I admittedly retain a fondness for nostalgic rappingÂ despite having recently fired a few salvos at fans and artists for remaining stuck in the past. Even songs that dally with maudlin excess1 Â possess an undeniable charm. Many famously wistful rap songs Â are actually quite artful and stimulating; rappers typically muse on several Â different imaginary pasts in the course of a single song. These archetypes include sanitized accounts of hip hop’s earlier days;2 urban coming of age vignettes3; myth-making accounts of the rapper’s life prior to attaining stardom; and an improbably tranquil era prior to the rise of crack cocaine and its attendant ills.4 In songs from the early and mid-90s, these pasts are frequently conflated into a single blurry yesteryear. This makes sense when one considers that most of the artists were born in the late ’60s and early ’70s; their generation’s coming of age really did coincide with the crack wars and rap’s entry into the mainstream. Out of this flood of “back in the day” jams5 that has yet to truly subside there are a few that stand out for their unique perspectives6 but today I am most interested in two especially affecting songs that tackle the issue of violence and social deterioration: Masta Ace’s “As I Reminisce” and Juelz Santana’s “Good Times.”
Download: Masta Ace “As I Reminisce”
“As I Reminisce” appears on Masta Ace’s (he was known as “Master Ace” then) debut album Take A Look Around, released in 1988, when drug-related homicides in NYC were skyrocketing. The song, a topical posse cut — his early collaborators Eyce, Uneek, and Rokkdiesel are the featured guests — begins as a lighthearted recounting of a Brooklyn childhood that includes biking through Propsect Park, donning the choicest early ’80s b-boy gear, and engaging in snap sessions. With very little prior indication save for fleeting references to “packing razorblades” and the importance of not being perceived as “soft,” the song changes gears during the third verse in which one of Ace’s crew members7 recounts getting jacked for his gold nameplate. When Masta Ace’s begins his verse, the main sample is temporarily muted for the first time; over a drum break and sparse piano riff he launches into a profound if brief verse that bemoans a recent sea change in street fighting decorum that allows for gunplay. In Ace’s voice we hear hints of resignation and bitterness Â but he is mostly reserved, suggesting that the hyper-masculine veneer he adopts to survive an escalated crime wave has left an indelible mark on his psyche and the larger culture around him.
Download: Juelz Santana “Good Times”
The narrative voice on Juelz Santana’s “Good Times” is even more embattled. The former junior member of Cam’Ron’s polarizing Dip Set employs a few of his trademark poetic devices — mostly various forms of insistent repetition — as well as subtle shifts in vocal tone to express ambivalence towards the observable changes brought on by the passage of time during his short life. He begins with a brief ad-lib that suggests that he is determined to bring back good times that have been lost, a sentiment echoed in the simple chorus “I look around like ‘where the good times at’ / I’m just trying to bring the good times back.” He implores his listeners to recall the fading past, Â interspersing seemingly innocent references Â (“tag, skelly8, them good ol’ games”) with more sinister ones (“when every hustler had good cocaine”).As an ’80s baby and a rapper of the naughts, his ambivalence is expected. In 2005, he has every template of a “back in the day” rap song at his disposal for inpiration, including Nas’ “Memory Lane,” and he indulges in every form of nostalgia thus far mentioned.
Try as he might, however, he cannot escape the fact that he was practically born into the devastation and despair of a ubiquitous drug culture in which a purer product meant increased sales and the entrance of wealth — however ill-gotten and fleeting — into impoverished Harlem. He is aware of the negative impact of this trade even though he barely remembers a previous time. In a careful, roundabout manner he mourns the disintegration of core values and an accompanying loss of innocence brought on by a coarsened society; he longs for the days when a movie date was not viewed as “trickin’.” Like Ace, he is mostly reserved, but his voice deepens and intensifies when, immediately following a few bars referencing the perks of drug dealing, he finishes his last verse by summoning the memory of dead educational aspirations, dreams “similar to the one Dr. King used to have.” When his secondary chorus of “Won’t you, won’t you come on back to me” kicks in the effect is every bit as heartbreaking as Bunk’s lamentation of “how far we done fell” in the clip from The Wire posted above. — Thun
- Nas’ nearly intolerable “Can’t Forget About You” comes to mind immediately. For a hilarious parody of this type of song, check Party Fun Action Committee’s “Back N Da Dais.” [↩]
- It is typically suggested that rap music once existed in an innocent form that was subsequently corrupted by commerce and plagued by diminishing artistic/ethical standards; Common Sense’s uncomfortably earnestÂ “I Used To Love H.E.R.” is perhaps the best known example. This kind of narrative deviates from the rap origin myths espoused by MC Shan, Boogie Down Productions, and Just-Ice, which describe an early park jam scene marred by frequent violence and set against a larger urban backdrop of social disorder. [↩]
- I analyzed three poignant examples here. [↩]
- It is worth mentioning another tendency — pioneered to brilliant effect by Nas on “Memory Lane” and subsequently run into the ground by a myriad of copycats — to lionize the ascent of high profile drug kingpins of the ’70s and ’80s. Nas’ innovative and arresting ode to the ’87 era is without peer; his less creative imitators pen trite glorifications of ghetto misery. Oddly, Nas’ other attempts to honor the past mostly range from dull to insipid, with the possible exception of “Doo Rags.” [↩]
- I put together a nice little compilation of such songs a few years ago which you can download here. [↩]
- Illegal’s “Back In the Day” is especially creative and unsettling. The junior high school aged rappers describe lives of impoverished hopelessness and criminality while the chorus “Back in the day when I was a teenager” suggests rather ominously that any semblance of youthful innocence has already passed. [↩]
- Readers, please feel free to school me on the order in which the members of Eyceurokk trio rap on this song. [↩]
- “Skelly,” also known as “skellsies” or “skully” is street game that is mentioned very often in this type of song, usually by artists older than Juelz. [↩]