Teacher Luke: A look at hip-hop culture and analysis of the lyrics to a classic rap song.
I wonder if you’re a fan of hip hop. Maybe you are, maybe you’re not. If you already are, then sit back, enjoy the episode. If you’re not then listen on, because you might learn something about the world of hip hop music which you previously didn’t know. You can also learn some slang in the process.
In this episode:
1. I’ll tell you a bit about hip hop, and its history, but not too much because I don’t want to bore you.
2. We’ll listen to some hip hop and have a look at the lyrics and analyse them. I’ll explain them, and kind of give you my thoughts on them.
There is music in the background on this one. I thought it was appropriate because of the subject of this episode. Future episodes will not always have music, but this one does. If you really can’t hear what I’m saying then let me know and I might be able to upload this episode again without the background music. If you like the music and would like to hear more, let me know by commenting on this episode. I should be able to recommend some albums or tracks for you.
I understand that hip hop is not everyone’s cup of tea, or perhaps you’ve never considered listening to it. Well, you know with Luke’s English Podcast you never know what you’re going to get each time. Variety. This time it’s hip hop, next time it might be about something else like kittens. A whole episode about kittens, that would be nice, or maybe something about football… that’s in the pipeline, and more interviews and all kinds of things, but for now it’s all about da hip hop game, straight up, no nonsense, no diggidy, no doubt, the ill communication… You’re probably thinking, “why is Luke speaking strangely, or more strangely than usual”. Well, I’m throwing in a bit of hop hop slang into my sentences sometimes, just for a laugh really.
I love hip-hop but sometimes I don’t feel like I can truly relate to it. It’s an amazing musical genre. There’s a lot of talent, great music and clever lyrics.
What are The 3 elements of hip hop? How did it develop?
First of all, the term ‘hip hop’ is used to refer to both the musical genre and the culture in general. This culture of hip hop is considered to have a number of elements. I think it boils down to about 3 main things:
1. DJing – this involves the creating of loops of music, usually taken from old jazz or funk records played on two turntables. This is clever because it involves a lot of skill. Two copies of the record are needed, and the record needs to be chosen carefully. Usually the piece of music to be looped is a drum break from a funk tune. That’s the bit where only the drums are playing. That section is just played over and over on the two turntables, the same bit being played and then rewound and played again- the music gets looped, and you get a continuous beat which people can dance to or rap over. The DJs would either do it live at parties or they would make mix tapes to be shared and used as the backing track for rapping.
2. Rapping. This is talking into the microphone over the top of the beat. The best rapping involves clever rhyming of words, and a unique flow or rhythm in your voice. It’s also known as MCing. MC means master or ceremonies. The original job of the MC was to be a kind of host for a party. He or she would liven up the audience and get the atmosphere going. Later, MCs started rhyming and creating stories or commentaries. MCs sometimes battle with each other. This means that they take turns to do a verse of rhyming in which they have to be more inventive, funny or insulting than the other one. An example of this can be seen in the movie 8 Mile with Eminem.
3. Breakdancing. This was the dancing associated with hip-hop in the early days. People seem to do it less these days. It involves body popping, robotic movements, or acrobatic spins and jumps. It’s also possible to have a breakdancing battle in which two teams take turns to perform better and better dance moves.
Graffiti is also associated with hip hop. That’s the painting of large graphics or tags in public places using spray cans. Now, DJing has been replaced by more sophisticated forms of sequencing and sampling using computers, but the effect is still the same – funky beats and samples of well chosen old records. Beats can also be created without samples as well, but most of the classic hip hop of the 90s was made with samples from 60s jazz/funk records.
Some also consider ‘knowledge’ to be an essential part of hip hop culture. This means the understanding of your cultural history and the reality of the situation you are living in. More specifically this relates to the condition of black Americans as a cultural minority in the United States, but it can also apply to a wider state of mind in which you ‘keep it real’. Keeping it real just means being true to yourself, trying to ascertain what really is going on around you, questioning authority and everything around you and not believing ‘the hype’. Public Enemy released a famous rap/hip-hop track called ‘Don’t Believe The hype’. I think the message of this is ‘don’t believe what you read in the papers, or don’t believe what everyone says about something. Check it out for yourself first. Have some independence of thought. Don’t accept the common opinion. Have confidence in your own sense of judgement. Don’t believe the hype.
Hip-Hop is also notable for it’s recycling of previously released music, particularly music created by soul, funk and jazz artists of the previous generation. This shows us how hip-hop is a kind of ‘do it yourself’ cultural movement. The musicians who made this music just used what was available to them there at the time. They didn’t have instruments, or classical musical training. There wasn’t a lot of money going round. What they did have was old records, possibly from their parents’ generation, and so they used that as a resource. If they were lucky they had record decks or other equipment. Otherwise they would use tape players to crudely edit together selected pieces of music from old records. This cut and paste approach is one of the things that defines hip-hop culture.
My personal favourite era for hip hop is the early to mid nineties. I think this is when it was at its best. If I could recommend one hip hop album it would be “Midnight Marauders” by A Tribe Called Quest. Why? The samples are very well chosen (some amazing bits of classic soul, funk or jazz) the music is positive, the rhyming is inventive and funny, it’s catchy, I never get bored of listening to it and it always puts me in a good mood and reminds me of great times. I strongly believe it will be considered one of the all-time great hip hop albums. Click here to see the album on Amazon.
Hip Hop music is often associated with poor urbanised black american communities, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s not about being poor black Americans. The music might have come from that community, but ultimately music transcends racial barriers and can be enjoyed by everyone. But, saying that, there is something weird about middle class English white kids acting like rappers from Compton. They’re not keeping it real, and the importance of keeping it real is one of the things you can learn from hip hop. Be true to yourself, don’t play yourself because that’s just straight up wack! A lot of rappers are very rich these days. Some are white, some are of other ethnicities. This just goes to show that it’s not just a simple question of black or white, rich or poor or whatever. Gangster rap is one sub-genre of rap music. There are other types of hip hop that don’t involve being a gangster. Positive hip-hop or political hip-hop. I suppose within gangsta rap there is the idea that hip-hop can be a way for poor people in America can escape from the ghetto. In the case of someone like Jay-Z who apparently used to live a gangster life, music did help him to escape the world of crime.
Hip hop music can give you an insight into life in the ghetto in America. The stories I hear in rap are like crime novels or a gangster movies. They can be evocative, moving, frightening and just very exciting tales of life on the edge. I must say though, as a white middle class English guy I can’t fully relate to the music, and sometimes I feel slightly ridiculous listening to rap music. I find I feel embarrassed sometimes listening to tales of the gangster life while I’m on shopping in Tescos or walking along the Champs Elysees. I can’t really relate to it, but nevertheless I love the music, and I wonder if you also like hip hop.
Anyway, I decided to play some hip hop in this episode and discuss the lyrics with you. First up, it’s a genuine hip hop classic. This one is from the 90s which is the best era for hip hop in my opinion. It’s basically gangsta rap. It’s moody, dark and tells a story of how difficult life can be in the ghetto. The track is called “My mind is playing tricks on me” by Geto Boys. Listen to the track, and then I will explain it all, and analyse the lyrics after. You’ll appreciate it more when you hear it the second time. If you like it, click the link to see the album on Amazon, where you can buy it and support this group. If hip hop is not your thing then I hope this episode at least educates you about a musical genre that you’re not familiar with. You don’t have to like it, but knowledge is power. Also, the English you’ll hear is a dialect (to an extent). It’s the language of black American youth, and this is one of the most pervasive English dialects. It has influence on many informal dialects in English, including youth in London and all over the UK in fact. It’s interesting that the social group with the least status – poor African Americans, has some of the most widespread cultural influence though its music and its English slang. Well, maybe that’s the thing about hip-hop – it really changed the status of many poor young people in America, by making them into superstars. Although being a superstar is not the end of your problems of course, because you know, Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems… So, here it is.
GETO BOYS LYRICS
“My Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me”
I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at candles
“Cool out man, we on the Radio dukes”
We’re on the Radio dukes
Ooh, alright, check this here
[Verse 1: Scarface]
At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn
He’s having a bad night. He can’t sleep. Maybe he’s had too much coffee, or maybe he’s got an exam tomorrow. You know the feeling, you’re nervous, you can’t sleep. Very frustrating.
Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned
If he’s got candles burning I’m not surprised he can’t sleep. You need to extinguish all lights. Anyway, he shouldn’t leave a candle burning when he’s going to sleep. It’s quite dangerous, it might start a fire and the smoke could choke him to death in his sleep, or he could be very badly burned.
Visions of bodies being burned. He’s having a very bad night. I know that sometimes your mind wanders when you can’t sleep but that’s quite extreme. Maybe he’s been watching too much of The Walking Dead. It’s ironic that he’s thinking of burning bodies when he’s dangerously leaving candles lit while going to sleep.
Four walls just closing in, getting bigger
I know the feeling. It can be like you’re trapped in your room, especially if you’ve been indoors all evening revising and now you can’t sleep.
I’m paranoid, sleepin’ with my finger on the trigger
Woa! He’s sleeping with a gun in his hand and his finger on the trigger? He’s likely to have a bad accident, especially if he starts to drop off to sleep and his hand jerks. He must be paranoid if he’s sleeping with a gun. I wonder what happened.
My mother’s always stressin’ I ain’t livin’ right
Well, she’s right because already you’ve got naked flames and a gun in the flat.
But I ain’t going out without a fight
Ok, he’s determined.
See, everytime my eyes close
I start sweatin’ and blood starts comin’ out my nose
You might want to get that looked at. If blood comes out of your nose when you close your eyes, you might have a serious condition. I don’t think it’s paranoia. Those are genuine symptoms. Go to a doctor. Call NHS direct at least.
There’s somebody watchin’ the Ack’
But I don’t know who it is, so I’m watchin’ my back
OK, I’m not sure what that means but it seems that someone is watching him, and apparently they’re not really looking after him because they haven’t stepped in to give advice or help. Whoever this person is, it seems that they don’t have his best interest at heart. Again, I don’t think he’s being paranoid. This guy is probably not a friend. But then again it is quite normal to just see the same people in your neighbourhood and just because they’re not friendly, it doesn’t mean they want to kill you. I mean, in London I never talked to my neighbours but I saw them all the time. Didn’t mean I wanted to kill them. Just saying.
I can see him when I’m deep in the covers
When I awake I hear a car burning rubber
When he’s deep in the covers, that means when he’s in bed. So, what he can see him when he’s in his bed? That is pretty weird, what is he doing in the guy’s bed?? Or maybe he’s in the bed and looking out of the window and he can see him in the street or something. Oh I see, he can see him in his sleep. Bad dreams.
He owns a black hat like I own
A black suit and a cane like my own
Perhaps this is just a mirror. I wonder if he’s considered the fact that he’s seeing his own reflection in windows or something. That happened to me once. I was walking alone in the street and I thought I saw someone following me. I got really scared and ran home. Turned out it was just my own reflection in the windows of houses. I used to be scared of the dark so I suppose my mind was playing tricks on me too.
Some might say, “Take a chill, B”
Yes, it’s a good idea. Take a chill. Relax. Have a cup of tea. Watch some telly. Put your feet up. Just take the afternoon off. No need to go round being a gangster today. It’s hard work being a gangster. Just take it easy for a change. You’ve got to look after your health. Take some you-time. Just watch “Friday” or something.
But I can’t see, because there’s somebody trying to kill me
Mmm, that will tend to make you a bit uptight.
I’m poppin’ in the clip when the wind blows
Every twenty seconds got me peepin’ out my window
This means he’s putting a clip of ammunition into his gun whenever the wind blows. Now, the wind blows quite a lot, especially when it’s windy. Does this mean he’s just putting the clip in when he hears the wind, and then going “oh no it’s just the wind” and then taking it out, but then hearing the wind again and going “What the hell is that?!” and popping the clip back in again, and again and again. He needs a holiday. He’s peeping out of his window, with a gun. THis is an awful situation.
Investigatin’ the joint for traps
Checkin’ my telephone for taps
Ok, so I assume that he’s really nervous because of something he did in his past. Maybe he criticised someone’s mother, or stepped on someone’s sneaker. Now he’s worried that someone wants to take revenge on him and he’s so paranoid that he’s convinced that someone has set traps in his house. Perhaps like a bucket of water above the door and when you open it = splash. Or worse. Maybe a broken chair or a whoopee cushion. He’s checking the phone for taps. That’s a wire tap. Perhaps people are trying to listen in to his conversations. It could be the mob getting ready to kill him or the FBI surveying him, or maybe he’s just been smoking too much weed and he’s imagining it all.
I’m starin’ at the woman on the corner
It’s f*cked up, when your mind is playin’ tricks on you
The woman on the corner? I expect that is a prostitute. It’s quite sad that there’s always a woman on the corner. It’s even sadder that this guy is staring at her because he’s paranoid that ‘someone is trying to kill him’.
[Verse 2: Willie D]
I make big money, I drive big cars
Everybody know me, it’s like I’m a movie star
Sounds like Luke from Luke’s English Podcast.
But late at night, somethin’ ain’t right
I feel I’m being tailed by the same sucker’s head lights
This means he feels like someone is following him. He’s being tailed by someone’s headlights. But normally you’re tailed by someone in a car, not just some headlights.
Is it that fool that I ran off the block?
Or is it that clown last week that I shot?
He shot a clown? Why did he shoot a clown? They’re basically harmless. They’re just kids’ entertainers. He’s gone too far, shooting a clown.
To be honest, I think that by ‘clown’ he means a ‘fool’ or an ‘idiot’. But really, was it necessary to shoot the guy? Two words: Gun Control.
Or is it the one I beat for five thousand dollars
He beat a guy for 5 thousand dollars. That is a lot of money but is it worth it for the risk. You could be sent to prison for aggravated assault. I’m not surprised he’s having a bad time, because you know “what goes around comes around”.
Thought he had caine but it was Gold Medal Flour
His mind really is playing tricks on him. He’s seeing people doing their grocery shopping, and mistaking them for badass gangsters who want to kill him. The guy needs to just stay in for a while and wait for this all to blow over.
Reach under my seat, grabbed my popper for the suckers
Ain’t no use to me lyin, I was scareder than a mother*****
This means he reached under his seat to get his gun in order to shoot these bad rude boys, and truth be told he was very frightened. Scareder (not correct English) than a mother-. One can only assume that ‘a mother’ is usually quite scared, for some reason. I think we know he is referring not to a Mum, but to a swearword, a motherf***er
Hooked a left into Popeye’s and bailed out quick
If it’s goin’ down, let’s get it over with
So, in order to escape, or find a good place to hide or escape he turned a quick left into what I assume is some kind of shop. He was ready to have a fight if it was necessary. So, he thinks that these gang-bangers are going to get him as an act of revenge, but perhaps he’s just paranoid and imaginging it all.
Here they come, just like I figured
I got my hand on the chrome (gold?) plated the trigger
So, they’re coming just as expected. He’s got his hand on his chrome plated gun. The trigger is the part that your finger squeezes to fire the gun..
What I saw’ll make your ass start gigglin’
Three black crippled and crazy senior citizens
What he saw will make you laugh because it was three black crippled and crazy old people. He must have been tripping because he thought they were all gangsters. He’s in a real mess.
I live by the sword
I take my boys everywhere I go, because I’m paranoid
To live by the sword means you live a violent life. He takes his boys everywhere – not his sons I imagine, but some of his home-boys, some friends or fellow gangsters as protection.
I keep lookin’ over my shoulder and peepin’ around corners
My mind is playin’ tricks on me
Looking over his shoulder, looking around corners. He’s certainly got to be vigilant at times like this.
[Verse 3: Scarface]
Day by day it’s more impossible to cope
I feel like I’m the one that’s doing dope
Ok, this really is a messed up life. He’s find it hard to cope. He can’t manage it or deal with the pressure. He feels like he’s the one doing dope – I guess this is a reference to the fact that he’s a drug dealer, and usually his clients are the ones who are strung out and losing control of their lives because of the drugs they’re taking, but this time even he is losing control. This is a messed up story of criminal life in America. Have you seen Scarface? This song is one of many similar crime stories which for me form part of American popular culture in literature, film and music. Yes, I’m saying this is art. Sue me.
Can’t keep a steady hand because I’m nervous
Every Sunday mornin’ I’m in service
Prayin’ for forgiveness
And tryin’ to find an exit out the business
He’s going to church every sunday, praying to be forgiven by god, and trying to find a way to leave this terrible business of drug dealing and extortion. So, he does want to get out but apparently he is trapped. I wonder what you think. Does he have a choice? I suppose he is so deep in crime that if he tries to leave he risks losing his life.
I know the Lord is lookin’ at me
But yet and still it’s hard for me to feel happy
He believes in god but it’s almost not enough because of his guilty conscience.
I often drift while I drive
Havin’ fatal thoughts of suicide
BANG and get it over with
And then I’m worry-free, but that’s nonsense
He sometimes considers killing himself in order to escape, but yes, that’s nonsense. Suicide is the coward’s way out.
I got a little boy to look after
And if I died then my child would be a bastard
Technically that is true. That’s in line with the literal meaning of ‘bastard’ but does it also mean his son would be a bad guy? Quite possibly, if he’s deprived of a father and growing up in tough conditions, and considering his Dad is a bit of a bastard apparently it must run in the family, so yes if he is killed then his son is likely to be a bit of a bastard. BUt also, his son would be fatherless, and that’s serious.
I had a woman down with me
But to me it seems like she was down to get me
He used to have a girl friend, but it seemed she didn’t support him. Maybe she was not good for him. Maybe she nagged him, and it didn’t help.
She helped me out in this
But to me she was just another chick
OK, she did help a bit, but he didn’t love her. Sad story. Sorry listeners.
Now she’s back with her mother
Now I’m realizing that I love her
All right, so he does love her! Make your mind up!
Now I’m feelin’ lonely
My mind is playin’ tricks on me
You have my sympathy sir. Although I do think it was wrong that you committed those crimes and you shouldn’t have done it. There’s no way of justifying those criminal acts. Still, I will raise a glass to you sir.
[Verse 4: Bushwick Bill]
This year Halloween fell on a weekend
Me and Geto Boys went trick-or-treatin’
Robbin’ little kids for bags
So they went trick or treating. Not exactly the behaviour of authentic straight up gangstas. Why are they trick or treating? Aren’t they a bit old for that now? Don’t they have business to attend to?
And robbing little kids for bags?? Really? Literally stealing candy from children. That’s hardly the way a true gangsta rolls? It’s almost pathetic, stealing sweets from children. It’s a serious act of bullying and seems out of character. So these are very well esteemed bad-boy gangstas, who act like they’ve killed and done bad things, and here they are stealing sweeties from kids. Pathetic.
Till an old man got behind our rags
Too right. The old man was correct and I’m glad a member of the community stepped in to get behind their rags and tell them off.
So we speeded up the pace
Took a look back, and he was right before our face
They decided to leave quickly and walked away, but when they turned around he was right up in their face. Wow, that guy is fast!
He’d be in for a squabble no doubt
So I swung and and tried to take him out
So the guy wanted a fight, so Bill swung his fist and tried to knock him down. ‘Take him out’
He was goin’ down, we planned
But this wasn’t no ordinary man
The plan was to put this guy down, but apparently this was no ordinary man. Maybe it was, like, Batman or just an extraordinarily tough guy who they shouldn’t have messed with.
He stood about six or seven feet
Now, that’s the creep I’d be seein’ in my sleep
This is a very tall guy, and the ‘creep’ he’d been seeing in his sleep too. So, this is the scary guy that Bill was dreaming about earlier on. Wow, so here he is in a fight with him. Scary.
So we triple-teamed on him
Droppin’ them 5th ward B’s on him
Triple teamed on him – this means the 3 of them teamed up to fight him together. Ladies or in fact anyone else, if you’re listening – I’m sorry about the violence. More civilised topics will be dealt with in due course.
The more I swung the more blood flew
Then he disappeared and my boys disappeared too
The more he punched the more blood there was, but then suddenly he disappeared, and so did his friends.
Then I felt just like a fiend
It wasn’t even close to Halloween
He felt just like a fiend – this is someone who is evil and kind of obsessed by doing bad things. So, he frightened himself by realising he was a fiend, a monster. This is dark…
It was dark as death on the streets
My hands were all bloody from punchings on the concrete
Oh man, homie
My mind is playin’ tricks on me
The streets were pitch black, and his hands were bleeding from punching the concrete. So, he imagined or hallucinated the whole thing and in fact had been punching the street itself thinking it was a man. His mind is playing tricks on him.
What a dark tale.
Let’s lighten things up a bit. Now we’re going to listen to a short rhyme by De La Soul from their amazing album 3 Feet High and Rising. This one is all about the importance of washing yourself with soap to avoid BO or Body Odour, which can be a problem on public transport for example. Again, listen to the whole tune and then I will explain…
Please, listen to this simple De La style I’m gonna sing
It’s strongly directed to all the misery you’re bringing
Now I’m not all about dissing someone else personnel
But there’s no quota on your odor, that’s right, you smell
Now you might feel a little embarrassed, don’t take it too hard
And don’t make it worse by covering it up with some Right Guard
Before you even put on your silk shirt and fat gold rope
Please, take your big ass to the bathroom
And please use a little bit of soap
Okay, contestant number two, do you have the answers?
No, no I don’t
SOME HIP HOP SLANG, DEFINED:
da hip hop game = the hip hop industry. ‘da’ means ‘the’
straight up = simply
no nonsense = simple
no diggidy = no doubt, definitely
the ill communication = ‘ill’ here means ‘good’
wack = not cool
sucka = a sucker, a stupid person
For more hip hop slang, click here.
Visit this page to play around with ‘gizoogle’, which is a website that translates everything into hip hop slang.
Here’s an example of what it does. Look at the below sentence, which is normal.
Hello, my name is Luke and I am an English teacher. You probably know me from my podcast which is called Luke’s English Podcast. I really enjoy making episodes of my show and I hope that you like listening to it. Good luck!
Here’s the hip-hop slang version:
Yo muthaf*cka, hoes call me Luke n’ I be a Gangsta mackdaddy n’ sh*t. Yo ass probably know me from mah podcast which is called Lukez Gangsta Podcast. I straight-up trip off makin episodez of mah show n’ I hope dat you like listenin ta dat sh*t. Dope luck!
‘Dope luck’ indeed…