The Death of Rap Part I: It ain’t Coolio

I can almost pinpoint to the day when rap almost lost me for good.  It was the first week of December 1995, or somewhere thereabouts. The Billboard Awards had been on just the night before and one particular performance was causing a lot of buzz among my friends. Coolio and L.V. had performed their huge hit “Gangsta’s Paradise” with Stevie Wonder (to whom’s “Pastime Paradise” the duo owed the instrumental portion of their song) AND, wait for it…

… an orchestra of 10 year olds!!

What a betrayal!! How could a “loc’ed out gangster, set-tripping banger” have any affinity for kids? Coolio was nothing but a fraud, a fake, a phony. Nothing that he said from then on could be taken seriously. With this one act he had completely discredited himself.

Or at least that’s how my friends, and many others like them, felt.

I had missed Coolio’s performance and even if I had seen it I can’t imagine feeling any differently than I did – which is to say that I wasn’t terribly bothered by Coolio’s supposed “betrayal”. What puzzled me was that people ever took what Coolio, or any other rapper, said as literal truth to begin with. To think that a large segment of the population, including some of my closest friends, believed in the authenticity of the music industry, rap in particular, was a shock to me, and I began my move away from most music.

Let’s take a step back.

“44 reasons come to mind”

My earliest exposure to rap music came from snippets of Run-D.M.C., Salt-N-Pepa, Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer (if he even counts) and Partners in Kryme (T-U-R-T-L-E POWER!). It was all fun, poppy and safe. It was also a nice departure from the rest of my musical experience which, without a Walkman or radio, was dictated by my mother’s musical tastes (think Billy Ocean, Robert Palmer, Phil Collins, Michael Bolton and other sappy 80s pop stars). Thankfully my captivity to the world of “adult contemporary” music was limited to long drives to the grandparent’s, and was gleefully interrupted by that oasis known as the Sunday Night Oldies. What little rap I did listen to served as a nice reminder that there is more to music than Lionel Ritchie. It also gave me a sense of existence autonomous from my mother.

“I got the cultivating music that be captivating he, who listens”

A much larger departure began in 1993. I “graduated” onto junior high school and a world of lockers, shop class and puberty, and started to develop a growing sense of independence and “maturity” to match my new scholastic confines. Of course my musical tastes developed a rougher edge, so naturally I gravitated towards gangster rap in the form of the classic “The Chronic” released in December 1992, as well as “Doggystyle” released shortly thereafter. Both albums were produced by ex-NWA (I had no idea who they were at the time) beat artist Dr. Dre and featured a fast-paced, laid back rapper named Snoop Dogg. The music was unlike anything I had heard before, serving as a gateway into my personal musical maturity. I may not have completely understood it at the time but The Chronic, along with Nevermind, In Utero, Smash, Dookie, The Blue Album and The Downward Spiral would frame my musical tastes from then on (1994’s Pulp Fiction would serve as the movie equivalent). But The Chronic held a special place. It was raw, bass heavy, filthy and… funny.

“With a drink in my cup and a strap in my lap”

Part of the appeal of both The Chronic and Doggystle might have been my juvenile sense of humor (afterall I was 12) and the new discovery of sex jokes (Doggystyle introduced me to the idea that there was more than one position) , but there was more than that – otherwise I wouldn’t still find them funny today (that’s assuming I’ve matured over the last 20 years).

“The Chronic” and “Doggystyle” are unquestionably over the top in describing a gangster lifestyle that involved drinking, dealing, and fucking, with minor pauses for gun fights. 12 year old me never believed that such a lifestyle could possibly exist. Not for high-profile artists like Dr. Dre or Snoop, nor for any person hoping to live for more than a month without being shot, arrested or contracting AIDS (which was dominating headlines at the time). The sentiment of both albums was that a large portion of Americans lived lives that were very different from the mainstream, and that this cleavage was race-based, something that I began to understand more and more. But it was presented in such a comic way that I never believed that either Dre or Snoop should be taken literally.

“And then when I’m through with it there’s nothin else to do with it…”

Which is exactly why I was mystified by everyone being so offended that Coolio had gone “pop”, turning his back on the gangster lifestyle he lyrically lamented. I never assumed that Coolio was speaking about his own life. “Gangsta’s Paradise” was meant to act as (an exaggerated) description of the lifestyle of urban Americans living on the periphery. Even if he used “I’s and my’s” Coolio was simply assuming the role of a character describing his life – he wasn’t actually talking about his own life. There was nothing to betray cause the song wasn’t meant to be taken literally. People were confusing the authenticity of a song’s performer with its message.

Twelve year old me didn’t get how people didn’t understand that. The fact that people couldn’t accept one half of the equation  (the quality of the music) without the other (the authenticity of its performer) seemed idiotic, and, maybe worse, shallow.

That people couldn’t separate posturing and a deliberately crafted image from reality and still see some value in the song itself made me question music as a whole. Maybe we wanted to believe so badly that there was some semblance of authenticity in music to make up for the insincere and derivative pop tones that dominated the 1980s. People forgot that every musician of even moderate fame carefully manages their image, whether it be of a positive, negative or neutral/apathetic nature (yeah, those guys do it too). If fans were so easily misled, and let’s face it, stupid, than what did that say about the music industry? Like wrestling, I had assumed the music industry was an open joke that everyone was in on. I felt fine going along with it so long as there was that figurative wink to go with it. When I realized there wasn’t and that we were being played like the gullible saps we are, I didn’t want to bother with it anymore. Right or wrong, benefit or none, I just didn’t appreciate being treated like a sap.

And that was just the first step of the descent of rap in my eyes. The next phase, which essentially put the nail in the coffin for the better part of a decade followed when rapper’s began to forget their role in the joke, and started taking themselves as seriously as their fans, leading to tragic results.

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