By Chris Gray
By Corey Deiterman
By Jef With One F
By Chris Gray
By Rocks Off
By Rocks Off
Hard to believe it's been 20 years since gangsta rap went overground with N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, which riled the powers that be enough for the FBI to send the L.A. rappers and their record company a letter advising them they were under surveillance. And, of course, sold enough records for executives to realize there were piles of money to be made in these hyperrealistic stories of guns, gangs and gafflin'.
From Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg through Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Eminem, gangsta rap launched most of hip-hop's biggest stars throughout the '90s, artists who bred their disenfranchised, sometimes violent upbringings into dazzling beats and wordplay with a harsh but undeniably charismatic flair. These days, though, even 'hood heroes like T.I. and Lil Wayne have traded in serious street knowledge for bizarre metaphysical narratives and crossover-friendly celebrations of the high life (both kinds).
Which makes sense. People just aren't as easy to shock as they were in 1989. Lyrics that sparked suburban-parent outrage back then would barely raise an eyebrow today — probably because an awful lot of today's suburban parents grew up on Ice Cube and Tupac themselves.
But from out of the Piney Woods north of town, a trio of "prison city playas" calling itself Huntzville, mentored and produced by former Geto Boy Willie D, may be about to raise a ruckus with its debut single, "Backpack Fulla Gunz." Released two weeks ago on iTunes, "Gunz" peers not into the mind of a lunatic, but the pre- and mid-rampage thoughts of a high-school student all set to go Columbine on his classmates and teachers.
If that seems a little 1999, the year of Columbine — and Eminem's debut The Slim Shady LP, perhaps the last album to spark a legitimate social controversy thanks to its graphic wife-killing fantasies — that's the point. It just shows how something that was once an all-day CNN event has become just another tragic morsel of information that flickers across the bottom of the TV screen (though if it happens at a big-time university like Virginia Tech, it's still major headline news).
Last month, a teenager in Florida pled not guilty to second-degree murder in the shooting death of a classmate, while another in Pennsylvania was arrested after allegedly telling another student to "watch out" if an upcoming court date didn't go the way he wanted. So "Backpack Fulla Gunz" is nothing if not current.
Over a mishmash backdrop of newscaster sound bites, scratchy rock guitar and twinkling bells, "Backpack" unspools the diary of a kid who's been pushed too far in bone-chilling lyrics like "My teacher's under the desk, she's begging for help / I put one in her, she shouldn't have gave me an F / Oh, no, I gave her a slug / Now she's in the fetal position coughing up blood."
Huntzville — D-Boi and brothers Lil' Fly and C-Lean, who began performing in 2005 — claim "Backpack" is meant as a cautionary tale about the potential (albeit extreme) consequences of bullying, and at least one line backs this up: "Saw that fool named Timmy / He used to be a bully / He cried like a bitch when I hit him with a bullet." However, simple revenge doesn't quite explain why he also takes out the principal (his first victim), the custodian, the guidance counselor and warns "come in my path, you collateral damage."
As a window into the minds of disaffected, put-upon American youth (who live about an hour away, no less), "Backpack" is absolutely terrifying. As a rap song, it's not bad at all. Top-notch H-town producer Mike Dean (Z-Ro, Kanye West, Devin the Dude) stitches a deceptively tuneful quilt over loping beats straight out of "Mind of a Lunatic," and say what you will, the Huntzville boys — all in their early twenties — are no slouches with a pen.
Morally, Noise thinks the trio's anti-bullying defense is a mite dubious. Not that bullying isn't a serious, and growing, problem; maybe if the narrator didn't take out that custodian. (Haven't these guys seen The Breakfast Club? The custodian is always the coolest adult in the school.) However, he has to commend them for spotlighting one of the few remaining taboos in popular culture and, well, blowing it away.
But is that enough anymore? Noise decided to conduct a little social experiment on the Houston Press's music blog when "Gunz" was released. He posted an MP3 of the song — available at blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks/2008/12/america_meet_huntzvilleand_wat.php — and invited readers to share their opinions. A whopping five people responded, with comments ranging from "this song is dope" to "these guys are weak, and the beat sounds like it was created in a shopping center off Jensen."
Only one commenter even mentioned Huntzville's lyrics — "the lyrics are a little harsh, but I guess they had to be," offered "Eric," before adding "but what really kept me in it was the beat." Perhaps it was expecting a lot, but Noise thought "Gunz" would have provoked more of a reaction.
From the uproar over Elvis's hyperactive hips in the '50s and Bob Dylan's lacerating social critiques in early-'60s songs like "Masters of War" through James Brown exhorting his audience to be black and proud (and say it loud) and punk rock doing its best to blow the whole mess up and start again, popular music has long been an essential platform for artists to get in society's face and force consumers to examine — and often change — their preexisting values and points of view.