How are you? How’s that Chicago summer treating you? It’s actually sunny here in San Francisco, which is pretty rare in the summer. I was writing to thank you for your most recent mixtape, “The Manual.” It’s a little ironic that you released it two months before Michael Jackon passed, which means that everyone is downloading your (excellent) “Man In the Mirror” mixtape, and may have forgotten about this one. Hopefully they don’t sleep on “The Manual,” because it’s just as good as “Man In the Mirror,” and I’m not just saying that to be nice. The way you rap over classic breaks? The fact that you share a mic with Queen Latifah, Sadat X, CL Smooth, and DJ Premier? Man, it’s heaven to an old fart like me who got into hip hop when “Beat Street” and “Breakin'” were big.
Beatwise, the album is bananas. Your man Scram Jones has done an excellent job reworking classic beats, everything from the Native Tongues to Big Daddy Kane to Heavy D. And you are definitely up to the task. Sparring with Big Daddy Kane over “Warm It Up Cane?” Reworking the D.O.C.’s “Formula?” Making a better version of Nice and Smooth’s “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow?” You kill it, and don’t even sound like you are breaking into a sweat. You are one of the few rappers who could pull this off, because your flow compliments those older beats, but doesn’t sound dated. Does that make sense? It made me realize that you are the logical progression of rappers like Kane and them, rappers who had commanding presences and whose rhymes had content, versus the legions of younger rappers who have made names for themselves by basically slurring catchwords.
Of course, it’s not just 90s beats. Matrax’s “Party 4 Free” is a banging club number, and his work on “Pulls Me Back” makes the brilliant use of Toto’s “Africa.” And the lyrics on that are heavy: “I don’t want your sympathy/we don’t need the handouts/just even the playing field and give us some land now.”
“Exodus 5.1” is another powerful song. It starts with that quote, about how everyone is strutting around like peacocks: “Peacocks strut because they can’t fly. No one wants to be an eagle. Why? Because they shoot eagles.” Then you continue, over a somber Animal House beat:
“What’s the closest you ever been to death?
You ever let your soul levitate over your body and watch you rest?
Or put the gun to your head so you can play roulette?
What’s the closest you ever got to life?
You ever got a felony charge, look up and see the whole jury is white?
I’m a mountain, man
You can’t move me
Calm or cool me
I keep a pen next to the loose leaf
With a Koran next to the uzi”
That track establishes you as someone who knows struggle, knows pain, and knows trouble, but tries to rise above it. It’s that persona, of a man who knows the troubles of the world but still tries to do the right thing, and still wants to drive fast and sleep with groupies, that makes you such a compelling rapper. There are people that rap about partying, there are people that rap about the ills of the world, but you manage to combine the two in a way that seems honest. You don’t preach, you sound confident without being arrogant, and for that you deserve a lot of respect and admiration.
I couldn’t help noticing the preoccupation on this album with hipsters and gays. I guess being from San Francisco I’m more sensitive to that. In fact, you use “faggot” almost as often than Snoop uses “bitch.” I get that you don’t like Charles Hamilton, and I get that you don’t like the way hipster rappers dress, and feel that they look unmasculine and gay. I’m not into the whole 80s skinny pants look, but I think that it is a direct reaction to the ridonkulously baggy clothes that rappers have been wearing for over a decade. The XXL shirts with the pants sagging below the knees look is tired, so it makes sense that the pendulum would swing the other way, with people dressing more dapper and wearing clothes that actually, you know, fit. And I know you think it looks gay, but women love that shit. Seriously. They love it when guys wear fitting clothes, and they like a guy who can wear something beyond baggy shirts and jeans. For real.
But back to the homophobia thing. Yeah, so hip hop isn’t a gay-friendly place (and let’s not even talk about reggae and dancehall). I don’t expect rappers to be pro-gay or pro-women. The best that I can ask for is that they either don’t ask and don’t tell, or are clever when they are homophobic, like DOOM’s “Batty Boys” or Ice Cube’s “No Vaseline.” What bothers me about songs like “Supersonic (Chucky Cheese)” is that the homophobia is dumb and unnecessary. So you don’t like Charles Hamilton, and you don’t like gay people. But you won’t let it go, and then YOU start sounding paranoid. Why do you care so much? You seem like a strong, self-assured guy, why aren’t you man enough to let it go without resorting to childish insults? And why are you so pissed off that Charles Hamilton tried to battle you? Take a lesson from Jay-Z, and either annihilate the guy on wax, or don’t give him the time of day. On “Supersonic” you sound insecure, which is not a good look, especially since you are clearly a better MC than he is. You shouldn’t even be battling him. It’s like LeBron James going one on one with a junior varsity, bench-sitting basketball player with shin splints from a poorly-funded school district. Spending that much time and energy hating someone isn’t healthy. And the homophobia is also anachronistic: it’s 2009, not 1989, and calling people fags is as outdated as hi-top fades and troop jackets. Gays across the country are fighting for their civil rights, and you’re dissing rappers by saying they dress gay? Really? Or is just that you wanted the content to sound as old school as the beats?
Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. I know that most of the popular rappers from Chi-town are of the hipster mold, so maybe you are sick of it. A bunch of dudes in tight dayglo rapping about their feelings is not what you thought hip hop was supposed to be about. You’re trying to stake a claim for real hip hop. My advice to you is to just do you, and forget about the American Apparel crowd. At best, a few of them will rise to the top and offer a nice contrast to other strains of equally questionable hip hop going on right now. More likely, in two years everyone will be twittering about the next big thing and rappers like Charles Hamilton will be left without record deals or fans.
To wrap this up, I just want to thank you again for making such a solid mixtape. This sucker is staying in heavy rotation on my ipod, I tell you that much. Is “El Che” still coming out this year? I promise to buy a copy of “El Che” as soon as it hits the store – if it doesn’t go gold, it won’t be my fault. I hope you don’t mind my criticisms. I don’t want you to apologize about the gay thing, or even address it at all. Just focus your energies on being the best, realest rapper out there, and forget about the haters and hipsters.