I lost every winter hat I own in twenty-four hours. The first one I left on the work shuttle; the second I left in a friend’s car. So while I hope to get that second one back, I bought a new hat at Filene’s Basement on Thursday. This is always A Process for me, as I have a remarkably big head and hate spending money, but I found a lambswool/acryllic cap that comes down over my ears.
I tried it on this morning, in anticipation of the upcoming storm, and it fit perfectly. As I jogged down the stairs to the train, however, I heard something tap-tap-tapping on my head. The Davis Square station disintegrating around me? No – the tag on top of the cap, bouncing off my head as I ran.
Should I cut it off with a pair of scissors, like I meant to this morning? Or should I leave it on and try and make it A Thing, like leaving the hologram sticker on a baseball cap? How would I fare as a trendsetter?
# # #
Turn the pages to 1993. Dre has just released The Chronic, but we’re about a year away from Ready to Die and three away from All Eyez On Me. The rap scene is about to enter a long, derivative cycle of people imitating the success of Biggie and Tupac – spitting about obscene amounts of money, having sex with women and then never calling them, and about shooting cops. We’re minutes away from the start of the East/West feud.
Into this scene drop three cousins from Staten Island: the RZA, also called Prince Rakim; the GZA, sometimes called the Genius; and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard. They assemble a crew of nine MCs, each of whom has enough talent in his own right to headline his own album. While everyone else is shooting in nightclubs or beach parties, they film their videos in abandoned warehouses and junkyards. They rap about mis-dubbed kung fu movies and Iron Man comics. They rap about nothing but their own lyrical superiority and the pain they’ll inflict on competitors.
And their flow is sick.
My style’s illegal and death is the penalty
What justifies the homicide, when he dies?
In his own iniquity it’s the
Master of the Mantis Rapture coming at you
We have an APB on an MC Killer
Looks like the work of a Master
Evidence indicates that’s his stature is
Merciless, like a terrorist hard to capture
The flow changes like a chameleon
Plays like a friend and stabs you like a dagger
This technique attacks the immune system
Disguised like a lie paralyzing the victim
You scream as it enters your bloodstream
Erupts your brain from the pain these thoughts contain
Moving on a nigga with the speed of a centipede
and injure any motherfuckin’ contender
Consider: this is the crew that gave us Method Man, an MC respected enough to guest on both Ready to Die and 2Pacalypse Now at the height of the East/West feud. This is the crew that RZA built from nothing with little but Machiavellian maneuvering and a rigorous eye for the bottom line*. This is the crew that made a celebrity out of O.D.B.
This is a group that, by any reasonable standard, should not have succeeded. Their contracts were bizarre, with any member being allowed to record with any other label at any time. Their sound was so far from the mainstream it was practically alien. And the idea that nine incredibly talented MCs could collaborate without feuding or violence for so long is unheard of. But, for a while, it worked.
Stories like this are what give me hope for hip-hop.
* And steamrolling over internal dissent, if U-God is to be believed.