Hip-hop & the Autobiographical

Edmund Hardy

Ice-T in his 'That's How I'm Livin' saw the problem: In hip-hop's regime of echoes the power of the false can only cohere at a point which draws its force from autobiographical dysnarrative; the recollection and the present dream are summoned only in the stitched interruptions between the two. How do different artists negotiate this break? Ice-T formulates the politics for the genre, sometimes called the "reminisce track" (though I would call it Hip-hop Verité): this is how I got here, and my voice can arc back over that trajectory in a slippage which controls and can control the subject-object relationship.

Full lyrics here

The opening couplet

I was born in New Jersey, I said it before
But I guess nobody heard me

suggests that if you do hear me now, the point is always-already made.

So I changed my life
Put down the gun and picked up the mic
It took ten years to get from there to here
But I still keep a gun, cops got me on the run
And they hate me more now
Than they ever did before
My homies came back from pen

The present moment is lined back, if it is to be politically efficacious it has to remain fraught: Ice-T's voice booming at us now is not unhooked by the success found in the record industry - this is the antithesis of the 'boast' track which the genre came to be dominated by, which, usually more pop friendly than Ice-T's effort, only found the problem of the interruption amplified. Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.) scored an enormous hit with 'Juicy':

It was all a dream,
I used to read Word Up magazine

The previous life is not a ground but an evaporation up through the ideal present, as the video - full of graceful camera tracks through a time understood in Leachian terms as a pendulum swing - confirms.

Full lyrics here

The amplification comes in the cash-redemptive lilt of

Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool
Considered a fool 'cause I dropped out of high school
Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood
And it's still all good,

but if Biggie recognises the problem, it has become thematic by the time of Cannibal Ox's 'Iron Galaxy':

You were a still born baby
Mother didn't want you, but you were still born
Boy meets world, of course his pops is gone
What you figure
That chalky outline on the ground is a father figure
So he steps to the next stencil, that's a hustler
Infested with money and diamond cluster

The splashing in the pool at 2.45 in the Biggie video throws up golden light, and this should remind us that hip-hop is itself now old enough to look back over thirty or so years: remembering or recreating the "days of yes y'alling" allows a retro-patterning of how the posited narrative-generating function of the poor, the "fresh", gives up its "memories, legends, monsters" (Deleuze) which come to be projected onto the screen of money, and this process is a subject of nostalgia, see Jurassic 5's 'What's Golden'.

The density in the soi-disant avant-garde of Cannibal Ox and the Def Jux label is partly a building up of Nas' style, for example 'Memory Lane (Sittin' in da Park)' (from Illmatic) and its striations:

Sentence begins indented.. with formality
My duration's infinite, moneywise or physiology
Poetry, that's a part of me, retardedly bop
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block
I reminisce on park jams, my man was shot for his sheep coat
Chocolate blunts make him see I'm droppin' my weed smoke
It's real, grew up in trife life, the times of white lines
The hype pipe, murderous nighttimes, the knife fights and blight crimes
Chill on the block with Cog-nac, hold strap
Where my peeps that's in the drug money market interact
No sign of the beast in the blue Chrysler, I guess that means peace
For niggaz no sheisty vice to just snipe ya
Start off the dice-rollin mats for craps to cee-lo
With sidebets, so roll a deuce, nothin below

The interruption is flooded in one outstanding example of the genre, 'All That I Got Is You', Ghostface Killah in one of his more sentimental moments. A loop of violins (simulated live, as in the Sarajevo of Theo Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze) and a rain-wet street, with Ghostface himself sitting at a piano, the camera moving past a fluttering curtain to see the future-present through a window: this is the gloss of Euro-nostalghia cinema (e.g. Cinema Paradiso), itself inspired by the MGM technicolor musical, but the possibility is here to overfill the eye, like a vase, jam it down towards a composite realisation, call it I is another: and if so, then I's simulated story has a raw power of the false that no breaking of frames can assuage.

Full lyrics here

The presence here, more distinct than is usually present in this genre, of shame, marks out the attempt at over-fill,

And there was days I had to go to Tex house with a note
Stating "Gloria can I borrow some food I'm dead broke"
So embarrasin I couldn't stand to knock on they door
My friends might be laughin, I spent stamps in stores

particularly when this isn't then written off with the boast which present heights might provide: there is no present ground, only the voice which floats, "analysing the sky". (The video direction also manages to bring in such iconic American image complexes as Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' photo, as Mary J. Blige begins to sing us out).

In the UK, after the success of Ms Dynamite in 2002, record labels were looking for female emcees to market: one such given a deal was Estelle, and her lead single was '1980', a journal of growth.

This narrates a constant rise, deft in its sunny combination of the tropes and positions outlined above; tempered by macabre moments. Forms of education and play are intermixed in a neat encapsulation of the present's autobiographical intercession:

Church was, all day every day and every week
Thats where I learnt how to sing hearing that pastor preach
Benediction was all we wait for
So we could run home and play Connect 4
Mum worked late and we learnt to cook...

[#] Previous note on NWA and the politics of armed and violent bands of men.

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