Mama Said Knock You Out: Hip-Hop & the Family Unit

DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is a heck of a song.

Over a carefully constructed backdrop of heavy percussion accented by a brassy throwback vibe, Will Smith (the actor and artist formerly known as the “Fresh Prince”) summarized the life of a typical teenager. In the first verse, Will and his family head to the mall. Will’s hunt to find new threads for the first day of school leads mother and son straight to the generation gap. When she sees him turning up his nose, she says, “What’s wrong? This shirt costs 20 dollars,” and he says, “Mom, the shirt is plaid with a butterfly collar.” When he pleads for something more hip and fashionable, she responds with, “You go to school to learn, not for a fashion show,” which leads to the youngster’s inevitable humiliation. Will concludes the verse with the maxim, “There’s no need to argue, parents just don’t understand.”

The second verse takes a turn. Will’s parents are taking a weeklong vacation, leaving their son alone with “the keys to the brand new Porsche”. For some reason (being a teenager? temporary insanity? sitcom syndrome?), Will deludes himself into thinking the same mother who wouldn’t let him buy trendy clothes would allow him to take the car for a little spin. That “little spin” turns into a full-blown joyride as Will picks up a young lady who urges him to test the speed limit (“Drive fast, speed turns me on”).

When the police catch up to them, Will panics. His voice is cracking as he says, “I don’t have a license, but I drive very well, Officer.” Worse, the young lady he picked up is even younger than he thought. She’s a “12-year-old runaway”. As expected, Will’s parents are livid. They cut their vacation short to pick him up, leaving our young star shaking in his sneakers: “That was a hard ride home, I don’t know how I survived it / They took turns, one would beat me while the other was driving.”

In the short run, “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was a bona fide hip-hop classic that helped to launch Will Smith’s career. It also provided the genre with wider appeal. Everybody likes a good story, especially one that resonates in real world experience, as this one does. What kid hasn’t been mystified by the seemingly outdated tastes of the elder generation? What kid doesn’t enjoy breaking the rules?

DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince,
“Parents Just Don’t Understand”

Beyond this, the Fresh Prince’s position as “teenager-under-parental-scrutiny” reminds me of hip-hop’s position as “genre-under-public-scrutiny”. Sometimes, as in the first verse of “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, hip-hop criticism may seem out of touch and skeptical of the current trends. “Critics just don’t understand,” the rappers might say. But, on the other hand, the second verse of the song parallels hip-hop’s wilder side that embodies the impulse to break rules and push boundaries. Sometimes, as in the song, the criticism is valid. Interestingly, and probably coincidentally, that second verse hints at a few issues the genre still faces: defiance of authority figures (as in Will’s initial impulse to take the family car), the frivolity and excess of materialism (represented by the Porsche, and Will’s eagerness to flaunt it), suspicion for feminine wiles and objectification of the opposite sex (Will picks up a woman solely because of her looks, only to discover she’s underage and a runaway), and run-ins with the legal system (shown by the officer pulling him over and the fact that he actually is breaking the law).

As “Parents Just Don’t Understand” parodies the communication mishaps that occur between children and their parents, people of all ages can relate. Further, it at least tangentially affirms an awareness of the family unit and, by extension, acknowledges those “family values” most anti-hip-hoppers believe to be missing from rap music and, I suppose, from the outlook of “today’s youth”. A more balanced inquiry, however, reveals that “Parents Just Don’t Understand” is not an anomaly.

Family Matters

Behind the images of bling, fancy cars, and rump-shaking groupies, there exists a layer of hip-hop that is quite old school in its outlook, embracing a decidedly traditional value system. This undercurrent of traditionalism isn’t as exciting as the genre’s groundbreaking moments of political lyricism (like, say, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) or musical fusion (like Run DMC’s rock-fueled cuts on Raisin’ Hell). But it nevertheless informs the music in interesting ways.

It is within the context of the nuclear family that these values are most often expressed in hip-hop. The expression generally takes one of two forms. The first method, as illustrated by “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, is to share an anecdote that originates within the “traditional” two-parent home. Talib Kweli’s lyrical map of his family tree in “Happy Home”, from his Liberation collaboration with producer Madlib, is another example.

Certainly, one positive aspect of the two-parent-home paradigm is that it emphasizes the importance of a loving household environment and attentive childrearing. On the minus side, these values tend to be so “traditional” that they are sometimes “old-fashioned” and not as “outside-the-box” as, say, hip-hop songs on the political or social advancement tip. Not surprisingly, we aren’t getting a lot of songs about the adoption process or about the households of same sex couples.

Hip-hop’s other method of expressing its family values is implicit in its treatment of non-traditional family units. While the “mommy + daddy + child(ren) = happiness” equation might be ideal, circumstances often impede an individual’s ability to adhere to tradition. As a result, there are many households helmed by single parents, usually mothers, and hip-hop songs have been more vocal about this experience than the “Parents Just Don’t Understand”-meets-“Cliff and Claire Huxtable” model discussed earlier.

In shedding light on these realities, some songs contain a certain wistfulness. Rappers appreciate their mothers, but they also feel regret for mothers who brave the world, and the rigors of parenthood, alone. Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You” is a touching example: in the aftermath of a father’s departure, a single mother (and grandma) struggle to take care of a houseful of kids, 15 in all and two with muscular dystrophy, along with cousins and aunts. Likewise, Sticky Fingaz’s “Sister I’m Sorry” issues a formal apology for all facets of male misbehavior and specifically for being absent from the family unit and being less than forthcoming with child support payments.

Mother Dearest

Well, son I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

— Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son”

2Pac, “Dear Mama”

Rappers sincerely love their mothers. Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” is a mammoth hip-hop song that enjoys airplay around Mother’s Day. A somber, reflective ode to the woman who raised him, “Dear Mama” approaches the portrait of Shakur’s matriarch with unbridled honesty and pathos. Shakur’s tribute embraces his mother’s former drug use as well as her loving sacrifices, a raw and passionate combination. He rhymes that he had no love for his father because “the coward wasn’t there” and when he passed away, Shakur says his anger “wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger”. Shakur was in jail when the song was originally released, which adds to the song’s epistolary presentation. “There’s no way I can pay you back,” Shakur confesses, “but my plan is to show you that I understand.”

On Late Registration, Kanye West followed Shakur’s lead with “Hey Mama”, while Ghostface Killah showed us how his mother disciplined him on Fishscale‘s “Whip You With a Strap”. I still can’t imagine a miniature Ghostface Killah getting a spanking, though.

Outright tributes to mothers include Snoop Dogg’s “I Love My Momma” and Evidence’s “I Still Love You”. Evidence’s song memorializes the rapper’s mother with an excerpt from one of her interviews. On My Brother’s Keeper, Lake has an altercation with the wrong dude, gets shot, and takes a stroll through the afterlife in “Walk Through Heaven”. Up in the clouds, he meets not only his loved ones but also the loved ones of his friends. In the song, he has a brief but poignant encounter with Nas’ mother, among others.

It’s not wise to talk trash about somebody’s mama, and rappers tend to steer clear of it. Eminem’s mama drama could be an exception, but then again, I suppose he’s allowed to crack on his own mama.

Since negative talk about someone else’s mother is usually awkward, humor can help to mitigate the damage. A prime example is the Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama”, in which the emcees create a chain of “ya mama” jokes, some of which are nonsensical (“Ya mama’s got a glass eye with a fish in it”) and some might earn you a punch in the face if said at the wrong time or to the wrong person (“Ya mama is so big and fat that she could get busy with 22 burritos when times are rough / I’ve seen her in the back of Taco Bell with handcuffs”).

K-Solo’s “Your Mom’s in My Business” skillfully navigates anti-mother terrain. Here, K-Solo tries to convince his sweetheart that her mother’s meddling will ruin their relationship. “I’m not the type to tell your moms to get lost,” he states, but of course he wants his girlfriend to tell Mommy Dearest to take a hike. He’s careful to mention the deference he shows her mother, and how he was “raised to treat a person’s mother with respect”, but you can hear his frustration with “the crazy things your mommy wants you to do”, like tagging along on a movie date and making him go back and forth for popcorn and then, after the movie, sitting in the car with the two lovebirds when it’s obvious they want to be alone.

Lucy Pearl (the super-group of Tony Toni Toné’s Raphael Saadiq, En Vogue’s Dawn Robinson, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad) echoed K-Solo’s sentiments in “Can’t Stand Your Mother”. Lucy Pearl’s presentation differs from K-Solo’s in that the vocalists, Saadiq and Robinson, seem to be dramatizing a bickering couple, although some of the lyrics indicate that they could simply be friends ticked off by each other’s mothers. He says of her mother, “Girl, your mama’s wrong / Living with her daughter when her ass is grown.” She snaps back on his mother, “Your mama’s just as bad / Need to mind her business with her nosy ass.” You’ll notice that it’s not just one person going off on someone’s mother, so the barbs go back and forth. Lucy Pearl’s dual diss-fest leans the mood toward comedy, like the scene in the movie Monster-in-Law when Jennifer Lopez (the girlfriend) and Jane Fonda (the mother and reluctant mother-in-law) take turns slapping the crap out of each other.

Mother-oriented songs have approached the parent-child relationship in reverse, from mother to child instead of from child to parent. Lauryn Hill’s “Zion” underscored Ms. Hill’s devotion and love for her son, assisted by guitar strumming by Carlos Santana.

In “Hear Me”, Jazzyfatnastees, a duo of Tracey Moore and Mercedes Martinez sporting a very memorable name, sang a parental mission statement to the “child in my womb” and discussing some rather sobering issues in the process (“I see beggars beggin’, widows cryin’, schemers, children dyin'”). “Trust me, I know we can find a way,” the lead voice sings, as if she’s aware of how thoroughly scary this all is. When I hear the song, I envision the unborn child shaking his or her head like, “No way. I think I’m better off staying in here!” Erykah Badu took the idea in a slightly different direction. Her song “Orange Moon” cleverly employed cosmic imagery of a sun (her son) illuminating the moon (Ms. Badu) so that the moon looks orange.

Even Michael Jackson was getting advice from his mama in “Billie Jean” (“Mother always told me / Be careful what you do”). Perhaps the mother-to-child format could be fertile ground for female hip-hop artists, as shown by Shawnna’s statement of resilience and perseverance in 2006’s “Can’t Break Me”. Overall, this subject matter has been underdeveloped. It also bears repeating that we could seriously use more female emcees right now.

Father Figures

Dear Dad: things didn’t turn out quite like I wanted them to

— Prince, “Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got”

Compared to the love and affection enjoyed by mothers, it’s open season on fathers. Part of the reason resides in the stereotype of the stern, unyielding father who runs the household with a fist rather than a beckoning ear. Pop music is replete with these types of men.

Madonna pleaded with her father for leniency when she got in “trouble deep” in “Papa Don’t Preach”, and Patti LaBelle tried to pull a father to the side in the Prince-penned “Yo, Mister” to let him know his actions had caused his daughter to drift away from him: “Yo, Mister, how’s your daughter? / You really ought to know / Everything you taught her / Don’t matter when she’s all alone.”

Otis Blackwell’s “Fever”, credited to John Davenport and Eddie Cooley and covered numerous times, spends a verse telling the story of Pocahontas’ love for John Smith. Apparently, they “had a very wild affair”. Pocahontas’ father does not approve and when he tries to kill Smith, Pocahontas intervenes, “Daddy, oh don’t you dare / He gives me fever.” I’m thinking many fathers would be further incensed by Pocahontas’ declaration, not calmer. Besides that, the song stands on shaky ground, historically speaking, since it doesn’t seem like there really was any affair between Pocahontas and Smith, and experts are saying Pocahontas was probably between 12 and 14 years old when she met Smith, maybe even as young as ten. Yikes. But, in the context of the song, fictional or not, we are presented with the dangers of a father disregarding his daughter’s feelings.

James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” shows this sort of tough love mechanism in which the father toils to take care of his family and functions as the supreme disciplinarian: “Papa didn’t cuss / He didn’t raise a whole lot of fuss / But when we did wrong, Papa beat the hell out of us.”

The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”

Often, the tension between father and child ensues because the father is absent, and we can thank Motown writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for summing this up way back when in “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Not only was this “Papa” always on the move (“Wherever he laid his hat was his home”), he didn’t have much to offer (“And when he died, all he left us was alone”). Surel’s 2006 reworking, “Daddy’s Little Girl”, added a daughter’s unique perspective plus an adjustment to the original chorus, singing, “Papa wasn’t in the home / To say goodnight, had to call on the phone / And though he tried / I still felt alone.” In many of these family-focused tunes, there’s a fine line between sharing a personal truth that others can relate to and merely being self-indulgent. No magic formula will create an instantly relatable song lyric.

In hip-hop, Naughty by Nature’s “Ghetto Bastard” confronts the consequences of surviving without a father figure, opening with a hospital skit between a doctor and a nurse. The doctor announces that he will inform the new father that a baby boy has just been born, to which the nurse replies, “I’m afraid there is no father, sir.” The doctor sighs, “Another ghetto bastard, huh?…Well, put him with the rest of the born losers.” There’s an abrasive quality to these songs, featuring coarser language than we are accustomed to hearing in songs about mothers. In “Ghetto Bastard”, Naughty by Nature’s lead rapper, Treach, does a great job of highlighting the pessimism of this outlook: “If you didn’t live it, you couldn’t feel it, so kill it, Skillet / And all that talkin’ ’bout it won’t help it out now, will it?”

Likewise, Shakur’s “Papa’z Song” paints a vivid picture of a fatherless childhood (“Had to play catch by myself, what a sorry sight”), one marked by the sting of missing a male role model and the difficulties a single mother faces in trying to raise a young boy. In the final verse, the song adds a layer of complexity to the mix as the father explains his absence. He wanted to be there for his children, but Life derailed him. “I’m so sorry,” goes the heartfelt chorus, “for all this time.” His sons nevertheless vowed never to emulate their father.

Unfortunately, things aren’t necessarily better when the father is around, and lest we start to assume that raising daughters is simpler than raising sons, have a listen to Nikki D.’s “Daddy’s Little Girl”. With flourishes of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom Diner” bringing a routine, day-in-the-life mood to the song, Nikki D.’s portrayal of a conflicted teenager is a noteworthy slice of psychology. “I couldn’t hurt daddy, I played the role,” she admits. “But on the sneak tip, I was massagin’ his soul.” Teairra Mari’s “No Daddy” states the situation straightaway: “I ain’t have no daddy around when I was growin’ up / That’s why I’m wild and don’t give a (huh).”

I’m not sure what it is about the daughter strand of father-related songs, but De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is downright eerie. Millie, a friend of the crew, has been suffering physical abuse from her father, Dillon. Outward appearances were deceptive, since the De La crew regarded Dillon, a social worker, as one of the coolest guys they knew, “super-hip” even. Dillon had volunteered to play Santa Claus at Macy’s. Millie gets fed up and heads over to Macy’s with a gun to bring an end to Dillon’s hellish abuse and the song concludes with her firing the gun: “Millie bucked him and with a quickness it was over.” That’s heavy stuff right there.

As you can imagine, hip-hop songs that praise fathers are tough to find. Perhaps Nas’ “Bridging the Gap” is one of the most well-known, a collaboration with his father Olu Dara that blends Nas’ hip-hop with Dara’s jazz and blues. “Born in the game,” says Nas, “discovered my father’s music like Prince searching through boxes in Purple Rain” — but definitely without the domestic violence that Purple Rain brought to the screen.

Fatherhood becomes positive in hip-hop when rappers address their own children. In these songs, they affirm their commitment to being responsible, attentive fathers, to the point that you can almost see them bouncing their kids on their knees. Sometimes the songs are seeking to break the cycle of minimal involvement experienced in the speaker’s own childhood, but the songs are almost always intense tearjerkers that delve into the father-child bond with tremendous detail. Ja Rule’s “Daddy’s Little Baby” offers his daughter frank fatherly advice (“Lies and deceit / The n*gga you love, he gon’ cheat / So be careful in the heat, baby girl with cold feet”), while Brother Ali’s “Faheem” apologizes for a broken home but champions a father’s ability to raise his son (“I fed you, changed you, read to you, bathed you”).

A few more examples: Nas dedicated his lullaby “Me & You” to his daughter Destiny; Will Smith proudly handled his “full time job” as a father in “Just the Two of Us”; and while Eminem’s lyrics have blasted his mother and baby mother Kim, his tone usually changes to tenderness when rhyming about his daughter, as in “Mockingbird” and “Hailie’s Song”. In most songs concerning fathers, the dads are biologically linked to their children. Theory Hazit’s “Hello Kiddeez” works from the perspective of a man seeking to maintain a connection to his biological children, although he’s separated from their mother, while also pledging his commitment to the child of his new sweetie.

Stepparents can love their children as much as biological parents love theirs, but some songs focus on one significant facet of biology: childbirth. Kweli detailed the birth of his children in “Joy”, as did the Game in “Like Father, Like Son”. In the Game’s song, he actually calls his friends to let them know he “just cut the umbilical cord”. Who says a gangsta can’t be a proud papa?

The sadder songs here are addressed to the unborn. Shakur’s posthumously released “Letter to My Unborn” and “Words to My Firstborn” speak volumes about a father’s hopes and dreams for his children, even when they aren’t born yet. His death weighs heavily on these songs. And, finally, Flipsyde’s “Happy Birthday” embodies an amalgam of emotions about a terminated pregnancy. From offering the unborn child an apology to imagining how the child’s life might have been, the lead voice weaves complexity and reality within each verse. Perhaps the song also hints at the promise hip-hop holds for expressing a wide range of emotions pertaining to mothers, fathers, and familial bonds.