Bigger Than The Government: How We Look At Hip-Hop

May 17th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

“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”
-Gunplay, 2012

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!”
-Eminem, 2000

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.

Keeping your Rap World believable and — maybe more importantly — profitable is tough. I was reading a Complex piece on Ghostface’s favorite songs and came across this:

“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!”
–Bizarre, 2002

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.”

Listen to rap.

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Monday Mixtape 01: alpha

March 11th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

Here’s a new thing. Let’s do it:

monday mixtape alpha from brothers on 8tracks Radio.

Eight songs here, which should play in random order. The list:
-Kendrick Lamar – Poetic Justice feat. Drake – good kid, m.A.A.d city
-D’Angelo – Devil’s Pie – Voodoo
-Blur – Pressure on Julian – Modern Life Is Rubbish
-Gucci Mane – Walking Lick feat. Waka Flocka Flame – Trap Back
-Cool Breeze – We Get It Crunk feat. Kurupt – East Point’s Greatest Hit
-Kilo Kish – creepwave – k+
-Notorious BIG – Niggas Bleed – Life After Death
-Curren$y – Jet Life feat. Big KRIT, Wiz Khalifa – The Stoned Immaculate

It’s hard to explain my rationale with regards to picking these songs. They’re all tracks that made some sort of an impression over the past seven days — technically ten, if you include my trip to Emerald City Comicon, where I had this idea. Some songs I played repeatedly, like “Jet Life” and “We Get It Crunk.” Others just leapt out at me as being particularly apropos, or significant, or something.

I’m still figuring out what this is, and what it’s going to be next week and the week after and so on. This is a weird mix. It’s not meant to flow in a certain order, and it’s stripped almost entirely of context, but hopefully you still dig it. Different songs next week. Maybe talking about those songs, too? I dunno. We’ll get there.

Michael Peterson wrote a really good essay on the Beauty & The Beast Unit from Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4. If you don’t know the B&B Corps, picture a small group of beautiful women being forced into action on the front lines of war as a special operations group. They’re cyborgs, they’re completely under someone else’s control, and they’re victims. Michael does a great job pointing out why their story is so sad and interesting. I’m a big fan of that game and that group in particular. Even if you aren’t familiar, give it a read. Read Project Ballad, a webcomic he writes and Kevin Czap draws, too. Chapter one is wrapping up, so now’s probably a good time to start binging. They’ve got 80-some free pages up there.

I like this thing, too, by someone I know on Twitter. I just realized I don’t know her real name, but her twitter name is Twerksten Lapid, and that’s pretty cool. It’s about… everything? Nothing? It’s sorta high and low, here and there. I really like the part about suddenly becoming one with the world and marveling at nature and whoops there’s a coyote, poopin’. I also dig “This morning, I am disguised by a pretty dress and a blazer.” It’s a great turn of phrase, very evocative.

This one’s NSFW for nudity, but you should still sneak and read it. This one’s another friend of mine, and she’s writing about a lot of things, too. The lure of objectification, body image… it’s pretty bracingly honest, and it’s about something where there aren’t really right answers (or any answers?), so much as the ways we figure out to survive. I dig this piece a lot. I read it on my phone in Seattle and it stuck with me. Maybe it’ll do the same to you.

I like the look of this Freakestate Kickstarter by Gerald Forton and Drew Ford. Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

Ann Nocenti speaks to Louise Simonson, moderated by Josie Campbell. This is a good interview. I love Nocenti and Simonson, and seeing them rap about the old days is neat.

I wrote a piece on Spider-Man for The Atlantic. I’m playing it off like it’s not a big deal, but it’s kind of a big deal for me?

I wrote about Mark Andrew Smith’s shady behavior on the Sullivan’s Sluggers kickstarter.

I wrote about Yuuki Kodama’s Blood Lad and Kitty Pryde, a combo sure to bore ComicsAlliance readers to death.

I wrote about Jimmie Robinson’s Five Weapons, a pretty good start to an adventure tale.

Y’all see Justified last week? Hooo-wheee. That was an episode.

Open thread. What’re you reading/watching/hearing/enjoying? I thought about doing a Justified discussion thread and I still might maybe, but I think having a weekly open thread would be fun, if y’all are into it.

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“Compton, USA made me an angel on angel dust” [Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city]

October 22nd, 2012 Posted by david brothers

-Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is out today. Amazon’s got the regular version of good kid, m.A.A.d city for five bucks. You can also get the deluxe edition for ten bucks, which includes three extra tracks (“Black Boy Fly” is heat and shoulda been on the album) and a digital booklet. You should buy this album. I preordered the vinyl, which I feel like was a great idea, now that I’ve heard the album. I dunno if it’s a promo or what, but Lamar’s debut album Section.80 is $5.49 right now, and that’s great, too.

good kid, m.A.A.d city opens with a prayer played off a cassette tape and spoken by young men. “Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins. I believe that Jesus is Lord. I believe you raised him from the dead. I will ask that Jesus come to my life and be my Lord and Savior. I receive Jesus to take control of my life and that I may live for him from this day forth. Thank you Lord Jesus for saving me with Your precious blood. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.”

It’s a common prayer. It immediately put me in mind of Yasiin Bey, bka Mos Def. He opened Black On Both Sides (and his other albums) with the phrase “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim.” It means “In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the most Merciful,” and it is an expression of faith on the part of Mos. It’s always delivered in his own voice, almost a whisper. (You’ve heard Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” probably — “Bismillah” is used there, as well.) It’s Bey giving thanks and publicly expressing his beliefs.

Kendrick’s is different. It’s recorded, which is already one step of separation from Kendrick-the-character and Kendrick-the-artist. The men are unidentified and speak with no real intonation, two more steps of separation. It’s rote. It’s men at church going through the motions. It won’t make sense until you finish the album.

good kid, m.A.A.d city has a lot of skits, which puts me in mind of Prince Paul’s near-flawless A Prince Among Thieves. Sometimes it’s Kendrick’s parents calling to ask about their van, sometimes it’s him talking to his friends. Sometimes it’s something more violent.

But the skits work. Instead of being speed bumps, they aid the album into sounding like a cohesive work, rather than a collection of songs. They provide a narrative, or at least a through line, from song to song. It enhances the songs, rather than getting in their way. It’s probably half as good on shuffle, but as far as skits go, Lamar has the right idea.

The skits bleed back into the songs and vice versa. Sometimes a line of dialogue kicks off a song, and sometimes a bit of dialogue recalls Lamar’s past work. They don’t feel like they’re just skits. They’re connective tissue.

Tracks 1-10 form a story that ends where it begins. The last two tracks, “Real” featuring Anna Wise of Sonnymoon, and “Compton” featuring Dr Dre, are a… coda? An epilogue? Something.

-In thinking about it, it’s structured similar to A Prince Among Thieves, too. We start on Y, then we see A through Y, and then we catch up with Z. “Pain” segues into “How It All Started” which leads up to “You Got Shot,” and then we get the cruel finale of “The New Joint (DJ’s Delite)” b/w “A Prince Among Thieves.”

good kid, m.A.A.d city goes from “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and then leads you through “Poetic Justice” before the cycle completes four songs later on “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst.” “Real” and “Compton” are the outro.

Less cruel and more uplifting than “A Prince Among Thieves,” but still similar in structure. Hook, then pull back, then stack tension until it’s too late to turn back.

-Son, there’s even a freestyle skit that’s explicitly presented as Kendrick Lamar rhyming in his homey’s car! Remember “What U Got (The Demo)” with Breezly Brewin and Big Sha?

My heart done hardened, ready to put the world on a milk carton
Fuck it, no one else deserve to live
I done gave all I got to give and still ain’t got shit (What?)
So who mad? You grab and ransom
And I’ma pierce his soul and touch the heart of his grandson (oh shit!)

I’ve been wanting to jack “ready to put the world on a milk carton” for a story or SOMEthing since 1999, man.

Anyway: parallels!

-Rap is influenced by real people living real lives, and then those same people allow themselves to be influenced by rap, creating a cycle that feeds on itself. Put differently, Cam’Ron didn’t invent “pause” or “no homo”, and Kanye didn’t invent “ham” or “cray.” But, after Kanye, a lot of people who aren’t from the south like to talk about going ham. After Cam, “no homo” became a phenomenon. It doesn’t take much for an idea to go global.

At one point on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar and his friends take inspiration from a Jeezy song. “Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets,” Jeezy says. Lamar’s boy, in response, says, “Yeah, yeah, that shit right there. I’m trynna be the nigga in the streets.”

Rap album feeding on a rap album feeding off real life feeding off a rap album.

Trap or die.

-On “Sing About Me,” Lamar takes on the role of the sister of Keisha, a woman he talked about on “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” on Section.80. It’s the kind of song rappers make about how it sucks to be a lady. He name checks “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” you know? It’s a good example of those types of songs, probably on par with Lupe Fiasco’s “He Say She Say” or that verse out of “Kick Push II.” Patronizing, right? But in a way that makes me just feel like I get it, even if I don’t particularly dig the execution, rather than frustrated. His heart’s in the right place.

But on “Sing About Me,” Lamar directly addresses himself by way of the role of Keisha’s sister. “What’s crazy was, I was hearing about it, but doubted your ignorance. How could you ever just put her on blast and shit, judging her past and shit?” and later, “You lying to these motherfuckers, talking about you can help with my story. You can help me if you sell this pussy for me, nigga.”

“Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” was bleak and direct and sad and maybe leans a little too far toward victim blaming and not enough toward… anything else. It’s cool to see Lamar self-correct, explicitly self-correct, himself on wax. And then the next verse is a rebuttal to the sister, of sorts, as Lamar explains where he was coming from. No easy answers. That shows a thoughtfulness and fluidity that I really dig.

-Fluidity: good kid, m.A.A.d city doesn’t sound like Section.80 much at all. Lamar adopts multiple flows and crosses a broad range of subject matter over the course of good kid. It’s not as stridently focused on life as an ’80s baby like Section.80 was, but it’s just as sharp.

Lamar trades the post-Reagan Era trauma of Section.80 for life growing up in Compton on good kid, and it totally works. They’re two of a kind, as far as subject matter goes, but it gives each album a different texture. Section.80 is borderline funereal at times, a checklist of horrors and injustice. This one is more even, less focused on the foibles of a generation of young men that learned how to do everything spiteful and more focused on just how they live their life.

I mean, son made a song about peer pressure in 2012 and it’s subtle in all the right ways. That’s dope.

good kid, m.A.A.d city is an ill album. I ended up preordering the vinyl, just going by how much I liked Section.80 (it hasn’t left my iPod, Schoolboy Q’s Habits and Contradictions neither). I never do that, but I felt strongly that Kendrick Lamar would come through. And come through he did. It’s an album, a proper, listen to it front-to-back and let it simmer, album. Upbeat enough that you could spin it at a relaxed party, but down enough to spark deep thoughts. (Those voice mails, boy.)

-I’ve been thinking a lot about how little black boys grow up lately, in part because of real life and the Little Brother documentary project. What goes wrong, what goes off, and what goes down to make a good kid into something else. All kids are good, but it’s the poison we put in them that screws them up.

“Compton, USA made me an angel on angel dust” kind of sums it all up, in a way.

-I like this outro from Section.80 even more now, because good kid, m.A.A.d city builds on its blueprint:

“See a lot of y’all don’t understand Kendrick Lamar, because you wonder how I could talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence. You know what all them things have in common? Only half of the truth if you tell it. See, I spent twenty-three years on this Earth searching for answers ’til one day I realized I had to come up with my own.

I’m not on the outside looking in. I’m not on inside looking out. I’m in the dead fucking centre looking around.

You ever seen a newborn baby kill a grown man? That’s an analogy for the way the world make me react. My innocence been dead. So the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, God, and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it, and you felt it, ’cause you too are searching for answers.

I’m not the next pop star. I’m not the next socially aware rapper. I am a human motherfucking being over dope ass instrumentation.

Kendrick Lamar.”

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Screw Music: Cocaine Pentagrams and the Twerk Team at a Black Mass

February 17th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of focused observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. This is the fifteenth. I realized I had a lot of screw music in the official rotation. It’s a type of music I like a lot, but find it hard to articulate why. There’s a good reason for that, I think. I keep going to a few key words, though–it sounds evil, it sounds wrong, it sounds off, it sounds abstract, it sounds sideways, it sounds like Hell… it sounds great. It’s just that whenever those monks get around to updating the Ars Goetia, they’ll have to add a footnote that King Paimon is the patron demon of screw music.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life”, Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), On why I buy vinyl sometimes, on songs about places, Mellowhype’s Blackendwhite, a general post on punk, a snapshot of what I’m listening to, on Black Thought blacking out on “75 Bars”, how I got into The Roots, on Betty Wright and strong songs

Drive by Xheathcaresx

Press play on this joint while you read.

I’ve been thinking about writing about chopped and screwed music for a while now. This cat named Heath Caring created a C&S version of the Drive soundtrack and it came on my radar a little bit ago. I’ve been regularly spinning it ever since. The problem is that the appeal of screw music is such a weird and specific thing. Screw music is post-modernism stacked on the already pomo origins of rap. I’ve been mulling it over for days, trying to find an angle of attack, but it’s a slippery subject.

My man Ray, a dude who has put me onto a lot of good screw, recently said this while spotlighting a new screw mix:

I’ve come to realize, trying to explain chopped and screwed music to people makes you sound like you’re fucking insane. The idea of slowing down music and making it skip on purpose isn’t the easiest thing for heads to imagine. That’s why instead of explaining what the music actually sounds like it’s best to describe the feeling screw gives you. Sometimes you feel like you’re being dragged through a black hole where time and space are being warped. Other times screw feels like you’re at a dope pool party but you spent the entire affair chillin’ out at the bottom of the pool listening to the DJ do work.

And that’s it right there. It’s about the music, but it’s not. It’s about how it feels. Listening to screw, whether you’re sober or high, is like listening to regular music, sure. There’s a beat, and you can bop to it. You might could even do a slowed down version of the wop to it if you had the right song, and I mean the wop that your parents used to do when they hit up house parties, not the wack dance that swept youtube a few years back. But screw music is… it’s like abstracted rap. Not abstract, like Q-Tip or Aes Rock. Abstracted. Taking a thing and making it different. It’s psychedelia for people who were raised on Three 6 Mafia and UGK instead of The Beatles.

But it’s real hard to explain what screw music sounds like to people who can’t parse the idea that DJ Mr. Rogers’s chopped and screwed version of Drake’s “Say What’s Real” sounds like the feeling you get when you walk into a black mass in the basement of the club by accident and realize that the chief anti-priest is your ex-girlfriend. The way the harmonious melody in the background is slowed down changes its sound from a generic triumphant rap orchestra into a funeral dirge, Drake’s voice goes lower and he’s enunciating clearly, but the track keeps skipping and hopping and stripping all the smooth charm out his voice. That feels different from “I like how John Lennon sings this song because you can hear the hurt in his heart” to me.

I’ve been describing that screwed version of the Drive soundtrack to other people as evil, like a house party in Hell in the ’80s where all the coke’s run out. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” turns into something else entirely when the upbeat synth-pop gives way to a voice that moans and groans the words out and the synths are stretched to the breaking point. It sounds slow, is the thing. It sounds wrong, and I mean wrong in the sense of what it feels like to come into your house and realize something is out of place, but not being able to figure out what that out of place thing is or who could have been in there but you. “Nightcall” turns into the musical equivalent of a gross leer, and you can’t do anything but let it wash over you.

The wildest part of the mix to me is the point when Kendrick Lamar’s “ADHD” rolls in. I didn’t even realize that it had faded in on my first listen, because it’s slipped in there so smoothly and the song sounds so different. There’s a great thematic link between Drive and Lamar’s Section.80, but the screwed “ADHD” tripped me out. It fits so well, and the Clipse joint that comes after is tremendous.

It sounds so full, like it’s just overflowing out of your speakers. It sounds like something you want to bang so loud on your speakers that your neighbors spontaneously shatter into dust from the bass. Like a… like a sustained earthquake, or something. It rolls over you and makes you feel trapped. Claustrophobic. The lyrics twist and turn uglier than they might be at first glance when they’re this slow.

This specific example of screw music is like the most comfortable uncomfortable situation ever, like the tail end of what happens when you screw up and eat an entire hash brownie, not realizing you only needed half to get right. It feels like that last hour or so of being over-high for thirteen hours straight, when you’re done panicking and you know you’re way too high, but man the couch feels too good right now and you feel so relaxed and life is so nice that it’s all to the good.

I like this Lil Sprite mix Ray hooked up, too. It’s called Cocaine Pentagrams, which makes it incredible from jump. Sean Witzke was on Twitter talking about how it made him think of David Bowie’s Station to Station, and I hadn’t made that connection, but it’s dead on. Station to Station is an incredibly funky album, and one of my favorite Bowie joints. He was so coked out while working on it that he doesn’t even remember doing it.

At the forefront of my mind was Andre 3000 beginning a verse “I came into this world high as a bird from second-hand cocaine powder” and ending another “They call it horny because it’s devilish, now see, we dead wrong.” on ATLiens. Bowie is just the icing (provided by Freeway Ricky Ross and the CIA) on the cake, the missing puzzle piece that pulls it all together. Just from the start, Cocaine Pentagrams is ill, and that’s without even hearing a single word. It’s evocative. It’s the precursor to an experience.

It’s not just about slowing down a song or getting high and turning on an mp3. It’s an experience that’s different from how I regularly listen to music. I try to really listen when I’m playing songs, but with screw music, I just go with it and see what happens. I do a lot of writing to screw music. It just sorta sits at the back of your head, infecting your subconscious until you’re through. It’s music that’s easy to absorb when you aren’t thinking too hard about it.

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On lyrical content, compromise, and hypocrisy (?)

February 15th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Hot97’s Peter Rosenberg has recently spoken up against rap songs that glorify drunk driving. He had a brother who was a victim of a drunk driver, and he’s honest about the fact that the death of his brother fuels his crusade.

I’ve been thinking about Rosenberg’s quest a lot, especially after watching this interview he did with Kendrick Lamar (I came to Section.80 late, but it’s definitely one of the better releases from last year) and Schoolboy Q:

Rosenberg’s mission is interesting to me, in part because drunk driving is, without minimizing the tragedy inherent in drunk driving, one of the least of rap’s sins. I’ve implicitly or explicitly cosigned murder, rape, selling crack, homophobia, and the promotion of violence against judges, correctional officers, district attorneys, probation officers, the family of victims, witnesses, and snitching ass hoes. When I walk around singing along to Jay’s “Blue Magic,” I’m explicitly supporting the actions of a dude who actually sold drugs and made his fortune talking about how well he sold drugs.

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster” is a hot line that’s easy to flip into other contexts. It’s about all of us ’80s babies, sure, but it’s also Jay-Z blaming Reaganomics for pushing him so far into poverty or hardship that he felt licensed to deal poison, poison that was provided in part by the United States government. And I mean, sure, he had his reasons. It’s like something from a Tupac song: “‘I made a G today’ But you made it in a sleazy way/ sellin’ crack to the kids/ “I gotta get paid!”/ Well hey, but that’s the way it is.” But it’s still gross, isn’t it?

And then there’s that deeper, personal level. There’s cocaine in my family history, and it’s definitely the one drug I hold in contempt above any other one. I don’t hang with people who use it, I’ve got no plans to try it, whatever whatever. So why am I so cool with the Clipse? Why is the most common expression of what I think of as black superhero music almost exclusively drug-dealing music?

Jeezy’s (aka Snow aka Snowman aka Mr 17.5) “All White Everything” with Yo Gotti is a banger. I love it when Jeezy flips a concept like that. He’s not lyrical, but he’s charming enough to sell it. Shawty Redd’s beat is on point, too, with triumphant trumpets, that scattered-sounding drum loop that seduces you into head nodding unconsciously.

But you’re a fool if you think the white he’s talking about is just sexy white girls and sexy white Lambos. He’s talking coke. It’s a celebration of what coke money gets you (even if crack isn’t as lucrative as it used to be at its peak, but that’s another conversation). I have every reason not to be down with this song, but I haven’t rejected it.

I re-listened to DMX’s listenable albums the other day. It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot still holds up surprisingly well, but it made me realize how often Dark Man X talks about rape. He wants to rape you, your wife, your mans and them in jail, and if you got a daughter older than fifteen, he’ll “take her on the living-room floor, right there in fronta you.” He talks about rape all the time. DMX is objectively the best dude to step into Tupac’s shoes after his death (or “objectively the best Tupac dick rider,” depending on how charitable you are), but he’s missing that social consciousness that informed all of Tupac’s work. Tupac understood how playing a specific role allows you to reach more people with your message. DMX is just playing a role.

And there’s the violence, too. I love David Banner’s “Treat Me Like.” It’s good bang your head music, the hook is on point, and Jadakiss comes correct, as always. Jada:

I don’t like to promise shit, but we gon’ bring the drama, kid
Just tell me who I gotta slap and where they mama live
Yet and still, real recognize real, and whoever don’t get recognized get killed
Too many soldiers to jeopardize in the field
I got throwaway niggas ready to die, and they will
Jason as a youth, I turned into Satan in the booth
First nigga with Daytons on the coupe, unh
I could drive, but a boss get driven
So I’m shotgun, higher than the cost of living
My seat back, my gear black, my heat black
Deserve whatever you got comin’, so keep that
Now all you do is turn the lights off and drive by slow, I’ma turn his life off
And I’m good long as he bleeding
Nann nigga never play me long as I’m breathing, WHAT

As far as murda muzik goes, Jada’s verse on “Treat Me Like” is tops. It might even be my favorite Jada verse. I can do it off the top, or at least I could at one point. That back/black/black/that sequence is incredible. But at its heart, Jada is talking about killing somebody, right? How can I justify celebrating that?

(Correction: “So I could never hate on another brother/ God is great, the devil is a motherfucker” is probably my favorite couple of bars from Jadakiss, but that verse, as a whole, wins out.)

Or Killer Mike on Chamillionaire’s “Southern Takeover”:

It’s the Mister Four-Fifth toter
Cooking coke with baking soda
Dub roller, pro smoker, wood gripper, pistol whip a
Monkey nigga, if he figure
Fuckin with my figures makes him richer, he should know
Insteada it’ll make him deader
than a mummy fuckin with my money
Get yo mummy snatched right outta sunday school
On a bright and sunny Sunday, this ain’t funny
I ain’t jokin bout my coke and package come up shorter
Might kidnap yo wife and daughter
Bury them down deep in Georgia

right before Pastor Troy drops another heat rock on the same joint:

Okay, y’all know me, it’s PT, well I hunt and all of that
Black on black, with black tint, I can’t help but represent
Not content, I want more, who the fuck you take me for?
Studio rap is not the forté, drop my top and bust my AK
‘No more play in GA,’ yeah, that’s a classic
Ridin in a Classic, toting me and blasting
Send em to the casket, send em to the morgue
Slap me a nigga cause I’m motherfuckin bored”

The beat drops out at “Slap me a nigga ’cause I’m motherfucking bored,” making it that exact line you wanna yell out when you’re listening to this joint. It’s instinctual. It’s dope, in spite of (or maybe because of) what it’s about.

I don’t even know if I have a point, beyond “Rap is messed up and I’m drowning in compromise because I like a lot of stuff my mom would be mad at.” I’m a smart dude, fairly well-read, and while I wouldn’t call myself socially conscious, I’m definitely not an idiot. This post isn’t an exorcism or a big announcement that I’m done listening to rap. That’s stupid. I’m just… aware of the contradictions and thinking my way through them. I’m thinking out loud.

I was talking to a friend the other month about how conflicted I was about the fact that I have bigger issues with artists who buy into liquor companies (Puffy and Ciroc, Luda and Conjour) and then pitch them in music videos, but not with dudes who actually, literally sold drugs and are now getting rich off that fact. I didn’t even come close to having an answer, beyond one act being normalized for me and the other being new.

But I see where Rosenberg is coming from. He’s a smart guy, and he’s clearly put a lot of thought into his position. I can’t begrudge him that at all, and I respect what he’s doing. I think it’s totally worth quizzing artists on lyrical content. Some will have answers. Some won’t. It’s a conversation worth having. It’s worth having a conversation about every aspect of rap. “Why” matters. I like that he’s doing this, and welcome the thoughts he’s spurred, even if it leads directly to the inevitable realization that I’m sitting in a moral quagmire.

I’m listening to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly as I write this. It’s an explicitly anti-drug album from a movie about pimping and drugs. Superfly made me think of another question: why should I hold rap music to a different standard than film? Is there a real difference between Ready to Die and King of New York? Between Reservoir Dogs and “Reservoir Dogs”? I feel like there isn’t, and if there is, there shouldn’t be.

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