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 ...”
“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:
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:
I’m just tryin’ to live.
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)