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What "Street Niggas" Really Listen To…

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On ‘20K Intro’ from the latest Clipse tape, Pusha mentions a “tree-huggin’ ass bitch” that told him he was “nice” but proceeded to give him a lot of shit about how his songs are all about “dope” and “street shit”, which of course, is very, very bad. Pusha, in one of the few points on the depressive tape where anyone climbs out of their frustration, responds with “Tree-huggin’ ass bitch please” and asserts who he really rhymes for: “niggas on the corner.”

This kind of defense or half-defense met with an angry assertion about “street niggas” or “niggas on the corner” isn’t new to rappers’ attempts at sounding “real” but it seems more glaring because well, the Clipse simply aren’t rapping for those “street niggas”. Maybe they are in the sense that that’s their intended audience, or maybe they mean it in some instructive way, but in terms of whose ears are open to Clipse, it is not who they claim to be rapping for; if this were true, Pusha wouldn’t even be confronted with a woman offended by their crack rap, you know?

Maybe some drug dealers have decent music taste, but the assumption that because one is from the street, one is apt to embrace street music, is incorrect. I see the logic, but most people are just more into ideas of escape and it’s why blue-collar whites listen to mainstream country music and not sad-sack songs about why their life sucks. The illusion that the drug-dealer is some near-Nietzschean businessman beyond good and evil that embraces his/her fate is a myth sold by dealers and the popular rappers that leech off of that myth. It’s a fucked-up circle of bullshit and the reality is, dealers are stupid too. They want to feel good about themselves like everybody else so, 50 Cent’s image of thuggery is way more appealing than say, ‘Chinese New Year’. In last night’s episode of ‘The Wire’, there’s a scene of Snoop and Chris driving down the street with Hurricane Chris playing out their speakers; that’s what I’m getting at!

Not that Clipse is the pinnacle of actual street realness- whatever that means- but they represent something a little less ideal than many of the other rappers talking about how street they are. The brilliance of Clipse is the way they offer up the same old bullshit but said a little better, song after song, and then suddenly drop a particularly dark insight or emotional reality. These details weave through ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ but they become palpable on the closer ‘Nightmares’, despite or in spite of its cloying acknowledgment of regret. Malice’s verse on the last track on ‘We Got it 4 Cheap Vol. 2’ about being “a hamster in a wheel” is all the more affecting because he hasn’t been this emotional, depressed rapper on every track. On the latest tape, the depression seems more real and upfront but the main point is still drug-pushing punchlines. Peppered throughout however, are lines like “we keep it from the kids and tell em’ it’s detergent”. Young Jeezy might say that line, but he’d be half-bragging or throw in one of those “Ha-HA”s to downplay the reality of selling crack with a bunch of kids around; Pusha just drops that fucked-up reality and keeps going.

If anything, Pusha should stop dropping weird defenses about who he makes his music for or who listens to it, because he should be proud “niggas on the corner” don’t want to hear his fucked-up version of reality: It means he’s doing his job! It also says something about how deluded the criminal element is, that Clipse don’t offer enough escapism and justification, but this is getting long already…

Although Clipse boast and glorify, their music never feels too exciting and their swagger is on the defensive and defiant, never there on principle or some fake-ass Tupac “I don’t give a fuck” thing…the Clipse care, a lot. The dudes aren’t perfect but they certainly do not create ideal forms that can be embraced by delusional thugs or angry too-cool for rock but too-dumb for real rap middle-schoolers. That’s what the current debate on hip-hop’s quality is really about and always has been: ideal vs. the reality.

On DocZeus’s entry on Clipse earlier this month, the lively comments debate went into a smart and even-handed breakdown of what exactly made Clipse more complex or better or less amoral than Young Jeezy. At first glance, the two have a lot in common. Both rap coke braggadocio with a vague catering to regret, over cold, sterile, electronic beats but as smart listeners have pointed out, even when the darkness of dealing is not apparent in the rhymes, it’s heard in those harsh, beats. But there’s a difference.

Indeed, Clipse are hardly the ideal non-ideal rappers and Jeezy is not totally in drug-dealing fantasy land, but comparing the two illustrates my point. Clipse have production that is almost tinny and truly minimalist and it underscores their bragging; Jeezy’s production is disturbing but has a triumphant edge that turns his non-rapping into an unstoppable force of hard-ass synths and regal horns. Jeezy is what a drug-dealer wants to be and Clipse are a little closer to what a drug dealer really is. So, it makes sense that “street niggas” would gravitate towards Jeezy and it makes sense that jerkoffs who think drug-dealers are cool or people who think they’re drug dealers, would also prefer the Jeezy treatment of dealing.

I’m reminded of a similar division between the ideal and the real in film scholar Ray Carney’s The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. The book’s primary argument is that filmmaker Cassavetes consistently avoids the clean-edges of Hollywood cinema- including the Hollywood art of Welles, Hitchcock, etc.- for a less ideal and more accurate representation of life (I’m really simplifying…). Late in the book, Carney contrasts Cassavetes’ crime film ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’, a portrait of a down-and-out strip-club owner who has a lot of debt, with Orson Welles’ classic ‘Citizen Kane’, a very different kind of portrait of a failed man. Carney’s most effective point is to suggest that even as Orson Welles makes a movie opposed to Charles Foster Kane, it really only “pretends to criticize the excesses of capitalistic arrangements and manipulations in its content [and] collaborates with them in its form” (230); Welles’ movie is as bombastic and overblown as Kane. Cassavetes’ relationship to Cosmo (the main character of ‘Bookie’) is very different; the movie constantly seeks out ways to undermine Cosmo’s illusion of himself and his surroundings.

Cosmo is never smooth even when he tries to be, the women of his strip-club are either downright beat or beautiful in a way that is realistic*, and his gangster friends are hardly Deniro cool or handsome. To drive the point home, Carney creates a hypothetical, wherein the main character of each movie could watch the movie about themselves: “As his political rally suggests, Kane would love the style of his own film (even if he might have problems with its satiric point). Cosmo would hate his movie’s style.” (231).

*Sorry about the soft-porn link, there’s not a lot out there on Azizi Johari…

I know that comparison is not perfect, for rappers are not in the same exact position as the movie director, but despite most rappers’ tendency to use the “I” whether telling the truth or not, both rapper and director tell stories, create portraits, and generally, subjectivize experience. And just as Kane would approve of the however negative still aggrandizing portrayal of self in ‘Citizen Kane’, would most “street niggas” prefer the version that paints them as larger-than-life transgressors. Replace “Welles” with just about any drug-talk rapper in the following quotation and the connection seems clear: “Welles [or Young Jeezy?] is addicted to crafting a self-contained, self-justifying, self-referential imaginative world…” (230). Carney of course, is interested in art and so, his focus is on the creator but I’m shifting the focus on the audience- or a part of the audience.

The world Carney describes is the one that Jeezy chooses to reside in, but it is also the world that his audience prefers because it breeds complacency and zero self-reflection. Those “true” dealers on the corner like it because it justifies their way of living and then pumps it up a few sizes. Those outside “the life” generally think its either cool or somehow want to connect their own dreams to Jeezy’s motivational speech rap, so they too prefer the idealized form. It’s not how Jeezy intended it, but he really is like a motivational speaker in the sense that like Tony Robbins or Dr. Phil or those twin midgets that sell real-estate kids on TV at 3am, he feeds his audience a load of complacent bullshit masquerading as insight or theory.

I think I need to clarify that the embrace of this ideal is held by everyone, and is hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers (which is what we must assume Pusha means by “niggas on the corner”). I generally do not concern myself with being offensive, but I do fear this could be misread as a critique of the black criminal mind-set or blacks in general, when I’m first, discussing the escapism of popular rap and second, the growing obsession with escapism in the world at-large. That is to say, Pusha is not referring to white drug dealers or criminals, not because he uses the word “nigga”- for this word is often used as nearly all-inclusive, go to a Ghostface show, he’ll call his crowd of many white faces “my niggas”- but because going back to ‘Lord Willin’, Pusha and company have been focused on their community and their world.

Basically, when it comes to ideals, everyone likes to feel cool and smart and not part of the shitty reality in which they live. Rock musicians still revel in an ideal version of the debauched rocker, or, when it comes to crime, escapist forms of the life of crime are hardly exclusive to black drug-dealers. The best example would be the mafia, which has pushed idealized forms of their life since their life came about during the 1920s and 30s. Most “gangster” movies end morally and have an edge of justice to them, but they are first and foremost, obsessed with the criminal and his (especially during that early era) transgressive acts of crime.

It is interesting to note that so much of the glorification of the criminal life that is so pervasive and sensitive to criticism in rap, has its roots in white crime films that mainstream critics have praised since the 1930s. The pinnacle of course, is hip-hop movie royalty, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Goodfellas’ and rappers have continually picked apart these movies for influence. Ridley Scott’s recent ‘American Gangster’ and in some ways, Jay-Z’s accompanying album, would be the pinnacle of this embrace of the ideal life of crime and a conflation of the white-oriented “gangster” ideals with the black oriented “gangsta” ideals.

As Jay-Z recently said on ‘Ignorant Shit’, “Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper for me”, and of course, that’s true because despite occasional forays into a less glamorous image of thug-life, Jay-Z has worked in ideal gangsta forms in a way that Scarface the rapper, never has. Even on his recent semi-hit ‘Girl, You Know’- a song that is a rejection of love, another ideal- there’s that reference to how “she don’t suck dick like she used to do” and he dubs in this gross slurping sound, which you now, is real because getting your dick sucked is this weird thing of this girl like slurping all over your dong; it’s weird if you think about it.

The point is, you watch ‘Scarface’ or ‘Goodfellas’ and while they end poorly and do not approve of their characters’ actions, the movies are celebrations of the swagger and confidence of the lifestyle. The directors reject the moral perspective of Henry Hill or Tony Montana, but love the attitude. This is why you read stories of real-life mobsters watching and performing the actions of these characters; it makes them feel awesome and not you know, gross weird, kinda pathetic criminals (which is how ‘The Killing of Chinese Bookie’ and maybe a Clipse album and certainly a Ghostface album, makes you feel…). Corner dealers, once given the option, will choose nebulous coke rap over the well-wrought realities of Ghostface and to a lesser extent, Clipse, every time: Nobody wants reality!

-Stills stolen from

-Carney, Ray. ‘The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies’. Cambridge UP, 1994.

Written by Brandon

February 25th, 2008 at 6:54 am

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‘The Departed’ and ‘Thief’s Theme’

Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Departed’ is at best, pretty-good. It is watchable from beginning to end which is more than you can say about most movies, but the only actually daring thing about the movie is the soundtrack, particularly the use of Nas’ ‘Thief’s Theme’. The song plays during a scene in which Costigan (DiCaprio) drives with his drug-dealing cousin. The scene is brief; Nas only plays as background music and isn’t afforded the same significance as ‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston’ nor does it act as “scource” (score and source music simultaneously) the way ‘Sail On Sailor’ by the Beach Boys does. ‘Thief’s Theme’ just plays in the background. Even so, the simple incorporation of rap music into a Scorsese movie is notable.

Scorsese’s movies, along with ‘Scarface’ and a few others, have played a significant part in rap music culture. An oft-quoted and very reasonable comparison between Scorsese movies and rap music has been made in defense of rap’s violence: Marty doesn’t get the load of shit that every rapper gets for portraying violence realistically. I’m sure at some point, Scorsese heard this comparison and there’s no way he hasn’t seen Nas’ ‘Casino’ homage video ‘Street Dreams’, so the inclusion of ‘Thief’s Theme’ is Scorsese embracing his relevance to rap culture rather than ignoring or even being embarrassed by it, like so many other directors. Or maybe, Marty somehow feels responsible for this? Just kidding…

‘Thief’s Theme’ also conceptually fits within the movie. The song makes sense as something that DiCaprio’s character would be listening to and becomes an interesting comment on the background of his character. Early-on, we learn that the father’s side of Costigan’s family were all mob-affiliated, while his mother’s side was a bit more upper-class. He is both in and out of the world of crime, in it enough to have experience but out of it enough that he has a distance. He is like a rapper in this sense, connected to the world of crime but with something of an outsider’s perspective on it because like a rapper, they have chosen to analyze “the life” in addition to live in it. Costigan is not quite a criminal and not quite a cop, navigating somewhere in the middle, pulling from both experiences and observing them all. Think of Nas or Mobb Depp, rappers whose “street cred” has been questioned but who are arguably better able to articulate the life of crime than those who directly live it. Chris Rock, in an article on Kanye West from ‘Time Magazine’ made the point that “the best rappers weren’t necessarily from the hood…they lived next to the hood” (57). This is also true of Costigan, who is a better cop and more of a hard-ass than Sullivan (Matt Damon) because of his connection and distance from “the life”. I also chuckled at the scene where Nicholson breaks Costigan’s cast open to look for a wire, using the ultimate signifier of 90s New-York rap: a Timberland workboot!

The movie is set in and is about Boston, a city infamous for its racism, so using a Nas track, even if it is only briefly, is an interesting way acknowledge blackness in the movie without it becoming cloying. We’re thankfully not presented with a scene where Anthony Anderson’s character spouts off ‘Crash’-like about race, not only because it would be stupid but because we’re in the era of postmodern racists, racist that no longer say “nigger” in front of a nigger. You know? Scorsese is brave enough to use the word “nigger” and not the way a movie like ‘Crash’ uses racial epithets, to shock the audience but to simply reflect the realistic way these people talk. Movies like ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ address race much better but it still shows that Scorsese is still addressing racism.

So much of the time, many hermetically-sealed subcultures like the mafia (or police or unions etc. etc.) spend a great deal of time differentiating themselves from other groups, particularly blacks. Scorsese takes an essentially deconstructive approach, making Nicholson’s introductory speech where he discusses the difference between the Irish and “the niggers” absurd. In a scene where mafia-mole Matt Damon is investigating a crime, he feels the effects of “stop snitching” but it is not a black community where this occurs, it is in an all-white, Irish, working class neighborhood! The entire movie explicitly deconstructs the split between cops and criminal but in subtler ways, addresses issues of race in a similarly deconstructive way. The entire movie is deconstructive and the title, a reference to the dead, points towards the ultimate deconstructive act: death.

The same deconstructive approach is taken when Scorsese chooses a Nas song for the same soundtrack that contains a Dropkick Murphys song. Everything is being cut down to the same level, annoying rock-oriented rules about music are being ignored. It is an interesting step for rap music to be incorporated into movies in realistic or even emotional ways. So often, it is used to only signify danger or the inner-city and when it isn’t being used towards those ends, it plays as simple party music. My very-specific interest in rap music, which is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog, is the “legitimization” of rap music as actual, emotional, humanistic music. When movies like ‘The Departed’ make an attempt, it’s just another reason why I do not understand why arguments like this even exist. No one ever makes the argument that they can’t relate to ‘The Departed’ because they aren’t Irish or from Boston or in the mob or whatever else. There’s still plenty to think about or even relate to in ‘The Departed’ even if you’re some jerk-off music writer for ‘The Onion’, why not the same for rap?

-Tyrangiel, Josh. “Why You Can’t Ignore Kanye.” ‘Time Magazine’ 29 August 2005: 54-61.

Written by Brandon

March 1st, 2007 at 7:10 am

Posted in Nas, Scorsese, The Departed