What Makes Good Hip Hop?

This afternoon I woke up and went down to a bar I was at last night because I left my card. Hey, don’t judge me! You’ve done it, anyway, I went back to the bar and ordered a campfire stout. I mean I was already there and I might as well have a beer.

I was just going to sit outside the bar, have a beer, vape, and relax before shopping for my roommates last minute barbecue. I mean, I am trying to do life stuff now. Like having barbecues, going to clubs and dancing with strangers.

Not the point.

So, I was there, and I had on my black Flogging Molly t-shirt and my nails painted black and there was this big Mexican dude sitting outside and smoking a cigarette. He was wearing a raiders t-shirt and a baseball cap. Before I sat down I was thinking of playing sad white guy music, you know, something a bit indie and emotional because apparently I do that now. I didn’t think I was going to have anything to talk about with this guy, so I minded my own business and stared at my phone for a bit.

Why the nails? I went to a goth club.

It’s another whole thing I do now I guess.

Anyway, this guy starts talking to me about bullshit. Small talk, the kind of talk that people make when they just feel uncomfortable in the moment. It’s weird to sit down with a total stranger sometimes and I think often the urge is to make conversation to try and make the whole thing a whole lot less awkward.

He starts talking to me about his job. Ironically, he works at a cancer research facility. I tell him what I do, and we start talking about Hip Hop unexpectedly. We shared three or four hip hop songs and talked about why they are good.

Now, I’m going to level with you, I really really like Hip Hop, but I’m not expert. I wasn’t really into it when I was a teenager because my Dad hated Hip Hop music and might have been a touch racist. I had a friend growing up that was into it, and he would share it with me constantly, but I never really got a chance to get into the way that other people have gotten into music. Hell, I couldn’t really get into any kind of music other than Classic Rock because all other music was bad.

Hip Hop is something I’ve come to enjoy lately, and I’ve gone back and listened to a lot of the music trying to understand the history, and the culture around it.

This guy, however, really knew his shit.

He made a few declarations about Hip Hop. The usual fan fair about Hip Hop being different these days, and artists don’t do it the way they used to. I get some of that, but I also think some of that rhetoric is just people being old and not giving new things a chance.

More interesting were his other declarations.

He started with this one: He wants a rapper to tell him a story.

There’s a stereotype about Hip Hop that all that music is about is pussy, drugs and violence. Those themes are definitely in there, but good Hip Hop tells a story about those themes. It paints a picture of a different environment.

This is a perfect example of the storytelling that a good rapper can offer. Ice T takes us through a day in the kind of life that he experiences. It’s not just about bragging. Instead, it’s a look into a window of what life was like. I’m sure, some of it is over exaggerated, but the point is that it paints a picture.

Back on the Streets after five and a deuce
Seven years later but still had the juice
My homeboy Ken Gee put me up the track
Told me E’s rolling Villain, BJ’s got the sack
Bruce is a giant – Nat C’s clocking dough
Be bop’s a pimp, my old freaks a ho
The batter rams rolling, rocks are the thing
Life has no meaning and money is king
Then he looked at me slowly and Hen had to grin
He said, man you out early, we thought you got ten
Opened his safe kicked me down with cold cash
Knew I would get busy, he didn’t waste time to ask

What gets my attention here are lines seven and eight. “The batter rams rolling/ Rocks are the thing/Life has no meaning/and money is king.” This gets me every time that I hear it because it signifies some deeper meaning in the song. There’s a certain sense of nihilism that Ice-T is getting across when he talks about his life. Why does he do the things he does? Because his environment has taught him that life has meaning and the only thing that matters in life, and the only thing people care about is money.

The next declaration the man at the bar gave me was that Rap songs have to be clever and mean something beyond the surface details. It’s not enough to talk about your hard life on the streets. There has to be something behind the story being told. There also has to be something clever in the lyrics. It’s one of the reasons that both of us gushed over Kendrick Lamar while we were talking and not someone like Future. When you pay attention to the details of a good Hip Hop song there are things to notice in the lyrics: reasons the songs were written the way they were.

Another interesting part of 6 ‘N the Mornin’ is the ending of each verse.

Didn’t know what the cops wanted, didn’t have time to ask
Bitch didn’t know what hit her, didn’t have time to ask
Nigga didn’t know what happened, didn’t have time to ask
Knew I would get busy, he didn’t waste time to ask
We didn’t know who they were, no one had time to ask
Cops wouldn’t shot us on sight, they wouldn’t took time to ask
She didn’t even know what happened, didn’t care, didn’t ask
She knew her loving was def, she didn’t waste time to ask
Didn’t know where we were going, didn’t care, didn’t ask
But it was 6 in the morning, we didn’t wake up to ask

There’s something interesting going on here is there? This motif is important to pay attention to in order to understand something more about the song. Sure, on the surface it might look like someone bragging about the gangster lifestyle. There is also a deeper idea.

One aspect of focus here is the subject of time. Everything is moving so fast that there isn’t enough time for anything. There’s not time to reflect. There’s no time to try and understand the world that Ice-T is describing here. Some people might experience times of leisure, relaxation, and reflection, but in this world there isn’t time for that. No one really understands why the events are occurring in the song they are just happening and everyone is so used to it that they don’t ask about it. No one living in this world tries to understand it.

It is what it is.

Life has no meaning and money is king 

Ice-T calls this genre “Reality Rap” instead of “Gangster Rap”. He’s said that he is just rapping about the way that things are. He’s reflecting in this song on what’s going on in his life, but he’s finding no meaning there. In reality, there is no meaning for the events that are taking place around him. This is his life. The fact that he ultimately doesn’t find any meaning at all in the song is poignant, in addition to the fact that he doesn’t bother trying to give the listener any meaning. I kind of like the moniker reality rap because in a sense he is just describing what life is like, but he’s also making reference to the fact that it’s meaningless, tiring, and for some reason everyone is just used to it being reality. 

I really enjoyed that conversation earlier today, and it got me thinking about this song a bit more. It’s not one of my favorites, but even it has more going on than one might recognize on a casual listen to the song. One of the reasons I get frustrated with the way that people dismiss Hip Hop as music about “drugs, girls, being a gangster, and partying” is that people haven’t taken the time to engage with the lyrics the way that they might if they were reading a poem instead.

Now, again, I am really fresh to really falling in love with Hip Hop, so I’m sure to some people I’m just talking bullshit right now, but I enjoy it and I’m making an effort to appreciate the music.