The era of the rap “wink”
During my recent spat with Chet Haze and my all-out assault on the vital role of realism in hip hop, many people seemed to combat my argument by citing Rick Ross. I’m a well documented fan of Officer Rawse, and his past as a correctional officer doesn’t neccesarily mix well with his drug dealing, violent lyrics for honesty. It’s a contradiction and without much historical context could easily been seen as a similarity between the President of Maybach Music and Tom Hanks’s loser son. And I understand that. But what most wouldn’t see, and you can’t really see unless you’ve studied rap music in an OCD manner since childhood, is the subtle wink of satire that has followed the genre since it’s inception. The art of rap has included over-the-top, somewhat unrealistic bragging since it’s birth in the park. Rick Ross doesn’t actually think you think that the real Noriega owes him a hundred favors. We all know that’s an exaggeration, a joke even, based on a realistic (arguable, I know) past he had, or was surrounded by. It’s an escalation. His stage name is even stolen from a real famous drug dealer, like he’s reading from a biopic script.
Has Rick Ross assumed a character? Most definitely. Has Chester Hanks created a character? Also, yes. But one knows he’s outlandish - hence the ridiculous metaphors from (Ross), while the other is just trying to convince us he’s real to fit in (Chester, and he clearly doesn’t). I know the rap game / WWE metaphor is played out, but it’s the difference between a douchey MMA fighter pretending he’s tough without any training and the Undertaker actually being tough, but also not really being a man who has come back from the dead to win a gold title belt. We know he’s winking at us, but he’s also really dope.
I wanted to really show this difference, and define the “wink,” by highlighting the 90’s and a small era when rappers were taking on escalated personas, yet still sounding authentic and impressive. While Marky Mark and Boss where dodging criticisms for completely false personas (minus the wink), these guys had fully accepted fabricated personalities and still showed that a glimpse of admitted satire could still result in credibility. It was a fun time for hip hop, one I genuinely miss. And even as a “Keep it real” aficionado, we should remember this tradition - the tradition of comically advanced gimmicks in rap,
My favorite rap album of all-time is “6 Feet Deep” by the Gravediggaz. Co-produced by Prince Paul (De La Soul, Stetsasonic, Handsome Boy Modeling School) and RZA, it’s the best example of a concept album from this time period. Each member of the concept group, RZA, Paul, Frukwan & Too Poetic, had been victims of the music industry in their own ways. Each had shots at success, but found themselves without any real victories and a ton of broken promises. As an answer, and to prove it wasn’t over for them, they formed a supergroup and proved to the biz they could “return from the dead.” To illustrate this point, they each took on names like The Grym Reaper and fully embraced they they were satanic, death celebrators who were here to convince your son/daughter to join them and take their own lives. It was so cartoonish and genius - and still incredible rap music at it’s core. It took their own personal experiences of failure, and built on it, until it became it’s own creative entity. The Gravediggaz built upon a forgettable subgenre called Horrorcore, which included Flatlinerz and sort of The Geto Boys, but this still is the best example in my opinion. Go listen to this album, doofus and realize they didn’t want you to die, they wanted you to see they were winking.
Krazy Drazy and Skoob (Books backwards) made up this popular duo from New Jersey and Brooklyn respectively. They first met at Virgina State University and a few years later were members of the popular Hit Squad, with Erik Sermon, Redman and Keith Murray. They gained success with their single “They Want Efx” and also flexing their “stiggity stiggity” style on the hook of Ice Cube’s “Check Yo’ Self,” which white people seem to quote still in 2014. Beyond their delivery gimmick, Das Efx also claimed they hailed from the underground, but not in the same way that a backpack rapper might brag about that now. It wasn’t that they were from outside the mainstream, they actually pretended they lived under the streets. Like the Ninja Turtles. They frequently talked about taking girls “back to the sewer” and their logo was even a manhole cover. There was never a moment where everyone looked at each other and said, “Well, if you want to get in touch with Das Efx, yell into your toilet.” We understood the wink and those dudes were beasts. Lords of the Underground had a similar thing going on, but ehhhh, no need.
Before the Wu-Tang Clan started sampling dialogue from karate flicks, these dudes from East Flatbush, Brooklyn did it first. The Fu-Schnickens are always brought up in the same conversation as Das Efx, since both relied heavily on pop culture references and speed rapping, but they should been praised separately based on skills alone. And while Das Efx may have hailed from below the surface, the Fu-Schnickens wanted you to think they originated from the far East. Chip Fu, Moc Fu and Pac Fu were known for their insanely speedy rhymes, and even rapping backwards, but you know them best for their song, “What’s Up, Doc,” with then NBA rookie Shaquille O’Neal (YES, this is where Shaq Fu came from), who always cited them as his favorite rap group. They frequently referenced their karate skills, wore kimonos, flying around in Chinese take-out containers and old kung fu movies, way before that part became a thing. And still the only fake Asian that make me mad is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and Cloud Atlas btw). Because of the WINK.
House Of Pain
Them Irish boys from the San Fernando Valley aren’t technically CRAZY Irish, like their insanely genius debut video wanted you to think. Sure Erik Schrody (Everlast) was raised in an Irish household, and Daniel O’Connor (Danny Boy) had similar roots, but Leor Dimant (DJ Lethal) was Latvian. And the label was basically selling them as modern day Leprechauns, which was a nice gimmick, and somewhat of a winky marketing tool, especially since now Grammy-winning Everlast hasn’t incorporated his heritage in his music for years. It was what got them in the door, but we never expected to walk into our local pub and see the three of them sitting there eating Lucky Charms, drinking a Guinness. WINK CITY.
De La Soul
Most “rap fans” think they know De La Soul, but unless they remember the original Hippy gimmick - then you’re just a casual fan. The song that put them on the map, “Me, Myself & I” is still a party anthem, but it was also a gimmick establisher, as Plug One, Trugoy & Maseo, were advertised as black hippies, way before TDE trademarked that moniker. It was a real flower power vibe, bringing a John Lennon-esque style that wasn’t seen on the streets. We’d see their influence later on Digable Planets and the Black Eyed Peas, but back then - this was their lane. Most of their lyrics focused on peace and harmony - and they basically were the dudes who brought an acoustic guitar to your house party. But once their second album, De La Soul Is Dead, was released, we realized the album title wasn’t just creative. It was never really them, and because we knew they grew up in Long Island, their true colors made sense. They abandoned the gimmick quickly, proving the wink (and talent) was always there, right in front of your faces.
Leaders of the New School
It’s now a trivia question (“What rap group did Busta Rhymes come up in?”), but at one time Leaders of the New School were one of hip hop’s most promising groups. Members of the Native Tongues crew (along with other winkers De La Soul), Busta Rhymes, Dinko D, Charlie Brown and Milo made up L.O.N.S., and no doubt about it, they could rap their asses off. Their gimmick? They were going through the strife of high school. Everything was revolved around their studies, and extra curricular activities, so much so that their press photo (above) was in front of a school bus. Their lead single was called “Case of the P.T.A.,” as in Parent Teacher Association and another commonly used shot has them in front of lockers wearing backpacks. Anyway, they graduated, and by “they,” I mean Busta Rhymes graduated, and away went the high school gimmick and the wink was exposed. They obviously attended high school, but for that to be their calling card seemed superfluous. It didn’t define them in real life, which is why it disappeared so quickly, a common theme amongst winks. A similar gimmick was seen with the hardly known and painfully slept on West Coast group The Wascals, but they also had a Little Rascals thing going on too, so that’s a whole different story.
And the most famous wink of all-time was the Beastie Boys. Three hardcore punk rock musicians out of New York City decided to rap and created personas for themselves that they have since credited as “bad guy wrestlers.” They acted rambunctious, sprayed beer on fans and degraded women to an extent that they have refused to play many of the songs from their first album for years. Hell, their first album was almost called “Don’t Be A Faggot.” And all along, they were three nice upper class Jewish boys, with one hell of a ringleader in Rick Rubin (who still is addicted to pro wrestling’s dynamics btw). These were characters that Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond & Adam Horovitz concocted, frat guys who knew Run DMC personally, and they ran with it. The gimmick was clearly disbanded soon after, when Check Your Head was released, debuting a more skater friendly persona and less testosterone based lyrics. They were no longer fighting for their right to party or dropping Spanish Fly in girl’s drinks, which is something we all assumed they never actually did, but now we had proof. Proof of the wink.
This can be debated for hours, and I’m sure I missed a few blaring examples (we were told Onyx were bikers at first, Digital Underground told a story about how Humpty Hump lost his nose in a cooking accident and whatever story you want to believe about MF Doom is fine with me), but the post-modern aspect of hip hop is still somewhat visible, now usually just grouped in with liars. Those are two different things. I hope somehow this angle in rap music can make a return. I know the Odd Future kids toy with it, but no one has been able to do it right in quite some time. Sadly, the closest we have is RiFF RaFF, and he doesn’t let us in on the wink much at all. He’s also not a good rapper, so that point is kind of moot. Action Bronson DOES actually cook, so don’t bring that shit around here. I miss the exaggerated rappers, but more than anything I miss acknowledging their exaggerations as “fun.” Some things are jokes. Some things aren’t. Rick Ross may be detailing an unrealistic life for both humor and effect, but that doesn’t make his skills a joke. Chet talks about going to the club to throw hundreds (which he technically could do if he asked to borrow money from his dad), but it’s not a wink, that’s a hope for acceptance. My hope isn’t about acceptance, it’s a hope that a difference can be distinguished, because until then we have to just treat all liars the same I guess.