Stream: O.C. “Let It Slide”
Stream: Homeboy Sandman “Mean Mug”
Ever since the rec-room and park jam era, the specter of internecine violence has been stalking hip hop concert venues and clubs. For nearly as long, the global media has been diligently spotlighting unfortunate incidents. This fixation inspires right-wing pundits and policymakers to suggest, fallaciously, that causal links between the genre and youth violence can be established. The reputation of low-income urban Black and Latino youths, particularly those dwelling in close proximity to cities that house a disproportionate share of the headquarters of major media outlets (e.g. New York City and Los Angeles) continues to be sullied by such coverage.
Opportunistic fear-mongering notwithstanding, behind the perpetual media field day and apart from the often recklessly overdetermined analyses of academics and lawmakers that feed the public’s historic disdain for urban youths,1 the problem of violence is very real. It extends beyond the places where rap music is played for paying audiences, into the homes, schools, and streets where many fans spend the majority of their time. In these settings, rap music is enormously cultural influential. The menace, chaos, nihilism, and reckless pride that figures prominently in much of the music shapes the outlooks and behaviors of many young listeners. Although I am disdainful of unfounded claims of causality, my childhood and adolescence was spent in urban New Jersey, making me fully aware of how the misread “cool pose” assumed by so many of us often colored our interactions for the worse.2
The static generated by poses and stares is the topic of O.C.’s brilliant “Let It Slide,” an album cut from his lauded debut Word … Life.3 “Let It Slide” is interesting in that it urges cooler heads to prevail but also calls for the righteous to engage in self-defense when necessary. In O.C.’s estimation, tough times call for vigilance. He suggests that pre-emptive defensive measures are theoretically permissible and he launches into a series of vignettes to illustrate just how bad things have gotten for the good guys. He knows that on the streets of NYC, his mellow, affable demeanor will be read as a sign of weakness. He would prefer to suavely ignore the ice grilles pointed in his direction and get on with his day but it isn’t always so easy.
O.C.’s first verse describes a trip to a local nightclub with his cousin that very nearly turns tragic. He and his cousin arrive on the scene packing .25 caliber pistols even though they have “juice with the bouncers on the inside.” The spot is filled with American-born wannabe thugs pretending to be Jamaican rude bwoys and the mere fact of their existence has O.C. on edge. Prolonged stares cause O.C. to reach for his gun but his cousin acts as his surrogate conscience, telling him to keep his piece tucked and let the situation slide. Buckwild’s moody, vaguely sinister production is the perfect soundtrack for O.C.’s narration, at times stoic and cautious and other times agitated and aggressive.
In the second verse, O.C. describes an encounter with a random would-be assailant who stares for a few seconds too long. Without his cousin by his side, he is eager to flip into the “unstable human being” he describes in one of the song’s refrains; he squashes the situation at gunpoint. It seems odd that an emcee so singularly and strangely devoted to relating the life of the mind would choose to represent such an atavistic point of view, but the third verse clarifies everything. The song is in fact about a particular point of view, not one that Omar Credle adheres to all of the time, but one that O.C. the rapper can relate to his fans in a show of solidarity. O.C. insists that his stance is necessary to prolong life, but in the safety of retrospect, one has to wonder whether or not the philosophy espoused in “Let It Slide” invites as much trouble as it deflects.
In 2010, Homeboy Sandman speaks from a perspective that is influenced by the passage of time, as well as his own travels outside of the five boroughs. In NYC, violent gun crimes have dropped significantly from their late ’80s/early ’90s peak.4 Homeboy Sandman attended boarding school in New England and then moved on to college and graduate school in Philadelphia, so one can surmise that he has spent a considerable amount of time maturing in environments where physical altercations are both rare and stigmatized. Like O.C., he is noticeably dedicated to his craft and pens intricate, cerebral songs, but unlike O.C. his take on the epidemic of threatening looks is not centered around a questionably preventative call to arms.
In “Mean Mug,”5 Homeboy Sandman parallels O.C.’s approach to the extent that identifies ice-grille-ing as a serious urban problem and acknowledges himself as a likely target. His critique is not limited to calling out “mean muggers” as duplicitous, however; he is more concerned with the psychological and societal harm caused by the widespread adoption of an aggressive pose. Much like “Let It Slide,” “Mean Mug” is an intensely personal song that consists mostly of an internal monologue that revolves around variations of the the age-old question “why is everyone fucking with me.” O.C. poses the question to establish his justification for pre-emptive aggression and then drops it, but Homeboy Sandman extends his analysis outward, asking why so many of his brethren choose to walk the streets with such a negative demeanor when such behavior invites ill will, tragedy, and nothing else.
Homeboy Sandman does not make a causal argument per se but does hint at the possibility that the atmosphere of mistrust that mean mugs create is also one that is ripe for unjustifiable violence, i.e. “mean mugging.” The idea that the contortion of one’s face or a disapproving stare is an act of violence in and of itself is acknowledged by O.C. on “Let It Slide” but only to illustrate just how endangered he feels. Homeboy Sandman recognizes the phenomenon as symptomatic of much greater ills, and during the course of his monologue — which is really intended to spark a larger public discussion— concludes that the mean mug is habit-forming, contagious, and consistently destructive to those who hide behind its fortification. As a composition, “Mean Mug” lends itself to such analysis; in place of “Let It Slide’s” dense jazz and furious (for O.C. anyway) rapping we get a sparse, happy funk track augmented by laid-back yet powerful vocals.
Both O.C. and Homeboy Sandman realize that they can never convince all of their brethren to live more positively, but they both locate victory in the idea that the individual can better his life by transforming his behavior. Homebody Sandman seems far more optimistic that the remedy can prove as contagious as the ailment, though, and quite frankly, it is refreshing to hear rapping that builds upon familiar topics in a manner that is both optimistic and critical all at once.— Thun
- I wrote this post discussing how such fear mongering even impacted the way that rappers wrote about youth violence a while back. [↩]
- I have written a number of pieces about this topic. This one best crystallizes my thoughts. [↩]
- If you are not familiar with Word… Life, please get familiar. [↩]
- There have been some recent indications that violent crime is on the upswing in low-income neighborhoods however. [↩]
- This song appears on Homeboy Sandman’s latest album The Good Sun, which is highly recommended. Peep this review. [↩]