Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Two Realists

"My middle name must be Fuck You/'Cause every time I walk niggas be like, `Fuck you,'" goes the chorus. "My first name must be He Ain't Shit/'Cause every time I'm in my car bitches be like, `He ain't shit.'" The song is "I'll Bee Dat!" It's the lead single on Doc's Da Name 2000, the fourth album by a rapper I never expected to get that far, or to interest me if he did--not after Redman commenced his 1992 debut with a slasher-flick skit about how he'd strangled "a white male" at "rap" (not "hip hop") concerts in 13 states. Right, it's "parody," and why not name the enemy, which comes down to white males more often than not? But I'm a white male, and not (sorry) the enemy. The enemy rarely attends rap concerts. I do. So my attitude was, fuck you.

Catching up with 1994's Dare Iz a Darkside and 1996's Muddy Waters--both gold, both prized by the hardcore--I don't feel like I missed much. Over utilitarian beats la his discoverer and Def Squad co-member Erick Sermon, Redman's brand of weed-fueled raunch-ruckus is rarely as wild or ecstatic as Busta Rhymes's or Ol' Dirty Bastard's; too often its distinctive grit manifests as crass bitch-slap and beat-ass BS. But Doc's Da Name has a more humane mood: the comic high spirits that previously bubbled closer to the surface in Busta and ODB fuse with the grit into ground-level, politically incorrect satire full of loud farts, stinkin' asses, and no-account thugs making monkey noises. Set in "The Bricks," the "ghetto as hell" Newark hometown where Redman n Reggie Noble will reside until such time as he can afford the "nice house" he wants for his infant son, it makes something like a protagonist of Noble's alternate alter ego Funk Doctor Spot, the kind of hapless monkey who perpetrates mayhem on all of Redman's records. Not every song is funny, but, miraculously, all five skits are. On "Million Chicken March" a babymama militant named Liquidacia demands 40 cans of Enfamil a month and refuses to report babydaddies to welfare: "We must stick together in order to survive in a world of bourgie hos." "Pain in Da Ass Stewardess" enacts a skyjacking stickup: " . . . motherfuckin' shoes, sneakers, socks, I want the credit cards, the welfare cards, I even want your fuckin' frequent flier miles." Presumably, Redman isn't the speaker, who ends up shooting a hole in the side of the plane, blasting himself and everyone else to perdition.

Unless Coolio and Biz Markie are larger than they look these days, it's safe to generalize that this kind of hip hop antihero has trouble holding on to what respect he gets; the big exception is ODB, who's really selling insanity and has an entire Clan watching his back. With most rappers who claim hardcore, vulnerability only deepens heroic dimension--Scarface's life after death, Jay-Z's detailed fantasies of betrayal and reconciliation--and humor means killer disses, fancy wordplay, and the kind of street-hardened irony Biggie Smalls owned. But whether hip hop's dauntless self-promotion is exemplary or escapist, Doc's Da Name downplays it. Redman comes on humble. There's no flaunting of distance, skill, or command even in relatively generic sex boasts like "Well All Rite Cha" and "Da Goodness," much less "Let Da Monkey Out" ("I tell lies under oath if it please the court," but also "I got zits on your face that can't wait to bump") or "Jersey Yo!"'s infectious tales of fucking up on weed ("What's up, bitch? Oh, hi mama"). Everybody fucks up here, and although the rapper is a big man of sorts, he's still living in The Bricks, right? "Fuck all you radio that wanna play clean singles/I cleaned mine for years and still ain't hit a million," he grouses resignedly. The result? "I'm a everyday nigga like a Toyota/The A&R hope we don't drop the same coda."

In a genre where nobody wants to be a role model and everybody is, Redman cuts fresh cheese. People have jobs on this record--"whether it's fast food, or transportation, sneaker store, doin' hair, or straight-up strippin', we gotta get the cash"--and that includes its "round-the-clock lyricist," who says he sleeps in his workboots. And though Redman never moralizes, he gives the impression that his developed craft and increasingly down-to-earth ghetto realism come with the long haul of a career that's maintained but never blown up, with an assist from fatherhood. Afroed Oaklander Boots Riley, the surviving rapper in the Coup, who after valiant attempts to promote postgangsta militance on Wild Pitch in '93 and '94 resurfaced late last year on Dogday (4432 Telegraph Avenue, Box 72, Oakland, California 94609,, reaches a similar artistic maturity by a less promising route: ideology, activism, study. Even in the wake of records entitled Kill Your Landlord, Genocide and Juice, and now Steal This Album, it's shock enough to hear anyone working in a pop form come out and say flatly: "See, I'm a communist." For the lyrics to bite and excite and amuse and the music to carry them along seems too much to expect. Maybe the revolution already happened and nobody noticed. (Just kidding.)

The Coup are pure Oakland, a cross between David Hilliard, the Black Panther leader whose autobiography tops a reading list on which Riley also recommends Manning Marable and Saul Alinsky, and Too Short, whose deep-bumping beats are a key source of the Coup's live-in-the-studio funk (although where Too Short treats all women as hos, Riley's coconspirator is female DJ Pam the Funkstress). Musically as well as verbally, Riley goes for a coherence that would have sounded old school when the Bomb Squad was def, which combined with his incitements to armed rebellion--"20,000 gun salute!/Get rowdy like you got a substitute!"--virtually guarantees that he'll never take his message nationwide. But putting aside fashion-driven notions of progress, he's a lot better at his chosen beats than Redman (or tough-fronting hack Erick Sermon). The essence of Redman's musicality is a staccato flow that suits both his jumpy imagery and the surrounding cacophony ("Fu-u-u-ck you-ou" echoing through brick canyons, say). The Coup's music is bass-heavy riff-and-chorus jams hung with simple hooks--harmonica, string synth, Tower of Power horns, vocal backups galore. You could wake up humming Alan "Dr. Blues" Werblin, M.D.'s harp part, or Del The Funkee Homosapien's nervous and/or demonic repo-man la-la-las. But they wouldn't mean much if they didn't underpin Riley's casual, comprehensible, rapid, verbose delivery.

Because Riley is a propagandist and propagandists want to be understood, he declines another hip hop usage that's more than a fashion by now--the subcultural references, private jokes, and other carefully tended obscurities that shield it from prying ears. There's even a crib sheet, which isn't essential but sure comes in handy. Story-telling and theme-following are the rule, and after four years Riley has some rhymes for the people. Steal This Album's tour de force is "Me and Jesus the Pimp in a '79 Granada Last Night," a corny, well-plotted tale where a 24-year-old kills the surrogate father who long ago murdered his mom, which climaxes by flipping a surprisingly street Microsoft-Macintosh metaphor. But every track impresses in its own way, including the virtuosic music-as-dope opener, the revolutionary call to arms, the brutal medical expose ("It seems that he's lost the will to pay"), funny stories about sneaking into the movies and driving the broken-down hoopties that transport more folks than Beemers where Riley is from and everywhere else. The painful repo-man burlesque is ratcheted up by "Underdogs," which translates Manning Marable on poverty and exploitation into terms any ghetto dweller can recognize, even from a few levels up the stepladder. Ideologues believe communist artists are never this humorous, this balanced, this concrete. They're wrong.

Other ideologues, some of whom fear the new black music and some of whom live for it, no doubt believe this can't be real hip hop. They're wrong too. The very different ghetto realisms of Redman and the Coup both happen to be to my taste, but I wouldn't think of trying to point rap that way even if I had the power to do so. Both merely reaffirm what's clearer all the time--the genre's so far unlimited capacity to get artists off their asses, doing stuff no one's ever done before.

Village Voice, Mar. 9, 1999