Jul 23, 2010

American Gangsta

There are few things more annoying than listening to some self righteous dilettante wax less than poetically on the current state of hip hop culture.  Yet the misguided and uninformed are out in full force these days, following the recent release of Rick Ross' fourth solo joint, Teflon Don.  Many consider Ross to be emblematic of what is wrong with hip hop.  While the heat from Ricky Rozay's newest burns holes through iPod ear buds everywhere, the haters are crying foul.  These haters see Ross as a fraud and struggle to understand why others are rewarding him with what they consider undeserved accolades. 

You see a few years ago Rick Ross was revealed to have at one time been a corrections officer.  Photos emerged of the rapper in uniform and his mad baby's mom co-signed the discovery.   Rick Ross, the bearded rapper who constantly plugged his elite Miami cocaine credentials on all his records, was in reality a former "officer of the goddamn law."  WTF?!  Say it ain't so, Rick!

Hip hop is a world where authenticity is celebrated, while cops are despised.  So Ross broke two rules when he was caught lying about his law enforcement past.  Not only was he exposed, but he was exposed as a former cop in a culture where Fuck Tha Police still serves as an anthem.   As Big might say, "case closed, suitcase filled with clothes."  Not quite.

Ross eventually admitted to his his past with the po-po and kept it moving.  Like one Kobe Bean Bryant who plowed full speed ahead in spite of his troubles in Eagle Colorado, Ross just kept on making music as though none of this ever mattered, as though his credibility was never in question.  The result, the stellar Teflon Don, a muscular ode to hip hop's decade long celebration of 90s dope money and the platinum lifestyle that went along with it.   Perhaps the best example of this throwback to the 90s vibe lies in Ross' clever joint MC Hammer,  a track that uses the original big balla of hip hop, Stanley Burrell, as a metaphor for livin' lavish in 2010. 

By now the haters are chomping at the bit.

The exposure of Rick Ross' past is perhaps one of the greatest things to ever happen in hip hop.  Why, you ask?  Because for far too long people have been confused about what constitutes realness in hip hop.  While Ross may represent counterfeit to his detractors,  it is the detractors misinformed understanding of what's real that is the issue here.  In other words, it is very dangerous to go searching for reality in a place that produces fiction. 

Hip hop is a culture that has long embraced fiction.  This is why so few rappers have used their "government names" when performing.  Rappers come into the game as characters.  For a long time music videos helped to foreground these characters in what were basically short films.  Eventually people came to embrace these familiar characters as though they were real.  Yet in reality, these rappers were always characters no different than the ones played by people like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino in film.  Not only were they characters, but they were characters in an ever expanding gangsta genre where the role of hyperbole as it functions in the black oral tradition came to create larger and larger narratives centered around the celebrated themes of "money, clothes, and hoes."

Though hip hop may have indulged the style of realism, the music was always more melodrama than documentary.   The process of producing an artist for a record company trying to turn a profit means that the rapper in question must be packaged to be sold.  This was no less the case with the brilliant Public Enemy than it is for the horrible Gucci Mane today.

Hip hop records are a commodity.  Though this commodity might make for some compelling stories or infectious beats, it is still a commodity for sale that must adhere to the dictates of the marketplace more so that the demands of authenticity.  Some rappers are obviously better than others, the same way some actors are better than others.  Some rappers can convince you of their sincerity, others not so much.  Regardless, the  rules of capitalism don't take a back seat to illusions about reality. The same record industry that has sold some of your more famous so-called conscious rappers has also sold some of your more famous so-called commercial or pop rappers.  The idea of a pure underground culture free of commercialism is a delusional fantasy in a market economy.  Don't believe the hype.

Some will point to a figure like Tupac as the epitome of a "real" rapper.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I remember once seeing the diminutive rapper at the famed Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles back in the day.  Though his two strapped bodyguards were menacing, there was nothing remotely threatening about 'Pac.  The twinkle in his eye suggested a man quite different than the ogre the media had created.  Trust me, the man who stood before me that afternoon looked much more like the jovial little kid performing with his high school classmate Jada Pinkett in that infamous homemade video that went viral long before there was a such thing as YouTube, than he did a thug. 

'Pac had the potential to be a great actor.  His method acting style approach to playing Bishop in Juice (1992) had seemed to take over his persona going forward.  If he had not died tragically I think his biggest contributions would have been as an actor.  But 'Pac was so good at playing his persona that he had people believing he was the epitome of real.  This blurring of the lines between fact and fiction most certainly played a role in his unfortunate death as well.  This should have been the point when people dropped all that foolishness about the real.  Trying to be real had cost a man his life, with others to follow. Hip hop never should have been something to die for!

When I think about all of this relative to Rick Ross, I see a man clearly telling the world that he is a character, but no one wants to listen.  I mean, first of all, his name is Rick Ross.  This name, of course, belongs to the man who was once labeled the "Johnny Appleseed of crack," Los Angeles' own Freeway Ricky Ross.

The real Ross has even attempted to sue the rapper for appropriating his name.

On the album, the rapper Ross also identifies with other real life criminal figures like Atlanta's celebrated Big Meech and Chicago's Larry Hoover.

It's as though all the cinematic gangsters have been used up, so Ross decides to cut to the quick and name check real criminals instead.  Yet, thanks to a program like BET's American Gangster, black criminal super heroes like Ross and Hoover,  have been afforded the Hollywood treatment as well.

To top it off, the title of the album is Teflon Don a direct reference to another '90s throwback, the late Italian-American gangster John Gotti,

a man whose downfall was closely tied to his narcissistic attempts to be more cinematic don than real one.

Considering that crooked cops like Rafael Perez of LA's Rampart scandal in the 90s do indeed exist, Ross' transition from cop to gangsta rapper can be seen as another example of cinematic-style adaptation.

Looking at it this way, Ross evokes Denzel's corrupt cop character Alonzo from Training Day.  

The Miami rapper has dropped an album that plays like a star-studded gangsta flick, with cameos by some of the biggest names in the game.  His over the top tales of drug game excess are very funny to me; something akin to a lyrical gangsta comic book featuring the legendary super heroes of the street.  Considering that cats have been imitating gangsters since the days of Al Capone and Edward G. Robinson as Little Caesar (1931), what Rick Ross is doing is almost like a time honored tradition by now.  Ross is not the first nor the last person to use the gangster as a fictional device to represent his take on the American Dream.

Hip hop, at its core, has always been about the art of talkin' shit over beats and rhymes.  The black oral tradition with its use of hyperbole, embellishment, metaphors, similes, and all other manner of creative verbal signifying is the foundation of hip hop's lyrical flow.  It is imaginative wordplay, not something to be taken literally. Those who have mastered this spoken art have dominated the craft.  Gangsters make for some of the best shit talkers. And as one of the greatest shit talkers in history myself, I know of what I speak.

The bottom line is this, hip hop is fiction and rappers are characters.  Don't get it twisted!  And this, of course, is real talk!


MonicaBMH said...

Completely agree with your commentary of the authenticity of 'character'.

Shouted out your article in my last post: It's Not What You Do But How You Do It @ blessmyhustle.com

Anonymous said...

Now this one is definitely tru. Hip hop has been characterized from the start. I remember Ice Cube being my example of what your talking about. I thought based off his lyrics he wud kill me and my family if we didn't represent...LMAO! Today he's highly paid off the scam and is looking to make more money as the other cats in this game. I have to admit I love cube as a artist and actor because i'm not stuck into what i think he is but more into his accomplishments.....1