Sunday, April 11, 2021

the king of grunge (DMX, RIP)

"...As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)"

[from a review of  And Then There Was X alongside records by Jay-Z, The Lox, Juvenile)

WE ARE FAMILY: the Rise of the Rap Clans and the Hip Hop Dynasty

director's cut, New York TimesMarch 12 2000

by Simon Reynolds


When rapper DMX accepted a trophy at the Billboard Music Awards last year, he took the stage flanked by a squad of fellow artists from the Ruff Ryders label. It's hard to imagine anyone in rock doing this---Trent Reznor, say, menacingly surrounded  by the roster of his label Nothing. But in hip hop, such shows of collective strength are growing more common, as  rap labels increasingly style themselves as families. Like the mafia families whose Hollywood mythology has so influenced gangsta rap,  these labels compete to dominate the lucrative hip hop market, and in this symbolic war of clan against clan, loyalty is exalted as the supreme value.

 The two biggest forces in contemporary rap, the Yonkers-based Ruff Ryders and the New Orleans label Cash Money, both ferociously project a sense of clan identity, through logo-based regalia and unity-themed songs and album titles such as "I'm A Ruff Ryder", "Ruff Ryder's Anthem", Eve's Ruff Ryders's First Lady, and  "Cash Money Is an Army". Cash Money also has a supergroup, Hot Boys, composed of the label's biggest solo stars---Juvenile, B.G., and Lil Wayne.  As it happens, both labels are literally family businesses: Ruff Ryders was started by the brothers-and-sister team of Darrin, Joaquin and Chivon Dean, while Cash Money was founded by brothers Ron and Brian Williams. As if in recognition of their similar ethos, the two labels have joined forces for a massive rap tour currently crossing the USA.

 Although crews, cliques and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, rap's dominant lyrical mode has hitherto been first person singular.  But in the last year or so, ego has been eclipsed by what you might call "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". In the wake of Cash Money and Ruff Ryders's success, other labels are presenting themselves as families or Cosa Nostra-style syndicates. "You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other" proclaims the sticker on Jay-Z's new album, referring to his Roc-A-Fella label's proteges Beanie Siegel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil, while Murder Inc. has combined its roster into the Hot Boys-style supergroup The Murderers.

The idea of the rap group as a blood-brotherhood was pioneered in the mid-Nineties by the Wu-Tang Clan, the ten-strong band of MCs centered around producer the RZA. While the lyrics and cover art self-mythologized the group as warrior priests wielding arcane knowledge and encrypted language as weapons against power, the Wu-Tang Clan simultaneously operated as a shrewd entertainment corporation, signing its members to solo deals with different record companies and diversifying into all manner of Wu-branded merchandizing offshoots: clothing, a comic book, a website, the video-game Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style.  So iconic was the Clan's logo at the group's 1997 height of prestige and popularity that rap paper The Source could feel secure about using it as their cover image, rather than a recognizable celebrity face.

Wu-Tang's branding strategy was taken further still by Master P.'s label  No Limit, whose assembly-line turnover of releases all have  instantly recognisable cover art (garishly hyper-real "ghetto fabulous" tableaux created by design team Pen & Pixel) to match the identikit  New Orleans gangsta sound of the records.  Ironically, the Pen & Pixel look has been appropriated by countless second-division hardcore rap labels, hoping to get accidental sales from fans picking up unheard what they assume is a debut from the latest recruit to the "No Limit army". Master P. also goes in for diversification in a big way, building a business empire reputedly worth $361 million through No Limits toys, clothing, and a series of inexpensively made straight-to-video movies.

Influenced by Master P.'s acumen, Cash Money and Ruff Ryders have their own movies in production. And both labels have imitated No Limit's strategy of market saturation and hitting while you're hot. DMX has released three albums in barely more than eighteen months, and the first two months of 2000 has seen a flurry of Ruff Ryders debuts from The Lox and Drag-On, with a new Swizz Beatz compilation and Lox-man Jadakiss's own solo album soon to follow.

 Ruff Ryders and Cash Money have built their empires using techniques that are now a predictable procedures in the rap business. Reinforcing the all-for-one, one-for-all clan image, rappers from the same roster guest on each other's tracks; new artists are introduced to the public through cameo appearances in the single/video by the label's established stars. Cash Money have taken this twin strategy of cross-promotion and artist-development to the furthest extreme. Other rap artists will feature R&B singers or big-name rappers from other labels on their tracks in order to add more-stars-for-your-money sales appeal. But Cash Money's tracks never feature outsiders---the "guests" are always only other Cash Money artists.

 Still, it would be incorrect to suggest that hip hop's family values are just an ideological gloss for business realpolitik. The family is basically a microcosm of socialism, based around the same ideals like sharing, altruism, and self-sacrifice for the greater good.   Effectively, the rap clan works an  enclave of collectivism within capitalism's rapacious cut-throat competition, and as such it offers solace  and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. Ruff Ryders's catchphrase  "Ryde or die" divides the world into a starkly opposed them and us: people you'd kill versus people you'd kill for/die for/ride into battle alongside. Taken from a "blacksploitation"-era cowboy movie, the name Ruff Ryders recalls the going-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory romanticism of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Lyrically, DMX avoids two of gangsta rap's staples---flaunting wealth and abusing women-- to focus almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. His yearning for a surrogate family is expressed through an obsession with dogs strikingly different from the incorrigibly lecherous canine persona adopted by George Clinton circa "Atomic Dog". DMX's use of the term "dog" to refer to himself and his clique stems from admiration for the way wild dogs run in packs and domesticated dogs give their owner's unconditional love. In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". He imagines this canine fraternity becoming a kind of pedigreed dynasty: "My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine".

DMX's doom-and-gloomy imagery--album titles like It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, songs like "The Omen"-- has as much in common with angst-wracked industrial and heavy metal artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn as with other rappers. A crucial aspect of his Gothic imagery is what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the Medieval symbolics of blood", as seen in the title of DMX's second album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Thicker than water but easily spilled,  "blood"  is a highly charged word in DMX's  vocabulary. Its  ambivalence condenses gangsta rap's violently polarized emotions, the way it's forever oscillating between love and hate, loyalty and skullduggery, unity and dog-eat-dog struggle.

Gangsta rappers have found a reflection of these hot-blooded passions in Hollywood's Mafia films, whose families disregard the broader society's morality and instead cleave to a privatized morality: a neo-Medieval ethics of loyalty and revenge that operates only in the domain of  kith and kin, plus bondsmen unrelated by blood but who have sworn fealty to the clan. With its code of honor among villains and its family structure, the idea of the Mafia  resonates with hardcore  rap partly because of the way it maps onto the street realities of gangs and turf wars.  But it's also because the idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to the abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap, patriotism contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and usually one tied to a place---a project (like Cash Money's Magnolia neighbourhood in New Orleans), a borough, or at its most expansive, a city. As well being expressed territorially, loyalty is increasingly registered in quasi-genetic imagery--the family, the clan, the dynasty. [DMX would start a label called Bloodline Records]

The cinematic representation of Mafia history in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas often involves an ultimately fatal tension between family loyalty and business logic, as Medieval values imported from Sicily collide with American capitalism.  Clan elders are disrespected, bad blood sets brother against brother, rival families feud and go to war,  because conflicts arise over the new market opportunities represented by  drugs. In rap too there's a tension between the rhetoric of "til death do us part" fealty and the provisional, contractual reality of business relationships. Although The Lox were originally members of the Ruff Ryders milieu, the trio eagerly became henchmen of Puff Daddy, who signed the group to his Bad Boy label, altered their name (originally the Warlocks), persuaded them to tone down their hardcore street style, and coached them in writing radio-friendly songs. But when their debut album for Bad Boy failed to make them rich, the Lox defected, re-plighting their troth to Ruff Ryders, and releasing the  ghettocentric We Are The Streets this January. Other examples of rappers shifting allegiances between different labels/cliques include ex-Death Row artist Snoop Dogg signing on as a No Limit soldier and Eve originally being a protege of Dr. Dre's Aftermath label before affiliating to Ruff Ryders. All this suggests that rap operates less like feuding clans and more like another lucrative entertainment industry based around symbolic warfare, sports--where top players are hired guns and transfer their loyalties at the drop of a check.

Still, for some at least, the thick-like-blood rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-capitalistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". In a skit on his third chart-topping album ... And Then There Was X, an unidentified hanger-on declares he'll do anything to get the money he desperately needs. DMX issues a stern reprimand: "Dog, you got to think about loyalty first, know wha' I'm saying? You got loyalty, money will come.  You got a lot to learn."

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