Hip-Hop Storytellers

The Vignette

by Quentin B. Huff

21 July 2010

Image (partial) found on Burning the Guns 

Multiple Perspectives / Opposing Views

Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” (2007), featuring Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000, hones in on the joys and the trials of being a rap performer. “Sometimes it’s like a pigeon coop,” Devin says of performing his rhymes in the recording booth. Andre 3000’s verse, addressing illegal downloading, is especially good. Both songs, “Show Business” and “What a Job”, use multiple voices to compare experiences and to show solidarity. The Cautionary Tale isn’t about seeing a problem in a variety of ways.  It’s about seeing a variety of problems in the same way. Caveat hip-hoppers. Watch your back.

Tales from the Dark Side
This category is reserved for the weird records, the ones that rely on bizarre or other worldly imagery. Tales under this moniker might actually lean toward the light side, bringing humor to the fore.

Run DMC’s “You Be Illin’” takes the offense against dorks. The song’s “ill” terminology intrigues me, since “ill” and “sick” can actually be positives. An emcee who’s “ill” and has a “sick” flow is usually one with skills. It’s a good thing. “You Be Illin’”, however, is all about the lack of any skills, or common sense for that matter. Each story in the song establishes that “you”, the object of the song’s scorn, is incapable of being smooth, cool, or just plain intelligent. He orders a Big Mac at Kentucky Fried Chicken (no way!), screams “Touchdown!” at a basketball game (how lame), got drunk and asked a cute girl to dance (what was he thinking?), and accidentally ate dog food (WTF?).

Except for the lack of intelligence thing, the awkward dude in “You Be Illin’” reminds me of the Steve Urkel character from the TV show Family Matters. Here’s the question You Be Illin’ raises for me but never addresses: if the boys in Run DMC see the dude illin’ all the time, why are they always around him? Seems like they could’ve just ignored him and been on their way. Still, dude sounds like he’s trapped in The Twilight Zone or something.

Occasionally, these tales venture into the Doom (formerly “MF Doom”) territory of weirdness. Tone Loc, riding the waves of success from his “Wild Thing” single, released a set of odd stories in the song “Funky Cold Medina”.  Here, Tone Loc’s distinctive sandpapery vocals tell us about the thrills of “Funky Cold Medina”.  A dude informed him, “Put a little Medina in your glass and the girls’ll come real quick.” “Funky Cold Medina” is like a precursor to all of those pharmaceutical commercials with the endless litany of warnings, “If you are a carbon based organism, use of this pill may cause seizures, emphysema, rashes, warts, yellow fever, jaundice, pituitary dysfunction, cardiac arrest, nearsightedness, and death.” The side effects of using Funky Cold Medina? Tone Loc gave it to his dog and had every dog in the neighborhood trying to get into his house. Watch out for that.  Also, Tone reveals that Funky Cold Medina caused him to take home a transvestite, mistaking a man for a woman named Sheena. “You must be sure that your girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina,” Tone Loc advises. Use only as directed.

Ice Cube’s “A Gangsta’s Fairytale” turned popular children’s figures such as Humpty Dumpty, Mr. Rogers, and the Three Little Pigs into criminal masterminds. In Cube’s stories, Jill gives Jack gonorrhea, the lady who lived in a shoe sells marijuana, Snow White and Cinderella were less than chaste, and the Three Little Pigs engaged in a gangland turf war with Mr. Rogers and the Wolf (perhaps the Big Bad one, it’s not clear). The longer the stories go, the more bizarre it all gets.

LL Cool J made a few of these songs in the early portion of his career. From his 1987 Bigger & Deffer LP, his “My Rhyme Ain’t Done” walked through an Alice in Wonderland-style series of vignettes. All of them are absurd and impossible, like when the President commissions a newly resurrected Michelangelo to paint LL Cool J’s head, or when LL takes a trip inside a deck of cards or a trip to the center of the earth. He hangs out with cartoon characters like He-Man and Spiderman, as well as historical figures like Sitting Bull. Playful and imaginative, the song effectively summarizes the structure of vignette storytelling with the refrain, “That story is over, but my rhyme ain’t done.”

On Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), LL Cool J went back to the oddball storytelling realm with “Milky Cereal”, going for the novelty of building a story around breakfast cereals. In this rhyme, Frosted Flake is a “rich female” who “had a lot of soul.” She takes LL home, throws him on the couch, and the next morning he “woke up with a spoon in my mouth”. After that, he meets Lucky Charm and Pebbles, and contends with both of their fathers. It’s tough to make literal sense of the stories, though, which begs the question of whether the cleverness of the technique overpowers the storytelling.

LL tried this technique again in “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag” (1994). This time, he sequenced the names of hip-hop artists to move the stories along. The trick was playful but utterly nonsensical, like GZA’s lining up the names of record companies for his rhyme in the song “Labels”, or like Ghostface Killah’s work on Supreme Clientele except probably not quite as inspired. Ghostface Killah sometimes goes into straight up Jabberwocky mode. 

Stories in the Tales from the Dark Side category can also take on a serious tone, sometimes disturbingly so. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, by the Geto Boys, explores the relentless specter of paranoia. The group members (Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill) sound absolutely bonkers in each of their testimonials, with vivid language and sharp imagery driving the storytelling. Scarface’s mental claustrophobia (“Four walls closin’ in, getting bigger / I’m paranoid, sleepin’ wit’ my finger on the trigger”) accentuates his physical pain (“See, every time my eyes close / I start sweatin’ and blood starts comin’ out my nose”).

Scarface’s feeling that he’s being pursued by a menace is echoed by Willie D (“I live by the sword / I take my boys everywhere I go because I’m paranoid”) and Bushwick Bill (“My hands were all bloody, from punchin’ on the concrete”). However, unlike Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick come face to face with their fantasies, as Willie D’s supposed menaces turn out to be “three blind, crippled, and crazy senior citizens” and Bushwick’s extraordinary stalker who stands “six or seven feet” is only a figment of his imagination. Something about reality is too formidable to handle. Scarface actually raps two verses in the song and contemplates suicide in his second go-round. Sobering stuff, much like The Roots’ vignettes of warlike mentalities in 2008’s “Singin’ Man”. 

Freaky Tales
The last category of our discussion is what I call the “Freaky Tale”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Rhymes about relationships, especially regarding sexual encounters, are the staples of this field. Although there are some exceptions, these vignettes are marked more than the other categories by the narrator’s use of the first person perspective.

The title of the category originates from the song “Freaky Tales” by Too Short. Known for his sex tales and pimp bravado, Too Short has rarely injected sensitivity into his accounts of the male-female dynamic.  His persona is usually of the “ice cold player” variety, a man whose heart is interchangeable with his wallet, and his wallet is guarded under layers of attitude, connections, and ambition for street authenticity. The Too Short in these songs is not the guy you want dating your sister, daughter, or female friends.

“Freaky Tales” flips so quickly through Too Short’s Rolodex of sexual exploits, it sounds more like a montage of flashbacks than a set of vignettes. As such, there isn’t a discernable storyline, suggesting that this is about Too Short’s ego and bragging rights, and not as much about the telling of the tales.

LL Cool J’s “Big Ol’ Butt” offers a more traditional vignette example. Here, LL Cool J literally moves through a series of casual relationships, one after the other, motivated solely by the criteria of chasing the woman with the best physique. He meets Tina at the mall, and leaves his girlfriend for her, but then he leaves Tina for Brenda, and then leaves Brenda for Lisa. More intriguing than LL’s acquiring and leaving these women on the basis of which woman has the best body, the song has the distinction of interlocking its vignettes to create the illusion of a linear story.


Public Enemy’s “Pollywanacraka” examined relationship conflicts pertaining to interracial dating. This time, Chuck D managed a relatively balanced presentation of the psychological side of “race” and the taboos of so-called race-mixing. This is something Chuck D isn’t often given credit for, largely because Public Enemy’s brand was built on taking definitive stands on important issues.

In this song, his drawling spoken word stories are like character profiles that illustrate a mindset that privileges prejudice under the guise of preference. If hip-hop’s cautionary tales are any indication, it’s no picnic finding someone who’s honest and trustworthy enough to hang out with. There’s an argument to be made, therefore, that we shouldn’t limit our options unnecessarily. At the same time, Chuck D’s characters, dramatized by authentic sounding arguments between voice actors, use upward mobility and social standing as justifications for preferring lovers of other “races” to “black” ones.

More importantly, at least for our purposes, the vignette structure allows the song to be more balanced, if not more nuanced, about the actions of “black” men and women than a single narrative would have been. In doing so, the vignette speaks to multiple perspectives as well as the friction between opposing views.

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