One of my favorite rap songs is “Gangster of Love” by Geto Boys, from their 1989 album Grip It! On That Other Level: a gloriously stupid ode to the rappers’ respective dicks as well as their psychosexual power over all of womankind (the rappers, not their dicks). A lyrical pinnacle is reached at the start of the second verse, with Willie D. shouting:
I like bitches! All kinda bitches!
To take off my shirt and pull down my britches
If they got big titties, I’ll squeeze ‘em and hold ‘em
While she suck my dick and lick my scrotum.
I love those lines for several reasons. The rhyme scheme alone is hilarious: “bitches” / “bitches” / “britches” is the poetic equivalent of a fart joke, quick and easy, whereas “hold ‘em” / “scrotum” is some kind of savant slant-rhyme genius. Then you have Willie’s delivery: super loud and joyfully declarative, like he’s reading the filthiest Dr. Seuss book ever to a room full of deaf children. He knows what he’s saying is offensive, and not only does he not give a shit, he’s positively gleeful at the possibility of offense. The friction between the childish glee in his voice and the gross, hyper-masculine content of what he’s saying creates an enjoyable sense of absurdity. This is heightened by the song’s production: a reappropriation of the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”, a classic rock staple about as laid-back as they come. Both songs concern roughly the same subject, but contrast Willie D’s couplets (not to mention Bushwick Bill’s subsequent tale of getting his asshole licked out) with Miller’s original lines:
You’re the cutest thing I ever did see
I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree
Lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time
Oowee baby, I’ll sure show you a good time
Miller’s obviously singing about his desire for non-stop fuck action with multiple partners, but since he’s a ‘70s hippie who wants to be on the radio he has to cloak it in bad innuendo. The Geto Boys stake their claim on the obliteration of such bullshit: whereas Steve Miller hides behind the idiom of sweetness, only occasionally letting slip his true physical desires and lack of commitment (“I get my lovin’ on the run”), the Geto Boys announce their intentions proudly, with maximum crudeness (“I like to take ‘em fast, pretend I love ‘em, then dog they motherfuckin’ ass”). In sampling “The Joker” and inverting its lyrical subject matter, they are showing Miller to be the fraud he is. They’ve entered into a conversation with that song and positioned themselves in direct opposition to its ideology. Again, this opposition, the difference in energy between the laid-back nature of Steve Miller’s music and the raunchy aggression of the Geto Boys’ lyrics, creates a friction. Since the inversion is so complete, it’s safe to identify this friction as irony, but you could also go a little deeper: irony is the easiest form of absurdity, and it’s the absurd to which I respond so strongly.
Here’s the thing about “Gangster of Love”, though: beyond the hook—“Call me the gangster of love”—there is no trace of Miller’s lyrics in the finished rap song. The text of “The Joker” is nowhere to be found. Yet the conversation is still happening: the emotion behind that original text is still lurking in the guitar riff and the vocal snippets the Boys sampled. The emotional energy of the sample source is not diminished by its discorporation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me define what I mean by “absurd”. Albert Camus gives a thorough explanation of the term in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”. At its heart a really really really long philosophical argument against suicide, Camus begins by thoroughly rejecting any claim to know the existence of God or, more broadly, the meaning of human life on earth. Not only that, but he asserts that we will never find out, that there is no concrete evidence to be found in the physical realm. He writes: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible just now for me to know it.” To even hope for such meaning, according to him, is pointless. Therefore, human life becomes analogous to the fate of that eponymous Greek king: punished by the gods for chronic deceit and for escaping the Underworld, Sisyphus is condemned for all eternity to push a boulder up a hill, at the top of which it rolls back down and he must begin again. To be delivered from his fate is, like humanity’s hope to find absolute meaning for their existence, an impossibility. The persistence of that hope in the face of impossibility creates intellectual friction: this friction is measured in absurdity. (Camus’s ingenious solution to the problem of finding peace in such a meaningless, repetitive existence: Sisyphus must surely have accepted his fate and, having accepted it, he then owns it. Having already been sentenced to an eternity of punishment, he no longer has to worry about the whims of a higher power. “His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing…he knows himself to be the master of his days…The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." Or as Funkadelic said: “The kingdom of Heaven is within.")
I don’t mean to spend too much time on “Sisyphus”, because all I need to extract from it is the broader idea of absurdity: that conflict between the search for meaning and the hopelessness of the search, between perception and reality, rumor and fact, personal action and social tradition. The more impossible a concept or action seems in the context of normal life, the higher the absurdity. It’s something I’ve been attracted to in culture since I was a kid, before I could even put a name to it: Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks; the music of Frank Zappa (“I might be moving to Montana soon, just to raise me up a crop of dental floss”). As a teenager I discovered the plays of Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and the elaborate, ridiculous mythos of Parliament-Funkadelic. Finally, I discovered rap music. In the mid-90s, the genre was in a golden age, and great rap could be found everywhere. I loved the escapism of its hard-edged stories, the rhythms and wordplay, the outsized insanity of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kool Keith. Eventually, I also found an incidental pleasure: the inherent absurdity of hip-hop, hidden in plain sight.
A couple traditions of hip-hop should be brought up here. (Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious: I just want to be thorough.) The first is that the vocalist and producer on any given song are rarely the same. Typically a producer will provide the rapper with a number of instrumental tracks and the rapper will pick one as inspiration for lyrics, but it’s not unheard of for lyrics and music to be composed completely independent of one another and combined after the fact. A listener can (and should) therefore experience the song as a combination of two separate elements rather than a unified whole. (Many of my favorite rap groups have so-so lyricists backed by amazing production; some of my favorite rappers can have terrible taste in beats.) The second tradition is the reliance on samples: snippets of previously recorded music that are chopped, looped, layered, and otherwise manipulated in the service of creating something new.* In combination, these two traditions result in a certain conceptual friction unavailable in music with more unified workflow: the vocals and music, created separately in their ideal form, reflect back upon each other in ways beyond the most obvious; a producer’s sample, originating in a completely different time and space, contains emotional information that can inform and contradict the rest of the song in fascinating ways.
Earlier, I said that the emotional intent of a sample source is not diminished by its discorporation. Here’s what I mean: When you steal a piece of a song for your own purposes, you’re not just taking the pure sound (pitch, timbre, rhythm) of the thing, you’re also taking the overall effect of it: the energy of the musicians, the collective intellect involved, whatever emotional impact was intended by the creators or interpreted by the listener’s brain. The sample’s interpolation frequently results in the emotional intent of the original being at odds with that of the song that samples it--a friction that, as I said, is the source of absurdity. This friction is obviously deliberate in “Gangster of Love”, but less so in something like “Nig-gotiate” by M.O.P., from the wonderfully hardcore 2000 album Warriorz. On the track, a peppy, benign swing jazz sample serves as backdrop for the duo’s crudely aggressive, hyper-masculine shouting (relatively cheerful here but still shot through with dire threats of violence). I have no indication within “Nig-gotiate” itself or the surrounding context of the album or its creators’ histories that the beat was put together with any deliberate irony in mind. Still, there is a significant disparity between the energy of the lyrics and the musical bed on which they rest. This disparity makes the song absurd.
A better example of the inherent absurdity of hip-hop is Notorious B.I.G.’s existential lament “Everyday Struggle”, which details a shitty life of stress, poverty, crack dealing, and familial drama. The beat to this song is built from a melancholic synth loop taken from Dave Grusin’s easy-listening ‘80s jazz “classic”, “Either Way”. You’ve probably heard this song if you’ve ever spent time in a waiting room: it’s well-crafted and soft as hell--the perfect thing to take the edge off when you’re stuck in a cramped space with half a dozen sneezing seniors. In no way is Grusin’s original song intended to evoke sadness; as its title suggests, it’s an ode to placidity. I’m astonished, then, that B.I.G.’s producers were able to isolate and highlight the tiny hint of pathos within the loop they chose, and even more so that Biggie was able to amplify that pathos through his lyrics and performance. From Grusin’s baked-potato pleasantry to B.I.G.’s hard-core despair: classic absurdist hip-hop.
Naturally, due to changing trends and the increasing costs of sampling, sample-based music is much more rare these days outside of the underground (e.g., the record label Stones Throw, home to the insanely prolific beatmaker Madlib). It definitely still exists, however, and every now and then absurdity will bubble up into the airwaves, enabled by major-label cash: take “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West, from his 2013 album Yeezus.** West builds the track from an extended sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of the song “Strange Fruit”, originally recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday but first written as a poem (titled “Bitter Fruit”) in 1937 by a white New York teacher named Abel Meeropol and published in a teacher’s-union magazine:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
and the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
for the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
here is a strange and bitter crop.
Inspired by a 1930 photograph of two young black men hanging from a tree while a crowd looked on, it’s a powerfully horrific depiction of a lynching, given further dramatic weight by Simone’s haunting, angry vocal. For “Blood on the Leaves”, West (with the help of his producers) lifts snippets of mournful piano and a handful of lines (the titular phrase, as well as the second couplet of the first verse), combines them with an assaultive electronic beat full of angry snare rolls and apocalyptic horn blasts, and sings (with a voice thoroughly contorted by computers) disordered lyrics about drug use and infidelity and divorce: a break-up song in which both parties are selfish, materialistic douchebags. The song is dissonant on several levels: friction is created between the sparseness of the “Strange Fruit” sample and the electronic intensity of the rest of the beat; between Simone’s natural singing and West’s auto-tuned caterwaul; and finally, between the cosmic injustice of institutional racism and the malingering ghost of slavery contained within the earlier composition (which, as I said, is still fully effective regardless of how much it’s been edited) and the very specific petulance and pain of West’s lyrical performance. This latter pairing is enormously, deliberately absurd, and the main source of my fascination with the track. In a way, the elements speak to each other across the spectrum of black American life. The simple fight to survive against starvation and meaningless death has given way to self-centric neurosis and massive wealth. The troubles of the present are revealed as overwhelmingly petty when filtered through the ghosts of the past. At the same time, the chaotic pain of West’s heartbreak is endlessly deepened by these ghosts lurking behind the song. As anyone who has gone through a nasty divorce or devastating break-up can attest, that kind of pain can feel like the end of the world (and as I’ve already said, one of the many things “Blood on the Leaves” conveys is apocalypse). These two extremes (1930’s lynching and 2013’s divorce) are distant from one another and yet inseparable: one cannot discuss modern American blackness without also considering its origin. Absurdity is used here to get this point across; for me, it is the chief pleasure of the song.
Maybe I’m overthinking. I’m sure “Blood on the Leaves” and “Gangster of Love” were intentionally designed to provoke the sort of readings I gave them, but the others? Did M.O.P. or B.I.G. really have all this absurdity shit in mind when they recorded their respective songs? Probably not. As I said before, artists like Frank Zappa and George Clinton incorporate absurdity in wonderful ways, but always as conscious signifiers within their given genres; hip-hop is the only form of music*** in which absurdity is hard-wired into the culture. It’s an inherent byproduct. That’s fascinating to me, and it’s a quality that I pursue consciously in my own music, hip-hop or otherwise: hard-edged vocals laid over emotional music; sounds and textures that initially seem to rub against each other but ultimately fit in the way that all sounds fit together. The presence of absurdity deepens the message of the music and articulates a worldview in a way that can’t necessarily be done by lyrics, melody, harmony, or rhythm. It’s a reminder to me of the essential dissonance of human life, just as it signifies the connectedness of every part of that life.
*Something that I’ve always loved about hip-hop is that while it’s typically dance-oriented and has very strict rhythmic requirements (the better to provide framework for a lyricist’s flow), the sonic possibilities are endless once those requirements are met. Any and every type of music can be furled into a beat; it doesn’t even have to be music. (E.g., “Booga Bandit Bitch” by Just-Ice, with its metronomic drops of water and weird industrial clanging.) The entire world of sound is encoded into hip-hop’s DNA. This doesn’t exist with any other type of music; even the most avant-garde sub-category had to undergo countless mutations and revolutions to achieve the palette that rap music was born with.
**Kanye West himself--his visible, public self, at least--is the quintessential absurd man: extremely driven, unsettled, self-possessed, contentious, obsessed with wealth and status; endlessly fighting to expand his footprint and keep himself in the audience’s eye in the artistic embodiment of Camus’s dictum that “what counts is not the best living but the most living” and a fruitless rage against the death he will experience sooner or later. Indeed, it’s occurred to me that the mythical image of the rapper, a black man reaching up from poverty and chaos to escape a system in which he is preemptively doomed, using music as a tool to impress an ideal of his self and the life he has lived upon the world and dominate his public’s imagination, echoes the images drawn in “The Myth of Sisyphus” of the creator, the Actor, and the Conqueror (“Conscious that I cannot stand aloof from my time, I have decided to be a part of it”) as archetypes of absurd humanity.
***I’m not counting the phenomenon of mash-ups, of which absurdity is entirely the point, but which for that very reason is kind of uninteresting to me--it’s got nothing else to offer beyond empty irony. Take The Grey Album by DJ Dangermouse, which pairs vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album with music from the Beatles’ White Album; it was thrilling at first to hear a combination of such disparate elements, but after the novelty wore off and I listened again several years later, it was kind of boring. Now I’d rather just listen to the original records.