One interesting thing about intentionally expanding the types of music I listen to is finding shared ground between genres and the people who make them, no matter how much time or how many miles separate them.
I’ve been listening to The Clash’s London Calling and Killer Mike & El-P’s RAP Music over the past few days. No reason why, I don’t think — I just felt like it. I had a light bulb moment while listening to “Guns of Brixton.” A youtube and a quote:
When the law break in, how you gonna go?
Shot down on the pavement or waiting in death row?
You can crush us, you can bruise us
But you’ll have to answer to
Guns of Brixton
I like it. It’s easy to understand. It positions the law as amoral and the authorities as a possible danger, not a source of safety.
The song was written a couple years before the 1981 riot in Brixton. I never heard about it growing up, but in reading about it, it sounds like a pretty familiar story. “Guns of Brixton” is a fight song, a warning. “Do what you want, but don’t think you can get away with this. You’ll answer for this.”
From Killer Mike’s “Don’t Die”, second verse:
Now the dirty cop’s looking at me
Talking ’bout he kill a nigga if I try to flee
Shit, I’m about to lose it, so he gon’ have to prove it
All because the government hate rap music
I’ve been labeled outlaw, renegade, villain
So was Martin King, so the system had to kill him
A nigga with an attitude, the world gotta feel him
Educated villain, intent on living
If I gotta kill a cop just to get out the building
That motherfucker gettin’ left dead, no feelings
Yelling “Fuck him!” as I buck a .45 at his fillings
Trying to knock his brains through the motherfucking ceiling
This is different, but not that different. Mike’s playing the role of a rapper who’s about to be assassinated by cops, and this is his reaction. It’s a song about self-defense, about protecting yourself and your family from anyone who would do them harm, up to and including the people who are meant to protect them.
I don’t think it’s a stretch or insulting to say that the police are often used to enforce oppression in poor and black neighborhoods. Not in a shadowed men in a dark room plotting to rid the world of the untermenschen sort of way, I mean. More in a “these policies are predatory, meant to disenfranchise people, and often built on suspect evidence” kind of way. The war on drugs as a war on poor and brown people, racial profiling, all that stuff. On top of that, disruptive community leaders, your Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs and Black Panthers, are targeted for political and personal destruction by police organizations via extralegal and obsessive surveillance.
A cop stands at the door and knocks. When you hear his voice, how do you feel? What’s the first thought that goes through your head?
Paul Simonon and Killer Mike’s distrust of authority is separated by over thirty years and a couple thousand miles, but it’s rooted in the same history, the same ideas. Protect yourself and your family, via armed resistance if you have to, because you can’t depend on anyone else to do so. There’s something really resonant about that idea. Mike’s is a little more swaggery than Simonon’s version (the delivery on “Yelling ‘Fuck him!’ as I buck a .45 at his fillings/Trying to knock his brains through the motherfucking ceiling” is nuts), but they’re both coming from the same place.
There’s this element of music that I cherish. It’s the fact that, if you’re open to it, there is a ton of history encoded into the songs. It can be anything from trying to identify a half second sample to looking up someone’s name. Stuff like “Y’out there?” being quickly followed by “Louder!” screaming out from the past. Or “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready for star time?” or how Biggie flipped Schooly D’s “PSK” into a serious black/rap history joint. If you dig a little, just a little, and let your mind make the connections that are already there, you’ll find a lot more to enjoy, and that uncovers even more.
Ain’t no more to it.
- “My life dope? (straight cocaine)” [On Killer Mike]
- “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery” [punk’s not dead?]
- By Any Means.
- Furtadofest: No Hay Igual con Residente de Calle 13, 2006
- Why Dick Grayson Should Go Ahead And Marry Barbara Gordon, Peter Parker Should Re-Marry Mary Jane, and Dinah Lance Was Right To Marry Oliver Queen