Pimp my lines
Rappers, argues Nicholas Blincoe, are first and foremost poets. But as Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent bid fo
From Pieces to Weight: once upon a time in Southside, Queens, 50 Cent, Pocket Books, 240pp, £7.99
Love Don't Live Here No More, Snoop Dogg, Simon & Schuster, 224pp, £14.99
The mid-1990s were enlivened - in the sense of blighted - by an argument over who was better: John Keats or Bob Dylan. The debate, framed by the literary critic Christopher Ricks, was flawed because it asked that we ignore the music and focus on the lyrics. Worse, for me, was that the argument demanded we take Dylan seriously. Since the release of Schoolly D's track "I Don't Like Rock'n'Roll" in 1986, I had renounced rock music, so I was out in the cold. Now, as the paperback publication of 50 Cent's autobiography, From Pieces to Weight, coincides with the hardback of Snoop Dogg's first novel, Love Don't Live Here No More, I find myself reconsidering the debate - this time, from a rap tip, y'all.
Snoop's novel takes us through 1990's "summer of crack cocaine", as young Ulysses learns the crafts of dealing and rhyming: "we spent every free moment penning verses, morning, noon, and night. We were on a mission." This mission, as Ulysses's equally heroically named friend Hercules tells him, is their Manifest Destiny. ("'What the hell are you talking about?' - 'Encyclopedia Britannica, dumb fuck. Pick it up.'") 50 Cent's autobiography follows the same trajectory from crime to music. 50 Cent - aka Fiddy, aka Boo-Boo, aka Curtis Jackson III - describes his first, faltering steps: "At first, we would just rap over the instrumentals and say whatever . . . I was cheating because we were supposed to be freestyling, but I ended up writing my shit."
Here, quite casually, both Fiddy and Snoop make what may seem like a surprising point: rap is first and foremost a written form. Both recognise that their words exist in a different sphere to the beats, and that the two only really meet in the studio. As an old-school rapper, I can confirm their insight. Like 50 Cent, my career began in Rochdale. In 1987, I released a 12-inch single with my homeboys and, after a short college tour, never rapped again. In 1996, 50 Cent started freestyling with his homies and went on to become a double-platinum sensation. I suppose I peaked too early. Or perhaps the problem was that I started in Rochdale, Lancashire, rather than Rochdale, Queens. But, like Fiddy, I quickly learned that freestyling does not work - as anyone who has heard an MC chant "All the ladies in the house say 'aaah'" for two hours can tell you.
Rap is verse composed in solitude: in short, poetry. It is, admittedly, pretty basic, based squarely on rhyming couplets, but poetry none the less. So why not compare it to the work of other poets? Take the opening few lines of 50 Cent's "Ghetto Qu'ran":
Yo, when you hear talk of the southside, you hear talk of the team
See niggas feared Prince and respected Preme
From the outset, Fiddy announces that this is epic poetry. Indeed, Prince and Preme are real historical characters. Rochdale lies on the south side of Queens, and it has been a hallmark of rap to be specific about locale ever since the early rap controversies over which side of Queensboro Bridge hip-hop began.
For all you slow muthafuckas I'm a break it down iller
See Preme was a business man and Prince was the killer
Remember, he used to push the bulletproof BM, uh huh
The term "iller", meaning "coolly", is an archaic term - circa 1986 - that underlines the historical theme.
This here get ya seasick, I sat back and peeped shit
The use of a triplet (iller/killer/uh huh) leaves a stray line, so Fiddy buys time with an internal rhyme (sick/shit), simultaneously alerting us to a change of pace: the 12-year-old Fiddy has become our historical witness. The remaining verses succinctly cover the same story as From Pieces to Weight. If the autobiography has any literary value, it is as a companion piece to the verse, fleshing out references to such things as the changes in policing in the 1980s that allowed dealers to be prosecuted if they were holding cash or drugs; the business model that gives street dealers 10 per cent of every sale; even instructions on how to pimp your ride. In the autobiography, Fiddy tells us that he bought a Toyota truck and placed two mountain bikes on the rack - "I just put them up there, sort of like Freedom who used to have Jet Skis attached to his 4Runner" - an image that also appears in "Ghetto Qu'ran". The entire poem, we can agree, never quite reaches the heights of Notorious BIG's "Somebody's Gotta Die" - but surely beats anything by Keats.
The autobiography of 50 Cent is shaped as a familiar "inspirational" take on the American Dream. But it ultimately fails because it feels less authentic than "Ghetto Qu'ran". This is one of the ironies of rap: rappers insist that their appeal rests on their authenticity, yet they endlessly repackage themselves on other platforms. Both Snoop and Fiddy are aspiring actors. Snoop operates a schoolkids' football league and freelances as a porn director. In 2003, he set up as a professional pimp, but retired to save his ailing marriage. Fiddy has produced video games and sells his own vitamin water, Formula 50. Repackaging the rappers as authors is a way of extending the brand: the books are just product, designed to fit existing niches. Fiddy's life story is represented as a kind of ghetto self-help manual, while Snoop's book is a novel for teenagers, sitting easily beside an expanding genre of young adult ghetto fiction in the US.
A more telling difference between the two books is the way they end or, in Snoop's case, fail to end. Love Don't Live Here No More is billed as "Doggy Tales: Vol 1", hinting at a story that could run for ever. Unlike Fiddy, Snoop Dogg was only a lowly gang member and so can afford to retain the wayward charm of a recidivist bad boy. This is, of course, putting it rather too lightly. Snoop Dogg is a thoroughly unsavoury character, but he remains a loyal fellow-traveller of the Rollin' 20 Crips rather than a fully fledged career criminal like 50 Cent.
The sequel is set up in the final sentence of Love Don't Live Here No More, as the young hero points a gun and debates whether to pull the trigger. Inside the dust jacket, however, is a free CD on which Snoop casually tells us the boy "looses a clip on someone's ass", rather suggesting that he has not read his own book. This is a special kind of first novel, in that it's hard to believe Snoop wrote a word of it. According to the web-site of Snoop's collaborator, David E Talbert, there "is not a box big enough to contain the creative genius of [this] multi-award winning writer-author-director-producer". Certainly, the 50,000 words of Love Don't . . . fail to capture Talbert's genius.
It is, perhaps, a shame that neither Fiddy nor Snoop sees a connection between his career as a poet and his new one as an author: the writing stops with the rap. On the other hand, few poets have proved adept at prose. As rappers, they are "literary" to the extent that they see their work as part of a larger canon. Snoop cites Kurtis Blow, DOC and LL Cool J (in the novel, Ulysses falls in love because "Ever since LL Cool J dropped 'I Need Love', getting caught up was cool"). Fiddy fondly remembers the block parties around Queens from his pre-adolescence - the birth of hip-hop - but tellingly only began to take rap seriously when he heard Notorious BIG. According to Fiddy, "He wasn't trying to impress anyone or say he'd love rapping for ever. He was like, It's either this or that . . . that's when I started thinking about making money from entertainment."
If I feel that Fiddy underestimates his talents as a verse writer, I also recognise that he is limited. His story is complete because he has outgrown his past (the name 50 Cent was devised as a metaphor for "change"). All Fiddy can now do is fuck up; buying Mike Tyson's former mansion in Connecticut is a promising declaration of intent. Snoop - a rapper with more natural talent for delivery - can keep on rolling. Yet aficionados of Snoop's oeuvre know that he has not produced a complex narrative verse since 1999's "Snoopafella". My advice, as an OG from the streets of Rochdale, is that both Fiddy and Snoop should return to their notebooks. It is time to compose in solitude once more.