Is gangsta rap a force for good?

Uncompromising and groundbreaking: NWA

*****

What rhymes with bigger?
What rhymes with trigger?
What rhymes with figure, jigga, gravedigger and cigarette?
What rhymes with the friend of Winnie the Pooh who wasn’t Eeyore, Christopher Robin or Piglet?

It’s a versatile word, yes, but the world would definitely be better if every rapper was banned from using his favourite epithet
It goes without saying that its flippant use in pop songs has got to be wrong
To spray the word like dirty fertiliser upon the earth
To use the term to wrap raps around is absurd
When we heard that if this word was spoken by black men
Their contribution would always be token

Right?

Maybe,
But why did Ice Cube name his band NWA and not BMEMWA:
Black Minority Ethnic Men With Attitude?
Could it be that he had learnt that men like him
Had spent 400 years not even being seen
So when he got up on the mic
Forgoed platitudes about the American Dream
Instead got heard by lacing his verse with savage language
So a racist could hear everything he was afraid of
From unrestrained hate through to pussy lust and gun love

This wasn’t high art
But vexed brothers blazing a path
Giving a generation of wordsmiths the chance
To exercise their first amendment right to rhyme tight
On worthy subjects like hoes, blunts and Smith & Wessons
Until rap became more all-American than John Wayne westerns
And 20 years after Straight Outta Compton
And two decades of relentlessly negative self-portraits of black men
America had such a low opinion of this race of untermensch
That they rejected a white war hero, and elected a black President

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Jay-Z: the lessons from history

How did Jay-Z rise to the top?

I have always been mildly perplexed by Jay-Z’s pre-eminence in the rap game. He is not the best rapper, nor the most inventive or best produced. His monotone delivery is tedious when compared with Ghostface or Eminem. His lyrical content tends to shift between the contents of his bank balance and reminiscences about his youthful work experience.

I remember being given a white label of his Hard Knock Life album. I was getting nicely into Big Pun at the time, a rapper of astonishing wit and verbal dexterity. In comparison, Jay-Z seemed tame, and despite a somewhat amusing title track featuring the orphan Annie, Hard Knock Life was seriously below the late-90s average.

However, a decade or more on, there Jay-Z still is, still making that ridiculous ‘cheah’ sound before beginning yet another limp boast, on another pop hit.

So, the time has surely come to ask: how did Jay-Z rise to the top? And, more important, how does he stay there? Here I search through the history books to find some parallels to explain the phenomenon that is Jigga.

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)

Casually ordering another execution: Joseph Stalin

Stalin rose to power in Russia after the death of the more brilliant Lenin. He then wiped out all of his enemies, including Zinoviev, Trotsky and a few million others. He cannily made great political capital of carrying on the flame of Lenin, much like Jay-Z does with Biggie.

Now, I would never suggest Jay-Z organised the deaths of the more talented Biggie, Tupac, Big L or Big Pun. But he certainly benefited from a lot of rappers dying just at the time he was starting out in rap. It was, I am sure, all just a terrible coincidence.

Lesson for Jay: Eliminate your enemies.

Duplicitous and money-grubbing: Richard Arkwright

Richard Arkwright (1732-1792)
Arkwright was as skullduggerous, money-hungry, thieving bastard as has existed in England, who Jay-Z would no doubt admire greatly. During the Industrial Revolution, he infamously nicked the idea for the spinning frame, patented it, got rich, consigning the actual inventor, Thomas Highs, to the margins of history. This is similar to Jay-Z’s appropriation of Ice-T’s 99 Problems, and nicking part of Nas’s The World is Yours on Dead Presidents, which began their little argument.
Lesson for Jay: Nick other people’s ideas.

Joe Kennedy: The US ambassador was orignally a bootlegger

Joe Kennedy Snr. (1888-1969)
JFK’s dad made his fortune selling bootleg liquor during the Prohibition era, before going legit. This echoes Jay’s youthful business enterprises. Joe also married Rose Fitzgerald, a beautiful woman who was from a powerful political family in Boston. They went on to form the greatest political dynasty in US history, which bears a striking similarity to Jay’s highly strategic marriage to Beyonce. The happy couple have no doubt already plotted a great future for their offspring.
Lesson for Jay: Stack your riches, then go straight. Marry into power.

Beyonce and Jay-Z: in love with the Kennedy-esque idea of the career enhancing marriage

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The original Executive Producer. Did Shakespeare write all of Shakespeare’s plays? Of course not. Jay has learnt from the Shakespearean business model and is unconcerned about actually writing his own songs. As Ol’ Bill would no doubt tell Jigga, as long as most people think you wrote something, that’s all that matters. Legacy secured.
Lesson for Jay: Claim credit for everything.

Shakespeare: the original Executive Producer
Smaug
A dragon who nicked everyone’s money then sat on it.
Lesson for Jay: Nick everyone’s money, then sit on it.
Smaug: a massive influence on Jay-Z

Is Lil Wayne any good at rap? Erm…

As a hip-hop fan raised on Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and the Wu-tang Clan, I tend to take the view that rap music isn’t what it used to be.

My last significant foray was Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, which is less a rap album and more the sound of Kanye’s ego expanding to swallow up the known universe.

On the UK side of things, I am aware of Plan B, who is a tedious curmudgeon; Giggs, who thinks anything less than sullen aggression might compromise his heterosexuality; and Klashnekoff, who tries to sound preachy, and intelligent, and fails at both.

I’ll say this up front. I like commercial rap music. I like rappers who are boastful, arrogant and never let the truth get in the way of a good story. And not afraid to write a stupid lyric. Nelly’s first album has brought me more delight than all of the conscious rappers put together. His chorus to ‘Ride Wit Me’ never fails to make me smile:

Oh why do I live this way?
Hey, it must be the money

Nelly keeps his name round his neck, in case he forgets

Conversely, when Jurassic 5 came up with their pantwetting line, ‘I’m not trying to say my style’s better than yours’ my thought was, well if that’s your attitude why don’t you fuck off and play folk music instead?

So that’s where I’m coming from.

My investigations into modern rap began with Drake. I’d heard word he was the coming man. I YouTubed him and it just seemed like pop to me. A rapper with all the edges smoothed off. Boring.

I next looked at Kid Cudi, who has got an absolutely awesome freestyle he does on Westwood’s show. It was cool, but rather too intelligent for my liking.

YouTube then pointed me towards a freestyle Lil Wayne had done, also on Westwood. He prefaces his performance by saying ‘I can’t rap’ and proceeds to fully justify that claim. It was so incompetent I decided Lil Wayne was definitely worthy of further investigation. I’m also predisposed to rappers with ‘Lil’ in their name, as I’m rather lil myself.

Lil Wayne pretending to think

I’d usually go for the first album, but it appeared that Lil Wayne was almost totally inept on his debut. Wikipedia suggested his fourth album, 2004’s Tha Carter,‘marked what critics considered an advancement in his lyrical themes.’ With tracks such as ‘Hoes’, ‘Snitch’ and ‘I Miss My Dawgs’ one wonders what his less mature lyrics were about. Cheerios, perhaps.

Excited, I downloaded the album. It didn’t disappoint.

On the track ‘This is the Carter’ he opens with perhaps the best boast I have ever heard when he declares, ‘I’m finally perfect.’

‘Hoes’ has a lovely nursery rhyme chorus:

‘Hoes, let’s just talk about hoes
Can’t we talk about ho-o-oes?’
Ho-oes, motherfucker’

There’s a rehash of Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, called ‘Shine’, which he converts into a boast about one night stands. I imagine if Common heard it he’d have his head in hands, despairing about a new low for rap music. And then wank off to Gil Scott Heron.

But my personal highlight is ‘We Don’t’, on which he sounds like a skateboarder desperately trying to stay upright, and succeeding, but not quite knowing how.

In it he audaciously rhymes ‘feel me’ with ‘dealy’, creating a word to make the rhyme. Later he rhymes ‘Missi’ (as in the river) with ‘Swimmi’ (as in swimming). This, you have to admit, is technically rubbish, and would probably upset the GZA no end, but with his winsome southern drawl, he has enough gusto to pull it off.

When I mention my new rap love people uniformly respond that I don’t look like a Lil Wayne fan. I think that’s part of the appeal. There’s something good about standing on a packed bus, in my suit, reading the Guardian, while listening to a chap rapping about snitches, bitches and, indeed, riches.

He might be stupid, commercial and not that good at rapping. But, dammit, I HEART Lil Wayne.

Nate Dogg RIP – tribute / obituary to a g-funk legend

With the passing of Nate Dogg, the g-funk era has well and truly ended. It is time to remember the remarkable, revolutionary impact of Nate Dogg, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and indeed the whole of Tha Dogg Pound, on popular culture.

Let us cast our minds back to the early 1990s. Pop music was very different from what it is today. Phil Collins and Bryan Adams bestrode the charts like ageing warriors of middle-of-the-road rock. Kylie Minogue was a fixture in the UK top 10. Mariah Carey was just beginning her trilling rise to pop notoriety.

One of the greats - Nate Dogg

The rap music scene was burgeoning, but some of the artists held views which we can now see were wildly off-kilter. Some rap groups used the art form to promote radical political views, feminism even (Public Enemy); others, even more troublingly, sought to advance the cause of peace (De La Soul). It is shocking to us in the 21st Century, but these groups rarely, if ever, described women as bitches, or black men as n*ggaz.

With these groups dominating hip-hop, it was clearly the time for an alternative. Yes, there were tireless, hardworking folk such as Ice-T and Ice Cube advocating traditional American values of misogyny, homophobia, gun-love and laissez-faire capitalism. But these rappers, while essentially having the right approach, were too rough-edged for the mainstream.

If rap was to take over, something had to change. A new approach was needed. It was time for g-funk. Enter Tha Dogg Pound.

To all but the most underground fan, the key moment was the release of Dr Dre’s Chronic album in 1992. This album effectively ushered in g-funk, which used George Clinton and other classic funk samples with Dre’s beats, while giving the young Nate Dogg and Snoop Doggy Dogg room to express the full range of their talents.

A good example was Deeez Nuuuts, which featured, Snoop, Nate, Warren G and Daz (it has never been confirmed whether Daz was named after the washing powder – however I use the product to put a g-funk spin on my household chores).

While the rest of the chaps were spitting truth from the booth, the crucial role Nate Dogg played was delivering the gangsta lyrics in the innocent, honeyed tones of a classic soul singer.

So when Nate came with the inimitable line:

I can’t be faded, I’m a n*gga from the mothafucking streets

It made the heart soar, and nourished the soul. It was Nate who converted gangsta rap from being for hardcore fans only, to something your grandmother would dance to at a wedding reception.

Like many great artists who have died, the media has boiled his long and distinguished career down to just one moment: his work on the Warren G megahit, Regulate. There’s no doubt this is one of the greatest songs of all time, but Nate Dogg’s career went far beyond that.

I am fond of his contribution on Bitch Please, but particularly the follow-up, Bitch Please II, on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP.

Nate’s chorus went like this:

You don’t really wanna fuck wit me
Only n*gga that I trust is me
Fuck around and make me bust, this heat

With Snoop’s rejoinder:

That’s, the devil, they always wanna dance

I can also strongly recommend his work with Knoc-turn’al  on Str8 West Coast, Ludacris (Area Codes) and of course Just Doggin’ with Tha Dogg Pound, from a packed discography.

So what was Nate Dogg’s impact? While he was often the sideman, it was Nate’s voice which meant that a generation of young gentlemen could listen to rap music which their girlfriends could find acceptable. The girl could convince herself that Snoop didn’t say what she thought he said, while the chap would be perfectly sure what was being said, roll a blunt and act upon it.

For me, Nate Dogg is a modern version of the old blues shouter, Jimmy Rushing, whose theme tune, Jimmy’s Blues, could be seen as the ancient template for Nate’s style.

Compare Nate here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWUMSPekHBE
With Jimmy here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_g78VXusH4

When the dust has settled on his untimely death, we will remember a man who helped bring misogyny and gun-love back into fashion again with his once-in-a-generation voice.

Now I know there are a lot of people out there who favour ‘conscious’ hiphop over gangsta. Conscious is basically an umbrella term which covers ‘intellectual’ through to ‘preachy polysyllabic bollocks’. The essential difference is that it is substance over style, whereas g-funk was the other way around.

While I don’t mind a message in the music I listen to, when you live in suburban London and work in an office you want to listen to something with a bit of swagger to get you motivated to stare at Outlook for another eight hours. It acts as a thrilling counterpoint to my fairly tepid existence. I do like Saul Williams and Mos Def, but I prefer the gangsta shit.

Nate Dogg went for the gusto, the style, and he’s one of the big reasons rap is the dominant force in music it is today.

Massive love to Nate Dogg. All those up in the heavens: you really do not want to fuck with him.

RIP Nate Dogg