Welcome back for the second installment of “Coming of Age with Hip Hop.” As promised from last week, we will be critically reviewing Hip Hop circa 1994. However, before I begin, allow me to recap the best albums and honorable mentions from 1993. You all will see an extra album placed in 1993’s Honorable Mention that I forgot to add to last week’s list. Please accept my humble apologies for the oversight. In no particular order, the lists are as follows:
Best Albums of 1993
Snoop Dogg: Doggy Style
Wu-Tang: Enter the Wu-tang (36 Chambers)
A Tribe Called Quest: Midnight Marauders
Honorable Mention (1993)
Black Moon: Enter Da Stage
KRS ONE: Return of the Boom Bap
Digable Planets: Reachin (A New Refutation of Time & Space)
Souls of Mischief: 93 ‘till Infinity
Without question, 1994 is a landmark year for Hip Hop. The culture birthed several of its preeminent albums and songs that year. Who can forget the first time they heard Common’s “I Used to Love Her?” Who recalls staying glued to Rap City in hopes of catching Keith Murray’s “The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World” or Gangstarr’s “Mass Appeal” video? And I doubt that anyone forgets the debut opuses delivered by cultural icons like Nas, Outkast, Method Man and Notorious B.I.G.
One must also remember the vibrant underground scene of this time. While quite a few rappers and rap groups enjoyed commercial success in ‘94, artists and groups such as O.C., M.O.P., Organized Konfusion, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Jeru Da Damaja and Gangstarr all delivered cult classics that still resonate in underground Hip Hop circles to this day. If you don’t believe me, just assemble a crowd of Hip Hop enthusiasts that are at least 27 years old and play O.C.’s “Time’s Up” or M.O.P.’s “How About Some Hardcore” and wait to see if grown men don’t jump up and down like small children while hugging each other screaming, “That’s my shit, son!” I witnessed and participated in this very nostalgia project myself two years ago in Charlotte, NC at a Nas concert during the Hip Hop is Dead tour. I doubt I will ever observe that kind of solidarity and brotherly love again. You must be Hip Hop in order to understand why I would crack a smile when observing two grown men assume a combative posture just to face off and rap Pharoahe Monch’s verse from “Stress” in perfect unison. These types of Hip Hop practices build a cultural affirmation that underscore the genuine appreciation that Hip Hoppers have for 1994.
Musical, artist and underground iconography notwithstanding, Hip Hop’s most imperative attribute in 1994 was its biting social commentary. The tortured psychologies of the oppressed, teamed with the heinous, dehumanizing conditions of the urban environments black youth were forced to inhabit became the muse for the best albums released in 1994. Forged from the hunger, devastation and death of their ignored environments, Nas, Outkast, Jeru the Damaja, Scarface and Notorious B.I.G. didn’t just craft the best rap albums of 1994, but they created some of the premier albums recognized in the annals of Hip Hop history. With the shared impetus of lending a microphone and microscope to the invisible places that they call home, these artists depicted the plight of the black and poor with the same integrity and conviction that Richard Wright and Ann Petry did with their classic novels, Native Son (Wright, 1941) and The Street (Petry, 1946) decades earlier. That said, let’s critically engage the best works of 1994…
Could we start with anything other than Nas’ Illmatic? This album ushered in an epoch of new lyrical standards for East Coast rap. It was critically acclaimed as a classic as soon as it was released, and the streets couldn’t wait to validate the critics’ assessment. Before I had heard one track from Illmatic, I remember Nas being affectionately referenced as “the motherfuckin’ shit!” Travel back with me…
One Saturday afternoon, my older brother, Phil, who was finishing up his last semester at NC A&T, allowed me to tag along with him to his homeboy, Mento’s apartment. They routinely gathered there to play John Madden on Sega Genesis and I was always eager to be in this mix. Mento was a tall goofy-looking cat from Long Island, New York who found his way down to Greensboro to attend NC A&T as well. Before he and my older brother began their first game of Madden, Mento turned to me and said,
“Yo Meat, turn that tape over and let’s get some music in this motherfucka.”
“Ok,” I replied. I took the tape out the large double-cassette boom box and then asked, “What’s Ron G?”
“What’s Ron G? The hottest motherfuckin’ DJ there is nigga,” Mento answered.
“Oh ok. So this is like one of them mixtapes you be pumpin’, Phil? I like these shits.”
“Phil, you hear your little brother, yo? Listen to him tryin’ to act like he know what time it is.”
“I can’t front now, if it’s one thing that little nigga know, it’s some music,” Phil said to Mento.
“Oh ok, he don’t know nothing about no Nas though,” Mento retorted while looking at me with a wry grin.
“Who is Nas?” I asked somewhat sarcastically.
“The motherfuckin shit, nigga! He about to take this shit over. Put the tape in, he coming up first.”
And that was my introduction to Nas. As I reflect on it now, what better way is there to be introduced to a Hip Hop giant and icon other than through the authentic cultural gateway of the mixtape? But I digress…
Weeks after my initial mixtape listening of Nas, I saw the “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” video for the first time and was on a frantic mission afterwards to score Nas’ album. When I had finally secured my own copy of Illmatic, I waited till late at night when everyone else was asleep to play it in my walkman. I wanted an undisturbed listening experience, but instead I received a multisensory awakening and voyage to the space and place of Queensbridge.
As soon as I pressed play, it seems that I was transported from my bed to the streets of Queensbridge. I closed my eyes and witnessed everything that Nas rapped about. This was an intense listening experience that peeked my attention and adrenalin to their respective apexes. I was sitting straight up in the bed by the time I reached “Halftime.” When the tape stopped and I was forced to take it out and turn it over, I just looked at it for a moment and whispered “damn.”
I didn’t immediately engage Side B. I needed a moment to digest all that I had already heard. I got out the bed, turned on the light and picked the tape case up from the floor. I sat back down on the bed and just stared at the album cover for at least five minutes…
I didn’t fully realize it then, but now I know that it’s impossible to critically assess Illmatic without first starting with the album cover. On the album cover, a headshot of a young Nas melts into the project tenements and street scenery of Queensbridge. This visually suggests what the album later confirms: that Nas’ innocence has been ravaged and consumed by the projects and streets of Queensbridge. Examine Nas’ countenance. His face is cold and stoic. There is nothing friendly, warm or inviting in his facial features. His eyes are piercing and give the appearance that they have long lost their childish and boyish glow. Unfortunately, this is quickly confirmed on the opening track, “N.Y. State of Mind.”
“N.Y. State of Mind” serves as an abstract for the entire album. Everything that Illmatic seeks to address, reveal and ponder is afforded space on the detailed and graphic, sensory-overloading narration of “N.Y. State of Mind.” Before the first verse even begins, Nas sets the stage of the album and song with the words, “Straight out the fuckin dungeons of rap where fake niggas don’t make it back.”
This is a critical prefacing claim. Culturally, Nas is doing two things here. He is affirming Hip Hop and rap’s symbiotic relationship to the nefarious space of the streets and he is also ascribing a social and political authenticity to this space. These are key constructs that run throughout Illmatic. One is certainly given the impression that this album could not exist if Nas was not intimately familiar with the horrific plight of black urban America. In fact, this holds true for all of Hip Hop. The essence of the culture and the culture itself was erected on a foundation of black pain and oppression. So it is appropriate that Nas extends this metaphor to say that he comes from and dwells in the dungeons that the entire Hip Hop castle and stronghold is built upon.
We must also pay attention to the claim, “where fake niggas don’t make it back.” Again, this alludes to the social authenticity of the streets and the political attention to black suffering. In order for the “fake niggas” to make it back, one must assume that they have been able to escape the “dungeons of rap” (i.e. poverty, the streets and/or ghetto). What these people do- once removed from the oppressed communities they come from- determines whether or not they are real (i.e. socially/politically motivated to help impoverished blacks) or “fake niggas.” It is imperative to understand that Nas is not calling for a physical return to a ghetto address and station, but rather a conscious political turn to address the ghetto condition. For Nas, Illmatic functions as that conscious political turn that addresses the conditions of poor, urban black America. Illmatic is dedicated to being an authentic soundtrack for those still suffering in and struggling through the “fuckin dungeons of rap.”
As we enter in and make it through “N.Y. State of Mind” it only makes sense that the next song is “Life’s a Bitch.” “N.Y. State of Mind” is a proverbial mine field in which Nas carefully navigates and negotiates death with each step. Each verse is riddled with guns, flying bullets, shootouts with cops, wars with rival crews, dodging stick-up kids, shuffling pass dope fiends and keeping an eye on the youngsters that are quickly growing to be more vicious and violent than the current lost souls he observes trafficking along this ghetto landscape. Nas keenly articulates how this perilous space leads to a crazed insomnia where the physically, psychologically and emotionally tortured are left to themselves to define what life tragically is when he raps, “I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death/ Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined/ I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.”
Imagine what it means to reside “beyond the walls of intelligence” where nothing makes sense. In N.Y. State of Mind” and all throughout Illmatic, Nas vividly articulates the madness and pathology that poor black folk have normalized as life. After defining such a grotesque reality, how could Nas not arrive at the conclusion that life’s a bitch and then you die?
“Life’s a Bitch” also demonstrates Nas’ understanding of his own vulnerability to Queensbridge. Knowing that death (or what he pitifully considers life) is ready to swallow him whole at any moment, Nas actually takes a moment to celebrate the unlikely accomplishment of reaching his twentieth birthday. Unfortunately, reality immediately sets back in as his celebratory thoughts are haunted with past visions of robbing immigrants and cooking and selling crack for income. The true hopelessness of this song rests in the chorus where AZ laments how life has even turned the drug pushers into drug abusers as their lots are no better than the junkies that they serve, and thus, “Life’s a bitch and then you die/ That’s why we get high/ Cuz you never know when you’re gonna go.”
Before I move on, allow me to say that each song from Illmatic warrants a detailed analysis but unfortunately I don’t have the space here. I would wind up writing a thesis if I attempted to adequately address the complexities and implications of every key work that Illmatic holds, but I would like to briefly discuss one more song, “One Love.”
“One Love” is a brilliant vignette through which Nas is able to express how the daily settings and occurrences of Queensbridge rival the horrid and soul-crushing environment of jail. The song opens with a skit that situates the narrative in prison before Nas raps the words to a letter he wrote to a neighborhood friend who is now incarcerated. He starts by congratulating his friend on his newborn son, but we soon realize how this becomes a blessed and tragic event. Nas proceeds to tell his friend how his girlfriend (assumingly the child’s mother) is now romantically entertaining men that were his friend’s known rivals prior to his incarceration, but this is barely the tip of the iceberg. This unfortunate news is compounded with Nas’ real concerns: the dreadful truth of how Queensbridge mercilessly preys upon its young.
In the letter that Nas’ voice personifies, he specifies recent occurrences of Queensbridge preying on its youth. He informs his jailed friend of how Jerome’s niece was shot in the head and that Little Rob is now hustling and running with a gang of young thugs that all carry .9s. Nas’ grave summation about the environmental surroundings that his friend’s son has been born into is simply that nights in Queensbride “are more trife than ever.” The listener gets the impression that Nas is suggesting that jail is more safe and sane or at least just as safe and sane than the Queensbridge that Nas “freely” scribes about in his letter. How’s that for irony? Truly a community is under siege when its residents consider their existence to be tantamount to state imprisonment.
These are only a few examples of the poignant social commentary that undergird the paramount cultural offering of Illmatic. Nas’ poetic acuity and graphic storytelling capabilities are unparallel over the precise production of DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock, L.E.S. and Q-Tip. Everything about Illmatic was (and still is) fresh and original. Moreover, everyone who heard Illmatic instantly knew that Nas would be the consummate lyricist and voice of Hip Hop for years to come.
While the East Coast was still reveling in the freshness and excellence of Illmatic, the South produced its own new voice and brilliance with the emergence of Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik (Southern). Southern was actually released just one week after Illmatic and proved itself to be just as timeless. This classic particularly resonates for young Hip Hoppers below the Mason Dixon who were struggling to visualize and actualize their peculiar voices and sensibilities within the bourgeoning Hip Hop landscape.
Most of my homies gravitated towards Outkast much quicker than I did. While I loved “Players Ball,” the visual performance of southern black masculinity that the “Players Ball” video displayed did not speak to or for me. By this time, I probably even considered myself to be a native New Yorker. The East Coast influence of Wu-Tang was significantly amplified by the cool, nonchalant demeanor of Nas; and on many occasions I had to be checked by my neighborhood crew with statements like, “Nigga chill. You ain’t from New York.”
I was able to set my geographic identity issues aside however and really give Southern a chance once I heard “Crumblin’ ‘Erb.” And I was happy to hear that “Crumblin’ ‘Erb” is indicative of the album’s excellence. The creativity of sound backed by the new and distinct resonance of Outkast’s voices arrested me on this song and compelled me to sit down and give the album a fair listen. Once I did, I finally heard what my comrades were raving about.
Similar to Illmatic, Southern provides an amazing social commentary, but Big Boi and Andre deliver a critically enhanced and more nuanced analysis of their surroundings than Nas offers with Illmatic. The reason being is that Outkast chooses to focus on the people of the community rather than the conditions of the community. This allows Big Boi and Andre to also comment on the beauty of black people struggling through despair and chaos and not just depicting them as victims predetermined to a hopeless fate of devastation and death. Southern locates the spirituality and humanity of Atlanta’s black and poor while Illmatic’s Queensbridge dehumanizes its black residents as spiritually and emotionally crushed vessels operating beyond the walls of intelligence.
Southern also brilliantly evokes the voices of community through colorful interludes like “Peaches,” “Club Donkey Ass,” “True Dat” and the beginning of “Claimin’ True.” The voices are diverse and represent varied responses to oppression and white supremacy. Whether it’s the righteous poetry of Big Rube on “True Dat” or the exchange between a common street hustler and drug dealer on “Flim Flam,” Southern makes sure that community is authentically represented in all of its beauty and ugliness… and most importantly, in its own myriad voices.
The content of Southern notwithstanding, we must also deal with the sonic innovations of Organized Noise’s production. If the production on Illmatic can be defined as “precise,” then the creative sounds of Organized Noise are pleasingly extra. Southern integrates musical elements from all facets of the black American musical tradition. Understanding that black music originates in the South, Outkast and Organized Noise pay homage to their region’s rich musical heritage and ensure that the dynamic and nuanced features of American black music are accounted for on Southern.
Lastly, Southern demonstrates the incredible lyrical prowess of Andre and Big Boi. Their Atlanta drawls, dialect, slang and unorthodox rhyming patterns were memorable hallmarks of 1994. From “Ain’t No Thang” to “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” to “Git up, Get Out,” Outkast’s vast topical range proved itself to be immeasurable. Outkast crafted songs about pimps, players, gangsters, hoes, masculinity, identity, self-determination, white supremacy, black on black crime, poverty, drugs, and everything else under the Georgia sun. Southern certainly points to the limitless possibilities of the black experience and the infinite ways in which one can discuss being southern and black. Fifteen years later, it’s amazing to see how Big Boi and Andre would continue to explore the possibilities of Southern as their respective artistic and personal trajectories began to unpack themselves.
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik is a Hip Hop heirloom. It’s a sacred text that must be passed down from one generation to the next. It’s a remarkable social, political and cultural examination of black humanity and spirit. In closing, allow me to salute the best Hip Hop group of all time with an emphatic Hootie Hoooooooooooooooo…
The Sun Rises in the East
Jeru the Damaja’s The Sun Rises in the East (Rises) didn’t achieve the cultural prominence of Illmatic or Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, but it still remains one of the best rap albums of all time. I actually contend that it’s the most underrated rap album ever. Exclusively produced by Hip Hop legend, DJ Premier, Rises features arguably the best work of Premier’s extensive career; and unquestionably, Rises serves as one of the best models for progressive, radical Hip Hop resistance.
The brilliance of Rises lies in Jeru’s sophisticated understandings of the agenda and working paradigms of white supremacy. He moves beyond the limited foci that both Nas and Outkast advance. Jeru is not merely invested in the degenerative conditions of the community nor simply how the people in the community respond to said conditions, but he focuses on the macro implications of black genocide, black maladaptive psychology and American cultural hegemony. Jeru doesn’t just obsess over the problems either. Unlike Illmatic and Southern, Jeru also takes the time to explore solutions in the possibilities of cultural nationalism, Pan-Afrikanism and Taoism which collectively aid in developing a healthy, holistic and progressive Black knowledge of self.
Rises begins with an intro, “Life,” that provides an excellent and elementary overview of the Taoist philosophy of yin yang in a couple of sentences. Jeru proclaims that:
Life is the result of the struggle between dynamic opposites: form and chaos, substance and oblivion, light and dark and all the infinite variations of yin and yang. When the pendulum swings in favor of one, it eventually swings in favor of its opposite. Thus the balance of the universe is maintained.
This is an important, functional intro that provides the context for what Jeru is preparing to do with Rises. It is imperative that we understand the philosophy of yin yang because Jeru skillfully occupies polar ends of the pendulum as he simultaneously starts from two antithetical extremes in order to meet in the middle and collapse the oppressive yoke of white supremacy and American hegemony. He simultaneously embraces and explodes rigid, stereotypical notions of black masculinity with natural and supernatural powers that allow him to operate in different times, spaces and dimensions with the same self. Rises is so complex that it could serve as a musical treatise that explores the possibilities of quantum physics and the laws of attraction relative to the black liberation struggle… no bullshitting, my nigga, it’s that deep!
Examine the first song, “D. Orginal.” On the first verse, Jeru situates himself within the modern-day context of poor, black Brooklyn and states,
“Dirty rotten scoundrel that’s what I’m called on the street.” Recognizing the worthlessness that mainstream America assigns to black men who come from impoverished communities, Jeru openly acknowledges how he is perceived to majority culture.
He later describes his oppressed Brooklyn environment as “the land of crooks yes Brooklyn’s the borough/ Homicide central East New York/ Where the manic depressive psycho murderers stalk.” With these lines, Jeru is depicting the violence and antisocial psychology that Brooklyn breeds and that he must negotiate as a regular resident.
The conditions of this Brooklyn and how he responds to them are articulated as “And there’s more hard times, than more good times/ And most niggas dedicate their life to crime/ So I’m steady schemin’, won’t work for a dime.” This is an interesting set of lines because it further delineates the daily struggles of Brooklyn and how these struggles compel black men to engage in deviant, criminal behavior. The most important line is the last line in which he groups himself with the other Brooklyn niggas and states his refusal to submit to a subordinate wage-earner/slave station and agency.
Now, after Jeru has basically described himself as a common, street hoodlum and petty criminal from the ghetto of modern-day Brooklyn, the hook- a DJ Premier facilitated scratch of Guru repeating “Dirty Rotten Scoundrel”- supposedly affirms this despised and powerless reading of Jeru. But in the second verse, Jeru explodes and re-versions what a “dirty rotten scoundrel” is as he re-presents himself within a new historical, spiritual and Afrikan framework, with a new cultural, political wherewithal and supernatural powers at his command. The second verse in its entirety reads:
Before trains were graffiti proof I used to get loose
Dirty rotten since the days of the deuce
Dirty, because of the skin I’m in
The fact I have melanin automatically makes me a felon
Even though I’m righteous, rotten’s what you’re yellin
But I’m not chain-snatchin, or drug-sellin
According to your books you said I would be damned like Ham
Scoundrel opposite of the king that I am
But wanna get funny, we can get bummy
Take you to the East and back again money
Filthy putrified trick, step past your sister
Challenge the Damaja, and you’ll be history
Mortal Kombat fatality, the original don’t sing no R&B
Nasty MC deity
Chop off domes with the poems that come out of my pineal
gland, as I expand, you know who I am
Notice the historical starting place of the second verse, “Before trains were graffiti proof I used to get loose.” In other words, even before the state suppressed his Hip Hop resistance reactions of pronouncing his invisible existence through graffiti, he was alive and free. The idea of getting “loose” signifies the mobility and agency that a free man possesses.
Now notice how Jeru illustrates white supremacy’s historical attempts to malign and criminalize blackness:
Dirty, because of the skin I’m in
The fact I have melanin automatically makes me a felon
Even though I’m righteous, rotten’s what you’re yellin
But I’m not chain-snatchin, or drug-sellin
According to your books you said I would be damned like Ham
Scoundrel opposite of the king that I am
This is an incredible piece of poetry that is pretty much self-explanatory. A key point to explicate however is Jeru’s indictment of how Christianity has been leveraged by a white supremacist agenda to castigate black peoples as deviant scoundrels. The allusion to “your books” and being “damned like Ham” refers to the Biblical story of God cursing Ham as black for lusting his father, Noah, when he was asleep naked. Besides being laughable and ridiculous, this mythical falsehood manifests how white supremacy has legitimized slander under the guise of religion in order to justify the global colonization, enslavement and genocide of black people.
The last lines of verse two reveal the supernatural powers of Jeru as he manipulates time and space when he says, “Take you to the East and back again.” The East in this context serves as double-entendre for East New York, the Eastern hemisphere where Afrika is located, and most appropriately, the East as the philosophical antithesis to Western constructs and paradigms. “Back again” in this line also speak to Jeru’s abilities to manipulate time and space simultaneously. Jeru ends verse two with “Nasty MC deity/ Chop off domes with the poems that come out of my pineal gland/ As I expand, you know who I am.” Notice the divine status he now dons along with the spiritual, creative powers to transform his poems into weapons that will avenge his other self (the dirty rotten scoundrel) from his oppressors. And lastly, notice the absolute boldness, defiance and beauty of the final assertion, “you know who I am.”
This is the proverbial pendulum swinging back and forth for Jeru. Jeru is able to harness his yin yang in order to embrace the caricature of himself as well as the historical, cultural powers that innately rests within him. By embracing the totality of who he is and is not, Jeru obliterates the need to affirm, denounce or react to any western aspersion of who he may be. This is power and self-determination! With no regard for how the white power structures choose to label and prescribe his existence, Jeru is simply able to assert, “I am that I am,” even if that is a dirty rotten scoundrel.
Rises is replete with this type of duality and sophisticated social, political and cultural analysis. Another key record on this album would be “You Can’t Stop the Prophet.” This vivid narrative personifies Ignorance and his henchman, Hatred, Jealousy, Animosity Deceit and Despair, as a criminal outfit wreaking havoc upon Brooklyn. Jeru (i.e. The Prophet) chases Ignorance and his gang throughout Brooklyn in an attempt to kill them and rid the community of their poisonous presence forever. Jeru puts forth a valiant effort, but in the end he does not succeed as Ignorance proves to be elusive for Jeru to catch. Rises also features an incredible record, “Jungle Music”, that explores the cultural and political possibilities of Hip Hop while applying a Sankofa perspective to the black American cultural practice that seeks to tie Hip Hop back to its original Afrikan ancestry.
In closing, The Sun Rises in the East is much more than an album. It is protest literature, a resistance manual, a must have for all revolutionary soldiers seeking to free oppressed black peoples. With the political commentary being so right, so focused, so dangerous for the establishment, it does not surprise me that the powers that be have managed to suppress this album from the consciousness of the oppressed, but now that we have been reminded of its existence, it is incumbent upon us to seek and find accordingly…
Before we address my last two picks for the top albums of 1994- Scarface’s The Diary and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die– I think it is important to discuss these two albums collectively relative to the first three albums that we have already critically engaged. The Diary and Ready to Die perform a very different kind of social commentary. There is not any third person narration exploring the implications of starvation and disaster, but there are terrifying firsthand accounts of deranged sensibilities and pathological ethos on display via these two respective albums. What one really gains from The Diary and Ready to Die is what one is not prepared to accept: the alarming reality that these environments really do produce sociopaths. The Diary and Ready to Die provide two horrific accounts of individuals that have been tragically scarred, seemingly beyond repair. Before we critically address these albums, I think it’s appropriate to begin with this fitting quote from Nas’ song, “Star Wars,”
Came from the streets we the voice of the youth
America’s nightmare was given a mic booth
Upon its release, Scarface’s The Diary was the most critically acclaimed album of 1994 receiving both a 5 mic rating from the Source Magazine and a perfect XXL from XXL Magazine. While the artistic craftsmanship of The Diary certainly proves to be above reproach, the disturbing content of the album warrants critical questioning and consideration.
A quick listen through only the first few songs will indicate that The Diary is a carnival of violence. Scarface is pathologically obsessed with homicide on this album. Already known as a gangsta rapper from his days with the Geto Boys, Hip Hoppers expected to hear their fair share of gunplay and brutal beat-downs, but I don’t know if anyone was ready for the insatiable appetite for death that Scarface displayed on The Diary.
While the graphic accounts of murder and assault were incessant, they certainly were not gratuitous. As The Diary runs its course, the listener becomes keenly aware of how hostile and depraved Scarface’s environment is. Scarface is not engaging in wanton brutality. He should rather be read as a man attempting to negotiate the treacherous perils that have hampered his movements and deplorably warped his psyche.
Most people know that Scarface is from Houston, and if you are familiar with his early Geto Boys efforts, then you know that he represents the community of 5th Ward in particular. 5th Ward is nothing short of a warzone. It is known throughout Houston and it’s suburbs as “the bloody 5th” for the continuous violence that plagues that community (Wikipedia). In a 1987 Houston Chronicle article, 5th Ward community activist, Ernest McMillan stated, “These people have no resources at all. There’s one clinic, one library, no YMCA, very few activities, and the community is very fragmented. It’s not the kind of environment that helps a child excel.” By the 1990s, the 5th Ward was completely blighted and on its way to hosting the highest concentration of ex felons in all of Houston (Wikipedia). This is the environment that produced the overwhelming violence found on The Diary. One song in particular, “G’s”, really articulates the depravity of Scarface’s community.
The hook on “G’s” starts off with the question and anwser, “Now when you’re rollin’ through yo’ muthafuckin’ hood, what do you see? I see some muthafuckin’ G’s”. Scarface begins the first verse by rapping,
Roamin’ in my muthafuckin’ hood and thangs
Seems to me my mutherfuckin’ hood done changed
Cause niggas used to kick it with the rival gangs
But now we gots to deal with them survival thangs
.45 in my lap when I’m on the creep
Niggas livin’ shife, so I roll one deep
This brief snippet already reveals so much about Scarface’s section of Houston. As mentioned earlier, Scarface is no newcomer. He has been rapping about the plight of the 5th Ward since his Geto Boys debut in 1988. And now we see, just six years later in 1994, that the community continues to deteriorate as Scarface says, “Seems to me my mutherfuckin’ hood done changed.”
He explains further, “Cause niggas used to kick it with the rival gangs/ But now we gots to deal with them survival thangs/ .45 in my lap when I’m on the creep/ Niggas livin’ shife, so I roll one deep.” These lines express how the tensions of living have ravaged community bonds and attempts at solidarity. Rival gangs can no longer “kick it” because the pressure to sustain one’s existence will not allow it. Besides the dissolved fellowship of the rival gangs, Scarface has had to abandon his own crew as he states, “.45 in my lap when I’m on the creep/ Niggas livin’ shife, so I roll one deep.” With hunger pains increasing and growing more intense, Scarface realizes that the dog eat dog mindset that desperation breeds could turn him into a target, even by his own friends.
Scarface ends the second verse with the troubling lines,
Killin don’t make us no different
And dyin don’t make it no different
Cause I done been to mo’ wakes in this past year
Than the muthafuckin Bengals lost last year
So ain’t no muthafuckin’ thang for me
To kill a nigga…
This certainly points to the vitiated psychology molded by a neglected, desolate environment. Notice the unsettling indifference Scarface displays towards murder and death due to the fact that he has attended more wakes than the Cincinnati Bengals lost during the 1992-93 season: 13. The simple math reveals that this is more than 1 wake per month and more importantly that this environment and way of life is numbing the community to the genocide of black men.
The last verse of “G’s” says it all. It provides the rationale for why Scarface is a trigger-happy murderer. He feels that he has to be because his life is always in imminent danger. It’s a Wild West mentality (as similarly demonstrated by the preceding song, “Jesse James,”) of kill or be killed that causes these black men to engage in the prescribed behaviors of killing themselves and fulfilling the agenda of white supremacy. The last several lines of the third verse read,
Cause it’s kill or be killed, never cut slack
And if you cut slack, they bust back, fuck that
I never give a second chance to pull the first gun
Cause if they bust one time, that be the worst one
And that’s the one that can close the shop
So you gotta stand and hold the glock
Cause in my muthafuckin’ hood, that’s how it be
But when you’re rollin’ through your muthafucking hood, what do YOU see?
One line that’s extremely interesting in this verse is the last line that asks the question “But when you’re rollin’ through your muthafucking hood, what do YOU see?” The emphasis on the “you” is paramount because of how it implicates the listener, which is usually white suburbia. White privileged teens buy most of rap albums, especially the gangsta rap albums. What Scarface does with this final question is force these listeners to consider the social injustice of their privilege while he and his community is forced to gruel through the desperate, homicidal and even suicidal tendencies of their desecrated habitat.
Other songs like the hit single, “I Seen a Man Die,” reveal the inevitable fate that murder and death is preying upon black men in this Houston area. This song articulates the story of a young man determined to do right once released from prison, but his community and environment turn him into a killer in order for him to survive. This certainly lends credence to Ralph Ellison’s poignant assertion that “geography is fate.”
Another critical song that happens to be my favorite on The Diary is “Hand of the Dead Body” which features Ice Cube. This is an extraordinary song that deals with the political implications of voice, suppression and blame germane to gangsta rap. The song opens with a news skit that is covering how various groups are protesting Scarface and the content of his lyrics. Through the course of the song, Scarface takes on politicians, community activists, churches and all other purveyors of cultural hegemony who seek to turn him into a scapegoat for his own abysmal poverty and how he responds to this prescribed condition. Scarface delivers the key message of this song when he says,
“So why you tryin kick some dust up/ America’s been always known for blaiming us niggas for they fuck-ups/ And we were always considered evil/ Now they tryin to bust our only code of communicating with our people.” With these lines, Scarface presents the undeniable truth about America’s political blame game and what the consequences will be if black folks don’t resist the propaganda and libel campaigns.
In closing, The Diary, is not for the fainthearted, but it is a critical piece of work that must be engaged in order to understand the true effects that white supremacy have had on some of us. Richard Wright once wrote, “I sensed that Negro life was a sprawling land of unconscious suffering, and there were but few Negroes who knew the meaning of their lives, who could tell their story.” Thank you, Scarface for having the courage to tell us your story.
Ready to Die
Last and no where close to least is Notorious B.I.G.’s groundbreaking Ready to Die. As we have already heard, seen and discussed, this year was stocked with rap classics, but none had greater impact and staying power than Ready to Die. The combination of B.I.G. and Puff proved to be too much for Hip Hoppers and mainstream America to ignore. There are numerous ways in which one could discuss and deconstruct Ready to Die, but I as mentioned earlier, I will discuss Ready to Die as it relates to the socioeconomic neglect of Brooklyn and the warping effects it had on black masculinity as seen through B.I.G.
In his autobiography, Black Boy, Richard Wright observed, “My readings in sociology had enabled me to discern many strange types of Negro characters, to identify many modes of Negro behavior; and what moved me above all was the frequency of mental illness, that tragic toll that the urban environment exacted of the black peasant.” That said, who can deny that the horrid urban environment of Brooklyn drove B.I.G. crazy?
Ready to Die is a lyrical nightmare scored to the music of self-hate, starvation, depravity, violence, misogyny, terror and death. One has to laboriously comb for anything life-affirming on this album. Every track reinforces the seriousness that B.I.G. was out of control, out of his mind and that he must have been ready to die. If this album didn’t disturb or startle you (assuming you didn’t share B.I.G.’s plight) then you are not human. This is the most tragic sketch of an urban black coming of age story since Wright’s Native Son. In fact, it can be easily argued that The Notorious B.I.G. is Bigger Thomas reincarnated.
Ready to Die opens with a skit of B.I.G. being born with Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly” playing in the background. This provides a clear indication of what B.I.G. is being born into: a drug-infested, impoverished New York. As B.I.G. bursts through the womb, announcing his presence with baby cries, Mayfield’s voice rises to a clear prominence and the lyrics to Super Fly are heard over B.I.G.’s baby cries, “But if you lose, don’t ask no questions why/ The only game you know is Do or Die.” Mayfield’s voice and words serve as a predetermined haunting for B.I.G.’s life on Ready to Die. It prepares him with the instructions that B.I.G. unfortunately and faithfully carry out by the time he takes his own life on “Suicidal Thoughts.” The album tragically ends with B.I.G. still being a poor black urban peasant. Being that the only game he knew was “Do or Die,” B.I.G. shot himself without asking why he had to lose…
Starting with “Things Done Changed,” almost every song on Ready to Die deals with B.I.G.’s frantic chase to escape his poverty and hunger. Governed by visceral needs and desires, B.I.G. transforms into a sociopathic terror track by track. He kills and robs anything in sight if it will help to loosen poverty’s vice grip on his reality. He steals from his mother, brutally beats and mugs pregnant women, pumps dope into his community and kills anyone who threatens to snatch one crumb away from him. God bless us all if Brooklyn is still creating more Biggie Smalls…
What kind of decrepit environment and heinous reality leads to the familial decay that B.I.G. describes in “Things Done Changed” when he painfully recalls, “Back in the days our parents used to take care of us/ Look at ‘em now, they even fuckin scared of us/ Calling the city for help because they can’t maintain/ Damn, shit done changed.” How tragic is this? How often have we seen our communities turn our children into monsters that we fear? And the saddest part of this reality is the parents. They/We are so hopeless and powerless that we call the State, the same political powers that changed our children into fiends and savages, to come rescue us from our children by locking them away from us in steel cages like beasts. Who says Willie Lynch is dead?
Another song I would like to focus on is “Warning.” While this song depicts B.I.G. actualizing a better social station, he still can’t enjoy it because his environment is still preying upon him. B.I.G. is woken from his sleep at the crack of dawn just to hear how the hungry, desperate people he just left are now plotting to rob him. The hunter has become the hunted as we realize how pervasive this environmental desperation and depravity is. The song ends with B.I.G. murdering two more black men who were attempting to rob him to eat. This is the vicious reality of many of our communities. We prey on one another and cannibalize each other’s dreams just to avoid the intense and sometimes fatal squeeze of poverty.
Consider “Me and My Bitch.” This is a tragic attempt at a love song for a young man and woman dealing with the neurosis of self-hate and perpetual disappointment. Their ideas of sweet nothings and pillow talk deal with threats of genital dismemberment and asking one another would they kill for me? Despite the litany of abuse chronicled in the song, B.I.G. still declares how much he loves his “bitch.” How they treat and speak to one another become irrelevant by the end of the song as B.I.G. returns home and finds his girlfriend fatally shot further manifesting the consistent threat of death in his perilous Brooklyn habitat.
The last song of Ready to Die is the depressing “Suicidal Thoughts” in which B.I.G. finally succumbs to the pressures of Brooklyn and poverty. He is seeking a permanent way to end the lifelong pain that he has endured and his resolution is to kill himself. But before he squeezes the trigger that ends his own life, B.I.G. raps the saddest elegy ever penned. Completely discounting his worth as a human and spiritual entity, B.I.G. declares that he would prefer hell over heaven. He evens questions if his own mother would cry at his funeral. “Suicidal Thoughts” is the consummate blues song and is so tragic and heart-wrenching that the listener almost wants to joins B.I.G. by ending it all.
Ready to Die is timeless, remarkable, depressing and horrific all in the same breath. Nuff said…
I hope you all enjoyed this installment focusing on 1994 and found it worth the wait. As we move forward as a culture, let’s not forget the least of us still grinding through the hellish ghetto enclaves created and neglected by the capitalist forces of white supremacy. There’s work to do, Hip Hop. Let’s be about our business.
Allow me to leave you with the Honorable Mentions for 1994:
Method Man: Tical
See you next week to critically engage in 1995.