Nas

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

“[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap 
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit, 
yo... now”

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

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‘Korn Dogz’ DANGERDOOM (Occult Hymn, digital release, 2006) plus Nico & Nas, interview excerpt

Something that appeals and does truly, madly etc is when an artist or piece of music or an artist clicks with me despite my instincts not to like to it. MF DOOM was held in the category (of not being something I'd like) for a long while, until I came across some music by chance.

Knotted up like roots of a mangrove with plenty of contradictions, something about his popularity (with people who read the same kinds of books as me and get burnt by the sun easily) made me suspicious, and I was wary because of his image as someone whose rhymes were ‘cute’ or self-aware. Even if this didn’t make much sense, as that moment of self-consciousness when an MC smiles, knowing that they have blitzed it is one of the first things I loved about hip-hop performance this second time around. Then I came across this, not so long ago …

At some point I’ll write more on DOOM, when I can find an angle that makes sense to me without it becoming too academic and … well, see above. What turned it was an emotional depth I could hear at some points in some of his verses, principally a sadness or chastising tone that went against the stereotype of DOOM as the 'funny guy/entertainer in a mask.'

Added to that I couldn’t help but be impressed by his brilliance. No other MC comes close to the way DOOM builds associations that have weight to them and are not just left hanging in a three-point lyrical rhumba: first idea, second, third the final word running on a rhyme that echoes a phoneme. At its best, DOOM’s lyrics can dazzle you with their skill, while also imparting something serious. Moreover, as I’ll argue below his tendency to shift tone, without developing it, is in itself intriguing in terms of technique.

When I discovered that this track from his collaboration with Danger Mouse, DANGERDOOM  sampled Nico’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ from Chelsea Girl, especially at this time when I’m thinking a lot about the use of strings in popular music, not just hip-hop but across the genres, well ping! Transformation of prejudices time (this has been sent to me).

It's said that it also samples ‘What The Beat’ from DJ Klue, feat. Method Man and Royce da 5’9 from his 2001 record, The Professional 2

To again use the negative rhetorical set-up: the trademark elements of a DOOM track that had distanced me before were here, principally the skits/or samples from TV, moreover the production style is so clean/considered. Normally this kind of sound would be too conventional, at least with a lesser MC. But the opening less than 5 seconds here, the way it unfurls on itself is beautiful with the strange grunt, bamboo style drums and strings are nice. There’s the essential cleverness/wordplay:

We don’t suggest you let your girly go alone
Come home all glowin with the the pearly glow
It was the super AKA super sperm
Hit her in the chin, told her rub it in like lubriderm
Finished, oh spaz go next
Who’s fault is it if her face taste like Vazoplex?

The use of the ‘we’ is interesting and reinforces the menacing mood, it sounds threatening because of the ambiguous subject (to read about the play on lubiderm/Vazoplex and the rest of the song, go here). Then that emotional depth I referred to before comes through:

... It ain’t funny
Ever since a young’un sonny, take the money
His first business made each day a grand
His only comp, shorty with the spiked lemonade stand
That’s how he ran his hustle
He came with a plan that took least amount of muscle
Two for one, dime frogs for the lickin’
And all you can eat, ”Corn dogs for the pickin”

As DOOM says, this isn’t funny. He establishes the scene of possible sexual violence – though it’s deadpanned, it's not clear – or exploitation; 'that’s how he ran his hustle,' telling the story of someone who is again unidentified. This refusal to set up characters is striking. A less adventurous MC would either end up describing a friend back at school or who is now in prison etc or focus on him/herself as the narrator, but DOOM rarely does this. He creates a lyrical space where we are already inside the action, as he tells the story.

As a lyrical device in hip-hop this is quite experimental: the way he gestures towards telling a story (refers to the typical paradigms and characters) without actually doing it. He refers to a situation (as above) but then doesn’t allow us to see it develop into a conclusion, as you’d expect.

The narrative does continue, but is the ‘seemingly modest fellow’ the same as the ‘young’un’ I don’t know.

... A seemingly modest fellow
With a DJ’s ear and graffiti artist elbow
Nose of a Mouse and the brain of two weasels
Discovered a name and new strain of the measles
He say you accidentally caught it
And sold circles and dots to those who could afford it
Once you squeezed his face through the gate
It got stuck, too much fake soy-based cheese product
Did a scheme and was in it for the Aspercreme
Slashed your team, let’s see who can make Casper scream
Down to the last marine
See him as your cable man, sizin’ up your plasma screen
Instead of doin a jux with pistols
Or workin’ in the back, cookin’ sacks of crystals
Or runnin’ on logs out in deep water kickin’
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Compare this ambiguity and refusal to tie things up neatly with Nas’s narrative/storytelling style that develops characters or stories to represent his arguments, in ‘What Goes Around’ from his 2001 album Stillmatic :

The genius of Nas's lyricism is apparent certainly. He like DOOM doesn't over-state, or over-extend his references to other people's stories, he touches on them/makes connections then moves on. And yet the characters are clear to us, as is the overall argument of his lyrics. Neither could be said about DOOM's lyricism, even if we sense that they exist.  

See here how DOOM then jumps to another subject, posing a question about ‘dedicated dads’ before – apparently – critiquing the self-absorption of his contemporary MCs suggests his intent is also to provide some (critical) commentary on the current state of affairs:

What up to all you dedicated dads
As stated, rap sucks Tucks medicated pads
And these rappers need to gather their belongings
Or get wrapped up in they extra long thong strings
For singin’ the wrong things
Ain’t no delayin’, you playin’ with the Pong king
A nerd with insight and a Urkel smirk
Purposefully misplaced invite to your circle jerk
... A bunch of men in cyphers
Fake you out tough guys and make pretend lifers
It’s still a few loose screws in his face
Turn away as he pulled a phrase out his usual place
... Combination jewel case
Almost popped open if it wasn’t for the cruel space
Critics talkin’ slick chicken shit to sick men
”Corn dogs for the pickin

Here’s an excerpt from a longer interview with DOOM where he speaks about his lyricism, the way he writes his rhymes with the listener in mind, thinking about how they will have expectations to then skirt around them.

‘All these rappers’ Ol’ Dirty Bastard (rare, date unknown) plus Nas/Beastie Boys – the hip-hop ‘scrappy aesthetic’, punk & Griselda

Before Wu-Tang became a global brand, known and beloved and worn as merchandise from one obscure part of the planet to the next, lauded on best-ever magazine lists, the Staten Island emcees offered a direct line with something much darker.

Listen in, for instance, to the rare outtakes and recordings, such as this one from Ol’ Dirty Bastard – date unknown (see also my earlier piece, from 2015, 'Super Rare Ol' Dirty Bastard Freestyle 1995 & hip-hop monstaz').

ODB today is often seen to be a kind of caricature, or vaudevillian joke act, but he’s always been my favourite out of the Wu-Tang crew because of his ability to convey tough logic and sentiment via off-the-wall humour, while representing a dark energy and freedom.

His voice, delivery and his flow is messy and hard to contain; it’s all over the place and wherever – and this makes it appealing.

ol-dirty-bastard__1.jpg

This rare recording, date unknown which seems to have been re-released in another version *with music* in 2001 conveys perfectly what I call the ‘scrappy aesthetic’ in hip-hop. If you wanted to, really wanted to, you could divide New York in the 90s into two streams – and much else besides, of course; on one side, there’s the cool formalism and control of DJ Premier, given voice by Rakim and then there are all these oddball mavericks, or voices from ‘the cellar’ like ODB and RZA, the Gravediggaz  … (and plenty more besides).

My personal bias/essential nature makes me gravitate towards the second group, as this kind of worldview makes me homesick for the punk music that shaped me as a kid and formed my musical education. But there is something about this that transcends the personal and conveys something essential about the genre; this idea that rap is a kind of music outside the norms, essentially and potentially disruptive and subversive.

What’s the use of all the technique if it gets fossilised into a kind of elegant pose, unable to be chipped away at, easily consumed as an artefact the world over like a McDonald’s hamburger?

Most of the times when rappers tackle politics it bores me stupid because it’s so explicit and there’s no interest in the music chugging along behind it. And yet I believe that these recordings are essentially political, not only because of the lyrical territory but the way they sound.

Just like punk they’re saying we’re not going to play the game, or meet your expectations; we’re not trying to please you.  

Made up from the scrap, speaking of the experience of the rejected, all this points to a kind of radical refusal in the music that rejects attempts to commodify it and sell it. Just on the basis of the sound alone it’s interesting because it actively, enthusiastically draws attention to its own messiness; it’s a kind 0f outsider art or ‘scrappy aesthetic’.

Bringing it up to the present now, there’s a direct point of continuum between this kind of thing and the Griselda artists -  that stable of emcees and producers – who I believe are producing the most interesting work in hip-hop today (will write more on them soon).

No longer is assessment of worth based wholly on the skill and versatility of the mc, their ability to express their thoughts with a high-level of language, or charm – see the Rakim paradigm – here it’s all about the capacity of the mc and producer to convey mood and give voice to those from the underground.

On the basis of language etc much of the lyrical content in this output doesn’t amount to much, but to talk like this is to miss the point spectacularly, I believe; just like the way critics of punk used to bang on about how the musicians could only play three chords, or what they produced sounded like unbridled noise.

Well, being ‘unschooled’ was the essential point – punk was a reaction against the ‘cleverness’ of all those boring musicians from the 70s who took themselves and their work so, so, so seriously.

What punk was encouraging was a re-assessment of music and performance, while asking questions about who had the right to perform and be heard; it was about refusing to ask for permission. It was about taking it, making space. Much the same could be said about this kind of thing in hip-hop past and present, this ‘scrappy aesthetic’.

All this is music from the offcuts, music and voice from long-forgotten, maybe, radio shows; the hiss and scratching of it all. No need to be so clean and considered and tasteful, much better to keep it raw, uncooked.

For the bubble-gum version, but still nice:

Coda:

RZA & Ol Dirty Bastard - Freestyle (Rare / Unreleased)