"We do dirt like work." - Jay-Z, Can't Knock the Hustle (featuring Mary J. Blige)
Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler by Ethan Brown (Anchor Books, 2005). I first heard about Queens Reigns Supreme from a short post on Jeff Chang's Zentronix. Having spent a lot of time with hip-hop lit in the past couple years, I keep thinking I know the true story of hip-hop and each time I read an exceptional piece of investigative work, I'm reminded I don't know shit about shit. Where Jeff's own Can't Stop, Won't Stop helped me recapture and crystallize the feeling this music and culture has given me over the years, Queens Reigns Supreme highlights how crime and rhyme intertwine -- an issue, I've always struggled with and moreso as I've gotten older.
I can't decide if I care whether or not most rappers are merely studio gangstas. Wankstas as 50 Cent would say (although, he's more wanksta than gangsta these days). Do I like Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G. and, more recently, Slim Thug because I identify or idolize with their almost entirely fictional lyrics about being in the game? No. I enjoy their music in the same way I enjoy movies like New Jack City and Carlito's Way and TV like The Wire and The Corner. I appreciate the glimpse into worlds I know nothing about but more than anything, I like the humanity that hides underneath. Whether or not the stories are true doesn't really matter. That the emotion and the struggles feel right and honest is what I'm connecting with. It is that pulling back of the curtain that makes me appreciate The Game's Documentary last year much more than 50 Cent's Massacre. Behind all the gangsta tales is this constant vulnerability and hope on The Game's debut. 50 Cent's follow up seems to have lost all of that. It's calculated and false.
But let's go back to New Jack City. I love that movie. I love it for all it's faults - the ham-handed preachiness, the over-acting by Ice-T and Judd Nelson, the askew camera angles. Love it love it love. I also love the tenuous relationship it makes between New York's crack-riddled 80s and hip-hop. There's breakdancing and Flavor Flav and Fab 5 Freddy and track suits and dance parties but it is all on the periphery to what is really going on with the hustle crews and the cops of the city. I always thought the most fantastical thing about the film was when the CMB crew takes over an entire housing project. Ethan Brown's book reveals that this isn't far-fetched at all. Audacious crews did, in fact, take over entire buildings to sell in and out of. And then, in the late 90s, a decade after the hammer came down on most of those big drug teams and just a few years after New Jack City was released, new crews were calling themselves CMB after Wesley Snipes's Cash Money Brothers. The hustler idol worship cycle continuing on. The dismal endings of Fat Cat and Pappy Mason and Nino Brown obviously not much a deterrent for many in the streets.
Saddest for me, however, is the real story of Jam Master Jay and his murder. Jay, a hip-hop icon, struggling to stay afloat. Doing a little drug shit on the side. Still running in circles with shady cats. Ending up dead in his own music studio and, once again, nobody's talking to police and nobody is in jail for his murder. I just don't understand.
This is a quick read and, despite all the real death and violence, an incredibly compelling true story of the last 25 years in new york hip-hop & crime.