I think it’s time we call it like it is.
The times are changing. We will look back on this moment with the privilege of knowing we saw it with our own two. I don’t know if you feel it too. Who can say where it will take us but it doesn’t feel ordinary and every breath of it feels pivotal. From business, to politics, to culture, the way in which we live, operate, and understand evolved rapidly and there’s no sign of it slowing down. I sat down with two men with their fingers on the pulse, communicating this shift via the language they know best: clothing.
This era is all about you and it is important that you know that.
Eison Triple Thread is a made-to-wear men’s shop located in downtown San Francisco. Eison is a family name representative of three generations of San Franciscans before Julian, the founder. He describes incorporating his family name into the brand name as a statement of “solidarity, roots, and stability.” This is an especially potent statement to make in a city undergoing an immovable facelift. The Eison name is literally engraved in concrete on Louisburg St. and Julian seeks to further make its mark in the city by way of his business. He apologized for a very minor scuff on his slacks before we officially greeted each other.
How we present ourselves is a tool of communication no different from the words we choose.
Dario Smith, Director of Product at Eison, made that fact clear when detailing the journey that led him to this point. He was in a bike accident while working a “shit job” and underwent reconstructive surgery. After recovering, it was time to interview for new gig so he researched menswear to best make that first impression. Through that process it dawned on him just how important the concept of a first impression is. Then as time went on, his interview-style attire trickled into his every day and he slowly noticed people treated him accordingly. His new wardrobe communicated an air of respect distinct from his usual, more casual style. Eventually he became peoples’ source for fashion advice and a light bulb went off. These concurrent events domino-effected into a mission to help people make good first impressions; not by dressing up as a thing they are supposed to be but more so really getting to the crux of what it means to dress as themselves.
“Some people don’t know how or don’t get a chance to express their character,” he emphasized.
This era is all about you. Let’s call it like it is. We are on the other side of a major power shift in every industry that serves the people. Obsolete is the idea of any kind of authority figure telling you about you. Today we the people get to create civilization in our image; tailoring life to fit our desires. I see it on the level of entertainment. By way of streaming services, we the people have the freedom to choose and tailor what it is we want to watch or listen to. We aren’t forced to tune into whatever’s on. I see it on the level of politics and culture. By way of social media, we the people have access to information. We have the power to mobilize on a mass level, the ability to communicate at rapid speeds, come to a consensus about what we want, and succinctly demand it. We can more accurately choose and tailor who is fit to be in positions of power and what ideas and institutions we do and do not condone. Think #blacklivesmatter. Think #metoo. Think #neveragain. These are lasting and powerful movements that succeeded in unifying the people and whistle-blowing those misusing their positions in power. Obsolete is the idea that someone in power is too big for consequence. I see this same shift in commerce. The three of us talked about the now infamous H&M ad that made light of racially discriminatory language: a Black boy wearing a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. Just the same, Snapchat found themselves in hot water over an ad making light of domestic violence: a quiz asking “would you rather punch Chris Brown or Slap Rihanna?” In both scenarios, the public backlash was not only fiery but managed to instantly hit both companies precisely where it hurts most: their profits. In that same vein, a company that adjusts product to consumer demand shows clear reward: think Black Panther, a movie that answered moviegoers’ cries for representation, and its immediate and historic success. I only mention those examples to say those that serve us don’t so much influence us to change the way we consume, but rather now more than ever we influence them to change the way they produce. We are on the other side of a power shift and the name of the game when it comes to consumerism in the 21st Century is understanding and capitalizing on this new dynamic. Personalization is the name of the game. This era is all about you.
We the people get to make the world in our image.
Eison Triple Thread does not sell clothes. At least they don’t on the forefront. They sell a customer experience. They do not have an inventory. They do not have a backstock. The hallmark of their business is the collaboration between you and them; a journey to nail down exactly who you are and how you want to present that to the world. They have materials from all over the globe. Listing off such exotic locales as Shanghai, Italy, Turkey, and Japan, Julian describes their travels as somewhat of a “modern day silk road.” Quickly making the distinction between fashion and style, he defines fashion as something more market-driven and dictated by those doing the selling for the purpose of selling. Style, however, is something personally curated. Recognizing that firm distinction feels like the driving force behind Eison and the core characteristic that separates them from more traditional tailoring shops. There are no leather couches, there is no taxidermy on the walls. That was the old world. And it’s distinction from the new world came up a lot in our conversation as did the name of their first collection: Antithesis.
The shop felt bright when I walked in. The dictionary definition of antithesis is the negation of the thesis. It is the contrast, the opposition, or the anti to the standard. Go to any tailor and per tradition, they follow a more dark color pallette. This one feels bright. This one has art on the walls. This one doesn’t have suits, it has materials. This one takes customers step-by-step, piece-by-piece, material-by-material as they collaborate with the shop to construct an outfit best for them. It relies on a partnership between the taste a customer walks in the door with and the information Julian and Dario gathered from spaces said customer couldn’t go and time they couldn’t spend. By the time they walk out the door for the last time, the goal is to not only have a piece of clothing, but also full knowledge of what it is, what it means, why it works, and what its value is. And value is an important piece of the Eison Triple Thread philosophy. They broke down the industry and how value is manufactured out of exclusivity. Exclusivity of knowledge, exclusivity of class, and the resulting exclusivity of access are the parts that sum up value in the fashion industry. Experts know, the wealthy can afford, and the few can obtain.
That was the old world.
In this new world, Julian and Dario envision dismantling that model and instead providing the average person background knowledge, fairer price points, and access to top shelf materials from around the world . Make no mistake, in this era you have the power and Eison Triple Thread is a shop that lopsides the dynamics accordingly. They call it Honest Luxury, a new world definition of luxury that isn’t “defined by traditional notions of exclusion and alienation, but rather by innovation, dynamism and inclusion.” In other words, they present you a value not invented out of thin air and dictated by a gatekeeper to your literal expense, but rather a value tailored to your own personal taste. They don’t want to teach you how to dress up as the thing you are supposed to be, but more so teach you how to better dress as yourself. And you shouldn’t like it because you’re supposed to like it, you should like it because you know what you like and this is that. Eison doesn’t have a backstock because no one piece would be like yours; because no one person is like you.
And this is all about you.
Personalization is key. In this era of you, customer service as an industry is ripe for innovation. Eison does sell clothing, but the driving force of their sell is their customer service and you are the focus of their growth moving forward. These guys are stylish, they are well traveled, and they are well learned. They could take these qualities of theirs and be any other shop that sells you clothes in their image and make sales based on their knowledge and your lack thereof. But the times are changing. This is a new world and truth be told, you know you better than they do. And their main objective is to get to know you over time. Their shift into the digital space reflects this. They plan to further innovate their online experience, incorporate an app that works in tandem with Spotify to create an outfit based on your mood and music taste, and eventually expand to areas outside of menswear.
San Francisco in a lot of ways retained the same energy from the gold rush: a destination for the innovative, hungry, and imaginative, and Julian and Dario are carrying on tradition; once more marking the city with the Eison name and doing it with style.
Shoutouts to the guys over at Eison Triple Thread!
“I’m the eyes that’s in back of you, kid”
I was young when I first heard the intro to the purple tape. Too young, in fact. What I mean is, when that instrumental creeped in I was absolutely hypnotized; it was felt, but not all the way understood. It took time not only to identify with the hunger displayed from that track and on, but to also understand and be able to articulate what it meant to be a Black man in the early to mid 90’s. I thought rappers adonned those mafioso personas on wax just because it was cool. On that intro Raekwon and Ghostface trade cinematic dialogue over a score that only makes their words more cinematic: discussing their most fruitful escape out of the environment they inherited. Raekwon is trying to level up and not remain stuck in a cycle, Ghost is a family man who wants better for his mother, his children, and his lineage thereafter. This is 1995 Staten Island. This is the after effects of Reaganomics. If they were surrounded by picket fences and private schools maybe the conversation would sound more like Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975. I understand more why rappers of that era idolized the mafioso image because at birth America fed them a system of conditions, ideals, perceived moralities and other rhetoric that it failed to make tangible to its most vulnerable citizens. Give it enough time and Scarface seems more like the hero. Hell, the intro to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx was scarcely different than the declaration “give me liberty or give me death.” They laid out the blueprint for their escape to a better life, vowing to look out for each other, and so a journey began.
The RZA was always destined to score Kill Bill. Hip Hop is in museums now. It is taught in classes. It gets open invitations to the White House. It is the director of Louis Vuitton. It is liable to dominate award shows. It speaks every language. It retains an air of underdog-ness but it is the closest it has ever been to being considered a legitimate art form. This era is marked by several moments that officially broke down many of the barriers that kept the genre in the fringes. Just a few years back, recluse singer Sade said in an interview that she adores Raekwon’s music. Personally, my mind was blown that she was even aware of the man who, while walking in the outside world is a part of any Hip Hop head’s secret world. This was a juxtaposition, now a juxtaposition no more: Sade and Raekwon. And to take it a step forward, what’s to stop us from calling Raekwon or any of his contemporaries at the time, some of the premiere writers of the 20th century? The RZA was always destined to score movies, let alone some of the greatest movies of all time. At the time he just might not have had the tools. I speak on this present day lens only to reflect back on the past and give context to how great Only Built 4 Cuban Linx actually was. It was crafted by masterminds.
Rae and Ghost wax drug and violent poetic over a score that sounds damp, dark, cold, and metal. It’s a strange mix of all of the elements of their environments filtered through metaphor of their fantasies. You can hear the young boys who obsessed over kung fu, comic books, and gangster flicks, then grew up to perceive life’s realities through this lens. It is the source of the words, sounds, and overall spirit: carrying through as they became grown men doing very grown men things. A narrative that started Wu Tang’s debut The 36 Chambers extends into the purple tape much like how a series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad may take an episode to highlight and better understand a character. The debut introduced the narrative, and this was Raekwon taking the wheel for an episode; exploring his flavor with all of its idiosyncrasies. What distinguishes this tape from the group’s debut is the masterful blend of language. I feel like they call him the chef for this reason. His vocabulary is a blend of thick 90’s New York slang, drug dealer isms, terms taken from the Nation of Islam, and deep cuts out of Webster’s dictionary; like a man of several worlds blending four broken languages into one.
Then what we need to talk about is how this tape birthed one of rap’s greatest duos. Ghostface played perfectly the id to Raekwon’s ego. If the Grammys gave out awards for supporting actors we would have to talk about him. Forming the same coin, Rae’s cool gangster heads balances perfectly with Ghost’s livewire tails. They speak the same diction and come from the same place but the former is more Vincent Vega checking the cabinets in the kitchen and the latter is more Jules Winnfield yelling “English muthafucka, do you speak it?!” But with either temperament, there are two guns in that trunk. And the other members of the Clan as well as New York’s finest make their scene stealing appearances along the way as well, not robbing this solo effort of a great family affair. Let’s not even talk about how Nas spit one of the greatest verses of his career on this thing.
This was the golden era that old heads so rightfully want back.
1995 is hands down one of my favorite years in Hip Hop. Newcomers left and right were appearing with classic after classic just a couple years prior and by 1995 we knew who most of the major players were, they all knew each other, and because of it the competition put them all in rare form. I think of Mobb Deep’s album “The Infamous”, or Biggie’s song “Who Shot Ya” or Nas’s verse on “Fast Life.” There are photos from studio sessions that year of all of them at different increments in time sharing studio sessions and I absolutely attribute the leap in all of their leaps in artistry to those sessions. Old heads so rightfully want that era back because the energy must have been absolutely insane to witness in real time. The explosion of creativity was bar none and when we talk about the golden era, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is a requirement.
Happy anniversary to it!
It was only appropriate they dropped this in the summer.
In 2007 the tides were shifting. Looking back on it, this was such a middle point in the music industry or maybe specifically in Hip Hop. The times were a-changing. And change looks like chaos until its viewed in hindsight. In 2007, behind us was an industry run by labels and age-old tastemakers by way of physical music and ahead of us was an industry run by artists and consumers by way of the digital scape. Everything was getting ready to change rapidly and there were certain artists that came out with bodies of work that, in hindsight, were the last great breaths of what was. Blu & Exile dropped their opus just months after Nas dropped Hip Hop Is Dead and before Soulja Boy dropped Souljaboytellem.com. The former diagnosed a shift in culture and the latter almost formally ushered in this Internet/Social Media/Soundcloud rap era that we know today. The following year Kid Cudi dropped Day N Nite, Kanye dropped 808’s & Heartbreak, Lil Wayne dropped Tha Carter III, then the following year Drake dropped So Far Gone and by then the tides were too strong to swim against and the entire makeup of the genre began to undergo a major face-lift stylistically. But before that there was 2007 and there was Below the Heavens. This was before the tempo dropped, before stuttering hi-hats, before auto-tuned verses, before vibes, before ad-libs took to the forefront, before tight jeans, before face-tats, and any of the characteristics closely associated with the genre in 2018.
This was boom bap. This was scratching. This was rap. This was a set of stories you felt the first spin and understood the second and third. I remember when this dropped it was one of those rare occurrences when everyone stopped and understood what this was. At the time I remember a very palpable void carved out by some of our best talents either dying or living past their primes. We were hungry for the next thing to give us that feeling. And this was a curse in some ways for the artists that did step up to the plate. Because 2007 was a middle point that swallowed all of the great potentials that weren’t cognizant of the way the tides were moving. Unfortunately Blu, in some ways, fell through those cracks.
Fortunately when he appeared that first time with Below the Heavens, he landed with a thud. There were immediate comparisons to Illmatic Nas or Resurrection Common. To anyone that fell in love with Hip Hop in its golden age, it was a very familiar feeling. This was like falling in love with a soulmate all over again. And beyond that, it was so summer-appropriate. It sounds like sunny California. Bump the record and you’re likely to hear palm trees and warm weather. It sounds like memories of cookouts, button-up flannels, and trading the best of times and the worst of times over 40 ounces. It is both the liberating energy that comes with this season in childhood and the loss of that childhood to the grim realities that seem to occur only with its heat.
Beyond that, I feel this album was a glimpse at what would become a West Coast revival. The left side of the country had the mic in the 90’s and though trends travelled elsewhere, make no mistake, we still have something to say. The way I see it, before we got the gratification of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator, Jay Rock, Ab Soul, YG, Nipsey Hussle, Kamaiya, Anderson .Paak, Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Vince Staples, Dom Kennedy, or anyone else that exploded the years afterward, Blu surfaced spotlighting an evolving West Coast scene; one that is both an homage to its history and a departure from its tropes. Before K. Dot told stories about being a good kid in a mad city, Blu captured that same perspective; just a blank and naive canvas surrounded by problems older than him that stain over time. There was a scene marinating based off the contributions ranging from the spectrum of, say, Pharcyde and something more dangerous like NWA. While the South dominated and the East Coast grew increasingly frustrated over losing its grip on the genre, the West Coast quietly bubbled before only just recently bubbling over. We caught fire.
And what I’m saying is Blu was the smoke.
Happy Anniversary to Below the Heavens! Underneath this is my favorite verse on the album, which happens to be one of the greatest verses of all time.
I was cold hearted and young, a dumb kid with a gun
Cuz fun days don’t last, the last nigga to laugh
So rap fell on my tongue, numb feelings remain
And pain comes and it goes
But my wounds shows the room where my pops beat my moms
Moms screamin’ for help, myself hot as the sun
Cold hearted and young, a dumb kid with a gun
That I got from my pops top drawer
When he left my momma twice in a week
My momma lifeless and weak, spendin’ her nights in the sheets
With seed killer number (one)
Seed killer number (two)
Seed killer number (three)
Got heat from the newborns scorned brother
Blu black hearted and young
Raps fell off his tongue
Numb feelings remain
The pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the tomb that now shelters my boy
My boy needed my help, myself not in the game
The game heartless and young
Dumb niggas with guns cause fun days don’t last
The last nigga to blast got shots all in his back
Wrath fell on his soul but in my soul he remains
Pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the moon shining off of his blood
His blood ran through his moms
His moms ran outside
5 niggas with guns
Seed killer number (one)
Seed killer number (two)
Seed killer number (three)
Pulled the heat and he was through
Threw dirt on his casket his mom wore a mask and
Still couldn’t hide tears years pass her son
Numb feelings remain
Pain comes and it goes
But my wounds show the groom that still married my mom
My mom still had a son
Dumb kid with a gun, that I got from my pops
Top drawer when he left
My momma fightin’ for years
My momma fightin’ her tears
Now she gotta explain the game of her life to her son
But the sun still shines
Nine children and a newborn scorn brother two
Blu, life isn’t young
Dumb kid with a tongue, that I got from Hip Hop
But she left me for you, so I’mma give her to you
Cold hearted and young
Back in 2011 True went up in flames. The two-alarm fire claimed the shop itself, a lot of merchandise, as well as a lot of memories. Out of the ash and rubble, a few of those memories survived.
There might have been another Ghostface polaroid back then. Maybe it melted away, maybe it got damaged by the firemen making their way through. Regardless, Ghost stopped by just before releasing his fifth studio album Fishscale. Not only was it met with critical acclaim, but it became his most successful album to date. I say that to say, he came to the shop very much on the humble. Surprisingly down to earth, he even previewed the album for a crowd of only 50 people over at Milk Bar that night, a chunk of them just folks that work in the Haight. Sitting on a bar stool, he went track by track, sometimes rapping, sometimes explaining. There’s a certain magic to the Haight and how events unfold within it and this is one instance. The characters and events both big and small seem to coexist.
Since it opened in ’96, the shop and Hip Hop have had a close and thorough relationship with one another. This is a beacon of small business in SF and somehow someway it survived a lot, including both a gutting of everything we know and associate with the city as well as the literal elements. In dedication to this idea of small business, perseverance, and lasting memories, I’ve got 42 polaroids in the chamber and 42 stories attached to them. Stay tuned for more surprises.
Shoutouts to Josh for the story!
Give it time and Lil Yachty will be the good ol’ days.
7 of the 10 top selling artists in 2018 are rappers. And I think it’s time to talk about how Hip Hop not only dominates as a music business but as an artform doing what art is supposed to do: shake up culture on a mass scale. I was inspired to write this piece after chatting with a 40-something about the state of Hip Hop. The genre hasn’t been around for long so in 2018 certain dynamics are cropping up that we are brand new to. An entire generation was chastised by their parents for youthful rebellion expressed over sample chops and now that generation are the parents doing the chastising. Growing up on 90’s Hip Hop is a blessing this 40-something and everyone like him was cursed with. He had nothing but complaints about this year and knowing I’m an avid appreciator of what Hip Hop was, a lot of folks assume that translates to not being a fan of what Hip Hop is. On the contrary, I think this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in its evolution. And I think we need to understand it’s a phase like any other passing moment in time.
The genre is bigger than any one individual or moment and our perception of it needs to reflect that.
Give it time and Trippie Redd will be a the good ol’ days, is what I’m saying. To wish for the feeling an artist or piece of music gave us, we would also have to ask for the moment in time it took place and all of the conditions that time entailed. If you want ‘94 Illmatic back, you’d need ‘94 crack-era Queensbridge back. We are simply on a different chapter than those previous and I don’t know anyone who would opt to stay on the same page and not continue to see how the story unfolds. In fact, it is the very idea that rap moved on and escaped the grip of a generation that is the mark of its brilliance. Rock & Roll isn’t dangerous to the status quo anymore; Hip Hop is. All genres once considered a nuisance stayed frozen in time at their peak and, if anything, the nostalgia of those time periods became consumerized and thus neutered like any other revolution in this country. America tends to squash its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. Hip Hop, however, manages to stay potent and still piss people off.
It is Kendrick Lamar rapping on top of a demolished cop car. It is Kanye West jumping up on a Grammy stage to defend a Black woman’s art. It is Jay-Z dealing crack in the Reagan era only to set foot in the White House in the Obama era as a self-owned billionaire. It is Young Thug wearing a dress on his album cover. It is Nicki Minaj taking advantage of America’s conflicted obsession with the sexualized female body and extracting millions from it. It is Drake broadening the scope of what does or doesn’t constitute Hip Hop, who is or isn’t allowed to contribute, and why. It is a 16 year old Chief Keef and his people embodying the alarming yet inherent violence of America in a YouTube video. And more than any other bullet point, Hip Hop manages to remain in the moment, question itself, and take the shape of the times as they are right now.
Playboi Carti will be the good ol’ days too. Angela Davis once said “we definitely love Martin and Malcolm and deeply appreciate their historical contributions, but we need not replicate the past.” There are no infallible deceased minds, only mortal men and women not unlike you or I who introduced valuable ideas to the conversation and then exited it. The conversation is on-going and ever-evolving based on the one step their contributions built; leading only to another, higher step for those of us living to further architect. At times the worst attribute of America and American media is its nostalgia. It leaves one constantly locked into the good ol’ days, believing the past to be a long gone utopia and the present infinitely worse and without a doubt headed toward the end of days.
I mean it when I say this is one of the greatest and most necessary phases in rap. The crack era fueled the genre’s beginnings, reflecting and documenting the violence, poverty, and various borders of morality that came out of it. We saw a community nationwide use every angle of creativity to tell its story from the 80’s well through the 90’s. The 2000’s more so introduced a level of success within the genre unparalleled to years prior and the music reflected that. By the end of it we even saw stories that critiqued those heights of celebrity and riches it obtained and the 2010’s are understandably more introspective in ways. But I say this is one of the greatest eras because it is a visible testament to how shapeless and of the times Hip Hop is. I don’t know another genre that embraced the concept of free music so early. Mixtapes evolved to a point that artists were putting out album-quality original works for free in a climate where the industry as we knew it was crumbling. Eventually that highlighted the fact that music is simply promotion for an entire brand and the industry actually took shape around this concept. As the industry evolved, music of all eras and all genres became accessible in ways not comparable to any other era by far. All of a sudden it wasn’t up to companies to provide us a set of curated choices, our choices are now up to us. So each iteration of the genre has a fair chance at success and distinctive categories of those iterations got blurred. What I mean is Kendrick and J. Cole are two of the top selling rappers in the genre if you appeal more to so-called conscious rap, Drake and Post Malone are two more if you appeal more to so-called Pop rap, Migos are a little more bouncy and hood, XXXTentation is a little more emo and suburban, and Eminem is more traditional and driven by lyricism. Most importantly, none of these labels we put on them hold up and all of these artists are liable to fall under whatever category at any moment. In the streaming era it benefits to fall under multiple boxes and the music reflects that. This era is marked by questions of identity and where one falls in a spectrum as opposed to a category and this genre reflects that. This era is marked by an opioid crisis wherein artists, like their fans, are susceptible to addiction by both illegal and legal means. This era is marked by questioning respectability politics and the notion that some people and expressions are more valuable than others by nature; the type of concept that breeds snobbishness and stagnation. This era is marked by over-information, misinformation, and confusion to the point where simplicity is valued. One day I guarantee fans will talk about the good ol’ days. And not unlike Illmatic in ‘94, we won’t be able to get ‘18 back because to get ‘18 back would mean we would need the ‘18 opioid crisis, questions of gender roles, issues of psychological predispositions of violence against bodies of color, a music industry driven by consumers and not companies, and all other factors that make this year what it is. Jay-Z was a crack dealer in the Reagan era. If he insisted on staying put he would have never grown to the point of setting foot in the Obama-era White House.
But what I love about this era is there are no rules. Only music that truly resonates prevails. Gaudy clothes and 808’s work like the Migos, or absolutely normal clothes and musicianship works like Brockhampton. Straight hood shit like Lil Baby works like suburban shit like Mac Miller. Old acts like Juicy J work like a newer Lil Uzi Vert. Experimental Hip Hop like Jay Electronica can make a splash like more bare Hip Hop like Lil Pump. A complex performance like Chance the Rapper’s can land the same way as a simplistic performance like 21 Savage’s. Something more flamboyant like an ASAP Mob work can hit like a more lowkey Vince Staples. Singy-rap like Anderson .Paak can get the job done like a bare-bones rap from Dave East. Truthfully, I couldn’t understand the 40-something I wound up talking to. I mean no insult if you’re reading this, man. I think about Kendrick, the rapper that all Hip Hop heads agree on, and how his style changed over the years. He started doing traditional raps comparable to a Prodigy, Tribe, or Big Pun and eventually evolved into different sounds, flows, curves, and pockets; all of which were inspired by some of the more melodic and less traditionally lyrical acts of today. Everyone is adding to the conversation from different angles and it benefits the whole. You want a 100-piece Crayola crayon set that is all yellow. You want to only draw yellow things because yellow is your favorite color. But 100 is a lot. What you’re preventing from happening is a red crayon being introduced to the conversation. And regardless of what you think of that red, it may help your yellow make more orange hues and you draw a better picture. It isn’t healthy to stay in the same place and if this genre were to continue to dominate I think we need to better understand the function of the old head and the young head. Because the old head has all of the value of the past and the young head has all of the value of the present without any bias. We should deeply appreciate the contributions of the old, but the new need not replicate the past.
America tends to kill its threats by putting it on a T-Shirt and selling it. In 2018, images of such revolutionaries as MLK became commodified and simplified to the point that the very people he fought against are using his name in 2018 as a reason as to why we should stop fighting. The concept of his peaceful protests, on a surface level at least, became the “tagline” of his “brand” and is used to pacify justified rage that MLK himself spoke on, understood, and at times advocated for. And so went Rock & Roll. I only say that to say one of the monumental strengths of this genre is that it can’t be pinpointed. It can sound like anything, it can look like anything, it can feel like anything. It can absolutely annoy, enrage, and scare those in power.
And most impressively, it can also sell T-Shirts in the process.
In 1969 a genius was born in Marcy Projects.
In 1996 his genius manifested itself in the form of Reasonable Doubt. This LP was a message. Those guys in those black and white photos were all on the inside. They knew. We didn’t. The Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter we know today, the embodiment of 21st Century Black excellence and opulence, started with Dame Dash, Biggs, and this thing of theirs.
In hindsight that name Rocafella was more of a mission statement.
There’s something inside the man that absolutely refuses to lose. His debut album is a testament to that. First and foremost, it came after being turned down by every label, creating their own independent label, and completely funding their own product. Then there’s the fact that Jay made a work so potent and so undeniably great that some of the year’s biggest heavyweights Biggie and Mary J. Blige went out of their way to contribute to it and Tupac found some time to throw shots before his passing that same year; signalling the end of an era. Jay was embraced by and threatened by two of the greatest talents in music and entered at just about the exact moment their lives were taken. A state of flow is when maximum skill meets maximum challenge. Jay had what it took to seize the moment. Really it shouldn’t be a surprise that at 48 his life and career took the shape they did. You can hear it in the 26 year old’s flow way back then. He came for it all.
The Ski produced Dead Presidents was the first release of the album. It, too, felt prophetic. Nas’s words “I’m out for presidents to represent me” are some of the first words heard. In 2018 the man is peaking on a billion dollar net worth and in 1996 he was plotting on it. While these days he’s able to name drop media titans like Oprah, or presidents like Obama, or money gurus like Buffet and his relationships with them in a verse, back then he had the same energy with much different surroundings. Dead Presidents is a story with borders that don’t stretch beyond the street. Just a player in a game, Jay goes into psycho-analytical detail about what we do in this pursuit of money. All the while, his proximity to Nas on this track and the story surrounding it all but foreshadow what would become one of the greatest feuds in Hip Hop history. The haunting sample became a staple in great Hip Hop instrumentals and it wasn’t a sore thumb on the album.
Personally what I love most about the album is the sharp attention to detail. Jay-Z is an artist. He is one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. And, per his legend, he doesn’t even write. As the story goes, this is the album before he properly knew how to structure bars or organize a song. This was before he learned that simplifying lyrics reaches a wider fanbase and he switched up his business model. These were raw, heavy, dense, detailed, layered, intimate thoughts from a man barely removed from the lifestyle he narrates. And it was scored using some of the most appropriate and cohesive instrumentals for the stories Jay kicks off. From boasts such as “ghetto’s Errol Flynn, hot like heroin, young pimps is sterile when I pimp through your borough” to wisdoms such as “if every nigga in your clique is rich your clique is rugged, nobody will fall because everybody will be each others’ crutches” or grim realities like “I’ll push you to the limit when I’m needing the wealth, and all I see is life’s’ cycle just repeating itself,” the proper moods layer it. Clark Kent, DJ Premier, Irv Gotti, and Jaz-O among others clearly took good care of it.
The way I see it Jay-Z’s vision and his rise that runs parallel to it doesn’t feel much different from tech giants we revere. Reasonable Doubt is his first Macintosh or Windows or The Facebook. From Reasonable Doubt, that combination of willpower and vision, an entire lineage of artistic, business, and cultural innovations spawned. It’s an amazing piece of work no matter what angle one looks at it from.
Happy Anniversary to Reasonable Doubt!