Who remembers the rawness of 1995? This year was dedicated to the grime and dirt of the B side as rappers moved impervious to mainstream tastes. During this year, it was almost a guarantee that you wouldn’t hear “your shit” on the radio unless you were prepared to stay up all night on weekends to hear an underground mix-show. Thank God that one of my homeys was willing to do that. I use to look forward to arriving at school early on Mondays because I knew my man, Evan, would have a tape. He and his brother, Jason, would stay up every Friday and Saturday night to record those underground mixes and we would pump that shit on Monday before class. You gotta love a real Hip Hop head!
In 1995, underground artists emerged with gritty singles, iceless wrists and naked necks. Before the advent of the million-dollar Hype Williams video shoot or the standard props of ethnically ambiguous video vixens, emcees circa 1995 featured in low-budget hood videos. Instead of random scantily clad women, rappers posed next to sordid housing projects with their neighborhood comrades. There were no Bentleys or Maybachs in 1995. I vividly remember everyone wanting to hop out of a MPV mini van squad deep like, “WHAT?!” No one needed 400 dollar denim with colorful artwork on the pockets then either. Some Guess jeans, an army hat and a Champion sweatshirt would easily suffice. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Compared to the loud colors, gaudy jewelry, flashing lights and brand name label-dropping of today’s materialistic rappers, 1995 has to seem like an exercise in cultural frugality.
Who remembers Smif n’ Wessun’s “Bucktown” video? A dirty debut like this could never be a lead single today. “Bucktown” was nothing but rugged black men imposed on the wretched urban landscape of Brooklyn, New York. There were no women, no jewelry, no luxury cars, no beaches, no sun, no nothing. I doubt today’s Hip Hop generation could appreciate such a squalid visual reminder of reality. Maybe it’s me, but I doubt “Bucktown” would resonate today after watching Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” video in which he preps himself in a 5 star Las Vegas hotel room before he cruises down the well-lit sensational strip of casinos in a tricked out tour bus with stray women rubbing all over him.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw and heard Mic Geronimo and “Shit’s Real,” but today, that video wouldn’t even get airplay. Any amateur could have shot that video, and more than likely one did. Could you imagine this video on 106 & Park succeeding Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got?” Somehow I doubt that the 106 & Park demographic would vote to see a black & white video in which Mic Geronimo is spitting a rhyme on his bed or rapping on the transit bus when they could catch Jay-Z in bright, vivid colors racing speedboats and cars with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick off the coast of Monaco.
How about Goodie Mob working as demeaned fast food employees in the “Soul Food” video? With everyone preoccupied with swagger, Louis Vuitton and making it rain, I sincerely question the relevance that Goodie Mob could hope to achieve in today’s marketplace of gross materialism and decadence. But then again, the marketplace and tastes of the mainstream seemed to be something that emcees were oblivious to in 1995. Whether moved by the conscious and common, working class leanings found in Goodie Mob’s album, Soul Food; or inspired by the ugly and harsh depictions of black urban America found in videos like Gza’s “Cold World” or Fat Joe’s “Shit is Real,” the 1995 rap scene proved that it was invested in the inelegant and undecorated experiences of black folk. Let’s revisit the unflashy and coarse scene of 1995 for this may be the last year that the cultural purists can claim. As time quickly revealed, platinum and champagne were lurking around the corner for Hip Hop, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 1995 awaits…
Before I begin with individual album analysis, I would like to take a quick comparative look at the artists that are responsible for two of the albums that I have selected to represent the best of 1995. The similarities shared between these artists are uncanny. Both Big L and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (ODB) share March 28, 1995, as the release date of their respective classic debut albums; and both suffered untimely deaths as their rap careers seemed to be energized and back on the rise after both had signed with Roc-A-Fella Records. Big L was gunned down on the streets of Harlem in 1999 and ODB died of a drug overdose in 2004. While both will forever be remembered as Hip Hop legends, they were never able to escape the abject, poverty-stricken realities of the environments and people that their debut albums mused about.
Let’s take a moment of silence here to pay homage.
Rest In Peace Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Big L. On behalf of the culture, allow me to say, THANK YOU!
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version (Return) is the quintessential example of a rap album that was made without consideration for mainstream tastes. Who can argue that ODB simply did whatever the hell he wanted to do? His content was crass, his delivery was unrefined, and his unorthodox style was rife with random outbursts of singing and screaming or a clamorous combination of the two. Somehow, all of these elements melted together on the stripped and bare minimalist production of the Rza to create an unforgettable listening experience. When it comes to Return, there was no in between. When you asked someone how they felt about Return, they replied with either “Oh that joint is bangin!” or “I don’t fuck with that shit.” Either way, one must salute ODB for taking creative risks. Especially now, as we listen only to hear how rappers are governed by the whimsical tastes and demands of the marketplace.
Despite Ol’ Dirty’s creative departure from the norm, Return did embrace the 95 aesthetic of a “no-bling” rugged and rawness. Who can forget the album cover that simulates an ID card for food stamps and public assistance? It doesn’t get any more common and lackluster than that. I’ll never forget the “Brooklyn Zoo” video, which featured a disheveled and unkempt ODB, rocking shades with one of the lens missing. His hair stood straight up on his head and he even picked his nose and wiped boogers on a dirty, paint-chipped project wall. The entire video was filmed in the squalor and filth of narrow project hallways, elevators and alleys. The tight corridors that several slovenly black men were cramped into certainly helped to paint the picture of animals caged in tight spaces. ODB successfully sold the image of the Brooklyn Zoo which also serves as poignant social commentary about the dehumanizing conditions that black folk have been forced to become accustomed to.
In addition to being raw, Return is also extremely unpredictable. One never knew what was next. I remember the first time I heard the intro that left me dumbfounded! The intro alone is a rollercoaster that will ship the listener through different emotions as one tries to determine if ODB is serious, bullshitting, or simply high and drunk out of his mind. He starts off as the weird host, Russell Jones (which is ODB’s government name) that introduces Ol’ Dirty Bastard. You immediately stop laughing at the bizarre host as ODB gravely states that he is just happy to be alive after surviving a gunshot wound. Then he begins to sob as he randomly recalls an incident of how he “kills the bitch he loves” who burned him with gonorrhea for the second time. He laments having to kill her because “the pussy was good.” He then begins a drunken melody about a crude oral sex experience and then abruptly states, “I was just playing, yall listen to the album because it’s banging.”
By this time, I am seriously thinking that I just wasted ten dollars until “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” cranks through my headphones. My buyer’s remorse dissipated as ODB began to croon, “Ooh baby I like it raw.” Whether you rocked with Ol’ Dirty or not, you had to feel “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” Even chaste teenage girls that were still guarding their virginity could be caught singing “Ooh baby I like it raw.” It was infectious. It was just one of those records!
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” was the tip of the iceberg concerning ODB’s affinity for singing. While most people took Ol’ Dirty’s singing for granted as tomfoolery, I am not willing to discount this critical element of ODB’s style as just an antic. If one pays close attention to Return, then one will notice that ODB is intentionally singing in order to situate himself and rap within the larger black musical tradition. Examine the following lines from the song, “Hippa to da Hoppa”
I come old like toe fungus mold
Ask my grand-pop pop duke give me soul
Then I came with that old Al Green shit
Saaa-die, taught me the ballistics
I get you blurry in your eye with a high note
Down to the Brownsville, oops you got smoked
Unlike the cultural amnesia that we’re use to today, Ol’ Dirty pays homage to the old school and seeks his elder’s counsel to enhance his artistic and musical capabilities. He advises us that “I come old” as he beseeches his grandfather to give him soul. By ODB asking his grandfather specifically for “soul” and subsequently stating “Then I came with that old Al Green shit” alludes to ODB’s understanding of the spiritual functionality of black music and how he is attempting to summon that spirituality within his own music. Who could serve as a better proxy for the spirituality of black music than soul singer turned preacher turned back soul singer, Al Green? ODB also cleverly pays homage simultaneously to his mother and R&B group, The Spinners, by stating how “Sadie” (sung out by ODB in the verse) taught him the “ballistics” on how to make his music move and then move us.
The choice of the word ballistics is very interesting here. Ballistics is a field of science that explores how a “ballistic body” is free to move, behave, and be modified in appearance, contour, or texture by ambient conditions, substances, or forces, as by the pressure of gases in a gun, by rifling in a barrel, by gravity, by temperature, or by air particles (Wikipedia). That said, notice how Sadie has taught ODB the ballistics on hitting a high note that would make someone cry while simultaneously affording space for his hardcore Hip Hop sensibility which is alluded to with the subsequent line, “Down to the Brownsville, oops you got smoked.” Within these lines, the ballistic body of black music was free to move and be modified in 1.) appearance (from ODB’s grandfather to Al Green, to ODB’s mother, to The Spinners and finally to Ol’ Dirty) and 2.) contour (changes in tone and pitch from The Spinners to ODB’s utterance of “Sadie”) by the ambient conditions of an impoverished Brooklyn (Brownsville) which lead to the varying effects of a high note that could cause eyes to tear up or a deadly rap verse that could “smoke” or slay an opponent.
Also consider the song, “Drunk Game (Sweet Sugar Pie).” Most people laughed at this song and called ODB silly without understanding what he was doing. Throughout the supposed love song, ODB is shouting out names of R&B legends invoking their spirits within the framework of his album. This song reinforces the lines we examined earlier on “Hippa to da Hoppa” where ODB informs us of how his mother taught him “the ballistics” or how to use his musical gifts. “Drunk Game” starts in the same manner with Ol’ Dirty saying “my momma taught me this shit.” Void of any rapping and after nothing but singing and calling out the names of R&B legends, ODB proclaims at the end of “Drunk Game” that he is “the baddest Hip Hop man across the world.” This concluding statement for “Drunk Game” reinforces Ol’ Dirty’s attempt to contextualize himself and rap music within the larger black musical tradition.
Plenty more could be said about Return, but I will conclude here after mentioning the brilliant guest appearances by other Wu-Tang members and Wu-Tang affiliates. Their “grounded” appearances served the album well by helping to taper some of the eccentricities of ODB. The verbal assistance of Raekwon and Method Man, will ensure that “Raw Hide” remains an underground cult classic forever. I still get hype for the back and forth tag team of ODB and Gza on “Damage” and the tag team of Ol’ Dirty and Rza on “Cuttin Headz.” Without question, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version is an effort that will never be duplicated. Rappers nowadays don’t have the balls to take the creative risks that Ol’ Dirty attempted on his timeless debut. I guess that’s why we’re still talking about him after his death while we negate to mention current artists celebrating their prescribed billboard hits.
Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous
While I was enjoying ODB and Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version in my walkman, one of my best friends from the neighborhood, Q, made sure that Big L’s Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous (Lifestylez) stayed in rotation in his ‘88 Maxima. Although I was an avid Wu-Tang fan, I never scoffed at a chance to hear “MVP” pump through Q’s back speakers. After his video, “Put It On” gained regular spins on Rap City and people became more familiar with his skills, all the Hip Hop heads I knew wanted to yap about this new rap sensation. Thus, taking a closer listen to Lifestylez became a priority.
A casual listening quickly confirmed that Big L was a lyrical juggernaut. Ferocious, charismatic, witty and a great storyteller, Big L had the total package. Concerning the album itself, the layout of Lifestylez is very interesting. The first two singles, “Put It On” and “MVP,” are also the first two tracks on the album. While they are far from pop records, they are certainly more radio-friendly than what the rest of the album entails. It appears as if Big L wanted to get those out of the way early so he could really focus on the lifestyles of the poor and dangerous…
The rest of the album begins with “No Ends, No Skinz.” Carrying on the tradition of black men who choose to create music that focuses on the black and poor (i.e. blues singers) Big L finds himself exploring the problematic nexus of black relationships and poverty. As we have seen in the fiction of Alice Walker and James Baldwin, and in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, the tension of financial woes turns black men and women into adversaries instead of into allies where both are working together to free themselves and the rest of the black community. Although Big L’s song is entrenched in internalized patriarchal white supremacy, there is much that can be gleaned from this record.
The title, “No Ends, No Skinz” speaks to the sad reality that black love and lovemaking has become a nefarious business transaction. The second verse begins with the following lines:
Girls in the nineties ain’t nothing but crooks
Its all about what’s in your pockets – not how you look
That’s why you can’t talk to just any whore
Leave a brother for the next man cause he got a penny more
They want a drug dealer not a scholar
Some girls barely speak but always askin for a dolla
These lines are self-explanatory and reveal the psychology that poor black men have concerning poor black women. Although Lifestylesz is replete with various capers that Big L pursues in order to escape his station of poverty, as soon as his sister attempts to do the same, then she is castigated as a crook and a whore. The fact that Big L becomes offended that she is more interested in a drug dealer than a scholar really reflects his own self-hate. By his own admission on other songs, Big L forsook school in order to sell crack to make money. One would think that Big L would appreciate a woman still being interested in him despite his illegal means of supporting himself. Or at the very least, Big L should understand a woman that could appreciate why a poor black man from Harlem pushes drugs in the first place. Because of his own self-loathing, this type of sensitivity, appreciation and understanding become impossible and thus Big L continues to verbally, sexually and physically assault black women throughout the course of the album.
The song climaxes into more horrific forms of misogyny when Big L raps, “A girl asked me for a ring and I put one-around her whole eye.” This is truly disturbing and reveals the tortured mentality of the poor and dangerous. Where have we descended and devolved to when inquiries of love and commitment are met with brutal violence? Big L is nothing short of Mister from The Color Purple in this context.
The following track, “8 Iz Enuff” is a posse cut that features 7 other emcees including an early guest appearance from Killa Cam (later known as Cam’ron). This record almost explodes with savage brutality and machismo. The violence, misogyny and homophobia escalate throughout the song as each rapper tries to top the other’s barbarity. Other posse cuts like “Danger Zone” that feature Mase and “Da Graveyard” that feature Jay-Z all follow the violent, nihilistic outlines prescribed by their poverty-stricken environments.
On solo records such as, “All Black” Big L continues his homicidal rampage. His rampant misogyny and homophobia apex with lines like, “No dame can give me a bad name/ I got mad fame/ I’m quick to put a slug in a fag brain/ I be placin snitches inside lakes and ditches/ And if I catch AIDS, then I’m a start rapin bitches.”
The best two songs on the album, “Street Struck” and “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous,” provide stark and tragic narrations of what it means to be young, black and poor in Harlem, but they function very differently.
“Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous” is lyrical desperation. In a first person narrative, Big L describes everything that he has done and is willing to do in order to make money and loosen poverty’s grip on him. While Big L clearly engages in every kind of criminal act possible, we are forced to consider whether we really want to criminalize him as he struggles to survive. The song starts with an interlude of a man saying,
Everybody everywhere is scratching for what they can get
Did you think anybody in this town is any different?
They don’t give a damn who gets killed
Just as long as “the dice keeps rollin
The hoes keep hoein
And the money keeps flowin
Big L begins his verse by situating himself in Harlem, 139th and Lennox to be exact. Big L cites the hunger and despair of his immediate environment as the catalyst for his antisocial behavior. Big L robs old women, sticks up other thugs and even murders his best friend to take his half of a robbery that they just committed together. The song, which is just one long verse, climaxes as Big L raps, “My moms told me to get a job, fuck that/ A yo, picture me gettin a job/ Takin orders from Bob, sellin corn on the cob/ Yo, how the hell I’ma make ends meet/ Makin about 120 dollars a week?”
Big L’s abject poverty is best seen in the line, “I wasn’t ‘poor’, I was po’, I couldn’t afford the ‘o-r’.” Later on towards the end of the verse, we see that Big L isn’t immune to the type of havoc that he wreaks on community. Big L becomes a target for a robbery himself, but instead of becoming a victim, he gloats, “Some say I’m ruthless, some say I’m grim/ Once a brother done broke into my house and I robbed him.”
On an album teeming with death, chaos and self-destructive behavior, “Street Struck” serves as a lone public service announcement for the album. In the chorus, Big L admonishes his peers and the youth that, “You betta listen when L rhyme/ Cause bein street struck’ll get you nuttin but a bullet or jail time.” The song empowers the listener and the community with more agency to resist the self-destruction that the streets demand. The first verse of “Street Struck could parallel Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” with the lines, “Instead of cool friends, they’d rather hang with male thugs/ Instead of goin to school, they’d rather sell drugs/ It’s best to go the right route and not the wrong one/ Because it’s gonna catch up witchu in the long run.”
“Street Struck” also demonstrates how much Harlem hasn’t changed. Just as Langston Hughes did over four decades earlier, Big L explores how Harlem defers dreams when he raps,
And yo it’s not even funny
I’ve seen a lot of my peers give up they careers for some fast money
They could’ve been boxers, ballplayers or rap singers
Instead they bank robbers and crack slingers
A yo, they used to be legit kids, now they corrupt
They had dreams but gave em up cause they street struck
The last verse of “Street Struck” dreadfully serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy for Big L.
I still chill with my peeps in the streets; but most of the time
I’m in the crib, writin rhymes to some dope beats
Or either callin up some freaks to bone
But word up, I try to leave the streets alone
But it’s crazy hard kid, in other words, it’s spooky
The streets be callin me, like the crack be callin Pookie
It ain’t a dumb joke, listen to this young folk
Cause where I’m from — you can choke from the gunsmoke
Stay off the corners; that might be your best plan
Before you catch a bullet that was meant for the next man
Despite his fame and new contract with Roc-A-Fella Records, Big L predicted his own fate by continuing to engage the vicious streets of Harlem. Torn between a new lifestyle that promises safety and security and the poor and dangerous lifestyle that conditioned him since birth, Big L just couldn’t walk away from the streets like his longtime peer and new boss, Jay-Z did. His inability to do so left him riddled with bullets on a Harlem street.
As I think about it now, my heart mourns for his mother whom I never seen or heard about. All I know is that besides Big L, she has two other sons (Big L’s brothers) that are both incarcerated. I picture my mother who bore me and my two brothers. How crushed would she be if the one she thought would make it got murdered while the other two still rotted in jail? It’s bigger than rap. Big L’s mother is left with a harsh reality to swallow as she reflects on how Harlem has ravaged her womb’s fruit.
Back in the 10th grade, before I knew how life could terrorize some of us, I used to think it was cool when Big L rapped, “You can’t kill me I was born dead.” Now I realize how wretched one’s reality must be in order to pen something so damning.
If you claim to be a Hip Hop head, then you remember where you were and what you were doing the first time you heard Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones.” Believe it or not, I was at church!
I’m sure every black church has a church thug. You know, that guy that is only there because his momma made him come and he clearly demonstrates that with every chance he gets. Our church thug was a guy named Ernest, but he insisted you call him “Nesto.” At any rate, it was common for Nesto to slip out of Sunday School or the 11:00 sermon and go outside and listen to his walkman until church was over. Because I thought he was “extra”, we never talked much; but there were times when our love for Hip Hop allowed us to share a couple of 10 minute conversations after church while waiting for our parents to leave.
I never wanted to be caught listening to Nesto’s walkman at church. I wasn’t prepared to deal with that kind of beef and friction with my parents. I was just getting a little freedom and I wanted to keep it that way. But one Sunday morning, during the 20 minute recess between Sunday School and 11:00 service, Nesto approached me and asked me to step outside with him. Reluctantly I said, “Ok.”
When we got outside, he removed his notorious walkman from his super baggy church slacks. I quickly told him that I would have to catch him later in order to listen to anything, but he grabbed my arm and looked in my eyes with an intensity that I’ll always remember and said, “D, you HAVE to listen to this. I just want you to check one song. One song, man.”
I had my reservations, but the look in Nesto’s eyes made me think that the secret to life was in those headphones. I decided I would risk it. “Let’s go around the side,” I said. When we hit the side of the church Nesto gave me the headphones and asked if I was ready. I told him to hurry up. When he pressed play, I remember that eerie beat creeping in and the gangsta pop of the snare drum. I must have been smiling from cheek to cheek when Prodigy started with “To all the killers and the 100 dollar billers/ For real niggas who ain’t got no feelings.” I remember dapping Nesto up hard with gratitude as Prodigy only finished the first couple of lines, “I got you stuck off the realness/ We be the infamous/ You heard of us/ Official Queensbridge murderers.” I smiled the whole time “Shook Ones” played and probably dapped Nesto up at least 5 times before the track ended. We were both smiling by the time I gave him the headphones back. Nesto only said, “I told you,” before walking back off with his walkman. I knew I had to have that tape.
The Infamous is more than a classic. It’s a timeless benchmark for East Coast excellence. After B.I.G. succeeded in bringing the East back, The Infamous, along with Illmatic and Only Built for Cuban Linx, became the Holy Trinity of East Coast rap. All other efforts would be measured up to these three works in order to assess their worth and validity. The Infamous is a smorgasbord of gutter production, gangsta lyrics, vivid street narratives and depressing social commentary. Every song warrants in depth analysis, but for the sake of time and space, I will select a few that particularly resonated with me.
Generally speaking, The Infamous picks up where Illmatic left off at. While Nas’ focus was the immediate environment of Queensbridge, Mobb Deep successfully informed us of how young black men consider and negotiate this treacherous terrain. The album begins with the perfect intro, “The Start of Your Ending.” This title and track immediately suggest that to be born and/or reside in Queensbridge marks you for death, or according to Prodigy, at least ensures that “Our sons will grow up to be murderers and terrorists.”
The album proceeds with an interlude entitled “The Infamous Prelude” in which Prodigy authenticates himself and Mobb Deep as true street niggas and not rap pretenders. Although just a skit with Prodigy talking, this is a critical piece of the album and placed in the beginning accordingly. Before Mobb Deep can take us on a guided tour through the dark underbelly of Queensbridge, we must interpret Mobb Deep as credible. “The Infamous Prelude” certainly legitimizes Mobb Deep as credible, but it also introduces their mortality and vulnerability to Queensbridge and their precarious lifestyle as Prodigy says:
And it aint like I’m tryin to be a tough guy, or I’m tryin to make people think I’m crazy by sayin all this shit… believe me, I know very well I can get shot, stabbed, or fucked up too, whatever. I aint super-nigga I’m a lil skinny mothafucker. It’s all about who gets who first.
This is a key theme that will later be reinforced on songs like “Up North Trip,” Trife Life,” “Right Back at You” and “Cradle to the Grave.” While Mobb Deep certainly relishes in an untouchable and super-hard persona, The Infamous is balanced by their awareness that they could get beat, robbed, incarcerated or even murdered. They are sure not to advance any such foolishness such as “real gangstas don’t die.” With their vulnerability and mortality openly displayed at the beginning of the album, one is able to see that Mobb Deep is not invested in violence, but rather the skilled negotiation of violence. This sets the stage for the album to really begin with “Survival of the Fittest.”
“Survival of the Fittest” is a dark song and even darker video. Droves of black men, outfitted in army fatigues and bandannas certainly gave the impression that they would kill at a moment’s notice. Prodigy likens Queensbridge to Vietnam as he describes himself and his cohorts as “beyond the cops’ control.” The most important and tragic part of the song is the hook in which Havoc exclaims, “We livin this til the day that we die.” This means that the battlefield environment of Queensbridge where it’s kill or be killed has no end date or white flags in sight. They will forever be at war with each other until one dies. This is the savage reality that provides the context for the rest of the album. Understanding that their community is a warzone, and that they will live this way until their deaths, helps us to appreciate the grotesque, antisocial renderings that await on The Infamous.
At the risk of committing blasphemy, let’s fast-forward pass classic gems like “Eye for an Eye,” “Give Up the Goods,” and “Temperature’s Rising,” and let’s pause on one of my favourite songs, “Trife Life.” “Trife Life” is an amazingly vivid narrative that really depicts how perilous Queensbridge and other black enclaves of New York City can be. The plot of “Trife Life” reveals that nothing can be taken for granted as Prodigy has to arrange an armed entourage just to visit a romantic interest in Brooklyn. His life experiences in the warzone of Queensbridge makes him paranoid of everything, even something as simple as a date. Examine how Prodigy’s verse starts.
It’s just another day, drownin my troubles with a forty
That’s when I got the call from this brown-skin shorty
She asked me where’s my crew at? Said we could do whatever
She got her crew too, and said that we should get together
I said, “Aight — just call me back in a hour
so I can take a shower and gather up the manpower”
Then I hung up the horn
And I thought to myself that it might be on
Cause this trick ain’t pick up the phone to call me in years (Why?)
Ever since I left the hoe lonely in tears
Ain’t no tellin what her friends puttin up in her ears
Ideas of settin me up, I’m not tryin ta hear
(Check it out, Son) So we take the gats for precautions
Plus this trick live in Brooklyn, home of the coffins
She might got a whole battalion of Bucktowners
Waitin for us to get up off the train and surround us
Or maybe, I’m blowin this shit out of proportion
But this shit do happen, to niggas very often
Notice how Prodigy’s fears are grounded in his lived experiences. The idea of visiting this mysterious woman is complicated by the fact that she resides in “Brooklyn, home of the coffins,” which Prodigy understands to be the mirror reflection of Queensbridge. He is also suspicious of being robbed because simply put, “this shit do happen to niggas very often.” Prodigy’s escapade ends with him and his crew in Brooklyn, but the females are no where in sight. As Prodigy’s fear and paranoia peak, a tinted all-black van pulls up. Prodigy is unable to discern if it’s a set-up or law enforcement, so he and his crew just take off running fearing the possibilities of getting collared by police. This is an interesting ending and only indicates that even in a story like this, in which no white people are present, white supremacy abounds.
Earlier in the verse Prodigy asserts that, “We put a plan together, just in case the beef came/ Now we Bed Stuy bound/ Far from home and on unknown ground/ But together we six deep, with five heats, nuttin sweet/ First nigga frontin gettin lifted off his fuckin feet.” Compare this willingness to kill other black men (who have suffered the same life experiences as Prodigy has) with the actual ending of the song in which Prodigy runs from law enforcement. This is a result of Prodigy’s conditioning that convinces him it’s ok to kill other black men without thought, but he must fear the white power structure and think very carefully before he engages the architects of his plight with violence. This is way too common. Black men will kill each other at the drop of a dime, but won’t even raise their voice at a cop… and the reality is, the cops are likely to kill you quicker. Not to mention that the police serve as the armed henchman of the state that engineer depraved environments like Queensbridge. Pardon my tangent, back to the song…
Prodigy’s paranoia makes more sense as we delve into Havoc’s verse. In this verse, the roles are different as Mobb Deep is now setting up the outsiders who plan on visiting their women friend who reside in Queensbridge. Havoc details,
OK check it, you’re on your way to your girl’s crib
But the bitch live in the ‘Bridge
You ain’t really sweatin it, cause little do you know
The niggaz in the ‘Bridge be settin it
You thought you was safe and tried to walk the backstreets without heat
on the 41st Side (settin it) of 12th Street
The side where niggaz don’t give a fuck
The side where if you come through frontin, kid you gettin bucked
Havoc’s verse clearly articulates that Mobb Deep practices what Prodigy fears in his verse. The fact that Mobb Deep strategizes conspiracies for larceny leads to Prodigy’s chronic fear and anxiety which he projects onto the listener. “Trife Life” brilliantly pulls these verses together in tandem to tell the complete story of how Mobb Deep has become haunted by their own actions and criminal dealings.
As mentioned earlier, another song that expresses the mortality of Mobb Deep is “Right Back at You.” This is an incredibly dark song that welcomes Raekwon back for his second guest appearance on the album and it also features Ghostface and Rapper Noyd.
When the beat drops for “Right Back at You” it actually sounds like death. It sounds like the theme music for walking a plank or taking the last few steps towards the gallows. The graveness of the beat is met with the cold and lifeless tone of Prodigy as he raps,
Now run for your life or you wanna get your heat, whatever
We can die together
As long as I send your maggot ass to the essence
I don’t give a fuck about my presence
I’m lost in the blocks of hate and can’t wait
For the next crab nigga to step and meet fate
I’m lethal when I see you, there is no sequel
24-7, mac 11 is my people
So why you wanna end your little life like this?
Cause now you bump heads wit kids that’s lifeless
I live by the day only if I survived
The last night
When I first heard this verse, I remember saying to myself, “Damn that dude ain’t got nothing to live for.” This verse demonstrates how the damning psychology of self-hate and maladaptive self-destructive behavior converge to dehumanize a soul into a lifeless brute. Prodigy’s self-loathing runs so deep that his own life is of no consequence as long as he gets to kill another black man first. Prodigy has no allusions about immortality or even tomorrow! He clearly states in the second line that “we can die together” and this is only given more gravity later in the verse when he states, “I live by the day only if I survived the last night.” This manifests how tenuous life really is in these hellish, neglected urban enclaves we know as the projects. Our youth are forced to walk on a tight rope in between a meaningless existence and death. Their only reward is to wake up and balance the tight rope again.
Regardless of what kind of rap music you like, you cannot dispute the impact or the brilliant execution of a timeless classic like The Infamous. If Nas unlocked the door with Illmatic, then Mobb Deep blew the door off the hinges with The Infamous… And then Raekwon came in and took the deed to the crib.
Only Built for Cuban Linx
Along with Tupac’s critically acclaimed and hood certified, Me Against the World, Raekwon’s epic, Only Built for Cuban Linx (Linx), was the most important album of 1995. Without question, this seminal work is the most influential album in East Coast rap over the last 15 years. Linx was not just an album, it was a creative paradigm shift.
For starters, just consider the new slang and verbiage that Raekwon and Ghostface introduced on this album. If there ever was a course in Hip Hop etymology, then Linx would have to serve as one of the pivotal texts. The colorful, fresh and sometimes cryptic language founded on Linx became instituted into street and rap vernacular and still permeates the Hip Hop lexicon.
Secondly, Raekwon’s and Ghostface’s attendant muses to the Italian Mafia and organized crime compelled everyone to adopt an alias and an organized crime/mafia persona. For example: The Notorious B.I.G. began to reference himself as Frank White and began plans to record an album with a group (featuring Jay-Z and Charlie Baltimore) called The Commission in which they would act and perform as a rap/organized crime family. And this is in addition to B.I.G. putting on his rap underlings, Junior Mafia. Besides being in The Commission, Jay-Z garbed himself in mafia-like attire for the album cover of Reasonable Doubt, performed a Mafioso-type role in the “Can’t Knock the Hustle” video and also hired Pain in Da Ass to act out and simulate skits from mafia movies on many of his albums starting with Reasonable Doubt. Nas became Willie Esco and actually did head The Firm rap album and The Firm rap family which was an awful adaptation of the Goodfellas plot. And let’s not forget Nas’ “Street Dreams” video based off of Casino. Even Master P became “The Last Don” and Snoop “The Dogg Father.” I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.
The last major creative shift that Linx inspired was how rappers positioned themselves in the narcotics industry. Selling drugs was hardly a new theme for rappers to espouse, but prior to Linx, no rappers positioned themselves as kingpins. Most drug narratives up to that point focused on the daily grind of hand to hand sells, and occasionally, a rapper would speak from the perspective of a street or corner boss. On Linx, Raekwon and Ghostface actually assume a kingpin status and their focus isn’t limited to drug selling. They expanded the conversation of the narcotics industry to include drug trafficking and relationships with Latin American drug cartels. Post Linx, East Coast drug rap became over-saturated with bricks, Columbian connects, Spanish murder-mommies and too many kingpins that could get the coke cheap fresh out off the boat.
Who could have anticipated this pandemic effect that Linx would have on the game, except for maybe Raekwon? Remember the colorful skit, “Shark Niggas,” which now proves to be clairvoyant. At the time, “Shark Niggas” was controversial because of how the interlude accused B.I.G. of “biting” Nas’ album cover, but soon the whole game would be implicated and indicted by this skit. Time quickly revealed that Raekwon’s and Ghostface’s fears of shark niggas biting their slang and style was justified as Linx completely altered the direction of East Coast street rap and spawned another subgenre of rap known as mafia rap.
In retrospect, I should have been able to foreshadow the impact of Raekwon’s magnum opus. Long before Linx came out, Hip Hoppers were predicting that his album would be “that deal.” Every time Raekwon made a guest appearance, he became the focal point of conversation. I remember discussing how dope Ol Dirty’s “Raw Hide” was at school one day to my homeboy, Justin. He simply replied in a very matter-of-fact tone, “No doubt. If your album ain’t got Raekwon on it then your album ain’t shit.” When The Infamous dropped and everyone heard “Eye for an Eye,” it was guaranteed that at least a few cats would debate about who had the sicker verse, Nas or Raekwon? And by the time the summer was well underway, Q got his hands on a Raekwon sampler with “Glaciers of Ice” on it. Needless to say, it was a wrap!
Our crew pumped that sampler tape for two months straight before the album dropped. On some days, we would just keep rewinding “Glaciers of Ice,” playing it at least five times in a row. But finally, after heavy and eager anticipation, Linx finally dropped at the end of the summer and my whole crew went to cop that tape.
For at least several months after August 1, 1995, all Hip Hop discussions would inevitably lead to some mention of “the purple tape.” Generally speaking, that conversation would go something like this, “Have you checked that new AZ yet?” Nah man, I’m still pumping the purple tape.”
I remember rocking the purple tape at least two times a day that summer. I had my first job working the drive thru at Biscuitville. With no car, I had to walk to work every day, so you already know what I was listening to while walking. Biscuitville was only open for breakfast, so I would wake up close to 5 every morning in order to be able to make it to work by 6 a.m. Upon Linx’s release, I religiously started every day by bumping the purple tape.
In order to listen to Raekwon while at work, I volunteered to clean the front dining section. No one wanted that job because one of the responsibilities of keeping the dining section clean was that you also had to clean the bathrooms. My manager and I made a deal that allowed me to listen to my walkman while I wiped off tables, swept and mop floors, and yes, cleaned the bathrooms. I know it seems disgusting, but to me, it was a small price to pay in order to pump Linx at work.
Before I knew it, the constant and heavy ingestion of Linx, began to affect my psyche. I began to despise myself as a fast food wage earner. Despite the fact that at this time in my life I had more money than I ever had, I kept thinking to myself that only a sucka works fast food. In order to deal with my own insecurities of being a lame, I began to blow whole checks on gear. Particularly, I was buying all kinds of urban t-shirts, Timberlands and army fatigues. I even bought my first chain. My thought process was, just because I worked fast food, didn’t mean I couldn’t look like a cool ass hustler.
My behavior shifted as well. I grew increasingly hostile and short-tempered. During that summer, my cohorts and I played basketball everyday and I used that time to take out my frustrations of being a sucka ass wage earner. I would commit flagrant fouls, talk shit belligerently and do anything else to help me feel like I was more gangsta than a guy who worked at Biscuitville. After all, what “incarcerated scarface” would volunteer to clean fast food bathrooms? I know my crew got tired of my ass. When we would meet at the park for our daily games, sometimes they would just say, “Now Meat, don’t start that bullshit today.” Inevitably I would, and on a few occasions, only other members of the crew could stop a fist fight from happening between our clique. If we travelled to other courts, I was guaranteed to get in a fight there with some other neighborhood crew and my team was obligated to help. After guns got pulled on us in Shannon Woods from my hotheaded antics, my crew stopped calling me to visit other courts with them. It’s something we laugh about now, but back then I almost polarized my best friends away from me. My homey EJ often jokes with me and says that the crew had plans to jump me that summer in order to teach me a lesson, but they thought better of it because they knew that Raekwon had already drove me crazy.
In order to not turn this installment into War and Peace, I’ll reserve the right to not critically breakdown Only Built for Cuban Linx at this time. To be honest, I can’t be concise when discussing this album because it is my favorite rap album of all time. Undeniable bangers like “Knowledge God,” “Criminology,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces,” “Rainy Dayz,” “Ice Water,” “Verbal Intercourse,” “Ice Cream” and “Wu Gambinos” are enough to make me start a fight again! This album was so innovative. From the Rza’s production, to unforgettable interludes (like Ghostface contemplating on how to dye his Clarks), to brand new slang and vivid rhyme detail, Only Built for Cuban Linx has served as a blueprint and template for East Coast street and mafia rap for well over a decade now. Unfortunately, with the exception of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, no other rapper or rap group has been able to expand upon this foundation laid by Raekwon and Ghostface. Consequently, the diversity and creativity of the music (especially concerning the East Coast) really began to dwindle after 1995.
See you all next week for 1996. Stay tuned because this year is ridiculous!!!!
In closing, allow me to leave you with my honorable mentions for 1995 which really demonstrate how dope rap music was this year:
Tupac: Me Against the World
Goodie Mob: Soul Food
The Roots: Do You Want More
Smif n’ Wessun: Dah’ Shinin
Gza: Liquid Swords
Fat Joe: Jealous One’s Envy
AZ: Doe or Die