volume notch or two, arguably the next likeliest musical scapegoat for crime. Many bands over the years from Slipknot to Judas Priest have been accused of directly influencing tragic crimes because of perpetrators’ fandom of their music.
The finger was famously pointed at Marilyn Manson for influencing teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who carried out the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. They were mistakenly reported as wearing Manson makeup and t-shirts. The furor that followed became a prominent example of how a media-created cyclone can demonise music as the cause of crime.
The genre’s violent lyrics are jarring but some artists argue that lyrics, often misinterpreted, aren’t responsible for crime - it really is just the mental instability and violence of the people who commit them.
But just like the broad umbrella of urban music, the incontrovertible fact is that metal has been known to incite criminal activity. The Norwegian black metal scene has long, and notoriously, been linked to crime. NME reports that between 1992-1996, there were over 50 incidences of anti-Christian arson in Norway said to be spurred on by anti-Christian lyrics. Some of the convicted were black metal band members.
Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic argues that “it’s understood that rock is an art form for fantasy and exaggeration, a distinction that isn’t always afforded rap, long a scapegoat for those looking to blame social problems on the cultural output of people trying to survive those very problems.”
He’s got a point. Do we revere any less the music of Johnny Cash in light of his drug-fuelled scrapes with the law? Or Jimmy Page’s, knowing he had an affair with an 14-year-old girl?
But rock music - and pop for that matter - hasn’t escaped blame for crime. Charles Manson believed The Beatles were prophets sending him messages via their lyrics.
AC/DC fan and 1980’s serial killer Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez testified that the band’s 1979 song ‘Night Prowler’ gave him the idea to sneak into his victims’ houses and kill them.
AC/DC defended the song saying it was about a boy sneaking into his girlfriend’s house while her parents slept but as VH1 rightly points out, the lyrics didn’t help their case. But then, the song ends with Bon Scott quoting Robin Williams’ Mork & Mindy catchphrase “Shazbot! Nanu-nanu!”, so how seriously can you take it?
“Cause no one’s gonna warn you/
and no one’s gonna yell, ‘Attack!’/
Cause you won’t feel the steel/
till it’s hanging out your back.”
The link between music and crime is one riddled with so many contradictions that it can never be discounted. It’s safe to say though, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.
Noisey airs every Tuesday night at 9:30pm. Catch up with previous episodes on SBS On Demand: