In the mid 90s hip hop heads were as desperate to know who Cormega was as they were to peel off Ghostface Killah’s mask. Cormega’s name reverberated in the beautiful nightmare Nas described on One Love, his letter to a jailed friend: What up with Cormega, did you see ’em, are y’all together? When he finally released his first album The Realness in 2001 after disputes with his label and beefs with former associates, it felt like it dropped 5 years too late. On that album, he rapped with a straight-forward poeticism about the morally conflicted condition of the hustler, themes that Jay-Z had already monopolized by then.
Ten years later, he has released Raw Forever, an understated and intense work that feels like a small victory for the possibilities of rap to speak to the down-and-out in all of us. The two-disc set is made up of a best of compilation and a surprisingly effective collaborative effort with a live band called The Revelations, who played on Wu-Tang Chamber Music. Cormega titled the tracks with Roman numerals according to their order on the disc. Track 2 is titled “II” for instance. This small act of music biz mockery undercuts the expectation that there has to be a unique subject for each track; in reality Cormega has always rhymed about one thing: the uncompromising code of the streets.
Though his music hasn’t changed much over the last 10 years, the rap world around him has. New York boom bap fell out of favor in the mainstream and the South’s sound rose to dominate urban radio. It seemed like any rapper who wasn’t from New York had a shot at the big time, or at least their 15 minutes. Eminem from Detroit, Nelly from St. Louis, Kanye West from Chicago, Lil Wayne from New Orleans, T.I. from Atlanta, Rick Ross from Miami, and now Drake from Canada. As America’s economy boomed, rap softened; honesty, self-effacing humor and vulnerability became fashionable. In this new context, rappers like Cormega seemed cynical and reactionary.
But now in the midst of a global economic plunge, his directness when talking about his own uncertain place in the game feels right and exact as in when he fires off the following lines on “IX”: My cocaine flow solidified I spit crack now…Ever since I started rhymin the crime rates lower…I’m too young to die, too old to try the corners. Cormega’s outlook really hasn’t switched since he rhymed these words in “The Saga” in 2001:
uneffected by police intrusions
or street illusions we were consumed wit’
I’ve even grown away from people I grew wit’
I mean we cool, but I don’t need to bullshit
Perhaps the greatest victory on this album is “VIII” which re-introduces us to Red Alert, Parrish Smith of EPMD, Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, KRS One and Big Daddy Kane on an old school posse cut backed by a smooth funk melody. Red Alert introduces and closes it out in his helium tinged rasp and each rapper seems invigorated by the company. In the middle of it, KRS-One pulls out this line: they standing next to the flesh, I’m next to the soul. Cormega has stayed true to who he is, experimenting with the form of the music but not messing around with his narrative. This new album shows him as an important artist for this moment.
The fireworks set off against a New York skyline that was as disconnected and irrelevant as a default desktop image, selected not by you or your computer, but by an unknown and external force. It flashed on the screen when the computer woke up this morning. Framed by the baseball stadium’s two outfield bank of lights, these modest pyrotechnics blinded you from a natural order – they sparkled with instantaneity. The Chinese were said to have invented it, the Japanese and Koreans have perfected its craft, but the Americans are the ones that adopted its logistics for their narrative. Somehow, exploding sparks of colored light have come to stand for liberty and freedom.
That was yesterday in Staten Island. On the drive there, Raekwon’s gravel-spiked voice spilled from the speakers. From Staten (Go Hard) – a Shaolin answer to Jay-Z’s Brooklyn (Go Hard): You know I’m / back at it / an asthmatic / always mad jiggy / I love fashion. These sound like hard won lyrics, called forth by a focused obssession to craft and a delirious sense of playful self-mockery. This is what got me and my shotgun Jerry Tanaka going, making us hit repeat to prove he actually rhymed what we thought he rhymed. Belief is not so much about what you think is true, but about what you think is dope.
At PS1 today, scenes from an unraveling. Video artist Ryan Trecartin feverishly revels in the clipped declarative language and junky waste culture that we’re currently lost in. Cheap new furniture, exercise machines and forms of imprisonment – locks and chains – set a mood of wicked normalcy in room after room, while video after video of hyper teens spaz out over nothing in particular. Maybe he’s making new poetry out of found poetry, like rappers do. But his work feels more like suburban punk that middle-aged parents would “get.” America produced Trecartin and eventually, if that’s what we want, he’ll have to be synthesized into its crazy narrative the way fireworks and hip hop already have been.
I moved to New York 12 years ago to see the world described by rap music – a loud concrete maze of crime, corner ciphers, eternal winters, army fatigues, Timberlands and fast talk. And tonight after dinner with fellow Asian American-from-California curator Aimee Chan, I set out to write about hip hop from my own perspective, but what more can you say, and how better could you say it, than what Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, or Tricia Rose with Black Noise, or Nelson George with Hip Hop America, or Hua Hsu with a body of articles and reviews revolving around hip hop. Chang wrote a defining piece of the hip hop generation, tracing the beginnings of the culture from Jamaica’s political strife to the street gangs and peace deals of the Bronx in the 60s and 70s. Rose rightfully asserted the role of women into hip hop history while also juggling a narrative about stylistic advances and the technological revolution that hip hop exemplified. George made that history personal in his book which I still haven’t read, while Hsu uses hip hop as a backdrop to pick apart the nature of cultural identity in a globalized, connected world. Other thinkers have done major work on the subject and big props must go to them.
I can get with all of the scholarship but I still identify hip hop with the ‘realism’ version of New York City, emanating like steam out of a manhole from the beats of DJ Premier, the tortured impassioned crooning of Mary J. Blige, and the street Shakespeare of Ghostface and Raekwon. Listening to the revolutionary funk of The Coup and Paris shakes me back to an angry, politicized Bay Area intellectualism. The Hieroglyphics and DJ Q-Bert brought the defiant nerd intensity of the Bay’s subcultural scene to hip hop. In Houston, Scarface and The Geto Boys laced soupy, languid beats and hooks with extreme, Gothic tales from their hood. They set the stage for the experimentation of Organized Noize and Outkast, whose lyrics described the desires and realities of a struggling class in Atlanta.
Hip hop for me is winter in New York, when the subways turn medieval, as artist Daragh Reeves pointed out years ago. Bums mumble jovially, dark stares from the tired eyes of rich and poor alike, the screeching, the rats, the garbage, the smells, the foulness…is hip hop to me. On street level, it’s the black Escalade with tinted windows at night, the cops, the new Nikes, the Black culture, the Puerto Rican side of things, Canal Street, Jamaica Ave.
When I got into it, rap described a specific place to me, one I didn’t know, and because of that the music I gravitate towards delivers various local angles to me. But the world has changed a lot since hip hop’s golden age to the point where cities across the world have become more alike than different. This is globalization, in which the world traveler can comfortably navigate a foreign land as much as his or her own. And I understand that this traveler demands a different, less threatening kind of music. Something that can be a walking-around soundtrack in Brussels as well as driving music in Port Charlotte, Florida. But I’m still looking for more lyrics and beats that can define me, where I’m from, and where I might want to go next.