Eight songs about one thing. Four of them have basically the same title. I thought about doing eight tracks named “Get Money,” but I figure four is cool. I left off 50’s “I Get Money” because apparently I don’t have that mp3 and just watch it on youtube all the time. Here’s the video for that one:
It’s corny how much I like this song.
Anyway, the love of money in rap is directly related to the love of money in America. The American Dream is to make a bunch of money so that the people who screw with you can’t screw with you any more. It’s reflected in rap to a large degree.
I think it’s easy to look at the commercialism in rap and see poison, but that’s just a surface reading. You can look at how these people rap about wealth and examine the subtext of what they’re saying. Nothing is ever just surface-level deep, you know? Everything means something.
I think my favorite joint in this mix is “1-900-Hustler,” featuring Jay-Z, Memphis Bleek, Freeway, and Beanie Sigel as the secretary. It’s a fun hustle song with plenty of jokes, but the rhymes and scenarios are on point. Freeway steals the song, but Young Memphis’s “Listen shorty, you wanna roll just give me the word/ I ain’t got time for a sentence, all that shit is absurd” is fantastic.
I was thinking the other day about storytelling in rap. I was listening to Killer Mike and El-P’s “Jojo’s Chillin'” and just marveling at how he paints this entire story with a series of phrases that feel like they’re just four or five words long. It’s like an ultra-compressed story. Memphis’s line is like that. Just hearing him say that sparks something in your head. “I ain’t got time for a sentence, all that shit is absurd” is a nice double entendre. I like taking it at face value, though. Memphis is a busy dude, so keep it simple, stupid.
As a great man once said, “They say money ain’t everything — you fuckin’ right, nigga, it’s the only thing; in God we trust, the Holy thing.”
-I read and enjoyed Liz Barker typing about Kanye and stuff. His new songs are ill, her thoughts are interesting, and I left a too-long comment in her comment section! I’m definitely going to be revisiting Kanye’s stuff on this site once I get my hands on that album. Kanye is cool in part because he’s such an easy person to view through whichever lens you prefer. He’s such a big personality, I guess is the best phrase, that everyone finds something else to latch onto. For me, it’s the work ethic and craft. For you, it’s something else. For Liz, it’s the myth of Kanye… I dig it. Let’s all talk about Kanye to the West.
I read some other stuff between this post and the last one, but I forgot to keep track of them. Rest assured that they were life-changing and life-enriching.
TRUE STORY! Two or three months ago, my PS3 and main hard drive died in the same week. Last week, my new HD died Monday morning before work when I usually put these posts together. So I called it on account of equipment failure.
I got my uzi back, though, and now we’re back at it. So:
I saw Star Trek Into Darkness. I thought it was really silly in parts and I got more of the fanservicey jokes than I expected to, but it was pretty fun. The fight scenes needed better direction, but the spectacle was on point. I’ll probably never watch it again, but it was a nice way to spend two hours with a friend. It’s a warm movie with a lot of weird choices, but it’s never boring, which I appreciate more and more in my dotage.
How amazingly good was that Elementary finale, tho? That’s how you do TV. More like that.
I’ve been ultra-stressed and trying to dodge an emotional downswing (well… more of one) lately, but I’m looking at the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a hard time sometimes, when things go south and my mood turns cloudy. I was talking to a friend about it recently, and I told her that it feels like my head is full of angry bees that are all saying the same thing. It’s like thinking through a filter, in a way? I know what’s up, but I have to pass through this fog before I’m okay with it.
One thing that helps me is that I made a rule for myself. I wake up early enough that I can dedicate an hour or two in the morning to writing for myself (meaning 4l!, freelance, fiction, whatever). I go to work and do it 9-5. When I get home, usually around six? I do nothing. I’ll sit on my lawn chair on my balcony and read in the sun, or until it gets too windy to be comfortable. I’ll chill on the couch and play video games. I’ll cook. I’ll do anything but work.
Keeping that time sacred hasn’t worked wonders, but it gives me an escape hatch when I need it. I’m a fast enough writer that this works for me. It may not for you. But give it some thought. I know how it feels to grind and grind and grind, but I realized I was just wearing myself out. Carve out some space for you if you haven’t already. That other stuff will happen or it won’t, and it has a better chance of happening if you can re-center yourself when you need to.
Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying? what it dew
“Rap is the CNN of the streets.”
–Chuck D, more or less
Rap music is real.
We treat white people and white culture as the default culture in America. As a result, non-white voices are often marginalized and left out of the conversation. The various History Months and Pride Days — those are a way to correct our collective course and encourage the addition and recognition of other voices in our culture. It’s educational for outsiders and aspirational or inspirational for those who are a part of that culture.
In a lot of ways, rap music is like that. It’s an education. The art we create is a reflection of ourselves and the culture we live in. When dude from dead prez says, “The violence in me reflect the violence that surround me,” or when Kendrick Lamar says “I got the blunt in my mouth; usually I’m drug-free… but shit, I’m with the homies,” they’re speaking a truth. You are a product of your environment. You are influenced, and those influences are on display when you create something, whether that creation is your life or your art.
The violence, misogyny, and homophobia in rap are a reflection of the environments the rappers live in, from the crib to the block to the hood to the city to the state to the country. The joy, money-chasing, happiness, and pride in rap are a reflection of those same things, as well. The entire spectrum of content is a reflection, really.
When Chuck D said that rap music was the CNN of the streets — a statement repeated and remixed so often that I actually can’t figure out when or where he actually said it beyond “twenty years ago” — that’s what he was referring to. He was referring specifically to the way that rap lyrics reflect the lives of the rappers, and through the rappers, black people. Not all black people, obviously, but an important subset of the black community.
People say write what you know as advice to newbie writers, but the truth is that you can only write what you know. You’re drawing from your experience, be they direct or indirect. You’re spilling the contents of your brain, and in doing so, educating someone else.
Chuck D wasn’t saying that rap is non-fictional. He was saying that rap has non-fictional roots and that examining those roots is something that should be encouraged, not dismissed. Kanye rapping about trying to get a friend to hook him up with girls and that friend telling him to pump his brakes and drive slow — that’s real. 50 Cent saying that he’ll say anything to make his girl laugh, including “I love you like a fat kid loves cake” — that’s real. Killer Mike and NWA rapping about police brutality, Snoop and Kurupt slathering misogyny over funked out beats, Jean Grae kicking punchlines that make your head nod, Eminem talking about his relationship with his mother — those are all real, no matter how fictionalized they may be.
“Salt all in my wounds/ Hear my tears all in my tunes/ Let my life loose in this booth/ Just for you, muhfucker/ Hope y’all amused”
Rap is real, but the meaning of real began to drift as time passed. Instead of representing the idea of emotional or intellectual honesty sitting inside a fictional construct, it began to mean something closer to “be a thug or else you’re fake.” “Keep it real” is a common refrain, or was at one point. It was the rallying cry for a certain type of rapper. Real in that sense meant a specific type of black masculinity and femininity. Real had been whittled down until it meant guns and drugs and bottles in the club. This happened for a variety of reasons — record labels love money, rappers love money, and it turns out white teens LOVE gutter raps — but it is what it is and we have to live with it.
A weird thing about rap is that it feels more “true” to me than most other genres. Part of it is the “CNN of the streets” aspect of things. I can hear myself and my experiences in Jay-Z, Nas, Weezy, and hundreds of other rappers. Kendrick Lamar talking about being lost, Joe Budden talking about awkward love, Killer Mike talking about anger, Devin the Dude talking about weed — I recognize and empathize.
Rap is real, but it’s fake at the same time. The line between the two is often blurred, as rappers draw from real life experiences, movies, other songs, and the rest of our culture to create their rhymes. Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push” and “Kick, Push II” aren’t true stories, to my knowledge, but they are real. The same is true of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which is partly real and partly fake.
Rap is real, but rap is fictional. But sometimes people get it twisted.
“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more… they ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more!”
Earlier this year, Rick Ross kicked this rhyme on Rocko’s UOENO: “Put molly all in her champagne/ she ain’t even know it/ I took her home and enjoyed that/ she ain’t even know it.” It set off a firestorm of essays, complaints, and discussion. Eventually, Reebok dropped Ross from a sponsorship deal. The first petition I saw was this one, Lolia Etomi, though I think that this one was the biggest. Etomi’s petition has a passage that made my head turn:
If what he is saying is true, not just meaningless lyrics he has just publicly admitted to drugging and raping a woman. This should be investigated further and he should be prosecuted. If it is not true and they are just lyrics, he has still just glorified rape and this should not be ignored.
“If what he is saying is true.”
Rick Ross is an entertainer who has co-opted the identity of an infamous drug dealer. Put differently — Rick Ross is a liar. I don’t say that to be insulting, either. He’s a liar like Brad Pitt is a liar, like Denzel Washington is a liar. Brad Pitt has never beaten a man half to death for no reason and Denzel Washington was never Malcolm X. It’s obvious in movies. We know they’re fake. The idea of prosecuting someone in case their lyrics are true is laughable to me, but as I poked around, I realized that it actually happens. Which is a problem, and one that has its roots in the idea that rap is real.
Rap is fake, is the thing, but part of the mystique of rap is that you’re peeking in on another world that’s real to varying degrees. The verisimilitude of rap music blurs the line between real and fake. No one would think that Britney Spears actually did it again or that The Beatles lived everything they talked about, but it’s different with rap. Rap has “CNN of the streets” and “Keep it real” in its past, and that’s led to where we are today, when someone can honestly suspect that a rapper would actually brag about crimes they committed on a song geared toward being a smash hit and played nationwide. I figure how I feel about that is how heavy metal fans felt about the Satanism scares? It’s a possibility.
“I even like ‘Spot Rusherz.’ Rae was saying some fly shit on there. And I was going in on the intro. But I remember when I said, ‘Yo Rae, come here,’ at the end, and he’s like, ‘Yo, chill Ghost.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo Rae, I’m ‘bout to scrape her.’ But I said ‘rape’ at first. ‘Yo Rae, I’m ‘bout to rape her.’ He was like, ‘Nah, we can’t say that.’ [Laughs.] It was too much. He said, ‘No, just say ‘scrape her.’’ And it became ‘scrape.’ I was just thinking about that the other day.
It stuck out to me because the standards for violence and rape in rap has been on my mind for a while now, but also because the implications are fascinating. Some artists have made careers while incorporating rape lyrics. Eminem’s “Who Knew”, for example, includes the lines “You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked?/ Fuck that! Take drugs, rape sluts/ Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up.” DMX told a faceless enemy that he’d rape his teenaged daughter and Biggie has friends who rape children and throw them off bridges.
At the same time, Eminem’s hit single “My Name Is” included the lines “Extraterrestrial, runnin’ over pedestrians/ in a spaceship while they screamin’ at me ‘Let’s just be friends!'” on the Slim Shady LP. On the original version, those lines were “Extra-terrestrial, killin’ pedestrians/ Rapin’ lesbians while they’re screamin’ at me, ‘Let’s just be friends!'”
Where’s the line for “too far”? Is there a line? Should there be a line? In the case of Rae and Ghost, an off-hand mention of rape was too far. The rest of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is about dealing drugs, mafioso aspirations, and how ill Clarks Wallabees are. The violence and other misogyny were acceptable, but a direct rape reference — in the song he makes a woman strip down to her Claibornes and then changes his mind — was not.
The line may be tied to fame. Before Slim Shady LP, Eminem was an underground emcee. He had cosigns from Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, but he wasn’t anybody yet. He was far from a household name. His first album was softened up — unevenly, if you know it well — probably for the sake of mass appeal. But his Marshall Mathers LP opens with a verse containing these lines:
“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”
You god damn right, bitch, and now it’s too late
I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states
In what is in hindsight a amazingly self-aware move, a skit on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP features a skit with Paul Rosenberg, co-founder of Eminem’s Shady Records. Paul, being the liaison between Em and Interscope, is in charge of making sure the ship runs smoothly and the album gets cleared for release. On the skit, Rosenberg says “Dre gave me a copy of the new album… and I just… [sigh] …fuck it.” It’s another essay, but I think Eminem might be one of the most self-aware/self-conscious rappers in recent memory.
By the time Marshall Mathers LP dropped, Eminem was a Name. He made his label millions, he was well on the way to making himself millions, and his videos probably played on MTV more often than he had hot meals. Being a Name brings a certain level of power. When you’re a young guy trying to take advantage of your big break, do you have to sand down your rough edges? But if you’ve already made that break, if you’re established and in a position to defend your art, are you more free to say whatever you want, as long as it’s in a creative context?
Necro, Ill Bill (as a solo artist), and Non-Phixion provide a counterpoint. They’re not going for major label sales or acceptance. They don’t care if somebody’s mama in Minnesota gets offended at their lyrics, so creating songs like “I Need Drugs” and “How to Kill A Cop,” both of which are flips of other popular rap songs, is no skin off their back. Their underground status gives them the same freedom that Eminem’s “made man” status awards him. If you’re not trying to be big, or if you’ve already made it, you have benefits people who haven’t made it yet don’t have.
(Biggie’s another case, one I haven’t quite figured out yet. But, off the top of my head, I have the feeling that he kept his really gutter material segregated from his R&B crossover lyrics. They were on the same album, but aimed at different audiences, much like Eminem’s emotional, violent, and pop songs were serving varied masters.)
Ross is a third situation. He got big, but made himself beholden to non-creative corporate interests at the same time. He became a spokesman for Reebok, as Reebok wanted to use his brand to extend their influence amongst men. The Ross brand is extravagant, suave, and wealthy. He’s selling a lifestyle. But, as pointed out by my friend Cheryl Lynn Eaton, one of Reebok’s primary audiences is women. So a rape line in raps doesn’t play. I spent a lot of time thinking about this aloud on tumblr a while back, and I was struck when a reader said that “It’s easy to feel like a protagonist, “I am the guy doing the rad violence and Whatever He Wants”, but when the power trip is date rape it gets REALLY hard for me to see myself as macho hero instead of ‘date-raped anonymous girl’.”
I was struck because it’s so plainly true. It’s one of the simplest explanations of the downsides of the One Man To Make Things Right scenario. When Ross said what he said, he immediately alienated a significant part of Reebok’s audience in a way that the drug raps and violence don’t, and was punished financially for it. He’s free to say whatever he wants, but free speech has a price.
“Music… reality… sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. But we as entertainers have a responsibility to these kids… psyche!”
The context between 2013 and 2000, when Eminem was blowing up, is different now, too. There was no Twitter, no Tumblr, no Facebook. Blogs weren’t what they are now. If you wanted to make a stink, you had to either get on TV, write a book, or get into a magazine. Nowadays? I can just type in “4thletter.net” and go buck wild with a three thousand word essay on how we view rap.
That changes the conversation. Voices that weren’t originally in that conversation are now free to join it, and have a platform that lets them explain their position in a detailed and well-reasoned manner. These voices often lack the legitimacy that’s awarded to people who use traditional channels, but Twitter has a way of turning small things into big ones. If you’re good, the tiniest blog can become the site of an enormous conversation.
You can see this change in conversation in the backlash against Ross, the discussion surrounding Chief Keef, the controversy about Lil Wayne using an Emmett Till metaphor, and the annoying conversations around Lana Del Rey’s “realness.” You can see it when Maura Johnston writes about how not to write about female musicians.
These new voices, like the Months and Days, serve as, if not a corrective, then something else to consider when creating your art or judging someone else’s art. I’ve personally been enriched by this. My thoughts about Ross were crystallized most through talking with white women who are mostly (as near as I can tell) outsiders to rap and black culture on Tumblr. Being around Cheryl Lynn for the past few years has shown me that some of the things I truly love treat black women like trash.
I like every part of rap. I can listen to Curren$y & Juvenile’s “Bitch Get Up” and Blu & Nia Andrews’s “My Sunshine” and recognize the pros and cons of both tracks. (Both of them go, personally.) That doesn’t make me a bad person or a hypocrite. There’s a time and place for everything, whether it’s Eminem’s “Kim” or Tupac’s “Dear Mama.”
(There’s something about how most of the controversy I’ve talked about has been specifically about misogyny or rape instead of violence, drug dealing, and everything else in rap, but I’d need a whole other uncomfortable essay to untangle that knot.)
When it comes to rap and reality, it’s like something David Simon once said. “We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book.”
In other words, if you want to know the human cost of the Vietnam War, you can google it and get numbers and data. If you want to know the emotional cost, you should listen to Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” instead. If you want to know the after-effects of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president on the black community, read a book. If you want to know what catharsis and guilt sounds like, listen to Killer Mike’s “Reagan.”
You can never lead if you only follow. What I mean is, if you sit around, and you look at people, and you wait for them to give you permission to do something great, you will never do anything, so get up, brothers! Get about your grind! If you have a boss, maybe you should fire your boss. Maybe you should change your life.
It’s a real inspirational album, as opposed to being merely aspirational, like most flossy rap records. Mike’s entire point is that you, you sitting there reading this, you need something of your own. You need something that’s yours that you can be proud of. It’ll improve your quality of life and open doors for you that were previously closed. If you’re lucky, and by “lucky” I definitely mean “talented at your thing and in the right place at the right time” and not “lucky” because luck is worthless, it might let you make money, too.
I heard this at the right time and it really sunk in. Working for someone is all to the good, if it works for you, but it’s not the same as owning your own thing. “Maybe you should fire your boss” is a mantra. You need to have something of your own.
4thletter! is mine. It’s Gavin’s and Esther’s, too, of course, but the parts I wrote are mine, like the parts they wrote are theirs. I do what I want to do when I want to do it, and I can’t understate how important that is to me. It’s freeing. It’s freedom. 4l! is like a refuge, if that makes sense. I know that I can come here and write posts about rap music with a little stinger at the end that’ll make my friends laugh. I can try and improve my craft in public and try new things. I feel comfortable failing here, and that sometimes counts for more than succeeding elsewhere.
If you’re an adult, you’ve got to be about your grind, even if you spend some of your time being about someone else’s grind. You have to make money, but money isn’t everything. You need something that makes you happy, too. You have to dream, and sometimes, you need to dream a little bigger, darling. Aesop Rock got at this a little in “9-5ers Anthem” on the exquisite Labor Days when he said, “We, the American working population, hate the fact that eight hours a day is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us. And we may not hate our jobs, but we hate jobs in general that don’t have to do with fighting our own causes.”
Cycling back to Mister Michael Render, alias Killer Mike: Lauryn Hill once said “And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a ‘motherfucker’ so you ignant niggas hear me.” That’s close to what Mike does, but it isn’t right. It’s not about ignorance. It’s about meeting people on their level. It’s about knowing that you can’t just preach to people and expect them to listen. You’ve got to get in the door and show and prove before people listen. Meet them on the couch and talk face-to-face, rather than hollering at them from the pulpit.
That’s what Mike does. He effortlessly switches from inspirational talk to drug raps to jiggy raps and back again. It’s not even a switch, if we’re being real. He’s just reflecting the full spectrum of our lives. Sometimes smarty-art types just want to fool around, and sometimes that listless stoner you know has some real smart ideas. And who doesn’t like having money?
Common, on “The Questions,” asked “Yo, if I’m a intellectual, I can’t be sexual?/ If I want to uhh tah uhh does that mean I lack respect for you?” (Uhh tah uhh is I guess onomatopoeia for sex. It makes more sense if you can hear it. Kinda.) There’s this idea that if you’re one thing, you can’t be another thing at the same time, but we all know that ain’t true. Everybody’s got their hands in all types of pots. We all like a wide spectrum of things, even things that may go against what we or others perceive as what we’re all about.
One song I like a lot off Pledge II is “Can You Buy That,” featuring Rock-D. It’s a good song, and pretty representative of Mike’s style and the way he can flip any subject. It’s about having things that other people don’t have, which is undoubtedly a rap staple. But when viewed in the context of the thesis of the album — “Work hard and get yours” — it’s not just braggadocio. It’s an example. It’s rejoicing in having things of your own. I like that.
“Can You Buy That” opens with and features a sample from The Mack, a 1973 film directed by Michael Campus and starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor. You can hear the source of the sample around three minutes into this video:
The Mack is a classic. I know that Shaft and Superfly are probably more respected or whatever whatever, but The Mack will always be a favorite of mine. An uncle showed it to me when I was (too) young and hyped it up super high, and it somehow still delivered. It’s a raw blaxploitation flick, sleazy and violent and wonderful.
Blaxploitation is weird, isn’t it? It came hot on the heels of the collapse of the civil rights movement, and a lot of people feel like it puts black people in
a bad light. Which is maybe true, but it was also a chance for black people to get their foot in the door of Hollywood and make the types of movies they wanted to make. But when I think about the genre, I feel like blaxploitation was something that black people owned. (Aside: a lot of people don’t know that Shaft was created by a white guy. True story.) Not entirely, obviously, but Ron O’Neal, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, Pam Grier, Richard Roundtree, and a dozen others made a mark that Hollywood will never be able to forget, no matter how far they run from it. They proved that a market was there.
They made their mark.
Another thing about blaxploitation is how it was an answer to the decade before. It was a statement. “This is what life is like. This is what our dreams are like.” You saw scumbag slumlords and people fought “the man” in whatever form the man chose to take. Why? ’cause the man was screwing up the country in real life, too. A lot of those movies were sublimated revenge fantasies, like how Punisher comics in the ’80s were ripped from the headlines. What do you do when the man is keeping you down? You tell him to move over and let you pass ‘fore they have be to pullin’ these Hush Puppies out his motherfuckin’ ass! Can you dig it?
The Mack is a good example of how art imitates life and vice versa, too. The Mack is where the player’s ball, an annual gathering of pimps, originated, or at least that’s how the story goes. You don’t get Snoop Dogg without The Mack, either. And surely you’ve heard OutKast’s ode to the ball? It’s an all-time classic.
Rappers keep going back to The Mack for inspiration. “Now we can settle this like you got some class… or we can get into some gangsta shit” is a pretty incredible threat, one that’s been sampled or used or spoken by everyone from Snoop Dogg to your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper. Ghostface borrowed Pretty Tony’s name for his Pretty Toney alias, and I’m pretty sure you could make a case for Goldie having inspired Goldie Loc’s name, too. If you ever hear somebody say “stick yourself, fool” or talk about throwing someone in a trunk with rats? They either got it from The Mack or got it from somebody else who got it from The Mack. This movie looms large.
I know you’ve heard this song before. It’s UGK’s “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)”, featuring none other than Antwan Patton and Andre Benjamin.
(I love it when Andre 3000 says “I know you ain’t a pimp, but pimp, remember what I taught ya.” This came out at a point when Three Stacks was killing every song he got on, and this is no different.)
The sample on this song is Willie Hutch’s “I Choose You.” It’s from The Mack‘s soundtrack.
Ain’t it the most majestic-sounding thing tho? It’s about getting married to the prettiest girl you ever did see, which is exactly what Andre’s verse is about on the UGK version. He’s homaging the original song on a remix that’s all about pimpery and divorce. Kinda wild. I like how deep that goes. It’s like a tribute, a thank you note, for Willie Hutch.
I think my favorite use of Willie Hutch in any song not actually by Willie Hutch is in Sugar Tongue Slim’s “Sole Music,” a love song about shoes and girls. (I straight up love this song because those are two of my favorite things.)
In the second verse, he says, “Okay, so now she’s in the mood, I got her in the groove/ She into soul music, no pun on the shoes/ I turned on some tunes and rolled up a dutch/ ‘I Choose You,’ she don’t know ’bout Willie Hutch” and right when he says “I Choose You” that melody comes in and a voice starts singing the original song.
It’s clever, like pretty near everything else STS does, and I like how it adds to the song. If you know about “I Choose You,” you get that he’s talking about a girl he’s really, really into. He’s doing that dorky dude thing where he puts on a song that’s actually a hint, right? Y’all never did that? That was just me? Yeah, right. Okay.
I like this love song because it flips the script. It’s not just about bubble butts and make-outs. STS makes the shoe and fashion comparisons work, and if you’re looking to be put on game with regard to sneakers, he’s got you. I’m an Air Force 1 type of dude personally — six pairs and counting, scholar at your boy — but I like certain Jordans, too. But it’s still cool how STS flips his encyclopedic knowledge of shoes into useful and clever commentary on dating and relationships. I especially like the bit where he talks about how if a girl chills with her shoes off in your place, it means she’s pretty comfortable. It sounds dumb, but when you think about it, what do you do when you kick back and relax? You kick off your shoes. It’s a sign of comfort and safety. (“The way she rock Dunks got your boy in love” is all about how dumb little inconsequential things can be incredibly endearing and make your heart jump into your throat.)
I can especially relate when he says that “Let me slow it down, I’m moving too fast/ I don’t wanna scuff it up/ I’m hoping this might last.” You want to keep your shoes clean because yo, shoes are wild expensive and you need to show them off to people. The same is true of relationships. I remember the second day I wore my pair of Chris Pauls (CP 2’Quicks in White/Dark Concord/Black), I had my bike accident. At first, I could recognize that my bloody knee was going to be a problem and was actually hurting kind of a lot, but I was more upset over the fact that I’d just put a big fat scuff on my new sneakers. I had just got them and didn’t even really get a chance to show them off before I ruined them. I was so mad that I went to Walgreens on my way home from work, bought toothpaste, and was in the process of trying to scrub it out when I finally decided to hobble to the hospital. Now, take that feeling and apply it to a relationship. You’re the person who says something dumb too soon and blow everything. Hurts times ten, yeah? The shoe comparison works. “This could’ve been something cool!”
STS is another rapper that was influenced by The Mack, I figure. It’s not as overt as it is with Snoop or Kast, but that aura is there, plus the fact that Slim was the name of another cat in the movie. STS is a self-professed former pimp turned poet, which is shades of the marketing that OutKast got buried under in the ’90s (The Pimp and The Poet, screamed the label, not realizing that both men were both things and so much more.). He’s one of those rappers that never met a pun he wouldn’t make or joke he wouldn’t tell. I forget when I first discovered him, probably on an album from The Roots or a mixtape somewheres, but I dig this remix of La Roux’s song “In For the Kill” that I heard fairly early on.
STS has turned flipping songs into a solid gimmick with his GOLDRUSH series of mixtapes. It’s fun to see how he incorporates the original themes of the song but turns it into his own specific thing. I think it works because dude is funny, even when he’s saying things that would make me grimace.
I like how he flipped Gotye’s song into a really good breakup tale:
Rapping, at its best, is a kind of acting, I think. You have to play a character and do it well enough to convince people that your character is you. He’s acting here, and pulling from a lot of different sources. That “crazy bitch, crazy bitch” bit is straight outta OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, specifically Andre 3000’s “Roses,” Which is interesting in terms of rap geography and influences, because STS is from Atlanta, but moved to Philadelphia and connected with The Roots, who he shouts out in this song as being real important to him. I can hear OutKast and Black Thought and The Roots in him, but his sound is all his own. He builds on what came before him and pays homage to it with his skill, like how Andre and Big Boi paid homage to The Beatles (amongst others, including Motown in general) in a couple different ways with that “Hey Ya!” video.
“Sole Music” is a straight-up storytelling song, too, which is one of my favorite kinds of rappity-rapping showcases. It’s kinda Slick Rick-y in tone. He was killer at that singsong/half-serious storytelling style. Both of these guys just ooze charm, like hanging out with somebody’s cool uncle, so when STS is talking about how he thought he saw his girl, but it was just somebody who reminded him of somebody he used to know, you feel a little sad for him. It’s a pretty great take on the original song, I think, and the conversational format is a whole lot of fun.
Where was I…. oh. You want to learn something?
Listen to rap music. You just gotta scratch the surface to get started, because this stuff runs deep, pimp, like Iceberg Slim.
(I didn’t even talk about how Willie Hutch doing the soundtrack for The Mack relates to Curtis Mayfield doing the soundtrack for Superfly, did I? Or the influence of Mayfield on Anthony Hamilton, the best R&B singer alive today? And how he works with several rappers on songs that generally turn out to be awesome? Or how Hamilton got a shout-out in Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribes, a manga that’s basically a rap-oriented sensational crime comic set in Japan? Blaxploitation by way of Shibuya, 1997. Follow the breadcrumbs. History is amazing.)
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.
The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is a series of twenty focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the eighteenth. Spending some time writing about what I don’t like about the political music of dead prez got me thinking about what I do like in terms of political music. One name came to mind almost immediately: Killer Mike.
If you want my personal gold standard for political rap, it’s gotta be Killer Mike, and more specificaly, his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II. “Pressure” is extraordinarily hard and as blatantly political as Mike gets on this album:
Here’s the intro to the album:
This is not your regular rap album. This is meant to be a soundtrack to your success, brother. A soundtrack to your success, sister. This is right now, real-time music, what the fuck is happening. What ain’t happening is the bullshit lies you been going through. What ain’t happening is the bad examples you been following. You see, the Grind believes in you because we know you believe in us, therefore we don’t bullshit you. Nuh-uh. I wanna see whoever’s buying this record win right now and do great things. But the only way you gonna do that is if you get up off your ass and get about the act of doing something. Grind Time Rap Gang, fucker, bang bang bang. You can never lead if you only follow. What I mean is, if you sit around, and you look at people, and you wait for them to give you permission to do something great, you will never do anything, so get up, brothers! Get about your grind! If you have a boss, maybe you should fire your boss. Maybe you should change your life. Your work ethic will determine your worth, meaning whatever you get is determined by how hard you work to get it. You understand what I’m telling you right now? What I’m saying is there’s nothing in the world that can stop you from achieving whatever it is you wanna achieve. And I want you to let I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind Part II be a soundtrack to your success. Until we meet again on that path of getting to the money… it’s Grind Time Rap Gang. Bang. Bang. Bang. C’mon, let’s go!
What I like about Pledge II is that I can hear a lot of Tupac in it. Pac is still probably my favorite rapper, just because he got it so well. He got it better than anybody else. He understood that you can play a role and still kick knowledge. Son didn’t have a criminal record until he rapped about having one. But he still managed to kick rhymes that had everybody relating to him. He was an everyman, in a way. I don’t mean that he was himself just like the rest of us — he clearly wasn’t, for better or worse — but he understood the value of theater and played a lot of roles. He made “Dear Mama” and “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch.” He rapped about living the fast life and being so depressed he wanted to kill himself. He was everyone, and that’s why he clicked so hard. It’s not that he was conscious or a thug or loved his mom or could spin a sex song. It’s that he was all of that in one.
Mike stepped into that role for me. I’ve liked Mike for years, ever since he hit the beat running like Randy Moss on his feature on OutKast’s “The Whole World,” and I love that he’s grown into this quietly revolutionary figure. Pledge II runs a range of subject matter. He pretty much hits every rap cliche but how much he loves his mom, I think. No, that’s not true: “Grandma’s House” counts there. Civic pride (“2 Sides”), fly rides (“Big Money, Big Cars”), drug dealing (“Good-Bye (City of Dope)”), and on and on. He glorifies drug dealing, stripping, big cars, education, looking out for your family, protecting yourself, and self-esteem. He touches on the power, occasional hypocrisy, and shortcomings of religion. He’s running through a wide range of experiences.
But what makes this political for me is that it’s an entire album not about how ill Mike is but how important it is to grind and get your own. It’s about being self-actualized, loyal, honest, and willing to do what you need to do to survive. On a very fundamental level, it’s about loving yourself because society hates your guts. You have to look out for yourself, your family, and your community.
His point of view is pointedly black southern and post-Reagan, too. The mistrust of authority, the matter-of-fact approach to the way crack ravaged the black community, an emphasis on money but a conscious knowledge of the evils that come from chasing it, and black power themes present on the album all scream that at me. Even the Grind Time Rap Gang stuff is part marketing and part motivation. You’ve gotta make money for yourself if you ever want to have anything of your own.
That’s the sort of political music I can get behind. It’s honest, direct, and if it came down to it, you could dance to it. Throw some elbows or groove, whatever you want. Killer Mike has demonstrated growth in his sound, but also in his politics and prejudices. I listen to Mike and I hear somebody who knows the game and is working to both fit in where he can get in and make things better, which sounds like a lot of people I know and look up to.
I go back to this album regularly. It’s motivation music. I went and checked last.fm to see if I could see how often, and came up with this image:
I was actually surprised to see “Grandma’s House” at number one, but I do love that song. (“If she catch me serving hard, it’s gon’ break my nana’s heart, so I take them bricks, I cut ‘em quick and hit the boulevard,” whooo) I figured that “Pressure” would be number one, but I’m okay with this result. It’s a powerful album, and there’s something that I can take away from every song. It’s intensely political without being in the dead prez or Immortal Technique vein of things. Mike is just talking about what he believes and what he knows. It’s real life rap, like Tupac used to kick, and I appreciate that. I feel like if I can’t apply your revolutionary or progressive or conservative or whichever philosophy to my real life, then it’s worthless. It’s not even hot air, because hot air actually has a use. Theory doesn’t do me any good.
“Burn” is a joint off Killer Mike’s Pl3dge. It’s sort of a sequel to “Pressure,” like how “Pressure” was sort of a sequel to “Bad Day/Worst Day.” If I had to use a song to pin down how I feel about a lot of stuff going down in America over the past few years… it’d probably be this joint.
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