Sunday, January 30, 2005

Critical Essay 4: Critical Commentary, Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

Critical Essay 4: Critical Commentary, Slick Rick, “Children’s Story”, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick

It is often difficult to pinpoint the emergence of a tradition. Literary theorists argue endlessly over which was the first modern novel; when did the tradition of writing at length about someone take hold? Indeed classical scholars, whilst venerating Homer’s Oddesy as the first narrative poem of Greek writing, freely admit that it only the first recorded example of this form; countless other similar poems probably inspired this one surviving example, but have themselves disappeared. Many were probably never recorded, remaining oral stories passed down the generations. With Slick Rick’s "Children’s Story", we have a similar dilemma. It is the first real recorded example of a completely narrative rap, what hip-hop helpfully terms “storytelling”. Many others may have perished unrecorded, but Slick Rick may be credited with delivering the first true “story-rap”, and setting in motion a hip-hop tradition that has attracted all of its most capable emcees. “Children’s Story”[i], whether Slick’s original idea or not, is such a consummately expressed and artistically sound narrative as to have grounded in its minimal running time almost every convention of the form.

The conventions of a recorded story-rap that "Children’s Story" sets up are not particularly different from the simple story-telling mechanics taught to children in schools. Firstly, the story must be announced as such; “Once upon a time…” is both ubiquitous and relevant here. Next, a setting and context must be established; here, Rick describes the relationship of the narrated time to the present and sketches the general context. This done, the story must then be split into a beginning, middle, and end; the production of the song achieves this here. Additional conventions that surround the specifically hip-hop story are concentrated on the recording of the rap. The emcee must indicate before the narrative begins that he will deliver a story rap; this is important, as it allows the rapper to remove himself momentarily from the content, since most hip-hop songs are highly self-referential. It is also important to ‘frame’ the narrative, so this announcement will precede the story, and will frequently be notionally ad-libbed or in other ways played down. It will also be complemented by similar content at the end of the track, such as a voice tailing off.

In a genre as highly self-referential as hip-hop, where entire raps can be based on the emcees’ own rapping skill and styles alone, these markers help the listener to appreciate that what he hears is a story. This framework also allows the rapper to offer an implied point or moral to the story, which he has divorced from his own status. In the video to "Children’s Story", for example, Slick Rick repeats during the opening frame to his narrative “This needs to be heard”, indicating the importance he attaches to the moral aspect of his tale.

At the very least, story-raps must have a statement of purpose. For example, OutKast’s 1998 album Aquemini, undertaken shortly after Big Boi’s duo with Slick Rick himself, draws much inspiration from The Adventures of Slick Rick, especially in the concentration of the album on ‘the story-rap’. Tracks 8, 9 and 10 are all narrative songs, the latter two being explicitly titled “Tha Art of Storytelling”. As with all questions of form and genre, there is never a one hundred percent agreement between any stated generic rules and actual examples of the genre; here, OutKast step away from the formulaic ‘story-rap’ in some respects, but respect it in others. The prologue and epilogue ‘frame’ to the story all but disappear, and at first listen, the stories slip seamlessly into the CD without these markers. Yet the chorus of track 9 steps outside of the narrative: “We jus’ shootin’ game in the form of story raps now”. Others influenced directly by Rick are less shy about hoisting their colours to his techniques: in "G Bedtime Stories"[1], Snoop Dogg adapts the ‘request’ format for his narrative, affectionately parodying Slick Rick’s “Uncle Ricky…” recording. Rick’s groundbreaking story-telling techniques ensure that anyone wanting to do a ‘story-rap’ needs to mark it out in some way.

Not only is the flag-poling of the narrative-aspect of the tale needed, but the beginning, middle and end structure is important in focusing the action. As this is shortened epic poetry and not a novel, structure and economy are the signs of a consummate story rapper. At first glance, the lyrics of "Children’s Story" contain no obvious breaks. Rick does not split his narrative at all and the story flows seamlessly by, yet does have a discernible structure. In typical song format rappers have an easy method of structuring, basing the raps around refrains. Here, Slick Rick’s music adumbrates the tripartite structure: three times during the text, a production trick underlines a certain phrase, marking the beginning of a ‘section’[2]. Subsequent story-raps frequently mark themselves out from other rap-forms in abandoning the refrain for more subtle structuring techniques.

Aside from its formal aspect, the setting of the tale is important for the moral agenda of any story rap. Here, Slick Rick clearly wants to alert us to the pernicious dangers of criminality in the black community, and describe how easily it takes hold. To describe the institution of criminal habits, he must first show a pre-lapsarian view where they are absent: “When laws were stern and justice stood/ And people were behavin’ like they ought to – good”. The end of the song confirms the setting as important, because it confirms Rick’s perspective on criminality: it is not innate, but acquired: “Just another case about the wrong path”. Also, the boy is persuaded, “mislead”, by a friend into the criminal life. The function of the setting is to show the degradation into criminality and to warn against it; Rick then accordingly explicitly states the serious purpose of his rap (“This ain’t funny…”). Other story-raps with moral purpose will often adopt this strong emphasis on original setting, such as Xzibit’s recent "Cold World"[3]. Here, he is aiming to show through vignette narratives the fall of young people for a variety of reasons: thus, each verse begins with a clear ‘scene setting’, and ends in tragedy. X is clear, like Slick, to lend moral seriousness, here using a heartfelt “That’s cold…”.

It is true to say that if form acts as a genre marker for the story-rap, with rappers consciously referencing the conventions discussed, then content is the other linking thread. Specifically, we find that most story-raps have a ‘moral’. They are not parabolic, as they are much too detailed (frequently giving names and places, and developing character to too realistic a degree, but the content is almost always the story of a young, misguided protagonist who has to confront a difficult situation. Almost always, they story ends in tragedy; this is where it differs greatly from story-telling in others genres. The story-rap is most frequently an act of ghetto-reportage, and object lesson in the problems of black America; this goes some way to explaining the importance of formal referencing in the genre: the rapper appeals to the convention of the story rap to prepare his listeners for a moral tale.

The rapper, despite having abdicated himself from the story, finds a way to play off this preparation for a moral lesson by making his feelings on the protagonist quite clear. Slick Rick does it here by using a mildly ‘biased’ narrative perspective throughout the song in an almost indefinable way. For example, he begins the song with the seemingly innocent “Once upon a time not long ago / When people wore pyjamas and lived life slow”; yet these lines show quite a heavy level of opinionated intrusion. Rick is using the widely accepted image of pyjama-wearing as outdated and unfashionable to comically, but sincerely, link old-fashioned values to better morals. By creating a milieu of pyjama-wearing, and therefore unfashionable people, Rick is conjuring up images of a more peaceable society. This therefore gives him a method of putting the crimes of his protagonist into relief, of showing degradation of moral values; and by nostalgising this past (“Once upon a time…” has a wistful ring), he is siding his moral perspective with the ‘old-fashioned’ values. Thus from very early on is Slick the Narrator’s view of his main character made very clear, so that even as he gets more and more involved in simply relating the incident, we view it with the narrator’s point of view in mind. When Rick then reaches the end of the story, referring the protagonist for the third time as “lil’ boy”, we have his morally superior stance recalled to us by association: “Before long the lil’ boy got surrounded / He dropped the gun, so went the glory / And this is the way I have to end this story”. The perfunctory nature of the words “so went the glory” once again betrays a subtle narrative bias: “glory” is ironic, and by extension ironises the growing conviction in the 1980’s black criminal community that gun-crime was glamorous and easy. The use of the modal verb in “I have to end this story” also shows us Rick’s disapproval of the actions in the story, implying economically his wish to be able to terminate the narrative on a more positive note, and thereby his opinion on the seeming glitz of gun-crime. By these simple framing techiniques, Rick has avoided glorifying gun-crime, and turned what could be interpreted as a gangsta-glory narrative into a moral object lesson.

Rick’s great achievement has been to make this the purpose of the story rap. Whilst rap’s great first-person narratives and stream of consciousness stories have remained morally ambiguous celebrations of individualism and often lawlessness, actual ‘story-raps’ have remained a method of exposing social evils. When rappers can step out of their raps, they can step out of the complex web of street values that require them to project largely criminal personas. “I” in hip-hop most often means rejection of moral standards, whilst “he” almost always implies acceptance of them.

[1] Snoop Dogg, No Limit Top Dogg, 1999
[2] The three production emphases (a slight up in volume and an additional mid-range sound) are marked on the text with “^”.
[3] Xzibit, Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2004
[i]
“Uncle Ricky… will you read us a bedtime story… please…?”
“Alright, you kids get to bed, I’ll get the story book. Y’all tucked in?”
“Yeah.”“Here we go…”
^Once upon a time not long ago,
When people wore pyjamas and lived life slow,
When laws were stern and justice stood,
And people were behavin' like they ought to - good,
There lived a lil' boy who was misled,
By another lil' boy and this is what he said:
"Me an’ you Ty, we gonna make some cash,
Robbin' old folks and makin' tha dash",
They did the job, money came with ease,
But one couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease,
He robbed another and another and a sister and a brother,
Tried to rob a man who was a D.T. undercover,
The cop grabbed his arm, he started acting erratic,
He said: "Keep still, boy, no need for static",
Punched him in his belly and he gave him a slap,
But little did he know the lil' boy was strapped,
The kid pulled out a gun, he said "Why d’ya hit me ?",
The barrel was set straight for the cop's kidney,
The cop got scared, the kid, he starts to figure,
"I'll do years if I pull this trigger",
^So he cold dashed and ran around the block,
The cop radios it to another lady cop,
He ran by a tree, there he saw this sister,
A shot for the head, he shot back but he missed her,
Looked around good and from expectations,
So he decided he'd head for the subway stations,
But she was coming and he made a left,
He was runnin' top speed till he was out’o breath,
Knocked an old man down and swore he killed him,
Then he made his move to an abandoned building,
Ran up the stairs up to the top floor,
Opened up the door there, guess who he saw?
^Dave the dope fiend shootin' dope,
Who don't know the meaning of water nor soap,
He said "I need bullets, hurry up, run!"
The dope fiend brought back a spanking shotgun,
He went outside but there was cops all over,
Then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova,
Raced up the block doing 83,
Crashed into a tree near university,
Escaped alive though the car was battered,
Rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered,
Ran out of bullets and still had static,
Grabbed a pregnant lady and pulled out the automatic,
Pointed at her head and he said the gun was full o' lead,
He told the cops: "Back off, or honey here's dead",
Deep in his heart he knew he was wrong,
So he let the lady go and he starts to run on,
Sirens sounded, he seemed astounded,
Before long the lil' boy got surrounded,
He dropped the gun, so went the glory,
And this is the way I must end this story,
He was only seventeen, in a madman's dream,
The cops shot the kid, I still hear him scream,
This ain't funny so don't you dare laugh,
Just another case 'bout the wrong path,
Straight 'n narrow or your soul gets cast.
Good Night.

5 Comments:

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historical fact and may be "forward looking statements." Forward looking statements are based
on expectations, estimates and projections at the time the statements are made that involve a
number of risks and uncertainties which could cause actual results or events to differ materially
from those presently anticipated. This newsletter was paid four thousand dollars from a party
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words such as: "projects", "foresee", "expects". in compliance with Section 17(.b), we disclose
the holding of IF LH shares prior to the publication of this report. Be aware of an inherent
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All statements made are our express opinion only and should be treated as such.
We may own, take position and sell any securities mentioned at any time. Any statements that express or involve discussions with respect
to predictions, goals, expectations, beliefs, plans, projections, objectives, assumptions or future events or performance are
not statements of historical fact and may be "forward, looking
statements." forward, looking statements are based on expectations, estimates
and projections at the time the statements are made that involve a number of risks and uncertainties which could cause actual results
or events to differ materially from those presently anticipated. This newsletter was paid $3,000 from third party (IR Marketing).
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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