“We are hip-hop” means this is about you and me. We don’t give ourselves enough credit or enough responsibility. This is about hip-hop. This isn’t about hip-hop. This is about you and me. Let’s get healed.
—Felicia Pride, The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs
The following story was inspired by Felicia Pride’s The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs. I had originally intended to write a straightforward book review for it, but things went in a different direction. The book jacket describes it as “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for the hip-hop generation”, and I’ve read interviews in which Pride describes it that way, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. It’s significant to characterize it that way, though. After all, how cool is it to go to the “Self Help” section of a bookstore and get a book with life lessons from N.W.A., Little Brother, and Ghostface Killah? But given the current climate of rap criticism, the book is more than a hip-hop version of Small Stuff.
I had, therefore, intended to tell you why I enjoyed the “life lessons” in this book, and how refreshing it is that Pride locates them in hip-hop songs. Instead of analyzing the songs or critiquing hip-hop in general, she uses them as literary cliffs, going to the edge of each song’s subject matter and then jumping off into the memories and musings suggested by the music. She accomplishes this, without rambling or going on tangents, because the chapters are short but densely packed with ideas, kind of like when you read haiku. When a good haiku poem ends, your mind keeps riding along.
And so it goes. I wanted you to know how much I appreciated Pride’s candor about her everyday life, including, but not limited to, her experiences as a writer, a hip-hop fan, a churchgoer, a daughter, a woman, a person of color. She’s not trying to explain or defend hip-hop, and she’s not apologizing for the music or the fact that she listens to it. She doesn’t let herself off the hook, either, as she admits her faults and identifies areas in which she could better herself. Rather, she’s sharing her moments, real moments, that have become attached to the tunes we classify as “hip-hop”.
She’s having a dialogue between author and reader about “Life”, with a capital “L”, and our places in it, as comfortably as if you were sitting in her living room having a cool drink and watching 106 & Park, saying, “That’s the hot video right now? Really?” Her introspection, then, becomes relevant to the whole—to the book, to the genre, to our community. Interestingly, her thoughts sometimes take the songs out of the context of their original release dates or circumstances in order to reacquaint them in new situations. Her discussion of Nas’ “Ether” is a good example of this. And, as you can tell by that choice, she’s not just picking “safe” songs, either.
Felicia Pride - photo from The Backlist.net
On a practical level, The Message makes a great gift, since it engages hip-hop fans who are already familiar with her song list, while also initiating those who might not listen to hip-hop or might only be exposed to a small portion.
I wanted to tell you all that, in an educated, scholarly way, but things don’t always work out the way you want. Lately, I’ve been wondering, “Where are the female emcees in hip-hop? Why can’t they get heard?” I don’t have the answer, but I decided to follow the lesson Pride gleaned from Run DMC’s “It’s Like That”: we can identify a problem and say, “It’s like that,” but the reality is, “that’s the way it is.” The question becomes, “What are you prepared to do about it?”
So now, here’s my fictional story, about a female emcee, that hopefully illustrates my reaction to Felicia Pride’s The Message in ways I can’t say directly. Any similarities to real female emcees, preferably living, would be great, but are coincidental.
The Adventures of Britannica Brown
Her last name was “Brown”, but her first name wasn’t really “Britannica”. It was Britney, not exactly unusual or swollen with legendary significance. She earned the nickname “Britannica” as a high school freshman when she out-rhymed the freshest kid in the borough. Not even “out-rhymed”. More like “clobbered”. She filleted this cat, ate him up, and returned him to us, his “boys”, like, “Here. Take this back. I’m not havin’ it.”
Of course we didn’t really live in a “borough”. We were just hip-hop heads who wanted our neighborhood to be “down”, so we called it a “borough”. Make it sound more like New York. Queens. The Bronx. Brooklyn. Alladat.
And so the fellas used to hook up these little tournaments, where anybody who thought they could spit a dope rhyme could get on, long as they plunked down the entry fee. Usually five, maybe ten dollars. Otherwise, you’d have all manner of wack cats trying to drop some ol’ cornball cat-in-the-hat ass rhyme. Every two or three months, brothas signed up, we put the draw sheet together, and the “9 Mile Freestyle Competition” was underway. We called it “9 Mile”, as in Eminem in 8 Mile, but we liked to say you had to go the extra mile in our competition.
Mr. Stone, the high school basketball coach (What up, Coach!), let us put it on in the gymnasium. The spectators chose the winners of each round, as well as the champion of the whole thing. The grand prize was the entry fee pot, minus a little off the top for the “tournament committee”, made up of four guys, including me, Terrence McCloud. I was always proud that I had “M” and “C” in my last name.
We had three rules for the competition.
Rule number one, “Pay the entry fee.” We weren’t gonna wait on you to get your allowance money from your mom. Let me paraphrase the Notorious B.I.G. and say, “That doggone credit? Dead it. You think a delinquent’s gon’ pay you back? Shh, forget it.”
Rule number two, “Freestyles must really be ‘freestyles’.” Pre-written rhymes meant automatic disqualification plus endless and relentless teasing. You’d never live it down. We’d clown you so hard, college recruiters would look at you and say, “Yo, ain’t you that kid who tried to pass his book of rhymes off as a freestyle? Nah, nah, you gotsta chill.”
And the third rule, “No girls.” For real. “This is hip-hop,” we told the young ladies. “Y’all sistas can watch from the sidelines and what not, but this here’s a battle. It ain’t for y’all. Maybe y’all can sing hooks in our songs or shake it fast in one of our videos when we blow up.”
Little did we know the boomerang we were throwing out! And when it finally came around and smacked us upside the head, we didn’t see it coming.
Britney entered the competition, but not as “Britney”. We didn’t even know she was a “she”. This sista rolled up on us in the gym, at the last possible moment to enter. It was the beginning of the school year, and none of us had ever seen her before, but check this out. She had a wig on, with those long dreads attached to it, like she’d been snatching props from a Milli Vanilli video. She had that red, yellow, and green Rasta hat hanging low over her face, and then, to top it off, she had on this African robe, like she was Brother J from X-Clan.
It was madness! We were laughing like crazy.
Britney kept her head down, and her arms were linked with another girl’s. The girl was saying, “Ayo, my man right here wanna sign up for 9 Mile.”
Demetrius was the best rhyme spitter around, as well as the head organizer of the tournament. Dude was nice with his rhymes. Everybody who rapped called him “Amistad”, ‘cause when he came to town he just took over.
“What’s up with your boy?” Demetrius challenged her. “He can’t speak for himself?”
The girl shook her head. “He’s savin’ it all for the finals against you, son.”
We snagged another look at the new “dude” and “his” get up, and shared another quick laugh before Demetrius pointed to the signup sheet. “Leave us the paper,” he said, meaning the entry fee, “then sign the paper.”
Britney signed the sheet as “Brit”, and that was that. ‘Cause when Britney got in that battle, she absolutely killed it, rocking that Rasta hat, and sporting this real gruff-sounding voice. She told me later she got the voice right by listening to that one part from Method Man’s “Bring the Pain”.
“Terrence, I must’ve replayed that mess a thousand times,” she said, laughing. And she’d always act the song out, like Method Man himself was rapping through her, “I’ve lurrrnnned, dat when I drank Abscholut schraight it burrnnnnsh, enough to give my chesshh hairs a perrrrrmmm.”
And I’d always be like, “That’s creepy right there.”
Anyway, as far as the 9 Mile battle, did I mention she killed it? Smoked everybody in the draw on her way to the finals. That’s when she had to go up against Amistad.
Amistad flipped it lovely, too, hitting Britney-slash-“Brit” with some heavy blows. He dropped a line about that Rasta hat, callin’ her a “Wyclef imposter”, and then he nailed her on that African dashiki look, “Your whole style is foreign / over the top, now you over the hill like Lauryn.” We were slapping hands and doing chest bumps when he was done, thinking it was all over for “Brit”. Done. Finished. Kaput.
And it was. It just didn’t end like we thought it would.
“Brit” struck back with a Darth Vader level of wizardry and wickedness. She opened up her battle rap with these lines, “You couldn’t school me if you tutored Rakim / I’ll take it back from Amistad down to Zimzallabim.” And she proceeded to unleash the sickest, craziest rhyme ever spat, each rhyme goin’ down exactly as she foreshadowed it, from “A” for “Amistad” to the “Z” for “Zimzallabim”. She hit on everything she could think of in the process, from the stuff cats were wearin’ to things people were saying in response to her. Hell, even Demetrius was like, “Yo, this kid is hot,” and he provided the beat box for the last ten bars.
Much later on, somebody who was in the crowd said she rhymed like an encyclopedia. That got around to someone else who joined it with her last name and called her “Encyclopedia Brown”. When it got back to Britney, she grinned, but added, “Nah, I’m more like Encyclopedia Britannica.” And “Britannica Brown” was the one that stuck.
“Brit” unveiled her identity at the end of her rhyme. She pulled off that Rasta hat and that wig like she was Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible flicks. Her brown face was glowing, and she had the straightest, tightest set of cornrows I’ve ever seen. She took the dashiki off so we could see she was, as Gwen Stefani might say, “just a girl”. Her young shape was coming into its own, but her cherry brown eyes conveyed a look of experience. Like she had seen some “thangs” in her young life.
I have to say, one of the females in the crowd had moved in on “Brit” at the tail end of the rhyme, but when that wig came off, she was like, “Oh.” She walked off like Tyra had just told her she was out of the running for America’s Next Top Model.
One guy in the crowd wasn’t happy. “Nah,” he objected, “This ain’t right. How she just gonna front like that? You can’t battle somebody you never really saw! She can’t cheat and still keep the money.”
I heard a couple of “True dat"s and a real soft “Word” among the murmuring of the crowd. Nobody wanted to step up and shoot down that dope freestyle we just heard. But then, it was undeniable that she had deceived us, too.
Nobody knew what to do. We stood there for a second, like that awesome scene in the movie X, when Spike Lee shows Malcolm X leading the brothas from the Nation to the police station after a Black man had caught a beat down. The Nation of Islam brothas were lined up outside and the concerned crowd wouldn’t disperse. Those cops were blowing smoke in Malcolm’s face, and Malcolm said, “Look, until we know that the brotha’s all right, nobody will move.”
But Britney solved this problem herself. She looked the heckler in the eyes, smiled, and said, “Really? You think I did this for the prize money?” She let that hang in the air before she added, “Nope. It’s about hip-hop, y’all. It’s about the love of the art. Man, I thought y’all would’ve figured that out already.”
She walked away, knowing she had us.
Yep, the love of the art. That’s heavy. And the more you spread it around, the more you have for yourself. One of the few things you can truly say that about.