Like any good teenage metalhead, I hated rap music. In my early youth, I had enjoyed the pop rap antics of MC Hammer, The Fresh Prince and yes even Vanilla Ice, but once metal came along, that rather embarrassing part of my musical evolution was deliberately buried and left for dead. In high school, I found myself hitching rides on occasion with my friend Jon, an eclectic, down-to-earth dude with a taste for rap in addition to rock and metal. I distinctly remember him saying, “I know you don’t like this shit, but we’re gonna listen to it,” and throwing on some random 2Pac (or was it Too $hort?) album. Even in Iowa, rap music was everywhere in the 1990s; on TV, the radio, magazines, my friend’s cars and parties, there was no escaping it. At some point I finally caved, and although my appreciation of rap never grew to the obsessive levels that my appreciation for heavy metal did, I began to appreciate it nonetheless.
I found myself drawn to gangsta rap, specifically to the West Coast G-Funk sound defined by Dr. Dre’s landmark 1992 album The Chronic. Part Parliament/Funkadelic and part blaxploitation soundtrack, The Chronic was rife with deep, slow beats and high-pitched synth patterns, as well as a combination of samples and live instrumentation; the album seemed like a party until you realized that much of the lyrical content dealt with violence and misogyny. Fueled by Dre’s feud with former NWA (who’s Straight Outta Compton album is arguably gangsta ground zero) bandmate Eazy E, songs such as “Fuck wit’ Dre Day” featured lyrical beatdowns such as:
“Mister Busta, where the fuck you at / Can’t scrap a lick, so I know ya got your gat / Your dick on hard, from fuckin’ your road dogs / The hood you threw up with, n***** you grew up with / Don’t even respect your ass / That’s why it’s time for the doctor, to check your ass, n**** / Used to be my homey, used to be my ace / Now I wanna slap the taste out yo’ mouth / N**** bow down to the row / Fuckin’ me, now I’m fuckin’ you, little hoe / Oh, don’t think I forgot, let you slide, Let me ride / just another homicide”
Pretty brutal shit, especially when one considers that Dre is talking about killing a real-life former friend, not some imaginary victim ala the average Cannibal Corpse song, for instance. While I have little doubt that many of the beefs that defined gangsta rap at the time were embellished and blown out of proportion in order to generate notoriety and sell records, there’s still something chilling about the reality lurking behind those lyrics. Eazy E would eventually succumb to AIDS in 1995, but not before firing off a few dis tracks of his own such as the excellent ”Real Muthaphuckkin’ G’s.”
Even more than The Chronic, the album that defined the era was Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle. Snoop was an unknown when Dr. Dre plucked him out of obscurity to rap with him on the theme song for the film Deep Cover and then The Chronic, but his smooth flow, which is somehow both lazy-sounding and nimble at the same time made him an instant star. Although my rap knowledge is severely lacking in comparison to my knowledge of metal, I do know that Doggystyle is one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rap, probably in the history of music in general. It is a perfect companion piece to The Chronic, but in many ways surpasses it; the production is even funkier, the rhymes are more clever and the hooks are hookier. Just like The Chronic though, there are threads of darkness hiding beneath the party atmosphere and “don’t give a fuck” attitude. In “Murder was the Case,” Snoop makes an ill-fated deal with the Devil in exchange for success, while “Serial Killa” features the hook “Suicide, it’s a suicide” and some murderous lyrics from Daz and Kurupt while Snoop damns his fallen enemies to “go down with the Devil” and “roam through the depths of hell.” It’s RBX’s verse that steals the song however, with some uniquely gruesome wordplay and an idiosyncratic flow. RBX comes in at around the 2:25 mark in the video below.
Snoop Dogg wasn’t the only rapper dealing with the Devil though. The D.O.C., a rapper who had written lyrics for NWA was left with a voice that made him sound like a hip hop demon after being involved in a near-fatal car accident, and his music took an apocalyptic turn on 1996′s often overlooked and underrated Helter Skelter. Take a listen to The D.O.C.’s endtime prophesying on “Secret Plan,” which even includes a cameo from Jello Biafra. “Remember, religion is but a tool to control your ass.”
In 1998, DMX unleashed his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell is Hot. Much like Snoop Dogg before him, DMX rapped about selling his soul to the Devil in order to gain the trifecta of wealth, fame and power on the track “Damien.” The interesting thing about “Damien” is that it could also be interpreted as a sort of hip hop Jeckyll and Hyde story; is DMX being preyed upon by a malignant outside force, or is he giving in to his own inner demons? DMX would go on to record various sequels to “Damien” (“Damien II” even featured guest vocals by Marilyn Manson on the hook), but none of them top the original, which can be streamed below.
While the aforementioned albums have dark undertones, none of them can compare to the permanent midnight that is Cypress Hill’s third album, Temples of Boom. Featuring a claustrophobic, drugged-out production scheme from DJ Muggs, this is the rap equivalent of doom metal, fuelled by tales of life on the streets and a shitload of weed. Hell, even the cover of Temples of Boom looks metal as hell.
Not only is Temples of Boom totally heavy and suffocating, it is also oddly psychedelic at times, as demonstrated by “Illusions,” a song that sees the band consumed by a marijuana-induced freak-out; B-Real raps “some people tell me that I need help / some people can fuck off and go to hell,”over a backing track that sounds like it belongs to the Jim Morrison peyote-dream sequence from The Doors. As the album progresses, you can almost feel yourself being taken deeper and deeper into Cypress Hill’s “temple of thieves;” there is no party atmosphere here, only blunted yet menacing beats and paranoid-schizophrenic rhymes, an absolute descent into madness, a madness madder than anything a metal band could ever hope to conjure up. Cypress Hill would go on to experiment with metal on later albums, even collaborating with members of Fear Factory, Deftones and Rage Against the Machine on the Skull & Bones and Stoned Raiders albums, but they would never again trip the dark fantastic the way they did on Temples of Boom, a truly one-of-a-kind hip hop recording that’s yet to be equalled.
Although I sincerely doubt that any of the albums I’ve talked about here will be new to you, I hope that maybe some of the aspects I’ve pointed out will help you to see them in a different light. If nothing else, I hope this little exercise has proven that there’s more to rap music than bitches and hos, and that there might even be something that even the most vehement of hip hop hating metalheads can enjoy. Keep an open mind and it just might win you over.
Further suggested listening:
Wu Tang Clan – Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)
Dr. Octagon – Dr. Octogonecologyst
Busta Rhymes – The Coming
Master P – Ghetto D
Westside Connection – Bow Down
GZA – Liquid Swords
WC – The Shadiest One
2Pac – All Eyez on Me
Digital Underground – Sex Packets
Ice Cube – The Predator
Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Beastie Boys – Check Your Head