Hip hop has been a part of my life since I was about 11 years old in 1983. I tried my hand at breakdancing when I was in high school, under the monikor Dr Kool MC (have no idea where that came from). I gave rapping a shot during my early days, doing “to the hip hop, the hippity hop and you don’t stop the rock’ with the best of them. I was never much of a visual artist and you couldn’t find spray paint cans in Maseru, Lesotho any way.
We used to get our music from friends who were based in the US and, as a result, got to hear everything from The Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Funky Four + One to Whodini, Run DMC, Kool Mo Dee, etc. I remember a videotape with multiple episodes of Yo! MTV Raps doing the rounds. As with everyone, we grew up on East Coast rap out of New York but were less influenced by the New York versus the Rest tendencies that arose as more rappers from around the US started to stake a place for themselves.
As a reader, I regularly consumed music magazines such as Rap Pages, The Source, XXL, ego trip, Vibe, etc and, whenever a friend was coming to visit from the US, they usually received a very long list of albums I wanted that I had seen in the mags. At some stage, I had CNA in Maseru ordering copies for me from head office. Check out COMPLEX’s list of The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Magazine Covers put out in 2011.
An emcee whose music resonated with me from when I first heard him was Scarface, as part of the Geto Boys and as a solo artist. To be honest, there’s something about Southern Hip Hop that I have always connected with – except for in the last 10 years or so. Scarface’s The Diary is still one of favourite all time albums and I continue to play it regularly even today, 21 years after it was released.
So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered he’s written an autobiography Diary of a Madman with journalist Benjamin Meadows-Ingram. In the book, Scarface tells the story of his life with an expected honesty and authenticity, documenting his troubled childhood – not just from the environment he grew up in but also from his mental health and substance use challenges.
If you really want to go, the dying is the easy part. It’s the living that’s hard. That sh*t takes a lifetime. And it will test you every step of the way.
He was instrumental in the development of the Houston hip hop scene but also had the opportunity to travel across America sharing his music, interacting with many rappers that are considered legends today as well as those who were the rappers he looked up to.
…what really made me want to take it seriously was hearing highly skilled MCs like Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, and Chuck D really pushing the form with their wordplay and rhyme patterns and bringing their unique voices and deliveries to the game. They were all so sick and so sharp—just straight killers on the mic. And I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be Chuck D, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane balled into one. Give me Chuck’s delivery, Kane’s skills, and Rakim’s rhyme style, plus Willie D’s content—that’s what molded me. I wanted to talk sh*t, be political, and spit some gangsta-ass sh*t. That’s what I was after. And then Ice Cube came along and f**ked the whole game up. As soon as I heard “Straight Outta Compton,” I knew that was the music I wanted to make. In fact, that’s the song that inspired me to make “Scarface.” It was just so raw and so mean, and Cube was a beast. He had the whole package—his wordplay was tight, he had a great voice, he spoke straight to the streets, and his raps were tough as a motherf**ker. I loved Ice Cube. He was a little older than me and I know a lot of dudes won’t admit to trying to emulate other people or to trying to follow in the footsteps of someone, but I looked up to him growing up. I really think he’s a better rapper than I am. There were a couple of guys that I really looked up to—guys like Big Daddy Kane, Chubb Rock, Chuck D, and Ice Cube. Those were my classmates in my mind, my contemporaries. If I was going to be compared to anyone, I wanted to be compared to them. But beyond that, my motivation really came down to two things: I wanted to live like James and I wanted to rap like Ice Cube. If I could pull that off, I knew I’d be good.
He talks of his relationship with Tupac, his time as President of Def Jam South and the shady aspects of the recording industry. He also shares thoughts around the increased incidents (or, at least, visibility thereof) of police killing of black men and women in the US, the racism, the tragedy and the poverty.
We have a problem in this country with telling the truth about what’s really going on, especially when it comes to the history and the day-to-day realities faced by the black population. It’s always skewed or distorted or ignored. Sometimes I can’t tell which is worse. Would I rather they ignored the death of Michael Brown, or would I rather they shoot him dead and then try to paint him like a criminal? So I really think that a lot of the bad press that rap music has always gotten is just a way to take the attention off of the continued systematic targeting and terrorizing of young black men in their own f**king communities. How do you glorify reality? America is always looking for something to blame for the reason why it’s destroying itself. First it was jazz that was destroying America, then it was rock and roll, then it was disco, then it was rap. But you know, I think America is destroying America. Our country is built on a foundation of rules and laws and belief systems that date back to the 1700s and the 1800s, back to the time of slavery. And it’s f**king us up. It’s breeding hate. It’s deeper than a record. Hate goes way deeper than that.
And when it comes to music, he speaks on the one challenge I have with a lot of the ‘rap’ coming out these days. Everyone sounds the same. It’s as if a particular flow was discovered and, since then, everyone is sticking with that because it sells. I do think that’s why emcees like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and some of their contemporaries stand out – they’ve carved their own space as rappers from flow to subject matter.
We just had one rule: no biting. You never wanted to sound like anybody else. Being influenced by someone is one thing, but you could never copy. That sh*t was wack. If you were following someone else’s style, you always had to put your own twist on it. We were inspired by Run-D.M.C., but if Run-D.M.C. was clicking in and out and trading lines during verses, we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to find our own way and our own style of tearing sh*t down.
Hip-hop has always been about style and self-expression, but it feels like as the culture’s gotten older, that’s somehow been lost. You’ve got all of these guys out here now just trying to transform into whatever’s hot to chase some dollars and some airplay, but if you’re chasing the next man, who the f**k are you really? You get it on the production end, too, but if you ask me, that’s not being a producer or an MC, that’s being a chameleon. It’s biting, straight up. I don’t get it. It’s f**king up the culture. That sh*t used to get you clowned out of the game.
If you are interested in the perspectives of what truly is a hip hop ‘living legend’, definitely get a copy of the book. My only issue with it is that it is too short. A must read is also Dissecting The Madman: Inside The Mind Of Scarface by Dan Buyanovsky on Noisey.