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The Journalist MC, The Novelist MC, And The Artist-Leader

“And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up s*** in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain’t animated like say a Busta Rhymes
But the real s*** you get when you bust down my lines…”

- Jay-Z on “What More Can I Say?”

If you ever wanted to know the root of the creative tension (not the personal drama or the competitive energy) between Jay-Z and Nas last decade, it boils down to the fact that they are two rappers from two different schools. One – Jay-Z is the classic journalist (or columnist), able to describe his environment and state of mind in first or third person with vivid commentary. The other – Nas, was the epitome of a novelist, skilled at dramatizing reality in fictional descriptions and powerful symbolism and imagery. This does not mean that either artist could not do what the other did. Obviously they could, did, and still do. But each of them received the support of a loyal following because they became the perfect representative of a school of MC’ing that will always live in Hip-Hop.

As references, Jay-Z is at his journalistic best on “Izzo” (H.O.V.A.)and Nas, the supreme author of the reality based novel on “One Love.”

Both describe reality and tell the truth, with wit, but just in different ways.

The artist to me who did both the best was Tupac. It was not that he was the best lyricist in either school. He’s not a better novelist than Scarface or Slick Rick for instance and he’s not a better journalist than Chuck D.

And he never combined both schools in one song like Kool G. Rap did for example on ‘Streets Of New York’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdvKAnIlB2Y) or how KRS-One did for most of his career (by the way KRS-One is very unique in that he started out as a novelist on ‘Criminal Minded’ and within two years was arguably rap’s leading journalist and activist-leader).

But what ‘Pac had more than anyone else was the ability to convey empathy (way beyond sympathy) and give you the impression that he would act on what he was rapping about – sincerely dedicated to the cause he gave attention to – even to the point of death.

Tupac had leadership qualities and left you with the impression that his image as an artist was second to his profile as an authentic person and leader. It seemed to come natural to him. In comparison to so many artists today, there was nothing contrived in Tupac’s artistry, however over-the-top he may have been in his calculated obsession with Puffy and Biggie.

As I introduce my advisory service for artists (http://www.cedricmuhammad.com/cedric-muhammad-unveils-hip-hoppreneur-%E2%84%A2-advisory-service-for-international-artists/ ) and look for the right mixture of talent, ‘story,’ consciousness and charisma, I continue to come back to these schools of thought – novelist and journalist – and the gold standard of the rare individual who as artist-leader has the ability to 1) accurately describe reality 2) dramatize the most powerful elements of reality (love and hate) and 3) seek to serve as a catalyst, even lead a movement, to change reality for the better.

Not since he passed away have we had an artist who came so close to balancing all three.

“ There that voice go again, ‘Mac, practice for greatness.
Get paid for them immaculate statements
Keep thinking of those hot lines, like a psychic’
I can’t explain it – there’s no pain when I write it, there’s nothing like it.
…I spit words that skip through air
Let these words of a true thug hit your ear
And change colors like blue blood when it hit the air.”

- Beanie Sigel on “Nothing Like It”

So I thought of artists who stand out in either of these two schools of thought and who in some way have the potential to go to the third level in a major way. Or perhaps more importantly, these artists, if they do not reach that level themselves, represent qualities on that path for today’s younger artists to study and learn from.

Here are five that came to mind:

Rick Ross. He either stumbled upon it or knew it all along when he made ‘B.M.F.’ but in that one anthem Rick Ross came as close to giving us broad appeal non-preachy but start-a-riot ‘movement music ‘ as anything we have heard in some time. While some in the more overtly political school of thought in Hip-Hop viewed references to the Black Mafia Family as a ‘political’ force with skepticism, they could not deny the electricity and implication of the Larry Hoover shout-out in the chorus. The reaction alone bore witness that rap’s current L.B.M. (Lyrical Big Man) of the moment was on the money to depict the streets as political and that Rick Ross as novelist is a force to be respected. With his ‘boom’-heavy Nike commercials in heavy rotation, Ross gives the impression that he’s back to being more interested in lifestyle than moving us from coke rap to movement music. But never underestimate the man who sometimes stops showing us his belly long enough to appear in a suit and describe his ‘Farrakhan aura.’

Jay Electronica. For that one song -‘Exhibit C,’ – may Allah (God) forgive all of his sins. Jay Electronica, with the cinematic help of Just Blaze, gave us a track every journalist and novelist would kill for. Yes, in retrospect, we were premature to anoint him as the heir to Nas’ throne – a position Jay Elect Hannukah never said he wanted. And there is no denying that the inability to strike when it was hot and build a marketing campaign around that song and ride the ‘We Need Something Realer’ movement into millions of homes (as well as millions of dollars) may go down as one of the great ‘what if’ moments in rap history. But Jay Electronica cannot be defined by one song and his uncanny ability to ‘write novels’ with journalistic qualities means he is only another great concept, or better yet theme album away from going places few lyricists have – in the hearts and minds of the people.

Jasiri X. The reigning Journalist MC-In-Chief of Hip Hop (http://www.jasirix.com/). It’s not even close. No one delivers more timely, topical, and relevant commentary on current events than the franchise MC of the New Canadian record label Wandering Worx Music (Jasiri just signed with them). With a close working relationship with the legendary Paradise Gray of X-Clan, Jasiri’s channeling of Golden Era energy (1987-1992) is unmistakable, but his efforts to remain relevant to the youth – particularly through his masterful use of video and Internet technology make him a specialist without peer at the moment. In addition Jasiri’s activist-leader credentials on the ground are intact and thoroughly documented in the Pittsburgh-area. It will be interesting to see whether Wandering Worx has the formula to position Jasiri in creative ways on the national and international stages that await him.

“For the Gods that lost Their Earth
The World’s A Song You’ll Get It Back; You Just Lost Your Verse
It’s P verse the demons; that’s why I’m fiending for weed – cause I don’t want to forfeit first
…And I never practice Voodo, but it’s like Black Magic – how I spit this fluid to ni***s”

- Styles P. on “Black Magic”

Styles P. No one writes introspective songs any better than one third of The Lox. His novelist abilities are not a metaphor. He really has published his very own novel – ‘Invincible’ – one of the most progressive marketing steps I’ve seen a Hip-Hop artist make in years. And then there is the at times Tupac-like honesty and reckless energy. I was so moved by the similarities that I wrote two tributes to the work of Styles P. at BlackElectorate.com several years ago. One for the courageous step he took – which few applauded him for – in making “I’m Black” (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=1309 ) and the other after the release of ‘A Gangster And A Gentleman,’ (http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=668) which I insist is one of the best albums of last decade. In that second article I explain how Styles P. represents the duality that Tupac personified better than artist I had seen out back then. It is hard to imagine Styles P. as an artist-leader in the activist sense but his African roots (where his Mother is from) are an explosive wildcard waiting to be played right – for commercial success and more movement music.

40 Glocc. Make no mistake about it – this man is an intellectual. Like many affiliated artists whose real talent and ‘consciousness’ is drowned out by street organization imagery and the fascination and confusion that many in the world of rap have with the lifestyle and culture – the Crip rapper has another dimension as an artist-leader that has not been brought out through his musical career. All you have to do is listen to his riveting interviews where he expresses his political consciousness (which everyone assumes he doesn’t have because he is in a ‘gang’) and you can see there is a non-music industry goldmine awaiting 40 Glocc. He just has to use music to drive his brand, rather than squeezing his dynamic leadership profile into the limiting strait jacket of a music career. His love for and credibility in the streets could be an asset in terms of bigger business awaiting him, but it may be a liability when confined to the politically correct world of ‘gossip’ and ‘beef’ dominated rap marketing. With more positioning of him as an informed street intellectual, a right theme album, concept songs, and journalistic subject matter capable of building a local community and international support base (not ‘fans’) 40 Glocc could do what I believe he is built to do best – lead a movement.

****

If I had to choose between the two – novelist or journalist – while I believe people are always looking to escape and have art indirectly dramatize reality, I believe the journalistic school would resonate more in these hard times, which will get worse before they get better.

But the artist who has novelist skills would probably be more valuable from the perspective of the entertainment industry and particularly in terms of the kind of non-music industry creative work – acting, scripts, scores and books – that go beyond the direct sale of recorded music. This is what makes the Styles P. rapper-turned-novelist move so potentially powerful, from a business perspective.

But in a Great Recession with two wars, people don’t just want to hear their plight accurately depicted and dramatized – they want to know that the person talking about it wants to change things. So, like ‘Pac , the rapper with the greatest value will be the one capable of representing both schools , while seeking to change the reality that he describes. That is why he was so special – and valuable in life and death. He could rap, write, act, and speak – articulating, dramatizing and popularizing any reality or cause.

In 2010 I believe the artist with skills as novelist and journalist, and with marketability as both performer and leader is even more valuable than he (or she) was back in 1996.

Whether such artist-leaders leaders are made, or born, is the subject for another day…

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com/) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/) . His Facebook Fan page is: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cedric-Muhammad/57826974560?ref=ts and he can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com.

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