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1998 was something else.
Hip Hop was fresh off of the East Coast vs. West Coast war, which as we know ended with casualties on both sides. While the genre as a whole suffered, those specific regions just weren’t the same. I’d be willing to bet all the money this contributed to what was to become the longest run of dominance Hip Hop has ever seen. I’m talking about the South. There was a time when, on a mainstream level, Southern Hip Hop wasn’t too distinguishable from the then dominant West Coast sound, for example. Then as Hip Hop got left wide open for anybody to snatch the crown, this region previously bubbling in the background exploded full force into the foreground with a style, a sound, and a language that reverberates all the way to today.
Let’s talk about Juvenile. Let’s talk about Cash Money.
Let’s talk about 1998. I say that year was something else because in a handful of ways it set the stage for what we see today. Jay-Z officially began his winning streak securing his first bonafide hit Hard Knock Life, which propelled both him and the idea of a rapper owning themselves to the mainstream. Lauryn Hill injected Hip Hop sensibilities into an R&B/Soul album that perhaps helped make the genre more palatable to the Grammy audience. Outkast jumped full force into the idea of genre bending. DMX brought back an element of ruggedness and a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that Hip Hop requires. Mos Def and Talib Kweli helped anchor that with the idea that rappers don’t have to subscribe to the gangster narrative the media was painting; domino effecting us to the current climate where that whole notion got obliterated. Then there was Juvie.
I simply don’t have enough time to give 400 Degreez its just due. First, it’s imperative someone stress the importance and cultural significance of “bling” rap. Hip Hop will always receive flack for any image that doesn’t line up with American respectability politics, even if its coming from a real place. Before value was seen in it and it was commodified, so-called “gangster rap” came from a real place, real environments, and real events. It was an artistic choice to grab America by its collar and force it to pay attention. Just the same, rap having to do with flash and materialism comes from a very real place. New Orleans is likely to come up in conversations having to do with its deep musical history, its language, and eclectic cultural melting pot. Just the same it is likely to come up in conversations having to do murder rates and poverty. The independent label Juvenile served as the first front-running act for, Cash Money, houses artists repping the Magnolia Projects; which was likely to come up in conversations having to do with the latter. And no matter which way you cut it, the Cash Money story is one to do with a huddle of geniuses with a unified plan that was met with immense success. And with that success came celebration.
Juvie would paint a vivid picture about where he was from and the mind state he was once in by saying:
“My nine is gonna die with me
Pick up the supply with me
Be up in the ride with me
Do a homicide with me, who, me”
And coupled with that, he was just as likely to talk about the success story that followed by saying something like:
“It ain’t no secret I’mma stunter, like Evel Knievel
Jumpin out Lex’s and Hummer’s, showin off for my people“
That idea shouldn’t be slept on. Hip Hop is often criticized for being too shiny, too object-oriented, and too much about excess and that trend really took off in 1998, becoming as much a fixture in Hip Hop as anything else. And if you’re someone raised in an environment that inspired stories of drug dealing, homicide, and not knowing if you’ll make it to the next day, why wouldn’t you talk about your success? And Cash Money ushered that in with a specific flavor that was so foreign, so new, and so separate from what was, up until then, deemed the hardest of conventions within the genre. The song “Ha” alone is genius in its conversational delivery, its use of dialect directly tied to Louisiana, and last but definitely not least its production drawn from the New Orlean’s Bounce scene; a prime example of that deep musical lineage attached to the city.
Let’s talk about Mannie Fresh. The man carried the whole label on his back, producing whole albums for every one of its acts from Birdman, to B.G., to Turk, and a young, future game-changer, Lil Wayne. Today, each city within the South has its own distinct sound, but New Orleans was one of the first out the gate to establish theirs in the national eye. These days you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Southern act or an artist influenced by the South.
And let’s not forget who helped break that door down.
Happy 19th birthday, 400 Degreez!
Those two dope boys in that Cadillac tho.
As they travelled through space and time, boldly going where no man had gone before, we were gifted with the opportunity to ride shotgun. On October 31st 2000 the latest stop was Stankonia. Having followed countless musicians on their artistic journeys, Outkast is one of the few that left me feeling well travelled. The journey being the human experience itself, these two spent their careers bobbing and weaving through it effortlessly.
The nerve of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and André “André 3000” Benjamin, I swear. There are events in life that inspired feelings I can literally only imagine because I missed the boat. What did the hush sound like seeing Neil Armstrong take that first step on the moon in real time? The moment the curtains came down, what did it feel like laying eyes on something as monumentally gorgeous as The Sistine Chapel? The instant the world watched something as awe-inspiringly catastrophic as the atom bomb dropping, what kind of sensation washed over us? There are those moments in history that I imagine made one realize, if only for a second, just how small we are and how little we know of this thing we’re all strapped in for. There are those moments that make us question what we’re even looking at. Every time Outkast drop an album, I’d imagine the feeling is comparable.
Change is a natural part of life. Everything grows. Everything moves. Flowers bloom, planets spin, and people evolve. Who knows why, it just is what it is. And instead of letting growing creative differences curb their journey, Big Boi and Andre had the nerve to flip those differences into their most valuable attribute. These two high school friends came into the game at the tender age of 17 and from then on, through their art, put the ebbs and flows of their individual growths on full display.
They started on Earth. The first album was pimping, Cadillacs and a more traditional down south funk. It was a lot harder to tell the difference between the two friends. They started very much on the same page; as many childhood friendships do. The way Andre describes it, what happened from there was art imitating life. Big Boi knew himself from the get-go. Musically, he was the man with the plan, concocting the overall vision. But outside of that, he graduated high school with honors, got married and had children, and maintained a certain level of confidence in what it is he wanted to be. On the flip side, Andre seemed much less comfortable with who he was and set off to find himself. That dynamic became their story.
Their next couple of albums marked their duality. The second one saw a complete departure from the overtly layered musicality of their first joint and an exploration of a more sparse, spacy sound. Big Boi was more street than ever, telling tales out of hardship, pride, and hustle, with a gold-coated gruffness likely sponsored by Stone Mountain. He kept them grounded. Andre took off talking about more abstract, less tangible ideas like spirituality, religion, love, and meaning. Then on their third round, they left the solar system entirely. Hip Hop started falling back on pre-established conventions, veering in a direction of jigginess, flash, and peak commercialization. Outkast made a conscious decision to obliterate those conventions. That album contained traditional Hip Hop, funk, hard rock, spoken word, singing on part of Andre and the album title alone articulated both their divide and their bond by combining the names Aquarius and Gemini; their differing astrological signs.
Then came Stankonia.
They already destroyed every rule the genre had in place and evidently had no plans of slowing down. I mean, what was Bombs Over Baghdad? What was Ms. Jackson? What was Snappin’ and Trappin’? We Luv Deez Hoez? What genre were they anymore? Who could we compare them to? What were we looking at? At that point, it wasn’t even worth questioning. Outkast was just Outkast. They stayed true (plug) to themselves. At that point they weren’t on Earth with all of these earthly rappers bound by earthly rules. They told us where they were right there in the album title. It’s a strange statement to make, but these days it’s cool to be different. It’s popular to be weird. And Outkast was the act that had the nerve to take it to the level first. Stankonia was a marker in time, a midpoint before they damn near left the genre entirely. It was documentation of how far in the rabbit hole they got; where no one went before.
And just about anywhere these new artists go, they are likely to run into Big Boi and Andre 3000’s tire marks.
Happy 17th birthday, Stankonia!
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O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson is the man.
Let’s not forget this.
This era is one in which a rapper can’t just be a rapper. These days they need to do it all. And let’s not forget the archetype. Let’s not forget who helped pioneer the idea that a rapper could express their art any which way they wanted. Ice Cube never dropped albums. He wrote and directed films that just happened to come in album form.
1991 Los Angeles is what we should be talking about. Cube, just 22 years old at the time, already had a platinum album with the Hip Hop equivalent of The Beatles, a platinum solo album even among their bloody split, received veiled threats from the FBI, had his image banned in select stores, and got his first starring role in a major motion picture. There was just something about LA at that time and Cube happened to be one of the few able to articulate it. Bubbling beneath the surface was some of the most prolific and influential sounds the genre has ever seen and one of the most catastrophic events in modern US history. What I’m saying is, before the LA Riots, there was Ice Cube and his art: vocalizing the day-to-day riot he and his city lived before it bubbled over and manifested itself in the form of fire and mass violence visible to the world.
Death Certificate is a movie. Rappers started incorporating skits, storylines, and other cinematic qualities in order to more properly convey a mood and Cube was one of those leading the charge. And it was effective. Just know that when suits talk about the dangers of “gangster rap”, the conversation essentially started with him. And while the label gangster rap devolved into a caricature of itself, it is important to understand the man behind it and the artistic genius it started with. He was on a mission. He had a picture to paint and Los Angeles was the color palette he had to work with. Prior to the riots, those colors looked like police brutality, mistrust in government officials, mistrust in one’s own community leaders, tensions among communities of color, an AIDS epidemic, a crack epidemic, a very palpable gang culture, and the growing prison industrial complex. He took those colors and clashed them with a new, more funky sound that would become a staple of the West Coast; not unlike the clash between the image of sunny California and the ugliness evidently below its surface. He spoke with an urgency, a youthful rage, and an old soul’s clarity. And thinking like a director, he couldn’t just leave it up to his words.
There are two characteristics of Hip Hop that keep it relevant and razor sharp in my eyes. This man excelled at both. For one, it is perhaps the last truly rebellious genre. Cube was one of its first rebels and going into this album from the way it was packaged to the way it was structured, his message is clear. From the get-go the cover features America laid dead in the morgue with Cube standing over it, a hand over his heart. Conceptually, the music itself comes with a storyline split into two chapters: the death side having to do with the above mentioned ills in America, and the life side having to do with what he saw as the solution. Though he didn’t do it politely, never held his tongue for even a second, and was never afraid to be imperfect. He embodied the menace that America created and was effective in getting America’s attention where others failed. The other characteristic of Hip Hop that keeps it thriving artistically is the fact that it has no boundaries. It can morph and bend into just about any form and while simultaneously releasing an album that sounds like a movie, Cube starred in Boyz N The Hood, a film that looked just like his music. Is he a rapper? Is he an actor? Cube helped make it so that those questions are irrelevant. He was just an artist giving a voice to the voiceless any way he could.
“Don’t wanna go out like Rodney King”, Cube rapped.
America has a lot of demons swept under the rug. Those demons often take the form of people, of words, or of actions and every once in awhile we get that clear glimpse. Before social media made it an everyday occurrence, racial injustice within the legal system all of a sudden had documented proof blind to no one. Yet it still made no difference, bursting the bubble of the American Dream on the world’s stage. Then in the early 90’s America’s demons took the form of the city of Los Angeles bursting into flames. However, before then, they came in the form of Ice Cube’s words, his sounds, his demeanor, and his imagery. He’s the man. And all I’m saying is some how, some way, that man managed to say what so many of us wish we could say out loud. Some how, some way, that man managed to use his art to call out the system and rigged it to where he made the system pay him for it.
Now that’s gangster.
Happy 26th Birthday, Death Certificate!
What if I told you Hip Hop is in another golden age? Every generation of music is an answer to the generation before it. The divide between tastes of the young kids coming up and the new old heads is proof a changing of the guard took place. This is Hip Hop’s first true Internet era. I think about how Napster ushered in the 21st Century by obliterating the music industry; more or less giving the world access to every piece of music ever recorded. I think about that and wonder what kind of effect that single event had on the way music in the 21st Century evolved.
Hip Hop just isn’t the same anymore. We can literally all agree on that. And Good Kid M.A.A.D City is one of the most important markers of its evolution. This shit is dope. Years from now we’ll talk about it like a myth. I mean let’s talk about how, before the release, Kendrick shed tears on stage as Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Game passed him the torch. Like a ritual. West Coast alumni of the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s all gathered around this kid to to tell the world he’s next. This kid who sat on his father’s shoulders and watched ‘Pac perform on the set of California Love was given the biggest shoes in the world to fill. And he did that thing.
Something really interesting happened to Hip Hop. The death of the CD is part of a ripple effect that started with Napster. This is a playlist world now. And the artistry changed with that. Our era is one of blurred lines. This is the “get you a _____ that can do both” era. There’s no such thing as genres. There’s no such thing as regions. There’s no such thing as rules or labels basically. We don’t know who’s rapping, we don’t know who’s singing, we can’t tell who’s from where, and stylistically just about anything goes. And as the young artists break every traditional convention of Hip Hop and the old heads reminisce about what things used to be, we got us a rapper that does both. Good Kid M.A.A.D City was the start of the masterful tightrope act that is Kendrick Lamar’s career. How can one rapper sound like an East Coast artist like Nas, a West Coast artist like Ice Cube, a Midwest artist like Eminem, or down South artists like Outkast? How is it that he has the message 80’s Hip Hop fans felt the genre lost, the grit 90’s Hip Hop fans feel is missing, and the flash of 00’s Hip Hop? All of that and he speaks the language of the youth today.
The industry isn’t the same. It broke apart and right this moment we are witnessing it come back together as something new entirely. And I look at Dr. Dre as almost a Steve Jobs figure in Hip Hop in that he comes out every few years to reveal his latest product; one that goes on to revolutionize the industry. And Kendrick Lamar is like the latest iPhone.
Happy Birthday to Good Kidd M.A.A.D City!
I mean that less in the sense of this October heat our Indian summers provide us and more in the sense of the general spirit felt. They found gold here. And from then on it’s as if this was a place one could always find gold in. “Staying true to yourself,” I told a customer when she asked what True means. I was only a couple of days into the job and unsure if that was actually the right answer. But, given the shop’s 21 year-run in a city being gutted of everything true to it, whether or not that was the intended meaning,
The city not being what it was is a song we all sing in tandem. For those that used to be young and those that currently are, the shop retains a rare familiar feeling. There was gold out here and the natives could tell you just how dug up and excavated the city feels as a result. I could tell you where to find some if I wanted to, though. When I say it’s hot out, I mean in the sense that there’s a fire under so many of us. I believe every action we take echoes through time and there’s a certain do-it-yourself spirit out here that hums through every body. It’s damn near a prerequisite to have a hustle not unlike those pans in the river sifting through rocks, is all I’m saying. And the city is scattered with creatives: all with the common goal of making something out of nothing.
Gold doesn’t rust nor does it tarnish. And there are certain characteristics of where we live that, even among this rapid change, just can’t be shaken. I think about the ground we walk on and who populated it. It was Too $hort selling cassettes out of his trunk in the 80’s because he wanted to do it himself. It was Allen Ginsberg howling from his typewriter in the 50’s, daring to think for himself. It was Harvey Milk daring to be himself in the 70’s and Tupac Shakur daring to risk himself, just him against the world, in the 90’s. It was James Baldwin touching down to meet with Huey Newton in the 60’s, daring to free themselves while just a few neighborhoods over, artists like Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia dared to express themselves. Why so much gold here of all places? That I don’t know. But I do know I see a certain glow in the generation walking that same ground today.
Streetwear didn’t exist in the Haight until then. We just took matters into our own hands, per tradition I guess. Making something where there was nothing, today the neighborhood is home to a prominent streetwear scene and a handful of shops both national and international that got their start on True shelves. As any young knucklehead that wants to make something for himself and of himself would feel, I am honored to play a role in this. While navigating, documenting, and taking part in the creative scene, I often find myself searching for gold. And the shop is proof that there’s still some scattered about if you’re looking for it. Stay true to yourself.
My name’s T and I’ll be blogging for True from now on, stay tuned!
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