The Greatest Show of All Time: “The Wire” and Its Hip-Hop Roots

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By: Daniel Hodgman

The Wire is an American drama that ran from 2002 to 2008 on HBO. The series is set in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, and was created by David Simon, a former Baltimore police reporter. The show focuses on many aspects of Baltimore and the typical American city, and its reoccurring trait is that it focuses on institutions and the people that are committed to them. The Wire’s portrayal of America is not only a reflective piece of our country’s society, but also an in-depth connection to hip-hop, as it tackles the constraints on the lower class, oppression from outside forces, the fight against corruption and the withstanding notion of fighting for peace and change.

It’s been said many times before that The Wire is one of the greatest television dramas of all time, and by now this unanimity merely serves as a small reminder. What can be agreed upon by fans of the show is that The Wire is the essential look into “the American city”, where creator David Simon weaves the precision and look of great literature into a show that explores the economic, political and social aspects of America. The show’s depth presents a scope that goes unmatched, and through this artistic showing, The Wire captures everything through its main antagonist: the broken city of Baltimore. What may merely look like a gritty crime drama through the first couple of episodes, The Wire soon picks up pieces as fast as they fall down (Wallace forever). By the end of season one, everything that this show represents is laid out for you. Tackling the ongoing scrutiny and degradation of the urban lower class and Black America, the War on Drugs, America’s school system, mainstream media consumption, the plight of the blue-collar urban working class and city politics, The Wire conveys true heartbreak of the American city with the glimmering embodiment of hope.

While The Wire may seem lifelike, it’s still just a television show. At the base of everything, what David Simon and the rest of his crew have established is a fictional portrayal, and not a true parallel to some of America’s deep-rooted characteristics. That being said, the show’s plethora of rich characters, cutting imagery and themes and bevy of real-world situations puts The Wire on a pedestal higher than anything ever put out. Whereas The West Wing constructed an explosive story behind White House politics, and Breaking Bad a thrilling moral meth-infused story in New Mexico, both of those shows ran on some sort of minute sense of being contrived; The Wire never suffered from this flaw; it’s as real as it gets.

In The Wire you find yourself rooting for “good police”, “hoppers”, “junkies”, government officials, school teachers, students, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and Omar Little. Because of the show’s rich slate of characters, each with their own story, you find yourself cringing at their pain, and cheering when they break free from some problem they’re faced with. Along these lines, the show makes it a point to tell you that true heartbreak of the American city is real. People you learn to love will leave; villains you want locked up get away; politicians who lie and cheat will win; journalists who break their code sometimes succeed; and even real-life heroes pass away. The Wire is a direct reflection of the urban stockade system of classes and individuals, and as a result, many stories end in heartbreak rather than a sun-setting Matrix Revolutions happy ending. This in turn makes the rare success stories such a pleasure and relief, and if The Wire can be applauded for one thing only, I would have to look at its ability to make an equal connection with both the American city and its audience.

The characterization of The Wire and the canvas on which all of its contents are laid out can be appropriately compared to many of its memorable quotes. Whether it’s Senator Clay Davis proudly shouting, “I’ll take any motherfucker’s money if he givin’ it away,” or Marla Daniel’s pin-pointing the American city system in one short sentence (“The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you don’t play.”), quoting the show might provide a more detailed reasoning as to why it’s so spot on.

In season’s three and four, Howard Bunny Colvin is portrayed as a commander of the Western District of Baltimore Police and an Academic aide. During his separate stints with both occupations, he delivers not only hard-hitting strokes of genius, but words of truth. In season three, Bunny is a police commander nearing retirement. This in turn pushes him to fight for something that will have a real impact, and thus he refuses to juke police stats (in order to make it look like crime rates are lower), and analyzes a situation where low-level users can take drugs in a confined neighborhood without facing punishment (he compares the illegal consumption of alcohol in public places to the city’s drug problems). After an undercover drug deal sting goes wrong, Bunny throws everything out in the open and criticizes America’s need for taking down every drug offense while at the same time throwing away power for other police work.

“Regarding Officer Dozerman, his condition has been upgraded to guarded. Until he can receive visits, he’s been moved to a recovery unit. As of this tour, all hand-to-hand undercover buys of CDS are suspended in the Western District.

Somewheres back in the dawn of time this District had itself a civic dilemma of epic proportions. The city council had just passed a law that forbid alcoholic consumption in public places, on the streets and on the corners. But the corner is, and it was and it always will be the poor man’s lounge. It’s where a man wants to be on a hot summer’s night. It’s cheaper than a bar, catch a nice breeze, you watch the girls go by. But the law’s the law and the Western cops rollin’ by, what were they gonna do? If they arrested every dude out there for tipping back a High Life there’d be no other time for any other kind of police work. And if they looked the other way, they’d open themselves to all kinds of flaunting, all kinds of disrespect.

Now, this is before my time when it happened but somewhere back in the 50s or 60s, there was a small moment of goddamn genius by some nameless smoke hound who comes out the cut-rate one day and on his way to the corner he slips that just-bought pint of Elderberry into a paper bag. A great moment of civic compromise. That small wrinkled-ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace and gave us permission to go and do police work. The kind of police work that’s actually worth the effort, that’s worth actually taking a bullet for.

Dozerman, he got shot last night trying to buy three vials. Three!

There’s never been a paper bag for drugs. Until now.”

The genius behind Bunny’s speech on drugs and alcohol is so simplistic, yet it’s so defying given the situation. In one fell swoop, Bunny criticizes police wasting time on useless crimes, instead of policing neighborhoods and keeping people safe. He also turns the stat game around on its head. In a situation where his superior’s are calling for “juking” the stats by arresting low-level drug dealers, Colvin mightily stands up against this. “A great moment of civic compromise. That small wrinkled-ass paper bag allowed the corner boys to have their drink in peace and gave us permission to go and do police work. The kind of police work that’s actually worth the effort, that’s worth actually taking a bullet for.”

In season four, after he is relieved of duty, Bunny becomes an Academic aid to the University of Maryland studying social relations among city youth with a violent past. Talking with a school administrator about his socialization project, Bunny tries to convince the administrator lost in the system without a sense of reality that education tactics need to be switched to benefit that of the kid, instead of the program and institution.

Bunny:You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on a blackboard, or teach them every problem on some statewide test and it won’t matter, none of it. ‘Cause they’re not learning for our world, they’re learning for theirs. And they know exactly what it is they’re training for, and what it is everyone expects them to be.”

SUPERINTENDENT:I expect them to be students.”

Bunny:But it’s not about you or us, or the tests or the system, it’s what they expect of themselves. I mean, every single one of them know they’re headed back to the corners. Their brothers and sisters, shit, their parents, they came through these same classrooms, didn’t they? We pretended to teach them, they pretended to learn, where’d they end up? Same damn corners. They’re not fools, these kids. They don’t know our world, but they know their own. I mean, Jesus, they see right through us.”

With these two quotes, one being a thesis on city law enforcement and the other being one on the education system, The Wire takes the audience into the realistic realms of society that are too afraid to be touched by other shows. To some, these quotes may be earth shattering, but to most, these scenes represent so much more; they represent truth.

One of the other underlying aspects of The Wire that should be praised is its backing of hip-hop directly. The show itself reflects hip-hop thematically and morally, but at times there’s also a direct correlation with the culture, especially in music. Because there isn’t much time for the show to present music on its own frame, The Wire uses music through the happenings of the characters on the show.

The way music is woven into specific scenes and transitions reflects how music is woven into everyday lives. In season one, Lt. Daniels and his men are trying to track down drug kingpin Avon Barksdale, and when Daniels passes by Barksdale on the street, he sees Avon wag his finger while DJ Spooky’s “Rock the Nation” blasts in the car. Later on in that season, Kima Greggs is on an undercover assignment and is riding along with Orlando, a strip club owner turned informant, with Black Star (speaking of…) blasting on the stereo, which in turn disrupts the signal Daniels and the rest of his squad are receiving from Kima’s microphone.

In The Wire, the music isn’t just thrown into scenes and stories for filler; they’re actually used with a purpose. In the low rises, hip-hop bellows from the windows and onto the courtyard, providing a haunting yet day-to-day feeling among the viewers. Kids on the corners hang out with hip-hop in the distance as a sense of calm and togetherness before a potential problem could arise. Even during gatherings, music such as that of Marvin Gaye is played to reinforce the scene, the motive and setting.

With music, David Simon is able to strategically place it to benefit the overall head of the story. He uses it to not only propel certain sequences, but he also uses it to reinforce the sense of reality. And when it comes to hip-hop music, this is the most clear and direct correlation between the culture and the show itself.

What is perhaps the most astounding about The Wire is its truth. It flashes in front of the viewers’ eyes every scene, and whether it’s a quote or a character’s actions, what this show strives on is its eye-opening hidden realism. From long speeches about old drug laws that don’t work, or an education system that is flawed and favors the institution, to the direct life correlations of hip-hop music in the streets blasting from buildings, this show perpetuates truth. Just like true hip-hop, the themes and ideologies showcased on this show won’t stick out in mainstream media or be shouted from the mouths of politicians; most of these themes are going to be too intellectual and true for the masses. Consequently, this is why The Wire has always been surrounded by critical acclaim, but never successful with television ratings. And if you can walk away from the show knowing anything, this may be the brunt of it right here: the reason why The Wire never succeeded commercially is because it was a threat to the overall system itself.

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