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2014-07-06

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July 9, 2014 - 10:12pm

Summer Storytelling: Four storytelling norms in the world of Hip-Hop

BY LOGAN GARDNER

The best thing about the word “Storytelling” is its ability to encompass all forms of personal expression. A Storyteller in the modern world must understand that stories no longer just happen in books; our world is built on stories.

Business, politics and religion are all deeply intertwined, because of the way that our beliefs and allegiances dictate the reality we create. In our society, dreams are very much for sale.

Kids get used to buying their dreams in boxes at age five, when their parents take them to the toys aisle in Target for the first time. As we age, we learn to become comfortable buying dreams in different forms, until the forms begin to lose their meaning and we chase only because it’s what we’ve been doing for our whole lives and we no longer know any other way. It’s this world, the world of mindless, unending consumption, which the rapper must survive, and eventually dominate.

This world, what rappers commonly refer to as “The Game” is at the heart of what Hip-Hop is all about. The Game is a highly competitive arena where rappers are essentially asked to spontaneously produce a poem while following the rhythm of some form of background music. The variations of this basic formula are almost infinite, but there are a few common themes that storytellers of Hip-Hop often draw from. The first, and most essential of these is…

#1 Swag

The art of rap was born on the streets, when young hustlers would spit rhymes competitively, each one trying to elevate himself over his opponent by being cleverer in verse. In such a subjective competition, a rapper’s most powerful weapon is their self-belief. Optimism is at the heart of all rap music, a willingness to confront life head-on and, hopefully, smack it right in the mouth.

“I am a God / So hurry up with my damn massage / In a French-ass restaurant / HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS!”Kanye West, “I Am A God”

Lines like this make people think of rappers as nothing but pampered, egotistical monsters. But, really, brags like this are a critical way to assert the power of their art. In Hip Hop, it is both a duty and a pleasure to let the audience know that your music is, undeniably, the best. I think Kanye figures that if he shoots for the stars then he’ll land on the moon.

Rappers are entrepreneurs. When they first start rapping, all they have is the drive for success, a drive derived from self-empowerment. As time goes on, rappers use this drive to create their image, to express their values, inspirations and aspirations. But all of this is built on the rapper’s identity, their swag. But, if swag is the seed, then money is the water that makes it grow.

#2 Money

Cash Rules Everything Around Me” from Wu Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M. is probably hip hop’s most classic mantras, both a celebration of and lamentation on the importance of making money in hip hop.

There’s no truer measure of a rapper’s position in The Game than the amount of money they’re making. The logic behind the inflated importance of money in Hip Hop is quite sound. If you’re a good musician, then people will buy your music, and you will earn the respect of The Game. If you’re not a good musician, then you’ll go belly up. Much like in the streets, only the strong survive.

But the reason that the quest for the Almighty Dollar becomes so personal is because of the background that many rappers share. Because they so often grow up in underprivileged homes, aspiring rapstars spend their childhood dreaming of wealth. But, as they grow older, their relationship with money becomes more conflicted. They are forced to balance their desire for more with their sense of right and wrong, and this is not easy for a young hustler to do.

#3 Rebellion

For many artists, part of developing a strong sense of self-belief is to flatly deny anything that criticizes you. Rappers have to assert both things that they’re for and things they’re against.

For instance, Wiz Khalifa believes that marijuana should be rolled into joints, which use papers, and is against blunts, which use cigarillo wraps. The difference between the two is not that big (subjectively) but just by taking a position Wiz is declaring himself to be an authority on the issue.

Hip-Hop music has had countercultural leanings since the days of Public Enemy. As many of their chosen activities are of questionable legality, it’s natural that rappers should come to see themselves as outlaws, outside the system. Although modern rap has become far less criminally-focused than its old-school counterparts, rappers like Rick Ross, Jay-Z and Pusha T still claim lineage as former players in the land of drug-dealers.
Ultimately, rappers rebel against commonly held societal principles in order to elevate themselves past them. Perhaps no song better personifies this behavior than Rick Ross’s hit single, “The Devil Is A Lie”. In the video, Rick Ross and Jay-Z are lip-synced by Catholic priests. The ultimate message of the song:

“The Devil is A Lie…B*tch I’m the truth.”
I can’t imagine anyone saying it better. Rick Ross isn’t scared of the Devil.

#4 Brotherhood

Rap is one of the most cooperative art forms of the modern age. Different artists in the Hip Hop world are constantly bringing together their sounds to innovate further into the genre. Different rappers with different identities bring different things to a track, but it’s definitely rewarding for the audience to be able to experience all different styles working together. But, the roots in cooperation actually run much deeper.

The music industry is a cold place. Rappers know that they need the support of their homies in order to overcome the constant criticism that they experience from “the haters.” Haters come in many forms, but generally speaking they are simply people who wish to discredit a rapper’s image. When haters come around, rappers rely on their homies to remind them that they are still O.G.

Storytelling is all about appearances. In order to tell a story, one must depend on the interest of the audience to tell their story at all. For rappers, brotherhood is the wellspring of belief. And it’s from this belief that they are able to draw the confidence necessary to express their identity in rhyme.

Storytelling takes conviction. Rappers understand this, and with the leverage that their swag, money and brotherhood afford them, they are able to tell stories of their own glory with a conviction that is at times both beautiful and disturbing. Hip-Hop is the truth. And, most importantly, they know it.

But they all know who’s really the King.
R.I.P. Biggie Smalls, May 21, 1972 – March 9, 1997

Logan Gardner can be reached at logybear@umich.edu.


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