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Mind Playing Tricks

Checking in from a cabin in the mountains in Canada where I am sequestered, trying to make some progress on my book. It’s very, very quiet here and there’s not much to do but read and write. (Which is the point. But still.) So you’ll have to excuse me if I get all philosophical on this one.

The thing is, I finally got around to reading Touré’s collection of music essays, Never Drank the Kool-Aid. [1] Touré is always a good read cause he has a gift for bringing emotional depth to every interview he does, not to mention an incredible eye for detail. [2]

What I found most striking about his book, though, was the climate of fear that pervades many of its articles. Anxiety and trepidation appear as constant threads in the last decade of hip-hop history.

Take the first article, for example. The collection is kicked off with Touré’s Village Voice eulogy for Biggie, in which he describes going to visit Big in Bed Stuy years before, and finding him “in the hallway of his building, gripping a gat, surrounded by six members of his crew, arrayed like Timberland-wearing Secret Service agents.”

He continues:

“Every time the building’s door opened up, someone looked down the three flights, to see who it was. Every time someone started coming up the stairs, Big stopped talking and called out, ‘Who’s that?’

‘N***a could be coming to blow my head off,” he said that afternoon in late 1994. ‘I’m not paranoid to the point where I’m—” He paused. “Yes I am. I’m scared to death. Not all the time, but most of the time. Scared of getting my brains blown off. But if it happens it happens…fuck it, I’m just ready. Can’t live my life in no bubble.’”

Many of the essays that follow paint a similar picture. Pac wheeled into court after he was shot, defiant, escorted by Fruit of Islam men. DMX driving recklessly around L.A. after Kurupt’s death threats, his security apprehensive. Fifty holed up in a hotel room, bodyguards posted at the door, a contract out on his life, cracking jokes and entertaining his crew.

Touré calls it the life of a hunted man. It’s equal parts corrosive fear and don’t-give-a-fuck exhibitionism.

Anyone who has ever interviewed rappers that have been through this type of shit can tell you what it looks like up close—how they never sit with their back to the door, never stop scanning the room, never seem at ease.

And, of course, there are many hip-hop tracks that are drenched in this restless brand of fear. (If you were inclined, you could make a really morbid mixtape on this theme. Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” would be on there, obviously.)

Young Jeezy touched on this in a recent XXL cover story. “The life I came from to here, I lost a lot of people,” Jeezy said. “A lot of friends, a lot of peers, a lot of loved ones. Things I can’t get back, a lot of sleep. I’m shell-shocked. My nerves still fucked up right now.”

“It’s like going to war,” he continued. “You come back—five, six muthafuckas get killed you know—that shit’s gonna fuck with you for the rest of your life. You can leave the Army and Marines and go get a regular job, but you still gonna get them cold sweats.”

I wonder how many other rappers feel like that. How many are walking around with clenched teeth, jumping at sudden noises, looking over shoulders, searching cars and clubs and crowds for any hint of a threat? Living their lives constantly calculating risk.

Fame must be bittersweet for some of these dudes. On the one hand, they are loved by many. But on the other hand, they are hated so intensely by a few that they become prisoners in their own lives. They survive the violence, only to grapple with its aftermath.


[1] A strong, moving body of work. Wish it included his recent Rolling Stone cover story on Jay, though.

[2] As in: the number of missed calls on DMX’s cell phone (47!).

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