Story by Terry Shropshire Images by Dave Goodson for Steed Media Service
NEW YORK – There is a poverty of imagination and ingenuity in today’s rap game, advocates and antagonists both decry, leaving the hip-hop a parched parcel within the overall music landscape. Brush fires of idiotic behavior, substandard production and lawlessness in hip-hop are blazing out of control, threatening to reduce the genre’s long-established legacy to cinders. This precarious predicament gives teeth to the bite of rap’s most traditional and vociferous adversaries — mainly sanctimonious “conservatives” and other ambulance-chasing opportunists — who are dribbling drool on their wingtips as they seize the moment to harpoon the vilified music form. Nas brilliantly captured this widespread famine of inventiveness in hip-hop with the title of his latest CD, Hip Hop is Dead, replete with black hearse and casket at his album release party.
Some have charged that hip-hop has allowed itself to be tricked out one too many times to the highest bidder like a strung-out prostitute. After it’s been debased and debauched by reptilian music execs, the music form has been returned to us disfigured, mutilated, unrecognizable. Revered rappers RZA and Common are two of today’s lyrical lab technicians seeking to help nurse the battered and beleaguered art form back to health.
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However, what cannot be bandaged are some of Frank Lucas’ victims, the legendary and notorious ‘70s gangsters portrayed in the highly anticipated American Gangster. The movie, based on a true story, stars Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas) as the dapper and demented architect of an international heroin enterprise in Harlem. Hollywood heavyweight Russell Crowe co-stars along with Common, RZA and T.I., who, coincidentally, is entangled in his own legal quagmire. Ironically, Common and RZA are operating on opposite sides of the law in the movie. Common (Turner Lucas) is the brother of Frank and collaborator in his colossal criminal empire, while RZA (Moses Jones) is part of Crowe’s team of special detectives aiming to stop Lucas’ street pharmaceutical firm from peddling the powder of death. But in life, these longtime hip-hop heads are allies in the spirited movement to inoculate the world’s most influential music form with renewed creativity and consciousness.
“I just think it needs balance,” declares RZA, co-founder of the seminal hip-hop band Wu Tang Clan. “That’s why I did an album this year, 8 Diagrams, with Wu Tang to maybe put more balance into hip-hop. It just needs some other faces that [have] things to say. 8 Diagrams represents the universe and forecasting the future, the past and the present. I wanna put a record out that has some consciousness to it — and not just consciousness in lyrics, consciousness in spirit and identity.”
While hip-hop is being thrashed for its misogyny and promulgation of violence, Common spits verbal darts and nails back at all the knee-jerk critics who paint all rap as vulgar and reprehensible. “The truth is they can’t truly flush [rap], because it’s a movement of a people and an expression of a people. We’re always going to be here,” he says, his voice stern and impassioned. “Kids 10 years from now will rise up and talk about revolution and different things and their struggle. So they can’t suffocate it so much. This is our voice. Now we [have] more opportunities to let our voices be heard, through all forms of communication. Hip-hop is coming under scrutiny, but the truth is going to rise regardless.”
The intense scrutiny of hip-hop is hardly enough of an impediment to prevent Common from using its most redeemable properties to uplift and inspire the youth of Chicago through his Common Ground Foundation. Common, the author of three children’s books, says speaking to and mentoring youth is one of his most gratifying experiences.
“If you get those messages early, about you being you, and self-esteem, it helps you walk through life with more consciousness and not fall victim to little things [that] knock you off your square, you know? So I just felt like it’s important for me to give it to the kids,” says Common, while relaxing inside the ostentatious Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., the 35-year-old Common released his fourth album, the gold-selling Finding Forever, earlier this year to coast-to-coast rave reviews. The Chi-Town native was genuinely humbled by the audience’s response after he accepted his first live TV award in his 14-year career, on the BET Hip-Hop Award show in Atlanta. “Man, I was like, ‘wow.’ What felt so great [was] the support I felt from the crowd,” said the poetic pontificator. Common won a Grammy but it wasn’t on live TV. “I felt the sincerity, that they were like happy for me. Like, ‘this dude earned it.’ That felt really good, I must say. I was moved for real. I was moved.”
Common’s on-screen career seems to be flowing just as nicely. Following Denzel’s American Gangster, Common will star in the adaptation of the comic-book series Wanted, opposite Academy Award winner, Morgan Freeman. He’ll follow that up with the movie Night Watchman with Forest Whitaker, who recently took home an Oscar for Last King of Scotland.
“Morgan and Denzel and Forest Whitaker back to back to back — Oscar, Oscar, Oscar,” Common says, clearly awed. “It’s called blessing. Blessing from the Most High, and just working, like working it and really believing and going in there and really working to get these roles. I definitely auditioned for every role that I’ve gotten so far. When I see myself on the screen I feel like I earned that role, you know what I mean?”
RZA, born Robert Diggs of Brooklyn, N.Y., can relate. He had to audition for a couple of roles for American Gangster before being told he won the role of detective Moses Jones. “I think that Universal and the casting people that picked us, chose good people to play the parts,” adds RZA. “Not just a hip-hop artist who had a popular name for the times or the hot thing on the block. They really took their time to pick someone who had a spirit about them.”
RZA, who’s set to come out with a new CD after a laborious nine-month process, was adamant about getting the press to understand the seriousness in which he approaches Hollywood films.
“I take [acting] very seriously, being a thespian is a serious craft. Some people go to school for this, get scholarships, you know, dedicate their whole lives to it. So what I do is take it seriously,” RZA says. “I got a couple of books, a couple of coaches, you know what I mean? [I] try to keep myself as prepared as I can to do the job, and make sure that I’m not another rap artist that adds on to this bad rap.”
RZA couldn’t hide his disgust when he thinks about how the media attempts to separate rap artists from the rest of the genre once they reach certain levels of fame and popularity, such as OutKast and Kanye West. “You can classify if you want to, you know what I mean? I don’t like to classify music. I just call it music, at the end of the day,” RZA says. “I think Kanye, Common, and Wu Tang are definitely great examples of expressions of hip-hop, a lot more than a lot of other people, because we live it and love it. We’re pop music because we’re good at what we do. When you’re good at what you do, you become popular.”
Common couldn’t agree more. “Well, you know they always try to label and divide [us], but I don’t go [by how] mainstream society [defines] us,” he says. “I know who I am, and I know what I’m creating. I know that I’m hip-hop. I’m a child of hip-hop. I come from it. I live it.”
RZA says there is a mutual admiration between the two artists. “Common has always been a pristine type of artist. He has a unique way about him. I was kind of honored that they [Common and the embattled T.I.] were in the film, and I was in the film.”
RZA quickly backhanded a reporter’s question about how urban youth, who look up to RZA and Common, may be negatively influenced by aspects of American Gangster, which inspires memories of classic gangster films of yesteryear. “You watch The Godfather and Goodfellas. You watch them and you become fascinated with the violence and the things they’re doing. But you know, these men are criminals, and this movie is a movie,” he says as he begins to rev up to another gear. “I think that you can enjoy it as a film, but those who get inspired by it, influenced by it, [I] hope they realize what happened at the end.”
In the end, as in Frank Lucas’ real life, he was eventually captured by authorities, his empire was completely toppled, and he was left broke — and broken. “And I have much, much respect for [Lucas’] family. Even though you see in the film at the end, he only did 15 years of jail time,” RZA continues about Lucas, who was spared a life sentence for turning state’s evidence. “But if you see Mr. Lucas right now on the streets, he’s basically crippled. And that means even though he got out of it, he didn’t get out of it. Life will get you back one way or another. He was a glamorous man back then, but he’s in a wheelchair right now. I’m quite sure he has a lot of reflecting to do.”