When I was 13 – on my thirteenth birthday actually, I had a dream that 2Pac came to visit me with Biggie. I didn’t even listen to their music, but EVERYBODY knew about the beef between Biggie and Pac.
Biggie was starting to get big, just like Pac was, and Biggie had friends that Pac didn’t necessarily like, but the two of them? Pac and Biggie? They were solid, no matter how many times people tried to turn them against each other. They came up together in the music industry, and in a very real way they died together.
Nas spent a lot of time encouraging young people to work hard, to do what you gotta do to make your dreams come true. He spent a lot of time talking about his religion, and his faith, but all people noticed was that he was chillin’ with Puffy, and that made him cool because he was “Puff Daddy Approved.”
The notoriety that these men faced was a double edged sword. On one hand they were bonified poets who were sharing their heart and souls through their music, but on the other hand the PERCEPTION was that they would just as easily slit your throat or curb stomp you into a quick and painful death.
Pac talked a lot about gang culture, while Biggie talked a lot about how great he was, and while he wasn’t wrong, there were a lot of people, around the world who saw who these men were and thought “I know them because I listen to their music.”
Snoop talked a lot about smoking weed and fuckin bitches, and Ludacris talked a lot about his journey and his experience being a Black man in America, while making you dance and jump and do all the things to his tunes.
Each of these men brought something different to the rap and hip-hop game, and the music INDUSTRY tore them a part by waving money in front of their faces and encouraging the Black on Black crime that made these men both famous and incredibly rich and powerful.
The music INDUSTRY fed on hip-hop beefs, encouraged them actively, paid journalists to write about them, and made damned sure that the drama was so exciting that people soaked it up in every possible way, just like back in the 20s with the mobsters of Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
The Entertainment INDUSTRY is a fickle creature, it will love you one moment and completely hate you the next. It’s the 1 singular industry on this planet that will feed off of everything that you have to offer, and throw you to the curb the moment that you are no longer of worth to the people who are receiving checks for promoting your work.
I’ve been thinking about these artists a lot today, because I’m listening to music, and I wanted to be transported to a time when things seemed simpler, but as an adult I have a very different ear then when I did as a child.
As a child I just thought the drama of hip-hop culture was for entertainment value, it didn’t fully hit home how dangerous it was to be a “G” until Pac died, and even then I didn’t fully realize the effect of the trauma that these men must have gone through until DMX died.
DMX struggled with drug addiction for years, and no matter what negative things you can say about the man, he had a way of bringing people together. There were very few people who didn’t want to work with DMX, very few people who WOULDN’T cross the invisible line to work with him, because he did his best to stay out of the drama.
That doesn’t mean that the drama didn’t affect him.
You have to remember that each of the men and women in the 90s hip-hop era grew up in a time when they LITERALLY had to dodge bullets on the way to school or home from it, they grew up with extreme poverty, undiagnosed mental health issues in their parents, and the generational trauma that is growing up Black in America.
When Rodney King was beaten Black people weren’t pissed because it happened, Black men in America being beaten by cops in the 90s was a fucking Tuesday. They were pissed because not only was he beaten, ON CAMERA, but EVEN THOUGH HE WAS BEATEN ON CAMERA, and there was VERIFIABLE proof that what happened to King was both immoral and illegal, Black men in America STILL couldn’t get any fucking justice.
The 90s hip-hop era was an explosive fucking nightmare. Finally Black men in AMERICA were sharing the stories of what was REALLY happening. They were using video to make short edited films about their experience by rapping, (poetry) to music, that made people dance, and celebrate being Black in America, WHILE making the white kids think about what was really happening.
White kids in America saw the gold chains and the fancy cars and they wanted to emulate that, but what they missed was the STRUGGLE that these men talked about in their songs.
- Going to school and getting a subpar education because you’re tired from not sleeping because gangs have been shooting at each other all night.
- Going to school hungry because your mom/dad/grandma/grandpa/guardian was too high to make your lunch, OR spent your lunch money on dope.
- Going to school with bruises, because your guardian got pissed off and beat the crap out of you
- white teachers who didn’t understand and continue not to understand that along with EVERYTHING ELSE that comes with being human you also have to survive a world that HATES Black and colored folk.
These things were call covered in these songs, and most of them were about teaching people my age, with my skin tone, that we COULD be better, that we COULD be stronger, that we COULD be faster, that we DESERVED to thrive, that we DESERVED to have a better quality of life.
In 2021 these are grown ass men who in many respects haven’t changed. They believe what they said was the right thing to say at the time, and they continue to say that what they said then still applies now, and in many ways it absolutely does.
The reason that the 90’s hip hop era specifically changed the game, is that these people, talked about child abuse, they talked about trauma, and they wrapped their pain in the beautiful melodic sounds that we listen to today.
Dear Mama was the favorite song of a friend of mine. Raynell Oracheski loved the song because it was beautiful, and because it made her miss her mom, without sharing her journey I will say that Ray went through fucking HELL in her teen years. Ray (she hates that name) was a white girl, but she connected to the music, because she could understand what it was like not to be able to connect to her mom all the time.
Jason Maynard loved DMX’s Rough Rider’s Anthem, to the point that he made me memorize every word of that fucking song, it’s still the 1 song that I know better than any song other than happy birthday, on this planet. He loved it because THAT song talked about a brother and sisterhood, it talked about friendship, love, respect, and loyalty.
He was an Indigenous white kid.
These songs transformed the way that we looked at pain, and at joy. They gave us an outlet, they taught us how to dance (Pop it like it’s hot is still the most annoying song in the world except for I got 5 on it.)
It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp won a 2006 Oscar specifically because it talked about the real knitty gritty bullshit of being a person trying to fucking function in a world that was consistently and constantly at war with itself. “It might be new for you but it’s been like this out here for years,” y’all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
When I am talking about MY mental health journey on this blog, I often feel like I am screaming “HELP ME” at the top of my lungs while waving a big neon sign from a street corner, this song in particular makes it exactly clear what Black folk have to go through. You may not like the words used in the song (Oprah) but it’s not about the WORDS, it’s about the MESSAGE.
After Oprah called Ludacris out for his language, he pretty much stopped making music on the large scale, and that’s a damned fine shame, because that man had and continues to have a gift. It’s like he’s put it away out of shame, as if he doesn’t have the right to say “this is how it is, because this is how I was raised,” and he fucking shouldn’t have to.
Black music, IN PARTICULAR, is different because we don’t hide the ugly. Bob Marley’s music was beautiful, romantic, and sweet, but it also told a lot of harsh truths about a very ugly world. He talked about the way the world was in HIS eyes, and people either loved him for it, or hated him for it. They killed him for it for fuck sakes.
By the time that 50 Cent and G-Unit came around the 90’s hip-hop craze had mostly fallen a part but the thirst for songs about people hating other people because of the colors they wear, or the side of the street they live on will never fade, because people – white people specifically – LOVE PROFITTING OFF BLACK PAIN.
But what if we could take all that pain and do something cool with it? What if we could use that pain to create something beautiful that changes the quality of life around all those around us? What if we could buy our parents a house so they don’t have to worry about rent? What if we could buy that house in a ‘hood that isn’t filled with the sounds of sirens and gun shots every night? What if we could use the money we raise from making music about our pain, to find a place in the world where we can go to sleep at night and feel safe again?
This right there explains precisely why these men and women did what they did in the 90’s and why they continue to do so now. Next time you listen to music by an artist of color, don’t just listen to the words they are using, listen to the MESSAGE behind the words.
There is a reason that Serena and Venus Williams were raised down the street from 2Pac, there is a reason that SO many of these rappers and hip hop artists knew each other before they became famous. As much as they may have publicly hated each other, privately, they just wanted the same fucking thing.
Peace. Serenity. Happiness. Joy. Laughter. Freedom. BBQ’s where they didn’t have to worry about getting shot up.
Compton was a really special place back in the 90s, it gave us so much creative energy and fostered a world that was filled with possibilities despite what people living on the outside thought of that community, you can’t deny that the people raised in Compton California, or Jamaica Queens are now some of the most famous Black folk in the world.
There is a reason that God said “The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth,” it wasn’t because God thinks we’re weak, it’s because I believe at least, God knows that we’d do anything to survive, JUST to say that we fucking did.
Sending all my love to Dr Dre who I used to pretend was my dad, DMX, 2Pac, Biggie, and everyone else who inspired me to write this post,
I am not a rapper and I am not a poet, but if I WERE a rapper or a poet, Eminem, this would be my record. This entire website is MY catalog, we are not the same, but we’re also not that different.
Thank you to each and every one of you for everything you taught me over the years, from Queen Latifah to Da Brat, Salt n Peppa, and Missy Elliot. I know I didn’t talk about you much in this post, but that’s because it wasn’t your music that influenced me growing up. It was the fact that you existed at all, on the same planet that I do….THAT is what keeps me going.
Because if you can exist, then maybe I can do.
Devon J Hall