Real Skills > Keeping it Real – The Rise of the Studio Gangsta

“Realness” is overrated. It’s a statement that hip-hop as a community should’ve been saying a long time ago. Rick Ross got busted. So? He wasn’t even the first! What, y’all don’t remember Game in the strip club video? Real skills trumps EVERYTHING. That’s good news. It means we have matured to a level where we no longer have unachievable expectations.

Real Thug = Lyrical Genius
Songwriting Brilliance = Respect My Gangsta

You see the problem with those equations? These are qualities that are as often as not, mutually exclusive. Most real hustlers can’t touch Rick Ross as a lyricist. I’m supposed to buy some monosyllabic lackluster rapper’s CD just because he sold a couple kis? If you suck, being “real” ain’t gonna make you nice. I didn’t buy 50 Cent’s first album ’cause he got shot nine times, but ’cause it had some BANGERS! He could’ve got shot more times than Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell COMBINED and I wouldn’t have bought his album if it was wack. The one has NOTHING to do with the other and pretending it does has never helped us.

Who even remembers when that whole “keep it real” thing started? I’m old school so I can tell you that the first time I heard it, and the term “studio gangsta”, was in regard to Spice-1. I don’t know whether his street credibility was legit or if he was fake as they come, but guess what, if I was a Spice-1 fan I wouldn’t care.

Why not?

Because music is just music and rap is the only art form I can think of that has ever made this kind of ridiculous demand of its artists. We don’t say that actors need to run around shooting bad guys just because they’ve been in action movies. That would make them crazy.

What’s the difference?

If an artist painted a portrait and it looked exactly like its subject, would we care if they had never seen them? No. So why did we decide that rappers have to act out everything they rap about? We didn’t always think that way either. Who ran around trying to get proof that KRS-One really shot a drug dealer named Peter with his 9mm? Who tried to prove that the Geto Boys’ minds were really playing tricks on them?

The truth is, “real” is a LIMITATION. If you only rapped about what happened to you, you would probably have an unbearably boring songbook. If we stuck to reality, we wouldn’t have some of hip-hop’s greatest classics. Eminem wouldn’t have made “Stan,” Nas wouldn’t have written “Rewind,” and Canibus wouldn’t exist, ’cause he can’t do anything he raps about!

Realness is a way to pigeonhole. Record companies look at rappers and decide how to sell them based on image. He goes in the “player” box, he goes in the “conscious” box (good luck!) and he sold drugs and has a rap sheet to prove it! He’s REAL!

It’s funny how realness is only equated to things that are street-related. There’s never debate about the realness of Mos Def, Common or The Roots. Why? Because, for the most part, the way they entertain us has nothing to do with drugs, money, sex or violence. The fact that realness is a standard held up to so few should be proof that the question itself is FAKE.

The only thing that matters is if you write good songs. Hip-hop had to reach it’s mid-thirties to realize that, but better late than never.

So sincere,
Skitch Hybrid

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  • sean

    There is a difference between eminem being real, and some studio gangster rapping about being on the streets bluh bluh bluh…Its stories vs what you actually tell people you did. thats the difference..

  • http://xxlmag weslo

    But alot of those rappers, like rick ross, not only “paint pictures” in their songs, but claim to actually be a gangster in real life(which has nothing to do with art). The fact that martin scorcese never was actually a mob boss doesnt make goodfellas any less of a movie, but if martin scorcese walked around public lying that he was one in real life he would look like a jack ass. And the fact that rick ross walks around lying when he was actually a prison guard, shows how ignorant of a person he is, a true artist would be comferatable with himself. A man would be comferatable with himself.

    • Pierzy

      Exactly. I would agree with you if someone like Rick Ross said, “It’s all music and entertainment” but he doesn’t…he says, “That’s the real me!”

    • JayWade

      Agreed, but Scorsese was connected on some low-level mob shit in NY. Check out Mean Streets with Harvey Keitel and Robert De Nero. It’s an early, semi-autobiographical work of Scorsese’s.

      • Pierzy

        Mean Streets is a classic and you make a good point but here’s the difference – that film was about small time (as you say, low-level) dudes. Rick Ross claims to be the biggest drug lord of all time. There’s a disconnect there.

  • Money Mitch

    The other thing these rappers and obviously fans have failed to realize is… being real doesn’t have to mean being a gangster or a real street cat it has to due with being comfortable in your own skin and being who you are!! To me that’s why kanye is real he knows he’s an arrogant asshole at times! Talib Kweli and Mos Def are real. Shit even asher roth is real because all these cats know who they are and are ok with that!!

    • Dinero

      ^^^^^This is reality…. Being real is not being gangster… Being real is being real… Tha Fake Ricc Ross could of said yea, I was a C.O. instead of lying (as an imposter should) and denying that he was… Nigga, I gotta 9 to 5 and I still do plenty of shit I hav no business doin… So I will continue to only support tha real based on principles… If this dude will lie about bein a C.O. to his “fans” then he may never tell tha truth…. Watts funny is that niggas still respect this fraud…

  • Jackpot

    Dope post!

  • Deadly MIME

    Well the term “keeping it real” has many definitions by a vast number of people of different culture and backgrounds. Far as rap goes, I think most guys aren’t keeping it real cause they are saying that they push coke and shoot guns when they live like kings. I understand that the rapper doesn’t have to ruin his or her life over a rep but when you say shit like that, people are going to question it. If you never sold drugs or shot guns, or went to jail, then I don’t need to hear you rappin about it. You can make excuses and say that the artist is painting a picture, but a true, honest MC would talk against the negative. The point is the reason why fans question the legitimacy or “street cred” of a rapper is cause you have to live up to what you said. Otherwise stop lying to yourself and to your peers.

  • DV8

    really whats real anymore?

    Reality TV isnt even real (except for crime shows) its all “semi-scripted”.

    This was a dope blog though I gave it a XXL.

    “Who even remembers when that whole “keep it real” thing started? I’m old school so I can tell you that the first time I heard it, and the term “studio gangsta”, was in regard to Spice-1. I don’t know whether his street credibility was legit or if he was fake as they come, but guess what, if I was a Spice-1 fan I wouldn’t care.”

    First time I heard that was in reference to MC Eiht(by DJ Quik) and Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (by Eazy-E)

  • El Tico Loco

    If you came into game to prove you can really spit, I mean you presented your skills to the public before anything else, in other words paid your dues you got a nice flow, wordplay, punchlines and overall respect for the art and is not ashamed to call yourself an MC you can rap about whatever you want because we know what comes first to you and that is quality music.

    On the other hand if you came into game not caring about lyrics(which is the main purpose of the job here)arrogant and disrespectful to those that have worked hard on their craft, paid dues, and you’re making songs about how much money, hoes, and whips you got even though we never heard of you and your flow is cheeks and in every interview you say “I’m not rapper I’m a hustla/goon/gangsta” then you need to be checked for authenticity because you’re clogging the lane for more talented rappers. If Scarface, Kool G Rap, Ice Cube *turns up “2 to da head”* weren’t as nice as they are then you too would wonder why are these dudes getting all this shine for. But in the end you can tell who’s being true to the art and who’s really trying to convince the public that they are what they say they are.

  • og bobby j

    skills still speak louder, but credibility helps (it is not the saving grace -ask someone like Maino).

    rappers just want to be tough guys, and some of them were really really in the streets (50), most were not (wayne)…..yet it makes little to no difference to the people buying there shit.

    the bigger qustion here is if you not an ignorant asshole or career criminal, then why is that why you want the public to perceive you? Why is “Im so hooood” getting your verses, but Joell Ortiz’s “we can do it” not….

  • Face Phoenix

    Sketch had it right in this blog because for years we’ve had artist who have been marketed to sell. It’s part of the business. It’s like hollywood directors and actors. We identify certain actors and directors with a certain kind of genre or film. Jim Carrey is a perfect example, Carrey can actually act but when the public sees him they only see him as a comedian and have a hard time accepting him as anything else. The same applies to Hip Hop with Talib Kweli when he did Gun Music with Cocoa Brovaz when he talked about the track he said “I do what I want to do.” knowing ppl love to label him as a conscious rapper. We are quick to label ppl and labels understand that and utilize it to their advantage. We have gotten away from letting the music speak for itself instead of a person’s reputation. I ask everybody this who would you rather have run your financial future between two identically dressed businessmen – The one with plenty of experience and room full of degrees but incompetent or the other man who has no exp or degree but a sharp mind for business and opportunities. Hip Hop has become a business that seems obsessed with stamping things with a seal of authenticity sort of like Oprah’s Book Club seal on many novels today – it really means nothing… the value of the work lies with the individual consumer and no one else. Who gives a damn if it was real or not – Did you enjoy it is all that matters?

  • GIFT

    i’ve been waiting on XXL to write a blog about this particular subject matter. Alot of cats out here don’t understand what “keeping it real” is all about. Niggas ain’t got hustle drugs or have tats, or smoke or whatever to be considered real. Just be yourself, and stick to that. these rappers now a days are puppets wit some old white record exec’s hand up his/her ass trying to tell them what”real” is. They’re brainwashing our babies to grow up and be 2 dollar niggas just like they fake rappin ass (in the words of project pat, song 8, crook by the book, might be dffrnt track #)then again, we as the consumer need to stop taking these fake niggas at face value. the fact you claim to flip keys while being signed for millions is an oxymoron in itself.

  • 3xanon

    In my mind, keeping it real isn’t so much proving that you’ve commited crimes or something, but being true to yourself, regardless of rap sheet. Take Em as an example. He describes his upbringing, but always in a clearly humoristical way when the words doesn’t match reality.
    I also believe that while many studio gangsters infact aren’t, their job isn’t so much to tell them about themselves or be the hardest motherfucker in town, but provide a soundtrack for their audience, who may infact actually be living the life these artists rap about.

  • Soul City Radio

    I understand where you’re going with this article. And to a degree real skills does trump damn near everything, but like the other commentators have pointed out there is a difference between creating and lying. I just want to know where you got the idea that Rick Ross was a good rapper??? He is not. That being said, he has no choice but to create his life in the studio, because he would clearly not have one if it weren’t for rap. Most of these rappers out now have no lyrical skill whatsoever AND they portray something they’re not… THAT comes from something all together different. That comes from the “machine” deciding that this kinda music is what they want to put out.

  • Sha

    It all boils down to “Originality”. If you are genuine and only focused on being the best, you will rise.

    Another problem is that most of today’s MCs don’t know their history. Most couldn’t recite an Eric B & Rakim line or a KRS-One line. They didn’t learn about any of the struggles of the previous era. And so they are doomed to repeat those same problems.

  • Don mcCaine

    Nice blog, although we spoke on this a little while ago here.

    “If we stuck to reality, we wouldn’t have some of hip-hop’s greatest classics.”

    ^ so we are overlooking someone like Chuck D to advocate this?

  • El Tico Loco

    As an artist you’re expected to have imagination that’s why you’re in the business you’re in. Just don’t get caught up so much that it looks more like you’re tryna convince yourself.

  • P.B.

    Yeah I Feel what y’all saying, its bullshit that the dumb bet niggas are blind to see Ross for what he is.. Hip-Hop is being attacked by the Fake Bloods, Pussys like wayne, Game, im Jones, Wacka, run around claim’n Sets, smh. its sick we got jay-z k.west masons and hip hop to me is Dying. till we get back to the way shit use to be….. This shit won’t last.

  • Motor wit d@ Cam

    Its like my dawg Jeezy said “bein real is sumthn u gotta b”… Like William Roberts goin to school for law enforcement, Game on change of heart & on the pole… I mean alotta these niggas is suspect as fuck… Like u gotta lot of up and comers who rap bout shit they aint never done… I kno a few c@’s like d@ dudes aint never sold nick but go in the booth & they drug lords… Like this ex friend of mine.. we ridin smokin or whatever then we get pull’d over for his muzik bein to loud i tol dude dog turn the muzik down but him thnkn he sumthn that he aint keeps it up.. so whn we get pulled over he starts shakin and sweatin and bein all nervous & shit cause i had a oz in my bag… now y the cop didnt smell the odor ion kno but i wish yall couldve heard this dude after he let us go errything was my fault… I had this and if we wouldve got locked it wouldve been that.. knowin my past i wouldve jus taken the charges or whateva but its jus because how seen how phony this nigga is i aint never fuk wit dude again now he a up & coming 28yr old rapper whose apparently “real”… dude be on here to & he knows my screen name so if u readin this GO KILL YASELF ASAP!!!


  • dezzy357

    damn, why diss an mc that served in the military, it was all good until that point, u get an s for not respecting those that put their lives on the line

  • Clever

    Being Real is being yourself. simple

  • Sam The Man

    this guy is frikin retarded, excuse me, but like chuck d has said, Hip Hop is the black CNN, we still got people killin eachother off in the streets, why dont we fix that problem first, and then have this “fictitious” rap, i quote tupac in this “right now the country’s a piece of shit, and its not that we gotta be a piece of shit, its just that this is how they want us to be, they want us to be a piece of shit, so that the poor people kill the poor people, the rich people get paid for selling the poor people dreams about being rich, but we never get the oppurtunity to be”, that was then….till this day this country is still a piece of shit, i love this country, but we gotta get it together in society

  • jay



    its like the informant or tropic thunder. don’t be th dude playing the dude that is the dude. don’t let ur character or image sell records for u. its about skills. i don’t care if there was a rapper dressed like an african or soilder or insane clown as long as her or she has the skills. too many people today think keepin it real will get them ahead and thas the problem.

    cosin sha but add the fact that alot of them don’t even know rakim and krs one

  • Axeo

    I am a aspiring MC. Id rather say my real name Alex Cook and turn my name into A.L.EX= Amazing Lyrical Excitement then some gmmick fake name like West coast savior or some random name.

    It would bettter Hip-Hop if as a whole if all around it was start a party and have fun but at the SAME time drop knowledge

  • Crills

    ”i don’t care if there was a rapper dressed like an african ”

    ^^^ WTF do you mean dressed like an African you ignorant fuck.. Amerikkka stays losing coz of such ignant fucks.. SMH.. go to school and read your history son.


      @ Crills that makes u ignorant squared. that was a shout out to the legends. it was irony. thas another part of the reason hip hop suffers because of people like you that don’t read.

      that was giving africa, pe and insane clown posse props

  • Rimbo

    Good article. I agree.


    Honestly I wouldn’t have cared if Rick Ross was a choir boy as long as he admitted it when approached with the facts but his constant lying, saying pictures were photoshopped, etc. is what made him a fool in many people’s eyes. Had he said something like, ” I’ve done it all, you thought when I said the Real Noreiga owes me favors I was lying” that would’ve nipped in the bud and allowed him to save face but his ridiculous denials with pictures, paperwork, witnesses, etc. proving the contrary is what made him repulsive in my eyes. Then denying that he even knew that there was a real drug dealer named Freeway Ricky Ross, who was one of the most famous drug dealers of all time, was even more ridiculous.

    We have to take into consideration that these weren’t a few songs he did but his whole persona and in every interview he claimed the same thing. I remember him saying how he already had all this money and a white on white BMW 760 before he even signed to Def Jam.

    His music is good I can’t deny that, although Teflon Don has so many features it almost seems like a Def Jam album featuring Rick Ross instead of a Rick Ross album, but his credibility is zero to none because of his lies. He became a caricature of everything wrong with Hip Hop.

    It’s ok to embellish the truth a little, every artist does this a little, call it artistic freedom, but to create such obvious and outlandish lies is going too far. Maybe he could have inspired some fans to become C.O.s or get other legal jobs instead of leading his fans to thinking that they should sell drugs to achieve stardom.

    That’s why I can’t get over the fact that he’s a fake. His music sounds good but I can’t really “feel” it, it doesn’t “move me” because it’s as factual as Dr.Suess’ nursery rhymes.

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  • dex

    “yall respect the nigga that got shot….I respect the shooter”

  • Lowedwn

    Great Post

  • Shawty J

    Music is just entertainment, I listen to it for entertainment purposes. I’m not concerned about how “gangster” a rapper is, I’m more concerned about their rapping ability. Some rappers may have dealt drugs in the past, some have not, whether they rap about it doesn’t concern me.

    But when they try their hardest to try to sell me on that shit in real life, then it’s a problem. Which is exactly why I’ve been trying to avoid Rick Ross interviews since he said he “requires ten million dollars a year just to function, and that’s not of rap.” I don’t have a problem with Ross’ music, but the facade he tries to maintain in real life pisses me off. Maybe Rick Ross wasn’t a CO back when he was nineteen, but William Leonard Roberts, damn sure was.

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  • Black Benji

    “Who ran around trying to get proof that KRS-One really shot a drug dealer named Peter with his 9mm? Who tried to prove that the Geto Boys’ minds were really playing tricks on them?”

    Really? Krs-One bum rushed a concert and tossed Pm Dawn off a fucking stage, Bushwick while depressed, drunk and suicidal, went to his girlfriend’s house and asked her to shoot him. She refused, and he threatened to harm their baby. After a struggle, the gun went off, piercing his eye, leaving a bullet stuck inside his head. He survived the accident, but lost his eye!!! Yeah, his mind is playing tricks, do you even do your homework? I mean I hate to be mean but get some experienced old heads on the staff, I don’t think half these writers even know or really like Hip Hop, if you are trying to get Rick Ross credibility by questioning if Bushwick is a bit off you are out of your fucking mind. Hip Hop is commercialized and fake as ever, don’t desecrate the golden era when motherfuckers meant what they said.

  • sel prete

    lol you are my new favorite commenter

  • yo delf

    Amazing reply Benji

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  • man with no name

    Cormega… that’s REALNESS. Keeping it real means not being FULL OF SHIT, which includes lying to yourself. Real recognize real. Claiming to push coke when you never have, claiming to clap gats when you don’t own any or even know how to use them, claiming to be a banger when you aren’t, etc… this isn’t even respectable from an artistic standpoint. If you aren’t living the street life or never have, and you are rapping about it, then you are not only fake but you are pretty much selling out your own people, your own culture, by pushing that bullshit and glorifying a lifestyle that is anything but glorious. Getting shot aint cool. Neither is prison. What it comes down to is the ignorant masses (mostly the youth) eating up these lies that are being peddled by pop artists who work for old rich dudes. Now instead of studio gangsters, we have popstar rappers pushing the dumbed down materialistic drugged out pop culture claiming that it’s hip hop culture.