Sippin’ and Spittin’: Examining the Use of Lean in Hip-Hop

City of Syrup

While drugs and music have seemingly been related since the dawn of culture, few drugs are intertwined with a specific culture in the way that ‘lean’ is connected with hip-hop.  From DJ Screw and Big Moe, to Lil’ Wayne and Macklemore, to Justin Bieber and even Miley Cyrus, lean and hip-hop, hand-in-hand, have expanded their influence (Westhoff).  As ABC News put it, “It’s more than a drug; it’s a culture.  It’s what’s known on the street as “Lean,” a highly addictive cocktail of cough syrup, cold medicine, alcohol and candy — so potent it makes you “lean” over when high” (Hughes).  In this essay, I hope to examine the role of lean in hip-hop culture.  First, I’ll specifically discuss lean and its effects.  Then, I will look into the origins of how lean became infused in hip-hop culture, and how both the drug and the culture have become increasingly influential in society.  After that, I will describe some of the efforts to denounce the use of lean in hip-hop culture, before concluding.

“Get introduced to this drink that I sizzip.
Promethazine with codeine that’s my twizzist.”

– Beanie Sigel, “Purple Rain”

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The Revolution Will Be Analyzed: Breaking Down Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” has been elevated to legendary status over the years. Born out of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, the spoken-word poem has been sampled, alluded to and referred to by many hip-hop artists, including Kanye West, Queen Latifah, Jay Electronica, Common, Lupe Fiasco and more. In this essay, I will first examine Gil Scott-Heron and his personal history, then analyze “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and its historical context, before examining its impact on culture and then concluding.

Gil Scott-Heron was born on April 1, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised in Jackson, Tennessee by his maternal grandmother, Lillie Scott (“Singer”). When his grandmother died, he moved to New York, when he was 12 years old (Nosnitsky). He attended high school in The Bronx, endured attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and eventually settled in Manhattan (Tyler)(Scott). During his time at Lincoln University, he met Brian Jackson, with whom he founded the band Black & Blues. Originally, Scott-Heron was one of about nine members in the group, and, according to himself, was “arguably not the most important voice in the group” (Scott). The group eventually broke up by the time that Scott-Heron’s solo career took off, but he worked with Brian Jackson throughout his career. While Gil Scott-Heron was been honored as an excellent writer, singer, poet, satirist, father of four, voice of black radicalism, and even “The Godfather of Rap,” his life was far from perfect (Nosnitsky). He battled addiction to cocaine and other substances and was also HIV positive (“Singer”). Uncut magazine described Scott-Heron as a “doomed junkie” who “slowly killed himself with drugs, spent two lengthy periods in prison, and never quite came to terms with his chaotic childhood” (Mulholland). Scott-Heron referred to his musical combination of percussion, political themes and poetry as “black music or black American music” or “bluesology,” referring to himself as a “bluesician” (“Singer”). Over his career, he co-wrote and produced over a dozen albums with Brian Jackson – a legendary jazz pianist, flautist, arranger, and singer (“Singer”) (MacArthur). Scott-Heron has praised the often-overlooked contributions of Brian Jackson: “We made the poems into songs, and we wanted the music to sound like the words, and Brian’s arrangements very often shaped and molded them. … Sometimes I’d ask him and he’d convey in words what sort of feeling he was trying to bring about with that particular chord, and that helped me get into it” (Scott). In May 2011, Gil Scott-Heron died after lengthy battles with drugs and disease, at the age of 62 (Nichols).

In his writings, poems and music, Gil Scott-Heron discussed issues of love, children and a variety of topics; however, the controversial and politically-charged “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” received the most attention (MacArthur). Discussing people’s emphasis on “the only political piece” on the album, Gil Scott-Heron was a little disappointed: “When people picked “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas, and all of those ideas were significant to us at the time we were working on them” (Scott). He lamented to the Houston Press, “The least inventive one on the album was the one that was the most heralded” (MacArthur). While Scott-Heron might have considered “The Revolution” to be one of his “least inventive” songs, it’s undoubtedly his most famous and influential. In New York in 1970, at the age of 21, Gil Scott-Heron first recorded the spoken-word poem for his live debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. On the original version (which is the version that I will focus on), congas and bongo drums accompanied Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken-word poetry. Released on the Flying Dutchman label, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is “in essence, a poetry reading accompanied by conga beats and various percussion instruments” (MacArthur). Later in 1971, Scott-Heron’s early – and best-known – song was rerecorded as a more rhythmic jazz tune with the help of his musical partner Brian Jackson’s flute skills (“The”). That version was included on the Scott-Heron’s debut studio album Pieces of a Man, which was produced by Bob Thiele, who also worked with John Coltrane as well as Beat poets like Jack Kerouac (Scott). Scott-Heron has written that, at the time, “Bob Thiele wanted to create a recorded chronicle of the era. Many changes in our society that took place in the 1970s were credited to the 1960s, and Bob wanted those sounds on wax. These were often albums that had no commercial potential, but that were enormously insightful as slices of an age and invaluable as snapshots of a period that reshaped America first and everywhere else later.” And, undoubtedly, “The Revolution” fits well in that category.

The title, now famous, especially in hip-hop culture, was originally a popular slogan during the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s in America. The song’s lyrics, with dominating social and political themes, connect with the black militant activism that was relatively common at the time (“Singer”).

At the time, the idea that media didn’t just observe society’s politics but shaped them as well was barely examined beyond academia (Nichols). Scott-Heron, on the other hand, passionately critiqued the “disengaged and disengaging character of broadcast news – and the crisis of commercialism” (Nichols). While condemning the media and consumerism isn’t too uncommon in recent hip-hop, it arguably wouldn’t be nearly as common without Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Honored as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is arguably “more poem than song,” and Ian K. Smith of the New Statesman compared it to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (Smith). Rather than a simple catchy pop song, “The Revolution,” according to Smith,” is “the linear notes of a generation, a relentless stream of cultural references against hand-beaten drums” (Smith). The song aims to denounce “the elusive nature of political culture in Nixon’s America, and the inability of the mainstream to capture the real heart of the people” (Smith). Over the years, the song and its title have been “used, reused, and recontextualized” may times, or, put more bluntly, as Leon Collins, who lived with Gil in the 60s and 70s, put it, “That’s been co-opted and exploited a billion different ways” (Azpiri) (Nosnitsky). Additionally, the song has recently been considered an “anthem for a movement where Americans of all colors and creeds will stand up for their rights” (Burnett). However, the song was originally aimed at black people. With what some have called “militant vibe,” Scott-Heron fearlessly described and denounced the dominating culture. (MacArthur). In his “socially aware signature song,” he “pitted the cultural awakening of the Civil Rights era against American consumerism” in a poem that “took the form of a list of things that Heron hated: banal icons of white culture and loathed political figures that dominated American television in the 1970s” (“The”) (Mulholland). Following the Civil Rights Movement, Gil Scott-Heron, in the words of Lurma Rackley, the mother of Gil’s son Rumal, brilliantly tapped into some of the major events of the time “in a way that people could understand … and he made extraordinary commentary on the major issues of his time” (Nosnitsky).

At face value, some of the lyrics can arguably be interpreted as hostile, especially toward white people (perhaps not too surprising, considering that the song is essentially a denunciation of the dominant white culture of the time). For example, Scott-Heron emphatically says, “The revolution will not be right back after a message / about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.” Throughout the song, as he does in the previous quote, Scott-Heron does unquestionably critique consumerism’s constant sloganeering, but he does so with humor – humor with a bite (Nosnitsky). Scott-Heron has said previously, “I don’t know if I was as angry as I was misunderstood. I think that a lot of the things we did contained a lot of humor that went over people’s heads. We were clearly coming from a small southern town in Tennessee and we didn’t estimate what effect we’d have on national and international governments. We were trying to represent our community and speak about the things there. If people don’t understand the humor then it’s angry, but if people see the juxtaposition of the ideas then they understand where we’re coming from” (Nosnitsky). As Pitchfork has pointed out, “The Revolution Will Be Televised” is “dripping with sarcasm and subtly deadpanned double speak, even in his most harrowing moments. He also had an obvious love for slapstick verbal puns and could bend language in all different directions almost as a natural tic” (Nosnitsky). Part of what enabled Scott-Heron to so effectively use language for humor and impact was his use of “black English,” which, percussionist Larry McDonald argued, allowed him to “curse and swear and say the most outrageous things, and it didn’t seem obscene because it was totally in context” (Nosnitsky). The way that Scott-Heron twists popular references and allusions is both humorous and insightful. In the original version, after introducing himself and his colleagues, explains with deadpan humor, “We’d like to do a poem for you called ‘The revolution will not be televised,’ primarily because it won’t be.” Not only adding entertainment value, Scott-Heron’s satire allows a subversion to be “buried in the humour” (Smith). As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals, “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” – a concept that Scott-Heron seemed to understand and put into action.

The Revolution, according to Gil Scott-Heron, won’t be dictated by the government or by corporations. To make that point clear, he ridicules various government officials: “The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon / Blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat / Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.” Mocking the claims made in advertisements, Gil Scott-Heron notes that the Revolution (unlike Ultra Brite, Schick, and other brands) “will not give your mouth sex appeal / The revolution will not get rid of the nubs / The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.” Denouncing popular television shows of the time, Scott-Heron says in the song: “Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction will no longer be so goddamn relevant, and women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on Search for Tomorrow because black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day.” Despite the song’s outdated allusions, The New Yorker called it a “classic that sounds as subversive and intelligent now as it did when it was new” (Wilkinson).

Repetition is probably the most obvious and arguably the strongest rhetorical device that Scott-Heron used the most in the poem. Perhaps ironically, in the same way that advertisements constantly emphasize a single slogan, Gil Scott-Heron repeats the song’s title – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – throughout the song. While many of his allusions act as denunciations, that specific line, as Scott-Heron has explained in interviews, captures the song’s message: “You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move… The thing that’s going to change people is something that no one will ever be able to capture on film. It will just be something you see and all of a sudden you realize, ‘I’m on the wrong page’” (Rap Genius).

In conclusion, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” helped Gil Scott-Heron cement his title as “The Godfather of Rap” and the “Inventor of Rap” (The Nation, New Statesman). According to legendary Public Enemy member Chuck D, Scott-Heron laid the groundwork for hip-hop MCs to “do what we do and how we do” (“The”). Scott-Heron’s “unique proto-rap vocal style” over “bare-bones arrangements featuring pounding basslines and stripped-down drumbeats” heavily influenced the culture of hip-hop and “set the stage for rap as a form of sociopolitical expression for the masses” (Azpiri) (MacArthur). Aided by the use of slang, allusions, humor, and repetition, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” not only captured the feelings of a specific time in history, but helped forged the future as well.

 

 

Works Cited:

Alinsky, Saul David. Rules for Radicals. N.p.: n.p., 1972. Print.

Azpiri, Jon. “Pieces of a Man Review.” AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.allmusic.com/album/pieces-of-a-man-mw0000172002&gt;.

Burnett, Bob. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2014).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-burnett/the-revolution-will-not-be-televised-2014_b_4830672.html&gt;.

MacArthur, Paul J. “Catching Up with Gil.” Houston Press, 03 Sept. 1998. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.houstonpress.com/1998-09-03/music/catching-up-with-gil/full/&gt;.

Mulholland, Garry. “Gil Scott-Heron – The Revolution Begins: The Flying Dutchman Masters.” Uncut.co.uk. Uncut, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.uncut.co.uk/gil-scott-heron-the-revolution-begins-the-flying-dutchman-masters-review&gt;.

Nichols, John. “Gil Scott-Heron’s Revolution.” The Nation. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.thenation.com/blog/161025/gil-scott-herons-revolution&gt;.

Nosnitsky, Andrew. “Gil Scott-Heron: More Than a Revolution.” Pitchfork, 18 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/8755-gil-scott-heron/&gt;.

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron | Song Stories.” Rolling Stone. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/song-stories/the-revolution-will-not-be-televised-gil-scott-heron#ixzz2wu4KHI00&gt;

Scott-Heron, Gil. “An Excerpt From “The Last Holiday”” Jazz Articles. JazzTimes, 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://jazztimes.com/articles/29842-gil-scott-heron-an-excerpt-from-the-last-holiday&gt;.

Scott-Heron, Gil. “”The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”” Poetry Genius. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Gil-scott-heron-the-revolution-will-not-be-televised-annotated&gt;.

“Singer Gil Scott-Heron Dies at 62.” Mail Online. Daily Mail, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1391777/Revolution-Will-Not-Be-Televised-singer-Gil-Scott-Heron-dies-62.html&gt;.

Smith, Ian K. “Top 20 Political Songs: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised | Gil Scott-Heron | 1971.” New Statesman. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.newstatesman.com/music/2010/03/revolution-televised-gil-scott&gt;.

Tyler-Ameen, Daoud. “Gil Scott-Heron, Poet And Musician, Has Died.” NPR.org. NPR, 27 May 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://ww.npr.org/blogs/therecord/2011/05/27/136731274/gil-scott-heron-poet-and-musician-has-died&gt;.

Wilkinson, Alec. “New York Is Killing Me.” The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/09/100809fa_fact_wilkinson?currentPage=all&gt;.

 

Rhetoric of Hip Hop Blog – Friday April 4, 2014

Blogging assignment, due Friday (April 4), 5pm:

  • Visual remediation of an argument from your controversy. This is going to be a challenging exercise, so give yourself some time by getting started early.
  • Find an argument from within your controversy and re-imagine it as a still image.
  • Feel free to use materials found online and/or to take your own photographs and/or drawings to incorporate into the remediation
  • You will want to think about condensing a written argument that progresses in a linear way into a single image
  • Things to consider: color, arrangement, proportions, perspective

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Rhetoric of Hip-Hop Blog 2 January 31

Explore a specific topic related to hip hop that you think you might want to work on this semester. What do you know about it without having done any specific research for this class? What would you like to know more about? Do you already have strong feelings about some of the controversies related to this topic?

As a religious studies major and a hip-hop head, I’m especially interested in how religion interacts with hip-hop. I’ve written about hip-hop on multiple occasions, and I’ve also covered the music of multiple churches in the Dallas Fort-Worth area, so that’s provided me with some insight on the topic. Additionally, I’ve taken multiple religious studies classes, although this is my first hip-hop course.

I’d really love to look deeper into how religion specifically affects some of the hot button issues in hip-hop – gender and sexuality, especially misogyny and homophobia. Is the role of women in hip-hop similar to the role of women in religion? How do they compare and contrast? How does word choice affect the perception of hip-hop in the eyes of larger culture? Are hip-hop’s views of masculinity rooted in Christianity’s views of masculinity?

But also more generally, how was hip-hop changed religion, especially in urban black communities?

How common is hip-hop in churches? Are more churches embracing hip-hop?

How have our perceptions of race affected hip-hop and Christianity? How have hip-hop and Christianity affected our society’s perceptions of race? Is it mostly positive or negative?

How has consumerism affected hip-hop and religion? Has commodification taken them away from their roots? Has that helped or hurt overall? In what ways?

At this point, I haven’t really made any conclusive judgments about these topics – and I don’t think I should until I dive deeper into the issues. Still, these are a few of the many topics that I’d like to learn about during this semester.

Rhetoric of Hip-Hop Blog 1 January 24

This is the first of a series of blogs that I will write over the semester for my class, Rhetoric of Hip-Hop, at The University of Texas at Austin.

Why is it important to have debates about hip hop? (Why should anyone who is not a hip hop fan care? Why do you care personally?)

Hip-Hop, on a personal level, isn’t something I like; it’s something I live. I’m not even sure how I was first introduced to hiphop. It seems to have always been a part of me, who I am. It’s changed the way I think, I dress, I talk, I write and the way I view the world.

As Slug of Atmosphere put it in “Party for the Fight to Write”:

As a child hip-hop made me read books
And hip-hop made me wanna be a crook
And hip-hop gave me the way and something to say

Having never had an imposing physical frame, one of my earliest realizations that words could be used jabs and uppercuts was through hiphop. I’d spend hours analyzing lyrics on RapGenius or watching rap battles on YouTube. Long before I was competing in formal academic debates, I was battling over beats in the lunchroom.

But even on a more academic and societal level, hip-hop is important in countless ways. Obviously as a multi-billion dollar industry, hip-hop has a significant economic impact. But as some rappers have noted, hip-hop is not only “about dollars” but also “about change.”

Few forms of art provide better insight into culture than hip-hop. Hip-hop, arguably much more so than most other artforms, represents a voice for a community that has historically been voiceless, poor young urban Blacks and Latinos. Hip-hop provides a window into our culture as a whole, especially regarding issues of race, gender, history, politics, religion, and more (although I unfortunately don’t have more room to elaborate here).

Because hip-hop so strongly affects so many aspects of our society – even far beyond hip-hop itself – it’s especially important to be studied and understood, even for those who aren’t necessarily rap fans.

The One and Only Definitive, Exhaustive, Absolute List of the Ten Best Songs of All Time (in no particular order)

See also: Article Recommendations (August 8, 2013)

“Imagine” by John Lennon, Imagine (1971)

“You may say I’m a dreamer… but I’m not the only one.” John Lennon’s magically powerful single from 1971 is a truly historic song that in many ways embodied some of the time’s idealism.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, Ain’t That Good News (1964)

R&B legend Sam Cooke may not have made his catchiest song with “A Change Is Gonna Come” but he did make a song that defined an era. And if, like me, you can’t get enough of this song, it has a significant number of covers – including some by Beyonce, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and more.

“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie (1944)

Arguably the best protest song of all time, “This Land Is Your Land” was written by Communist folk legend Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was upset with how unrealistic Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was, so he wrote this beautiful song to ask in reply, “Was this land made for you and me?”

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)

Is anyone smoother than Marvin Gaye? I don’t think it’s possible. But the soul legend didn’t only use his voice for love songs; in 1971 he released the powerful “What’s Going On,” which was inspired by an incident of police brutality.

“American Pie” by Don McLean, American Pie (1971)

Singer-songwriter Don McLean brilliantly singing mysterious lyrics is as American as “American Pie.” (Okay, sorry for that one.) Supposedly, when McLean was asked about the meaning behind his cryptic song, he replied “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” True.

“Straight Outta Compton” by N.W.A, Straight Outta Compton (1988)

So much of hip-hop culture today came “Straight Outta Compton,” thanks to the legendary gangsta hip-hop group N.W.A. Ice Cube with the opening verse, followed by MC Ren and then concluded by Eazy-E – the song is dope throughout. The song, and the group as a whole, completely revolutionized not only hip-hop, but our entire American culture.

“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)

In “Blowin’ in the Wind” singer-songwriter Bob Dylan asks questions more beautifully than anyone has since Socrates. Enlightening, confusing, ambiguous and yet undeniably enjoyable, Dylan’s famous song deserves its spot on this list.

“Lose Yourself” by Eminem, 8 Mile (2002)

The single off the original soundtrack for his movie 8 Mile won an Oscar – the first rap song to ever win. Having written and produced “Lose Yourself,” Marshall Mathers flawlessly rides from word to word in one of the most inspiring tracks of all time.

“In The Ghetto” by Elvis Presley (1969)

A powerful story about the devastating cycle of poverty, “In The Ghetto” is arguably the King’s most touching song.

“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang (1979)

“I said a hip hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip-hip-hop and you don’t stop.” That simple and catchy rhyme opened 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang – which is considered to be the very first popular rap song. The originals deserve respect.