In Hip Hop, Everybody Gets a Shot at the Remix

Jan 4, 2016

On Christmas Day, television viewers of the basketball game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors saw the debut of a commercial for a virtual reality headset. The ad featured LeBron James, of of the Cavs, lip-syncing the song 'Welcome to the Terrordome,' by rap pioneers Public Enemy.

The commercial, like the song, avoids any explicit definition of what, exactly, a 'Terrordome' might be; the visual world of the commercial is filled with workers, primarily--unloading trucks, working in a kitchen, exercising in a gym. The song's milieu is even more implicit, but easier to intuit because of Public Enemy's overt political positioning; the lyrics are built around black nationalism and then-current political conflicts. We can infer that the Terrordome is an arena, recalling the hippodrome of ancient Rome, or Mad Max's Thunderdome.

So, what does all of this have to do with selling Samsung virtual reality gear? The cynical answer is 'nothing,' and the even more cynical answer is 'intentionally nothing.' There are three 'terrordomes' worth a critical eye in this commercial: politics as described by the song's lyrics, LeBron as a stand-in for a basketball game, and the experience available through the VR-headset. It's a pretty little rhetorical trick that the life-force of the original song--a symbolic story told to a community--is eventually funneled into a story about a device that segregates the user away from their immediate community.

Is there a right or final version? Or can the commercial and the song exist at the same time, with radically different interiors but the same façade? Whitman's line about contradictions 'containing multitudes' seems to apply here. For better or worse, in hip hop, everybody gets a shot at the remix.