The other night, I was in my bedroom listening to Mobb Deep's dark and gorgeous track "Quiet Storm," which like much recent hiphop, is inspired by cinematic effects. The song begins like rain falling on a desolate street, as lightning flashes over the gothic towers of Gotham City. Then, like a craned camera ascending to a wide window on the third floor of an abandoned apartment building, the beat and bass line slowly rise in volume, until (boom!) Mobb Deep explodes into a furious rap about their violent and hopeless world, the world of the street thug: "Keep my guns close to me"; "Give 'em a cold shoulder with a hollow tip to match"; and "Niggas can kill me but they coming with me." This is followed by Lil' Kim's bleak breakdown of how power operates in a dark city: "Bitches suck dick just to get to the top!" Then Mobb Deep returns with some more violent images of life on the streets, and the song ends with Lil' Kim paying homage to Man Parrish's "hiphop bebop," as thunder rumbles outside.

Like most of Mobb Deep's best work, the song blends street existentialism with intensely melodic (indeed melodramatic) strings and piano loops over sparse beats. Listening to their music is like walking through a serene art gallery that is exhibiting a collection of violent images. But I noticed something beyond their usual conflation of violence and beauty. In the chorus, they make this bold claim: "It's the real shit/shit to make you feel shit/thump 'em in the club shit/have you wildin' out when you bump this." What caught my attention here was the word "real." It's a word they use not only on "Quiet Storm," but throughout the entire Murda Muzik CD. I also noticed that the word "real" changes from song to song. The real in "Quiet Storm" is not the same real to be found on the "The Realest," nor the one that's mentioned in the opening lines of "The Street Raised Me." Indeed, after carefully listening to this CD and other hiphop CDs in my collection, I determined that there are actually three distinct variations of real in hiphop music: The real with drug dealer connotations, the real that is used (or abused) by a lover, and the real that is associated with street credibility. Each real is different not only in meaning, but in impact and resonance; the weakest being "the real shit," and the most potent being street-cred real. There are other realities, but they are basically little moons orbiting these three primary planets.

The Real Shit

This real, which is the least profound of the three realities, is appropriated from the drug-dealing world, where promises of quality are necessary. The consumer has only the dealer's word as proof that what they are buying is not ground-up aspirin, but the "real shit." So in Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm" and other hiphop tracks, the drug dealer's real is used in the sense that we, the listeners, are beat junkies, and they are beat pushers, offering us, in some sordid city alley, quality music. "This is the real shit/shit to make you feel shit/drugs to your eardrum the raw uncut/have a nigga OD cuz it's never enough." Their hiphop is so good, it will make us overdose. The problem with this real is that it never goes beyond the transaction between junkie and provider; it does not explode into other, minor meanings. It is just what it is, a boast borrowed from the foot soldiers of the drug world.

Real LoveThis version of the real (my personal favorite) is derived from the R&B lexicon, whose soul singers are in the habit of promising people whom they are seducing that they are the "real thing." Meaning that they won't suddenly dump them, cheat on them, play games with them, or come home late at night smelling of someone else's perfume or sperm or "pussy juice." They are "for real." In this use of the real, we have the lover always making these pleas: "This ain't nothing but the real thing, baby"; "This one is for real/come on and take this lovin'"; or "Don't treat me like those other guys/I'm for real, baby." The seduced man or woman is always left wondering if this lover is "for real."

Because most rappers prefer to be recognized as big time philanderers rather than domesticated partners, they do their best to stay clear of this type of real. Indeed, the only one who has ever risked it is Method Man, who in his duet with Mary J. Blige promises his "shorty" that he is "for real": "Don't need to shop around/You got the good shit at home." Despite its unpopularity, however, many rappers do appropriate the lover's real for situations where they need to know that their "nigga" is "keepin' it real." Because street life is so precarious, because people by nature are backstabbers, the rapper lives in constant fear of being betrayed (usually for money) by those he trusts. Because this real is borrowed from the lover's discourse, it has, when used among these macho men, a homoerotic charge. The rapper is always asking his close friends if they are "for real." Meaning, will they stick with him to the bitter end? Will they always tell the truth? And most importantly, will they not sleep with his shorty while he is doing time for a murder rap? This real appears in Mobb Deep's song "The Street Raised Me," and finds its most dramatic and emotional articulation in Nas' "One Love." In that beautiful, Q-Tip-produced track, Nas pleads that he is "keeping it on the reals [for my niggas]," and expects them to do the same for him if "push comes to shove."

Real DangerThis is the most beloved and financially rewarding real in all of hiphop. To possess this kind of real means everything, because if you don't have it, you are doomed, as MC Hammer so painfully learned years ago. This type of real is associated with street life, or more closely, with the dangers of street life. Mobb Deep's brooding and dark song "The Realest" says it all: "The street nigga lives with their lives on the line." What they are saying is that if you have never been shot at, been involved in a high-speed car chase with the law, been in jail for trying to shoot someone who once shot your comrade, then you are not real; you are a "fake nigga."

This type of real has been the bread and butter for many a gangster and thug since N.W.A. hit in 1989 with Straight Outta Compton, a CD which offered American popular music a raw slice of "street realizm." There is, however, a troubling side to this gangsta real and its billion-dollar success, which grumpy jazz critic and enemy of hiphop Stanley Crouch recently pointed out: "The gangster rappers and such represent an opportunity for suburban white kids to go on what I call an audio safari. A hundred years ago, they would have had to don a pith helmet, get mosquito netting, take a boat to Africa, India, or some such place, hire gun bearers, and run the risk of being bitten by malarial insects in order to get a real feel of the jungle in the center of the wild. All they have to do now is go to Tower Records, and they can be transported straight to the black American jungle, or what they think that is, and be absolutely safe. They can sit up in Scarsdale or wherever, turn their caps backward, untie their shoes, take their belts off, let their pants almost fall off, and 'become' urban savages for a day, if that is what they want to do."

In a word, the reason why this real, the gangsta real, is a big moneymaker is because it offers white suburbia (and all those on the more comfortable side of life) the fantasy of life on the streets, with all its danger, bullets, and prostitutes. Middle-class people envy the very poor and the very rich because both those classes have lots of freedom, lots of sex, and lots of excitement, while the middle class is repressed and bored. Certainly, this envy is crucial to the billions generated by the gangsta real, which offers to the middle class a vision that is, in every respect, opposite their prosperous and stable reality. This, I must point out, is not a new game in the arena of American popular culture; in fact, in one form or another, it has been with us for a good part of the 20th century. This construction of the real does not exist in the street, but in the dreams of white suburbia, whose appetite for virtual violence is serviced by extremely rich and powerful black entrepreneurs like Master P and Dr. Dre.

And now there is a new brand of "white trash" hiphop that is staking a claim on this billion-dollar "real" market, though black gangsta rap maintains a clear monopoly. The selling point for this new class of rappers is that they come from trailer parks (the white version of the projects, as a white comedian on BET once put it for easy laughs), which they claim is "for real." With Eminem's recent success, expect record executives to look for more poor whites in rust-belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland; and soon, very soon, they will unearth someone who will shock suburbia once again with the depths of his depravity, the extent of his poverty, and the scale of his drug and booze abuse. His debut CD (probably titled Straight out of the Trailer Park, to cop a line from Kid Rock) will certainly command a larger portion of the very lucrative "real" market.