Amy Winehouse died on Saturday. Why is that relevant to a hip hop website?
Her death was a sad indictment of what it really means to be a drug addict. As Russell Brand wrote in a heartening post, when you talk to a drug addict, they are never really there. You’re talking to a shell, a ghost desperately clinging on to anything that resembles the living, just something that can make them feel alive. Of course, everyone has a different slant on drug addiction. Some consider it pure weakness, others a disease. Some blame the supplier, others blame the user. Some think the properties of the narcotic leave the addict with no chance, whereas as others think that addiction is purely psychological, and you they should be able to stop if they have a cast-iron will. Unfortunately, the last point of view is one commonly shared by addicts: they frequently think they are 100% in control, and can “stop whenever they want to.” If you want to stop drug addiction treatment is available.
The chances are that you know someone who does drugs recreationally, probably a bit of weed. You may know someone that does a bit more, ecstasy or coke, but that’s it – and only on special occasions. Some of you will have friends (or maybe even personal experience) of when things start to get a bit out of hand. Drugs are, undoubtedly, a slippery slope – this is, of course, a very “paranoid middle-class mother” thing to say, but it’s easy to forget the role that alcohol often plays. Amy Winehouse drank. A lot. A LOT, a lot. She used to down 6 cocktails with no problem, her weapon of choice being a “Rickstasy” – that’s 3 parts vodka, and one part apiece of Southern Comfort, banana liquor and Baileys. Do the math, dear Reader. Then think on how often she used to drink them (most nights). Then, aside from the alcohol, add in the drugs. Think weed, ecstasy, coke, crack, ketamine and smack (amongst others). Most nights. Then add all that up in a week. Multiply it by 52. And again by – let’s be conservative – 4 years.
So again, why is this relevant on this website? Well, Amy Winehouse liked hip hop. Actually, she LOVED hip hop. More than most self-proclaimed “heads” too. Bizarrely enough, I bought her first album (“Frank”) on the first day it was released, way back in October 2003. You’ll have to forgive me, as I’m working on memory, but I remember looking at the liners notes, and the photo at the back. It was fascinating. It was simple a picture of her haphazard stack of CD’s, the ones she had bought over the years, her most beloved – and whilst it was a multitude of styles and genres, the one that caught my eye was “Illmatic.” Then, it emerged that she was “obsessed” with Nas, and one of the singles (the brilliantly caustic “In My Bed”) was produced by Salaam Remi, and used the same break that he’d worked with on Nas’ “Made U Look” less than a year earlier. In rare interviews, Amy actually knew her shit (she even knew the lyrics of his debut by heart). Whilst it wasn’t really that apparent on her own debut, which was very much an effort controlled by her label, once she was allowed to really let loose on her sophomore effort – the world-conquering “Back to Black” – her hip hop sensibilities truly shone through.
Of course, commentators will immediately point to “In My Bed” and, more so on her second album, the remixes which featured Ghostface Killah on “You Know I’m No Good” and Jay-Z on “Rehab.” But these are just sideshows – any old rapper can jump on any popular song, as it is simply a mutually beneficial cross-pollination moment for both artists that proves relatively meaningless (around the same time, Jigga jumped on “Umbrella” for probably the most pointless guest spot in history). Amy Winehouse, however, deeply incorporated hip hop into her look, her music, her life – in a more traditional sense.
Her look: she used to be a sweet and typical North London Jewish girl, with puppy fat and long black hair, albeit it with a slight edge and a big mouth. Fast-forward to 2007, and she had created an iconic look. A much-copied hairstyle (the messy beehive), exaggerated make-up, provocative clothing and tattoos all over. Her look was a living embodiment of her outlook, and as hip hop has traditionally done, she expressed herself visually. It says a lot that girls still dress up as Amy Winehouse at fancy dress parties (one suspects not many will choose Adele’s look any time soon).
Her music: once “Back to Black” dropped, it took a little while soak in, but people started to realise that Winehouse was pulling no punches, and was “being real” lyrically. Everything she “spit” was an accurate reflection of her life, albeit with doses of much-needed dramatic flair (and this includes a few moments on “Frank”). Whether it was damning assessments of poor lovers (“You Know I’m No Good”), cussing hoes (“Fuck Me Pumps”), visions of her own downfall (“Back to Black”)… And the interesting thing is that she actually wrote these songs herself, a rare characteristic in the modern music industry. Some of the album tracks didn’t always stick, but the singles were raw and utterly timeless.
Her life: if there is anyone in the modern day music industry that has resembled the fame, allure and drama of Tupac Shakur, it is not another rapper (although countless wannabes wish they could). Winehouse comes closest… Her tattoos, incredible music, brushes with the law, wild lifestyle, melodramatic love life, daily dose of drama and a self-destructive nature. That’s not to say they were similar in every respect, but they were both tortured souls that deep down were quite sweet, but they just got in too deep. And couldn’t get out.
It’s interesting that her breakthrough in 2007 really opened the doors for countless female artists from the UK, yet none of them have taken their music as far as Winehouse did (although Adele is coming pretty close now, and thankfully without anywhere near the level of psychological damage attached). It’s a risky game, living your life through music, and vice versa. The ironically-titled “Back to Black” was the epitome of a true hip hop confessional, of “keeping it real” and so on. It’s nice for us to see the cleverer elements of the press recognising that her brand of music was not just largely redoing the 1960’s pop/soul girl group era, but that it was “heavily influenced by hip hop.” Without it, she wouldn’t have been the same artist that produced a tiny catalogue of legendary music – although, of course, it’s an impossible argument to make. But is this the last we will hear from Winehouse?
By most accounts, she had various Caribbean recording sessions over the last few years, paid at for at great expense by her label, that sporadically threw up the odd decent song. Most of it was rejected, of course. Winehouse was too far deep in the battle against her demons. But Salaam Remi (perhaps one of the most underrated producers of all time) claims to have presided over some great moments, and let’s hope that there is enough to make at least a handful of singles (the hope of a cohesive album seems long gone). Moreover, it might seem a touch cloying, and way too late… But it would be strangely fitting if, this winter, we received a brand new Nas album where the last track featured that young girl from North London who so loved him, so doted on him, who literally serenaded him from both near and afar. She’d have liked that. After all, Amy was a fellow hip hop head. And when one head dies, a tiny little piece of all of us is taken with them, wherever they go. Rest in peace, Amy.