Maybe it’s just me, but goddamn, Shabazz Palaces is some of the best hip-hop to ever grace my ears. From the dark-tribal production, to the spacey atmosphere, all the way to the spiritual poetry of Palaceer Lazaro (aka Butterfly of Digable Planets), Shabazz Palaces understands the hip-hop Tao. However, I never understood one simple thing: what the fuck is a Shabazz Palace? This question led me down a rabbit-hole of research I never could have imagined. It’s mystifying, it’s unbelievable; it’s the story of hip-hop, Islam, and the mythical God Tribe of Shabazz.
The concept of the God Tribe of Shabazz is found mainly in the writings of Wallace Fard Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad. These two men were fundamental in founding and maintaining the Nation of Islam. In the 1930’s, Wallace Fard Muhammad arrived in Detroit, Michigan with a mysterious background; no one really knew who he was, or where he came from, but he made strong relations with the local black community, meeting Elijah Muhammad, one of his first followers.
He then taught the youth his own brand of Islam, drawing inspiration from Buddhism, Christianity, Freemasonry, Gnosticism and Taoism. After gaining a small following, Fard began to expand his power, claiming he had come from Mecca to preach the word of Allah; the ideal behind his teachings empowered African-Americans through spiritual, mental, social and economic means. Over time, his teachings spread to empower all of humanity. And today, these beliefs are echoed by MCs throughout hip-hop history like Big Daddy Kane, Tupac, Mos Def and Jay Electronica, among others.
In the early years, Wallace Fard Muhammad created most of the fundamental beliefs and mythology of the Nation of Islam, including the God Tribe of Shabazz. But after a follower of Fard committed murder in the name of Allah, Detroit police asked him to leave the city and never return. He left, but secretly came back a few months later. Again, he was discovered, arrested, and asked to leave. This time Fard disappeared for good, and no one really knows what happened to him. Some say he left for Mecca, some believe the police killed him—but the Nation of Islam claims he is still alive today, one that boarded the Mother Plane.
Wallace Fard Muhammad
Before he fled the city of Detroit, Fard made Elijah Muhammad the new leader of the Nation of Islam. He began preaching that Fard was a manifestation of Allah, that he was God directly intervening with the world and his words were sacred. He founded more Temples across the Midwest, and one in Washington D.C; under his leadership, the Nation of Islam expanded greatly, playing an essential role in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. He spoke about how the Black Man was the Original Man, who had to take back his spirit and destiny from white oppressors. He wrote a number of books on black empowerment and added a significant part to the Nation of Islam’s culture.
During this period of time, Elijah mentored a young man named Malcolm Little, who had heard about the Nation of Islam while serving jail time. A few years later the man changed his name to Malcolm X. He soon became one of the most prominent figures of the group during the 1950’s, becoming assistant minister of the Nation’s Temple Number One in Detroit, establishing Boston’s Temple Number 11, and finally leading Temple Number 7 in Harlem. Throughout the years, his legend grew into the man we remember today. But in 1962, Malcolm X gave a speech, invoking the mythology of the God Tribe of Shabazz:
“So this scientist named Shabazz took his family and wandered down into the jungles of Africa. Prior to that time no one lived in the jungles. Our people were soft; they were black but they were soft and delicate, fine. They had straight hair. Right here on this Earth you find some of them look like that today. They are black as night, but their hair is like silk, and originally all our people had that kind of hair. But this scientist took his family down into the jungles of Africa, and living in the open, living a jungle life, eating all kinds of food had an effect on the appearance of our people. Actually living in the rough climate, our hair became stiff, like it is now.”
According to the Nation of Islam, the Tribe of Shabazz is the original people of Earth, also referred to as the Original Man, or the Asian Black Nation. All of humanity is a direct descendent from the Tribe of Shabazz, but appear to be ethically different through countless years of grafting. They first lived on the Earth 66 trillion years ago—yes, that is correct, 66 trillion years ago. During this time in our galaxy’s history, the Earth and Moon were still one, and our planet was populated by 13 tribes. An ancient scientist, named Shabazz, wanted to unite the 13 tribes of Earth under one language, but failed. So then he attempted to destroy the Earth by blowing it up. As a result, a chunk of the Earth became the Moon, and all the tribes died, except the Tribe of Shabazz.
The Original Man of Earth was grateful to have survived, and understood their blessed position to still be living and breathing. Shabazz, the ancient scientist, the creator, recognized the strength of his people and decided to guide them through life. He wanted to make his people tough, so 50,000 years ago, he moved them to the jungles of East Asia (which actually refers to Africa, the cradle of civilization). Here, the Tribe of Shabazz learned how to endure the harsh side of life and conquered every wild beast they encountered. Through thousands of years, the Tribe of Shabazz migrated slowly through Africa, finally discovering the best part of the planet to sustain life: the Fertile Crescent, the rich Nile Valley and the present seat of the Holy City, Mecca.
When digging into the symbolism of this myth, the ancient scientist, Shabazz, is synonymous with Yaweh, God, Allah, even Mother Earth herself. The Tribe of Shabazz is simply the first humans, who came into being through the course of evolution; it is the universal force that manifests itself through the nature of our planet and our very own selves. In the Holy Bible, the Tribe of Shabazz is called the Children of Israel—for the words Shabazz, Israel, and Hebrew all have the same meaning, but originate from different languages. In the Jewish language, Israel means Chosen Tribe, and in the Hebrew language, it means God’s elect. The Tribe of Shabazz is the story of humanity, without the lies, dogma and doctrine of organized religion.
The Nation of Islam believes Christianity was created to enslave the mind and promote white supremacy, claiming it to be a manifestation of Satan; the teachings of Jesus Christ are not the teachings of Christianity, and the Church suppresses the truth to control the world. To be like Christ is to be free, just, equal: these are the teachings of Islam and of the Original Man. Christianity has created a white, blue-eyed Christ—but the Nation of Islam knows he was a Black Man of the God Tribe of Shabazz. Over the past 6,000 years, humanity has been warped into believing the lies and deception of the Church, leaving most hollowed and soulless. The Nation of Islam want to reclaim the sacred heart and permeate peace and love throughout the universe—for we are children of the divine!
Now back to Shabazz Palaces: what does it mean? It means we are all born divine, perfect: a marriage of spirit and flesh. It is understanding every moment and every breath of life is divine and a blessing: to live infinitely in every passing moment. Your body is your temple, your palace and heaven is here on Earth–no waiting for an afterlife, no life of suffering. It is embracing the depths of your soul and realizing you are a child of the Sun and Stars, a being of the Universe. It is about standing up for what is pure, against the grain of our violent society and reclaiming our spirituality. To me, it represents being completely and beautifully human. The hip-hop Tao indeed!
“I rap for listeners, blunt-heads, fly ladies and prisoners. Hennessey-holders and old-school niggas then I be dissing a, unofficial that smoke Woolie Thai. I dropped out of Cooley High, gassed up by a cokehead cutie pie. Jungle survivor, fuck who’s the live-er. My man put the battery in my back, a difference from Energizer. Sentence begins indented with formality. My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology.” –Nas, “Memory Lane (Sittin’ in Da Park)”
In essence, hip-hop music in 1994 was as diverse as it had ever been. From Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep to Common’s Resurrection to Biggie’s Ready to Die to Scarface’s The Diary, the genre sprayed sound and art in every direction. As was the case with the late 50s and jazz or the late 80s and indie rock, the early 90s set a stage where every artist, single and LP further pushed hip-hop music as a whole. In fact, it was here when hip-hop was most accessible and wide-open to the world; this was the most eclectic stage of the Golden Age. Despite this outward flow of branded ideas, sounds and compositions, 1994 was represented solely by one record: Nas’ Illmatic.
Everything comes back to Illmatic, just like everything comes back to Sgt. Peppers, and like Sgt. Peppers and rock, Illmatic is arguably the greatest hip-hop record of all time. No other piece paints the realism of hip-hop like Illmatic, and through 39 minutes it’s apparent that nothing will ever come close. It’s an album that beautifully weaves brilliant rhymes into eloquent stories, and further takes the listener by the ear with first-person narration that explores urban decay on the base of America’s dirty hands. Throughout Illmatic we see city dwellers get thrown into the “Rotten Apple’s” daily routine and the doings of the “Devil’s lasso.” We also experience the urgency of those plagued by urban America’s wastelands, as they are constantly harassed by the brick confines they call home: Queensbridge. Additionally, we are introduced to reasons why failure plagued the post-Civil Rights years, how the American Drug War inflicted more damage to the citizens than the drugs themselves and how the institution of the country and its prisons held the caged birds that actually stood for something. Through Nas’ visual storytelling and rhythmic street poetry we not only see this detailed story, but he makes it so that for 39 minutes we’re living it. Nothing that precedes Illmatic brings the listener into hip-hop like this, and nothing that comes after ever will.
“It’s only right that I was born to use mics.”
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones was destined for rap way before Illmatic was even a constructive thought. By the age of ten Nas already had verses to spit in the park, and his neighborhood friend Willy “Ill Will” Graham was a catalyst in his musical upbringing by introducing him to records and working as his DJ when he was Kid Wave. After his parents divorced in 1985, Nas found himself dropping out of school in the eighth grade. Through this string of events—a sequence that heavily influenced his path—Nas became a product of an environment that needed a voice.
The steps that followed these events spurred Nas to further pursue a career in music, which subsequently led to his partnership with Main Source producer Large Professor in 1989 (Shecter, The Source). After recording material in a studio that also housed Eric B. and Rakim, Nas got his first taste of the sleek shine of musical construction. And although Large Professor admitted Nas to record in the studio, none of these recordings were ever released.
It wasn’t until 1991 where those outside of Queens were finally introduced to Nas. With Large Professor pushing the gate open, Nas was featured on Main Source’s “Live at the Barbeque,” the tenth track off of their groundbreaking debut album Breaking Atoms. Given the first verse, it soon became apparent to the hip-hop world that Nasty Nas was a beast, frontrunner and messiah ready to be unleashed.
“Live at the Barbeque”
On a posse cut that bombards the listener with a hook that repeats the line, “It’s like that ya’ll,” “Live at the Barbeque” couldn’t have set the stage better for Nas’ introduction. Although we don’t see the unconscious flow or the structured verbal passion Nas possesses on Illmatic, it’s his attitude and swift jabs at religion, AIDS and U.S. history that grabs us before the 1 minute mark (“Kidnap the President’s wife without a plan / And hanging niggas like the Ku Klux Klan / I melt mics till the sound wave’s over / Before stepping to me you’d rather step to Jehovah”). Furthermore, “Live at the Barbeque” introduces an 18-year-old that rifles with metaphorical cuts masked in clever internal rhyme schemes that not only scoop us in the Golden Age’s ever-growing output, but also invade our mind with innovative thought (“Verbal assassin, my architect pleases / When I was twelve, I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus / Nasty Nas is a rebel to America / Police murderer, I’m causing hysteria”).
As soon as “Live at the Barbeque” dropped, Nas was perceived as the next Rakim, whether he wanted that title or not. And in a way, Nas never really followed that ambition, showing the world that comparison wasn’t in the discussion regarding his music. Still, Nas’ introduction on that infamous Main Source cut evoked a feeling that a game-changer was amongst everyone. It acted almost as a warning, but in the end it was nothing but a shining light into the future.
In the book Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai, Common reflects on the first time he heard Nas rap:
“I first heard Nas on the 1991 Main Source track “Live at the Barbeque,” and I knew, like everyone else, that Nas was an artist who meant something, who was going to change the game. And he didn’t disappoint.” (Dyson and Daulatzai ix)
A year after (1992) “Live at the Barbeque,” Nas found himself at a crossroads. It wasn’t a case of being musically challenged, nor was it a changing of the vanguard, but after Large Professor declined to represent and produce his debut album—due to Main Source’s inner turmoil—Nas was searching for someone or something to further his own path. That’s when MC Serch stepped in, the Jewish rapper from Far Rockaway, Queens and the highly influential hip-hop group 3rd Bass. Here, three important things happened: MC Serch became Nas’ manager and secured him a deal with Columbia Records; he featured Nas on his song “Back to the Grill” along with Chubb Rock and Red Hot Lover Tone; and on October 13th, Nas released “Halftime,” a song produced by Large Professor that was meant for the Zebrahead1 soundtrack. It would later become one of Illmatic’s most impressive cuts.
“Back to the Grill”
On “Back to the Grill,” Nas is the third featured verse behind Serch and Red Hot Lover Tone, and like “Live at the Barbeque,” Nas kicks and jabs with a ravage tone that utilizes blasphemous lines. What’s impressive is that “Back to the Grill” features Nas with better cadence and control, and with the exception of Serch’s first verse, Nas steals the show.
Although “Halftime” was recorded before Nas was even introduced to Serch, its release on the Zebrahead soundtrack created more waves. On an up-tempo beat that jingles over a dub bass backdrop, Nas introduces us to his Queensbridge roots, his own label Ill Will Records and his love for The Jackson 5 and Magic Mike. In actuality, “Halftime” was the piece that secured Nas’ record deal, but Serch was the one who set it up, and if anything Serch is the one who pioneered Illmatic the most outside of Nas.
Illmatic was now set a good two years before its eventual release. As Serch assumed control as executive producer, he soon contacted producers in the area to help fuel Illmatic’s raw sound. Among those that contributed were DJ Premier, Large Professor, L.E.S., Pete Rock and Q-Tip; it was an all-star lineup of producers for an all-star MC.
“The fiend of hip-hop has got me stuck like a crack pipe”
The team behind Illmatic is just as impressive as the album itself. Between Nas and the producers, along with guest rapper AZ, Illmatic serves as the ultimate culmination of the hip-hop dream team. In fact, at the time Illmatic was being recorded, Nas was probably the lowest—with the exception of AZ—name on the list of “those who mattered in the game.” MC Serch already established his position in hip-hop with 3rd Bass and their hit record The Cactus Album. Moreover, 3rd Bass was one of the first significant groups to represent hip-hop culture as a whole, sporting an interracial lineup between Serch, Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich. It was a combination that didn’t see the light of day in the 80s, and 3rd Bass pulled it off flawlessly. To add, legendary hip-hop icon KRS-One even stated that MC Serch was so influential in hip-hop as a white male that “without MC Serch, there wouldn’t be Eminem (Bachir and Slurg, hiphopcore.net).”
Elsewhere, Illmatic oozes with stature and class. At the time, DJ Premier was making headlines with Guru and Gang Starr, soon becoming one of the most recognizable producers with a tendency to mix smooth jazz samples and hard-cutting breakbeats. L.E.S., the producer behind “Life’s a Bitch,” would become a staple with Nas throughout his career, and at the time he was branded as an exciting force locally. “The World is Yours” was crafted by Pete Rock, who was riding off of the now legendary Mecca and the Soul Brother with CL Smooth. And then there’s Q-Tip, one-fourth of A Tribe Called Quest, who produced and provided guest vocals for “One Love.”
There was nothing to prove with this cast. There was no case of “one outdoing the other.” And there was no better lineup for Illmatic.
“40 Side is the place that is giving me grace”
Beyond the measure of the music, the lyricism, the content and the contributors, one can see what Illmatic represents before even spinning it. The cover art shows a young Nasir Jones planted in front of a section of the Queensbridge Projects, and stamped on the vinyl where Side A and Side B should be, the words 40 Side North and 41st Side South glimmer distinctly on the red Columbia label. Sprawled out, as if it’s a lavish map for the listener, Illmatic’s artwork is both stunning and informative. While the front cover shows us of Queensbridge’s vast interior and the hope of those caught in its bind, the back cover reminds us that hope is one of the few things that these residents actually have. As simplistic as it is clever, the back cover shows a bleak shot of an exterior fence with the housing projects beyond it. In front of the fence stands a beat-up sidewalk with graffiti, a couch, a downed pole and a small glimpse of the girders that hold up the Queensboro Bridge. With its sepia color tone, the back is the bleak, and the bleak is Queensbridge. And essentially, this is almost everything one needs to know when spinning the album for the first time, because without this backdrop, there is no Illmatic.
“It’s like the game ain’t the same, got younger niggas pulling the triggers pulling fame to their name”
The very first thing that can be heard on Illmatic is the swooshing sweep of the NYC subway. There are clanks and clacks that come from the train wheels and tracks, and immediately following is a sample from Nas’ verse on “Live at the Barbeque.” It’s an ode to the past—a mere look back at what started everything—and as soon as the track starts to glide, the tune changes, as it switches to a funk-driven cut with Nas and his crew talking about “keeping it real.” They discuss record labels, guns, alcohol and blunts, and in a snapshot only lasting one minute and 45 seconds, we as an audience get a look at the inner-workings of Queensbridge. It’s reckless abandon mixed with hope, and arrogance mixed with stupidity, but it’s all that they have.
We see tracks and content like this everyday now, but a majority of the time it’s merely emulation, as if what Nas and artists in the early 90s were doing is considered a free pass. No matter how much these new artists try to replicate this, and even to an extent envision it for themselves, nothing comes close to the original cuts and sincerity from artists like Nas and Kool G Rap. “The Genesis” shows this on a minor scale, but it further evokes the feeling that Illmatic had an influence on artists before they even thought about joining the game.
“Rappers, I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kicking. Musician, inflictin’ composition.”
Looking at Illmatic musically, the truth is that there is no breakaway hit. Sure, there are favorites, but from a pure musical standpoint there is no supreme cut. Nas gets the same message and meaning he does with “Memory Lane” as he does with “Represent” and so on, and with the versatility of the producers he worked with along with his lyrical diversity, nothing came out as redundant.
The one exception to the “Illmatic doesn’t have a supreme cut” theory is the first full song on the album: “N.Y. State of Mind.” It’s not that the hard-hitting song towers above the rest, but rather it has a certain attitude that isn’t replicated anywhere else on the album. One of the factors in this is the opening seconds of each song. From “Life’s a Bitch” to “The World is Yours” to “One Love,” the starting sound the listener hears with every song is somewhat uplifting: a smooth glimmering bass groove here (“Life’s a Bitch”); a “da da da” sample there (“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”); and a hard, yet jingling beat over on “Halftime.” My point being: most of the songs on Illmatic start out with some sort of glimmer of hope, which is just one of the many recurring themes on the album, but “N.Y. State of Mind” doesn’t.
“N.Y. State of Mind”
The Premier2 produced “N.Y. State of Mind” is grim, bleak and eerie. The cutting percussion rhythm bites at the listener menacingly, and the horn sample that lies over it flashes warningly, as if we the listeners are bound for trouble. By the 12-second mark, Premier introduces a foreboding piano sample from Joe Chambers’ “Mind Rain” and Nas introduces himself properly. “Straight out the fucking dungeons of rap. Where fake niggas don’t make it back.”
From here we see Nas speak with elegance, mixing slant rhymes with aggression, and truth with metaphor.
“Bullet holes left in my peepholes, I’m suited up in street clothes / Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes / Ya’ll know my steelo with or without the airplay / I keep some E&J sitting bent up in the stairway / Or either on the corner betting grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughing at baseheads trying to sell some broken amps / G-packs get off quick forever niggas talk shit / Reminiscing about the last time the Task Force flipped / Niggas be running through the block shootin’ / Time to start the revolution catch a body head for Houston / Once they caught us off-guard the Mac-10 was in the grass and / I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin.”
In these 12 bars Nas exemplifies the grim realities of urban America. Moreover, he gives us a look at the governmental drug war, resident life and police actions as they aim task forces to target the drug trade. “Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes” reflects the harsh realities of community wars and battles with law enforcement, but as the next line (“Ya’ll know my steelo with or without the airplay”) comes in, it soon becomes apparent that this whole set of bars is a double entendre for both city life and Nas’ rap game. Moving on from this, Nas talks about life (alcohol and gambling), the drug game (crackheads selling items to keep their high and selling G-packs), the police force (“task force flipped”) and a city-dwellers mentality (“thoughts of an assassin”).
Standing tall with over 60 bars3, “N.Y. State of Mind” is an eerie yet necessary introduction for Illmatic, and Nas shackles us with the grave truth.
“Suede Timbs on my feets makes my cipher complete.”
For a kid that dropped out of school in the eighth grade, Nas doesn’t show it, because Illmatic is littered with internal rhymes, double metaphors, double entendres, complicated subject matter and versatile vocabulary. To add, Nas’ cadence is nearly perfect, as his rhythmic poetry slips off of his tongue effortlessly. He intertwines lines running amuck with wordplay, and with so much subject matter, there isn’t a word or breath out of line.
The above lyric is the tenth bar from “The World is Yours” and is one of best examples showcasing Nas’ genius. In the nine bars preceding this line, Nas goes on to explain his originality.
“I sip the Dom P watching Gandhi til I’m charged / Then writing in my book of rhymes, all the words past the margin / To hold the mic I’m throbbing, mechanical movement / Understandable smooth shit that murderers move with.”
As Nas compiles in extreme detail how great he is in the game, he hits us with the knockout punch: “Suede Timbes on my feets makes my cipher complete.”
“The World is Yours”
“Suede Timbes on my feets” is a double entendre in meaning, because he is both giving ode to Boogie Down Productions’ “Dope Beat”4 and further explaining that what glues everything together are his shoes. In the second half of the bar, “makes my cipher complete,” Nas uses tricky wordplay to pack more meaning into one statement. In mathematics, a cipher is a whole and is represented by 0. In hip-hop, a cypher is where a group of rappers freestyle in a circle. So by going on saying that “suede Timbes” makes his “cipher complete,” Nas is fundamentally pushing two double entendres onto one line to create the metaphor that his shoes are the final touches that bring his game full circle. It’s a line packed with imagery, metaphors and double meanings, and it’s just one out of hundreds of examples of Nas’ masterful writing.
“These are the lyrics of the man, you can’t hear it, understand?”
From the opening track “The Genesis,” Nas presents himself handedly. Illmatic is a tale in its most complicated form and it comes at us “with no chaser.”
“One Love” hops musically, with ringing percussion samples and quick snare slaps. As Q-Tip sings “one love” during the hook, Nas constructs his verses in the form of a letter to his friend in prison.
“What up kid? I know shit is rough doing your bid / When the cops came you should have slid to my crib / Fuck it black, no time for looking back it’s done / Plus congratulations, you know you got a son / I heard he looks like ya, why don’t your lady write ya? / Told her she should visit, that’s when she got hyper / Flipping, talking ‘bout he acts too rough / He didn’t listen he be riffing while I’m telling him stuff / I was like yeah, shorty don’t care, she a snake too / Fucking with them niggas from that fake crew that hate you / But yo, guess who got shot in the dome-piece? / Jerome’s niece, on her way home from Jones Beach / It’s bugged, plus little Rob is selling drugs on the dime / Hanging out with young thugs that all carry nines / And night time is more trife than ever / What up with Cormega, did you see him, are ya’ll together? / If so then hold the fort down represent to the fullest / Say what’s up to Herb, Ice and Bullet / I left a half a hundred in your commissary / You was my nigga when push came to shove, one what? One love.”
It’s a unique and clear way of telling a story, and like earlier examples, this shows us Nas’ use of putting more meaning into one statement. Through this letter Nas reflects on the lives of those affected by a friend or family member in prison, all while detailing the workings of Queensbridge after a prominent figure is roped by authorities. “So stay civilized, time flies,” Nas spits at the end of verse two. “Though incarcerated your mind die, I hate it when your mom cries.”
On “Represent,” Nas literally represents Queensbridge. He discusses the drug game and the rules to it (“Get murdered on the humble, guns’ll blast, niggas tumble”), the corner drug game (“The corners is the hot spot”), the Us vs. Them mentality against outsiders (“guzzling beers, we all stare at the out-of-towners”) and the constant war against drugs that America has immersed itself with (“…the streets is filled with undercovers / Homicide chasing brothers, the D’s on the roof trying to / Watch us and knock us”)
The song “Life’s a Bitch” shows how Nas gets existential with themes. On the only track that features a guest verse, Nas and AZ cover ghetto life, religion, death and one’s duty during life. AZ’s verse, which is now considered one of the greatest guest spots on a hip-hop song ever, discusses how those in the ghetto go by its teachings and that in such a short amount of time there’s a “no harm no foul” type of attitude. We see this here:
“Keeping this wealth professing street ghetto essence inside us / Cause it provides us with the proper insight to guide us / Even though, we know somehow we all gotta go / But as long as we leaving thieving, we’ll be leaving with some kind of dough.”
On the chorus AZ sings, “Life’s a bitch and then you die / That’s why we get high / Cause you never know when you’re gonna go.”
During Nas’ verse, he mentions religion in a lighter sense, despite his past religious lines (“My physical frame is celebrated because I made it / One quarter through life some Godly-like thing created”). Elsewhere he raps, “I switched my motto, instead of saying fuck tomorrow / That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto / Once I stood on the block, loose cracks produce stacks / I cooked up and cut small pieces to get my loot back.” Slaughtered with imagery of the ghetto life, nihilism, the entrapment of American decay, and one of the few money-making jobs for those trapped (drug dealing), “Life’s a Bitch” stands on the pedestal of what America has slowly become. It’s a dream that’s hardly reached by those in poor standards, and it strangles prisoners of the city with fake dreams like the lottery. It also places mindsets into those who are capable of so much more; because this life that they live is so constructed for them, those trapped in the projects dismiss proper morals, instead substituting them for crime and one-way thinking.
“Life’s a Bitch”
Out of every track on Illmatic, “Life’s a Bitch” represents how much ground America lost in the 20th century, and how much it still needs to make up. And under fluid cadence and visual rhymes by Nas and AZ, it stands as the most important track on an album full of them.
“Coming outta Queensbridge”
1994 represented the final layer of the “First Golden Age” of hip-hop, and although it showcased many records and artists that changed the way of thinking, and the culture’s output, no record compared to Nas’ Illmatic. Not only did Illmatic touch on themes of urbanization, the failure of American policies, the drug trade and ghetto life, it showcased this with stylistic storytelling that was touched on before, but never to this degree. Nas infused metaphors with internal rhyme schemes and first-class producers with a diverse set of beats, and single-handedly set a new standard for album creation. Like Kool G Rap before him, Nas was a prime street poet, but Illmatic proved that he was on another level. Cuts like “Life’s a Bitch” and “N.Y. State of Mind” represent the American society that isn’t recognized by the government, and the minds of those trapped in its clutches. “Represent” is an ode to all of the places that make a person what they are, and “One Love” gives hope to those affected by task force America and the prison system.
Imagine where hip-hop would be without Illmatic. It’s difficult. AZ, Cormega, The Firm, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Tupac, Mobb Deep, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Just Blaze, Clipse and Blu and Exile are just a handful of artists that have been directly affected by the album, and as hip-hop ages, the list grows.
Furthermore, entire movements swayed when Illmatic dropped. At the time, the G-funk synth-driven West Coast rap movement was experiencing dominating record sales due to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, and when Illmatic was released it created a viable space between geographical sound. For East Coast hip-hop, Illmatic stands as one of its most important pieces. Not only did the album restore the East Coast scene, but also it represented New York City like no other work.
Illmatic may be 19 years old now, but every time it gets played it feels like an original pressing getting spun for the first time. Beyond all of the critical praise and universal recognition, the album itself means something different depending on whom you talk to. Timeless may be a term that’s overused, but in this case it fits, and if hip-hop music was wiped off of the face of the Earth and there could only be one album to re-construct the genre from the start, it would be Illmatic.
1Zebrahead is a 1992 drama directed by Anthony Drazan that tells the story of an interracial relationship between a white man and a black woman, and the rising tensions that stem from this.
2 DJ Premier produced three tracks for Illmatic: “N.Y. State of Mind,” “Memory Lane” and “Represent.” According to MC Serch, the sessions between Premo and Nas were the most successful. Serch: “Nas was very picky, no lie, we went through at least 65, 70 beats on this album to find the ten that made the album. The most enjoyable sessions for me were the Premo sessions. I mean, Premo and Nas, they could have been separated at birth. It wasn’t a situation where his beats fit his rhymes, they fit each other (Shecter, The Source).”
3 According to Premier, Nas did “N.Y. State of Mind” in one take. Premier: “If you listen to ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ you’ll hear him going, ‘I don’t know how to start this shit,’ because he literally just wrote it. Before he started the verse, I was signaling him going, ‘One, two, three,’ and he just goes in (Cho, Complex).”
4 “Dope Beat” by Boogie Down Productions has a line that goes “got Nikes on my feet and to be complete.”
Bachir and Slurg. “Interview with MC Serch.” HipHopCore. Web. June 2007.
Cho, Jaeki. “DJ Premier Tells All: The Stories Behind His Classic Records.” Complex. Web. 18. Feb. 2011.
Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai. Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic. New York. Basic Civitas Books. 2009. Print.
Note: this is part three of a four part series. You can read part one here and part two here.
By: Kelvin Criss
“They schools can’t teach us shit” (Dead Prez, “They Schools”)
In addition to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense protecting their community, they also had a strong focus on educating their community. Many hip-hop artists educate their communities as well. They teach us about what the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was able to accomplish when the people worked as one.
“I tried to pay attention but they classes wasn’t interestin’ / They seemed to only glorify the Europeans / Claimin’ Africans were only three fifth’s a human being / Until we have some shit where we control the fuckin’ school system / Where we reflect how we gon solve our own problems / Them niggas ain’t gon’ relate to school, shit that just how it is / Know what I’m sayin’? And I love education, know what I’m sayin’? / But if education ain’t elevatin’ me, then you know what I’m sayin’ it ain’t” (“They Schools”)
Dead Prez’s song entitled “They Schools” is about the racism found in many school districts. It describes the dire lack of relevant information taught in many schools. One lyric discussing the necessity of education that relates to the community is, “Until we have some shit where we control the fuckin’ school system, where we reflect how we gon solve our own problems? Them niggas ain’t gon’ relate to school.” This quote explains the frustration of much of the youth in urban areas. The lack of relevant information in their schools makes it hard for many students to want to learn. Immortal Technique has similar ideas, which he expresses in “Revolutionary.”
“They’re preparing your children for the prison environment / When you don’t amount to shit prison becomes retirement / But I refuse to be took in to central booking in chains / Cause sleeping on the floor in cages starts to fuck with your brain / The system ain’t reformatory, it’s only purgatory” (“Revolutionary”)
These lyrics express the distaste for the education system as well as the “reformatory” system. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense understood this, and thus created their own classes to help educate the community on relevant matters such as their history, their rights, their social status and how they can change those things.
Some hip-hop artists promote illegal downloading and bootlegging of their albums to counterattack not only the record companies, but also to spread the message. In Immortal Technique’s “Harlem Renaissance” he says, “Bootleg my own album, to reach customers.” This shows that he does this because he does not care about the money or the fame. He simply wants his message to be circulated; he wants the people to be educated. The Political hip-hop artists stress education of the community just as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense stressed it. However, the problem is that most of the news that is broadcasted is extremely biased. This makes it hard for the community, especially those who believe what they hear, to learn what is really going on. For this reason Immortal Technique’s “Leaving The Past” addresses this issue. He says, “I never seen so much racism in all of my life, every program and newscast, all of them white. It’s like Apartheid with ten percent ruling the rest.” This is a warning not to trust all of what you hear. And that the listener needs to dissect the news he or she hears on the television, radio and the Internet.
Many artists such as Public Enemy have used their lyrics to work almost as news. Sometimes specific, but often broad topics are expressed in their lyrics. For instance, Public Enemy’s “Raw Shit” depicts the exploitation by big business.
“In between the government and the public that’s trained / Where white companies profit off black death / And house nigga rap thugs sell murder to kids / Where the media maintains all thought control / And fake news propaganda serve to rot the soul / We all unified to fight, keep the message and awake black / Open up your eyes, see the enemy and shake that / Bullshit lyin, free your mind, we combine” (“Raw Shit”)
This song not only explains what companies do to the people, it also addresses the problem of “fake news propaganda” and what it does to the people. Dead Prez’s “Propaganda” addresses the same ideas when they say, “filling our head with lies got us hypnotized.” The chorus of this goes, “The views that you see in the news is propaganda.” The goal of these types of songs is to educate the community, for no weapon is stronger than knowledge.
Educating the community was always one of the top priorities of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as well as some of those who are involved in hip-hop. This is because without an educated community, little can be done. An uneducated community can be violent, however they will not know what to do with the power they posses. They will be a mob rather than a political power.
Dead Prez. Let’s Get Free. Rec. 1998-2000. Loud Records, 2000. CD.
Dead Prez. RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta. Rec. Feb.-Mar. 2004. Sean Cane, Stic, 2004. CD.
Last year Killer Mike joined forces with Brooklyn producer El-P and released the much-anticipated R.A.P. Music. Killer Mike’s sixth studio album encompasses the in your face, fearless and dubious persona audiences have come to expect from the Atlanta MC. Without intros, skits or interludes, this album runs for about forty-six minutes and is packed to the brim with Killer Mike’s unique perspective on the south, city life, politics, religion and the transformation of music throughout history. Hip-hop, like any musical genre, is ever changing. As we usher in a new decade with innovative sounds and concepts, R.A.P. Music merges classic hip-hop with newer production techniques.
The first track, “Big Beast,” is that forceful, fast paced banger with finger snaps, snare drums, and intense bass lines featuring Bun B, T.I., and Trouble. These southern giants take turns on this posse cut, delivering memorable lines such as, “Listen to my Kimber .45 go bang / Bang, bang, Grindtime, rap game/ We the readers of the books and the leaders of the crooks.” Right off the bat, Killer Mike and El-P welcome the listener into what promises to be a wild ride of dope rhymes, phat beats and controversial topics.
While Killer Mike has politically charged lyrics, it is difficult to align him with a particular political ideology. As with his past albums, Killer Mike takes more of an apolitical stance, providing thoughtful anecdotes on our past, present and future. This could not be more apparent on the sixth song entitled “Reagan.” In the first verse, Killer Mike focuses on “Reaganomics” and the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980’s. In the second verse Killer Mike brings these issues to a present day context. His apolitical position is unmistakable as he explains, “Ronald Reagan was an actor, not at all a factor / Just an employee of the country’s real masters / Just like the Bushes, Clinton and Obama.” Killer Mike is getting at an important reality that we must recognize; the President of the United States, regardless of their party affiliation will fall victim to the status quo. This is true throughout history if you check the stats.
By the end of R.A.P Music, Killer Mike appears to be deep in thought. On the title track, he talks about how he sees hip-hop as a religion; his form of worship. His second verse is comprised of shot outs to well-known musicians that came before him such as Muddy Waters, James Brown, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and Outkast. Something even more important happens on the final track. This song is important because it is an example of how hip-hop is a way of life, a way of being. Muddy Waters and Miles Davis might not be classified as hip-hop by ITunes, Spotify or Pandora. However, as Killer Mike makes clear, these artists are hip-hop because they changed the game in their respective eras. The best part about R.A.P. Music is the fact that in forty-six minutes, Killer Mike and El-P are able to take the listener to the far reaches of the hip-hop universe, and then bring you back in one piece.
The first time I heard Killer Mike I was actually in elementary school. My friend Andrew, who had introduced albums like Ludacris’ Word of Mouf to the group, played “The Whole World” by OutKast, and smacked in the song was a verse by Killer Mike. I was too young at the time to actually remember the name Killer Mike, or the record that “The Whole World” was featured on (Big Boi and Dre Present…OutKast), but lines like “Flisten, glisten, floss, gloss / Catch the beat running like Randy Moss” stuck with me until my knowledge would grow. Several mixtapes and albums later, I look at Killer Mike not only has a talented wordsmith, but also as an MC with something to say.
On the infallible R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike and producer El-P join forces to showcase an album that not only runs fluidly under one producer, but also appoints specific breaks for rare guest spot appearances. The structure of the album is dense and to a point, and conceptually it runs on a blueprint. As far as content, the album features the most soul and sincerity Mike has ever put-out, and songs like “Reagan” and “Anywhere But Here” run with this as they cover governmental corruption and problems with trickle-down economics. Elsewhere, Killer Mike goes off on the being and state of hip-hop (“R.A.P. Music”), abusive law enforcement (“Don’t Die”) and relationships (“Untitled”).
What’s important to note with these takes is that Killer Mike’s political stance and morals aren’t driven by over-blown conspiracy theories or pure hatred. In a way, he’s stringing along moderate beliefs to further the album as a whole. On R.A.P. Music it isn’t about the individual cuts, but rather the big picture, and this is a message that is often overlooked by artists when making a conceptual piece. Without a complete track, the message gets muffled, but in a full circle it’s too clear not to miss.
Not too long ago in a Maize and Blue (University of Michigan) galaxy far, far away, student government candidates Mike Proppe and Bobby Dishell performed a publicity stunt in order to get votes. They hired Da’Quan (a Michigan student and YouTube sensation) to film a video. In the video, like many of his others, he exploits common stereotypes that hound both Black and hip-hop culture in order to gain attention while simultaneously endorsing Proppe and Dishell. The public outcry that resulted from the video was harsh, as many student organizations complained to the University, which forced Proppe and Dishell to take it down and apologize for uploading such a racist video.
A comedian’s job is to push the envelope of what’s acceptable. If a comedian isn’t doing this, he or she probably isn’t successful. From Tosh.0 to Dave Chappelle, funny men habitually feed off racial stereotypes and misconceptions that have formed in the minds of Americans in order to generate entertaining content. In the case of Da’Quan, University of Michigan students Mike Proppe and Bobby Dishell obviously wanted something geared towards a younger audience that would generate publicity, no matter if it was positive or negative. Clearly, the negative aspects outweighed the positive, as they were forced to apologize for making the video because it was found to be inherently racist. I do believe that this video has many racist qualities to it (such as the name Da’Quan). Despite that, Da’Quan’s language is in no way, shape, or form improper or uneducated, and this is important because it is a microcosm of the lack of respect for hip-hop culture as a whole.
The way that Da’Quan talks (although he takes it over the top) in the video has become synonymous with hip-hop in today’s world and is often labeled as broken English. This idea could not be further from the truth, as the way Da’Quan talks is recognized by linguistic experts across the globe as an independent language, commonly referred to as Black Language or Ebonics. Michigan State University professor and distinguished scholar on Black Language, Geneva Smitherman, shoots down all of the misconceptions that constantly hound Black Language in her book, Talkin That Talk:
“Ebonics is emphatically not ‘broken’ English, nor ‘sloppy’ speech. Nor is it merely ‘slang.’ Nor is it some bizarre form of language spoken by baggy-pants-wearing Black youth. Ebonics is a set of communication patterns and practices resulting from Africans’ appropriation and transformation of a foreign tongue during the African Holocaust” (Smitherman 19)
This makes sense, as the dictionary defines a language as “a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.” That definition of language, along with Smitherman’s point that Black Language has unique syntactic and phonological features, makes it clear that Black Language is its own individual language, as it originated from a group of people with a common cultural tradition.
On paper, the existence of Black Language sounds legitimate. The problem is that those who have not studied linguistics do not respect it as such. It is commonly referred to as “street slang” or other less than endearing names with negative connotations. This is due to the fact that the language originates from Black (as well as hip-hop) culture. Because of the dominant culture of white supremacy and “standard English,” Black Language fails to garner the respect it deserves. “Standard,” “proper” or anything along those lines are only arbitrary titles that the powers that be (White America) put on a certain way of speaking. Just because these words are not found in the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t mean that they are not respectable or intelligent words. Fuck, a red line still appears under the word “frindle.”
Stanford professor and renowned linguistics expert H. Samy Alim articulates this concept a lot more elegantly than I can:
“The fact that is the language and communicative norms of those in power, in any society, that tend to be labeled as ‘standard,’ ‘official,’ ‘normal,’ ‘appropriate,’ ‘respectful,’ and so on, often goes unrecognized, particularly by the members of the dominating group” (Alim 57).
In this case, White America has completely ignored and demeaned an essential part of Black/hip-hop culture, and has punished blacks for not conforming to their standards. According to Wichita State professor William Thomas, “The way a person talks, a person’s language, is part of him, part of his culture, part of his self-pride, and part of his very identity” (4). From that viewpoint, it is easy to understand why hip-hop artists proudly use Black Language in their songs: Black Language represents their individuality, history and pride.
Calling Black Language improper (or any other adjective along those lines) also implies that the language is uneducated. I understand that Da’Quan takes it over the top (as any comedian would), but the way that he speaks in this video is not uneducated by any stretch. Labeling it as uneducated is practicing language supremacy, which is defined by Alim as the “unsubstantiated notion that certain linguistic norms are inherently superior to the linguistic norms of other communities” (Alim 13). How are we supposed to say one way of speaking is better than others? Is England’s form of English better than ours? Is Arabic superior to Spanish? This is a huge problem throughout America, and instead of disparaging somebody else’s way of speaking, we should be practicing language equanimity, which is described as the “structural and social equality of languages” (Alim 14). Honestly, I hang around people that are very “educated” and are attending some pretty esteemed colleges. Constantly, we pick up phrases that come from the mouths of these so-called “uneducated thugs” because they express our actions and feelings a lot better than “proper” English. Rather than harping on hip-hop artists for their illiteracy, we should be praising them for their ill literacy (shoutout to Alim for the wordplay). Dr. Smitherman put it best when she said: “hip-hop is a barely explored reservoir of linguistic riches” (Smitherman 155).
If anything, the ability to carve phrases and expressions from scratch that replace “standard” sayings reflects the remarkable capacity for creativity within hip-hop culture. What is considered hip-hop language is never constant and ever-changing; it’s flowing. This idea is perfectly summarized by Jubwa of the hip-hop group Soul Plantation when he explains:
“It’s not defined at any state in time, and it’s not in a permanent state. It’s sorta like—and this is just my opinion—it seems to be limitless. . . So, I feel that there’s no limit and there’s no real rules of structure, because they can be broken and changed at any time. And then a new consensus comes in, and then a new one will come in. And it will always change, and it will always be ever free-forming and flowing. . .” (Roc the Mic Right, 14)
This quotation can be attributed to hip-hop culture as a whole, as artists are constantly redefining what hip-hop is. From Anthrax’s contributions to Public Enemy’s “Bring tha Noize” to A$AP Rocky’s collaboration with Skrillex on “Wild for the Night,” the line between hip-hop and everything else is constantly being blurred.
The lack of respect in relation to the language of hip-hop is an issue that plagues the culture as a whole. For example, I remember listening to Kanye West’s “Family Business” in my car and my girlfriend’s mom told me to “Turn off that nonsense.” The fact that Kanye is a “rapper” formed such a negative preconception that she wouldn’t even give the song a chance. What made this so much more frustrating was the fact that “Family Business” is the worst song for her to call “nonsense” because it is an upbeat song reminiscing about all the great memories and experiences that come from having a tight knit family. ‘Ye even touches on the stereotypes that prevented her from understanding the meaning of the song: “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind/A creative way to rhyme without usin’ knives and guns.” This was a Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson moment that happens to hip-hop fans on a regular basis: people unfamiliar with hip-hop listen to the music, but pre-existing stereotypes prevent them from hearing it. Anybody who has been in this situation can certainly relate to the frustration that I felt, as there was nothing I could do to get her to hear KanYe.
This preconceived notion that hip-hop brings nothing of substance to the metaphorical table ruins the experience of hip-hop for too many people. This misconception typically forms from the artists’ language, which is not a logical reason to discard an artist’s voice. I understand that some hip-hop artists’ intellectual ceilings top out at “fucking bitches and getting money,” but that should not prevent people from hearing conscious artists such as Talib Kweli or Kendrick Lamar, especially when these artists are the lone voices blowing the whistle on social injustices that go unnoticed in urban areas across the globe. Although people like Proppe, Dishell and Da’Quan mock the language of hip-hop, we must fight against these stereotypes ingrained in society regarding Black Language, because it is not until the mainstream media and the court of public opinion start respecting every aspect (including the language) of hip-hop culture that the essence of hip-hop can truly flourish.
Alim, H. Samy, John Baugh and Geneva Smitherman. Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change. New York: Teachers College, 2007. Print.
Alim, H. Samy. Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin That Talk: Language, Culture, and Education in African America. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
Thomas, William J. Black Language in America. Vol. XLIX. Wichita: Wichita State University, 1973. Print.
Nearly 50 years later we are still feeling the ripples from the civil rights movement, but according to the film, Back to the Future, we should be extremely advanced by now. Sadly, life rarely reflects the perfection of cinema.
Even though the concept of equality is a simple one, it appears to be a word that not many people understand. The fact that this is still a huge issue is ludicrous.
Prejudices and stereotypes are often comical and playful topics amongst the youth of America because most of the kids telling the jokes don’t have to deal with these kinds of problems. They don’t get frightened looks from their peers when walking late on campus. They don’t have to deal with others mocking the accent of their immigrant relatives. If you are not a minority, you simply blend in—-that is unless you are surrounded by minorities in one particular instance.
The media doesn’t seem to help the cause either. Through television, films, magazines, advertisements and whatever else, people are becoming brainwashed into identifying others based on physical appearance and lumping them into whatever group that they feel one belongs in. People think that just because one person who looks a certain way is associated with a particular lifestyle that all people who look that way must be associated with it as well. Ultimately, that is ignorance and there is nothing blissful about being misinformed.
Here is the norm: straight, Caucasian and male. But if you simply splash some color on the skin it becomes a completely different story. Why is that? It is simply mind boggling that a mass majority of people on this planet haven’t realized that skin tone is absolutely irrelevant to the actual human being that you are. The word “race,” is totally unnecessary in terms of classifying people because the only race is the human one.
Unfortunately, the color of people’s skin isn’t the only divider of equality in this country. Being a female is also an issue and so is being anything but heterosexual. But the feminist movement and the LGBT movement is steadily on the rise to reach their goal of acceptance and equality.
These are problems that are currently on this writer’s mind because an incident concerning similar issues occurred to him. The night was April 12, 2013 and I was near Central Charlotte (I live in Charlotte, North Carolina). This is how I was dressed that night:
So, me and some buddies were in this part of town that is littered with bars, venues and restaurants. Our plan was to bar hop and to eventually get food. We went to a couple of places and ended up at a joint called The Blind Pig. The entire night I was dressed like I am above and I was equipped with my backpack—something I have with me often. It has my rhyme book in there, some novels just in case I get bored, writing utensils, condoms, rolling tobacco and other miscellaneous things. I’d rather have them and not need them, than need them and not have them.
Anyways, we end up leaving The Blind Pig to go get hot dogs. We soon return to meet with friends who were still there. We left again to get pastries at a bakery and returned once more. We were going to go in and get our peoples and leave to go to a party. I left my backpack in the car. We enter The Blind Pig and they’re gone, so we were about to leave. Suddenly, I get approached by a guy asking where my backpack is. I tells him that I don’t got it, it’s in the car.
“You gotta go,” he says. I was confused but luckily we were leaving anyway or so I thought.
I head outside and I thought the dudes I rode with were behind me but when I exit the bar and look back, they’re gone. I question if I should go back in because I had been kicked out (for no reason) but I couldn’t just stand there. I approach the door guy who originally stamped my hand to get in and let me and my buddies back in every time that we came back.
Then a small, sweaty man with glasses and beady eyes, the manager, walked up and stared at me. I kindly greeted him and he ignored me and told me I had to leave. Of course, I question him and he tells me that I look like a drug dealer. A goddamn drug dealer of all things. I ask him how and apparently it was the coat, hat and backpack I was wearing. Also, I was talking to people and being social. These are totally justified reasons to kick someone out of your establishment (sarcasm).
I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t and there was obviously no reasoning with him. I couldn’t go back in to get my friends, I had to leave and I was treated like he had actually caught me dealing drugs.
You see, we live in a mad world where things like this still happen to people. Was it because of my hair or my skin tone? I don’t know. But he had eyes on me the entire time I was there and I reaped the consequences for committing the crime of being myself.
And that’s the fucked up part about all of this judgmental nonsense. People are discriminating against other people based on aspects of their life that they have no control of. You can’t change who you are and you shouldn’t have to because you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s society that needs to get its head out of its abysmal ass.
A true MC is defined by their ability to craft a story with their words. The story could be about love, pain, happiness, partying or even politics. It really doesn’t matter as long as the MC tells their story in an imaginative way that shows their creativity and makes the listener reflect on what is being said. This type of MC is not found in the mainstream culture of “Top 40” music. The mainstream of hip-hop is dominated by a masculine ethos that promotes violence, aggression and degradation towards women. Because of this, hip-hop comes across as a genre intended for male consumption because of the glorification and emphasis on hyper-masculinity and homophobia. Unfortunately, this is the case in much of mainstream hip-hop, however it isn’t true of all hip-hop. They may not be as well known, but there are many female MCs that are clever storytellers and attentive social commentators. Female MCs such as Invincible, Rah Digga, Jean Grae, Boog Brown, Miz Korona, Angel Haze, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and Jane Doe offer up their unique perspective in a genre dominated by masculinity.
Hailing from Detroit, Boog Brown is a brilliant lyricist that describes herself as a “lover, fighter and artist.” In September 2010, she released Brown Study with Detroit producer, Apollo Brown. In the song “Master Plan,” the second cut from the record, Boog Brown declares, “I want my toes painted fresh/New sun dress/New Tims/New vest/And a Smith and Wes.” Further on in the chorus she goes, “I want the power/Peace, knowledge, wisdom, understanding/It’s the master plan.” And in the second verse she explains her ideal man would “respect me as his equal/Don’t mind checking his ego.” In “Master Plan,” Ms. Brown defies the objectification of women found in many rap lyrics and takes ownership of her identity as a woman and artist.
In the song “Play The Game,” also off of Brown Study, Ms. Brown explains how she will not let people take advantage of her. In the first verse she tells the story of a producer that is attracted to her and attempts to sleep with her. However, as Brown explains, “I ain’t so dope when you find out I won’t fuck for a placement.” In the chorus Brown affirms, “I play the game never let the game play me/Gotta be in it, never of it, don’t explain a thing/They misconstrue try to use it for the third degree/But save your scrutiny, I’ll continue doing me.” This is repeated again, but this time ends with “save your scrutiny, I’m a human being.” In one fell swoop, Boog Brown is challenging the notion that women are objects to be used and abused by men within the music industry.
Originally from the Middle East, Invincible moved to Detroit when she was in middle school. Invincable is on par with any of the popular MCs currently in the rap game and she blends intellectual lyricism with a passion for social justice issues within her music. In Detroit, she does work to raise awareness for the neighborhoods and communities affected by re-gentrification. In the song “Sledgehammer,” off her 2008 release, Shape Shifters, Invincible declares that we must “SMASH the walls of hate/End it for the next descendants” and then goes on to insist that “each generation must find its mission, fulfill or betray it/I know that ours is more than just being killers or players.” Here Invincible is making the argument that with all of documented instances of political corruption and greed, society can’t wait for the government or depend on other politicians to make the world a better place. Instead, if we want a better tomorrow, we have to make it happen. This is much different from the common themes of “smoking trees” and “gettin’ money” found in much of the popular hip-hop out there.
Beyond these two women, there are more MCs that use the pen, the pad, rhythms of the spoken word mixed with heavy boom baps and complex horn samples to address the societal inequities and double standards we live with everyday. In an industry that celebrates the male ego it becomes important to seek out alternate forms of hip-hop that provides a different perspective.
Note: this is part two of a four part series. You can read part one here.
By: Kelvin Criss
“We gotta fight back’ that’s what Huey said” (Tupac, “Changes”)
Hip-hop has a strong focus on self-defense, not violence. The idea of protecting one’s community, much like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s idea of police patrol and self-defense, is very clear in the lyrics of the music. Hip-hop often has notions of confronting police due to injustices against one’s community and protecting the community from foreign exploiters. This can be seen in countless songs such as Dead Prez’s song “Assassination.”
“Them belly full, my trigger finger got pulled/To cut the bull shots’ll warm your flesh like wool/These tools for survival make fools out of rivals/Fuck the Bible, get on your knees and praise my rifle/Your life is done there aint another place to run/Eat your own gun, scared because my people never known fun” (“Assassination”)
“Them belly full” conveys the same message as Tupac’s “Holler if You Hear Me” as far as police exploitation. “My trigger finger got pulled” has the same message of fighting back in order protect one’s community from further innocent blood being shed by the police. Immortal Technique’s “Fight Until the End” has a very similar message to Dead Prez and Tupac’s songs.
“Dem’ shoot at us/Turn around and deny it/People on the streets are dying/We must come together/Fight depression and pull de pressure/On de system that tries to diss us/Tries to hurt us, and tries to kill us/We don’t win, we fight again/We gon’ fight until the end, until the end/We fight until we win, until we win.” (“Fight Until the End”)
“Dem’ shoot at us, Turn around and deny it…Fight depression and pull de pressure, on de system that tries to diss us,” shows the violence that police use against those who are from the community; people are being shot in their neighborhoods for unknown reasons by the police departments. Dead Prez has a song entitled “I Have a Dream Too” which describes a group of Panther-like revolutionaries who are looking for a police officer who shot a boy. Later in the song, a woman sings about the incident of a young boy being shot by the police.
“Just when you thought it was safe/Police kill a little boy last night/They said it was a mistake/But that won’t bring back his life/His momma couldn’t believe/That it could happen to her/She prayed to God everyday/Guess it just wasn’t enough” (“I Have a Dream Too”)
These lyrics show the hardships that people in urban communities endure. As if poverty wasn’t bad enough, they have to deal with the police shooting their youth. In their song entitled “Far From Over,” Dead Prez state: “Truth is like a 44 magnum in this business/I’m out to go Jonathan Jackson on you bitches.” This is a direct reference to George Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, who was taken out of his trial by his younger brother, Jonathon Jackson and friends, who were armed with automatic weapons. Dead Prez say this to not only incite community action, but also to commemorate what the community had done. “You ain’t got the right to bear arms, huh?/Sometimes you might have to brandish a motherfuckin’ firearm.” This line from Immortal Technique’s “Lick Shot” describes the mentality the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense has. This belief is not exclusive to the Party, but rather is common belief amongst revolutionaries. In order to protect ones community, one must pick up arms to protect one’s neighborhood.
Public Enemy’s “Can’t Hold Us Back” is about protecting one’s community:
“We rep justice, equality and freedom now/Put fam first, man, woman and child/Never mild, keep it hostile ’til we raise/Where we say, what we mean and we mean what we say/It’s been a long time comin’ that we mob as one/Guerrilla Funk, Hard Truth nigga, that’s what’s up/No peace on the street ’til the justice come/From the ballot to the bullet, if it’s on, it’s on” (“Can’t Hold Us Back”)
This song both resonates the ideas of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and describes what the community needs. These lyrics not only mention the lust for “justice, equality and freedom,” but also that there will be, “No peace on the street ‘til the justice come[s].” All of these songs mirror the principles of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In particular, how the members of the community are willing to stand up for their rights, pick up arms and fight, even die, to protect their community.
Keep up with Bonus Cut and its continual look on the ideas of the Black Panthers in hip-hop every week in this four part installment.
Dead Prez.Let’s Get Free. Rec. 1998-2000. Loud Records, 2000. CD.
Dead Prez.RBG: Revolutionary but Gangsta. Rec. Feb.-Mar. 2004. Sean Cane, Stic, 2004. CD.