Stream: Showbiz & A.G. “Runaway Slave”
A.G. knows that to make things right, one has to go through hell. This means that if he vows to build himself into the kind of man who can scale the walls of the ghetto, he must engage in some deconstruction, some intelligent demolition. A studied confrontation with one’s miserable surroundings need not devolve into paralyzing lamentation. Those that bemoan the coarser realities of their own existence sell themselves and their accomplishments short. The living hell of the Patterson housing projects and the vast ghetto of the South Bronx forged A.G. into the wise, principled, unpretentious narrator of Showbiz and A.G.’s debut LP Runaway Slave, and he knows it.
Grandmaster Caz’s “South Bronx Subway Rap” and Eric B. and Rakim’s “In The Ghetto” provide the blueprint for positing the ghetto as the locus classicus1 of rap’s authenticity. To A.G., authenticity is more than aggressive posture or criminal mischief; it is best signified by the personal growth one goes through by surviving material deprivation. Runaway Slave’s title track is its linchpin.Â If it remains unheard and undigested, the rest of the album can only amount to a series of provocative vignettes that document the ghetto and its naked tragedies and triumphs but does not introduceÂ listeners to new ideas about these subjects.
Any sense that such experiences are meaningful —that they reflect conditions that can be persuasively linked to America’s sordid racist past or that poor urban youth can effect real social change by first reforming their individual attitudes— risks being drowned out by party grooves or the pursuit of fat pockets. “Runaway Slave” must serve as the album’s introduction, moral center, and epilogue. A.G. begins by staring down the alleyway leading directly to hell: “Livin’ in the slums with the bums, the rats, the stray cats/ Dogs with the rabies, babies having babies.” A.G. knows that hunger rapidly corrodes one’s civility, but is also aware that being conscious of one’s status as a burdensome scourge can warp one’s outlook and behavior.
Living in “a rat-like settlement” educates the ghetto resident about all kinds of interconnected characters: crack dealers who briefly loom large only to be swiftly imprisoned, relentless addicts whose sickness feeds both the illicit economy and the ambitions of “wild” juvenile offenders who look up to the dealers. It is not difficult to find these types in a place where one’s every step barely misses a crack vial, but the media’s alarmist fixation on such behavior has contributed to a tragic Pygmalion cycle. Otherwise rational ghetto dwellers lose grasp of their humanity and live up to their reputation as predatory vermin; people take enormous risks with their bodily health because they feel powerless to refute notions of their own inferiority.
A.G. rationalizes alcoholism as an alternative to fratricide, the idea being that self-annihilation is preferable to taking one’s frustration out on his neighbors. This is a hugely misguided sentiment emanating from a mind reduced to desperate irrationality. But in this haze, A.G. figures out how urgently he needs to awaken to a version of reality that lies external to his own self-pity. The impetus for such a change was lying dormant but served no purpose until roused into action. When he rhymes almost nonsensically that taking a forty to the head is akin to letting “the mental do the damage” his seemingly addled phrasing points to a poignant truth about his life. His mind can destroy him through stress and self-doubt but is also equipped to devise a plan to change his situation, to strike back against oppressive forces.
His change in attitude begins before the first verse is finished. Rather than allow the deluge of distressing journalistic and academic analyses focusing on ghetto pathologies crush his spirit, he adapts their language of alarm to a program of upliftment. He launches into a rhymed statistical analysis of black on black crime whose truth lies not in the veracity of the numbers but the immediacy of its message: viewing oneself and one’s brothers as expendable animals leads invariably to death and imprisonment. The systematic destruction of black life is accomplished largely by proxy, by people with no real economic or political power, but as A.G. comes to realize, the potential for change is right under his nose.
On the other side of the chorus, a new mentality, and thus a new man emerges. A.G. is now fully cognizant that the enlightened individual can learn to cope, survive, and even transcend and reform his surroundings by changing his attitude. He cannot help but feel empowered. The simple act of recognizing that his people’s present condition is partly attributable to the damaging impact of slavery has provided him with a level of autonomy that his ancestors could never actualize. He is too hardened by experience to believe that he has fully rid himself of his pathologies, so they linger in the second verse. He no longer feels ruled by his base impulses, however, so he is devoted to articulating his outrage over disunity and self-hatred that cannot be blamed on external factors.
The enemy, from now on, is a reversion to “mental slavery.” The solution, though easier said than done, is not complex: the intelligence and resourcefulness that ghetto living engenders in its luckier inhabitants has to be held in greater esteem than the guttersnipe kill-or-be-killed mentality that tends to prevail. “Runaway Slaves”Â is one of the most exhaustive explorations of this concept that the genre has to offer; it is centralÂ to understanding not only the album it appears on, but also rap’s stubborn focus on the environment of its birth. — Thun
- I am indebted to Michael Eric Dyson for his use of the term locus classicus in reference to the modern American ghetto. [↩]