France

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”


Writing about an artist always involves multiple, sometimes contradictory, impulses: your motivation is greatest when writing on something that clicks with you, but you also need to be true to how the artist sees themselves and their work. Not to reproduce their perspective so much as show respect to the artist’s vision, otherwise the project doesn’t make much sense. Still choices are made. Rather than me unpicking Cormega’s recent more philosophical work, my interest here is to focus on “Killaz Theme,” with “Unforgiven” as the coda.

This is a partial – even personal – perspective on Cormega’s work. It’s not an overview of a career, but writing inspired by some of his music, and possibly work that he would like to transcend. (This is speculation on my part, which may be wrong: he’s said that “Killaz Theme” is a favourite track of his, but also said in the DEHH interview that he never wanted to glorify crime, which “Killaz Theme” and “Unforgiven” might do to a certain extent).

This work flows from questions and thoughts about the way the desire for justice – and the associated themes of betrayal, injustice, the quest for revenge – are represented in various musical genres, starting with dub reggae, but also all forms of Black American music to end with hip-hop. There is so much talk of “the struggle” in hip-hop (and reggae), what I’m interested in thinking about here is how those forced to endure such conditions might reflect the emotional toll such oppression takes on their private selves in their music.

Around the same time I (first) listened to “Killaz Theme” on repeat, I’d broken my typical rule of keeping it eclectic and kept my focus firmly fixed on dub/reggae. Listening to the Cormega/Mobb Deep track, within this space came as a jolt. Not only for the work’s poetic intensity, but the way it undermined reggae’s dominant conceptual framework; that is a belief that wrongdoers will be judged, that Jah sees all. Despite the image of reggae as the genre extolling “one love,” underpinning much of the lyricism is righteous anger and faith that on the final day of judgement the inhabitants of Babylon will be punished. Frequently dub/reggae lyricism builds on clearly defined polarities, between those leading a godly life and those committing all kinds of crimes, encouraging listeners to choose the right path.

This is deeply “biblical” - Old Testament in nature – and tough, even if the denunciation of the devil and longed for day of judgement is sung in the dulcet tones of Twinkle Brothers or Carlton and the Shoes.

Belief that the world’s wrongs will be brought to justice is equally deep in Black American tradition and musical culture; the other day I watched an interview with bell hooks where she slipped a casual reference to “Babylon” in her reply, not skipping for a breath, but it’s been there from the beginning, in the Spirituals in the Blues.

Think too of gospel, even if frequently there is space for contemplation and a questioning tone, amid the bombast of the chorus, where the soloist makes such themes personal. See, for instance, this really beautiful piece, “Do you believe” by the Supreme Jubilees (It’ll All Be Over, Sanders & Kingsby, 1980/81) that includes the rhetorical question: “What if you live a sinner’s role, at the end of time you must surely lose your soul.” Or Aretha Franklin’s sweet medley “Precious Lord You’ve Got A Friend” which is deeply comforting, providing solace; both the way the music of the chorus rises and the amazing vocal performance of Franklin, urging us to “meditate on him.” This is far removed from the stark clarity of dub reggae’s fire and brimstone call for reckoning, despite the religious roots of both.

Late 60s/early 70s jazz includes many implicit/explicit meditations on judgement and racialised justice: too many to detail here. Indeed the oeuvre of certain artists embody this territory, in terms of their work’s lyrical content, but also in their pure being – see Nina Simone:

Within Soul/R&B the general, all-encompassing shifts to the personal so that critiques of “smiling faces” and “backstabbers” abound: see the Undisputed Truth’s classic song of 1971 that was covered by David Ruffin three years later with an incomparable introduction. For the most part the “judgement” aspect of the lyricism remains personal, spelling out betrayals, the feelings of regret and loss linked to relationships between lovers and friends. While the genre’s political songs from the ‘70s favour a descriptive approach that rarely condemns those perpetuating the system or the injustice: see the Stevie Wonder penned “Heaven Help Us All” that has been described as the song expressing the essence of Motown or Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Want to Holler).”

With this in mind a song like Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” is striking, the slowed-down groove and song’s lyricism focuses on the “we” - and the potential loss - not the “they “ responsible for causing the narrowly averted environmental disaster; the only lines registering the malfeasance links it to greed: “That when it comes to people's safety/money wins out every time.”

One of Curtis Mayfield’s greatest songs, “Stare and Stare” conveys a typically nuanced perspective while tackling social issues; the target of the critique remains multiple, fluid. Sadness and despondency dominate here, as Mayfield expresses his disappointment that doing good and brotherhood mean nothing, noting that on the shared space of the bus “a sister is standing and no-one even cares” and that “some people boarding, different color than us/They hate to mingle but no one makes a fuss/The thing about it, there’s no one here we can trust ...”

II.

“Killaz Theme,” Cormega, feat. Mobb Deep, prod. Havoc (1998)

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever done with Mobb Deep. I just had to have that on my album. The reason I called it ‘Killaz Theme’ was because Havoc had a brother named Killa Black, God bless the dead, he died. When I heard the beat and I heard the chorus where Havoc’s saying, “We wanna kill you,” I just imagined his brother smiling and singing that type of shit. It reminded me of his brother, so I basically named it after my brother. I named it after Killa Black.

“I leaked that shit in ’98 because it was just too dope and I was on the road. I was on the shelf [at Def Jam] but I thought my album was coming out that year and it didn’t, so I just leaked that song to see what people thought of it, and people went crazy.

“I think Havoc did some beat for me and then he used it for something else. So ‘Killaz Theme’ became the make-up beat and oh am I glad he used that fucking first beat, because it was way better than what he did for me originally. When he did it, I came to the studio and Havoc was asleep behind the big studio console. He’d been drinking so I remember he was asleep and when I came he woke right up, pressed the button on the machine, laid back down and all I heard was, ‘We wanna kill you.’ And the beat came on and I was blown the fuck away. I was like, ‘Whatever the fuck Havoc just did, he needa do it again. Go to sleep all the time.’ That’s one of my favorite tracks ever out of my entire catalog.”

Hip-hop/rap as a genre is awash in lyrical violence; MCs frequently recount acts of violence they’ve witnessed or committed against enemies, friends who have betrayed them and former lovers while including boasts of their ability to cause physical and other harm. Rhymes also recount systemic violence; police profiling, murders, mass incarceration, the denial of the means of economic survival, schooling and housing segregation.

Most of the time such themes, including the more abstract/political frameworks, are presented in first-person narratives, encouraging us to see the stories as an extension of the artist and their lived experience; notions of truth, being authentic, keeping it real are ways people judge the worth of the rhymes. All this leads to an interesting doubling, or tension. In an art-form that is extremely artificial (see the emphasis on language/lyricism) the MC is frequently judged in terms of how true they are to their personal experiences.

Alongside the personal struggle narrative and MCs boasting of their skills, the other key lyrical theme in hip-hop – maybe even the key theme – is seeking revenge against those who’ve betrayed you. This also plays out in all the media-friendly “beefs” between the MCs (something that is almost unknown in other musical genres) - a major source of entertainment for all those looking on.

All this operates on the level of the interpersonal and the individual gripe, rather than some imagined Armageddon hailing justice on the maintainers of the corrupt, racist system. Of course there are exceptions: Public Enemy brought the noise in 1988 and warned of the current white supremacist neurosis so evident today in the United States, maintaining a clear-eyed desire for justice that would not be out of place in any of the most ferocious reggae songs of this ilk, other artists too mined this territory: from Paris to Dead Prez to Killah Priest to Ras Kass to Geto Boys, the list goes on.

“Killaz Theme II” - recorded in 1998, included as a bonus track on the 2001 The Realness album (and also Cormega’s 2005 album, The Testament ) reworked some of the lyrics from “You Don’t Want It,” prod. Godfather Don and later inspired the Lloyd Banks tribute and was used as a sample on a Conway The Machine track, “Mandatory” feat. Royce 5’9”.

In the comments below the YouTube video for “Killaz Theme” there’s speculation about who is the target of the repeated threat - We want to kill you (that's right)
We want to kill you (no doubt, that's right) … Is it Nas, the subject of a famous beef with Cormega that inspired some of his best songs, or someone else, or no person in particular?

The fact that the target of the threat is not identified is central to the song’s power. The important thing is not who suffers, but the desire (among the victims) to cause damage and inflict the harm on those who have wronged them. Despite talk of forgiveness and letting go, those who are victimised and expected to bear the brunt of it on a daily basis inevitably feel angry and long for justice; heard above a whisper it might sound just like this. Such music enacts the elemental voice of those forced to live in the shadow of persecution. Havoc in the final moments intoning “We want to kill you” has an almost meditative quality that sounds extremely real, as if we’re hearing voices from the underground.

Notice the way the song is put together, from the three MC verses to the instrumental. The beat by Havoc, all swirling strings builds at certain points as if the soundtrack of some kind of twisted romance where certain words are doubled for emphasis (“armed robbery”). Listener comments say the beat borrows from The Twilight Zone soundtrack (I haven’t been able to check or disprove this). There’s something erotic about this music. Not in the conventional sense of two people, but something more general and elemental: it sounds like a lust for revenge, as if it is all that these MCs desire, above all else (“that’s right”).

Prodigy’s verse ends on the lines:

Put this in heavy rotation
Overdose music,
it’s therapeutic to the user
Drive awhile under the influence of this
Careful cause you might just crash and shit
Total your whip and still pull my tape out your deck
Me and Mobb tryna connect,
like thirty-thousand dollar links
Unpopable, unstopable, topple

Maybe because of the fact that it is so raw and unfiltered, as Prodigy notes, this “overdose music” is “therapeutic to the user.” Something lost in all the condemnations of rap/hip-hop violence is the fact that listening to this kind of music allows those who feel stepped on, disrespected and worse to feel vicarious power; the rousing music of Havoc’s instrumental reinforces this.

That said, I know that there’s a risk in me over-stating the universality of the track and its impact, especially since Havoc’s verse suggests that it might be specific to the three MCs and conflicts they face closer to home:

Got drama with my clique
I’mma take it to the source QBC representative,
I’m just tryin to live
If I can’t get to you,
I’mma take it to your kids
Spray your crib, fuck it son, somethin’ gotta give If I can’t live,
then ain’t nothin’ gonna live

I’m just tryin’ to live.

Coda:

Cormega, “Unforgiven” The Realness, prod. Gold Fingas (Spank Brother)

“I just wanted it to be gutter. There’s a certain raw Mega that people used to really like. Even now people say they wish I would do some shit like that and be that raw person, but I’m not that person anymore in life. I wanted that record to be hard and I’d already released a hard edge song, but I wanted something new that no one ever heard, so that’s what ‘Unforgiven’ was.

“That was a raw fucking record. The producer’s name isn’t actually Spank Brother, it’s Gold Fingas. What happened was at the time he didn’t have a producer name back then, and The Realness was a rushed album, so the credits and the artwork needed to be turned in early because it takes a certain amount of time for the album to get printed. So I needed a name for him and at the time he ain’t have no name. I was trying to get in touch with him but I couldn’t so I didn’t know what to do.

“So Spank’s brother produced it…it was the last day to turn the album in and we still didn’t have a name for him yet, so I was like fuck it. Put Spank’s Brother because that was my man Spank’s brother. So that’s how that name got on there. And when I do the sequel to The Realness, I’m gonna try to bring every producer that was on the first one on the sequel, so when he appears on the sequel, God willing, he’ll be Gold Fingas.”

The track includes the unforgettable sample from Yusef Lateef’s Symphonic Blues Suite, Fourth Movement : Passacaglia (Suite 16, Rhino Atlantic, 1970),

The same sample was used in IAM’s 1997 track “Un bon son brut pour les truands” (L’Ecole du micro d’argent, Delabel, 1997)

***

You swimmin' with the sharks and the water is tainted
If you feel it in your heart (bring it)

Paris Récit: Police attack on Théo Luhaka, Aulnay-sous-Bois

On the 2nd February, during a stop and search of one of his friends, a 22-year-old man was brutally assaulted by police in Aulnay-sous-Bois (a poor neighbourhood north of Paris) and is now in hospital recovering from rectal injuries, caused by a police baton. One officer has been charged with rape, another three have also been charged with assault: all have been suspended.

‘There was blood everywhere, on the walls,’ the lawyer defending the man commonly referred to as ‘Théo’ by the media said. During the assault, the police are said to have called Théo Luhaka a ‘negro’ (it might also have been the French equivalent for nigger) ‘bamboula’ and ‘bitch’ and spat at him. For days after the assault, the impoverished housing estates to the north of Paris erupted in anger: cars were burnt and Molotov cocktails thrown in running battles with the police. The French President, François Hollande visited Mr Luhaka in hospital, where the young man called for calm.    

For reasons that remain a little opaque for me, I’ve found it difficult to write on this subject, even though it’s such a simple story - the facts write themselves - and such a familiar one.  

I live in northern Paris, but it is a completely different world to that of Aulnay-sous-Bois. If I walk down the street about five minutes, I’m in a largely immigrant neighbourhood, but in my immediate vicinity it’s cafés filled with tourists and women wearing very long coats and pearly-white sneakers. The extreme deprivation that marks out the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Paris, places like Aulnay-sous-Bois, with its rows of anonymous housing estates is less obvious in my area (though, of course, it is here as well, as is the aggressive police presence).  

Perhaps my ambivalence reflects tiredness about how this story keeps repeating and nothing gets done, alongside broader feelings of suspicion about how news stories of police violence against black men (and boys) play out in the dominant culture, whether it’s Aulnay-sous-Bois, Baltimore or the juvenile jails of the Northern Territory, Australia. (And it is gendered, non-white women are also victimised, of course, but the images we see repeated on the news tend to be of men being hurt, beaten, suffocated or shot)

In the end, I wonder about the value of broadcasting this brutality, without an exploration of the broader context, or statement of explicit political demands. Does the widespread dissemination of images of non-white people being hurt serve to further reinforce racist stereotypes, I wonder, while inflicting further harm on the victimised via the denial of their basic right to privacy? Surely, in the end, this right to be private, to decide how we are seen and perceived by others, is what makes us human.  

And even though it’s rarely said, I also wonder if this dissemination of imagery of violence against non-white people reflects a ghoulish perversity that has a long history, stretching back to the plantation and killing fields of Colonial Australia. Often people, usually white, say racism towards non-white people reflects ‘fear of the other’. It's not always this, racism in its most brutal form enacts a desire to humiliate, to insist upon another person that they are less than human, nothing more than bodies.

For a period of time, my Facebook feed was filled with images of black men being shot by police in the United States, which appeared to be updated on a daily basis by activist groups. (There was one video that didn’t get much attention, but shocked me deeply of a man being shot execution style in an Ohio street by a police officer; in such an ordinary street, in the middle of the day). And I started wondering about the value of all of this.

How effective was it in a political sense to keep seeing these images of people being killed, or handcuffed and shoved to the ground, I thought then, does it raise awareness in a way that leads to reform, prosecution and convictions of the perpetrators, or maintain the status quo (while significantly adding to the stress felt by minority communities in the US)?  

Now this perspective might seem strange coming from a journalist, but it is this professional background that motivates this reaction. In a news-room you quickly learn how and why certain stories rise to the top, usually it comes down to the maxim: ‘If it bleeds, it leads ….’

You also see how quickly stories and victims are forgotten. One of the older journalists used to talk to me about ‘old news’ saying that it had as much interest as ‘yesterday’s fish and chips’ (something that is foul, inedible). Within a few weeks, there is a chance that the abuse of Théo will for many people here in France be seen as old news. Let’s hope I’m proven wrong.

The counter to this point of view is that such videos raise awareness in the general community; well, firstly who is this general community? None of this is news to me, or people with any kind of political consciousness, nor is it news for members of the affected groups. Whose interests are being served here and at what cost?  

In the end, I wonder why this shocking/extreme/brutal representation of racism is privileged by the media above all the other forms of race-based oppression. I have been educating myself about the economics of racism, past and present, in the United States and find this equally disturbing, if not more. But this colder version of race-hate doesn’t get the same kind of airtime on the nightly news and the question is why.  

This is the reason why I haven’t written about the brutalisation of Théo and the death of Adama. I have been watching, though, just like I have been watching the way the police stop and search non-white people in my neighbourhood, and especially the way the police touch the crotches of the young men as they pat them down.

And the way vans full of police in riot gear seem permanently stationed down on Boulevard Barbès, dozens and dozens of police kitted out like over-sized plastic action heroes, their shoulders and knees covered in black like beetles, waiting, just waiting …    

For more background on all of this, have a look at this very strong piece of reporting on the death of Adama Traoré in police custody, again in a small town to the north of Paris in July last year and attack on Théo Luhaka by Iman Amrani and Angélique Chrisafis, published in The Guardian a few weeks ago. 

National Front victorious: French regional elections, 6th of December

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

When French President, François Hollande contacted the country’s leading politicians to invite them to march in support of Republican values after the Charlie Hebdo massacre earlier this year, there was one striking absence: Marine Le Pen. The same woman whose far-right party, the National Front, topped the country's regional elections yesterday.

Leading in half of the country's electorates, the National Front received almost 30 per cent of the national vote and is now expected to take control of two regions; the country's poorest region in the far north and the glitzy Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. This is unprecedented.

The election was marked by a high abstention rate; just under 50 per cent of all registered voters cast their ballot (more than doubling the rate from three decades ago). And this always benefits the National Front. But this unequivocal result, coming soon after the party's first place in the European elections indicates a major shift in the French political landscape.

Indeed, Le Monde's front page from this morning demonstrates the extent of the National Front victory. It is a map of France, with all the results coloured pink for the ruling Socialists (and other left parties); blue for the Republicans, formerly the UMP, led by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and brown for the National Front. From the north to the south, to the east and into the centre, the map of France is almost completely shaded brown.

Back in January, the logic behind the exclusion of Le Pen from the march was simple. The anarchist cartoonists behind Charlie Hebdo despised Le Pen père et fille . Hollande was merely following usual practice here; that is, either ignoring, or blocking, Le Pen and her party in the hope that they might fade into the background.

And yet the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and 350 injured changed everything. At the deeply moving national ceremony to remember these victims at Les Invalides, Marine Le Pen was present. Les Invalides is the symbolic heart of Paris' military past and present; a site that houses the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte and has traditionally been used to commemorate the passing of important heads of state; fallen soldiers; police killed in the line of duty and résistants. This was the first time 'ordinary heroes' were to be commemorated there, and here the French State was making a clear point. As Patrick Garcia, Professor of History at Cergy-Pontoise told Le Figaro: ''The victims of the 13th of November were elevated to the level of military heroes.'

The Saturday after the Paris carnage, Le Pen repeated the National Front's three core demands first outlined after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January; the closure of France's borders (the party wants this to be permanent); the stripping of French citizenship from dual citizens involved in terrorism and the closure of 'Salafist' – extremist - mosques in France. The Hollande government announced its agreement with all three; while declaring a state of emergency in France that will continue until next year.

It would be easy to argue that Sunday's historic victory of the National Front will have little political influence here (how important are decisions decided in the regions in terms of a national politic?) or that it will not guarantee Marine Le Pen's success in the 2017 Presidential poll.

It would be easy, but misguided. What this election demonstrates is the truly national reach of the National Front (the six regions include Alsace in the east and also central regions, such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley). Alsace also has the second highest rate of absenteeism – after the Ile-de-France, which includes Paris.

Moreover, as Australians, the British and Americans know full well: the shocking success of parties largely considered to be fringe, or marginal not only shake up the content, but how politics is played by the mainstream parties. And this is what is happening now in France.

Back in 2002, after the National Front founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen was included in the run-off presidential election, French voters – right and left - united to support the conservative Jacques Chirac (who received 82 % of the national vote).

Today, governing Socialist politicians are calling for the same, urging candidates to withdraw or for voters to be 'strategic' in an effort to keep the National Front out of power. This suggests that they are not only rattled, but scared. The problem here is that such efforts only reinforce one of the National Front's key arguments, that is that mainstream parties are the same; and only look out for their own interests.

In January, Marine Le Pen responded to her exclusion from the Paris rally that ended up attracting more than 1.5 million people onto the streets of Paris in a characteristic fashion. What her exclusion showed, she said, was that the march was more about the political class than anything else. It was also an insult to the 25 per cent of the French population that voted National Front in the European elections in May, 2014, when the party topped a national poll for the first time.

Taking on the victim role, she said that the National Front represents the ‘invisible and forgotten’ unlike the ‘gang of four’ (the classic French political parties).

Some years earlier, in a meeting in Metz, north-eastern France, Marine Le Pen summed up her political world-view when she said her party spoke directly to ‘farmers, the unemployed, workers, the retired, people living in rural France. You are the forgotten ones, the invisible majority, crushed by a financial system gone mad,’ she said. Then she added, 'For the political class, the UMP-PS (conservative and Socialist party), when faced by their god, the triple A finance rating, you are the triple nothing.