One of my fondest memories of the great Dave Chappelle’s show titled Chappelle’s Show is the segment he did on Keeping It Real. The segment was a play on the idea where these characters kept it real at the expense of their dignity. For people in my age group, us born in the late 1970’s to the 1980’s, we all remember growing up and hearing the term “keep it real.” The idea held that you should remain authentic and true to yourself, which was epitomized by Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop’s big tent circus includes all of us from the divergent backgrounds, religions, genders, political viewpoints, etc. No matter our identity we should still strive to the highest peaks of our identities. When we’re climbing the mountain of life we should remain true by keeping it real. Rap music, and in turn Hip-Hop culture, was the signifier of authentic street scenes where keeping it real was unavoidable. However, we shouldn’t get it twisted because this beckons the question of what is Real Rap music? And for that matter what is Real? Let’s take a step back in time to find the roots of realism in the arts for a grander picture of reality.
Interestingly enough I just finished teaching about Realism in literature. The textbook definition of Realism reads that this is an artistic movement that depicted everyday life as it actually was. The movement began in France in the later part of the 19th Century. The idea of depicting reality was forsaking the coinciding art form in the guise of Romanticism. Instead of the sentimental harping of the past’s green pastures and pastoral village scenes, the Realists wrote about the crammed and dirty city streets filled with the carcasses of dead animals and homeless children. These writers also began to write on issues stemming from the rise of industry and the spread of universal education. With the rise of urban migration, the growing numbers of factories and the growing number of incoming laborers these writers viewed all of these grueling conditions as well as the maladies they created. Realist writers, much like artists in rap music, pushed the boundaries of the content and topics they wrote about. Taboo topics like sex, labor strikes, violence, and alcoholism were prime subjects, while the writers wrote of the horrid conditions and terrible behavior displayed by the so-called captains of industry. The movement surrounds three of the most prolific French writers of the time who grew up to the backdrop of the violence and growth of the French Revolution, Napoleon, and the run up to Napoleon III.
Honore de Balzac compiled a book of short stories depicting the vast panorama of French life in the post Revolutionary period titled The Human Comedy.
Gustave Flaubert without moralizing wrote a somewhat mundane account of a middle-class housewife who engages in an affair, and is then betrayed by her lover. The book, Madame Bovary, is fascinating as it eschews any sense of moral grandstanding. It allows the readers to come to their own conclusions and emotions of pity, sorrow, wrath, or none of the above.
The last author was most famous for his depiction of the working-class life as animalistic and primal in character. Emile Zola was a meticulous researcher and investigative reporter who wrote stories featuring the stock exchange, the big department store, the army, the urban slums, and bloody strikes. Zola sympathized with socialism, as depicted in his book titled Germinal, and he was a champion for social justice as exemplified in his writing on the Alfred Dreyfus affair.
These are just three examples of the many writers of the time who turned away from the imaginary fantastic envisaged by the Romantics. There were other prolific writers of the time who took to this style including the great English woman writer George Eliot, and the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Realism has been a profound influence on the arts, and rap music has taken notice of the art form.
Truthfully most of the earliest rap recordings, beginning in 1979 were far from political. The raps were getting away from the reality of the streets of New York City. The city as a whole was crumbling, and the blight was evident to those who could not escape its harsh realities. It was this reality that most people wanted to escape, hence you have disco which is an over-exaggeration of corpulent pleasure. When Kool Herc and the rest of the DJ’s across the city began their parties they wanted to provide a safe space for enjoyment. Hence, the earliest recordings and raps were far from political, thereby escaping the reality of the streets. It wasn’t until the Summer of 1982 with the release of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s epic ode to the reality of the streets titled “The Message.”
The video adds to the reality by showing the grime and decay of the New York City streets. The words add to that feeling of dread and hopelessness telling of the poor living standards, and how the pressure is a constant weight on black men like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. Interestingly enough the lyrics were not written by Flash or any member of the group, but by Duke Bootie who was a session musician for their record label, Sugar Hill Records. Once he lobbied the song to Sylvia Robinson she agreed to record it using the Furious Five. Flash and the rest of the group thought that it was a mistake as the record was slow, hence it would hurt their routine by pulling legs off the dance floor. The only member to be part of the recording was Melle Mel who rapped the written lyrics while adding a past lyric of his for the last verse.
The song was rare when compared to the other rap songs released that very same year. Early rap music veered away from the serious issues because that was the main reason for its existence, escape. It wasn’t until the 1980’s where certain artists began to rap about hardships in their lives and their communities. Artists like Run-DMC, who’s earliest songs “It’s Like That” and “Hard Times” spoke about these issues. Kurtis Blow lamented about hard times on his great single “the Breaks,” and groups like Boogie Down Productions, Ice-T, and Schoolly D all rhymed about the gangster life. Reality began to take center stage by the late 1980’s with two of the greatest reality based rap groups, N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Each had their own style of transmission, but they were very aggressive in their depiction of realities that seemed far too harsh for American ears and eyes, especially the whiter side of the country.
Public Enemy was interested in history while depicting the racist and oppressive realities of life in America.
Chuck D, and the rest of the group crafted these dense albums with many issues that are plaguing African-Americans, while focusing on the injustices that should stoke any American’s anger and ire. This was a form of reality that was not as popular in rap music in the past.
N.W.A. on the other hand depicted the reality of street life, so much so to the point where certain Hip-Hop scholars call it a type of “hyper-reality.” They dwell in this extreme in order to discredit racism, while at the same time reveling in these stereotypes.
The reality business in rap music blew up after both of these groups came onto the scene. Many groups and artists began to replicate both formulas. However, it was the hyper-reality of N.W.A. that has been championed, and remains that way to this day. Many MC’s and groups in the 1990’s began to record albums that were considered authentic street histories and anthropological studies. If an MC wasn’t real he was considered an outcast, fake, a carbon copy of the real thing. Reality is so poignant in 1990’s rap music that street-cred was a plus, more so during an album release. There were plenty of MC’s who released albums while they were in prison. The language also became real-er as there was far more cursing on rap records when compared to the 1980’s. Thanks to N.W.A. the N-word, or Nigga, was used far more in songs, and remains a helpful bridge in certain rap songs to this day. There were also plenty of songs that contained the key word to their authenticity in the market, Real. Certain examples include, but are not limited to:
Diamond D featuring Sadat X and Lord Finesse “You Can’t Front (shit is Real)”
Fat Joe’s “Shit is Real”
Not to be mistaken you also have Mic Geronimo’s “Shit’s Real”
And let’s not forget Brooklyn’s Black Moon who also dropped one with “Shit Iz Real”
And, one of my favorites by Group Home titled “The Realness”
let’s not also forget the many artists who made a song titled “Keep it Real,” where I can count at least ten artists spanning from Apache to Lost Boyz, and from Timbaland Featuring Genuwine to Kool Keith.
Fortunately some groups spoke of the political, and some still do, but by the later part of the decade is began to subside. Leaping into the 21st Century it seems as if the younger crop of rappers and rap groups have eschewed the Public Enemy Formula for the N.W.A. formula. This excessive use of hyper-reality is what separates the older Hip-Hop generation from the younger generation. However, there have been some glimmers of hope where certain artists have gripped with reality when it comes to their art. One of my favorites is the concept album made by one of the most underrated artists, Mr. Lif and his first album titled I Phantom. This concept album is a perfect example of realism by going through the life of a man resurrected out of the ghetto and into the mundane life of a working stiff. Just look and listen to the song where he laments the drudgery of low wage work and the pressure of the dead-end job in his song “Live from the Plantation.”
A more recent example is Kendrick Lamar’s debut album, good kid, M.a.a.d City. A concept album of its own, he manages to weave everyday life narratives with the reality of living in Compton, California. There are examples of the hyper-reality scenarios, yet they are finely balanced with these narratives, which makes us sympathize with this good kid, living in the mad city. Here’s a mix of footage from the classic flick Menace II Society using his song “Maad City” as the backdrop. It’s a perfect example of how timeless the album is, as well as rap music’s timelessness.
The concept of Realism as an art from began in France after the great turmoil and bloodshed of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Rap music came about from these dire conditions from the people who lived it and experienced it on a daily basis. However, the early DJ’s and rappers veered from away from the harsh realities in order to alleviate the attendees. Once “the Message” was recorded rap music would forever change where a few artists addressed issues that were considered taboo. This continues on to the present day where you have these issues, yet it seems that the hyper has dominated over the reality. Rap music, like Realism in Literature, is a bon-fide art form that should be constantly studied and analyzed. It should be looked at with a fine tooth comb like the archives of other historical moments and movements. We just need to lift the veil in order to keep it real, but always remember what happens if you try too hard, and that’s when keeping it real goes terribly wrong.