MSNBC Correspondent Ari Melber Uses Rap Lyrics to Get His Point Across
Earlier this year, MSNBC's Chief Legal Correspondent Ari Melber made viral waves when he referenced lyrics from 50 Cent's "I'm a Hustler" to describe President Trump's habits while addressing the American people.
"I hate a liar more than I hate a thief; a thief is after my salary, a lie is after my reality," Ari said, invoking sacred bars from 50's classic Power of a Dollar offering. It may have seemed like a singular standout moment—and for the internet's purposes, it was one—but for Ari, who covers the Justice Department, Supreme Court, FBI and legal issues on air and across MSNBC and NBC News platforms, it was literally all in a day's work. After all, he's a hip-hop junkie and a lawyer.
In the last year or so, Ari, whose show The Point has chronicled Trump's controversial presidency for several months now, name-dropped everyone from Jay Z to 50 Cent to Drake as he's used their lyrical wisdom to contextualize the infinitely complex world of politics. In fact, MSNBC even made a special video of the different occasions he's used the lyrics of rap superstars during segments on the network.
Fresh off having The Point extended past its original 100-day mark, Ari speaks to XXL to discuss his love of hip-hop—more specifically, everyone from Lauryn Hill, Jay Z to 2Pac and at least a few others in between. Check out our conversation below.
XXL: If you were a rapper, who would be the first artist you'd collaborate with and what kind of song would you make?
Ari Melber: Wow, great question. I would either collaborate with Lauryn Hill, where she could do the hook and some verses and we could try to do something that is truthful but also spiritual because I think those are the songs that are most timeless. And, if you look at The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, there are songs there that are about love and justice and ethics and they sound as good today as they did when they came out.
Or, I would just go into something where you could do back and forth with a great lyricist, so, a Kanye or a KRS-One. I have no lyrical skills of my own—everything I do is in tribute—but, one thing that those kind of lyricists do well, that's true in any kind of collaboration is, they're so good, they make people around them better. And I find that if I'm developing a debate or an argument with another thinker or attorney, if they're better than me it can sharpen my thinking.
Who are your favorite rappers?
I mean my favorite rappers are a lot of other people's favorite rappers. I love Jay Z, Kanye, 2Pac, Biggie, old Mos Def. In terms of what's going on now, there are people who I think are really fun. I think, we're in a good period for party music. You know, Rick Ross has good beats, if some more questionable content.
And then, in terms of people who maybe have not blown up, there's an Australian rapper-singer named Remi. He's incredible, and a totally new and different sound. But I wouldn't claim he's in my top five, but he's great. Or Phony Ppl, which is sort of where singing meets verses, like, with the way do R&B and collaborate. They're really a neat group. So it depends. Are we talking about the greatest of all time or the people who are coming up?
Is there another new rapper you listen to?
I do listen to Drake. Weirdly, I prefer more recent Drake to original Drake. So I feel like I have the opposite evolution of a lot of other people I know, because when he first came out, people loved the anthems, they loved how discursive and exploratory his lyrics were, and I honestly just found it a little self-involved and emotional. Listening to Views, I got more into it.
It wasn't like, an introduction, because I obviously heard him in the background. It's like, when something's on in the background long enough... and then I really I liked Views. And I think More Life is really sonically fun, even if it's not really all that deep or revelatory. I kind of count him down for trying to call it a playlist. Words matter to me, and I don’t know what it means if you're a famous, successful artist and you release a playlist. I know what it means when you're unsigned and you release a mixtape. But if you're Drake, it's not a playlist, it's still an album, even if it's a lot of other people's work. So I don’t buy that, but I like the sound of it, so, you know, he can have a pass. And in terms of who's out now, I like Future, too.
Last year, you referenced Jay Z's "99 Problems" during one of your segments ("Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back/And I know my rights, so you gon' need a warrant for that"). What about those lyrics and Jay Z's artistry as a whole stands out to you?
The first rule of hip-hop is probably keep it real. And that can mean a lot of different things, but that's certainly important in reporting and storytelling. I think you get more credit for being real and honest instead of trying to be cool or always be the smartest person in the room. So, if you're a dork, be a dork. If you're a lawyer, be a lawyer. In Jay Z's case, you know, in his own words, when he was a hustler, he was a hustler, and then when he was 30-something and coming up in the game, that's what he was. And then when he's a father, he's a father, when he's an entrepreneur and a business owner, he's a business owner.
So, it's not inconsistent to have multiple life stages, which means multiple identities. And, he's obviously well-known now as a superstar, but people who followed his career from trying to make a change from out of being a Brooklyn-based hustler and into a global entrepreneur, I think understand that. And, so a lot of his lyrics, particularly anyone who's glanced at the book Decoded, can see that, more so than most artists, he often is double discoursing, by which I mean, the lyrics are completely understandable at one level, and then there's a second discourse if you want to get into, and you want to study it, that's also there for you.
And that is not unique to Jay Z, that is, I think, a hallmark of a lot of great art that most people throughout the ages, whether it's a Shakespeare play that has a love story everyone can follow, and then a backstory that you need to know more to appreciate, or a Disney film that's understandable at one level for the kids, but then there's all this other stuff going on. One of the funny things about rap is it's this omnipresent presence in American culture, but for a lot of reasons, it's often only understood at the surface level, not that second level that at least some artists operate on.
[Jay Z] is incredible. And he's grown right? I mean, what's your favorite album? There's so many stages.
When did you first become a rap fan?
I first got exposed when I was a freshman at Garfield High School in Seattle, and I remember walking in the neighborhood in the central district in Seattle to a store to get a compact disc of The Fugees' album, The Score. And I'd seen them, because they were touring—they were still an opening act for Ziggy Marley at that time—but they were starting to blow up. And obviously, The Fugees—by the way, funny to talk about a group that's named as a tribute to refugees, when you think about all of the immigration debates we're living through here, about, I don't know, about 20-plus years later—that could be considered kind of a fusion or a crossover, because I was already into reggae, and then they had this very unusual sound that was obviously rap and sounded like some types of urban rap, but also had this whole island sound. So that's the first one I remember. And then, I remember getting really into [2Pac's] All Eyez on Me, you know, Seattle's not California, but it's definitely more of a West Coast environment. And then I think it grew from there.
What do you think about Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. album?
I have a lot of respect for Kendrick's talent. I don't love the new album, and I'm a little confused about whether he's an independent style artist, or he wants to be a big star—and he could be either—but I have a hard time following the thread. You know like, I totally get what Chance is doing. Just like I get that other people want to make party music, and with Kendrick, I'm just not following it as much, but I respect him. I'm not at all saying there's not this talent here, and the following that he's building...but that for me...that's not my favorite right now. I don't feel it. And that's the thing about music; first you feel it, then you listen.
What do you think of Kendrick Lamar using Fox News' insulting comments made against him on his DAMN. album?
I think hip-hop has always been political because this is a community that doesn't have any other choice. If you are living under the conditions created by the government, the political decisions—especially if you're living under the conditions where financial and political conditions are denying you control over your community and life rather than working in concert with you—then everything is going to start out political.
So, there's assertively political hip-hop like Public Enemy and N.W.A and KRS-One, and then there's default political hip-hop, which is maybe 2Pac or Jay Z responding to C. Delores Tucker criticizing them, Bill O'Reilly criticizing them or the Fox example you give. So, I think that's a long line—it's a long tradition I would say of either expressing values and political ideas through music, or using the music to engage in a dialogue about culture and politics.
So, it's very powerful if a political or media force is going to quote hip-hop, or especially, perhaps, quote it out of context, for the artist to then engage that back through the music. And there is, I think, an important role for good faith criticism of the music, because even if something is enjoyable or is a point of community unity, it is not exempt from the important critiques around sexism, materialism, racism. Homophobia. I mean, DMX was a top rapper who broke barriers, has an incredible style, but, was deeply homophobic, and—by today's light—some of his music, would you really want to play in front of your family and kids? So, you've got to look at that. You've got to confront that.
On the flip side, you've got to look at the bad faith arguments. People who just want to use hip-hop as some kind of stand-in to criticize other things...that also has to be addressed. So you know, I think Jay Z confronted Bill O'Reilly in his music because he felt like Bill O'Reilly was just trying to use him and use hip-hop. But I don't think that means that he can't confront criticism. To pick one specific example, when Jay Z was on NPR on a book tour and they confronted him about his use of the "b-word" and sexism, he had that dialog. But he was having that with someone who he thought was interested in a real way and not just trying to use or attack hip-hop for his own ends, and I think that's a distinction that can get lost when the mass culture gets into these topics.
What was your favorite song off All Eyez on Me? What's your favorite 2Pac song?
I mean, for an anthem? "All Eyez on Me." For a story? "I Ain't Mad At Cha."
What rap music were you listening to in the earliest stages of your college career?
When I was an undergrad at Michigan, the Jay Z, Annie [song], "Hard Knock Life," was playing like, all the time. I just remember all the like, everybody on campus and the athletes...and then the parties were playing that. I think that was the year DMX had two No. 1 albums in the same year. I remember It's Dark and Hell Is Hot was really big. And then there was like party music that you hear at college campuses. But you know, in all honesty, when I was in college I don't think I was really deeply focused on music and lyrics because there was a lot of stuff going on.
Can we count on more rap references from you in 2017?
You know, it depends on where the stories go. But, you know, 2017 may be the year where people remember that you have to fight for your right to party and...fight for your right to a constitutional democracy with checks and balances. Slightly less catchy.
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