Today, I want to look at one of the most difficult things a rapper can do throughout the course of a song – tell a story. Doesn’t sound very difficult, does it? After all, we tell stories all the time in our daily lives. But I am sure you have a friend or two who just can’t seem to tell a story well. Their yarns simply don’t hold your attention. They leave out key details. They rush through parts. They give too much information. It’s boring and you quickly change the subject to keep things moving. Am I right?
I find that we have the same thing in hip-hop. For some reason, not all rappers can craft a good story rhyme. It’s an art unto itself. It requires a precision to detail in a way that other songwriting does not. Rappers need to be able to establish the story in a rhyme that holds attention, sets up the scene, builds anticipation, and has us yearning to see how it all turns out. That is easier said than done.
I’m sure we have all heard storytelling in rap songs. Some rappers will tell a quick story in a verse or part of a verse. For today’s purposes, I am not going to look at those ones. Today, we will focus on songs that complete one story. Songs that are built around a narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Songs that are perfect short stories told through rhyme.
And of course, a hip-hop history lesson on the power of storytelling has to start out with this artist. He is the undisputed king of storytelling rap. He is a veteran who has been dropping hip-hop since its inception. In fact, his family moved to The Bronx in 1977 and he began his rap career almost immediately.
This song is one of the finest examples we have of a storytelling rhyme. This is “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick from the 1989 album “The Great Adventures of Slick Rick.” This is Chase March for Know Your History on DOPEfm and The Word is Bond Rap Radio Hour. Don’t go anywhere. We will be back to continue our discussion on storytelling rap in this 43rd edition of Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. Now, it’s time for Slick Rick to do what he does best. Tell us a story.
That was Slick Rick, a track called “Children’s Story.” And quite possibly the best storytelling rap song ever. Slick Rick is a master storyteller. There aren’t many emcees who can match what he does on the mic.
By the time this album came out, Slick Rick was already a star. He worked with Doug E Fresh and released a single in 1985 entitled “The Show” but it was the b-side of that track that got the most attention. I could have featured that song here as well since it tells a day-in-the-life story and does so in a very memorable way. Snoop Dogg even covered the song in his 1993 solo debut album “Doggystyle.” And up until that point in time, I really hadn’t seen many rappers covering someone’s song in such a straightforward way.
Rappers often pay homage to other rappers with shared lines but rarely do they remake a song. Cover songs are rare in hip-hop. And the fact that Slick Rick has been covered more than once just goes to show how respected he is in this genre, and more specifically in this sub-genre of storytelling rap.
The song I just played was called “Children’s Story.” It isn’t exactly your all ages tale, but it does start out that way. We hear young children asking their Uncle Ricky to tell them a story. It sounds like Slick Rick is going to tell them a fairy tale, especially when we hear the opening, “Once upon a time” but the tale quickly becomes a dark one. It is about a boy who turns to a life of crime. He tries to rob an undercover cop and a chase ensues. He then steals a car and eventually holds a pregnant woman hostage. He lets her go and at several points in the story we can see that he tries to do the right thing. Slick Rick even says, “Deep in his heart, he knew he was wrong.”
The character in the story doesn’t shoot the cop when he has the chance and he doesn’t hurt the hostage he took either. He was a petty thief for the most part who was just mislead. Unfortunately though, he meets a tragic end.
But Slick Rick concludes this story with a moral like all good fairy tales. He says, “This ain’t funny so don’t ya dare laugh / Just another case about the wrong path / Straight ‘n narrow or yo’ soul gets cast. Good night”
And with that, he leaves the story for the listener and the children he was entertaining to contemplate its meaning. He doesn’t beat us over the head with the narrative. He simply mentions how it’s best to stay on the straight and narrow path and to avoid a life of crime.
In this song, a life of crime caught up with the main character. In the next story rhyme we are going to feature the culprit is a bit more sinister.
This is Chase March and you are listening to Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. Today, we are exploring storytelling in rap songs. We started out with the undisputed king of this form, Slick Rick, and we will be featuring many more examples and analysis over the course of the show.
So, the sinister culprit I mentioned just now. It’s something that can catch up with all of us. It something that will get ‘cha if you’re not careful. And it’s something that Boogie Down Productions explore in this song, “Love’s Gonna Getcha.”
That was “Love’s Gonna Getcha” by Boogie Down Productions. It isn’t a sad break-up song either. Krs-one weaves a story about how the love of material possessions can lead people astray.
In typical rap style, this song is told in a first person account. The main character gets good grades in school and tries his best to stay out of trouble. He acts tough when need be so he can stay on the straight and narrow. Maybe this kid listened to the moral of the first song we played today.
The next character we meet in this story is Rob, a drug dealer, who owns a fancy car. The main character greets him quickly and then heads home where he hugs his mother and punches his brother. Sounds like a pretty normal kid so far. But then the sounds of gunfire break out from down the street and he narrates that this happens almost every day where he lives.
He also tells us that he doesn’t have much money for clothes. In fact, he only has three pairs of pants, which he has to share with his brother. He gets teased about it in school too. He has just enough to eat and he sees that his mom struggles to give his family the meager existence that they do have.
He makes a bad choice one day and does a run for the drug dealer. He gets paid $200 for it. It is quick and easy money. So he does it again. He shares the money with his family and treats them to a nice dinner. It’s been a while since they’ve ate so well. Mom is nervous about it but accepts his generosity.
The boy gets deeper in the drug game and enlists the help of his brother. Three months later and they are big players in the game. “My family is happy. Everything is new. Now tell me what the f- am I supposed to do.”
Things escalate. He and his brother take up arms for protection and to help keep their new empire strong. They have all the material possessions they could possibly want. They get to relax and watch big screen televisions while their foot soldiers do the work.
Things get heated when his brother gets shot. And it looks like it was Rob, the original drug dealer from this story. He tracks down Rob and shoots him but the cops surrounded them and kill two of his men and take him off to jail.
And just like Slick Rick in “Children’s Story,” Krs-One ends his tale with a message. He says, “It’s alright to like or want a material item, but when you fall in love with it and you start scheming and carrying on for it, just remember, it’s gonna get’cha.”
It’s a good story that keeps our attention for an entire song. It’s got setting, character, a rising action, a climax, and a resolution. It’s a mini-movie told in verse. Very nice stuff.
Telling short stories in rhyme is a difficult skill. It’s easy enough to write a short children’s book in that style but rap listeners are a lot more discerning.
The stories we have heard so far in this episode have had unhappy endings. I think it’s time to brighten things up a bit. This is one of my all-time favourite songs. This is “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube and this is Chase March focusing on the master storytellers we have in hip-hop culture for this edition of Know Your History. Don’t go anywhere, we’ll be right back right here on DOPEfm and The Word is Bond Rap Radio Hour.
I love that song. Ice Cube starts out his narrative with some foreshadowing. He only just woke up but has a strange feeling that it’s going to be a good day. The neighbour’s dog isn’t barking, there isn’t any smog, and his mom is cooking exactly what he wanted to have for breakfast. It’s shaping up to be a fantastic day.
He goes out and about his business for the day and doesn’t get stopped or harassed by the cops once. He plays an amazing game of basketball at neighbourhood park. He doesn’t get into any confrontations with rivals. He watches an episode of Yo! MTV Raps, wins a game of Bones, and takes home some money for it. None of his friends get shot or injured that day either. He finally gets lucky with a girl he’s had his eye on for a while. He is a Lakers fan and they win the game that night. He goes home and declares “It was a Good Day.”
Several people have tried to determine the exact date of this good day. Donovan Strain painstakingly went through all of these details to conclude that Ice Cube’s “Good Day” was January 20th, 1992.
According to his research, the Lakers did in fact beat the SuperSonics on a clear and smogless day when Yo MTV Raps aired an episode. Sadly, though, no statistics for Cube’s local basketball game were available to confirm his triple-double. Maybe if Twitter had been around back then instead of just beepers, we would all have known about it.
Mike B, expanded on Strain’s research by looking at biographical information from a variety of sources to conclude that this “good day” had to be earlier in Ice Cube’s career. It makes a lot of sense for Ice Cube’s “Good Day” to be November 30th, 1988.
But I’ll argue that they are both wrong. This was pure fiction. Ice Cube was telling a story of a hypothetically perfect day. He wasn’t relating a specific day anymore than Slick Rick was at the top of the show. We can come to this conclusion with the line “Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp and it read ‘Ice Cube’s a Pimp.’” That’s highly unlikely to have actually happened. Goodyear runs advertising on their Blimps but I doubt they would display praise for rap artists for no reason whatsoever. But kudos to these fellow hip-hop historians who did all that research and were able to peg down Ice Cube’s “Good Day” to two possible dates.
I love how creative rappers can be with their storytelling rhymes. So far, we have heard from three master storytellers; Slick Rick, Krs-One, and Ice Cube. But a show on storytelling rap would not be complete without another great storytelling emcee. This rapper has told all sorts of stories in rhyme. One such song even earned him an Academy Award. That is a huge moment for storytelling rap and for hip-hop in general,
I am sure we are probably all familiar with “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. It is a great song. It’s inspiring and uplifting. It truly deserved the Oscar for best original song in 2003. The song is about overcoming obstacles, pursuing a dream, and never giving up on it. And it is the song we are going to end off our show with today.
That was “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. A great song about going after your dreams and not letting anything stop you. It was featured in the movie 8 Mile which was a semi-autobiographical tale starring Eminem as an aspiring young rapper named Rabbit.
The song you just heard starts out moments before he is to take the stage in a rap battle. He is really nervous and the whole scene is a little too much for him. He forgets the rhymes he worked on for this battle and ultimately gets booed off stage. But he doesn’t let this one failure stop him. Instead, he redoubles his efforts, goes back home and writes, practises, and improves.
In the second verse, he imagines what life would be like as a successful rapper. He is living the dream but doesn’t like that it has taken him away from his family. He says, “He’s no father. He goes home and barely knows his own daughter.” That’s a sad tale of the road when you have young children. They really do grow up fast.
He then talks about the poverty he is still dealing with and makes a decision. He is tired of just barely scraping by. He has the talent and a dream. He is going to go after a music career. Success is the only option and he’s taking his shot.
What a great song. Eminem is a master storyteller. He touches on a variety of topics in quite a few of his songs.
This brings an end to the 43rd edition of Know Your History – Storytelling Rap.
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