Hip-Hop Storytellers: The Heist Motif

Bluster and bravado are considered par for the course in hip-hop, although the more subdued traits of subterfuge and self-reliance are also represented. Artists exhibit all of these traits, among others, through a specific category of song that I refer to as “the Heist” motif. This type of song positions the rapper/narrator as a thief of some sort who uses cunning and ruthlessness to obtain a particular object, be it money, respect, or love. Sometimes, the narrator plays the victim to such a thief, lamenting the loss of heritage and tradition. Songs of the Heist variety are staples of the hip-hop narrative tradition.

Money

The oldest take down in the business is probably the money-related heist. It makes perfect sense, after all. The promise of wealth is one of the few motivators that can adequately offset the dangers of getting involved with the caper in the first place. Yet, what’s relevant here is not the wealth itself, or even the possible uses for the loot. Rather, the relevance here is the narrator’s relationship to the money or, more specifically, the money-related persona the narrator adopts.

There are exceptions, of course. Take Boogie Down Productions’ “Drug Dealer” as proof. Here, KRS-One explains that drug dealing has been a profitable enterprise for many people. In his opinion, however, the drug dealer in the “black” community has failed to take advantage of the investment capital drug money could potentially represent. “If you’re gonna sell crack then don’t be a fool,” goes the chorus, “organize your business and open up a school.”

It’s an uncomfortable but intriguing idea KRS-One advances. Certainly, the violence we associate with drug dealing, in addition to the problems of addiction, shouldn’t make anybody want to become an advocate for the drug trade. He’s not doing that, really, but if people are going to break the law (and it’s safe to assume they will), KRS-One is arguing that they should at least maximize the benefits of the venture, not only for the community (“stop killin’ one another ’cause in the ghetto we’re all brothas”) but also for themselves (“invest in a prison, therefore, you can’t be put in it”). Here, drug dealing is the heist activity, the caper. “Drug Dealer”, then, highlights the relationship between the dealers, their product, and their ill-gotten gains.

By contrast, EPMD’s “Hit Squad Heist” acts as a more traditional representative of the heist narrative. In this song, Erick Sermon (the “E”), Parrish Smith (the “PMD”), and the rest of their posse explode on the scene, descending on the unwary in a mighty show of force. “This is a stick up, real deal, real steel,” PMD announces. Later, they warn any would-be heroes to fall back and avoid a confrontation, “‘Cause a hero’s a dead man and a dead man is a zero.”

It’s plausible that the song doubles as an invasion of the Hit Squad’s rap prowess. Either way, the heist is in full effect, although the loot, and what our anti-heroes might do with it, remains secondary, if not immaterial. The primary focus is the Hit Squad’s show of force. Consequently, retaliation is futile at best, and more probably foolish. It is, mainly, the same persona at work here as in the garden variety battle rap record, wherein the rapper’s wordplay and delivery are the vehicles for top status among typically unnamed competitors, also known as “sucker emcees”. In the battle rap, the force of the heist motif resides in the delivery and the sheer audacity of the battler’s will and ego. The cunning it takes to successfully complete the heist lurks within the rapper’s creative diction, syntax, punch lines, double meanings, and mastery of poetic devices.

Eazy-E’s “Nobody Move” pushes the boundaries of mixing a robber’s crooked designs with physical force and personal arrogance. The song introduces the action with a calm dialogue between Eazy and his partner in crime MC Ren. “Yo, Ren, you ready to get this money?” Eazy asks in his lower register, his tone laidback, almost affable and offhand. Eazy-E was known for rapping at a higher pitch, like his voice had been altered by helium.

MC Ren is ready, and appropriately “strapped” with his “gat”. Eazy-E declares that he’s got the whole heist completely planned out. More animated as the actual heist goes down, Eazy-E’s voice springs to his higher rapping level, and he demonstrates his force, “This is a stick up! Everybody get face down!”

As MC Ren gags and ties up the unsuspecting bank patrons, Eazy-E disables and disarms the security guard with “the slap of my hand”. Eazy-E and MC Ren are strong and assertive, compared to the security guard who’s an “old ass man” with little more to flex than his badge. They cover the security cameras, lock the doors, and close the blinds. With that, the stage is set.

MC Ren plays the muscle and makes it known that he’ll shoot anybody that moves. Eazy-E plays the brains of the operation, and is a bit more methodical as he delivers his verses. Coolly, he rhymes, “Don’t make me have to set an example today / and blow one of you crazy motherf*ckers away.” Eazy thinks, as he relays next, that it’s “a little bit funny” that he’s in a bank taking “all you stupid motherf*ckers’ money”. To me, it seems funny that, number one, he’s calling his victims “crazy” and, number two, that he’s calling them stupid for getting robbed.

Nevertheless, the heist persona is enamored with itself and definitely given to narcissism. It’s a twisted conundrum, though, that while the heist persona sees itself as more intelligent than everyone else, much of the heist depends on the lack of intelligence exhibited by others. Here, for example, it’s not that Eazy-E’s plan is so ingenious that no one of equal intelligence could counter it. It’s working because Eazy planned it so everyone, intelligent or otherwise, would be caught off guard. Plus, the security guard is too old to stop the robbery. The supposed stupidity of the victims is feeding and shaping the heist persona’s self-concept, all while the heist persona rhymes as if his innate intelligence has rendered his victims powerless.

Then the song takes a bizarre turn. Eazy-E, feeling like he’s in total control, veers from his intended mission. Instead of concentrating on the money, he scopes out a woman for sex. He tells her where to go and keeps her on track with his gun at her back, and then strips her. This hostage-rape fantasy is creepy enough, I’d say, but then it gets stranger as he discovers it’s not a woman at all, but actually a man. This is the angriest Eazy has gotten the whole song, losing his cool and calling his intended victim a “f*ggot that I had to hurt”. It’s an irrational plot twist, but perhaps it was used to show that the heist persona doesn’t really have total control (at best), or to demonstrate that the narrator is a total psycho and homophobe (at worst). He can’t get what he wants, and it frustrates him.

Back to stacking cash in the third verse, Eazy and Ren find themselves confronted by police officers surrounding the bank. Our anti-hero crooks shoot a hostage, the police use tear gas, and the bank gets blown up. Eazy and Ren make an escape, but Eazy runs right into an officer. About the prospect of being apprehended, he comments, “And I hope they don’t think that a lesson was taught.” His gun jams, but we aren’t told the outcome. Maybe he fought the cop hand to hand and escaped (probably what he’d like us to think). Maybe he gets taken into custody (more likely).

Another Eazy-E tune, “No More Questions”, takes the same nonchalant attitude to crime, but it is delivered in the form of an interview. A female reporter questions him before each verse, and Eazy embellishes his answers with detailed rhymes. Unlike the mostly present tense narration of “Nobody Move”, the interview technique in “No More Questions” casts doubt on whether Eazy’s tales of burglary and armed robbery are to be taken as true or not. Perhaps it can all be chalked up to flights of fancy, a simple technique for boasting and myth making.

“I’m just like Robin Hood, but I want more,” Eazy declares. “Steal from the rich, hang with the poor.” About his armed robbery tale, he says he “didn’t need the money, it’s just a hobby.” In pure heist fashion, Eazy-E’s tales are fueled by the narrator’s self-importance and self-congratulatory worldview.

One side note about “No More Questions” that always puzzles me is the way Eazy-E so casually violates the “no snitching” code. Affirming that his armed robbery was “slick”, he says, “You gotta be cunning. Told Ice Cube to leave the car running.” In “Nobody Move”, the heist was, for the most part, in progress, and MC Ren was a participant in the telling of that story. “No More Questions” plugs Ice Cube’s name into the narrative, which is good advertisement, but also sounds like he’s getting snitched on, which just ain’t cool, is it?

Speaking of Ice Cube, his song “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” adds another dimension to the heist paradigm by engaging the listener with context. The song begins with the typical display of the narrator’s smarts. Ice Cube is thief, a “mother*ckin’ klepto”, who’s clever and much too sly for capture. He brags, “I’m a menace, crook. / I did so much dirt, I need to be in the Guinness Book.” Later, he says, “I leave clue after clue, but they can’t catch me yet.” His criminal enterprise is of course unmatched and unparalleled.

Things change in the final verse. Deciding to “take a trip to the suburbs”, Ice Cube tries working his magic in a different locale. To his surprise and dismay, his little heist in the suburbs becomes big news. His face is on TV, and the Feds have his home surrounded. Not as clever as he thought, he’s arrested and left to ponder his downfall. “I think back to when I was robbin’ my own kind / the police didn’t pay it no mind,” he says. Robbing the “white folks”, he asserts, is what got him shuffled to the penitentiary.

Tough break. Most likely, Ice Cube sought to provide a context for his character’s crimes, evidenced by the “KKK” in his spelling of “Amerikkka” and his implication that law enforcement and the legal system tacitly encourages “black-on-black” crime but actively punishes crimes involving “white” victims. Admittedly, the logic is somewhat puzzling since, after all, Ice Cube’s character wouldn’t have any fear of arrest if he wasn’t committing crimes. Sounds like he’s just mad he got caught. On the other hand, if people are going to commit crimes (which they are), then I suppose it makes sense that they’ll go where law enforcement is the least efficient.

Redman’s “So Ruff”, over a thumping backdrop sampling Parliament’s “Flashlight”, also sneaks a touch of context into the heist motif. “Stick ’em up, stick ’em up,” cries Redman, gleefully, moving in on his prey for an ordinary robbery. Here, though, the idea isn’t robbery for sport or convenience. On the contrary, Redman’s stick up kid is hungry. “‘Cause my stomach’s in a knot, and it pounds 24 hours a day around the tick tock.” Redman robs out of an extreme, and possibly misguided, sense of necessity.

Power

Money isn’t the only objective of a heist. The bandit’s goal might be less tangible. In this case, a flashy display of power might very well be what the heist persona is after.

We see this all the time in entertainment. In movies, television shows, books, and music, we are well acquainted with the thief who deals in love, attraction, and sexual tension rather than money, drugs, and crime. Love bandits don’t take people’s wallets. They take people’s girlfriends and boyfriends.

R&B is rife with these bandits. Pebbles’ “Backyard” cautions girlfriends against the dangers of letting someone who’s “trying to steal your man” get too close. Klymaxx, the ladies group of the ’80s, recorded and performed several songs dedicated to the art of man stealing. In “Men All Pause”, the divas boasted that they could leave men in awe by simply walking into the room. In “Meeting in the Ladies Room”, they take a page from Pebbles’ “Backyard” playbook. “I don’t know but I think you better watch your man,” is the warning as, once again, man stealers are on the prowl. “Lock and Key” features a jealous, overprotective boyfriend who endeavors to keep his girlfriend so closely guarded that no one could ever drive a wedge between them. Klymaxx’s “Love Bandit” sums it up with an accusatory “You’re up to no good” and “You stole my heart”.

This take on thievery can’t get any more explicit than it does in Me’shell Ndegeocello’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)”. Me’shell talks directly to her competition, bragging about how easily she diverts a man’s attention from his girlfriend. “Boyfriend, boyfriend,” she taunts. “Yes, I had your boyfriend.” In this “heist”, the man is the “loot”, and Me’shell’s heist persona seems to enjoy the challenge of taking him and then broadcasting the conquest more than she enjoys the actual man. Erykah Badu’s “Booty” advances a similar theme, except Ms. Badu’s objective is to show that she could have the man if she wanted him. Turns out, she won’t pursue him. “I don’t want him,” she says, “because of what he’s doing to you. I hope you would’ve done the same for me too.”

Salt-N-Pepa’s “I’ll Take Your Man” is as bold a title as any. The target of the heist, the “man” or boyfriend in such a song, reacts to the whims of our protagonist. He is easily swayed, apparently unable to resist the charms of these sirens. “I’ll take your man,” the song goes, “whenever I feel like it.”

Males can certainly play this game as much as females. Big Daddy Kane’s “I get the job done” finds Kane promoting himself as an “employee of the month” who can “do things in places your husband wouldn’t / and do certain things he probably just couldn’t”. Being an expert lover is his job, not a hobby, and it seems that much of his satisfaction derives from his quest to prove the legitimacy of his title, with a smaller percentage coming from his actual lover boy activities.

In “I’m That Type of Guy”, LL Cool J (an acronym for “Ladies Love Cool James”) is downright fiendish in his assertion that his behavior is “like a bandit” who relies on stealth and cunning to steal women from other men. The dichotomy between LL’s approach and the actions of his victims is explored throughout, with LL being the consistently crafty and practical guy while the victim is easily hoodwinked and overly trusting. “You’re the type of guy / to give her money to shop,” he says. “She bought me a sweater…Thank you, Sweetheart.”

Romantic thievery is popular, but it’s not the only game in town. Rappers have performed songs about swiping whole people, not just their attention or emotions. In “97 Bonnie & Clyde”, Eminem dramatizes his fantasy of killing his baby’s mother, stuffing her in his car trunk, and tossing her in the lake. The “Bonnie & Clyde” aspect comes from his taking his infant daughter along for the ride, like a couple of outlaws. Yikes.

Still, the standout of the heist subgenre is the prison break narrative. Unlike the songs targeting money or someone’ significant other, the prison heist generally involves a protagonist who is convinced of his or her righteousness. In 2pac’s “Soulja’s Story”, police harassment and poverty lead to incarceration, as one of 2pac’s characters leads a criminal lifestyle. He also talks about “dropping” the cops who harass him. Another character, the younger brother of the first, aims to break his brother out of jail. Both brothers get shot in the process.

Likewise, Public Enemy’s Chuck D engineers a prison escape in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”. The song, which absolutely rocks a piano solo from Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic”, opens with Chuck’s incredulous announcement, “I got a letter from the government the other day.” He claims the government seeks to enlist him for the armed forces, a fate so repugnant to him that he resolves to break out of prison, instigating a prison riot along the way.

Chuck’s escapee is convinced he is doing right, and we aren’t told why he is in prison in the first place. Did he commit a crime? Was he an innocent man wrongly convicted? “You have to realize” Chuck asserts, “that it’s a form of slavery organized.”

Prison does not agree with Chuck’s protagonist, and joining the army appears to please him even less.

Respect

Of all the motivations for perpetrating a heist, the need for respect would be the most amorphous and unwieldy. Yet, respect isn’t usually a motivator. More likely, the “heist” or thievery has already been perpetrated by someone else. The protagonist, then, hopes to counter the theft of culture, respect, and dignity. As X-Clan’s Brother J states it in “Raise the Flag”, such culture bandits “took the strength from our lives / and now I’m snatching it back”. For X-Clan, unity is the key to combating the community’s perceived lack of cultural awareness. Along these lines, Public Enemy’s “Who Stole the Soul” tackles segregation, suburban flight, and exploitation, although it probably raises more issues than it could ever possibly solve.

Through symbolism, YZ’s “When the Road is Covered with Snow” taps into the chill of cultural disenfranchisement. “The road,” he says, “symbolizes the first man’s history.” The snow seeks to cover and bury that history. YZ, for his part, is determined not to allow this, opting instead to salvage “my pride, my Blackness, my African culture.” The sun, wielding the power to melt the snow, represents the solution, which in my estimation equals knowledge and enlightenment.

Culture discourse in rhyming verse is no doubt fraught with ideological peril, particularly with respect to the heist motif. Such discourse presumes cultural hegemony and misappropriation, which does not always endear itself to the unconverted. Thus, the listener must assume that “they” (whoever “they” might be) are masterminding, and profiting from, the cultural heist.

Let’s not get bogged down in racial politics, though. The valuable insight here rests in the song construction, in understanding how the message is communicated. Where the protagonist longs to reacquire a cultural heritage or challenge the dominant social hierarchy, the “victim” of the heist wants to turn the tables and embark on a mission of reclamation. The protagonist desires to alleviate his or her suffering, to achieve a modicum of respect, and to retrieve a sense of dignity. This protagonist is nowhere near as cavalier, nor as divisive, as Eazy-E’s character in “Nobody Move”.

Stic.Man and M-1 of Dead Prez regularly deal with the wreckage of cultural disinheritance in their music. Classism, politics, and racial stratification are also subject to the duo’s biting commentary. Their exhortations to “pimp the system” are somewhat amusing, however, as it’s difficult to imagine a workable “system” that gathers its tools and mechanisms from the larger, presumptively more powerful, system. In “Hell Yeah”, the methodology for countering cultural marginalization border on frivolity. Robbing fast food delivery dudes, carjacking, fake identities, and credit card fraud might bring temporary relief from economic distress, but it’s no long term solution. It’s a band-aid on a broken arm.

Respect can, however, relate to specific relationships. Artists are fond of talking about this with regard to record companies. Ice Cube’s “Record Company Pimpin'”, built from the same sample as EPMD’s “Please Listen to My Demo”, portrays the world of record companies and artists as an oppressive dynamic between pimps and prostitutes (“The stage is the corner and the audience is the trick”).

Where EPMD’s “Please Listen to My Demo” translated the hope and idealism of obtaining a record deal into hip-hop poetry, Ice Cube’s take on the subject is unapologetically bitter. Much of the frustration is fiscal — concerning publishing rights, royalty points, and the like — but pimp terminology also implies a relationship devoid of respect, and with the scales tipped so far to one side (the record company’s) that the other (the artist’s) is left with humiliation.

“It went from ‘Please listen to my demo’,” Ice Cube declares, “to ‘Get yo’ ass out my limo’.” Reclamation and reparation suggest relationships of equal footing. Songs in this vein explore these concepts as potential remedies, if there are any, to the effects of the original heist. They are self-referential and indulgent, to be sure, but nevertheless committed to what the character believes is a righteous cause.

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