Ever since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five first dropped the chorus "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder/ how I keep from going under" in their 1982 classic The Message, social commentary has found an outlet in hip-hop. But once the genre became a corporate moneymaker, message-rap got buried under an avalanche of bling.
Message-rap may now be a rarity on the airwaves, but it's become a useful tool for intelligent artists -- be they gay, feminist or religious -- to disseminate their point of view.
Without the need to craft obscure, metaphorical song lyrics, the straightforward realness of rap lets them, in the words of Public Enemy, explain "what time it is."
Rap has long used homophobic slurs -- just check out Ice Cube's No Vaseline or anything from Eminem's oeuvre -- but many queer rappers are speaking out.
Brooklyn "homo-thug" Caushun, whose Web site is , is the most successful of the lot. His association with Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons's wife Kimora Lee, who was executive producer of his upcoming debut Proceed with Caushun, has provided an unprecedented amount of credibility and coverage.
But Caushun is not the first gay hip-hop artist -- that title likely goes to Andy Warhol-associate Man Parrish, creator of early electro hit Hip-Hop Be Bop (Don't Stop) -- and he won't be the last.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a bevy of acts such Rainbow Flava and Deep Dickollective. Others such as Houston's Miss Money, who the New York Times dubbed "the gay Missy Elliott," represent 'homiesexualz' from around the country.
Though not quite yet a movement, homo-hop is slowly developing its own network of record labels, Web sites, nightclubs and festivals.
"Yes, I'm a sissy and what does that mean to you?/ You're awful concerned about what I do/ for someone who don't wanna kiss me."
-- Straight Trippin' Deep Dickollective
The only group to suffer even more hip-hop slams than gays is women, as exemplified by Snoop Dogg's timeless chant "Bitches ain't s--t but hoes and tricks."
Despite the misogyny running through mainstream hip-hop, there is a feminist subgenre following the "Ladies First" proclamations of old-schoolers Salt'n'Pepa and Queen Latifah.
Their mainstream successor is Lauryn Hill, but more underground acts like Long Island trio Northern State -- which includes a former Hillary Clinton campaign worker -- rhyme about keeping choice legal and the joys of being "medium-size."
Combining spoken-word and hip-hop are Philly poet Ursula Rucker, who has dropped feminist tracts on three Roots albums and her solo debut Supa Sista, and Sarah Jones, who became an anticensorship icon last year when her song Your Revolution was deemed obscene.
After a two-year struggle, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission withdrew its objections, but they provided Jones with welcome publicity for her anti-misogyny manifesto.
"Your revolution will not be you smacking it up, flipping it / or rubbing it down./ Nor will it take you downtown, or humping around/ because that revolution will not happen between these thighs."
-- Your Revolution, Sarah Jones
Relating to rap's underdog aesthetic, aboriginal youth are now using it to tell their own stories.
Canada's native hip-hop scene ranges from Vancouver's Manik 1derful and his Tribal Wizdom collective to Winnipeg's War Party, multiple winners at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. Chief Rock, from southern Ontario's Six Nations reserve, is a solo artist who includes more traditional aboriginal culture than most. Tru Rez Crew don't focus exclusively on their people's plight but their new video I'm a Lucky One, funded by MuchMusic's VideoFact program, is a strictly positive slow jam.
Naturally, American Indians are all over the hip-hop scene as well, with Arizona's Tribal Live being one of the biggest draws alongside Litefoot, an award-winning Cherokee actor and rapper who runs his own record label, Red Vinyl. Litefoot's 1996 album Good Day To Die is considered a pinnacle of native rap.
"As I look into your eyes/ I realize that we're living out the Whiteman's lies/ There was no compromise just deceit."
-- Feelin' Reserved War Party
Mase may have joined the ministry and both MC Hammer and Run DMC's Run are now rap reverends, but holy hip-hop has never entered the mainstream.
The genre has taken on a harder-edge in recent years though thanks to the raps of Grammy-nominated Gospel Gangstaz (who actually are former L.A. gangbangers), GRITS and T-Bone.
Only one holy hip-hopper has any street cred, however, and that's Pigeon John, a near legendary L.A. lyricist who is a solo artist and member of underground groups L.A. Symphony and Brainwash Project.
The biggest name in Christian hip-hop at the moment is The Cross Movement, whose recent record Holy Culture debuted at #5 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart and became the fastest-selling Christian rap record ever.
However, they might have a challenger in gold-selling rapper Afroman ( Because I Got High) who recently replaced pot with God.
"True Christian people get the mad Big Ups!/ 'cause life can jerk you like some bad hiccups."
-- The Light, The Cross Movement
Black Muslim rap, while offering up a religious viewpoint, has stayed mainstream thanks to its nationalistic focus.
Public Enemy and Ice Cube filled their songs with Nation of Islam teachings and Louis Farrakhan even delivered the keynote address at the 2001 Hip-Hop Summit. But even more message-prone are rappers who follow the splinter group Five Percent Nation who believe, essentially, that the black man is God. Brand Nubian led the early-nineties charge and nowadays, Busta Rhymes and Wu-Tang Clan liberally sprinkle similar thoughts into their lyrical brew.
Sunni or Shiite rap is considerably less popular -- performed primarily at mosques and community centres -- since clubs are out of the question. But thanks to post-9/11 interest in Islam, there's been a bevy of coverage.
CNN and The Source have both featured Sons of Hagar, Arab-Muslim rappers with a hate-on for both Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and President Bush. Similarly upset is Soldiers of Allah, whose songs have been downloaded over 850,000 times.
Washington trio Native Deen is more positive, which is likely why they are being used by the U.S. State Dept. for their ad campaign Muslim Life In America.
"Farrakhan's a prophet and I think you ought to listen to/ what he can say to you, what you ought to do."
-- Bring The Noise, Public Enemy
"The revolution's gonna shine/ shine its light on Palestine/ I'ma kill Sharon, that devil's mine."
-- Revolution, Sons of Hagar
Special to The Globe and Mail