Soulja's Story: 10 Hip Hop Artists Who Served Their Country
To mark Memorial Day, we examine the service backgrounds of a now malice-free emcee, Young Jeezy's comrade and several other often overlooked soldiers turned spitters.
To say Hip Hop has a conflicted relationship with the military is an understatement.
While Public Enemy (“Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”), Ice Cube (“I Wanna Kill Sam”), Lupe Fiasco (“Building Minds Faster”) and countless other emcees have all scoffed in song at the notion of Black men taking an oath to protect and serve the same country that enslaved their ancestors, other Hip Hop artists have openly embraced the American military and its lifestyle as a symbol of strength.
In the mid-to-late ‘90s, Black Moon and the Boot Camp Clik, along with Colonel Master P and his tank full of No Limit Soldiers, successfully adopted that imagery (recently resurrected by Jon Connor and his traveling army of supporters – which included Nas - at this year’s SXSW) and utilized the intimidating impact that one wearing camouflage apparel tends to have on onlookers.
In late 2010, legendary producer/rapper DJ Quik went even further than just adopting the soldier look by publicly encouraging young men during an on-camera interview to choose signing up with Uncle Sam as a safer and sounder route to personal and economic improvement than rapping.
Artists like Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Twista and Tech N9ne have all taken great pride in their performances for troops stationed overseas (Tech even dedicated his recent “The Noose” to service men and women struggling with post traumatic stress).
And several spitters proudly proclaim to be “military brats.” Some of the more notable sons born to then active-duty servicemen include WC, Nelly, Yelawolf, Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Cage, and maybe most notably R.A. The Rugged Man, whose father was a certified war hero, highly decorated during Vietnam.
So to commemorate Memorial Day 2012, HipHopDX has chosen to highlight Hip Hop’s contribution to the armed services by sharing the soldier stories of 10 artists you may, or may not, know are veterans of the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy. This list is not all-encompassing, as there are surely some names that have been unintentionally omitted, but it should serve as an educator to those who presume all rappers are anti-military of just how many Hip Hop artists have served their country (even if a couple of them did so against their will).
No Malice of the Clipse
Military Branch: Army
Prior to his regret-driven rhymes on The Clipse’s most recent album, Til the Casket Drops, and subsequent conversion to Christianity (followed by a stage name switch from Malice to No Malice), Gene Thornton was the self-proclaimed “pioneer of the coke rap.”
But a decade before his rhymin’ about “Grindin’” would be embraced by the masses, back in 1992, the then 18-year-old Malice was just another fresh out of high school teen with, as Biggie would say, a “baby on the way, mad bills to pay.” And so to tend to the immediate needs of his growing family the troublesome trapper/aspiring rapper sought out a more steady income and signed up for the shortest enlistment the Army offered: 2 years and 23 weeks.
In his book, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked, Gene fondly remembers this wide-eyed time as one of the happiest of his life, recalling, “After high school, Tonya became pregnant with our first child. Instantly, I knew I had to step up and be responsible. We went for a walk and came to a huge tree in my neighborhood where we stopped and professed our love for one another. I asked for her hand in marriage. She readily accepted without hesitancy, and I placed a ring on her finger. I then joined the Army, did my basic training in Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and after that I went to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) school in Ft. Belvoir, VA. This allowed me to travel home every weekend; until eventually we were stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where she, I, and new born son Marcus, lived together as a family. My father’s example showed me how to be a man, and with the example my parents showed me, I knew exactly what to do.”
After his Honorable Discharge in 1994, Malice abandoned his attempts at living a quiet, domestic life, hooking back up with previously befriended local producers The Neptunes, as well as his by-then hustling little brother Terror (n/k/a Pusha T), and resuming both his in-the-booth and in-the-streets activities.
Military Branch: Army
Freddie Gibbs may be the last name any fan of the “Thuggin’” rapper would expect to see on a list of artists who actually wore camouflage for its intended purpose. But at age 19 the future frontline soldier for Young Jeezy’s CTE army was falling out in formation in the United States Army. His stint was short-lived however. While stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Gangsta Gibbs was caught partaking in the sticky icky and subsequently dismissed from the service – an action that would devastate most members of the military but one that Fred was more than happy with.
“I didn’t want to go,” he explained of his forced entry into the armed services during an interview with Cool’eh magazine. “I caught a theft charge around the same time my [first] gun charge was still pending and the lawyer I was messing with at the time knew this Army recruiter. So they talked to the judge and the judge granted me this thing called ‘pre-trial diversion’ and what that is, is they make your ass go to boot camp and upon the completion of Army boot camp, your charges are pretty much lifted and you are on probation.”
“So I went to boot camp and it was one of the worst and most grueling experiences I ever went through,” he continued, “but I finished it near the top of the class. But that was not what I wanted for my life. No disrespect to anyone who does that for their career but I didn’t believe in all the stuff that the military was about, nor did I believe in what the administration was doing at that time. I did not want to be a part of that George Bush military and so, I did what I did, didn’t take the Army shit seriously. I still was on my street shit and what not, smoking weed and got kicked out. Dishonorable Discharge.”
While Gibbs subsequently appeared in camouflage garb, and standing in front of a tank, for the cover of his second mixtape, 2004’s Full Metal Jackit Volume II, subsequent releases from the baby-faced killa have surfaced sans any homage to his military service.
Military Branch: Air Force
ATL brave, Donnis, is the sole Air Force alum on this list. The rising rapper decided to enlist for the same reason many aspiring artists likely do, as he explained to Vibe, “After graduating high school and being at college for a year, I joined the Air Force, which allowed me to make enough money to buy my own recording equipment and continue on making music.” Subsequently stationed in Tokyo, Donnis began to really focus on his music and found the New York of the Orient to be a perfect launching pad for his career.
“I did my thing in Japan,” he revealed to Complex, “and I did it on big stages. I was out there for two and a half years. Opening for T.I., Chingy, 112, Erykah Badu, whoever was out there killing at the time. I was working on base. After work I would be in the studio, or rehearsing for the show that night. I used to pass out CDs around the base. I had a dope buzz on the underground hip-hop scene in Tokyo. That's where my grind took place.”
Donnis’ great fondness for the Japanese capital was showcased in the video for this debut Atlantic Records single, 2010’s “Tonight.”
But while traveling to glamorous parts of the world can potentially be a perk to one who enlists in the armed forces, Donnis broke down the less glamorous aspects of life back at the base to HipHopDX during his 2009 DXNext interview, “For me, being in the military, you come in and they sit you down and say, ‘This is everything you know, this is everything you’ve seen. But all that shit don’t matter. This is your new life, and we’re gonna change everything, now follow me.’”
Donnis originally planned to title his major-label debut, Basic Training, but has since switched to the less military-inspired Past Visions Of The Future.
Military Branch: Army National Guard
One half of The Away Team, producer/rapper Khrysis experienced a very real crisis of conflict, without ever even going into battle, during his time serving in the National Guard. Explaining exclusively to HipHopDX in 2008, the Justus League crewmember revealed that in the spring of 2003, shortly before he was to be shipped off to Iraq, he took a principled stand to not fight in a war he deeply opposed.
“I was fresh outta high school lookin' for shit to do with my life," Khrysis began, recalling why he joined the National Guard in the first place. "I wanted to go to college but I aint have the perfect grades. So I went into the National Guard thinkin' it would be all hunky dory...mind you, this was in 2000, before all the Towers got hit and before all the terrorism bullshit. Everything was cool at first, but I didn't agree with how everything was structured. I was known to be the outspoken person in our group. I'm one of those people that asks 'why?' I wanna know why we doin' this shit. They'll tell you they want you to do this, that, or the third, but I need to ask why...I guess my main thing is that we are in a war that doesn't make any sense whatsoever. That's pretty much how I feel about it. I didn't believe in what I was being told by the authorities."
The North Carolina native subsequently stood his ground and refused to deploy. “I reported for duty [and] blatantly told them 'I'm not going,'” he explained. “They was tryin' to punk me into going. They tried to call me 'coward' and 'less of a man', and my response to that was ‘Look, a man fights for what he believes in. And obviously what I believe in doesn't agree with what you believe in...so how am I a coward if this is what I believe in? I believe that this is some bullshit and I believe that I don't need to be here.' Am I not a man if I'm fighting for what I believe in just because you don't agree with what I believe in?”
“Basically they threatened to kick me out if I didn't go,” he continued. “I said, 'Fine you don't even have to kick me out, I'll leave nigga! [laughs]. Me and Sean Boog were almost done with our [National Anthem] album, Little Brother was working with me on The Minstrel Show...so there's a lot of shit that wouldn't have happened for me if I was gone for two years in Iraq. So I have no regrets...except the fact that I joined to begin with...but I wouldn't have learned the life lessons I have today if I hadn't joined. I'm just thankful I'm here to live another day."
Chris “Khrysis” Tyson was honorably discharged from the Army. He explained to DX that even with his difficult experience, he is not anti-military and respects everyone who fought in Iraq.
Military Branch: Army
Like Khrysis, one of Hip Hop’s best kept secrets, DMV area spitter Muggsy Malone too experienced a less than amicable parting of the ways with the military.
In 2002, Muggsy (real name: Martin Jackson) was stationed at Ft. Hood in Texas when reportedly during a heated argument his Sergeant set fire to a stack of his rhyme books, a collection he had been amassing for nine years. Muggsy then went Radio Raheem on his Sgt. and subsequently was dishonorably discharged after three years of service in the Army.
While Muggsy has yet to comment publicly on the incident itself, he has spoken openly about his experience as an aspiring emcee in the armed services.
“I left for the military at 17 with a mind set of making a difference for myself cause I was living crazy at the time,” he told Music Is Life Magazine in 2010. “But I kept rapping all the way through my tour in the military. … I’d wake up in the morning and write a 16, go to formation. Think of something while I’m on that two-mile run or doing push-ups and go write something else. I’d skip breakfast. I missed home and being around my folks so much that I’d stay up and write rhymes all day long even at my job, with me up there. Long story short, they had a battle rap competition at an off base club called City Lights and I was the champ for three weeks in a row. I had to battle everyone who came up on the same night sometimes 7 or 8 people. The whole military base got wind of it and I ended up bringing business to the club on Friday nights and the owner of the spot brought me around everyone that would come through. I unloaded for everyone from people from Rap-A-Lot [Records] to Juvenile and [Young] Buck when he was with UTP.”
The relentless rhymer heard on his ferocious single, “Somewhere To Be At,” clearly possesses a passion for Hip Hop, a love he was willing to end his military career over.
Military Branch: Army
After graduating from Crenshaw High School, Tracy L. Morrow, better known as Gangsta Rap godfather Ice-T, left the mean streets of South Central for the tropical paradise of Hawaii – only Ice wasn’t on vacation.
Writing in his book, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption, about his experience as an Army recruit during the Disco era, he revealed, “At the time, I was kind of a jock. I’d been on the gymnastics team at Crenshaw. I hardly ever tell people I was on the Crenshaw gymnastics team – because we sucked. Still, I learned to do the pommel horse, parallel bars, and rings. That shit takes a lot of stamina, upper body and core strength. So at 18 years old, I was in top physical shape, and I figured I’d go infantry.”
“My plan was to become Ranger-certified,” he continued, “and then get assigned to the 25th Infantry Division out in Hawaii, Schofield Barracks – I’d heard some of the old-time cats in South Central talking about the famous Tropic Lightning outfit, which had some history and glory. I signed up to be a paratrooper – you got an extra $2,500 bonus pay for being Airborne – which sounded exciting as hell to me.”
Ice subsequently did six weeks of basic training at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri, followed by Advanced Infantry Training in Fort Benning, Georgia. After Fort Benning, Ice went on to Advanced Individual Training, where he became Airborne certified by jumping off platforms ranging from 34 feet all the way up to a staggering 250 feet.
PFC Marrow was honorably discharged after his subsequent service, four months ahead of schedule. As the sole support of his then toddler-age daughter Ice was allowed an early discharge. Ice did manage to find a means of support for his daughter upon his return to Los Angeles – although not the one the Army probably wanted him to. Talking to NPR in 2010, Ice noted, “I did four years in the military. And when I came out of the military, I got right into trouble.”
It should be noted for any fans of E! T.V. reruns that Ice recently returned to Schofield Barracks for an episode of he and wife Coco’s reality show, Ice Loves Coco.
Military Branch: Army
The rare rapper who signed up for military service after he had already found success in the music business, Canibus, stunned the Hip Hop world when he enlisted in the Army in 2002.
The cerebral lyricist explained his reasoning for making such a drastic career move during a 2005 interview with SOHH, saying, "I enlisted because I wanted to get away from the music. I wanted to do something that gave me a separate definition from what I had done all through my teens and twenties. I was 28 when I enlisted."
Canibus cryptically described his subsequent military experience to HipHopDX saying, “The experience came at a price. Learning the true meaning behind starting over again is a profound revelation. Doing what you are discouraged to do brings you to what is important quicker than doing what you are encouraged to do.”
There probably hasn’t been an artist before or since who was more proud of his service in the military than Canibus, who openly shared with the public pictures and videos of his time serving as a Calvary Recon Scout.
Unfortunately though, Canibus was dishonorably discharged in 2004 for what you might call metaphorical suicide: smoking himself.
Military Branch: Navy
Before he demanded a nation of party-goers to “Turn This Mutha Out” on his breakthrough 1988 single, Dance Rap pioneer MC Hammer served as a Petty Officer, Third Class, in the United States Navy.
Petty Officer Burrell spent three years as an Aviation Store Keeper at Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, California before being honorably discharged.
Scarce public comments exist from one of the most polarizing figures in Hip Hop history about his time in the Navy, and no known statements have ever surfaced to reveal if the Navy’s trademark bell-bottoms inspired Hammer’s signature parachute pants.
Military Branch: Army
“If it ain’t live, it ain’t me” is a mantra unpredictable rhyme animal Mystikal has clearly been living by his whole life. The sole artist on this list that has actually been in a combat zone got his wild story of war, music and prison started in 1988 when the then recent graduate of Cohen High School in New Orleans’ 12th Ward signed up to serve his country … and get a ride.
The Tarantula told Vibe magazine recently, “I went into the Army for a new car. Next thing you know, we in war. Operation Desert Shield was my first time seeing how they depict war in the movies. After awhile you get used to it, like road kill.”
Way back in 1995, during an interview for local N.O. publication OffBeat, Mystikal revealed why he settled on his particular position in the Army: clearing landmines in a war zone.
“My cousin was that,” he explained. “I asked him, ‘Man, what you did in the Army?’ ‘Combat engineer.’ When it was my turn, I said, ‘I’m familiar with combat engineer—give me that.’”
“Boy, I was scaaarrrred,” he admitted of his daily routine of cheating death. “But once you out there, you out there. Suck it up.”
“You’re gonna get stronger, or you gonna snap,” he added about adjusting to military life in general. “You have to really know how to adapt. When you get in the Army, that shit can change you. If your mind’s not developed all the way, it can have you thinkin’ a whole fucked up way. It’s so controlled—you have to be able to deal with a motherfucker telling you, ‘Cut your fuckin’ hair!!’ Constantly on your ass. But you can’t quit. You’re there for however long you signed.”
Rumor-driven reports over the years have suggested that Private Michael Tyler didn’t actually stay around for his full four year commitment and received a Dishonorable Discharge for going AWOL. Other stories have surfaced suggesting that he was booted from the Army for marijuana use. It is not known for certain whether Mystikal did or did not complete his enlistment, although it is more likely than not that he did considering upon his arrival home from the service he was hired as an undercover loss prevention agent by the Woolworth’s department store in the Carrollton Shopping Center, a position wherein he was permitted to carry a gun.
What is known for sure is that the emcee who was “Born 2 Be A Soldier” has since shown great fondness towards his time in the service. In 1998, after he had jumped off real tanks and on to Master P’s musical one as a dutiful No Limit Soldier, Mystikal helped “Round Out Tha Tank” by applying his military experience to his raw rhymes, using terminology only a veteran could as a metaphor for his high-energy style.
Ultimately, of his eight months living in the Kuwaiti desert, and his overall time in the Army, Mystikal is grateful, telling MTV, “Man, it was crazy. But if I had to do it again, I couldn’t change it, ’cause it definitely made me what I am.”
Military Branch: Marines
While not technically a rapper like the other artists on this list, harmonious hook master Nate Dogg could not, and should not, be labeled anything other than Hip Hop.
The sole Marine on this list, Nathaniel Hale, joined the Corps thirty days after his graduation from Long Beach Polytechnic High School in the summer of 1987, during what proved to be a tumultuous time. While the United States was not technically at war during the 1980s, Marine Corps Basic Training was arguably more hellish than most combat zones. At the time, a grueling three-month boot camp was viciously compounded by beat downs from your drill instructors (sometimes lovingly referred to as a “gut check”) for even minor mistakes. Nate never really spoke about his experience in boot camp, or in the Corps period, only explaining of his reasoning for signing up for the United States’ most respected military branch, “I wanted to see if I was a man.”
Nate was stationed in Okinawa, Japan at Camp Henoko (n/k/a Camp Schwab) as part of the Materiel Readiness Battalion of the 3rd Force Service Support Group, 3FSSG, which serves as the ammunition supply hub to most of the Pacific. After nearly four years of service though, he was dishonorably discharged. Conflicting information exists suggesting the reasons for that discharge range from Nate went AWOL to he suffered from a “chronic” condition ala Freddie Gibbs and Canibus to he caught a case after finding his then-girlfriend and his cousin in bed together – and subsequently held them both captive for two days.
After his passing on March 15, 2011 from complications due to the two strokes he had suffered in December 2007 and again in September 2008, HipHopDX asked two of Nate’s onetime collaborators about his military background.
The producer of several Nate Dogg featured selections, DJ Quik, explained to DX how the Corps likely shaped Nate’s composed conduct, noting, “It’s funny, I never even knew he was a Marine. But that might explain his stoicism. [He was] just a calm under pressure kinda dude. But, generally a nice guy. I never seen Nate excited; he wasn’t excitable.”
After speaking about his classic collaboration with Nate and Mos Def, “Oh No,” Pharoahe Monch shared a story of one of Nate’s rare revealing moments, recalling,
“I was working on ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ [from Nate’s Music & Me album] and Nate was drinking a bottle of Hennessy, and I had my vodka, and it [had] got loose. And he was like, ‘Yeah, man, that’s like that time I had my M-16, and I was aiming my shit.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ [Laughs] I was like, ‘What the hell is he talking about? And what the hell is he doing with an M-16? [That’s] a military issue machine gun.’”
Although Nate never actually saw combat in his tenure in the service during the post-Vietnam, pre-Iraq period, (instead forced to spend most of his time mind-numbingly sorting ammunition) anyone who has seen the first half of the film Full Metal Jacket knows that just becoming a Marine is an accomplishment worthy a combat medal. There is a reason why the Marines are the few, the proud, and a reason why one of those proudly few was someone with the physical and mental strength possessed by one of Hip Hop’s most missed voices. Semper Fi, Nate. Salute.
Paul W. Arnold is a veteran Hip Hop scribe whose work over the last decade has appeared in the pages of XXL, Vibe, The Source, Elemental, Murder Dog, Scratch, Down and several other print publications, as well as online at AllHipHop and here at HipHopDX.