Tag Archive | Busta Rhymes

SO! Amplifies: Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

As folks rightfully celebrate the 20th anniversary of Nas’ Illmatic album, I wanted to make sure space was made to equally celebrate and critically think about the stank that Outkast put on hip hop. I want to take the conversation outside of the academy into spaces where others could join the conversation. To do this, I set up a YouTube channel and sent out invitations to friends and colleagues I knew were vested in Outkast or whose work could be used to situate Outkast in creative and critical conversations. The response to the project thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. I have conversations scheduled to broadcast until the end of the year. Here’s episode #4, a teaser to bring the Sounding Out! crowd in on the conversation.

My Outkasted Conversations project started with a fleeting thought while speaking with a friend: “It’s the 20th anniversary of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik? Damn. It’s really been twenty years?!” I was ten years old when Southerplayalistic dropped and didn’t really understand or appreciate the brilliance of the album back in 1994. I was in the initial stages of becoming someone vested in music, let alone hip hop. My definition of music was still deeply attached to what I learned in my music class. I could play the hell out of a recorder. I did a recorder solo at my school’s spring concert and was applauded like a boss.

I flirted around with being a ‘Kast fan – I remember them on Martin and later wearing out the track “In Due Time” on the Soul Food soundtrack – but it wasn’t until 1998 that I really became “Outkasted.” I permanently moved to my grandparents’ house in Albany, GA. I was tall, lanky, and awkward. I was a black Keds white socks connoisseur because you never wear white shoes in red clay. I battled the teenaged pangs of wanting to be popular and visible. I wouldn’t consider myself ‘hip hop’ at the time but I knew the heavy hitters from days of listening to WKYS out of Washington, D.C. I could school anyone on the latest single from Busta Rhymes, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown and Go-Go-ed with the best of them. Down South, though, those artists were important but they weren’t folk. As I listened to the radio, the artists that I was familiar with got no play. I tried to wax (northern) hip hop philosophical at lunch and got some serious side-eyes. A classmate scolded, “those up north n— don’t matter down here. What you listening on from ‘round hea (here)?” Round hea? Nothing but a mix tape I made off of the radio before leaving Virginia, gospel cavalcade on Sunday morning rides to church, and Paw Paw’s juke joint blues on Saturday morning while cleaning up the house. If I wanted to survive, I needed to adapt. I recorded multiple radio mixtapes, meticulously blending the artists I heard kids at school talking about and my own musings after browsing the record store in the mall. Slowly, Wyclef Jean and Montell Jordan were replaced by Three Six Mafia, Goodie Mob, and Outkast. Aquemini and Still Standing held a chokehold on my playlist. I became a full-fledged member of the Dungeon Family Chuch of Modern Day (S)Aints.

The following episode of Outkasted Conversations is with Dr. Treva B. Lindsey, Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University. This conversation features discussion of how the sonic elements of women’s pleasure complicate gender and identity politics in Outkast’s body of work.

To subscribe to Regina Bradley’s Outkasted Conversations via Youtube click here.

Featured Image: SO CLEAN PSP by Flicker User John Bracken

Regina Bradley recently completed her PhD at Florida State University in African American Literature. Her dissertation is titled “Race to Post: White Hegemonic Capitalism and Black Empowerment in 21st Century Black Popular Culture and Literature.” She is a regular writer for Sounding Out!


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Pretty, Fast, and Loud: The Audible Ali

Sound and Sport2Aaaaaaaaaaaaand NOW. . .in SO!‘s corner. . .writing for this month’s “Sound and Sport,” we have the scholar. . .the poet . . .the “Wordsmith of the Web” Taaaaaaaaaara Betts!  In today’s post, she shares how listening influences her creative process AND knocks us out with an analysis of the importance of Muhammad Ali’s voice to his sports career and historical legacy.  For an instant replay of last month’s post, click Melissa Helquist‘s “Goalball: Sport, Silence, and Spectatorship.”  Next month’s rematch will feature Josh Ottum‘s research on sound and skateparks. But now, let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuummmbbble! —J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

Plap of glove against glove

Shush of scuffle and slide.

Rebuildin’, repeatin’, rebuildin’

All this repeatin’, getting’ up again & again

Discipline, routine and I keep

doing new things to prepare

my mind, my body, so my pretty

mouth keeps up with all my rhymes.

–Tara Betts, from “Repeatin’” (scene 8, The GREATEST!)

The recent Peggy Choy Dance Company production of “The GREATEST!: A Hip Dance Homage to Muhammad Ali” in April 2013 gave me cause to rethink the key events in Muhammad Ali’s life, particularly his burgeoning political awareness in the 1960s. As I wrote the libretto for the performance—which combined athletic dance performance with images, poems, and quotes from Ali—I kept thinking about how Ali had one of the most recognized, quoted, and distinct voices ever heard in the boxing world.

the greatestIn the libretto, I tried to capture the nuances of black vernacular and the southern hallmark of Ali’s hometown, Louisville, Kentucky (he was sometimes referred to as the “Louisville Lip”), vocal sounds that signify an African American experience.  Is there a southern drawl? A bass-filled bravado? There are certain words that sound fuller and cut short based on the vernacular that was spoken during the time period of Cassius Clay and well into his evolution as Muhammad Ali.  While many of the materials that I visited for inspiration and historical context were books, to capture the look, feel, and speech of the 1960s and 1970s, I had to crate-dig for some vinyl.

A copy of a 1963 spoken word album I Am The Greatest!: Cassius Clay  and the 1997 documentary film When We Were Kings served as two such sources. Both recordings represent an audible Ali, at once a man whose iconic voice sounded as familiar to me as people who I’ve known personally and a historical figure whose vocal grain content embodied his shifts in political consciousness. The difference between Clay’s 1964 recording and the samples woven into the When We Were Kings soundtrack is more than the changes that  gradually developed  over time.  These recordings reveal how Ali’s confidence is constructed around creating an affirming, critical identity, rather than merely promoting his athletic prowess.  At first, he merely sounds cocky; later he sounds as if he is fighting for a group of people that he wants to inform, serve, celebrate, protect, and uphold.  My libretto was deeply impacted both by the sonic continuities in Ali’s voice across time and space, as well as its audible shifts.

The champ ain’t nobody but me!

Pretty, fast & loud, I’ll shake the world,

with a lion’s might.

My children will lift

their fists and fight

–Tara Betts, from “‘By Any Means necessary: If they met in Harlem’’” (transition from scene 14, The GREATEST!)

Before Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, he recorded a spoken word album on the Sony label in 1963. I Am The Greatest! was released in 1964 before Clay’s two key fights with Sonny Liston and Ali’s eventual victory for the heavyweight crown. The album included original liner notes from modernist poet Marianne Moore and New York Post sports journalist Milton Gross, but it was telling that comedy writer Gary Belkin and Cassius Clay were the co-authors of the spoken word material—which is more comedy than poetry or interviews.  Belkin was a comedy writer for well-known comedians such as Carol Burnett and Sid Caesar, and the comedy show Car 54, Where Are You? So, Belkin was clearly accustomed to writing sketch comedy, but Clay was used to being humorous outside of a recording studio with a staged audience.

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Overall, Clay’s delivery seems to be slower–both less fluid and more staged– than his impromptu recitations at boxing-related events outside the recording studio.  Clay seems to anticipate that sound effects such as roaring crowds and clanging bells will be inserted into the tracks, so he over-enunciates and pauses.    Each track begins with a bell ringing as if boxing round is about to begin, and there are eight “rounds,” probably because Clay insisted that any fight with Liston would be shorter than eight rounds. As I listened, I wondered if Ali  was comfortable recording this album or if he considered it simply another way to promote and market one of the world’s best known boxers?   To my ear,  it lacked some of the speed and ease I associate with Clay’s speech in other settings.   In the boxing world, his speeches mentally challenged his opponents and entertained crowds.  The recording studio left less room for spontaneity, fluidity, and even the visual interplay of sound with his quick motion.

Cassius Clay in the studio recording I Am the Greatest! with Sam Cooke, Image from newblackman.blogspot, courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Cassius Clay in the studio recording I Am the Greatest! with Sam Cooke, Image from newblackman.blogspot, courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The eight rounds/comedic sketches lean heavily on Ali’s signature boisterous braggadocio in his loud, deliberate voice, using canned laughter and other voices setting up Clay to talk about his excellence. Otherwise, they are a grab bag of influences and sound effects.  These other voices and sounds create an artificial environment  that is not the same as being surrounded by boxers, trainers, and others in the athletic arena.  In fact, these sounds and the sources sound quite different from Clay himself.  “Round 1: I Am The Greatest” and “Round 2: I Am The Double Greatest” are accompanied by violins that sound more like a serenade than a classical composition.  In “Round 4: ‘I Have Written A Drama,’ He Said Playfully,” a lute plays in the beginning that hints at a spoof of a Shakespearean-style drama about defeating dragons complete with affected British accents, including one actor speaking with the theatrical lisp.  The knight “Cassius of Clay” enters with the audible clanking of armor.

Clay reveals a shift in tone when he sings on the last two tracks. He begins with “Stand By Me”–a cover of Ben E. King’s classic song/then recent hit–with fervor.  In the last song, “The Gang’s All Here,” Clay follows some of the words of Tin Pan Alley lyricist Theodora Morse set to Sullivan’s tune from Pirates of Penzance.

Clay tries to pick up the energy lost by his less-than-enthusiastic singing. “Is Memphis with me? Is Louisville with me? Is Houston with me. Ain’t I purty?” Each question is answered with a crowd enthusiastically shouting a “Yeah!” Here Ali relies on his enthusiastic, improvised rhymes, departing from the song’s traditional lyrics to include himself in a song that does not come from an African American writer or the Black experience.

The same country that refuses to let people eat

or use the bathroom in the same places

wants ME to go and get killed?

What does THAT sound like?

—-Tara Betts, from “The Same Country” (scene 15, The GREATEST!)

Almost 35 years later, there are clear sonic differences between Cassius Clay’s  debut on Sony and the soundtrack to When We Were Kings, the 1997 documentary of the 1974 heavyweight championship between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.  This retrospective record is decidedly more centered on black experiences and black voices that speak musically, politically, and spiritually, particularly about the Black presence in Islam.  There are no comedic monologues, sketches or Greek choruses; it sonically represents Ali after his conversion to orthodox Islam, after his friendship with and separation from Malcolm X, and after his opposition to Vietnam.  Every spoken part on this album affirms the multiplicities of a Black presence in blues, R&B, and songs recorded live on the African continent; the huffs and rhymes are cheered for by a live African audience. As I listened to When We Were Kings, I could hear Ali’s comfort and his freedom of movement, audibly in contrast with his other album.

WWWK

When We Were Kings records his time in Kinshasa, Zaire where he trains and eventually fights George Foreman.  It does not simply focus on Ali’s voice, but is sonically rich with music, interviews with people who witnessed that fight and those who knew Ali personally; the soundtrack reflects these interconnections in its continuous uninterrupted flow. The role of these sounds endeavors to document what was heard in Zaire in 1974, but it also includes Ali in the surrounding sonic environment as one person who becomes a focal point for the musicians and speakers who also articulate black identity on the record.

The first thing I heard was Ali’s voice:

I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America, black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future. I want win my title and walk down the alleys and sit on the garbage cans with the wineheads…

This opening sample of Ali sets the soundtrack’s tone, and kicks off the only hip hop song on the album, a sonic shift that signals a new generation/genre in black music in 1997, more than 30 years after Ali’s  spoken word album as Cassius Clay.  Ali’s quote also informs listeners that the emphasis of this album has little do with comedy, especially since the soundtrack draws from nonfiction, rather than setting Clay/Ali in fictionalized sketches.   The focus is on black people and their struggles.

In the first song, emcees look back and tell the story of “The Rumble in the Jungle” but the verses also hail Ali as a hero. When The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, and Busta Rhymes rap over a fairly standard bassline, their presence on this soundtrack is an important signal of Ali’s influence and the recurring engagement between artists and Ali during his athletic heyday such as James Brown.   In Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop (2005), Afrika Bambaataa points out repeatedly how Brown became a consistent presence in hip hop when New York radio stations simply refused to play his music, particularly in the 1970s.  After decades of infusing a variety of soul singers and Brown’s stylistic turns on “the one” and messages of black pride into the genre of hip hop, the presence of “The Rumble in the Jungle” on this soundtrack completely makes sense. As more than a wellspring for samples throughout the large, growing body of hip hop music, Brown was also embodying and representing black consciousness in music with a Black voice, much in the same way that Ali utilized Black speech. In some ways, Ali’s couplets predate rap lyrics and perform in a similar manner; Bambaattaa cites him as an influence, along with Malcolm X.

James Brown and many others flow seamlessly into the event and its soundtrack in a way that reflects the immediacy and proximity of these events. The “Black Woodstock” of the Zaire 1974 music festival that accompanied Ali and Foreman’s fight set the tone and soundtrack in real life, not just in the documentary.  In fact, the festival itself was documented in the 2008 release Soul Power directed by Jeff Levy-Hinte. At this point, it’s clear that there is a continuum for hearing  the connections between black voices across oceans and continents.

Following “Rumble in the Jungle,” the record samples  Ali and Drew “Bundini” Brown (Ali’s assistant trainer and cornerman), snippets taken directly from the documentary footage. Brown is a slower, more deliberate speaker; he uses rhyme like Ali. He talks about the fruit returning to the root and Ali claiming his crown back home.  For African Americans to return to Africa post-slavery, this trip and clip sonically reinforce the cultural significance of Ali’s trip. Such pilgrimages fortify the idea that black people have a homeland, a continent, and a cultural continuum, much in the same way that this soundtrack constructs.

“Ali, Bombaye!” in a sea of faces just like mine,

my brothers, my parents, my cousins.

I want to go home and tell the people

in the streets this is what we come from,

what we could be.

—-Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire’” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)

When African girls chant to celebrate Ali’s arrival, they reassert how this is a homecoming for Ali, a welcome and a reconnection that fuels Ali’s determination.  The chants seem to encourage the first sample of Ali when he issues his threat: “When I get to Africa we gon’ get it on cause we don’t get along. I’m gonna eat him up…” This sample segues into James Brown’s “The Payback” as it was performed before the fight, then another chant performed by Mobütu, named after Zaire’s controversial leader, Mobutu Sese Seko.

When Ali concludes the soundtrack, he interrupts chants of “Ali, Bombaye!” with huffs and a brief exhortation of knocking you out, “sucker.” These last words fade into a snippet of African chant.  This constructs a very different narrative that looks back at Ali’s career, long after the younger Clay established part of his image with hyperbolic bravado.  Ali has cultivated a Pan African, global, political awareness that includes black people in America from his hometown in Louisville, KY to across the globe.

Hearing Clay and Ali–their continuities and their differences–gave me an insight into the familiar voices of some of my older relatives (and their blues records), and it also helped me channel that voice in poems of my own. It allowed me to imagine how hyperbole helped encourage Ali to energize and cheer himself on, so much that others began rooting for him as well. It did not matter what arena he was in, Ali would use his voice, his fists, and his will to conquer it.  As I wrote the libretto, I thought about how I might unearth that determination in a way that respectfully embodied his tone, cadence, vocabulary, and ebullience. One of the definitions of greatness relates to the defeat of time and distance, and in the words that I wrote about Ali, I found that  listening to him, and hearing his significance grew over time, helped him transcend both.

Every mile, every turn of the rope brings

me closer to telling him he’s nothing.

I hate every minute of training,

but I say

Don’t quit.

Suffer now

and live your life

as a champion.

I am a myth, and a man,

of my own making.

–Tara Betts, from “The Hard Road to Zaire” (scene 21, The GREATEST!)

Tara Betts is the author of the poetry collection Arc and Hue, a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University, and a Cave Canem fellow. Tara’s poetry also appeared in Essence, Bum Rush the Page, Saul Williams’ CHORUS: A Literary Mixtape, VILLANELLES, both Spoken Word Revolution anthologiesand A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Her research interests include African American literature, poetry, creative writing pedagogy, and most recently sound studies.  In the 1990s, she co-founded and co-hosted WLUW 88.7FM’s “The Hip Hop Project” at Loyola University while writing for underground hip hop magazines, Black Radio Exclusive, The Source, and XXL. She is co-editor of Bop, Strut, and Dance, an anthology of Bop poems with Afaa M. Weaver.  In April 2013, she published the libretto “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali” (Winged City Press) written for the  live performance directed by Peggy Choy


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“I’m on my New York s**t”: Jean Grae’s Sonic Claims on the City

SO IASPM7Hellooooooo, Cyberspace!  Are you ready to rock??? Welcome to our February Forum on “Sonic Borders,”  a collaboration with the IASPM-US blog in connection with this year’s IASPM-US conference on Liminality and Borderlands, held in Austin, Texas from February 28 to March 3, 2013. Expertly organized by Sounding Out!’s Managing Editor Liana Silva and IASPM’s Web Editor/Webmaster Justin Burton (and curated for SO! by yours truly), the “Sonic Borders” forum is a Virtual Roundtable cross-blog entity that will feature six Sounding Out! writers posting on Mondays beginning today and running through February 25, and four writers from IASPM-US, posting on Wednesdays starting February 6th and ending February 27th. We envision plenty of excitement and cross blog commenting from authors, audiences, and IASPM-US conference attendees. Consider this your ticket to the show, so please come on in and mix it up!

And what will we be talking about across our platforms? The “sonic borders” between sound studies and popular music studies. . .where their methods, objects of study, and approaches overlap, where they rub raw, where they challenge the people on either side to do do better, and where they meet to generate some of the finest scholarship in the contemporary humanities.

And who will you be hearing from over here at Sounding Out!?: Liana Silva, SO! regular Regina Bradley, Marcus Boon (York University, The Wire), Daphne Brooks (Princeton), Tavia Nyong’o (NYU), and Art Jones (film-maker, photographer, artist, mixer, raconteur, School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

And what topics do you have a front row ticket for? Some real New York shit. Django. Body-regenerating vibrations on the dance floor.  Cabaret, jazz, and funk/soul, plus musical memory, dance, performance art, race, gender, sexuality, and politics. Sound gatherings in Pakistan.

Feel free to camp out and shine your cell phone lights at each day of our Forum, because we’re turning it up to 11 over here at Sounding Out! and IASPM-US!—Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief

***

 

If you had to guess whether the singers of the following lyrics were male or female, how would you fare? Click on the lyrics to hear the song and find out who’s the rap artist.

“We gon’ hold it down for Illadel for life
Came through made a name, nigga nailed it tight
An’ now we shine, been knew, shit, it was about time
Switched from streets, the beats, platinum lines
Used to struggle in the hood just to brodie the mic
Took the fame ’cause they ain’t give it us, now we excite
The biggest crowds an’ they screamin’ loud, “Philly the shit”

“They hear Brooklyn, and we up to no good
Well, here we come, so there goes your neighborhood
Timbos scuffed up, sess bein’ puffed up
Mess with the wrong one, kid, you get ruffed up”

“My city do it best, whether it’s East or West
We feelin’ good fine, love it when it’s summertime
Detroit in summertime, summer time in Detroit,
Detroit in summertime, summertime in Detroit”

Although it is somewhat unfair to judge the gender of a rapper by the lyrics of a song, it is commonly thought that if a rapper is talking about the city, they are more than likely a man.  Are there borders in hip hop around the content that men or women can address?

Case in point: several years ago I wrote a paper on representations of the city in hip hop songs. It gave me the opportunity to look closely and write extensively about some of my favorite hip hop artists and songs. However, most of the songs I tackled in the paper, actually most of the songs that occurred to me, were written and sung by male rappers. When I realized this, I couldn’t believe my oversight. Surely there had to be female rappers invoking the city in their songs. Men couldn’t be the only ones claiming the city. So, over the years I have been on the hunt for songs by female emcees that talk about the city. (I recently started a Spotify playlist, but several of the songs I have come across are on mix tapes that don’t show up on Spotify. If you have any suggestions you’d like to add to this collaborative playlist, please add them or mention them in the comments!)

"Jean Grae" by Flickr user ultra5280 under Creative Commons 2.0 License

“Jean Grae” by Flickr user ultra5280 under Creative Commons 2.0 License

One of the female emcees that stands out most is Brooklyn-based Jean Grae. Born in South Africa in 1976, she moved to the United States with her parents shortly after she was born and grew up in New York City. In a 2006 interview with Robert Walsh for the academic journal Callaloo, Jean Grae reminisces about how hip hop culture was inescapable for a teen in New York City in the early nineties:

It was a thing when kids finally realized that you could put out your music yourself and you didn’t have to wait around and get signed. It was possible to learn for yourself and be able to put out music on your own or on an underground level. It was kind of unavoidable to be a part of it, I guess. (216)

After a brief stint as a DJ, she opted for rapping, as she was already writing (even if not necessarily rhyming). She took a hiatus from the hip hop scene in 2008 but later that year returned to performing and finally released a new mixtape named Cookies or Comas in 2011.

In hip hop, cities are often represented as masculine–what with the number of male rappers dropping stories about how things go down on the street–and Jean Grae complicates that representation.  In Jean Grae’s version of Busta Rhymes’ “New York Shit,” she opens a door to thinking about female rappers and urban space, and her sonic intervention into Busta Rhymes’ narrative in his version of “New York Shit” illustrates how female rappers claim the city as well. I read her track as an act of urban homemaking: rapping about the city (and subverting the male voice that initially sung on the track, Busta) becomes a practice to claim the city as her home.  In fact, it is not just through her lyrics but also through her voice that Jean Grae makes her presence felt.

Jean Grae’s version of “New York Shit,” a collaboration with rapper Talib Kweli, is an alternate version of Busta Rhymes’ hit track “New York Shit” from his 2006 album The Big Bang, although both songs use the same sampled loop and constantly repeat the phrase “New York Shit.”

The track that “New York Shit” samples is from the opening of a 1976 song titled “Faded Lady” from The Soul Sensation Orchestra (featuring Douglas Lucas and The Sugar Sisters, who sing together throughout the whole song). The song itself tells the story of a “faded lady” who seems to have lost her hopes, dreams, and connection to the world around her.  “New York Shit,” both the Busta Rhymes and the Jean Grae/Talib Kweli version, samples approximately the first 13 seconds of the song, so that in their version the voices are erased; all that is left is the even thump thump of a drum, a bass, and a guitar, with the clash of a top hat and the bass in between, finally rising up to a climax with what sounds like a flute or clarinet until it drops back into the thump thump. The loop invokes the soundtracks of blaxploitation films, several of which were set in urban locations. The sample choice then places “New York Shit” in an urban soundscape.

Busta’s original song weaves images of New York as the birthplace of hip hop, as the location of great sports teams, and expensive taste around this soulful, smooth loop. The chorus of the song (“If you’re from New York, stand up right now, If you’re from New York, hands up right now”) calling forth New Yorkers. In the song, Busta also pays homage to some of the big names in hip hop who come from New York: Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Notorious BIG, Big Pun, Jam Master Jay, while the video includes cameos from people like Q-Tip, RZA, Slick Rick, and Big Daddy Kane.  In this way, the song celebrates their contributions to hip hop, but also recreates a narrow, gendered view of who is part of that musical history.

However, the sonic picture Busta Rhymes paints is one that is devoid of women. Before the loop starts, Busta Rhymes’ voice emerges from the quiet: “DJ Scratch you’re sick for this one,” which acts as the signal for a chorus of male voices. Some of them whoop, some of them whistle, and some of them sing. Eventually they make way for Busta Rhymes to serenade listeners with his tales of New York life. His voice sounds gruff and aggressive, a contrast with the smooth vibe of “Faded Lady.” In fact, it seems as if the “faded lady” of the title is not just faded but erased–the women in the city become the faded ladies whose erasure makes possible for this problematic representation of urban space.

Enter Jean Grae.

"talibjeangrae" by Flickr user  HDShootsPhotos under Creative Commons License 2.0

“talibjeangrae” by Flickr user HDShootsPhotos under Creative Commons License 2.0

In 2006, she and Talib Kweli released their version of “New York Shit” in a mixtape titled Hip Hop Docktrine: The Official Boondocks Mixtape which responds to Busta Rhymes’ sonic tribute to New York. (It also appeared on the mixtape Talib Kweli Presents Blacksmith the Movement.) Busta Rhymes’ song comes immediately to mind when listening to Jean Grae’s sixteen bars, especially when she starts with “Some of y’all forgot what New York is,” and in that vein it is hard not to hear Jean Grae’s track as a response to Busta Rhymes’.

Whereas Busta Rhymes’ song is ushered in by a chorus of disparate men’s voices, Talib Kweli and Jean Grae’s version starts with Talib Kweli’s introduction, followed by Jean Grae’s rapping. Talib Kweli’s introduction tricks the listener into thinking this version is just an echo of the original by Busta Rhymes (especially since the loop is virtually unchanged) until Jean Grae pops up by responding to Talib Kweli’s “I went for mine” with her “Go for yours, man.” The back-and-forth of the male and female voices, laid upon the same loop, acts as a subversion of Busta Rhymes’ male New York chorus.

But Jean Grae’s rapping is the most subversive element of the song. Jean Grae’s first line, “I’m on my New York shit,” calls forth Busta Rhymes’ song, even in her tempo. However, her verses take a swift turn from what Busta Rhymes puts forth in his song; at first listen, Busta Rhymes’ snappy, aggressive repetition of the phrase “New York [plus noun]” at the end of each verse is absent from Jean Grae’s rapping. Her voice seems to float on top of The S.S.O. loop, picking up speed when the loop reaches a climax, and dropping an octave or two (and slowing down a tad, too) when the climax of the track drops and loops back to the beginning.  The resulting effect is that Jean Grae’s voice merges with the soulful flow of the song whereas Busta Rhymes’s voice is at war with it. Through her voice, Jean Grae disrupts Busta Rhymes’ sonic portrayal of a men’s-only New York. In fact, by subverting the vocal pattern Busta Rhymes sets up in the original version, Jean Grae creates a space in this New York hip hop narrative for female rappers to claim New York City as their own.

"New York City at Night" by Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller under Creative Commons License 2.0

“New York City at Night” by Flickr user Alyssa L. Miller under Creative Commons License 2.0

In her verses, Jean Grae depicts a New York that is not glamorous or glitzy, like the one in Busta Rhymes’ song. Instead she talks about a “cement jungle,” and men who “struggle to their feet”; she also invokes the perils of gentrification when she talks about the Starbucks that pop up around the block (an indication of the white middle class coming to the neighborhood). But what catches my ear from this song is that Jean Grae mentions toward the end of her bars, “I just want to write and give back to the city that I’m a factor of.” Writing and rapping become a way for Jean Grae to practice her New York citizenship, an act of urban homemaking.

Even though Jean Grae busts her way into this narrative of urban masculinity, she is still a lonely female voice in the “New York Shit” repertoire. According to Wikipedia, there are several versions of the song, but Jean Grae is one of only two women to take on “New York Shit.” (Brooke Valentine has a version titled “H-Town Shit,” but I am limiting myself to the versions that look at New York City.)  In that sense, Jean Grae’s female voice doesn’t necessarily fill a void in hip hop but rather points to it. On the other hand, her voice can be read/heard as highlighting a tradition of women rapping about the city. Whereas many rap songs invoke cities and urban locations, oftentimes these are portrayed as the sites of male dominance, normalizing a sonic cityscape that consists solely of men However, Jean Grae’s vocal track resists to that sonic cityscape, and that resistance too is an act of urban homemaking by virtue of claiming her space.

I continue to look for more tracks by female rappers and MCs that talk about U.S. cities, and this post has brought to mind more questions that I need to address. For example, what does it mean for a woman to rap about the city? Are there certain themes that echo throughout the songs (or throughout certain periods or subgenres)? Are there certain samples that are repeated? Do the sounds vary from city to city? These are questions that can be addressed by looking at a broader sample, but a close reading of one track can go a long way into thinking through these issues. Female rap artists like Jean Grae remind listeners that, to signify on Jay-Z, there is love in the heart of the city.

Featured Image of Jean Grae performing in New York City on August 26, 2006, Courtesy of Flickr User MrMoneda

Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out!

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