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Bullet Points: How Hip-Hop Handles the Gun

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Way of the Gun is an occasional Artbound series that explores the representations and cultural meanings of firearms as depicted in various American artforms.

One of the most arresting moments on Kendrick Lamar's recent "good kid/m.A.A.d city" album comes at the two minute mark of "Sing About Me." Rhyming in the 3rd person as the brother of a slain friend, Lamar begins to say, "If I die before your album drop, I hope..." An unexpected rattle of gunshots cuts him off while the instrumental track plays on, seemingly unaware that the narrator has been silenced.

The moment is especially unsettling because it falls mid-sentence and off-rhythm; there's no build-up to it, no warning. And because the bullet's hard, piercing drum-roll is unmistakable, there's an intuitive reaction to cringe even if we realize it's just a sound effect. "Bullets is nameless" says Lamar elsewhere, but we don't confuse their anonymity with ambiguity. We know what the sound means, we know what it portends.

Critics of hip-hop argue that the music "glorifies violence" and specifically, gun violence. There's no denying that gun symbolism suffuses much of hip-hop; one of my favorite phrases of the late' 80s was "kick the ballistics" (i.e. speak truth to power) while one of the more anticipated albums of 2013 is "Medellin," by a Florida rapper simply named Gunplay. It's fair to say that no American pop genre celebrates the power of the gun as much as hip-hop. What critics forget is that no pop genre confronts or contends with the consequences of gun violence as much as hip-hop either.

One of the most memorable scenes in the early hip-hop-inspired film Wild Style (1982) plays out as follows:

Hip-hop's dual fascination/antagonism to the gun can already be seen/heard in this moment. On the one hand, the film's protagonist and his downtown debutante friend face mortal peril from this group of stick-up kids. On the other hand, "A to the motherfucking K" is a memorable malediction, one that later rappers would repeat with glee.

The fact that the gun is both threatening and thrilling is not a contradiction; it speaks to why it is such a potent symbol in American culture, not just hip-hop. Consider how, in cinema, from Westerns to noir, spy capers to sci-fi adventures, guns are often integral to how these genres represent themselves.

Clockwise from top left: Fistful of Dollars (UA, 1967), Kiss Me Deadly (UA, 1955), Casino Royale (MGM, 2006), The Matrix (Warner Bros., 1999)
Clockwise from top left: Fistful of Dollars (UA, 1967), Kiss Me Deadly (UA, 1955), Casino Royale (MGM, 2006), The Matrix (Warner Bros., 1999).

In all these examples, the gun's cross-popularity lays in its basic symbolic quality: power, manifested in a simple, hand-held form. Importantly, the gun doesn't require power to wield (unlike, say, swinging a battle axe). It lends power to whomever wields it. That's why we jokingly call guns "debate enders" and "problem solvers." They are the great equalizer in a society wracked with difference. Being on the other end of a gun sight establishes a new social order.

There's more though: guns also possess a moral dimension. As the much debated "right to bear arms" clause of the 2nd Amendment potentially suggests, guns are meant to defend "us," whether that means the nation, the home, the family, and in its most liberal interpretation, the individual, anywhere, anytime. In other circumstances, the gun's symbolic purpose as a powerful defender of individual and/or social liberties is all but taken for granted. Until, that is, the gun appears in a black hand.

Race is an inseparable part of any debate around hip-hop and guns. One could, for example, discuss the high rates of black-on-black violence and argue that gun glorification in hip-hop only contributes to a cycle of death and tragedy that seems purposefully segregated to scar black communities. All true but gun violence is ubiquitous in American life (as too many recent events remind us). Hip-hop, however, seems singled out for critique in ways that the rest of popular culture often is not (and as I've stressed, some of the most vocal critics of black-on-black violence are rappers).

There's an undeniable strain of pearl-clutching that accompanies attacks on rappers for gun symbolism. As Dan Charnas exhaustively chronicles in his history of the hip-hop business, "The Big Payback," the song "Cop Killer" by Body Count, the rap/metal band led by Ice T, set off a paroxysm of outrage and recriminations. Astoundingly, this included both then-President George G.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle weighing in as well as Charlton Heston grandstanding at a Time-Warner stockholder meeting in an attempt to have Warner Bros. Records' execs jettison the group and album.

The controversy is a reminder that the specter of black people self-arming resonates quite differently than when white firearm owners are being evaluated. It's worth remembering, for example, how the Black Panthers public displays of arms-bearing in the late 1960s led the conservative right to demand more stringent gun control laws in California and elsewhere. Again, this point is hardly lost on rappers. Many understand, quite well, how the image and idea of armed black men and women play into middle America's fears of a black planet.

N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless, 1988)
N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless, 1988).

When Eazy E points his revolver at the camera on N.W.A.'s iconic "Straight Outta Compton" album cover, who is the intended target? Other rappers? Other Compton residents? The likely answer lies in both the image and the group's name: Niggas With Attitude. They are America's bogeymen, Nat Turner in Raiders gear, the "villains in black" as group member MC Ren once anointed himself. Eazy is gunning (pun intended) for white America, to rouse controversy and entice curious white consumers whose suburban dollars fuel his group's sales.

Other rappers have nodded more directly to the historical connections between Black nationalism and the bearing of arms. Most famously is Boogie Down Productions' recreation of Malcolm X, standing at the window with a machine gun.

Importantly, in our invented memory, we assume Malcolm was on the watch against white supremacists (or perhaps, dissident members of the Nation of Islam). We may forget however that the original photo of Malcolm at the window wasn't candid; it was posed, part of a suite of photos that accompanied a 1964 Ebony Magazine profile of the community leader. Malcolm, like Boogie Down Productions' KRS-One a generation later, well-understood the public power of gun symbolism.

Rappers also understand the costs of gun violence, especially KRS-One. When he and his DJ partner, Scott La Rock, hit the scene in 1987, they shot the album cover for their debut, Criminal Minded, with Scott holding a snub-nosed revolver while KRS slung a bandolier of shotgun shells. The same album included, "My 9MM Goes Bang" where KRS raps about righteously wielding his sidearm against mobs of murderous crack dealers.

The tragic post-script was that months after the album's release, Scott La Rock was shot twice during a street altercation in the South Bronx. He died several days later. Scott became one of the first truly prominent hip-hop figures killed by gun violence and it was one force that led KRS to later form the "Stop the Violence Movement."

Overall, the list of rappers linked to gun deaths is sobering and staggering. Most obviously, there are the (still unsolved) shooting deaths of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., at the height of their respective fame. Add to that dark roll-call the deaths of Harlem's Big L, Queens' Jam Master Jay, Vallejo's Mac Dre, Detroit's Proof, among others. Then there's the rappers accused/convicted of gun violence: Chi Ali, Slick Rick, C-Murder, Steady B, Snoop Dogg, etc.

None of this misses the radar of rappers, arguably the most self-critical of all pop artists; when's the last time you heard sub-movements in dance music that seemingly exist to explicitly critique - via recordings - the excesses of dance music recordings? Hip-hop-related deaths and shooting incidents have served as cautionary tales going back to the music's formative eras.

(It must be noted, despite recording an all-time classic story about the dangers of "the wrong path," Slick Rick was convicted of attempted murder after shooting both his cousin/bodyguard and a bystander in 1991. He was pardoned in 2008 by then-New York governor David Patterson).

There's also an entire tradition of dramatizations of rappers themselves or friends being shot and the ensuing chaos.

However, just as common are dramatizations where its the rappers doing the shooting. As I've stressed, these aren't contradictions; they're reflections of the gun's potency within the popular imagination. Shoot or be shot, kill or be killed: one could argue that all human drama stems from this basic tension.

Much of this comes full circle on Kendrick Lamar's album; it's hard to remember another recent, high-profile release as suffused with gun-related anxiety as good kid/m.A.A.d city. It's not just that fatal self-prophecy I related off of "Sing About Me," - the album's opus, "Sherane" similarly interrupts the narrative when Lamar's booty call quest is detoured by the sudden appearance of "two n-----s, two black hoodies." Presumably, he doesn't assume they're packing wiffle ball bats.

On "m.A.A.d city" Lamar and guest Schoolboy Q open the song this way:

KL: If Pirus and Crips/all got along/they'd probably gun me down by the end of this song.
Seem like the whole city/go against me/every time I'm in the street I hear...

SQ: Yak! Yak! Yak! Yak!

Just one song earlier, on "good kid," Lamar speaks of how the claustrophobia of the city propels a desire to "fire bullets that stray," while on "Money Trees," Lamar insists that "Everybody gon' respect the shooter/but the one in front of the gun lives forever." It's almost as if Lamar is speaking back to his album's executive producer, Dr. Dre. After all, on Dre's seminal The Chronic, recorded some 20 years earlier, the elder Compton rapper tells us, "who's the man/with the master plan?/a n----a with a gun."

For all this though, even Lamar isn't immune to the allure of the gun's symbolic bad ass-ery. On "The Jig Is Up (Dump'n)" - a song recorded and released after good kid/m.A.A.d city came out - Lamar begins by telling us to "feel this" before a gunshot rings out, initiating the backing track. On the hook, Lamar mimics the sound of a pistol's bark: "now we dumping out the roof/do-do-do-do-do/drive past/guns blast/shooting up the charts too." The first half of that verse closes the song except instead of "do-do-do-do-do," you hear gunshots fired in the same pattern. Unlike the bullets that unsettle "Sing About Me," on here, that staccato pulse echoes with brio.

Rappers have a term for that kind of bravado: "bulletproof."

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