“We treat this Rap shit just like, handlin’ weight / What they want we give it to ‘em, what they abandon we take / Hit a rapper with consignment, let him know what’s at stake / Put his ass in the studio, let him cook up a cake / When it's hot, get him a money spot in every state / Like the wiz in Camelot, the mom-and-pop’s is the gate…” –Jay Z, “Rap Game Crack Game.”
TIME magazine featured Jay Z on the cover of its “TIME 100” issue last April. It was Jay’s second appearance on the magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Conveniently, the publication preceded the release of Magna Carta Holy Grail by just a few months. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg penned Jigga’s profile, a task executed by Russell Simons for Jay’s 2005 appearance on the revered list. The billionaire mayor kept his contempt for the Ed Koch-era Sean Carter concealed behind his words of praise for Jay Z. Perhaps oblivious to his own disingenuousness, Bloomberg displayed his innate plutocratic embracement of wealth, while his policies reflected disdain for low-income minority communities, which Jay might call “Where I’m From.”
Although I’m not particularly fond of Hov’s recent material, his status continues to escalate beyond any clichéd conceptualization of the American Dream. Jay’s achievements far outsize those of his contemporaries with similar backgrounds of crack-laced Horatio Alger stories, most closely rivaled, perhaps, by 50 Cent. But among today’s contemporary emcees, that archetypal drug dealer turned rapper no longer holds the same relevance. If Jay was the Michael Jordan of drug dealers turned rappers, 50 Cent was Kobe Bryant. And for good or ill, no LeBron James of Crack Rap appears on the horizon.
Has the hustler/rapper image has lost its allure? Has Hip Hop simply matured? Has a common sense epidemic caused today’s decrease of former drug dealers in Hip Hop? Perhaps some causality lies in all of the above. But an indisputable causal relationship between societal conditions and Hip Hop’s musical content appears most evident in how drug dealing’s respective emergence and fading favorability as subject matter correlate with the respective emergence and subsiding of the 1980s crack epidemic.
Trap Muzic: Perpetuating The Dopeman Archetype
“Things can’t stay the same / Somebody gotta break the chain / Put some big money back in the game / We havin’ big money and we at it again / But can you handle it maine / Or would rather be grimy doing scandalous thangs / You wanna ball, you can't tell him he ain’t / ‘Cause if the music don’t pay he gone sell ‘em the ‘caine / All the crack babies are growin’ up now / They got ADD, throw it up and act wild…” –Too Short, “This My One.”
Ice Cube once said that part of the reason he made the movie Friday was to showcase, through a comedic lenses, the normalcy of daily life in “the hood.” Preceding cinematic portrayals of life in these neighborhoods had either overlooked or underplayed life’s universal, mundane banalities.
“We had all these images, [like] Boyz N The Hood [and] Menace II Society, showing how we grew up,” Cube said in the special features intro on the Friday DVD. “This right here was showing how we grew up from a whole ‘nother light. It ain’t all bad in the hood.”
But the misperceived monolithism didn’t come from Hollywood portrayals alone. Ice Cube himself helped to revolutionize a trend that made drug dealing synonymous with Hip Hop. The Cube-penned lyrics that propelled Eazy-E to stardom in the late ‘80s subsequently began the trend of former drug dealers transitioning from the dope game to the Rap game.
This trend eventually evolved into the predominant archetype of the Golden-Era. In 1993, a charisma-filled, unabashed former crack dealer named Snoop Dogg had achieved almost immediate commercial embracement, and remained publicly adored for the next two decades. In New York, Biggie, Jay Z, and Nas made crack slinging seem as elemental to Hip Hop as breakdancing has once been. Self-imposed monikers such as “Frank White” and “Nas Escobar” had become commonplace—and are partially responsible (along with the infamous Wu-Gambino era) for the primary stage names of some of today’s dubiously credentialed acts.
So, where have all the cocaine cowboys gone? Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Kid Cudi probably dominate my iPod with the same frequency that Biggie, Jay Z, and Nas had once occupied my tape deck. Maybe you like J. Cole, B.o.B., and Lupe Fiasco. Preferential disputes aside, the drug dealer turned rapper archetype has largely faded from existence—certainly so among today’s Top 40 artists who’ve have maintained underground respect throughout commercial ascendance.
Despite my affinity for the era of It Was Written and Reasonable Doubt, I’d argue that material from today’s comparable artists displays a maturation of the genre, or at least a paradigm shift away from criminality. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, echoed Friday’s theme of regularity and carried an aura greatness on par with classics such as Illmatic and Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (though I feel it’s most comparable to Aquemeni).
Furthermore, I think the archetype’s dissipation signifies some overall societal progression, in the same way that its emergence reflected the societal ills that had plagued its era. The archetype’s fading popularity correlates with steadily declining crime rates, particularly drug related violence, which spiked in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And its stronghold on Hip Hop actually followed the crack epidemic’s most violent years.
It’s probably worth noting the current proliferation of prescription drug abuse, which tends to enrich corporate plutocrats, who, we can safely assume, never harbored any desire or even any ability to Rap. But I digress.
Born Into The ‘90s: Redifining Dope
“It’s only crack sales making niggas act like that. Back in the days we could scrap, now you lay on your back.” –Prodigy of Mobb Deep, “QU Hectic.”
In 1989, drug related homicides had peaked nationally. As the malignant spread of crack addiction reached epidemic proportions, more than 1,400, or 7.4%, of the nation’s 18,954 murders had some connection to the dope game, according to U.S. Justice Department data.
Crime peaked to the echoes of ‘88 anthems from both sides of the spectrum. Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Base Heads,” counterbalanced the subtly glorifying undertones of N.W.A’s “Dopeman.” Much of the music from this era had polemically attacked anything conducive to negativity. But it also spawned the following era, in which proclamations of “two for five,” muffled the warning cries of “self-destruction.” Essentially, it was much more Eazy-E than Chuck D.
Prodigy of Mobb Deep summarized this sentiment in the line quoted above, on the 1995 album The Infamous. By 1997, Chuck D’s voice, once synonymous with positivity, served as the sampled countdown on Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments.” Around the same time, Master P’s “Ghetto Dope,” taught us how to “ma, ma, make crack like this,” a pun on “ma, ma, make ‘em clap to this,” from Eric B & Rakim’s “Eric B. Is President.”
How To Deal: The Real American Gangster(s)
“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster / Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored / Before this rhymin’ stuff we was in concert…” - Jay Z, “Blue Magic.”
In 1992, some 15 years before Jay Z spit the above quoted line on the American Gangster album, The Geto Boys depicted our government’s hypocritically institutionalized criminality on the track “Damn It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta.” It’s a timeless theme, with a final verse manifested in a hindsight perspective of former President Ronald Reagan, particularly how his policies decimated low-income minority communities. This sober analysis of the Reagan Era informs on the social context that shaped Rap music’s Golden Era.
Reagan-bashing raps focus primarily on the administration’s role in the expansion of two commodities; cocaine and prison inmates. On 2012’s “Reagan,” Killer Mike lambasted the former president and his fall guy, Oliver North, for the infamous Iran-Contra scandal, but further condemned Reagan’s economic policy, which incentivized massive imprisonment.
The Fallout From The Ronald Reagan Era
“And thanks to Reaganomics, prison turns a profit. Because free labor is the cornerstone of U.S. economics.”—Killer Mike, “Reagan.”
I’d argue that Reagan—or the philosophy he personified—employed plutocratic policies to create a level of social mobility hindrance essential for the preservation of a permanent underclass. But even the most Hip Hop aversive, conservative zealot (Bill O’Reilly, anyone?) couldn’t deny the relevance of crack and prison in Reagan’s legacy.
Under Reagan, the rebirth of prison privatization—an archaic concept abandoned since the 1866 end of the Convict Leasing System—coincided with unceasingly prevalent crack addiction. And this was supplied, in part by the U.S. Government’s role in Iran-Contra. Coincidentally, the use of draconian mandatory minimum drug sentences expanded under Reagan, swelling the prison population like legislative steroids.
Killer Mike contextualized this oppressive atmosphere in “Reagan.” He provided a social studies lesson, unavailable in our sanitized scholastic system. And while “Blue Magic” lacked that professorial tone of “Reagan,” Jay’s casual name-dropping carried undertones of, “go Google this shit if you haven’t heard of it.” A similar sentiment pervaded Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80 mixtape in 2012. Lamar refrained from sociopolitical specificity, even on the song titled “Ronald Reagan Era,” but he depicted the social conditions under which Reagan era children lived, particularly in the communities where cocaine and prison hit hardest—in his case, Compton.
Change The Game: Lessons Learned From The Crack Era
“Fuck the system, at Lady Justice I blaze nine / Your Honor, I no longer kill my people, I raise mine / The soul of Mumia in this modern day time...” —Jay Z, “Dope Man.”
Hip Hop now seems endowed with an influx of intellect, whereas the ‘90s saw a phalanx of ex-drug dealers caught in a conflicting moral paradox of repentance and rebellious braggadocio. No matter how much I appreciate the alchemistic brilliance of creating Golden Era Rap classics such as “Ten Crack Commandments,” from the societal led of crack addiction, it’s worth forgoing such records if their absence is indicative of societal progress. And that progress seems verified beyond quantifiable data.
In 1998, about one week after Jay Z released Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, published an essay in the New Yorker, which hyperbolically denounced the possibility of a black president in the near future. Morrison metaphorically referred to then President Bill Clinton as “our first black president,” not as an honorable comparison, but mainly because of the unyielding persecution he encountered.
“After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas,” Morrison wrote. “The always and already guilty ‘perp’ is being hunted down not by a prosecutor’s obsessive application of law but by a different kind of pursuer, one who makes new laws out of the shards of those he breaks.”
While Magna Carta Holy Grail bears no qualitative parallels to Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, that in no way undermines the significance of Hip Hop’s foremost former drug dealer exchanging text messages with our first literal black president. Jay Z certainly warrants a far more complex description than merely a “former drug dealer,” and his adroitness propelled his penetration of society’s most elite social circles. That’s the kind of potential possibly wasted to unnecessarily long prison sentences, which Jay luckily averted. Sure, a civilized society needs legal deterrents from destructive behavior, and I’d never advocate legalizing cocaine, but illogical policies have cost us dearly in human capital. Obama’s Attorney General, Eric Holder, (whose foreign policy I loath) recently decried the use of mandatory minimum drug sentences, and issued what amounted to an unofficial cease and desist decree of the draconian punishment. Holder gave his speech on Monday August 12th, only a few hours after a federal judge issued the ruling on stop-and-frisk, which essentially said that Bloomberg has just as little regard for citizens’ fourth amendment rights as he displayed for NYC’s overwhelmingly popular term limits legislation.
The facts suggest a remorseless Bloomberg in the hypothetical face of a stopped-and-frisked and subsequently football number-sentenced Sean Carter. But a well-positioned Jay Z can now subtly label Mayor Bloomberg an elitist, borderline racist, by denouncing stop-and-frisk on HBO. Yet the mayor—either out of political spinelessness or delusional elitism—must acquiesce to Jigga’s ambassadorial position when called upon to lionize this drug dealer turned historical icon in TIME magazine.
Who ever thought that Hip Hop would take it this far? Can anyone take the drug dealer’s dream further than Jay Z? Perhaps not, but Hip Hop can certainly further our understanding of why such a dream even existed. And with the same spirit of unabashed honesty that gave us songs like “You Must Love Me,” Hip Hop appears better equipped than conventional academic resources, to teach the “social studies,” of the aforementioned era.
Michael Cohen is a freelance journalist from Staten Island, New York. He has contributed to the New York Daily News, The Village Voice, Urban Latino Magazine and others. You can follow him on twitter @mcohenSINY