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Hip-Hop Storytellers: The Heist Motif


Bluster and bravado are considered par for the course in hip-hop, but rappers adopt cunning personas to tell stories of money, power, and respect.

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.


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.

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