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.
The Dream State & Mind-Alteration (“Gin & Juice”)
In the dream state, the protagonist struggles to distinguish fantasy from reality while asleep. Occasionally, the narrator is awake but the fictional audience is experiencing the dream state, or is preparing for sleep, as in Slick Rick’s classic tale of petty thievery gone bad in “A Children’s Story”.
Additionally, there is a parallel between sleep and death, as Nas noted in “New York State of Mind” that “sleep is the cousin of death”. For our purposes, the parallel resides in the similarities of the narrator’s disorientation. A character confused about whether he or she is asleep generally works out along the same lines as a character who doesn’t know he or she is dead. Sure, the consequences are dramatically different, with death being a great deal more permanent than falling asleep (unless the two are teaming up). Still, the narrator’s blurring of the real and the imagined operates the same way.
In the ’90s, Black Sheep explored this in the introduction to the album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. The album title itself suggests some manipulation of reality, providing a clue that perhaps Black Sheep’s tandem of Dres and Mr. Lawnge might actually possess qualities not initially seen through appearances or popular singles. The intro, coyly titled “U Mean I’m Not”, finds Dres unraveling in a sociopathic rampage. With his AK-47 and his Rambo knife, he wreaks havoc on his family, beating up his sister because he thinks she used his toothbrush, punching his mom for breaking the eggs while cooking breakfast, shooting his dad for interfering, and cutting the mailman’s throat for no apparent reason at all.
The skit’s violence cleverly contrasts Dres’ laidback but cocky rapping style, with which the rest of A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing more than adequately acquaints us. The brief narrative ends with Dres being shaken awake. Dres, sleepily and alarmed, mutters, “I dreamed that I was…hard“, as in “hardcore”, “tough”, and “gangsta”. No doubt, the “tough guy” image and the “regular Joe” image were doing battle for popularity in the ’90s, so the skit pokes fun at the over-the-top machismo that was part of the soundscape of the day. The title “U Mean I’m Not” serves as an answer to Dres’ dream of being “hard”, and offers a hint of surprise in the process, as if to say, “Black Sheep isn’t a ‘hardcore’ act?! What’s up with that?!”
In 2006, Black Sheep released the 8WM/Novakane album. This time, the introductory skit parodies ring tone rap, with Dres boasting that he “pimps” everything from holidays to principals, all over a backdrop that sounds unmistakably clap-happy and chant-driven. When he’s shaken awake from his dream, Dres mumbles, “I dreamed I had a hot record out.” Once again, the song title “U Mean I Don’t” plays into the joke, melding the concern of the external hip-hop climate with the agenda of the specific artist, and employing sleeping and dreaming as twin devices for exploring the fuzzy lines between art and realism.
Songs in which narrators experience death or an afterlife deal with the same merger of fact and fiction. It often sounds like an unaired episode of Ghost Whisperer, with the narrator unaware that he or she is dead, and slowly coming to the realization as things unfold.
Scarface’s “I’m Dead” takes this angle to perfection. In it, Scarface wakes up to the sound of an “old church hymn” playing on the radio, followed by a “neighborhood street fight”. He claims to see a man “runnin’ with a butcher knife” and stabbing another man, after which Scarface himself starts to feel strange. He tries to take a shower but he goes through the wall. He tries to touch his face, but can’t feel his beard. He looks in the mirror but can’t see his reflection.
In the end, he comprehends his fate, having seen his own body in the casket (“Son of a b*tch! I don’t believe it, that’s me!”). He finishes the song in a near whisper, “Aww sh*t…I’m dead, I’m dead.” In slight contrast, Snoop Dogg’s “Murder Was the Case” opens with a deadly drive-by shooting perpetrated on Snoop by his enemies. Snoop, as narrator, seems to know his time is up, so comprehension isn’t the wrinkle. It’s the conversation he has while he’s in a coma that confounds the issue for him. If he’ll let the owner of this voice (an angel, perhaps?) take control, the voice promises to make his life “better than you can imagine”. On the other hand, Tupac Shakur’s “Only God Can Judge Me” leaves no room for redemption. Here, Tupac guides us through a first-person account of his own murder, from gunshot to flat line. In Tupac’s case, of course, we’re all so fond of pointing out how life imitates art.
Mind-Alteration (“Gin & Juice”)
While sleep conjures the power of the subconscious, thereby triggering what we’ve termed the “dream state”, external substances can be equally spellbinding. For rap music, that often means alcohol and drugs (“Gin & Juice”, anyone?), with marijuana being the mind-altering substance of choice. There are so many songs dedicated to weed, both inside and outside the hip-hop sphere, that it would take an entire article devoted to the subject to even scratch the surface. That’s probably a cause for concern in itself. Here, we’re interested in the way these substances alter the narrator’s senses and create a distortion of reality.
Tone Loc’s “Cheeba Cheeba” follows a template similar to Rick James’ “Mary Jane”. Here, the raspy Californian rapper dedicates the jam to his smoking habit of choice, focusing on the positive effect it has on him. It enhances his preparation for his performances, makes his love making more passionate, and even makes David Letterman seem funny. Very impressive, especially the latter.
KRS-One combined our sleep paradigm with the fabled love for the chronic. In “I Can’t Wake Up”, KRS-One dreams that he’s a “blunt gettin’ smoked”. He is not the smoker, mind you, he’s the joint itself, being passed around from Everlast, Cypress Hill, and Das EFX to Chubb Rock, Fab 5 Freddy, and President Bill Clinton (who, appropriately, says, “I’ll smoke but I won’t inhale”). It’s not a public service announcement for the detrimental effects of getting high, so you kind of have to wonder what the point of the song could possibly be. The best view, I think, is that it confirms the playful side of hip-hop, and walks a fine line between creativity and downright silliness. KRS-One’s song reminds me of De La Soul’s “Ghost Weed” skits on their Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump album. Each skit acts a fictional advertisement for Ghost Weed, a product potent enough to allow the user to sound exactly like their favorite rapper, right down to the lyrics and the delivery.
Eminem’s “My Fault” chronicles the problems with giving people too many of your ‘shrooms. Eminem gives Susan, a recovering heroin addict, some mushrooms to try and the consequences are disastrous. She hallucinates and loses complete control. In the same vein, MC Lyte’s “Cappuccino” finds one of our most talented emcees going for cappuccino at a “café on the Westside”, only to find herself in a situation where she believes she’s getting kidnapped and then getting shot in a shootout. On the “other side”, positioned “in between lives”, she thinks she’s reconnecting with old friends. The truth is that her “death” experience is the result of the cappuccino, and every time she drinks it, she has a “voyage through death”. She promises, “I’ll leave it alone and just stick to tea / Cappuccino was fly, but too fly for me.”
Back to Black Sheep, in another cut from A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing called “Strobelite Honey”, the atmosphere of the nightclub becomes the cause of the narrator’s disorientation. The assertion is that the ladies look great while they’re in the darkness of the club, but not so great under a different set of lights. “Step out in the light, come show off yourself,” is Dres’ invitation upon first meeting the “honey”. After the invitation is accepted and he realizes the problem, he says, “Yo, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else.” Reality, as well as beauty, turns out to be in the eye of the beholder. Plus, “Strobelite Honey” might also belong on the next category of songs.
Sleep and death force our protagonists into confusion over fact and fiction.High-inducing substances like alcohol and marijuana alter the senses. A third category involves the manipulation of perception through delusion or subterfuge. That is, the narrator is either mistaken or deliberately misled.
Self-delusion and paranoia come with the territory of hardcore rap. Artists paint vivid descriptions of characters who have taken permanent residence in solitude and isolation. They are constantly looking over their shoulders, always worried about the consequences of past actions catching up to them. Songs like the Geto Boys’ “My Mind Playing Tricks” underscore this phenomenon, with Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill facing delusions of psychiatric proportions. Stress and paranoia are their biggest enemies. “Four walls closin’ in gettin’ bigger / I’m paranoid sleepin’ wit’ my finger on the trigger,” Scarface confesses.
Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” brings us a fantasy of his ideal day. For Ice Cube, that means “a breakfast with no hog”, the comfort of stopping the car at a red light without worrying about carjackers, playing a good game of basketball, and getting phone calls from women he’s actually interested in. The bad news is that it’s not real — at least not for him. It’s a fantasy, a daydream of sorts, which gives it the dreamlike quality we discussed earlier. “What the f**k am I thinkin’ about?” he asks. Things are not what they seem, nor are they constant. There’s a lesson in rap’s handling of fantasy and reality, and that lesson is simple: everything changes and perception is relative. The trick is to somehow keep things in perspective, and not be too swayed by the extremes.
Sometimes, the narrator’s “delusion” is simply the result of a miscalculation. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” illustrates this in a humorous way, with Will Smith (“The Fresh Prince”) challenging boxer Mike Tyson to a showdown in the ring. They go through the process of publicizing the fight and having press conferences. The Fresh Prince actually holds his own for the first few seconds of the fight, but Tyson deflates him with a single punch to the ribs (“[A]nd my insides shook”). The Fresh Prince’s miscalculation? Obviously, it’s thinking he had a prayer of beating Mike Tyson.
A more serious example is Eminem’s Dido-assisted “Stan”. This tale involves an obsessed Eminem fan who has been writing letters to Eminem hoping for a response. His letters, brought to life through Eminem’s verses, are as detailed as they are passionate. They are also troubled, displaying a disturbing inability to separate his love for Eminem’s lyrics from reality (“See, everything you say is real”). Ultimately, Eminem responds to his fan, but his letter is too late to stop Stan’s suicidal and homicidal plan. Drunk, with his pregnant girlfriend tied up in the trunk, Stan drives his car over a bridge. Stan’s miscalculation? Thinking that Eminem’s lack of response to his letters was the result of apathy rather than a busy schedule — and blowing it out of proportion. Oh, yeah — the getting drunk and tying the girlfriend up in the trunk and driving off the road thing is a big “oops” as well. Eminem’s mistake? Not realizing the power of his words and the effect they might have over people, although writing and recording the song seems to show that he kind of gets it.
Tupac Shakur’s “Papa’z Song” works the same angle. Tupac and his stepbrother Mopreme set the stage with their verses, lamenting in vivid detail the struggles they faced as they transitioned from childhood to young adulthood in the absence of a compassionate and caring father figure (“Please send me a pops before puberty / the things I wouldn’t do to see a piece of family unity”). Their lamentations quickly give way to acrimony, and the more they take stock of their family history, the angrier they become. The final verse, however, is a stroke of genius that belongs to “papa” (given life through Tupac’s distorted vocals), who explains himself as a man who wasn’t a deadbeat dad — he had unfortunately fallen prey to a series of unforgiving circumstances. Caught up in the criminal justice system and unable to get back to his family, “papa” wanted his kids to have a happy childhood but things didn’t work out the way he’d hoped. The miscalculation? The boys missing their father and thinking his absence was deliberate. The father’s miscalculation? Thinking he could escape the penal system and get back to the normalcy of family life.
These tales of miscalculation are almost Shakespearean in their tragic turns and twists. Brother Ali’s “Dorian”, for instance, finds our heroic narrator trying to break up a domestic dispute between his neighbors. Dorian, the disrespectful neighbor, takes his anger out on his girlfriend and their kid, and when Ali decides to intervene, Dorian takes exception. Dorian’s rude behavior towards Brother Ali’s wife is the last straw, and Ali makes the confrontation physical. “It seemed that he invited my right fist for a party on his left cheek,” he quips. Imagine Brother Ali’s shock and awe when he learns that Dorian’s girlfriend calls the police on Brother Ali, thereby protecting the man who had been so abusive to her and her child. Brother Ali is like, “Damn, that was not the plan.” Total and complete miscalculation.
Louis Logic & JJ Brown’s “A Perfect Circle” represents the ultimate in miscalculation (and being a stalker). Fascinated by a woman he’d met while randomly dialing phone numbers, Louis Logic’s main character disguises his voice and pretends to be taking Census information in an official capacity. Armed with information his formerly anonymous flame has given him, he stakes out her place and becomes jealous of the company she’s keeping with another man. Well, that just won’t do, will it? So he breaks into her place, armed this time with more than information — he’s got a gun! Someone enters the place, our hapless narrator gets a shot off, and it turns out that he has accidentally shot the woman he thinks he loves! The first miscalculation? Thinking it’s a good idea to meet the love of one’s life over the telephone. The second miscalculation? Thinking it’s a good idea to break into somebody’s house with a gun and lie in wait. The third miscalculation? Not realizing that his slim chances of succeeding under the first miscalculation had actually worked! Louis Logic’s main character reads the woman’s diary (yeah, he does this) and learns that she too was infatuated with her “mystery man” on the telephone.
Nevertheless, manipulating perceptions is work best done by others, and is usually more surprising to the deceived individual than self-delusions or miscalculations. A playful example can be found in MC Lyte’s “Absolutely Positively…Practical Jokes”. MC Lyte portrays a perennial prankster who plays practice jokes on her neighbor Ms. Davis. Come to think of it, rappers seem to have a lot of issues with their neighbors. At any rate, the bad news for Lyte is that turnabout is fairplay, as Ms. Davis sets up a revenge prank by making Lyte believe she needs Lyte to deliver an important, time-sensitive package (“It absolutely positively has to get there!”). MC Lyte’s journey to deliver this package is epic — she battles traffic, almost crashes into the back of a Honda, runs out of gas, has her car towed, rebuffs drug addicts looking for money, and has to change a flat tire. When Lyte finds out what’s inside the package she’s been transporting, she sounds livid (“A box of f*ckin’ Q-Tips, man!”). Not exactly earth shattering business but still it qualifies as manipulation. Perhaps the frivolity of it makes it that much more manipulative.
Such manipulation can have more serious repercussions. KRS-One, under the Boogie Down Productions moniker, crafted a narrative to explore some of these consequences in “13 & Good”. In this song, the narrator mistakes a 13 year old girl for a 26 year old woman! “She looked to be about 26, I ain’t dizzy,” the narrator asserts. I have to wonder if maybe the narrator is suffering from Black Sheep’s aforementioned “Strobelite Honey” syndrome. Anyway, the rest of the song, for me, is a slippery slope of shocking decisions.
Shock number one: upon discovering this girl is 13, KRS-One’s narrator continues to talk about how “good” the sexual experience was. Say what?!
Shock number two: after professing her desire to be with the narrator forever and facing his rejection, the girl calls her father who turns out to be a police chief. “If I can’t have you, no one will,” she taunts him. “And I ain’t even on the pill.” Wow!
Shock number three: Daddy, the police chief, arrives at the narrator’s apartment with his gun and (mini-shock number one) nearly beats his daughter senseless before (mini-shock number two) offering KRS-One’s narrator the proposition of being the chief’s personal playmate. “You can see my daughter anytime, anywhere,” he says. “But it’s you that I want to be mine / The price tag is your behind.” OMG, really?
Common’s Kanye West-produced “Testify” follows suit with the machinations of a conniving villainess. By manipulating the judge and jury during the song’s courtroom scene, a guilty woman manages to look like the victim as she successfully pins the blame on her partner. The prosecutor doesn’t realize the plot until this shrewd, guilty lady starts laughing after the guilty verdict is official and announced to the court.
Perception becomes reality, at least for the individual being manipulated, and the person who controls or shapes perception is powerful indeed. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson to be learned from the “Keeping It Real” concept. That is, understanding the power of the spoken word and its ability to expand and mold the listener’s viewpoint.