Keep It Real: Hip Hop's Changing Views On Authenticity
Though many Hip Hop listeners hate to hear this, rappers have a right to write fictional songs. The great part about it is that you also have a right to decide if that's what you'll listen to.
In 2012, as part of an effort to open dialogue on issues many of the most popular and commercially successful emcees are afraid to touch, HipHopDX is launched the “The Taboo Series.” We ran editorials on Hip Hop’s obsession with the Illuminati, race relations and Hip Hop and Christianity. Thanks to an overwhelming response from our readers, the series is returning this year.
As rappers and their handlers continue to limit press access, it will undoubtedly become increasingly difficult to get emcees to talk about some subjects without fear of fan backlash or diminishing endorsement opportunities. We’ve already seen Rick Ross’ Reebok money threatened by his date rape-related comments on “U.O.E.N.O.” Meanwhile, the YMCMB camp can’t positively spin their own conflicting reports fast enough to cover Lil Wayne’s near-death experience in what most of us think was a seizure induced by a codeine bender.
Luckily, some rappers are still talking. And they’re happy to offer more than just politically correct sound bytes. The 2013 edition of The Taboo Series features more direct quotes from artists as well as the usual statistics to back up our sometimes-controversial opinions. Whether we’re talking about rappers in dresses (excuse us…kilts), Hip Hop’s seemingly phony CB4 mentality or emcees’ mental health issues, there are no shortage of controversial topics in Hip Hop. DX’s readers have never needed prompting, but if there’s a topic you’d like to see in future editions of The Taboo Series, feel free to sound off in the comment section, via Twitter (@HipHopDX) or on our Facebook page. With that said, let’s get to the 2013 edition, which will run every Friday through April 26.
Keep It Real: Hip Hop’s Changing Views On Authenticity
“Speaking in tongues / About what you did, but you never done it / Admit it, you bit it / ‘Cause the next man came platinum behind it / I find it ironic / So I researched and analyzed / Most write about stuff they fantasize…” –O.C. “Time’s Up”
Does it even matter if your favorite rapper’s real? At one point in Hip Hop’s lifetime, an emcee’s authenticity was vital. Chris Rock’s 1993 film, CB4, made a mockery out of Gangsta Rap artists who rhymed about a life they’d never lived. Nobody in Hip Hop wanted to be associated with “MC Gusto,” Chris Rock’s character in the film, who pretended to be a locally known criminal to get respect for his raps. Nas condemned the industry’s “Gusto” rappers on 1996’s “The Message.” Jay-Z later did the same in 2003’s “La-La-La (Excuse Me Miss Again),” noting, “You can’t see me, dog. Nigga, you CB4.” There’s a contingent of Hip Hop listeners who were raised on KRS-One’s “My Philosophy,” where “The Teacha” clearly stated that, “It’s not about a salary. It’s all about reality.” But it seems that is not the case anymore. What does this mean for Hip Hop?
Jay-Z has acknowledged that reality can be scarce in Hip Hop. “I'm aware that I'm rare,” he said on 2009’s “Real As It Gets.” “I rap and I’m real / I’m one of the few here.” Looking at success in Hip Hop, it’s tough not to argue that he’s right, assuming everything he’s ever said has been real. Rick Ross haters will relish this, but the conversation has to lead to “The Bawse’s” history, one that has been criticized as fraudulent by many. Ross’ musical presence cannot be denied. Ross, real name William Leonard Roberts II, has amassed many accolades. His albums have topped the Billboard charts, most recently with last year’s God Forgives, I Don’t, which debuted at number one and was certified gold by the RIAA. But many have questioned his history. In 2008, The Smoking Gun revealed information that matched the rapper with a past as a correctional officer. Ross originally denied and refuted the claims, saying someone had Photoshopped his face on another person’s body in a correctional officer’s uniform. However, once more details were unveiled, he admitted that he worked as a C.O. in the ‘90s. This would have crushed a rapper’s respectability in the past, but as proven with accolades since, the news did little to damage his career. Some believe this is horrible for Hip Hop.
Rick Ross, 50 Cent And Co-Opted Identities
“Wait, let me tell you what your baby told me / You ain’t got a street bone in your whole body / You’re not who you think you are / With your gun and your badge, you think you’re hard / Acting like you’re moving blow in the streets / Nigga where I’m from we got to hustle to eat / And you the police…” –50 Cent, “Tia Told Me.”
One of Ross’ more recent rivals, 50 Cent, has been outspoken about this. In 2009, Fif compared Ross to “Gusto.” When the C.O. news was revealed, 50 believed it would end Ross’ career, joking that he would soon be working at a pizzeria.
“It never gets worse than this,” 50 told MTV later that year. “You get a guy that was a correctional officer come out and base his entire career on writing material from a drug dealer's perspective. When he loses this [battle], he can’t even go back to his day job because the correctional officers are upset that you wanted to portray that message. He’s gonna work at the pizza shop when I’m done with him.”
Interestingly enough, 50 also borrowed his Rap name from someone else. In his autobiography, From Pieces To Weight, he freely admits as much:
“The real 50 Cent was a stickup kid from Brooklyn who used to rob rappers. He had passed, but he was respected on the streets, so I wanted to keep his name alive. Other rappers were running around calling themselves Al Capone, John Gotti and Pablo Escobar. If I was going to take a gangster’s name, then I wanted it at least to be that of someone who would say, ‘What’s up’ to me on the street if we ever crossed paths.”
Where do we draw the line? It seems 50 may have been imagining what Hip Hop would have done in the past when he assumed Ross would be condemned to a career in the pizza shop. But times seem to have changed. It’s 2013, and Ross is working on his next album, not serving up pepperoni slices.
The knock on Ross goes beyond his work as a correctional officer. It also deals with his stage name. As mentioned earlier, his real name is as far from Rick Ross as Shawn Carter is from Jay-Z. Where Jay’s name can be somewhat derived from being jazzy or directly from his former mentor, Jaz-O, as Nas broke down on “Ether.” Ross’ name is a direct nod at “Freeway” Ricky Ross. It’s so close that it begs for a change in this article. At least for now, we’ll refer to the rapper Rick Ross as Roberts and “Freeway” Ricky Ross as Freeway. An ongoing legal battle has ensued over the issue. Freeway Ricky feels Roberts stole his name (Rick Ross), his past (Freeway Ricky was a well known drug kingpin) and likeness (Freeway Ricky is bald and has a beard). With that information, many have compared Roberts with “Gusto” for taking another person’s identity and gaining success in the process. Even the hint of this would have once been laughable. But, things done changed.
Does Art Have To Be Real?
“Half of my niggas got time / We done real things, by ‘94 became the subject of half of y’all niggas rhymes / Public apologies to the families of those caught up in my shit / But that’s the life for us lost souls brought up in this shit / The life and times of a nigga mind excited with crime / And the lavish luxuries that just excited my mind / I figured shit why risk myself, I just write it in rhymes / And let you feel me and if you don’t like it then fine…” –Jay-Z, “Streets Is Watchin’.”
If Roberts had explained that he once worked as a C.O. in a rhyme or interview, The Smoking Gun would not have had a story to run. It would not have been controversial. And judging by how many of his fans have reacted since the news broke, few would have really cared. But he would have accomplished something else. Others wouldn’t see him as a fraud.
We, as a culture, have seemingly always held rappers to a different standard. Rappers had to be real. Authenticity was number one. If you didn’t have that, you had to leave the mic alone. That was it. End of story. Not anymore.
Hip Hop wasn’t always obsessed with the real. When the culture began, emcees weren’t necessarily front and center. Deejays and B-Boys had the spotlight much of the time and when emcees spoke. It was okay if they boasted about having the most chains, rings and automobiles, even if they were broke and without a ride. Of course, when broken glass shattered everywhere, with songs like “The Message,” reality became the topic of choice. As time went on, “realism of life” became the only way for many emcees and fans alike. But alas, that has changed.
Evolving Opinions On Real Versus Fake
“I ain’t hardcore, I don’t pack a 9 millimeter / Most of y’all gangsta rappers ain’t hardcore neither / Whoever get mad then I’m talkin’ ‘bout you / Claim you fear no man but never walk without crew / Where I’m from, your reputation don’t mean jack / So what you pack gats and your sell fiends crack / You ain’t big time / My man, you ain’t no different from the next cat in my neighborhood who did time / Rhyme after rhyme it’s the same topic / What make you think you hardcore cause you was raised in the projects…” –One Be Lo, “Honest Expression.”
Have things really changed? Some would argue nothing’s changed much. Maybe emcees have been honest in their rhymes for years, but a lot of emcees surely had to be lying to us the whole time. Right? I mean, why snitch on yourself if you’re selling so many drugs or hurting so many people? Why snitch on your friends if you say you only hang with brutal soldiers of the streets? It wouldn’t make much sense to commit crimes and then write about it in vivid detail in every verse. So while some may have written about their life experiences, surely others have been falsifying information.
What do other emcees think? P.A.P.I. (a.k.a N.O.R.E.) has often been seen as an emcee who has “kept it real.” He’s also recorded with Ross multiple times. Most would agree the prison stories from Capone-N-Noreaga’s The War Report were authentic. Can N.O.R.E. coexist with an emcee whose past is at least partially fabricated like Ross?
“At first I used to be like, ‘Yo, B, if you’re not living that lifestyle, you shouldn’t speak about it,’” N.O.R.E. told HipHopDX during an exclusive interview. “Now, the way I feel like it, I really respect entertainment. I really respect the artistry. Right now, I really don’t care if an artist is talking about he’s killing people and he’s going home to potpourri in his bathroom. I don’t really care. That’s your business. Now, I really appreciate the art form, and I’m really now looking at it as if it were entertainment. So I really don’t have a problem with it. But back then, I was living out those lyrics to 157.9%, so back then, I really had a problem with anybody talking about that.”
Hip Hop today seems to be more about entertainment than authenticity in some ways, but those who love the real can still have their fix. We still value the real, of course, treating Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, for example, as a true-to-life view into Compton, California. The album was critically adored for its storytelling, flow and commentary. Lamar has been celebrated for his realness. He uses his government name as his Rap name. His mother and father were featured prominently on his major label debut with Aftermath/Interscope. He never claimed to be a gangster and instead acknowledged that he was a good kid, living in a m.A.A.d city or an “Average Joe” on his Overly Dedicated EP in 2010. That’s only one example. Several rappers carry on tradition, revealing their reality in raps in ways predecessors can smile upon.
This realism is still celebrated and available in Hip Hop. It can be heard when Nas writes about his daughter’s decisions (2012’s “Daughters”) or when Jay-Z celebrates the birth of his first child (2012’s “Glory”). This can be felt when Brother Ali raps about being a Muslim who is Albino (2003’s “Forest Whitaker”) and when he shares his plight as a loving father (2007’s “Faheem”). This can be found when Ab-Soul describes his love for Alori Joh (2012’s “Book of Soul”) and when Evidence raps about the loss of his mother (2007’s “I Still Love You”). Real Rap is still powerful, and it’s still present even though it may not always seem to be the case. If the true, honest and heartfelt work is what you seek, Hip Hop is still filled with this. It may be hard to ignore the other side of the coin but if this is all you yearn for, it’s within Hip Hop and it will likely, hopefully never fade completely.
Some artists, like Crooked I, say they would be uncomfortable rapping about someone else’s life. According to an interview he did with HipHopDX in 2012, being truthful is the only way he knows how to rap.
“I can’t write about somebody else’s life even though sometimes I think that I’d be a more successful rapper if I wrote about a fictitious life,” Crooked explained. “A lot of rappers rap about fake lives. I just do the best I could do with my life.” However, he also shared that he has no problem with hearing others rap about a life they never lived. “Personally, I don’t have a big ol’ problem with fiction raps. That’s just me as a fan. If you didn’t go out and rob a bank but you made a damn good song about robbing banks, I’ll bump that shit. [Laughs] I don’t have a big problem with that. But as an artist, I can’t write a song about that and have no knowledge of that type of shit. I’d rather be me and if you accept me, you accept me and if you don’t, you don’t. I think it’s good to have somebody that’s totally honest just like it’s good to have somebody who makes up all these imaginary stories but makes good songs with those imaginary stories. There’s good on both sides.”
The Question And The Answer
So does it even matter if your favorite rapper’s real? It’s truly never actually mattered. We just wanted to believe that our favorite emcees lived their every word. Some did. Some didn’t. Native Bay Area emcee, Clyde Carson, says he’s been on both sides of the fence.
“I’ve made music before about shit that I’m not about, and it don’t feel the same,” Carson explained. “I ain’t kill 17 niggas. I don’t know what that feels like. I keep it player. When I’m rapping about the shit I’m living, it feels good. It’s like, ‘This is me. This is all authentic.’ I think you can do that shit though. There’s nothing wrong with using your imagination…I’ve always considered Biggie number one right next to ‘Pac. And that nigga had an imagination. I know with ‘Warning,’ even though that dealt with some stuff he was probably going through, meaning you can talk about living in a mansion, having a dog, Rottweiler’s with bitches in the bed—on some gangster shit if you’re really a gangster in the street.”
In 2013, we have to face reality. The truth is, art doesn’t have to be real. An author has the right to write a fictional novel. He just has to say it’s a work of fiction. An actor can make a film, playing a role far from their real selves. We just have to know they’re acting. And though many Hip Hop listeners hate to hear this, rappers have a right to write fictional songs. The great part about it is that you also have a right to decide if that’s what you’ll listen to. What do you choose?
Andres Vasquez has been contributing to HipHopDX as a staff writer for over a decade. He is also an educator and youth-leader. He is based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndresWrites.