“The Rap Illiad”

by Booker Sim

photo by Boogie

“Sing, Goddess, the Wrath of Achilles.”
— Homer’s “ILIAD”

Thousands of years before Brad Pitt starred as blood thirsty Achilles in the blockbuster “TROY” came the story on which it was based – “THE ILIAD” – the ultimate ode to war, both beautiful and violent in extremes.

Until the 20th century, Western scholars thought “THE ILIAD” to be the work of a single poet – Homer. Then in the thirties, an Indiana Jones-type from Harvard ventured out to study the war-like tribes of Kosovo, and heard music of the spine-tingling sort, the kind that produces insight and changes lives. The heroic epics these Kosovars sang were strangely similar to the poetics of “THE ILIAD”.

And our Harvard man’s insight? That like these Kosovars, Homer was not a writer, but a singer of epic poetry – stories passed from generation to generation through music, belonging to no one. This revelation ripped through the hallowed halls of academia like QUIET STORM thumping at the Tunnel Club in the summer of ’99.

As a young philosophy student, I too had an insight of the spine tingling sort. Not the kind you get from Plato or Aristotle. The Kind that feels like diamonds dripping down your back, revealing truth in its liquid essence. I’m talking about the insight you get from music. Rap music.

“Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high, cause you never know, when you’re gonna go.”

A bitter-sweet ode to fleeting youth speeding toward premature death. Ruminations more powerful that the constipated words of constipated philosophers like Heidegger and Sartre:

“I woke up early on my born day, I’m twenty years of blessing
The essence of adolescent leaves my body now I’m fresh in
My physical frame is celebrated cause I made it
One quarter through life some God-ly like thing created”

– with young Nasir Jones reserving the last verse for his father’s weeping jazz horn. For three minutes and thirty seconds, time is “illmatic.”

But this is just a prelude to the most precise vision of death in hip-hop, as if straight out of Homer:

The reaper’s sirens wail.

“Word up, Son, Word.”

Death’s ferrymen waits, skeletal guitar ready.
Then, Prodigy’s searing warning – to every “shook” young warrior about to do battle with Achilles:

“I’m only nineteen but my mind is older
And when the things get for real my warm heart turns cold
Another nigga deceased, another story gets told
It ain’t nothin’ really
Hey, yo dun spark the phillie
So I can get my mind off these yellowbacked niggas
Why they still alive I don’t know, go figure
Meanwhile back in queens the realness is foundation
If I die I couldn’t choose a better location
When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation
Getting closer to God in a tight situation
Now, take these words home and think it through
Or the next rhyme i write might be about you…”

And a few tracks later, death utters an even starker warning:

“Now run for your life or you wanna get your heat, whatever
We can die together
As long as I send your maggot ass to the essence
I don’t give a fuck about my presence
I’m lost in the blocks of hate and cant wait
For the next crab nigga to step and meet fate
Im lethal when I see you, there is no sequel
24-7. Mac 11 is my people
So why you wanna end your little life like this
Cuz now you bump head wit kids that’s lifeless
I live by the day only if I survive the last night
Damn, right, I ain’t trying to fight
We can settle this like some grown men on the concrete floor
My slugs will put a stop to your hardcore
Ways of action, I grab the gat and
Ain’t no turning back when I start blasting
Pick up the handle and insert the potion
Cock the shit back in a calm like motion
No signs of anger or fear cause you the one in danger
Never share your plans wit a stranger…”

Adrenaline uncut raw, straight from “the Mobb” to their legions worldwide.

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about the ultra-violent, ultra-beautiful “thug music” that came out of the “world’s largest housing projects” in the 90s. If you start out in rich upper east Manhattan, and cross over the 59th Street Bridge into Queens, to your left are 96 monolithic red brick building built in the thirties – the Queensbridge Housing Project, QB, Tha Bridge – home of the richest single legacy in hip-hop, spanning 20 years, from Marley Marl and the Juice Crew, to Tragedy, Poet, Cormega, Lake, Killa Kidz, Nature, Nas, Mobb Deep, Littles, CNN, to a new generation of hungry young rappers like Crime Fam and Mike Delorean.

For hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide, QB is a magical place, a place whose mythology is no less powerful than that of the ancient Greeks. We who have drunk the chalice of QB “thug music” are like members of an ancient blood cult. We are hidden in neighborhoods both rich and poor, in cities like Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, Montreal and especially New York and Paris. We may be smaller in numbers than Biggy fans, Jay fans or 50 fans, but we are the most dedicated in the world. Recently I visited one of the roughest hoods in Paris, and believe me, they rep QB hard.

I moved to New York in ’99 because of this Queensbridge mythology, because I wanted to bring the power of QB to the silver screen. A half dozen years a few failed movie deals later, I borrowed a video camera and finally headed for The Bridge – to make a documentary about legendary underground rapper Tragedy Khadafi. I’m not the only whose quest for meaning has brought them to this mythic place.

One stormy day in the mid 90s, a strange bearded white man showed up at Havoc’s QB building, looking for his rap partner Prodigy…but instead found Havoc’s brother Killa Black, one of QB’s most notorious thugs. The white man was sent by his cult to contact Prodigy, who they had in mind for some higher purpose. Revolution? To contact the Gods? The Masons? Aliens? Killa had not time for the crazy cracker, and went for his gat – but Havoc’s uncle Lamiek, himself a notorious G back in the 80s, cooled Killa down, and sent the man packing.

Maybe this bearded cracker wasn’t so crazy. Maybe he just understood on a deeper level what we fans know instinctively: that there’s something magical, almost mythic about QB. And I mean myth in the ancient sense: something that gives beauty to everything between sky and earth. While the squalid Queensbridge houses are a far cry from the temples of ancient Greece, QB is still a place where myths are made.

And no single Bridge cat is more mythic than Havoc’s brother Killa Black, with whole songs and dozens of shout-outs dedicated to the man – and he didn’t even rap! After surviving a bullet to the head (which he pealed out himself), then beating a murder rap, Killa took his own life in 1997. The events surrounding his death were the subject of controversy in QB, about which we filmed a deleted scene for my “TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF QUEENSBRIDGE” doc – but some things are best left shrouded in mystery. Suffice it to say, he is a legend not only in The Bridge, but with every QB fan worldwide. As long as Queensbridge rap exists, he is immortal.

Just as the Greeks viewed their world as THE world, so too is the largest housing project in the world a world unto itself. The Queensboro Bridge is central to this mythic landscape – a monumental divide between the rich, protected Illuminati in the Olympian towers of the Upper East Site, and the fierce yet all-too-moral warriors in QB.

Instead of the Acropolis, you’ve got the Hill, a commercial strip in the heart of QB where everything goes down: gunfights and crack deals, rap battles and reunions of old friends. And while ancient Greece was made up of many nations, QB has the 41-side of 12th Street and the 40th side of Vernon, seemingly as different as Sparta from Thrace.

So, if Queensbridge is ancient Greece, and QB rap is Homeric poetry, then which album is “THE ILIAD”? Which album is the ultimate ode to Queensbridge? How about classics like ILLMATIC or the INFAMOUS album? Or what about screeching battle cries like HELL ON EARTH or THE WAR REPORT? Or perhaps underground confessions like THE REALNESS or STILL REPORTING? Or need we go back to the origin, to Marley and The Juice Crew?

But truth be told, if “THE ILIAD” were sung, it would take a whole day. So, not a song, not even an album, but two dozen albums. And while “THE ILIAD” spans ten years of action, the QB story is over 20 years old, and in its way, just as epic. Maybe one day, an ambitious young MC will compose a series of albums about the QB epic.

But since there is no QB “ILIAD”, no single album that tells the whole story of Queensbridge, is there at least a QB Homer? A rapper whose poetry best illuminates the strife-ridden streets of The Bridge?

What about Tragedy, Poet or Cormega, each with the street rep to back up their lyrics? How about Nas or Prodigy, QB’s most admired? Or up and comers like Mike Delorean who breathe QB air each and every day?

But get this: scholars now question whether Homer even existed, speculating that “THE ILIAD” was a communal work, a work of many, a work of generations. Remember the insight our Indiana Jones-type had in Kosovo: that “THE ILIAD” belongs to no one. No one, except perhaps the people of ancient Greece, especially those Killa Black’s of the ancient world who were taken to death’s dark shores much too soon.

And so it is with Queensbridge. QB owns rappers, not the other way around. “Illmatic came from the hood,” Tragedy explains. “The was a dude named Illmatic Ice. That nigga’s illmatic. Illmatical. That was a hood thing. So I guess [Nas] coming up, being a little nigga, he heard it and ran with it.”

The mythology of QB is written by ALL the people of QB, living and dead. Rappers are their mouthpieces, blessed by the Gods with the gift of poetry…but only so long as they stay true to the streets. For the instant they fashion themselves the makers of myth, the instant they become victims of their own egos, the Gods become angry, and take away that gift, leaving only hollow words. Words which may still delight the sons and daughters of the Illuminati across the river, but don’t move QB’s warriors and their legions worldwide.

Just like the poetic-musical epics of Kosovo and ancient Greece, QB rap has been passed down from generation to generation. But unlike Kosovo and ancient Greece, where musicians kept myth alive for hundreds of years, QB rap has only been around for 20 years, and already the Gods are threatening to flee, leaving a great art-form to whither and die.

“Before you could just go to The Bridge,” Tragedy continues, “and be standing on 21st Street and just feel the aura dripping off the hood. You ain’t even have to go inside, you feel me? Now you know, things change. Niggas ain’t carrying the torch like they should. Motherfuckers is birds.”

I’m only half serious when I talk about a QB “ILIAD.” And of course, every great QB album is a chapter in that epic. But I’m dead serious when I ask: “Is the QB legacy dead or dying?”

“Cats from the hood just need to unify and do what they gotta do,” says Marley Marl, reflecting on that legacy, “cause one the light is over, it’s over.”

While many MCs have been known to lose their magic when money and fame enter the picture, Havoc is at the top of his game. Then it dawns on my: while other rappers were out trying to claim king, Havoc has been locked away in the studio, busily recording the story of QB. Now he puts it into plain hood English for me:

“MC Shan, Marley Marl, Roxanne Shante,” Hav comments, “you know, Tragedy. That just pushed me to the next generation coming out like ‘aight, we gonna come up now, and we gonna do this.’ And you gonna have the generation that’s after me that’s looking down at us now, they looking at us as examples, you know Mobb Deep, Nas, and they like, ai’ight we wanna be better than them. And believe me, they gonna be better than us.”

Booker Sim
Booker Sim

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