Freaks of the Industry

Updated: Apr 25, 2021



The Las & the Los

1994.

I was 15 years old and two of my still-favorite songs had been released: “Pain” by 2Pac, which appeared on the Above the Rim soundtrack (cassette version only), and the “One More Chance” remix by Notorious B.I.G, which I think was only available on Vinyl. Sitting on opposite ends of the topic spectrum, the two songs couldn’t be more different. Still, they detail very distinct characteristics of both artists. Biggie was flirtatious, flashy, and confident while Pac perused the effects of ghetto trauma on our psychological standing. Both songs were magnetic with prime product and stand-out lyrics such as:

"...Fully equipped, CD changer with the cell, she beeped me, meet me at 12. Where you at? Flipping jobs, paying car notes? While I'm swimming in your women like the breast stroke, right stroke, left stroke, what's the best stroke. Death stroke, tongue all down her throat.." (Biggie),


and
"Maybe if they tried to understand me, what should I do? I had to feed my fuckin' family, what else could I do? But be a thug? Out slanging with the homies, fuck hangin' with the phonies at the club, got my mind on danger, never been a stranger to homicide, my city's full of gang bangers and drive-bys..." (2Pac).

I adored these songs and the contrast produced a fuller view of the human experience. The year was 1994 and the proverbial Biggie and 2Pac name drop goes here. Biggie was fresh and brought that new guppy excitement. I had known of Tupac since his appearance on Digital Underground's "Same Song" in 1990. It's one of my favorite Pac verses. These men were the soundtrack of the early 90s. To get to DMX, I have to talk about them.


And to get to Tupac, I have to pay respect to Shock G, who as this post was preparing to go live, was announced to have passed at the age of 57. Shock G entered my musical hemisphere when I was in the 5th grade debating on whether or not him and "Humpty" were the same person. He was cute and fascinatingly talented, evidenced by the offerings from Digital Underground. These niggas had me rapping along to a song about fish, and who doesn't love "Kiss You Back?" Sex Packets??!!!! Unmatched. I learned what sampling was from Shock G and his heavy use of the Parliament Funk sound earned them tons of stereo time by my parents. He was Tupac's gateway to us. It's amazing how people you've never once met in person can teach you a world of information through their actions and bring you a new family. 

Tupac Shakur was gunned down at the intersection of East Flamingo Road and Koval Lane in Las Vegas when I was 17-year-old. In the six months that would pass, I will have turned 18 and we would lose Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace the same way at the intersection of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles.

The hardest thing about losing Tupac from a fan viewpoint is that he died and that was it: there was no funeral, not even a public memorial. Nothing. There were rumors of him being cremated and his mythical ashes were everything from scattered in the ocean along with chicken wings and Hennessey to smoked in blunts over 'remember when' conversations. It was weird and helped fuel the rumors that he was alive in Cuba after faking his death. Quite frankly, Pac loved the camera too much for something like that and we went from seeing him everywhere to never seeing him alive again. He was gone in every way possible. Perhaps it taught us that mourning has no set standard, rule, or way, but moving on must continue to occur.

Biggie, however, had a service that celebrities, friends, and family attended. We saw his beautiful mahogany casket being wheeled in and out, and of course the legendary processional through Brooklyn captured the nation’s attention. Whatever closure that comes from homegoing celebrations was afforded to us through the photos and videos captured from that day. Since then, someone’s private photos have been leaked onto the internet showing the inside of the services.


Simply put, that shit hurt. The losses were felt. That’s why they are regarded still today as two of the best. The debates continue over who was better, who put in more work, and/or who is more deserving to stand alongside if not above the people after them. But that’s not what it was, solely. Despite B.I.G. only having two albums in his discography, we respect him for the music, the amazing penwork, and the gigantic personality that made us feel like we spent decades rocking with him. He was our homie. Our friend. We “grew up, a fucking screw-up” (Running, Biggie) with that nigga. He was home to us beyond his music; B.I.G. made us want to rep Brooklyn. When he said “Brooklyn, WE did it, WE did it!!” at the 1995 Source Awards, we felt like we were part of that ‘we.’

That was our B.I.G., collectively and shared.

Pac, on the other hand, was our favorite rebellion. The one who gave us faux-street and pro-Black all in one short life experience. The same rogue 2Pac that shot two cops was the same Pac who was said to have run from a park fight. Different people had different Tupac experiences; there was intrigue in never knowing what Pac would show up but knowing you would love and rock with him no matter what. He meant well. He wanted to use "thug life" to reach the people better. But he was young and still learning how to use the tools he had to convey the knowledge he wanted to share. Bless his heart, he should have been allowed to grow.

These men had individual charisma that transcended records in an era where we were limited to what we knew and could see. I pray to always remember those guys and the mark they left and the impact they had on my youth. Mourning a celebrity is a bit strange; at surface, you feel like you shouldn't but internally, you can't help it. At 24 and 25 years old, they were both babies, still young and navigating of mix of Black adulthood with spotlight and fame. I suspect they each did their best with what they knew at the time.


Enter DMX and Black Rob.

1998 was the year that a young Kobe Bryant would battle Michael Jordan on the All-Star court, and artist Earl Simmons, who we would come to know as “DMX”, would release two albums that charted as number one on the Billboards. “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot” & “Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood propelled Earl Simmons into our hearts and ears and it would be a while before it let up. We didn’t meet him as a drug addict, serial cheater, abusive mate, or father of many. We met him as Earl Simmons, who gave us “Slippin”, “Ruff Ryders Anthem”, What’s My Name”, and “X Gon Give it To You.” At one point, and partly due to his affinity for wearing rags tied around his head, he was heralded as the next “Tupac”, a title he respectfully declined. Being DMX was enough for him. Like Pac, he crossed over easily into movies and gave us thrilling performances worthy of each casting. He has 59 acting credits, including one that was still in production at the time of his passing.


I was once in the dressing room with X. That’s about all of it; there is no grand story to tell. He saw me, made a ‘wow’ face towards my snakeskin covered thickness, and continued his conversation. There were lots of people in the tiny space and though I was elated to share that split second of a moment, I felt weird being groupie-like for anyone. That had never been my thing. My girlfriend at the time insisted we go backstage and try to meet Cash Money at the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money tour of 2000. We somehow stumbled into X's dressing room. By then, I was 21 years old, and “Whoa” by Black Rob had been out for just over a month.


“I had this bad bitch Uptown/She was ‘Whoa!”

That song was the soundtrack to me and my girlfriend everyday being. For whatever it’s worth, we were the ‘bad bitches’ and that was our theme song. Didn't matter if we went to the gas station or the club, we played “Whoa.” Need a pick-me-up song or something to help wake up in the morning? Play “Whoa!” We had a dance breakdown that went with every chant of the word, and we sped up 465-N many nights to party in Castleton with “Whoa” blasting out of the windows of her Black Dodge Intrepid. I won’t front like I followed everything Black Rob did. I caught some of his other guest appearances, but I wasn’t his biggest fan, and he wasn’t my DMX. But “Whoa” was a song that outfitted an era with music. I have smells, colors, and textures that I think of when I hear that song. I seek not to take away his impact, even if it was just one song for me. When I heard of his passing, I immediately thought about my ex. Wondered where she is in the world and put well-wishes in the atmosphere for her. “Whoa” brings me memories of a special time in my young life.


It’s two thousand and twenty-one. This past March 9th marked the 24th year since Christopher Wallace lost the ability to record new music. In these two decades, we’ve said our early good-byes hundreds of times to impactful people we loved. Big L, Nipsey Hussle, Pop Smoke, King Von, Jam Master Jay, Freaky Tah, Proof, Soulja Slim, and Magnolia Shorty, to name just a few. All these lives were senselessly taken by gun violence. But there’s also the likes of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, Chadwick Boseman, Prodigy, Don Cornelius, and Left Eye, who passed from a variety of methods including accidents, suicide and cancer. We are not strangers to letting go of famed celebrities whom we loved.


But every now and again, someone will pass our internal soul-er-system and make it all pause.


DMX died April 9, 2021.



DMX died.


Less than two weeks later and about a week after releasing a heart-wrenching video from his hospital bed, Black Rob, King of the Whoa, died. Rob had battled a kidney disease, homelessness, and four strokes over the last five years (Rolling Stone, 21). He was 51. Shock G died before I could even get this article posted. It’s heartbreaking.


But we danced so hard to “Whoa.”

I am finishing this article up on April 21st, the 5th anniversary of the passing of Prince. Because, you know, Prince died too in those 20+ years since Pac & Biggie.

I care not to discuss any of DMX’s pitfalls, drug habits, or his Iyanla Fix My Life visit from 8 years ago. He didn’t hide who he was, whether he was high or up high. That’s not the point of this. I loved Earl Simmons. The man who said a tearful prayer at Market Square Arena back in March 2000 while the entire arena listened. It was Earl who led prayer on The Breakfast Club and Lord knows they could use it collectively and individually. Earl dared to be an actor. He cried in front of his peers. He loved dogs more than people and openly spoke his truth, to which I understood. He was a gift to us. God shared DMX with us, flawed and precise, bright with complete darkness, alive and on the brink of death. It's rare to get a rapper with that much visible humility to God, and vulnerability to the world. Was X troubled? Yes, he was, but he was also authentic and real. You didn’t listen to “Slippin”; you slipped with him on your own banana peels. You belted out Sisqó’s ad-libs to “What These B****es Want”, not (just) because you enjoyed his voice on the song but because you too wanted to know what the bitches wanted from DMX???!!!!! He had a way with us as much as he did with words.


When the homies Call

I always wanted him to win. Similar to Pac & Biggie, X was more to us than his music. His passion and raw emotion presented an imperfect man that was like a family member we wanted to love on harder. He was our brother, uncle, and cousin from around the way. Someone who might need our protection as easily as he would provide it. He was our 'dog", and so if he barked at us, we were prepared to bark back. I watched many of his interviews over the years. I could tell when he was high and when he wasn’t but found myself wildly enamored by the way he could carry himself while high. He might have fallen under the radar to an untrained eye.

That was DMX. And Earl Simmons.

Heartbroken is a fair word to describe the feeling of watching the ones who built the background music to many of the steps I took as a teenager fade into ancestry. And the thing is, whether they are 25 or 50 something years old, their (often unexpected) death will take your breath away, triggering that strange dance of grieving a celebrity. Far too often they have been young and it has been violent, but I'm grateful that at least for DMX, he was able to see his career through. He appeared on Verzus and Drink Champs in the last year. and despite how some see it, I think he did receive his flowers. Thank you, Swizz, Snoop, N.O.R.E., Timberland; we needed that. He looked well and seemed like he had been giving himself the shots he was never strong enough to afford before. He was 50 years old. Exactly 25 years older than Tupac. A much fuller life lived but seemingly still not enough. Every time I saw him as of recent though, he was smiling and dancing.



I am hopeful that he still is. That maybe he waited for Black Rob’s arrival, having seen his name and a near date on the list. And with X having the type of compassion for others that he did, I’m sure he wouldn’t want Rob to enter the pearl gates alone, especially after his ‘earthly’ experience. And perhaps, they stood there trading verses, waiting for Shock-G to walk in. He steps in with his silver afro glowing and blowing, smiling from ear to ear as he approaches the two men like old friends from back in the day. Together, they all walk in.


It is now April 22, 2021.

If things are the way Grey’s Anatomy has been portraying for the past 17 seasons, I assume after they enter, there’s a glowing but dimly lit room of elder hip hop angels, laughing and talking it up. The door gracefully opens and Earl, Shock, and Rob make their way in. They are instantly greeted with a standing ovation from those they never met and others who they’d missed so much. Pac and Biggie are at a table together recounting last night's Whitney Houston concert. It’s a packed house that happens each time a new person comes home. Not quite sure that their songs will play, but maybe it’s an instrumental-only heaven, and those familiar, hand-picked 808s and beat drops will help make them feel at home.


Finally, and without doubt or end,

At home.

A place both Rob and DMX struggled to ever really find.



The 90s & Early 2000s: 
I am humbly proud to say I was part of this era of music. When it was all a dream. Or a party. Whoa! When we were told to "DOOWHUTCHAYALIKE", Whoa! When the film roll was as fresh as the posters on our walls. Whoa! When our heroes looked like us for real, wearing the same baggy clothes and timberlands. Whoa! Where we saw their hypocrisy as understandable growing pains. We bobbed our heads in random VIPs and felt comfortable blasting these artist’s music out of rattling trunks in residential areas. 

"...My niggaz - 
like dough, light 'dro

Nitro,

might flow,

nice clothes

.. like WHOA!"



What a time to have been alive! It will never come around again like it was then. Although we mourn the lost forevers of those we once lived vicariously thru, we celebrate the musical genius' and unique souls that helped give us the soundtrack to a rebellious generation trying to find their way in a quickly changing world.


Thank you, Black Rob,

And thank You, 

DMX (Earl Simmons),

And thank You, 

Shock G.

You will all be missed but your impact is forever.




-J

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