Death Hovering Over the Hip-Hop Horizon

"I know you ain’t

scared to die. We all gotta go, you know?"

—Tupac, “Death

Around the Corner,” Me Against the World


Last week legendary MC Guru staggered his

way over the valley of the shadow of death, but rerouted in good time. For a

second, it seemed the latest addition to the Hip-Hop morgue, which in only a

few months and years has tallied up scores of vibrant artists cut short in

their prime. But on the third day, Guru resurrected and returned from coma to

consciousness. Those who’ve enjoyed his brilliance for years celebrated the

news, but kept in check any excitement, well aware any moment the next shoe

might drop.

Take the last five years as reason to show

Hip-Hop artists love while their lungs still push and pull out oxygen. The Rap

blogosphere seems invested in a sense of immortality—thus Hip-Hop artists can

expect razor-sharp tongue slashing for just about anything deemed “wack” these

days. But once news of their death hits headlines, solemnity falls over the

nation of Hip-Hop. Their sins—forgiven. Within the last 5, Proof and Pimp C

passed, Baatin and O.D.B. escaped. And when my favorite producer J Dilla

disappeared, I choked for a second.

The Hip-Hop community knows a thing or

two about death. Its last two greatest rivals pushed each other off the cliff

over a decade ago. And those responsible for steering warm the pot of hate petered

out with swiftness, before the finger-pointing fest had chance to land their

direction. These days, death in Hip-Hop is second nature. Fans remain on edge,

unsure whose name is next to be struck out on the grim reaper’s hit list, unsure

who forgot to brandish the door post with blood stains—that the angel of death

may pass over. (And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where

ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall

not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.”) Any moment,

any second, any crack or crinkle could mean the extinction of another legend,

another rookie, another newborn whose baby steps hadn’t even yet full formed.

R.I.P., Dolla.

"I see death

around the corner, gotta stay high while I survive/

In the city

where the skinny ni**as die/"

Many Hip-Hop artists, for their part,

fetishize immortality. The brashness and rashness of the Beef industry

certainly turns faster the pages in the book of life, but so do the War

industry, the Wrestling industry, and the Boxing industry—and all the other outfits

where men clash for cash. And not all Hip-Hop artists equate death with a

freestyle—many-a-rapper have explored death for all its fear-imposing stature;

some even egging it on like an outmatched school boy playing psychological war

games on a bully. “Tell the tough guys we're tougher than tough times,” Mos Def


Tupac was perhaps the most audacious in

telling death to go fuck itself: that before death’s claws could wrap around

his neck, he would vanish of his own accord. Tupac, like Malcolm X, lived

everyday without fear of the inevitable. Tupac believed his time was short—that

the good never quite get the chance

to set down their traveling bags—and the most to be made out of life didn’t

weigh a penny if not connected to a dialectic vision of revolution. So, when he

revealed, “Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway/ Struggling

and striving, my destiny’s to die/,” we nodded with approval.

We knew what he was saying—not what

many-a-smug (Black) cappuccino-latte intellectuals levitating in ivory towers

have since suggested. We knew Tupac wasn’t nihilistic or fatalistic. We saw his

righteous rage at injustice, and his passion for protest, and his courage to

speak with the tongue of all prophets (hated in his day but worshipped

posthumously). And we acknowledged his god-given right to self-contradict. We

saw in him the candor most could never dream of—to take all the fierce vitriol

of a White Supremacist society and redirect it at the cowards who’ve lived high

off the oppression of Black men and Black women, off the subjugation of Brown

men and Brown women. We saw him breakdance on the valley of the shadow of death

and call evil out for a pop-and-lock


We understood Tupac. But we don’t

understand Nas when he says Hip-Hop is dead—that death ought not to arouse in

us so much fear but courage and love; that death stops nothing, but only opens

up new frontiers; that

death is “not a period that ends a sentence; it’s a comma that punctuates

it to higher levels of significance.” Younger rappers, mostly of the Southern

breed, called for Nas’ legacy expunged. How

dare he! Monie Love lost

10 pounds trying to douse the flames oozing out of Young Jeezy’s head, as

he wailed over Nas’ premature eulogy.

But from the same prophetic perch Tupac

fired off his sermons, Hip-Hop’s premier professor, Nas, thundered, striking

out power lines: “Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/ Reminiscing

when it wasn't all business/ If it got where it started/ So we all gather here

for the dearly departed/.” Death, for Nas, called not for flowers and

gravediggers and handkerchiefs and Black suits but a heightened focus and

awareness to redeem the soul of a culture losing its religion. And death can

only upstage life if the living let it. The dead have lived and let live. The

life after death, Nas and Tupac testified, marks more meaning than the death


So here we are—tip-toeing our way to and

fro, unsure whose bell is next to toll. And we exist as part of a community

where death has run a winning streak in recent times. But as it hovers over the

Hip-Hop horizon, stalking its next prey, the Hip-Hop whole, far and wide, would

have to stand tall come what may, ready to face death down and advice it to go

fuck itself. Hip-Hop lives!


Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on, and other online journals. He can be reached at: