Keeping It Real

Dreams, Mind-Alteration, & Misperception in Hip-Hop

by Quentin B. Huff

26 September 2010

Image (partial) from the cover of Sho Baraka's Lions & Liars 

The Dream State & Mind-Alteration ("Gin & Juice")

In the dream state, the protagonist struggles to distinguish fantasy from reality while asleep. Occasionally, the narrator is awake but the fictional audience is experiencing the dream state, or is preparing for sleep, as in Slick Rick’s classic tale of petty thievery gone bad in “A Children’s Story”.

Additionally, there is a parallel between sleep and death, as Nas noted in “New York State of Mind” that “sleep is the cousin of death”. For our purposes, the parallel resides in the similarities of the narrator’s disorientation. A character confused about whether he or she is asleep generally works out along the same lines as a character who doesn’t know he or she is dead. Sure, the consequences are dramatically different, with death being a great deal more permanent than falling asleep (unless the two are teaming up). Still, the narrator’s blurring of the real and the imagined operates the same way.

In the ‘90s, Black Sheep explored this in the introduction to the album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. The album title itself suggests some manipulation of reality, providing a clue that perhaps Black Sheep’s tandem of Dres and Mr. Lawnge might actually possess qualities not initially seen through appearances or popular singles. The intro, coyly titled “U Mean I’m Not”, finds Dres unraveling in a sociopathic rampage. With his AK-47 and his Rambo knife, he wreaks havoc on his family, beating up his sister because he thinks she used his toothbrush, punching his mom for breaking the eggs while cooking breakfast, shooting his dad for interfering, and cutting the mailman’s throat for no apparent reason at all.

The skit’s violence cleverly contrasts Dres’ laidback but cocky rapping style, with which the rest of A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing more than adequately acquaints us. The brief narrative ends with Dres being shaken awake. Dres, sleepily and alarmed, mutters, “I dreamed that I was…hard”, as in “hardcore”, “tough”, and “gangsta”. No doubt, the “tough guy” image and the “regular Joe” image were doing battle for popularity in the ‘90s, so the skit pokes fun at the over-the-top machismo that was part of the soundscape of the day. The title “U Mean I’m Not” serves as an answer to Dres’ dream of being “hard”, and offers a hint of surprise in the process, as if to say, “Black Sheep isn’t a ‘hardcore’ act?! What’s up with that?!”

In 2006, Black Sheep released the 8WM/Novakane album. This time, the introductory skit parodies ring tone rap, with Dres boasting that he “pimps” everything from holidays to principals, all over a backdrop that sounds unmistakably clap-happy and chant-driven. When he’s shaken awake from his dream, Dres mumbles, “I dreamed I had a hot record out.”  Once again, the song title “U Mean I Don’t” plays into the joke, melding the concern of the external hip-hop climate with the agenda of the specific artist, and employing sleeping and dreaming as twin devices for exploring the fuzzy lines between art and realism.

Songs in which narrators experience death or an afterlife deal with the same merger of fact and fiction. It often sounds like an unaired episode of Ghost Whisperer, with the narrator unaware that he or she is dead, and slowly coming to the realization as things unfold.

Scarface’s “I’m Dead” takes this angle to perfection. In it, Scarface wakes up to the sound of an “old church hymn” playing on the radio, followed by a “neighborhood street fight”.  He claims to see a man “runnin’ with a butcher knife” and stabbing another man, after which Scarface himself starts to feel strange. He tries to take a shower but he goes through the wall. He tries to touch his face, but can’t feel his beard.  He looks in the mirror but can’t see his reflection.

In the end, he comprehends his fate, having seen his own body in the casket (“Son of a b*tch! I don’t believe it, that’s me!”).  He finishes the song in a near whisper, “Aww sh*t…I’m dead, I’m dead.” In slight contrast, Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was the Case” opens with a deadly drive-by shooting perpetrated on Snoop by his enemies. Snoop, as narrator, seems to know his time is up, so comprehension isn’t the wrinkle. It’s the conversation he has while he’s in a coma that confounds the issue for him.  If he’ll let the owner of this voice (an angel, perhaps?) take control, the voice promises to make his life “better than you can imagine”. On the other hand, Tupac Shakur’s “Only God Can Judge Me” leaves no room for redemption. Here, Tupac guides us through a first-person account of his own murder, from gunshot to flat line. In Tupac’s case, of course, we’re all so fond of pointing out how life imitates art.

Mind-Alteration (“Gin & Juice”)
While sleep conjures the power of the subconscious, thereby triggering what we’ve termed the “dream state”, external substances can be equally spellbinding. For rap music, that often means alcohol and drugs (“Gin & Juice”, anyone?), with marijuana being the mind-altering substance of choice. There are so many songs dedicated to weed, both inside and outside the hip-hop sphere, that it would take an entire article devoted to the subject to even scratch the surface. That’s probably a cause for concern in itself. Here, we’re interested in the way these substances alter the narrator’s senses and create a distortion of reality.

Tone Loc’s “Cheeba Cheeba” follows a template similar to Rick James’ “Mary Jane”. Here, the raspy Californian rapper dedicates the jam to his smoking habit of choice, focusing on the positive effect it has on him.  It enhances his preparation for his performances, makes his love making more passionate, and even makes David Letterman seem funny.  Very impressive, especially the latter.

KRS-One combined our sleep paradigm with the fabled love for the chronic. In “I Can’t Wake Up”, KRS-One dreams that he’s a “blunt gettin’ smoked”. He is not the smoker, mind you, he’s the joint itself, being passed around from Everlast, Cypress Hill, and Das EFX to Chubb Rock, Fab 5 Freddy, and President Bill Clinton (who, appropriately, says, “I’ll smoke but I won’t inhale”).  It’s not a public service announcement for the detrimental effects of getting high, so you kind of have to wonder what the point of the song could possibly be. The best view, I think, is that it confirms the playful side of hip-hop, and walks a fine line between creativity and downright silliness. KRS-One’s song reminds me of De La Soul’s “Ghost Weed” skits on their Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump album. Each skit acts a fictional advertisement for Ghost Weed, a product potent enough to allow the user to sound exactly like their favorite rapper, right down to the lyrics and the delivery.

Eminem’s “My Fault” chronicles the problems with giving people too many of your ‘shrooms. Eminem gives Susan, a recovering heroin addict, some mushrooms to try and the consequences are disastrous. She hallucinates and loses complete control. In the same vein, MC Lyte’s “Cappuccino” finds one of our most talented emcees going for cappuccino at a “café on the Westside”, only to find herself in a situation where she believes she’s getting kidnapped and then getting shot in a shootout. On the “other side”, positioned “in between lives”, she thinks she’s reconnecting with old friends. The truth is that her “death” experience is the result of the cappuccino, and every time she drinks it, she has a “voyage through death”. She promises, “I’ll leave it alone and just stick to tea / Cappuccino was fly, but too fly for me.”

Back to Black Sheep, in another cut from A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing called “Strobelite Honey”, the atmosphere of the nightclub becomes the cause of the narrator’s disorientation. The assertion is that the ladies look great while they’re in the darkness of the club, but not so great under a different set of lights. “Step out in the light, come show off yourself,” is Dres’ invitation upon first meeting the “honey”.  After the invitation is accepted and he realizes the problem, he says, “Yo, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Reality, as well as beauty, turns out to be in the eye of the beholder.  Plus, “Strobelite Honey” might also belong on the next category of songs.

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