Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My Five Favorite Rap Songs

Last week, Howie held a contest over at C&L asking readers to name their five favorite rap songs and why. He selected five winners from over 300 entries and I was one. Yay! In case you're wondering, here's my entry:

“Tread Water,” by De La Soul, from the album 3 Feet High and Rising, was the first rap song to convince me that rap and hip hop were valid, versatile musical forms and not just clever novelties. The song uses the theme of treading water as a metaphor for surviving the hassles of daily urban life from the middle class black perspective, providing a welcome departure from the tales of street life that dominate the genre. The Motown groove and pioneering use of samples presage the emergence of such later electronic artists as Thievery Corporation and Herbaliser. De La Soul’s inventive blend of pop culture sound bites, country, pop and rock grooves, and we’re-all-in-it-together attitude changed a lot of people’s minds about what rap could accomplish.

“The Day the Niggaz Took Over/Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang”, by Dr. Dre, combined the party attitude of old-school rap with a hybrid of 60s black radicalism and insouciant criminal behavior. The opening track of this two-track medley from the multi-platinum album, The Chronic, fantasizes about opposing street gangs uniting to overthrow corrupt, white-owned society. The song opens with what sounds like a field recording of a black activist yelling to a crowd, “If you ain’t down for the Africans here in the United States, period point blank; if you ain’t down for the ones that suffered in South Africa from apartheid and shit, Devil you need to step your punk ass to the side and let us brothers, and us Africans, step in and start puttin’ some foot in that ass!” Heh heh. That rather sets the tone for the remainder of the song, which pretty much calls for a long overdue armed revolution. A chorus of apparently enraged men chants, “Break ’em off something. Break ’em off something,” as various rappers take turns describing their roles and their motives, culminating in Dre’s explanation: “Sittin’ in my living room, calm and collected/ Feelin’ that I gotta get my perspective/’cause what I just heard, broke me in half…” Later, he describes what he has in mind: “Bloods, Crips on the same squad/With the Eses’ help, nigga, it's time to rob and mob.” The insistent beat — reminiscent of the final scene of Sam Peckinpah’s legendary film The Wild Bunch — increases the song’s militant demeanor, and painfully illustrates how little progress we’ve made since CSN&Y sang, “Gotta get down to it/Soldiers are gunning us down/Shoulda been done long ago.” The song is interspersed with clips of news reports depicting widespread looting in Los Angeles, and the sounds of helicopters fading in and out. The song climaxes with Dre shouting, “Helicopters flyin’/these motherfuckers tryin’/to catch me and stretch me on Death Row/But hell no, suppose black refuse to go?” Moments later, rage and revolution blend into the stoned chill-out of “Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang,” with its Parliament groove and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s blithe delivery. Combined, these two songs revealed to the nation what black America was up against better than any academic treatise or militant manifesto ever could.

“She Watch Channel Zero,” by Public Enemy tells the tale of a woman who forsakes cultural awareness in exchange for television addiction. As Flava Flav says at the song’s opening, “You’re blind, baby. You’re blind from the facts of who you are ‘cause you’re watching that garbage.” The song appears on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, one of the most revolutionary albums in all of music. Like De La Soul, Public Enemy influenced a generation of knob twiddlers with their limitless barrage of heavy metal riffs, hard funk beats and wildly divergent musical samples. The album’s lyrical themes mark an arrival for black music in that they directly confront the racial and social inequities that define modern urban America, unlike earlier black musicians who only hinted at such themes. This profoundly influenced such later rappers as Ice-T and N.W.A. This song has particular appeal to me because I share the song’s assertion that most television programming is pure garbage, and that TV is the main culprit behind America’s cultural ignorance and political naiveté.

Straight Up Nigga,” by Ice-T, from the album Original Gangster is probably my favorite rap song. The song’s narrator skillfully blends the righteous indignation undoubtedly felt by many urban blacks in the Rodney King era with a shrewd political awareness and sense of irony. “I’m a nigga in America, and that much I flaunt,” says the narrator, “’Cause when I see what I like, yo I take what I want/I’m not the only one, that’s why I’m not bitter, ’Cause everybody is a nigga to a nigga,” implying that the American Way is to steal or otherwise get away with as much as possible. He then uses American history to support his point by saying, “America was stole from the Indians, show and prove/What was that? A straight up nigga move/A low down shame, yo it’s straight insane/Yet they complain when a nigga snatch their gold chain/What the hell is a nigga supposed to do? Wait around for a handout from a nigga like you?” The song also manages to depart from the homophobia sadly common to much rap by saying, “She wanna be les, he wanna be gay/Well I’m straight, so nigga have it your way.”The song is accompanied by Evil E’s funk groove that both shuffles and slams, providing perfect punctuation for the lyrics.

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