[11 April 2008]
Not bitter or mad, just provin’ I’m bad / You want a hit, give me an hour plus a pen and a pad
—LL Cool J, “I’m Bad”, Bigger & Deffer (1987)
Hip-hop artists are known for projecting streetwise, hardcore images and portraying fearlessness in the face of adversity. We frequently see them scowling on their album covers or tossing money around in videos. We have also become familiar with hip-hop’s array of opponents. On any given release, we might hear about the rapper’s entanglements with “player haters”, groupies and fickle audiences, record labels, police officers, the seedier side of the legal system, and of course the omnipresent “wack emcee”. One opponent, however, has proven to be quite formidable. That opponent is Time.
Time, we like to say, waits for no one. It pushes forward unceasingly, inexorably. Science fiction has explored the possibilities of time machines and mastering the space-time continuum, but nothing a rapper can say will stop time’s continuing march, whether the rapper is “gangsta” or “socially conscious”, “mainstream” or “underground”.
That doesn’t mean hip-hop artists haven’t developed coping mechanisms. Album titles and themes embody hip-hop’s acknowledgment of, and resistance to, time’s strictures. In the early ‘90s, jazz-influenced hip-hop from Digable Planets came packaged in an album called Reachin’ (New Refutations of Time and Space). The California collective Souls of Mischief titled their West-coast opus 93 ‘Til Infinity. Fast forward to 2007, the year when Common released Finding Forever and Arrested Development made its return to the United States market with Since the Last Time. Previously, Common opened Like Water for Chocolate (2000) with the musically eclectic “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela)” (“Yo, I was a piano player in my last lifetime / Now I write rhymes, sip white wine and let my light shine”). As for Arrested Development, you’ll recall that its debut album’s title, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of… (1992), evoked a very precise time motif.
Denial, usually couched in the form of a boast, seems to be a seductive defense against time, and it operates whenever you hear hip-hop’s “can’t stop, won’t stop” tagline. KRS-One introduced his Return of the Boom Bap LP (1993) with this announcement: “We will be here forever! Do you understand? Forever! Forever and ever and ever and ever.” That message is echoed in the title of Wu-Tang Clan’s double album Wu-Tang Forever (1997) and the lyrics of P. Diddy’s “Bad Boy for Life” (“We ain’t goin’ nowhere / We can’t be stopped now / ‘Cause it’s Bad Boy for life”).
Though not a full-fledged member of the denial paradigm, Lauryn Hill’s “Final Hour” (1998) advances an outlook of transcendence. “You can get the money, you can get the power,” Ms. Hill rhymes on the chorus, “But keep your eyes on the final hour.” Here, there’s a final moment or destination, perhaps a moment of reckoning or an ultimate accounting, and the song offers preparation for the event as an alternative to materialism. “[I]t ain’t what you cop,” she explains, “It’s about what you keep.”
Nas, in “Rewind” (2001), transcends time by manipulating it with his delivery, telling the story of a mobster-style shooting in reverse, from the end back to the beginning, complete with backwards dialogue (“Go he there” instead of “There he go”). Nas, even as first-person narrator, simultaneously stands inside and outside of the tale, controlling the details and, most of all, the chronology. He relates the events “like a VCR rewinding the hit”.
Just as the image of Flava Flav wearing his gigantic clock embraces some conception of time’s significance, the Afro-centric rap ensemble X-Clan adopted the sundial in the 1990s. For X-Clan, time was important, but its sundials and scrolls and Egyptian wisdom sat in stark contrast to “Western” notions of time and causal relationships. “Check my sundial, synchronize your clock,” frontman Brother J. challenged us.
Along the lines of X-Clan’s sundial, another strategy for coping with time is to posit a space-time model that is cyclical rather than (or, paradoxically, in addition to) being linear. The idea is similar to a clock that shows the numbers or Roman numerals around its circular face while keeping us going forward as the hour, minute, and second hands move.
For the Gridlock’d soundtrack (1997), underground artist Medusa, actor-director Vondie Curtis Hall, and the late Tupac Shakur penned “Life Is a Traffic Jam”, a weary, bass-driven elegy dedicated to the intersections between Life and Time. “Land of the free, and home of the enslaved,” thunders the opening spoken word verse, “to the concept of time.” The song espouses a “survival of the fittest” dogma, a social Darwinist philosophy of sorts, symbolized by the speaker’s endless wait for care at a free clinic. It also suggests that the ones who win in life are the ones who realize that “the concept of time has us all fucked and, on top of that, life ain’t nothin’ but a traffic jam”. Time is depicted as a straight line, hence the “gridlock” and “traffic jam” analogies of blockage, but it is also cyclical and repetitive. There is a sense of sadness in that repetition, but also a twinge of comfort in the predictability implied by it.
A Tribe Called Quest began its classic album The Low End Theory (1991) with “Excursions”, where rapper Q-Tip muses about listening to hip-hop “back in the day”. His father, he tells us, remarked that hip-hop reminded him of bebop, and Q-Tip’s reply is, “Well, Daddy, don’t you know that things go in cycles? / The way that Bobby Brown is just ampin’ like Michael”. Under this view, time can move in circles even as it goes forward, and the images and sounds of the past reverberate in what we call the present. Although we don’t dip our toes in the same river twice, we are nonetheless familiar with the way it feels. In “Excursions”, A Tribe Called Quest brilliantly demonstrated this circular view of time, as well as hip-hop’s position as interpreter and recycler of musical forms, by including samples of the Last Poets warning us that “time is running out”.
With every James Brown, Parliament, or otherwise “old school” or cross-genre sample, hip-hop songs subvert the view that time is a linear construct. Voices and songs from the past are revisited and reinterpreted through hip-hop production, thereby introducing a sense of malleability to a force we would normally consider permanent and unruly. It’s an illusion, perhaps, but it’s a powerful one that helps to explain the allure of the music.
The Good Ol’ Days
Of course, accepting the realities of time may be equally fascinating. Often, accepting the “old days” translates into the belief that what happened “then” is somehow better than what’s happening “now”. It’s been said that hindsight is 20/20, but the saying seems more applicable to the individual experience than to the collective conscious. At the macro level, decades (such as “the Roaring ‘20s”) and eras (like “The Gilded Age”) are summarized through either romanticism or vilification.
The tendency to treat the “old days” or the “old school” as “the good old days”, compared to the lackluster present, manifests in ongoing discussions of a hip-hop “golden age”, when hip-hop was presumably at its peak. An intriguing aspect of our debate between “what’s good now” versus “what was good then” is that we disagree about when such a “golden age” occurred. Some would say it took place in the ‘90s, usually from 1990 to 1995, a span that would include albums such as Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas’ Illmatic, and the first three albums by A Tribe Called Quest. Others might agree but would extend the period to include the deaths of either Tupac Shakur (September 13, 1996) or the Notorious B.I.G. (March 9, 1997). Another faction would disagree altogether and argue that the late ‘80s (roughly 1986-1990) provided the best examples of “classic hip-hop”, with such landmark releases as Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full, N.W.A.‘s Straight Outta Compton, Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, and The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. A third group would take it back to an even earlier time to be more inclusive of breakdancing and graffiti arts.
Nas looks back.
Rappers are not immune to “golden age” rhetoric. Nas framed his reverence for what might be considered rap’s highpoint by paying homage to his favorites. In “Where Are They Now” (2006), he listed hip-hop icons from Redhead Kingpin to Special Ed, MC Shan, and the original Spinderella, questioning their whereabouts in a way that suggested our complicity, as an audience and community, in their collective disappearance. The song is all the more pointed and purposeful given its placement on an album called Hip Hop Is Dead, a title that is as purposefully clever, provocative, and loaded with meaning as Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet or Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted. Nas followed up with a remix of “Where Are They Now?” that featured several of the artists he named in the original version.
If “Where Are They Now” can be seen as a veiled critique, Missy Elliott’s “Back in the Day” (2002) packs a bigger wallop. After a Jay-Z cameo brimming with “old school” references, Missy sings her query: “What happened to those good old days? / When hip-hop was so much fun / House parties in the summer, y’all / and no one came through with a gun.” If Missy’s account is to be believed, then “back in the day” was “all about good music”, with everybody wearing whichever sneaker was popular at the time and doing dances like the Cabbage Patch. Add a couple of family reunions and remove a few musical references, and Missy’s song shows us a world with the same congenial vibe as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”.
Fond personal memories can return us, at least emotionally, to an earlier time. Take, for example, Ahmad’s “Back in the Day” (1994). Constructed over a sample of “Love T.K.O.” by Teddy Pendergrass, Ahmad begins by taking us back to 1985, when he was a youngster following happily behind his little brother and playing games like “hide-n-go-get-it”. Between the verses that describe Ahmad’s recollections from a playful ten year-old to a pensive 18 year-old, the singsong hook expresses the rapper’s longing to return to his childhood, when life was idyllic, fun, and carefree.
On “Oneder Years”, from their Red Giants (2006) LP, Jermiside & Brickbeats painted a similar picture, transporting us “back in the day” when “all you were concerned about was what cereal to eat”. The lyrics strung together a litany of ‘80s memorabilia, including two of my favorites: Transformers and Beat Street. Along those lines, “Old School” (2005) by Danger Doom (Danger Mouse and MF Doom) recreates the laidback vibe of watching cartoons on a typical Saturday morning. Likewise, “Don’t Feel Right” (2006) by the Roots emphasized the difference between the relative comforts of the past versus the subtly uncomfortable atmosphere of the present.
While these songs tend to romanticize the past, they effectively debunk the notion that hip-hop songs are categorically abrasive and aggressive. On the contrary, they resonate with listeners because the details in the songs are accessible, familiar, and rooted in our common experiences. Moreover, hip-hop’s trips down memory lane pinpoint the joy and wonder of childhood as they dramatize the curious details we bring with us as we grow. Who knew, way back when, that catching lightning bugs in a jar or watching Magnum P.I. would leave such lasting impressions? Better yet, who knew such things would sound so compelling in a rhyme?
Of course, some lyrical examples probably seem ironic to us now, as when Will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas rail against commercialism in Bridging the Gap‘s “Bringing It Back” (2000): “I know I’m not the only one that’s feeling the void / Creatively, hip-hop is being destroyed / A lot of rappers really need to be unemployed.” The Black Eyed Peas based their critique on a lack of originality and unique subject matter, yet the group has been identified with commercial rap, to the point of sometimes being labeled a pop act. Personally, though, I find the commercial/non-commercial distinction to be unrealistic and somewhat disingenuous, as is the “golden age” argument. Both viewpoints classify the world in extremes, wherein hip-hop is either monolithically “good” or “bad”. This either/or approach lacks the nuance we, especially as fans, try to highlight when outsiders are attacking the music.
Another ironic example is Tupac Shakur’s “Old School” from Me Against the World (1994). “Ain’t nothin’ like the old school,” Tupac opines, as he lists his favorite rappers, lyrics, and songs. With the passage of time, the irony is that this song was released during a potential “golden age era” (between 1990 and 1995), yet the song clearly focuses on the greatness of an earlier time.
Will the real “golden age” please stand up? Regardless of which era deserves the “golden age” title, it appears that this mixture of lamentation and reverie allows us to revisit the past and encapsulate it into something that is not only meaningful, but also “real”, with definitive borders and parameters. Our investment in the past, even the romanticized past, makes it part of us and our collective identity as hip-hoppers.
Our reverence toward a discernable “golden age” can lead us to either pessimism or optimism. We’re pessimistic if we our fixed view of the past leads us to believe that yesterday’s creative heights are unattainable. On the other hand, optimism can stem from the idea that the exhilarating elements of the “golden age” can return, come back, or be brought back by enterprising artists, even if we nonetheless consider the “golden age” itself to be fixed and permanent.
Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” (1994) has, unintentionally I think, become a paradigm of the pessimistic hip-hop forecast. Common personifies hip-hop as a girl he met at the age of ten, a girl with whom he shares a nurturing relationship. She used to be fun and pure, but you know how this story goes. She eventually drifts away from her core values and becomes commercial and gimmicky. Common says, “Stressin’ how ‘hardcore’ and ‘real’ she is / She was really the realest before she got into show biz”. Although Common concludes his tale with his intention to reclaim the girl (hip-hop), the song is often discussed in the context of a fan’s disillusionment with the musical status quo. Super-group eMC (comprised of Masta Ace, Punchline, Wordsworth, and Stricklin) sum the position up quite well on “Winds of Change” from its 2008 release The Show: “Everyday, life’s destined to change forever / But some things are never better than their predecessors.”
What the disillusioned fans miss, though, is how Common’s personification of hip-hop pours the abstract idea of “good music” into the mold of an ideal but concrete “girl”. In this way, hip-hop is given an identity that’s more fleshed out, so to speak, than it is when we refer to it by eras or golden age periods. Further, Common’s personified approach accentuates hip-hop’s capacity for growth.
Boogie Down Productions (KRS-One, top)
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Since there are songs evaluating the general state of hip-hop, it makes sense that artists would also evaluate their own careers. Such songs, like Ice Cube’s “Growing Up” (2006) and Keith Murray’s “Nobody Do It Better” (2007), conjure up a chronology of personal and professional experience. Given that rappers already spend a lot of time talking about themselves, the maneuver might come off as, “Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”
But some are insightful. KRS-One’s “Outta Here” (1993) begins with the line, “Back in the day, I thought rap would never die”, and goes on to chronicle his rise to prominence in hip-hop. While the song provides context, the chorus is most important, with KRS-One asking, “Do you ever think about when you’re outta here?” Fame is fleeting, he seems to say, and the trappings of fame are ethereal. Time can be the enemy of longevity, but KRS-One’s emphasis on “thinking” suggests that although time can’t be conquered, a wise, judicious outlook on the past and present can make the road a little smoother.
“Things just ain’t the same for gangstas,” Dr. Dre mused in “The Watcher”. He rhymes from the perspective of an older cat, a former streetwise hardhead who has somewhat matured into a family man “with a lot more to lose than you”. “The Watcher” appeared on Dr. Dre’s 2001 (1999) LP, the follow-up to his bicoastal smash The Chronic, and much of the album references Dr. Dre’s attempts to reconcile his past with his present. “Y’all gon’ keep fuckin’ around with me / And turn me back to the old me,” he warns on “Forgot About Dre”. Part of his conflict, as portrayed by the lyrics of his songs, is the idea that the public sees him as falling off, losing his stature in the present day landscape. The notion of “falling off” is widespread in music, often couched in terms of whether an artist is relevant, progressive, or cutting edge. The time element here is that such assessments are relative to the past of the artist as well as the current market.
If we accept the oft-cited Chuck D quotation that hip-hop is “the Black CNN”, then a rapper’s nightmare is the discovery that he or she has become yesterday’s news. Trends may provide vehicles for popularity and record sales but they also have built-in expiration dates. Gang Starr’s “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” (1990) finds the duo’s emcee, Guru, translating the ups and downs of mass appeal into hip-hop terms. “So cash in your check, ‘cause it’s the last one you’ll get,” he warns. “The tables have turned and now you ain’t in effect.” A cautionary tale for wack emcees? It’s almost like listening to an episode of Vh1’s Behind the Music.
Rappers aren’t just worried that time will contribute to decreased lyrical acumen and waning star power. They also worry that time away from the spotlight will leave them without an audience. Refuting the absence itself has been a popular rap response. “Don’t call it a comeback,” LL Cool J famously declared in his hit “Mama Said Knock You Out” (1990), “I’ve been here for years.” At the beginning of 2007’s “Say Something”, Talib Kweli reversed the “comeback” conversation with a few choice adlibs: “They say I’m back. But I ain’t go nowhere, though. I’ve been here the whole time. Where you been? You’re back. Matter of fact, apologize.”
Another strategy has been to craft songs that bridge the gap between the artist’s previous musical achievements and the “new” material. When Rakim released The 18th Letter (1997) after many years away from the rap spotlight, songs like “It’s Been a Long Time” and “Guess Who’s Back” jumped headfirst into the subject of the emcee’s hiatus. Although he didn’t have his famed partner in rhyme at his side (“No, I ain’t down with Eric B. no more”), he maintained that he and the microphone were “still magnetic”. The album even offered alternate mixes of “It’s Been a Long Time” and “Guess Who’s Back” to drive the point home. Similarly, Arrested Development, whose very name implies a halt in time or growth, released the appropriately titled Since the Last Time over a decade after their last U.S. release, Zingalamaduni (1994). Understandably, Since the Last Time addressed the delay.
Rappers get touchy about “comebacks” or, more precisely, about their apparent sabbaticals from the music business. Perhaps this occurs, at least in part, because the industry is known for being long on spotlight contenders but short on spotlights. Also, as hip-hop has grown older and more entrenched in the norms of public consumption, age has become part of the equation.
Do rappers get better as they get older? Conventional wisdom would say no, but in “30 Something” (2006), Jay-Z made his case against putting rappers out to pasture so quickly, claiming that “30 is the new 20”. In a song of the same title, “30 Something”, and also released in 2006, the Juggaknots shouted out “middle-age crisis brothers” and reflected on the aging process from a rapper’s perspective. Vitamin supplements and icy-hot ointments might become part of an aging emcee’s worldview, but the Juggaknots insisted they could still flow, like a “fine wine”.
KRS-One and Marley Marl cooked up an anthem for grown folks in “Over 30” (2007), chanting, “Where my people that’s over 30 now? Where my people that’s over 40 now?”. As the wordsmiths get older, we’re seeing members of the hip-hop audience get older too. One consequence of this is hip-hop’s current generational split that pits “old heads”, who can’t believe the youngsters don’t know who the Jungle Brothers were, against “new school” listeners who are living their “back in the day” moments now.
Little Brother’s “Last Day” (2007), from the group’s Mick Boogie-assisted mixtape “And Justus for All”, takes the sentiment of a rapper’s demise one step further, imagining the horror of a failed rap career and the subsequent return to a job at a department store. Phonte, the emcee, envisions gloating managers from the all the jobs he left, taking pleasure in his downfall: “Oh! ‘Can’t stop, won’t stop’!…You’re back! Thought you was rappin’? What happened to that?”
Phonte hopes the rap gig goes on and on, and so do I. But, as we all know, only time will tell. As it stands now, the saga continues.