A Bard’s Eye View: Hip Hop Storytelling


Some people enjoy hip hop for the beat, some look for the lyrics.  For me, it’s certainly a combination of the two.  Lyrically, I look for a good use of similes, metaphors, and an emphasis on wordplay.  I also really enjoy a good narrative within hip hop.  Even if the stories aren’t directly from the writer’s experience, they can give an interesting perspective on a subject that I wouldn’t ordinarily find within the genre.  This week, I’m going to explore five songs that I found to be very unique.  These are stories about the horrors of war, living life without having to explain yourself, moving on while remembering life lessons, and how a life in crime can stack up quickly.

El-P (with Cage) – Habeas Corpses (Draconian Love)

el-p-little-shalimar-another-body-lead

“The title is a reference to the legal concept of Habeas Corpus, which is the right to be informed of the reason for detention. Set on a prison ship that resembles the secret prisons employed by the United States throughout the Iraq war, the song is an exploration of the minds of those who work in secret prisons, carrying out human rights abuses, and, in the song, outright murder.”
-genius.com

Before El-P’s label Definitive Jux went under, he released I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead in 2007.  The album features a few labelmates and a couple interesting people from rock genres including Cedric Bixler-Zavala from The Mars Volta and Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails.  Essentially, it is an industrial hip hop album with a lot of science fiction allusions, many of them being related to Philip K. Dick’s work.

In Habeas Corpses, El-P teams up with Cage to provide a devil’s advocate look at the bad guys.  In four minutes, they craft a story of two men working on a prison ship.  It’s apparent that in the past, they’ve been harming the prisoners and even raping them.  El-P’s character seems to exhibit a desire to change his behavior when he falls in love with one of the prisoners.

Only known as Number 247290-Zed, the name itself implies a disregard for identity, similar to Holocaust and slavery conditions.  The conscience seems to manifest itself in the protagonist as his attitude is obviously much different than it has been in the past as he speaks of this situation being different.  It seems relatively subtle, but I believe the twist here is that the situations he describes with him running away with her and living a life on the land with her is simply a fantasy.  This is supported by the end where a character named Lindt is told to fire his weapon at her.

Ill Bill (with Immortal Technique and Max Cavalera) – War is My Destiny

ill-bill-grungecake-thumbnail

“Ill Bill’s verse is an allusion of the story of Conan the Barbarian (remember the glorious movie?). Conan’s family was murdered when he was just a kid and he himself was enslaved. Eventually he got freed, grew warrior, took his revenge on his slave masters and became king.”
-genius.com

Ill Bill and his brother Necro grew up with a steady influence of heavy metal and hip hop.  Specifically, Ill Bill was a fan of Slayer, Iron Maiden, and Sepultura while LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys were also emerging onto the scene.  These influences were prevalent in the music he created but he found more of a fusion in his 2008 album The Hour of Reprisal.

In addition to being a host to Necro, Tech N9ne, and Everlast, H.R., Howard Jones, and DJ Lethal are also featured on this album, making for a fairly eclectic blend of musicians.  In War is My Destiny, Max Cavalera (ex-Sepultura, Soulfly, and The Cavalera) and Immortal Technique are an interesting combination.  Max Cavalera offers a chorus, which doesn’t really make or break the song with context but helps to amp up the intensity within the song.  Ill Bill embodies a character who has been victimized by invaders while Immortal Technique plays the role of the antagonist, a malevolent being bound by evil.

Aesop Rock No Regrets

aesop-rock-4dd68d403ca75 (1)

“You can dream a little dream or you can live a little dream
I’d rather live it, cause dreamers always chase but never get it”
-this song

This was the very first song I ever heard from Aesop Rock.  This was in 2002, back during a time when I was convinced that all hip hop consisted of bitches, bling, and killing cops.  This song literally opened my perspective to checking out more artists within the genre.  Rhapsody named this album #3 in The Best 10 Albums by White Rappers and I truly feel that this is one of the best ever written.

Meet Lucy, a precocious and polite 7-year-old who has an affinity for art.  Imagine that some of the most amazing chalk art you’ve ever seen, but it’s completely created by a little child.  We may have known people like this while we were growing up.  We may have been this person.  Someone who is passionate about a specific thing and doesn’t really require companionship but welcomes it as long as it doesn’t interfere with our motive.

As a 37-year-old, her artwork has transformed to charcoal drawings and is still living in the same apartment complex that she has lived all of her life.  Not only does this suggest that she had no desire to stray far from her home, but it represents a strong community, where people often never leave because of the connections they build.

At 87-years-old, she is dying but completely content as she has lived a life that she felt was complete.  She never once explained herself nor felt that she had to.  Despite the community gossiping about her and saying nasty things about her, she never once felt the need to defend herself or address the issues.

“Look, I’ve never had a dream in my life
Because a dream is what you wanna do, but still haven’t pursued
I knew what I wanted and did it till it was done
So I’ve been the dream that I wanted to be since day one!”
-Lucy, age 87

AtmosphereYesterday

Slug_adp
In 2008, Atmosphere released When Life Gives You Lemons You Paint That Shit Gold, the first LP release in three years.  This album is full of maturity, a lot of self-reflective music that looks back on Slug’s life through all of these years.  In particular, the song Yesterday sticks out to me because it’s one that I can relate to on a personal level.

During the entire process of this song, it intentionally misdirects you, making it seem like the person he is referring to is an old girlfriend.  Many of the lines are aptly appropriate for it and it does a great job of acting as a red herring.  Also in the song, he admits to his vices and shortcomings, taking accountability for the things he feels he needs to work on.

“But who am I jokin’ with?  There’s no way that you and I will ever get to re-open it.”  This line in particular led me to believe it was regarding a situation that could never be rehashed due to the decisions he had made.  Instead, the final line informs you that all of this is just a memory of events as the song is about his father who had passed away.

This is a song that I identify with quite a bit because I had a lot of problems with my father growing up and I never did have the opportunity to resolve it.  Doing a little more research (genius.com continues to be my authority in this process), I learned that his father had actually committed suicide.

“Just to supplement this annotation, the song and ending can prove to be flexible and not limit itself to a parent, there is a video where Slug replaces ‘Dad’ with ‘Mike’ as a reference to Eyedea AKA. Micheal Larsen.”
-genius.com

Immortal TechniqueDance With the Devil

Immortal_Technique-12461

This song is by and away Immortal Technique’s magnum opus.  It is the song he is most known for and is considered by many to be the most psychologically debilitating hip hop songs ever written.  At 6:49, it nearly twice the length of a typical song in this genre.  This song helped establish him early on as a forerunner in the underground hip hop scene.  His debut album, Revolutionary, Volume 1, released in 2001, is full of some great songs, but this one stands alone because of its powerful message and brutalism.

The song follows a kid named William, who grew up without a father and a drug addicted mother.  As time goes on, he finds himself caught up in gangs selling drugs and robbing people.   He gets thrown in jail and ends up ratting out his friends.  This causes his street credibility to plummet and to rebuild respect he decides to up the ante on his crimes.  This strategy didn’t work, though, as he is forever seen as a snitch and cannot regain the respect he once had.  He eventually decides that raping someone will open their eyes to how much of a badass he is.

The rape is described very explicitly and eventually it is revealed that he has raped his own mother.  The subtlety here is that the people in the gang that also raped her knew her identity while William was unaware.  This is evident in the way that they make him go first and the clever use of the word “bastard” as a double entendre.

I chose these five particular songs because I wanted to recognize the songwriting ability in a genre that often gets overlooked as unintelligent and untalented.  I believe that every genre has something to offer, sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper.  Hopefully, these are some good tracks to look into and perhaps expand your palette.  Or maybe you’re just like me and this is a nice trip down memory lane.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *