Hip Hop, just like any controversial piece of artwork, can mean different things to different people at different times. Take the work of neo-expressionist painter Jean Michel Basquiat for example. His pieces are world renowned for their layered meanings and take on societal issues as he saw it. Yet I distinctly remember the first time I saw his work, I was sure a child of no less than ten years old could do better. I was of course ignorant to his style of painting and have grown over the years to appreciate his genius after some research and looking with a different pair of eyes than I had initially.
It would be unfair to generalize what is seen or heard from the intricate moving pieces that comprise the culture into one pile and call it “Hip Hop” without having at least a basic understanding of what sparked any one artist’s motivation to create within the genre. If you take a group of individuals who are about “that life” and give them a platform, how could anyone expect their music to reflect anything other than that mindset? Similarly, if you take another group looking to improve not only their situation, but those around them while using the art form as a vehicle, you get a different message, a more conscious one even.
The gift of creativity is not prejudiced. The end product of an artist’s creation is the sum total of what he/she has endured, what he/she is willing to reveal, and what he/she wants to do about it. Hip Hop in its purest form follows this formula no matter what. It is for this reason I find it difficult to critique or judge an artist’s message because there is no way I could understand his/her motivation without personally meeting them and hearing their story.
As a lover of poetry it is about way more than just the beats for me. Don’t get me wrong, the production element is just as important and in some cases more-so than the message itself. As lyrical as Jay-Z is, one of his most popular songs “Hard Knock Life”, is as much about the hook and thumping bass groove as any one of his verses. Dr Dre’s “Deep Cover” is another prime example. The bass line of that song drove a hole right through your head whether you were wearing headphones or not. It just didn’t quit and honestly why most of us love that song, coupled with being the the world’s introduction to Snoop Dogg.
There is no denying the influence that Hip Hop has had on this generation. The responsibility that these artists carry cannot be understated, whether they are willing to accept it or not. Conversely, as consumers and followers of the art form, it is also our responsibility to interpret the artist’s message for what it is. A little intelligence and application of common sense has never hurt anybody.
De La Soul, one of the most iconic Hip Hop groups of all time, along with A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, and the rest of the Native Tongues collective really vibed with me and quickly became one of my favorite groups. It was more than just their overall message of positivity, upliftment, and knowledge of self. Their playful nature made things easier to digest and I could relate to what they were talking about. Pos, Dave, and Maseo were having a good time and wanted to bring us along for the ride. Their delivery was so clever and Prince Paul's early production was always on point. “Me, Myself, and I” was an important joint for me because it said what most of us were feeling as young teenagers back then, especially those not about “that life” -
Proud, I'm proud of what I am
Poems I speak are Plug Two type
Please oh please let Plug Two be
Himself, not what you read or write
Right is wrong when hype is written
On the Soul, De La that is,
Style is surely our own thing
Not the false disguise of showbiz
De La Soul is from the soul
And this fact I can't deny
My father was a huge James Brown fan, and Saturday afternoon’s were a musical lesson for us in the backyard. He would break out the grill and his radio and it was on until late in the evening. My favorite song was “Mind Power” mostly by default because my dad played it constantly, but I thought James’ style was so smooth, especially the way he said “Vibes….Vibrations” in perfect rhythm with the drums. I was too young to understand what he was talking about on the record, but I know it must have been important the way everybody squinted their eyes and bobbed their heads even after what seemed like the hundredth time that afternoon.
We dealing with a very critical and crucial time
Most crucial and critical time as I’ve ever witnessed
Being as young as I am…You know
Now I wanna talk about
The pronunciation and the realization
Now the educators…they call it -
EFP, Positive thankin’ right?
Some of the people across the other side of the pond call it -
As I got older, I of course began to understand and appreciate what James was talking about on that song. I also began to recognize his breakbeats in some of the popular songs of my era. Some of my favorite Hip Hop artists were using melodies and beats that I had heard thousands of times before in my dad’s backyard. I guess it was the natural progression of things and we were groomed to be a part of this culture.
My favorite song back in the day was “Crooklyn Dodgers”. Masta Ace, Buckshot, and Special Ed combined to make what was in my opinion the perfect song. Q-tip’s production on this record was money. The bass line for Crooklyn was intoxicating and each rapper just destroyed it. I couldn’t get enough and it quickly got my dad’s treatment. Surprisingly, MTV played the accompanying video quite often and the Soul Train cut scenes reminded me of when I used to watch Don Cornelius with my grandparents on Saturday mornings. The early 90’s, called the Golden-Era of Hip Hop now, was a glorious time and as a freshman at Hampton University, there was no better place to be.
It has been said that people always remember where they were and what they were doing anytime a monumental event happens in their life. I remember the first time my boy Howie introduced me to Nasty Nas during freshman year. We listened to all ten tracks of Illmatic no less than ten times back to back and rewound “Life’s a Bitch” over and over just to wrap our heads around what AZ was talking about. That same year, and in that same dorm, my man Tyrus next door had a bootleg of Wu-Tang’s “Enter the 36 Chambers” before anybody knew who ODB was and blasted “Protect Ya Neck” from his tin can radio to a crowd of us who couldn’t get enough. But a few months before all of that Snoop’s “Doggystyle” came out. Someone had rigged the speakers of the gymnasium to play “Gin & Juice” during phys-ed, but the teacher didn’t seem to mind. Combine all that and what you had was the soundtrack to my short college experience at HU.
Over the next couple of years Hip Hop of course evolved, but it always meant different things to different people at different times. Gangsta rap was gaining steam right alongside the Party and Bullshit stuff. More money was being invested into videos and pretty soon they were just as important as the song itself. The “video vixen” was born and for a lot of people if you didn’t have hot cars and a slo-mo nightclub scene then your song wasn’t dope. We listened blindly to whatever the radio was pumping at us and telling us what was hot - or not.
The Bad Boy/Death Row Records beef nonsense was in full swing and everybody participated whether they wanted to admit it or not. To a lot of people this was now Hip Hop, and though some good records were being released, but a lot of it was bullshit. The message was getting skewed and people were dying over misunderstandings and complete stupidity. I was becoming cynical and judgmental about the music I was hearing, and for the first time in a long time, I stopped caring about the lyrics.
Then I was sitting in the car with my friend Russell, listening to Funkmaster Flex go on and on about this new De La Soul joint he was about to premier. He had me at “De La” and we instinctively turned the volume WAY up in anxious anticipation. Expecting another clever and playful joint from Pos, Dave, and Maseo was what I thought at the time to be normal. When Flex finally dropped it after talking for what seemed like an eternity, I was instantly taken back to a different time…
Dilla’s production on "Stakes Is High" was absolute and total perfection. The pounding horns at the beginning served as a warning to us all that something serious was about to occur and we all needed to shut up and listen - which we did with great intensity. When the bass line kicked in I lost my breath. It was reminiscent of “Crooklyn Dodgers” and at that moment I knew this was going to be special. Then I heard it - “Vibes…Vibrations...”, and I was STUCK. It was literally Mind Power and James' message about consciousness, self-improvement, and “What it is…and what it IS” came flooding out of my memory from all those years in the backyard. I squinted my eyes and bobbed my head just like my dad, uncles, and their friends had done to James. I looked over at Russ and he was doing the same thing. Then Pos kicked it into a gear that no one knew he had…
The instamatic focal point bringing damage to your boroughs
Be some brothers from the east with some beats that be thorough
Got the solar gravitation so I'm bound to pull it
I gets down like brothers are found ducking from bullets
Gun control means using both hands in my land
Where it's all about the cautious livin'
Migrating to a higher form of consequence, compliments
Of strugglin', that shouldn't be notable,
Man every word I say should be a hip hop quotable.
He just destroyed the notion we all had about De La Soul and how they go about their business in one verse. Pos was NOT playing anymore and what he said was absolutely true. The effort and attention that we were giving to bullshit rappers needed to stop. He had been here the entire time and was easily one of the top emcees doing it - and he was tired of being a second or third thought. Pos had the credentials, had put his time in, and deserved our respect.
We didn’t have time to catch our breath or even think about what was actually happening, because now it was Dave’s turn - and he was tired of it too
I'm sick of bitches shakin' asses
I'm sick of talkin' about blunts,
Sick of Versace glasses,
Sick of slang,
Sick of half-ass awards shows,
Sick of name brand clothes.
Sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks,
Cocaine and crack
Which brings sickness to blacks,
Sick of swoll' head rappers
With their sicker-than raps
Clappers and gats
Makin' the whole sick world collapse
The facts are gettin' sick
Even sicker perhaps
Stickabush to make a bundle to escape this synapse
Dave put the Hip Hop community on notice and let it be known that the culture that he - that WE - loved so much was in a state of emergency and full of shit for far too long. Everything that “we” had come to care about was a fabrication and we all needed to get back to what really matters. I don’t think he and Pos could have laid the message any clearer. Dilla’s groove was searing into our nerve cells and we couldn’t speak, only listen to this unbelievable lesson.
But they were NOT done -
Man life can get all up in your ass baby you betta work it out
Let me tell you what it's all about
A skin not considered equal
A meteor has more right than my people
Who be wastin' time screaming who they've hated
That's why the Native Tongues have officially been re-instated
Pos in his next verse told us all to stand the hell UP. Even though the odds might not exactly be in our favor, so is LIFE. Work hard in spite of all that to improve your situation. Oh, and in case you need any assistance in understanding how special you are - the Native Tongue Collective is back to help you believe it.
The Stakes is HIGH!!
That shit resonated with me like a wrecking ball and everything I was sick of with the current state of Hip Hop came crashing down. De La Soul had brought it all back to me in just under a minute and a half. After Pos and Dave’s initial verses, the Hip Hop universe already knew it was on the cusp of something special and different. James’ message combined with what Pos and Dave were talking about were having a powerful impact on my mind. They loved this culture and by association - US. They cared about what we were digesting and the affect it was having to their people - US. They made a conscious decision and I was all in.
With that, Pos continued and built off of the passion of his last verse -
Yo, it's about love for cars, love for funds
Loving to love mad sex, loving to love guns
Love for opposite, love for fame and wealth
Love for the fact of no longer loving yourself, kid
We living in them days of the man-made ways
Where every aspect is vivid,
these brothers no longer talk shit
Hey yo, these niggas live it
'Bout to give it to you 24/7 on the microphone
Plug One translating the zone
No offense to a player, but yo, I don't play
And if you take offense, fuck it, got to be that way
J.D. Dove, show your love, what you got to say?
With that he told it the way it has to be…not only are you talking about bullshit but you are living real trifling! What are you doing??!! LOVE YOURSELF MUTHAFUCKA! He then does what every righteous emcee does - show love to his DJ (J Dilla) and his partner Dave. One love to Maseo who’s presence is always felt in anything De La produces. He was a big part of the groundbreaking video as well. He IS De La
Dave then takes over as instructed -
I say G's are making figures at a high regard
And niggas dying for it nowadays ain't odd
Investing in fantasies and not God
Welcome to reality, see times is hard
People try to snatch the credit, but can't claim the card
Showing out in videos, saying they cold stars
See, shit like that will make your mama cry
Better watch the way you spend it
'Cause the stakes is high
Probably the verse that ties the whole message together. Don’t forget about God in anything you do. Life is not about the money or the fame. That shit is fictitious and will get you hemmed up. In reality life is hard and you have to earn everything you get. Living any other way is not worth the risk in the end, because none of us are ready to deal with the consequences. This verse goes against a lot of what we had been hearing on the radio, but was the absolute truth that we needed so desperately to hear. We had been eating bullshit for so long and told it’s filet mignon - it was time to wake up!!
Stakes is HIGH!!
Dilla dropped those not-so-subtle reminders at the perfect intervals. Just in case you were confused at all as to what this is all about.
I think that smiling in public is against the law
'Cause love don't get you through life no more
It's who you know and "How you, son?"
And how you gettin' in, and who the man holding
Hey yo, and how was the scams and how high
Yo what up, huh? I heard you caught a body
Seem like every man and woman shared a life with John Gotti
If there was ever some truth that needed to be heard it’s that life is already hard enough as it is. We need to be disrespectful to each other now too? Walking around looking like the grim reaper is what it’s all about? When Dave began this verse my eyebrow’s arched way up and I remember looking out of the window of the car at folks looking just the way he described. Did I look like that too? Were we believing in and acting out the characters coming out of the radio a little too much? I got nauseous as I held up the proverbial mirror and digested the blurry reflection. Pos wasn’t done and couldn’t resist inserting the dagger -
But they ain’t organized!!
At the least the mob had a plan. We were just walking around being played like puppets and the labels were cashing in big time. Had it been that easy?? Dave weighed in with his thoughts which of course was another triple-dose of reality -
Mixing crimes with life enzymes
Taking the big scout route
And niggas know doubt better
Than they know their daughters
And their sons
Dave finally said it. We had been so easily swayed to believe that we had no future. The plan had worked so fabulously that it was literally all we knew or understood. WAKE UP MUTHAFUCKA!!
Pos closed out the lesson with the most poignant part of it all…
Yo, people go through pain and still don't gain
Positive contact just like my main man
Who got others cleaning up his physical influence
His mind got congested
He got the nine and blew it
Neighborhoods are now hoods cause nobody's neighbors
Just animals surviving with that animal behavior
Under I who be rhyming from dark to light sky
Experiments when needles and skin connect
No wonder where we live is called the projects
When them stakes is high you damn sure try to do
Anything to get the piece of the pie
Even die for the cash
But at last I be out even though you wantin' more
This issue is closed like an elevator door
But soon re-opened once we get to the next floor where the
The projects is more than just a place - it’s a state of mind, even for those that don’t live there. If you’re not careful you will fall victim to the bullshit. We need to wake up and not only love ourselves, but each other. Rise above the nonsense and see life for what it really is - a beautiful thing. Money and fame are temporary and can actually be attained easily, but the relationships we build in this life live on forever and THAT's what it’s really all about. WAKE UP AND LIVE YOUR LIFE MUTHAFUCKA!!