True story: While browsing the Rap/R&B section of a local record store recently, a gentleman next to me looked genuinely confused.
He went through all the usual motions of someone who wants to ask something but would rather be asked. I took the bait.
“You alright, man?”
“I just don’t get it,” he responded. This wasn’t going to be one of those ‘what song is in my head?’ discussions.
He pointed to the empty row between Eric B. & Rakim and the Fugees, where 50 Cent should have been. They were sold out.
“Everyone I know owns this shit. All of my friends’ friends have it. Who’s still buying it? It’s been f*cking years! Now this new guy’s comin’. How do they keep doin’ it?”
Now, I’m no Hip Hop historian, but as a member of the generation that was born into rap, always accepted it as part of music, I can hold my own in a modern dissection. But this, I couldn’t begin to answer.
So I was honest.
“I don’t know.”
Many have attempted to explain the baffling explosion of New Gangsta rap, which has so far seemed limited to whatever bears the Interscope/Aftermath label (check out Lynn Johnson’s excellent go at it in Da Capo’s Best Music Writing 2004).
But after all is said and done, there can be no definitive answer. Still, there in the record store, we went through them all. It could be the lyrical flow, though it’s generally acknowledged that any given member of G-Unit’s dexterity is passable at best.
The Dr. Dre beats help, but Xzibit albums have long contained a plethora of A-level Dre bangers, and he didn’t ever move 10 millions units. Was it 50’s voice? He certainly has a distinctive sound, which he credits as a product of being shot in the face. And Banks, Buck and Game all share gravelly snarls that add an element of danger to the rhymes, reminiscent of Ice Cube in the eighties.
Still, to achieve Diamond record status, as Get Rich or Die Trying should arrive at early this year, an artist has to really touch a nerve in the culture. One that transcends simply rhyming about guns, hardship, and money.
The answer probably lies closer to the genius of 51-year old, Brooklyn native Jimmy Lovine, founder of Interscope Records.
Lovine broke into the music industry in the late ’70s by producing Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes , was mentored by John Lennon, and put his infant label on the map in the nineties by signing Marilyn Manson.
It was in coordinating the marketing of Manson that Iovine first discovered the influence of controversy, the buying power of disaffected youth, and the publicity to be attained by really pissing people off.
This angle was perfected in Lovine’s nurturing of Eminem in the late nineties, and in the white rapper from the streets, Lovine found a new, hotter-selling element of the formula: mythology.
Like the George Lucas of the music industry, lovine now casts his artists not only as recording stars, but Heroes, Villains, and Tragic Figures.
Interscope’s next discovery, 50 Cent, would be the embodiment of all three, and the average listener would know his name before his album even dropped.
“When 50 Cent’s album came out, I didn’t hear a damn thing about the music. All I heard is that he got shot nine times!” – Chris Rock, 2003 MTV Video Music Awards
“That’s why Jimmy ovine’s the fuckin brain,” says The Game (a.k.a. Jayceon Taylor), who’s debut album, The Documentary , sold nearly half a million copies its first day of release.
In a phone interview, he’s explaining the delay of the album from its original fall 2004 release. Since that slot was occupied by a larger number of high-profile rap releases than in recent memory, including Eminem’s own Encore, the powers-that-be figured a wide open January, 2005 release would separate The Game from the pack. Not that he needed it.
“I’m different than any other Hip Hop artist that you will ever meet. I’m not scared of my own people,” declares Game. With Dre’s most successful West Coast prodigy since Snoop Dogg, Aftermath now boasts an artist with closer ties to his neighborhood than possibly any rapper since Nas told us all about Queens. The Game lives and breathes Compton, California and everything that area has ever been associated with; his Eazy-E tattoo, the spectacular Boost Mobile commercial that features Game low-riding through Crenshaw Blvd; and his Elm Street Bloods gang affiliation.
So seismic was the 50 Earthquake, listeners now demand a fascinating life story out of any artist not named Lil’ Jon. No one anticipated this shift better than Dr. Dre, who found in The Game a man already in the middle of what Joseph Campbell, a well-known mythology scholar, would describe as a Hero’s Journey: a series of trials one must go through to achieve what he needs to feel complete.
Campbell says through the history of time, the same myths with the same heroes have constantly been re-told. And there is no greater figure in these myths than the Orphan. The Orphan is a classic hero in any artistic medium, from Oliver Twist to Luke Skywalker, but is especially present in music.
From Lennon and Paul McCartney, who first bonded over the shared tragedy of their mothers’ deaths, to motherless boys Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters, rock was a cry for help. U2 frontman Bono once said, “Basically musicians are throwing tantrums for a living because their mothers abandoned them.”
Modern Hip Hop can be viewed as the other end of the spectrum: the loss of the father. On his first radio single, Eminem famously spit the following: ” By the way/when you see my dad/tell him that I slit his throat/in this dream I had .”
50 Cent’s father left home when he was an infant, and just last month 50 made headlines with a public warning to his pops: “Don’t you even dare crawl your a*s out this way.” Now, if it’s even possible, The Game one-ups his predecessors in father issues. He says, “Early on, man, my father was my hero until situations like what happened with my sister [reports of molestation have appeared. Taylor did not elaborate. I did not ask] took place.
He’s a good man, but he made one too many mistakes.” Game was put in a foster home until high school, at which point he seemed to be on track to overcome his demons. He was a star shooting guard at Compton High and was offered scholarships to a few universities. He graduated high school and appeared ready to transcend his expectations until, for reasons not clarified in this interview, he dove headlong into gangbanging.
“I took up the drug thing right after the hoop dreams fell through,” Game says.
When asked how the hoop dreams fell through, Game replies, “I told you, man, I was sellin’ drugs.” Game’s elusiveness may have something to do with the overwhelming toll of the shooting death of his adopted brother, Charles, just after Game’s graduation. Car theft, dealing, and gang shootings became a part of Game’s life.
His mother kicked him out of the house, which only fueled his ambitions. He and another of his brothers moved in together and climbed the ladder of the drug trade. In 2001, it came to a head.
Joseph Campbell would call the next part of Game’s story the Call to Adventure, when the hero’s world cannot be sustained and he must make a change. On October 1st, his house was broken into.
“I was shot in my leg, shot in my chest, shot in my arm, shot in my stomach. It was a learning experience [but] I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” says The Game. When he woke from his coma, The Game had a revelation in the form of Hip Hop. “No one was there. I was looking around. F*ckin’ I.V.’s in my arm. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have shit to do. I couldn’t go anywhere,” he says.
He discovered what so many artists and fans before him had already known. When you’re all alone, there’s always music. The Game immersed himself in all the Hip Hop classics, namely Compton-originators N.W.A. But wouldn’t a Crenshaw native have every word of Straight Outta Compton memorized practically from birth? “We listen to music when we get a chance to listen to music. We also have lives outside of music like go to school, come home, eat dinner, take a shower,” responds The Game.
Forced to lie down for a while, the words of Ice Cube, Jay-Z, and 2Pac started setting in not just as a reflection of life in the streets, but a way out. “Listening to it that way [is] a different experience than you [have] had in your life,” he says. Somewhere in there, Jayceon Taylor heard a challenge in the key of life and he accepted. But first he had to, you know, figure out how to rap. “My rhyme schemes were terrible at first,” he explains. Apparently, he was a fast learner because within a year he was signed to Dre’s Interscope sister label, Aftermath.
In every Hero’s Journey there must be a wise teacher, and Dr. Dre has played father figure to an entire generation of Hip Hop stars. A founding member of gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A., he later moved on to co-found Death Row Records, and brought Tupac Shakur to the masses. When that went south, in an epic battle worthy of its own summer movie, he founded Aftermath Records, which struggled briefly until Dre discovered the young artist Eminem, and the rest is history. G-Unit, D-12, and Eminem all claim he saved their lives, and he is possibly the most untouchable figure in the Hip Hop world.
Last year, a mysterious young man punched Dr. Dre in the face at an award show, and was quickly stabbed, allegedly by Young Buck of G-Unit. Now, Dr. Dre, a mythic mentor if there ever was one, would executive produce, as well as personally contribute beats to The Game’s own larger-than-life story, as well as guide him through every step on the way to superstardom. Finally, The Game had a father who not only cared about him, but also knew how to turn his hardships into dollars.
“Go buy my album.” – Young Buck’s entire statement, 2005 arraignment
Mythology. Jimmy Iovine had another winner in that department with The Game, and he moved quickly on it. At the end of 2003, Iovine suggested The Game might have greater success as a member of 50’s posse, G-Unit.
The group had recently proven they could have success as a team with the Platinum-selling Beg For Mercy , then showed they could literally get away with anything by producing and “hosting” an interactive porn video called “Groupie Love.” The fourth member of Guerilla Unit, Tony Yayo, was spending time in jail, and The Game’s project was on the backburner.
“My project wasn’t coming out for a while, so Jimmy Iovine said he thought it would be a good idea to put me in G-Unit while I was waiting so that when it was my turn, it would be on and poppin’,” says The Game. The only problem was, The Game didn’t actually know 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, or Young Buck. “I’m from Compton. How would I know those guys?” replies Game. A meeting was set up, and it became official.
Next came that classic hype-builder: beef with another artist. For The Game, it wasn’t tough. A battle fell into his lap in late 2003, when he provided a guest-verse on Joe Buddens’ track, “Cross Country Connection,” on DJ Clue’s mix tape. After delivering a capable performance, The Game was surprised to hear Buddens’ verse, recorded after his own, on which Buddens, a New Jersey native, called G-Unit “gangsta actors.”
The Game was now put in the awkward position of having to go to war for a crew he had little personal investment in but held his financial future in their hands. Regardless of Buddens’ intentions, Game got great buzz out of it, mostly due to his vicious response, “200 Bars and Runnin’.” He made respectable appearances on tons of mixtapes, and in the middle of last year, released his own: Throwin’ Rocks At The Throne , which included stellar tracks with artists such as Snoop (“Fly Like An Eagle”) and Jay-Z (“Gotta Get It”).
Game would soon experience the other side of his Buddens beef, however, when Jay-Z misinterpreted a line from Game’s single, “Westside Story,” as a diss on him. The Game quickly clarified that it was meant for Ja Rule, but the damage was done and Jay refused to be included on the official album.
The Game acknowledges his first misstep on the title track “The Documentary.” In the break of the song, a radio interview plays in which he states, “I never take shots at legends. That’s just something I don’t do.” Once again, The Game had taken another step on the journey; what Campbell describes as the Test of Allies and Enemies. He cannot be entirely blamed, because, after all, it’s only destiny.
Another standout track is the album’s closer, “Like Father, Like Son.” With Busta Rhymes singing a mournful chorus, the track describes in detail the birth of The Game’s son, including the names of the doctors and nurses. It’s a telling way to finish the story, and Game takes credit for his storytelling gift. “I picked the track list for the whole album,” he says.
A good myth always ends on a note of hope for the future, with echoes of the origin of the story. The Game’s origin is a tragic one and he is not ignorant of the other side of the Orphan Hero: that one cannot escape the destiny set forth by their parents. Towards the end of the song, after thanking everyone involved in bringing his son into the world, The Game talks to his boy: ” Nose, ears, eyes, chin, just like your daddy/I’d die before you grow up and be just like your daddy/Or your grandfather. Drop the top on the ’71/With my face in the clouds/Lord, spare my son .”
“My son is taken care of,” The Game says. “He isn’t nowhere near this place. I still live in Compton. If I were to try to raise him inÃ¢Â?Â¦” Game trails off. He shrugs off the very thought. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t. So that’s a dead issue.” If it is truly possible to avoid the trappings of destiny, The Game may be the best candidate for pulling it off. He says it all with his hit single: This is how we do. In other words, the G-Unit simply exist, complete with individual histories if the listener feels like digging deeper; no use trying to figure out how they do what they do. The story has been there all along, from Dante to Superman, from Chuck Berry to The Game.
“Every generation runs the risk; that we would like to become our parents and, at the same time, are scared stiff of becoming them.” –
Jimmy Iovine, PBS Frontline