Storytellers have many names depending on the area of the world they come from some common ones are: Bards, Ashiks, Jyrau, Griots. Storytellers weren’t just for passing down traditions. In Central Asia a Bakshi means a shaman or a healer who uses music as a conduit to the world of the spirit. In Africa, proverbs and folktales to where tricksters use bad anti-social behavior are usually punished and the evil forces are controlled or defeated. This oral tradition carries on in hip hop, but morphed into tales of hardship, tragedy, triumph, heartbreak, sex, drugs, murder among the lessons they have learned in life. I want you to come along with me and see these stories.
1. Nas – I gave you Power –
This song is featured on Nas sophomore album back in 1996’s “It was written”. The song itself gives a true to life depiction of what it would be like to be a desert eagle semi-automatic gun. He explains the aftermath of gun violence and being concealed or even thrown away himself as a gun and then being transported from town to town and state to state. He goes on to explain his treatment as a gun he is treated harshly and often at times he is not maintained properly causing wear and tear . He balances out the immediate sense of power given when a gun is possessed and the downward climatic spiral that becomes all too tragic for all ghetto dwellers losing lives have to face the everyday reminder that sons, daughters, mothers, fathers can be slain whether intentional or not by one pull of a finger. He notes the endowment of having a gun and the fear it creates in a persons eyes.Frequently in the story you will hear how the fear of dying will give the gun holder a false sense of dependent invincibility. In the last verse Nas plays out an altercation with a man who was not happy about losing a fight earlier that day and grabbed a gun to settle the score. This time Nas gave the gun a conscious and decided not to shoot and end the life of another black man in the ghetto. An all to common theme in the places where gun violence, drugs run through the streets. He ends the story by being picked up by another person after the altercation, to be used again and the story continues.
2. Jay-Z – Friend or Foe
This song from Jay-Z’s debut classic album gives us a story we can follow along about a young hustler who sees his section is being infiltrated by another entrepreneur and his crew of thieves. I like the narration on this one because it gives a humorous note to Jay-Z’s scolding to his enemy. He warns the outsiders to leave and never come back. His first question sets off the song. Friend of Foe state your biz? Jay-Z uses his witty lyricism, sarcasm and graphic undertones to his enemies. I remember the most quoted line from this verse was “You enterprise though and I like ya, but %$# wit the big dogs I gotta bite ya”. The foreword to this song pretty much outlines Jay-Z as a young overseer in his venue and that he is the one that the competition needs to remove. I feel this song gave another angle from the street life we had not seen before.
3. Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.
This was Queen Latifah’s reminiscent of rap’s conscious age. In this song the Queen takes on the black communities most vulnerable and valuable asset the black woman. She re-asserts self-esteem and self-love in a male dominating, disrespectful, physically abusive society; where black women are more likely to subjected to an ass smack rather than an embrace of a hug. The reason I really like this song is because she gives a first hand account of unwanted sexual advances and uses that to tell the world this isn’t right. She tells a story through the eyes of a wife in the first person with the shame, embarrassment and ridicule she faces while in an abusive relationship seen in front of her kids. She also gave a warning to young women who have been influenced by the street life and the real dangers and consequences about choices made that cannot be taken back.
4. Notorious BIG AKA Biggie Smalls – Warning
Young Christopher Wallace displays his gritty rhyme display in story form. This was also the first time I heard a two-way conversation in a song used. Biggie and Biggie also acting like Pop from the barbershop had a back and forth explaining the plot setup for the story. This street tale starts out by Biggie receiving the warning from Pop about a plot to come and rob even possibly kill Big. In the setup, it seems these guys were young hustlers that Biggie knew in his drug dealing days and now notice Big’s financial and social status has grown. They may have taken this as an insult that they didn’t get any money from Big at the time so they do what most jealous haters do in the hood plot to take his money. “Damn #$%^ wanna stick me for my paper” became a theme that year in my neighborhood for anyone who was thought to be too cunning and known to be dishonest about hanging around people only for monetary gain. In this case Big warns “Call the Coroner” “There’s gonna be a lot of slow singing, flower bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing” . This was a direct message to anyone trying to take Biggie’s money, jewelry, etc that those individuals will be met with deadly force. The outro skit explains what happens next to the trespassers trying to find a way into Big’s house. To me this helped Biggie achieve his pinnacle status as one of the best to MC.
5. Lauryn Hill – Doo Wop (That Thing)
Lauryn Hill to me is one of the best most underrated MC’s (not just female MC) period. Her debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill gave another side of the black woman perspective to balance out the Lil Kim/Foxy Brown over sexual personas. This song she weighs in woman of color who have been susceptible to a man’s promises of fidelity, commitment and sharing of finances with them. ” That was the sin that did Jezabel in” she quotes in her verse for the ladies. She doesn’t just point the finger. She shows her empathy explaining that she too was that girl who believed that “this is the one”. Her message is of self-love and self-worth an important message not too many women are told today. Her message to the men was simple and direct. Stop being financially and morally irresponsible. Stop glorifying going to jail and man up by taking responsibility for your children. The song catchiness reeled me in, but her underlined message stills resonates today.
6. Eminem – Lose Yourself
This song will speak to you if you ever had a dream of being an entertainer, artist, dancer etc. The imagery Em used in this song “knees weak, arms are heavy” He even talked about disgorging his mom’s spaghetti on himself. For me these descriptions took me back to speaking in front of the class for a presentation. Your mind goes blank right before you have to speak and you notice all these eyes looking at you. You can tell Eminem was reliving his younger underground MC days. Lose yourself is the outcry to feel the fear and wield it into an adrenaline fiery rush. I feel this song gave inspiration to those who got booed off stage and still felt they could have made the crowd love them so they kept going. Conceptually this song goes right along with the movie the song was put on the soundtrack for 8 Mile. This song stood out to me to mark him as a kamikaze force in the hip hop world and become the ode to the passionate person still seeking a place in life.
7. Tupac Shakur – Dear Mama
The mind and thoughts of Tupac to me were always like a cryptogram to me. It was like Tupac had an alter ego and the public saw one side that was a thug, a menace in America. His friends and relatives saw another side to him. His more compassionate side shows in Dear Mama, a thank you memorandum for the struggles she endured raising young Tupac. Tupac uses his rhyme style to compose a soliloquy showing remorse for causing his Mama stress for getting into trouble with the law from a young man into adulthood. He also exposes that his mom had her own demons with drug addiction that she had to battle while raising her son and daughter. He bridges from the verse to the chorus with an open hearted earful adding “There’s no way I can pay you back, but my plan is to show you I understand. You are appreciated” . This story was also a young man in retrospect after losing a father that was not around. Plus, getting involved with the gangsters and hustlers he came to the realizations of the choices he made that led him in the life he lived. He talked about a life of poverty, but was filled with love and forgiveness. He ends his story by adding admitting he made things difficult for his mother, but remains thankful for her every step of the way.
8. Slick Rick – Children’s Story-
To me this story gave a blueprint for the future authors in hip hop. Since the title is called a “Children’s Story it is only fitting that the rhyme pattern and schemes were basic in nature. The impact of this pattern would affect all of 80’s rap. Slick Rick’s genius in storytelling has been copied over and over again. The song starts off with “Once upon a time” one of the most famous story beginnings of most fairy tales. Slick Rick tells of two boys that decide to start robbing people for cash. The robbing spree continued until one boy tried to rob a DT undercover cop. The cop then begins to strike the boy not knowing the boy was carrying a gun. The boy decides not to shoot the cop, but run instead. He fled being chased by a female officer which he tried to shoot her ,but he missed. The boy then runs into an abandoned building. After he fled the building the boy grabbed a pregnant woman and aimed the trigger. He knew the gun didn’t have any bullets. Both boys ended up in jail after being swarmed by police. Slick Rick wanted to teach a moral lesson in a figurative way. This song is still the playskool stepping stone to master the art of storytellin.
9. Redman -Soopaman Luva pt 2
I love the whole series,but pt 2 to me was the best and most impressive, storytelling wise. Soopaman Luva became Redman’s alter ego who consumed large amounts of marijuana and slept with a lot of women in one night. In this story he gets his drug of choice from the planet of Cheech and Chong. Redman’s style of storytelling becomes a comical adult cartoon I would imagine seeing as a series on FX during late night. He takes a woman he met to the planet where they encounter Jaba the Hut selling marijuana and they bought some and he takes the girl back to his house for sex. During the sex session Soopaman Luva noticed the plot the woman had to kill him with an ice pick and he was able to hold her off, but he was not able to stop her from using a gun she had hidden as well. She then summons Martian women into the house to kill Soopaman Luva. He also had able had a semi-automatic weapon and used it on them. The story ends with Soopaman Luva heading home for an herbal refreshment with his good ol pal Keith Murray.
10. MC Lyte- Poor George
This song to me was another classic story song that would be used as a blueprint for MC’s to come. MC Lyte narrates how she met George in a nightclub and ask for her number. They become close and intimate, even though Lyte knows George is a womanizer. Lyte tells her story of how George would treat her like a queen when they hung out until one night she caught George drinking. When she confronts George he then walks out the club and goes into his car. Lyte was too late to stop him from driving off. He never turned on his headlights to the car. George found out a week prior that he had cancer which was the stresses that pushed him over the edge. He runs into truck lighting up a cigarette. MC Lyte ends the story emphasizing that she never told him how much he met to her and encourages other not to take people for granted. I believe this set the precedent for other female MC’s to maintain or exceed.
11. Eve – Love is Blind
From her debut album Eve of Destruction Eve’s philly gritty style balanced out her feminine voice and curves while giving the female perspective from a street angle. This story starts off “I don’t even know you and I hate you” as she explains how her friend would be raped, physical assaulted, mentally abused and fearful from her boyfriend. This story is the common battered women story. How the guy would abuse his spouse and then buy her gifts to make it up and promise it won’t happen again. Eve’s friend becomes pregnant and puts on hold her dreams of going to school. Eve’s friend loves cycle repeats by her leaving her boyfriend for good, but they would reconcile differences and get back together. The girl would ignore the other females her boyfriend would see and tell Eve to stay out of her business about the relationship. Unfortunately the sad story ends with Eve by her friends side at the hospital where she died. In the song the boyfriend shows up at the wake where Eve had enough and showed him she would show him the same mercy he showed her friend. The song ends becomes another tale of domestic abuse and the aftermath of the family and friends of those affected are left behind.
12. Jay-Z – A Week Ago –
This song to me was the most underrated song on Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life album. With OG Too Short on the chorus Jay-Z recalls the times of his early street life. He speaks about a time when his relationship/partnership broke down with a fellow street entrepreneur once the other person got caught during a police raid. During a phone call with his incarcerated friend Jay-Z realizes that his trust has been betrayed and he was being recorded for information. That’s when Jay knew his old friend switch sides. In the streets trusting the police and the law over your boys is a no-no. In this song Jay speaks about toe downfalls of people becoming jealous of the money he made in his hustling days. He speaks of a life where he had to be ready at a moments notice for retaliation or to make a quick buck in his street corner of Brooklyn. In a world where becoming a rat makes you a target and marks you as an outsider Jay’s ex-partner is shunned by family and friends alike. Jay speaks on the broken credence that just seven days earlier he would have bet no amount of money or jealousy would have divided them. This song is for that individual who lives by another set of laws that govern his way of thinking and existence.
13. Nas – Rewind
Once regarded as washed up Stillmatic was Nas resurrection back into the spotlight of hip hop. This album conceptually for me was the most diverse. This song rewind is a true testament to Nas genius and creative mind. He literally is telling a story backwards from the ending to the beginning. The story starts an altercation going back to Nas walking back into his car and the other guy walking with his girl. The car goes in reverse while the music plays backwards. Another scene was Nas having an intimate time in reverse where the girl was performing fellatio in reverse and the girls ends up putting her clothes back on. Last Nas drink goes back into the bottle as his answering machine plays back to the beginning. Way ahead of your time Nas.
14. Eminem – Stan
Eminem has never been a stranger to controversy. He also is not ashamed to tell us stories about his abusive mother time and time again. This time he is the object of someone else’s obsession. With the help of Dido singing the chorus Eminem finds himself in a twisted fan fantasy world. The song is a fan letter written to Eminem. In the letter Stan writes about how he is expecting a baby and wants to name her Bonnie. Claiming his right as Em’s biggest fan and feeling ignored he writes another letter. In the letter he writes how he was at a concert and Em refused to sign an autograph for Stan’s little brother. In the letter he admits his parents were also abusive to each other and how he feels their similar experiences wickedly bound them to one another. Admitting he believes all of Eminem’s lyrics even the freakishly, strange and eccentric ones. He ends the second letter by saying P.S. ” We should be together too.” Could this have been a plea for a relationship? Stan’s third letter is a lot darker as he records himself on a tape recorder while driving. He angrily admits he loves Eminem and how he put his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car. During the drive the car sped off the road and into the a lake. Unknowingly Eminem responds to Stan’s letters. He admits that his busy schedule has kept him from writing back. He advises Stan to get counseling and not to believe everything he writes about in his lyrics. He encourages Stan to reconcile with his girl. At then end of his letter he comes to the realization that the news story he had seen a week earlier was about the same over obsessed fan he read about in his letters.
15. Notorious BIG – I got a Story to Tell.
His lyrical genius was sacrificed too early from us. In this oral display BIG speaks about meeting a voluptuous women. He talks about how his new lady friend has a professional ball player as a live in boyfriend. Not concerned of any danger Biggie goes back to her house for a quick sexual encounter. Right after they finish the boyfriend comes home from a busy schedule out-of-town. Biggie warns the woman of what will happen if he is caught by the boyfriend. Knowing BIG’s warnings are for real with deadly ramifications, she goes downstairs and greets her lover. Before he goes upstairs she creates a diversion to keep her man downstairs. BIG not fully convinced he’s out of danger just yet doesn’t take any chances. He manages to tie up the woman and also the boyfriend before climbing down the side of the house with a rope. The last scene he goes back home with a story to tell his friends. Crazy times
These stories are not in any particular order. They are just stories that stick out in my head when I think of some of the great ones in hip hop. I know there are many more, but this blog would be eight pages long if I wrote them all down. Peace and love Ya’ll