Monday, August 29, 2005
"Fitty's" Future...Or West's Way?
Fiddy was a drug dealer before he got lucky and hit it big in the rap game. Here's his assessment of street-level drug dealers, which we must assume included him when he was slinging.
"He's trying to get rich," Fiddy says of the drug dealer. "Just like that guy punching a clock, that old man driving a cab, the kid going to college to get his degree, the girl waiting tables at the restaurant."
Kane rightly assails the unthinking moral relativism in the statement that makes an equivalence between the drug-dealer and the law-abiding cab-driver, college student and waiter. But his contempt for the rapper goes beyond that:
The other [reason I'm mad against "Fiddy"] concerns one Tauris Johnson. The Curtis James Jacksons of the country, in their zeal to justify, excuse or explain away their criminality, never mention the Tauris Johnsons who are their victims.
Tauris was only 10 years old that day in 1993 when he was playing football with other boys in his East Baltimore neighborhood. Shooting between two rival drug gangs broke out. Tauris was hit in the head and died about eight hours later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The leader of one of those drug gangs - and this shouldn't be lost on Fiddy - was from New York. The incident happened about the same time that Fiddy was doing his own drug dealing in Queens.
This, then, is the consequence of what Fiddy said at one time was his
"business" - dead bodies of children caught in the crossfire of drug gangs. Add to that senior citizens who feel like prisoners in their own homes because of drug dealers and a reign of terror against poor urban blacks surpassed only by the Ku Klux Klan and you get some sense of the scope of those consequences.
As bad as that is, the big story is in the broader rap culture. It can be seen in the "other face of rap" found on the cover of Time magazine. It is the story of Kanye West. And, the story there is of the guy who refused to use the gangsta ethos to sell his art.
But in 2002 the idea that someone like West could be a successful rapper was faintly absurd. "Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers," recalls Damon Dash, then Roc-A-Fella CEO. "It was obvious we were not from the same place or cut from the same cloth." Says Jay-Z: "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work."
Roc-A-Fella wasn't the only label to pass on Kanye (pronounced Kahn-yay; it means "the Only One" in Swahili) West. Executives at record companies large and small failed to reconcile West's appearance and demeanor with their expectations of what a rapper should be. They had no idea how to market him. "It was a strike against me that I didn't wear baggy jeans and jerseys and that I never hustled, never sold drugs," says West, 28, who grew up in suburban Chicago and often dresses as if he's anticipating an acceptance letter from Exeter. "But for me to have the opportunity to stand in front of a bunch of executives and present myself, I had to hustle in my own way. I can't tell you how frustrating it was that they didn't get that. No joke--I'd leave meetings crying all the time."
So, here we had, not some Johnny-come-lately off the streets. West had already built up some respect in the industry with his producing -- but the image of the gangsta permeates rap so much that a talented individual that doesn't fit that image is perceived as some alien from another planet.
Contrast this with another noted producer-turned-rapper. Dr. Dre created the influential sound upon which gangsta-rap is built. He was a member and lead producer of N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude). He went on to craft one of the most important rap albums in history -- 1993's The Chronic, a celebration of gangsta style -- gin, juice and hos. Dre also discovered Snoop Dogg and, later Eminem. Getting hit with attempted murder charges as well as drug possession enhanced Snoop's reputation, as did assault charges and the like help Dre and Eminem.
And, now we have, from the horse's mouth, the admission that many have always guessed: The gangsta image sells. It almost doesn't matter what sort of raw talent and vision that you have.
But Kanye West was determined not to accept that. He pushed his own view, got signed to Roc A Fella records (home of gangsta rapper-turned-executive Jay-Z) and put together, College Dropout, which has sold nearly 3 million and includes the acclaimed rap-meets-gospel tune, "Jesus Walks." West then used his influence to promote R&B rookie John Legend and, especially, rapper Common, who has been around for a while, but had yet to break out. The West connection boosted Common's positive-agenda style far above previous sales heights. (Contrast that also with 50 Cent hyping fellow-gangsta The Game -- before their posses had a falling out and began a 'beef" war threatening one another.)
Now, West's antics earlier this year -- whining when he lost a "new artist" award to country singer Gretchen Wilson shows that he still has a way to go in terms of maturity, no question. It also shows that he's human and not perfect. But he should still be judged on his overall product and image -- which is far more original and complex than most of his peers.
So the question is: What is rap's ultimate direction? Is it a "Fitty Future" celebrating the nearly-two decades old gangsta sensibility? Or is a "West Way" that is more thoughtful and demonstrating a greater awareness of life?
UPDATE II: As far as whether Fitty is a "real" gangsta (a la the NWA/Tupac stuff back in the day): Well in terms of lyrics and talent, maybe not. But given his glamorization of how many times he's gotten shot, the whole "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" schtick and the hyped-up "beef" with The Game that spills over into real gunplay at radio stations, he certainly tries to sell the image. Given that image is everything in the rap (contemporary entertainment?) world, he can be considered a "gangsta-pusher." Whether dat shit is real, yo'...well, the ugly image is real.