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“Gotta think outside the box, know how to connect the dots”

November 28th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Killer Mike’s I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind II is one of those albums that means a lot to me. Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

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.”

It’s true.

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.)

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