I sing of arms and the man

Phil Ford

Whenever I move (which has been a lot in the last few years), I’m always happiest when I’m unpacking my books at the end of their bruising journey in the moving van. It’s like seeing all your old friends again after a long trip. One book I was especially happy to see is Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood, which is the best account of police work I’ve ever read — it’s cop show in the most literal sense. Conlon writes like a dream, with a sure eye for black comedy and the minutae of social behavior (which is, after all, a cop’s stock-in-trade).

Anyway, I bring it up because Conlon makes a point about gangsta rap that I’ve often thought myself but have never seen articulated by anyone else:

Rap music has its roots in the Bronx, in the 1970s, with DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. and although gangsta rap started as a West Coast style, it is heard — and felt — here, too. A musical style became a personal stance, for the last man standing. The civics lesson of gangsta rap is of feral individualism, where desperate claims to fame rest on girls, guns, and gold. While the music’s embrace of drug dealers and pimps is widely and wearily decried, the describe gangsta rap as a new low in the culture is, at best, half true. In the lyrics and the police reports, thug life is a litany of petty slights that lead to brutal slaughter, but it is also the story of the Trojan War. Ten years of siege and suffering began with an insult to Paris and continued through an insult to Achilles, inspired by gods you wouldn’t trust with your wallet or your sister. “I sing of arms and the man” might sound a loftier note than the nigga-trigger rhymes of Tupac Shakur, but the spirit is often the same. We might not like it, but it’s not as if we’ve never seen it before. (Conlon, p. 81).

I mention this because I was thinking about Jonathan’s post the other day, which managed both to make the traditional case against gangsta rap and to turn the argument inside out by noting the inevitable “when I do it it’s cute” special pleading that goes along with it. Which was cool. But I guess I see a point in “all the out-of-control strutting, violence, and drug-dealing lingo” of hiphop: it sounds a note of fatalism you find almost nowhere else in American popular culture. This is not to say that American pop culture isn’t as violent as the harder kinds of hiphop; it’s that hiphop dwells on violence and its moral and existential consequences in a way that you will not find in, say, an episode of 24. The moral consequences may be crude, but they exist, because they have to: the imaginative space that hiphop maps out is fundamentally marked by a basic acceptance of the fact of violent death — death that can strike anyone for any reason or no reason, as well as for some very well-understood reasons (see Biggie’s Ten Crack Commandments). And this kind of awareness or acceptance of violence entrains a certain way of living, and a certain stoic attitude: we all have it coming, and in the unknowable interval between now and my death I can get high, or chase women, or shoot it out with my rivals, and maybe, in the end, if I’m smart and hard and lucky, I can buy a little more time, but even so, still, I’ve got it coming, one way or the other. So, knowing that, what’s it going to be? Be a villain, be a saint, or something else? It’s your choice, but live well within your choice, and accept its consequences; live it out to the end; it’s later than you think. It is, as I say, a certain note of fatalism.* There isn’t necessarily any redemption in the narratives implied by this attitude, but there is at least the grim satisfaction of watching bad fates play out the way they have to, and the recognition that the inevitable and stupid pop-cultural cliché of redemption is, for once, not obligatory. And this is a kind of aesthetic freedom.

It would be stupid to argue for hiphop by saying that it’s just like the Iliad, only with Glocks and crack. This is the same lame argument that prog metal fans always make — dude, Yngwei Malmstein just fuk’n shredded this Bach partita! He’s like the classical music of our times!** But the intense expression that the Iliad achieves is only possible within a worldview conditioned by the relative normality of sudden violent death — and for all the much-decried violence of American pop culture, almost none of it really breathes this air. Hiphop does. And sometimes — like in “Shakey Dog,” the opening long track of Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale, which is like James Ellroy with a beat — it achieves a kind of fierce, scarifying, purgative emotion that fills some deep human*** need to sing songs of arms and men.

*It’s not for nothing that the movie with the biggest resonance within hiphop culture always seems to be Brian De Palma’s Scarface.

** I believe I said this exact thing when I was fifteen.

***OK, mostly male

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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2 Responses to I sing of arms and the man

  1. Jonathan says:

    I plead guilty to never having considered the hiphop outlook in light of a worldview of Hellenic inexorability; for me it works absolutely perfectly. “Stupid pop-cultural cliché of redemption” is a phrase I’d like to nominate for an award; it opens many doors, not least in discussions of musical form, dramatic trajectory, etc. Watch This Space.

  2. Chris says:


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