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would have been ground-zero day for New York hiphop even if the Towers and everyone
in them had survived. That’s because that same Tuesday saw the release
of Jay-Z’s sixth album, The Blueprint. Though the self-described
former drug boss of Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses had dominated rap for years,
he’d barely altered his style since 1998’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life.
A close encounter with prison inspired Jay-Z to break with formula, and actually
lead the genre he ruled.
while he was on trial (defendant Shawn Carter ended up admitting he stabbed
his CD-bootlegging former associate and got three years’ probation), The
Blueprint was a challenge to everyone still doing hiphop-by-numbers. It
was especially challenging to Nas and Mobb Deep, who–in the first major
transgression of a de facto ban on name-naming disses since the murders of rhyme
battlers Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.–heard themselves roundly mocked on
the album’s second track, "Takeover." There’s an entire
verse about Mobb Deep and another about Nas in the song, which is paced to an
agonizingly slow stomp sampled from the Doors’ "Five to One."
target was much of a threat to Jay-Z. Mobb Deep had taken some carping shots,
but with only one platinum album, the duo is technically not in Jay-Z’s
league. And if his intention was to provoke the hardcore contingent that the
Mobb represents, he wouldn’t have bothered with Nas, who had long been
regarded by crossover-conscious rap fans as the most egregious sellout in rap.
true of Nas only because he came on the scene as hardcore’s golden child.
Along with Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and Mobb Deep all but invented 90s New York rap,
back when the notion of an East Coast gangsta still meant Schoolly D or Kool
G. Rap. Those three (proclaimed to be a triumvirate during Ghostface and Raekwon’s
guest verse on Mobb Deep’s 1995 track "Right Back at You") designed
the manner and style in which New York artists would address what Snoop and
Dre had made rap’s hottest topics: drugs and violence.
impact of 9/11 on New York hiphop can’t be assessed without considering
that earlier, paradigm-shifting blueprint. In the period 1984-1992, hiphop was
part of the fabric of New York’s artistic and intellectual life. All its
stars except KRS-One came from solid, middle-class backgrounds. They invented
ways of telling stories, and communicating ideas, that captivated all kinds
of people. What happened in 1993-1995 is that those techniques were applied
to a much narrower realm of focus. Their power was concentrated in a very intense
beam, by artists equally talented yet much more singularly driven. This is what
Jay-Z, even before "Takeover," sought to challenge.
any of the reports on Al Qaeda recruitment tapes, or on the more propagandistic
functions of Al-Jazeera, you know how Nas, Mobb Deep and Wu sounded to adults
in 1994-’95. Journalists covering pro-terrorist video recognized its quick-cut
editing, rhythmic pace and well-timed uses of background swells and special
effects as a repurposing of the montage style of MTV. It’s sickening to
see it used to recruit suicide assassins. But, then again, it’s a mistake
to think it American. Montage-editing-as-mind-control is an innovation usually
credited to Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who used it to make Soviet
propaganda during the 1920s. And, of course, commercials and movies all over
the world use it now–though for advancing pretty much the same cause as
MTV’s. That and bin Laden together should be enough to convince anybody
that these tools for effective modern drama are, like any technology, amoral.
heralded debut was an explosive, explicit rejection of the cultural assimilation
of most previous hiphop. It foreshadowed rap’s repudiation of all American
values other than material. The kid from Queensbridge Houses was given one verse
in the middle of a perfectly amiable new-school album (Main Source’s 1991
Breaking Atoms; the song is "Live at the Barbecue"), and used
it to say things like, "When I was 12/I went to Hell/For snuffing Jesus,"
"Nasty Nas is a rebel to America/Police murderer/Causin’ hysteria"
and the clincher, "Kidnap the President’s wife without a plan/And
hangin’ niggas like the Ku Klux Klan." This was like N.W.A.’s
mentality with De La Soul’s imagination and Rakim’s godly flow, and
to Nas’ teenage peers, who heard those groups as young children, it was
buzzing around Nas’ planned first album was amped up considerably when
word of his backing-track team got out: Main Source’s Large Professor,
Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, Pete Rock of the duo with C.L. Smooth and A Tribe
Called Quest’s Q-Tip. They–all franchise players in what was still
a righteous-rap game in New York–made the music for 1994’s Illmatic.
This wasn’t the hot-DJ opportunism we’d see later. In 1994, there
appeared likely to be more money (and definitely more cultural rewards) in working
with Arrested Development or Digable Planets. Rap’s elders bestowed their
blessings upon Nas because they recognized his greatness, as well as his searing
connection with their core audience. Their torch-passing carried the message
that hiphop’s talent should be its guide. As the talent was in the projects,
where the consensus young-male worldview was shaped by deprivation, miseducation,
humiliation and official corruption, that meant rap was going to change.
was the first great album (with the arguable exception of Black Moon’s
Enta Da Stage) on which credible street stories are told in first-person.
Its beats pump invisible, practically intravenous scenery, fleshing out the
psychological unmentionables of the narrator’s violent tales. Literary,
disciplined New York hiphop entered a world foreign to liberal humanism or even
rationalism. It’s no wonder Illmatic’s release coincided with
the demise of The Arsenio Hall Show, and the dawn of the marijuana leaf
as a hiphop symbol. At the same time, most of New York’s established rap
acts broke up or disappeared. The poet-participants from the projects perfected
their science by stripping it down to its essence. Hiphop was never anything
but ghetto will-to-power, the thinking went, and Nas’ was pure.
didn’t earn Dr. Dre figures, though. Nas hired Dre for help with his second
album, and the results reeked of compromise. Next, he and Dre assembled The
Firm, a second-rate version of Wu-Tang’s "extended family" approach.
By the mid-90s, hardly anyone begrudged their favorite rap star a few corny
singles, but Nas’ contrivances made for too sharp a contrast. His third
and fourth albums also featured flashes of mic-controlling brilliance–like
the Christmastime murder story "Shoot ’Em Up," produced by Mobb
Deep’s Havoc, off 1999’s Nastradamus–that only made mercenary
moves like partnering with Puff Daddy more of a disappointment. Nas’ much-discussed
failure to live up to his potential forms the crux of Jay-Z’s "Takeover"
verse about him, and you can bet it stung. With an album due in December 2001,
he had to respond.
for Mobb Deep, whose rep was built on retaliation drama. Like Nas, a former
Queensbridge Houses neighbor of the duo’s producer Havoc, Mobb Deep gave
their December 2001 album a name that referred to their role in the ascent of
hardcore. Nas’ is Stillmatic. The Mobb went with Infamy,
an atypically un-clever variation on their 1995 landmark title, The Infamous.
That album remains the most intoxicating dose of distilled thug emotion. Its
relentlessly vivid imagery of confrontation seeps under the skin like a cold
burn, steeling the listener for his inevitable moment of truth. On Illmatic
there was some acknowledgment that part of Nas’ power was that of art–hoodlum
or not, he was the heir to a tradition. Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, on the other
hand, was rarely praised for his dead-on flow or writing skills. The only power
he claimed respect for was that of the gun. Mobb Deep was among the first crews
to make the astonishing claim that the lives of people whose daily routines
did not involve a fight for survival were not actually "real," like
theirs. As Prodigy says in the bracing soliloquy that introduces "The Infamous,"
"It’s all about who gets who first." Safe, bourgeois lives are
action score, Prodigy’s unhurried vocals communicated the heroism in his
life of action. Havoc’s beats induced numb trances with pharmaceutical
efficiency. For two more albums, Mobb Deep continued to ooze lurid threats and
chanted provocations, like witch doctors warding off fearsome spirits. 1999’s
Murda Muzik, the duo’s fourth album, was their first to go platinum,
suggesting that their career was on a gradual upward slope. It featured the
hit single "Quiet Storm," on which Prodigy rhymes about bringing his
incorruptible ethos into boardrooms, and of building on a foundation of hardcore
ruthlessness a better life for his children. In 2000, Prodigy even admitted
he’s an author, addressing young guns with the lines: "Could you feel
the pain in the trilogy/Of my regiment?/Please do/We write these for you/With
the hope that my words sink through/Like on the page, how the ink do."
(That’s from "Don’t Be a Follower," off the Black and
White soundtrack.) By the time Jay-Z made light of their embattled stance
and their sales figures, Mobb Deep was already at the crossroads.
"Takeover" doesn’t include a verse about Wu-Tang Clan could be
that Jay-Z respects the group’s nine members, who found ways to make hardcore
hiphop that transcended murderous nihilism. Another possibility is that the
once-mighty Clan’s reputation was so degraded already that further insults
would have been unsporting. Both reasons point to the biggest difference between
Wu on the one hand and Nas and Mobb Deep on the other: the nonet from Staten
Island had a program for the future.
for a second did they run hiphop, like they repeatedly promised they would.
But Wu-Tang’s strategic contributions to New York hardcore are what afforded
it room to maneuver. More humanistic, yet even less rational or individualistic
than their hardcore peers, they sought to reify Malcolm X’s notion of "By
Any Means Necessary." One hit rap album launched umpteen spinoff projects,
the clothing line, unprecedented r&b collaborations (cf. Method Man and
Mary J. Blige’s prototypical, Grammy-winning 1994 thug-love song "I’ll
Be There for You (You’re All I Need)") and the abstractly cinematic
storytelling technique perfected on Raekwon’s 1995 Only Built 4 Cuban
Linx. Biggie ran with the pop-thug thing until he finally brought the sales
crown back to New York, while Tupac adopted Hollywood’s idea of a good
yarn to the extent that his legend and biography merged completely. Maybe part
of the reason those two are most revered by hiphop kids is that Biggie and Tupac
will never have to figure out what to do with the cultural power they achieved.
They’re permanent icons of self-determination, yet undetermined. Wu-Tang,
in contrast, survives, alternatively thriving and muddling along, neither very
90s, New York hiphop so severely lacked direction that an obviously talentless
opportunist, Puff Daddy, was temporarily able to assume leadership. Jay-Z stepped
very purposefully into the void. Possessing a decent enough pen and voice, he
decided all he required for a takeover was excellent business sense, startup
funds and unlimited audacity. He was right. Jay-Z knew from the start what Nas
discovered, Mobb Deep was learning and seemed to be the only concrete thing
Wu-Tang Clan showed: capitalism trumps all. In other words, if you want your
success in hiphop to be construed as an act of protest against America or anything
else, you’re nothing but a sore winner. It’s telling that Jay-Z threw
down the gauntlet with a song full of jokes, not snarling promises. In Blueprint’s
triumphant first single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," he says (echoing Outkast’s
visionary 1996 song "Elevators"): "I do this for my culture/To
let ’em know/What a nigga look like/When a nigga in a roaster." He’s
the sort of pauper-turned-king who favors his subjects with encouragement and
fun. By naming Mobb Deep and Nas, Jay-Z poo-pooed hardcore’s sense of apocalyptic
December 2001 release, Iron Flag, is their most crowd-pleasing album
since their 1993 debut. The group’s major theme has always been complexity.
Even in the do-or-die context of a street-war song, for Wu-Tang there are angles,
and they’ll show you several. A Wu-Tang album is an amalgamation of perspectives,
always cacophonous, that either works or doesn’t. In that way, they’re
particularly American. Yet, as hiphop purists, they stand for the underdog nonconformity
that this country rarely respects. On the old, complacent hiphop nation Wu-Tang
dropped the dub-influenced and difficult The W. For this trying time,
the contrarian crew endorses Jay-Z’s platform, yet stops short of rubber-stamping
his priorities. Only heartfelt music fueled by complex motivations, suggests
Iron Flag, can open doors to places listeners didn’t knew existed.
hits extremely hard at the opening–but only if you hear its first track,
"In the Hood," while walking in New York. A militaristic stomp with
lyrics about how little ghettos have changed, it includes in its mix the sound
of a fire engine blaring its horn and siren. Through a discman on a Manhattan
avenue, it sounds like an FDNY truck is right behind you, roaring with abandon
at top speed, stopping for nothing. It’s a city sound, a 9/11 sound and
here a hiphop sound, and when you march along with it and the locally patriotic
Wu-Tang Army, well, Ghostface says it best on "Rules," the very next
track: "Mr. Bush sit down/I’m in charge of the war!" The jolting
momentum sparked by these lightning-flash statements of purpose carries a listener
almost all the way to the end of Iron Flag–also Wu-Tang’s most
upbeat and immediate album since their first.
Infamy, on the other hand, is a disappointment, lacking the resonance
of their previous work. The latest news on them was that Havoc wrestled with
a drinking problem while Prodigy, who suffers from sickle-cell anemia, adopted
a strict vegetarian diet to help control its symptoms. The former augmented
his own production work with tracks by outside producers, but he didn’t
accept anything that doesn’t sound a lot like his own music. Prodigy directs
some moderately unnerving threats at Jay-Z, but he sounds more in his element
rapping about eating broccoli for breakfast on "Nothing Like Home."
awful to hear these two champions going through the motions. The ritualistic
consistency that in ’99 seemed to be naturally evolving into Mobb Deep’s
own brand of hardened maturity falls flat in the altered landscape. "Clap,"
"Crawlin" and "The Learning (Burn)" demonstrate that Havoc,
too, has directions left to explore. But as a result of not adapting, on the
mic and as a track-buying exec, the 5-foot-2-inch artist sounds, for the first
time, small. As few listeners will find themselves disgusted by the routines
of Infamy as enraptured. The canvas Mobb Deep projects on is dried out
Nas: Stillmatic was the best-selling album by a rap veteran over Christmas
week, while his acrid "Ether" was voted by urban radio listeners (in
more than one city) the decisive blow in his battle with Jay-Z. The album is
Nas’ long-awaited return to the fundamentals of flow. He still revs more
lyrical rpm’s than anyone. Few others could bring enough vocal excitement
to match the melodrama of Nas’ own track for "One Mic," and his
Memento-style backwards-told story, complete with a murderous twist at
the end (beginning), is something no one else could have pulled off. Even Trackmasters’
sample of Tears for Fears’ "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"–seeming
fodder for a typical album-marring Nas cheesefest–is saved by a formidable
breakbeat and the star’s unforced style. Although "Ether" isn’t
funny like Jay-Z’s "Unplugged" performance of "Takeover,"
and Stillmatic shows Nas’ worldview is childish compared to Wu-Tang’s,
it’s tough to question the street verdict on this one. Nas can etch wonders
with hiphop’s razor-edged tools.
few songs on Stillmatic convey his reaction to the war. In an interlude
before "My Country," he makes the statement that "What this war
just showed me is, like, whatever you feel is rightfully yours, go out and take
it, even if it means blood and death." The song’s refrain repudiates
the optimism of Jay-Z’s "Izzo": "My Country shitted on me/She
wants to get rid of me/We know too much…" Guest Millennium Thug spits
a vision of New York in rubble. In the outtro of "My Country," Nas
dedicates it to Martin, Malcolm and other leaders "just trying to fight
for what’s real." On the blazing "What Goes Around," Nas
expresses the jihad-sympathizing point of view suggested by its title. The song
ends with the cryptic couplet: "What is destined shall be/George Bush killer
’til George Bush kills me." War imagery and all, Nas could have made
this extremely intense album right after Illmatic. To fully enjoy it,
one almost has to pretend he spent the last seven years in suspended animation.
coming as it does from the guy who abandoned hardcore’s doomed mission
for the mainstream’s cash, Stillmatic is complete bullshit. Or else
hardcore was never anything but an illusion–born of talent, tools and a
seductive false agenda–that millions of young Americans yearn to be fooled
by. Either way, it’s creepy the way Nas is thriving off of hiphop’s
lack of memory, dazzling, again, with the image of a starving young warrior–which
he is not–"without a plan"–which, as a leader, he has no
right to remain. If his second hiphop reign lasts, some rough lessons might
have to be learned all over again.
Jay-Z sought to end his feud with Nas, citing a strong advisory from his mother,
who quite reasonably doesn’t want to see another rhyme battle get out of
hand. Fresh from his re-coronation, Nas replied in a story on the battle that
appeared in the "Sunday Styles" section of the Jan. 6 New York
Times. Jay-Z declined to comment for the piece.
was really un-hip-hop the way he handled it," Nas told fashion-conscious
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