A fiery song by a popular rapper lashes out at “quasi-homosexuals” who run the hip-hop industry — drawing jeers from reviewers. The song also appears to take a shot at a prominent music executive, citing his Israeli background — and evoking for some the tensions that occasionally have surfaced over the prominence of Jewish executives in the mostly black rap industry.
All this is par for the course in the world of hip-hop, where giant egos battle in the public eye and words — even very dirty words — are seldom minced.
But then things got strange: Copies of the album by the Brooklyn-based rapper Mos Def began to appear in record stores with the controversial song missing. In the absence of any public explanation from Mos Def or his label, some of the rapper’s fans offered up wild speculation on Internet blogs and discussion boards. A few, echoing the song’s lyrics, pointed an accusatory finger at Israelis in the rap industry.
The song, “The Rape Over,” was from Mos Def’s album “The New Danger,” which was released in October and debuted at number five on the Billboard charts. This week, Mos Def received a Grammy nomination for another song on this album.
The rapper’s record label, Geffen Records, and his publicist did not respond to requests for comment by press time. However, after an earlier version of this article appeared, Jim Merlis, head of publicity for Geffen Records, sent a statement to the Forward. He said that the album was initially shipped with “The Rape Over” on it, but that the company realized shortly before the album’s release date that a musical sample on the song by the band The Doors had not been cleared. He said that an alternate version of the album, minus “The Rape Over,” was printed, but that then days later the company was able to clear the sample. However, he added, “there was such demand for the New Danger album that we had to ship additional units to retail to cover the outstanding orders.” He said that 50,000 copies of the album without the song were shipped, out of 440,000 copies shipped domestically so far.
“The Rape Over was never removed from the album for any reason other than the clearance of the sample,” he said. “Geffen has no plans to ship any other version of the album.”
Mos Def, admired by his fans for what many consider his socially conscious lyrics, appears to suggest in the song that rappers are glamorizing ridiculous and violent behavior — goaded on by greed, drugs and their corporate bosses. He complains variously that the rap industry is run by “old white men,” “quasi-homosexuals,” and “corporate forces,” and that “Some tall Israeli is runnin’ this rap s—t.” Although the song does not name the “tall Israeli,” it is widely viewed as a shot at Warner Music Group executive Lyor Cohen. Cohen did not return a call placed at Warner Music Group seeking comment.
Mos Def’s fans had eagerly awaited “The New Danger,” the rapper’s first album in half a decade. In the interim, Mos Def, born Dante Smith, cultivated a successful career as an actor on television, film and stage, garnering an Emmy nomination for his role in the HBO film “Something the Lord Made.” A Muslim, Mos Def also has been a prominent pro-Palestinian voice within the hip-hop world.
While the record company now says that the song was missing from some copies of the album for mundane reasons related to sample clearance, the lack of a public explanation until now left the rumor mill swirling. The Palestinian administrator of the Mos Def fan Web site, www.mosdefinitely.com, hinted at dark motives. “The Shaitan [Arabic for “devil”] Israelis and the quasi-homosexuals in the industry are up in arms over Mos’s comments about them on The Rape Over,” the site administrator wrote. The remarks prompted a heated exchange on the site’s discussion boards about antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One commentator, on the blog “Every Morning I Wake Up on the Wrong Side of Capitalism,” defended the rapper from the criticisms of “left-wing Mos Def fans who are appalled by some references in ‘The Rape Over.’” The blogger suggested that the “quasi-homosexuals” line, while “certainly in poor taste,” should be understood in the context of Mos Def’s use of a “rape metaphor to explain the rap industry.” The blogger argued that the “tall Israeli” lyric is not “a broad statement that echoes Jewish conspiracy theories,” but rather a “reference to Lyor Cohen, former head of [the record company] Def Jam, who is indeed Israeli, and whose predominance in the rap industry has often been criticized.”
Daniel Treiman is a writer living in New York.