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Where I’m from—12th and T, 3rd and Atlantic, 14th and Upshur, Mayfair Mansions, Neptune Avenue. Tough places then; much rougher now. I sometimes reminisce about the gangs from back in my day—the Flamin’ Arrows, Controllers, Marlboro 500, and 250—and then reality kicks in as I realize that back then, the only thing to fear was getting your money taken or ass kicked. Today’s streets can cost a lot more. So when I tell people where I’m from and check their reactions, I know in my heart I’m just frontin’. Because the way and where I lived then pales when compared to the way and where many youths are living today.
For too much of today’s youth, death simply becomes them—not because of the finality of the loss of a friend to violence, but because of constant contact with peers who have killed and may kill again. To be sure, today’s climate of violence and fear both cowers and empowers young men and women. And regardless of which side youths fall on, what’s clear is that the violence and fear permeates all things, including rap—and not always in the hyperbolic representations of so-called “gangsta rap.”
To these youths, life is mad real, and the tones that rap assumes to deal with it vary. Groups like Arrested Development offer spiritual uplift. Then there are the cold realities delivered by Black Moon’s debut, Enta Da Stage. As the Jungle Brothers pointed out, “To brag and boast is just a higher level of description/What only matters is the fact not the fiction.” Yeah, then Black Moon (DJ Evil Dee, and poets Buckshot Shorty and 5 Ft. Excellerator) kick much fiction. Fortunately, Enta‘s braggin’ and boastin’ is mostly confined to two selections, “Powaful Impak!” and “How Many MC’s….” Both tracks serve up a too-familiar litany of “I can” ‘s and “you can’t” ‘s from “ly-ri-cal-ly, I freak the funk you never heard/My shit is so fly when I kick it, it’s absurd” to “you’re shittin’, your ass is stinkin’, I see you blinkin’.”
Ego trippin’ aside, Stage‘s opener, “Impak!” sets the old school/new tools tone of the entire album. The drumbeats seldom veer from the traditional boom, boom, bap cadence; the bass lines are sparse but very full; and the lyrics are refreshingly grimeless, delivered in a confident yet understated off-beat style. The drawback is a reliance on a new-school device that’s becoming worn out—that frat-style refrain, repeated in militaristic unison between verses.
The cool jazz vibe established in the opening bars of “Niguz Talk Shit” (walking bass line, bright high-hat-like tambourine, and repeated two-note trumpet figure) abruptly gives way to the harsh frankness of Buckshot Shorty’s opening verse. “Somebody call the morgue, I just caught a DOA/Two to the head I shot the bitch in broad day/No joke, I smoke a glock of herb from block to block, bust Mac-10’s, doo-wops, and Glocks…Shit,” he says, and his voicing of the final “shit” creates a variant on the explicative (extend the “shi” and lose the “t”). But check yourself before you get too wrecked. The harsh lyrics speak more directly to a challenger’s rhyming skills, not the street violence that’s only implied.
No such use of analogy is found in “Make Munne,” Buckshot’s autobiographical study of growing up in the streets of Brooklyn, in which he empathizes with the monetary needs (“gotta get paid”) of the man on the corner. “Back in the days we used to hit Pickett Ave/Knapsack strapped on my back everything got grabbed in sight/When I could I put up a fight, then I took flight, all you seen was a streak of light.” Buckshot learns that it’s more to his advantage to be the payee than the payer of any project levy, turns to petty theft (“Sometimes I even hit the pocket, I got knot/One time, two time, shit they couldn’t stop it”), then graduates to more serious crimes (“It’s a jack, take your fuckin’ hands off the wheel/Turn around slowly bitch, you know the deal”) before resolving, hesitantly, to get legally underpaid through his rhyme skills: “I wanna grab the mike, flip the script and get paid/But if I puff a dead dream, damn, I’m gettin’ played.” He doesn’t say what his next move would be should his rap career not pan out.
“Shit Iz Real,” which opens seductively with a solo saxophone melody (John Klemmer’s “Love Song to Katherine”), reads like a fatalistic sequel to “Munne.” It too begins with Buckshot Shorty on the run, only this time it’s from an impending retaliation: “Gotta move cause I’m on a nigga’s hit list/You know the kid with the rock from up the block/Hit ’em up with a Glock now his cop’s on my buttocks.” The drums are bright and bouncy, mocking the attentive high that one might feel when being hunted and on the run. The track closes with a soliloquy of crowd voices, as if two rival groups have met unexpectedly in the night. A woman’s voice is faintly heard trying to convince them to go home, but the street machismo continues to escalate to a point of no return. Finally, the muffled sound of a gun’s blast is heard, followed by echoes of young men departing in celebratory defiance. The piece leaves me empty and wondering what I’d do if faced with the same choices.
“Slave,” which is only available on CD, is Black Moon at its most introspective. A solo bass riff serves as the opening passage to Buckshot’s refrainless verse; his words divulge frank thoughts that often hover beneath the harder edges of rap’s protective skin: “Straight from the bloodstream I pump finesse/Nevertheless, hold it in my ches’ like stress” before he shamelessly discloses that “I feel like I’m trapped in the muthafuckin’ cage/To the rhythm I’m a slave looking at my grave/Jugular vein bulging out my neck, you see the rage.” Rage crying out for help?
Stop the violence by shooting the messenger? Nah, youth ain’t havin’ it. Rap music remains its voice, particularly for the black youth whose experiences are honestly being shared. If so-called rap radio can find time to play the latest mutation of woman-as-sexual-plaything song, surely it can find space for some constructive street realism. Ignoring it doesn’t mean it isn’t so. A blackened moon continues to revolve around the earth, even when it’s not seen.