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Keeping It Real: Dreams, Mind-Alteration, & Misperception in Hip-Hop

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

Hip-hop has been engaged in an ongoing tension between fantasy and reality, art and artifice but rappers, like all good artists, sometimes have to lie in order to tell the truth.

Hip-hop's mantra of "Keeping It Real" is legendary, almost to the point of being synonymous with the culture and genre. The concept of being "real" has been so pervasive that it colors our view of the art form. Rappers are expected to be "real", eschewing all barriers between their musical personas and their personal lives, to actually live the lifestyles they portray in their rhymes. As a matter of fact, rappers criticize each other for failing to adhere to the "Keeping It Real" credo. "You're a kid, you don't live what you rap about," was Nas' admonition on the opening track of 2006's Hip Hop Is Dead.

"Keeping It Real" creates a rather bizarre standard to uphold. I mean, if you're a Drake-style artist, I suppose the task of melding reality and fantasy is significantly less complicated. The "normal guy" or "average Joe" persona is concerned with relatively familiar issues, such as personal insecurities and heartbreak. The same could be said of artists like Kid Cudi, Kanye West, or Mos Def.

Where the "Keeping It Real" discussion reaches a fork in the road is when it comes to the street tales, songs often referred to as "crack raps" and detailed stories of criminality. If these raps are "real", then every album containing one would amount to a confession and, in my view, something less artistic. The alternative, though, is the loss of credibility that occurs when an artist's real life fails to match his or her life as presented over a dope beat.

Strict adherence to the "reality" concept can be limiting, and downright stifling. There's an argument to be made -- and frequently does get made -- that the "Keeping It Real" philosophy has inhibited rap's creativity. Yet, exercising one's imagination runs the risk of violating hip-hop's sacred principle. This, in turn, encourages some rather odd behavior, particularly from fans and critics. If we want our artists to be "real", then we want them to rap about things they've actually done or lived through. That means, if they rap about shooting people, then they are "real" if they've shot people, but "fake" if they haven't. I don't know about you, but I'd rather someone pretend to shoot me than actually do it.

While hip-hop has truly carried the "Keeping It Real" banner, I prefer to believe that hip-hop has always allowed fact and fiction to merge and overlap. This is partly because it is an inherent component of hip-hop's entertainment value in terms of brand building and the making of personas. It's also because rappers, like all good artists, sometimes have to lie in order to tell the truth. While we might not be hearing the actual truth of the artist's own personal experience, what we get resonates with us, and convinces us that there is something in the tale that we can relate to. It all boils down to a concept that's been in existence for quite a long time. It's called poetic license.

In my opinion, hip-hop has been engaged in an ongoing tension between fantasy and reality, art and artifice. "Keeping It Real" might be the motto, but hip-hop is filled with songs that could not possibly be based on actual events. Songs like Ghostface Killah's "Underwater", with Ghostface describing a strange but detailed aquatic episode, stretch the imagination far more than they reveal bona fide experience.

Likewise, Special Ed's "The Mission" positions Special Ed as a secret agent, as in a James Bond or Mission: Impossible figure, who is assigned to take out the villainous karate master "Lu Chin Chen". Apparently, Chen has been stealing top secret rhymes. Special Ed's objective is to make him pay. After a martial arts showdown in the second verse ("So I shot him again, yo, I couldn't believe / Mr. Chen caught the bullet in his two front teeth"), Special Ed prevails. It's an entertaining tale, to be sure, but it's utterly preposterous to believe it really happened. I'm willing to bet Special Ed never actually pulled off this mission -- and nobody questioned his credibility over it.

Sometimes, the line between fact and fiction gets blurred due to technique instead of subject matter. In some songs, the rapper renders a detailed and realistic account in first person that the rapper couldn't possibly have experienced. Jedi Mind Tricks and RA the Rugged Man's "Uncommon Valor" is certainly compelling, but it's equally certain that the rappers weren't soldiers in the Vietnam War as their narrative suggests. Along with viewpoint, rappers employ personification in songs like Nas' "I Gave You Power" and Pharoahe Monch's "When the Gun Draws" where the artists personify guns and bullets.

This understanding of the ongoing fact/fiction confusion plays out in a variety of hip-hop songs, with narrators and protagonists who are unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. It is this confusion and tension, whether deliberate or unintentional, that undermines the prevailing notion that rap artists must choose between credibility and creativity. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

Several trends emerge. In our songs, fact and fiction blend together as a result of: (1) the dream state, (2) mind-altering substances, like drugs and alcohol, and (3) misperception, either through self-delusion, miscalculation, or trickery.

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