Whatever Happened to Clark Kent?

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away rappers had character. Or maybe rappers were characters. Emcees had colorful monikers to match their colorful personalities. Remember the Great Adventures of Slick Rick? Even the album cover with its cinema-inspired marquee evoked a view into another world; a fantasy sketched by words and beats. Now in 2007 it seems rappers are no longer part-time characters. It seems like they are perpetually in their on-rhyme personas, from the aforementioned Ricky Walters’ life imitating his art, to the recent TI’s TIP fueled altercation with Chaka Zulu, today we examine whatever happened to the private persona? Whatever happened to Clark Kent?

Kool Herc got to rest his head in the Bronx as Clive Campbell. Presumably, Melle Mel got to be…well Mel is Mel, but once upon a time rappers were able to walk among the people. Before this became a multi-billion dollar industry, rappers paid bills with jobs. They may have rocked the mic on weekends and brought the freaks out at night, but during the day it was 9-5 time, and their bosses had no idea about the “one, twos and you don’t stops.” A few rappers chose to go the Fantastic Four route, and represent with their names public. Foremost among them was the venerable EPMD who made sure you knew it was Erick and Parrish that was snapping those necks and cashing those checks. He may have let his knowledge reign over nearly everyone, but we all knew his fam called him Kris and his brother Kenny was much darker. In general, however, rappers were MC such-and-such on the mic, and kept their family/private life to a hush.

We don’t expect Charles Bronson to walk the streets with a death wish. We don’t expect the Governator to wipe out a precinct of policeman, nor do we want to make Clint Eastwood’s day with anything more than a tip of the hat and a hello, but rappers are expected to be in character almost constantly. Imagine how long those purple trousers would last on the Hulk if he never got to change back to Bruce Banner? Who would get Aunt May’s hearing aid batteries if Peter Parker never put the webs down? Who would take Dick Grayson to the park, R. Kelly? Okay, so Darth Vader avoids a trip to the Maury show, but you get the idea. It must be a tremendous amount of pressure to always be in character in the keep it real kingdom, but maybe that’s the hook. In Hip-Hop’s ongoing search for the “realness” and its continuing struggle with authenticity and creativity carrying on a tenuous relationship, maybe we have blurred the line between fantasy and reality. Is it possible that we’ve surrendered the line of demarcation?

In an old interview with The Source, DMX made a comment about rappers never being able to be themselves. He told an anecdotal story about meeting Biggie for the first time in the studio, and how when B.I.G. was among friends, he was clowning and joking , but the minute X, a stranger at the time entered, he straightened up, and reverted to his role. Perhaps that kind of acceptance of the way things were, lead to his line “niggas is actors niggas deserve Oscars/ me I’m critically acclaimed…” Tragically, playing the role probably prevented him and his one time friend Tupac, who was forever Bishop, from ever reconciling, and probably had some factor in their loss.

Here we stand in 2007, with rap not so much in crisis, but seriously looking for a direction. The old guard is changing. As we look for our leaders of the new school, with a net that no longer restricts that leadership to the northeastern United States, Hip-Hip finds itself character-driven now more than ever, with both labels and audiences pushing a hyper-authenticity. The narrative style is not enough. You can’t love committing sins and have your friends sell crack anymore. Now it’s I sold crack. We’re conjugating crime rhymes now: I have sold, still sell, if I lose my mic I will sell. We speak about going back to the essence, but the very word “back” is not progress but regression, so it’s up to us to get a hold of our rudderless ship. In their attempts to usurp empty leadership positions as rappers like Jay-z, Ice Cube, Snoop, and 50 Cent take higher positions behind the scenes, younger rappers like TI, Lil’ Wayne, and Game find themselves constantly immersed in controversy, trying to stay relevant and get the attention of the fans for their impending coronation. But where does TI end and TIP begin?

These guys are loving, doting fathers, with more money than an entire generation of rappers with classic albums ever got to sniff. They are charming affable guys who smile for pictures, and have families that love them. As journalists that cover this music and shape perception, it is to us and the fans collectively to fall back a little. Take in the story, but recognize that it’s just that: a story. The keep it real kingdom may presently be without king, but the market is still a democracy. It’s ok to tell a story from a third person perspective or as a recollection. Just this once, it’s okay to not live what you say. The movies are full of characters, but Bruce Willis doesn’t have to Die Hard, that’s what John McClaine does.

In closing, let’s allow the rappers to breathe a little. Let’s not hold them to hyper- realism and recognize fairy tales for what they are. It’s better for our children and our souls if we recognize fiction masquerading as reality. It will give them a better perspective. Niggas is actors, niggas deserve Oscars. Then maybe Lois Lane can get some after a hard days reporting. I gotta look out for my fellow journalists.