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.
Huntzville's debut album, Disrupting the Ordinary, will be released in April on Willie D's Relentless Entertainment.
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.
Now, though, it seems even lyrics like "School bell rang and the principal showed / Talkin' bout a tardy slip, he was the first to get blowed" aren't inflammatory at all, just a few more bytes in the never-ending content stream inundating popular culture in a tide of white noise.
Or are they? Noise reached Huntzville's C-Lean at his job in Madisonville last Friday for a glimpse into one of the minds behind "Backpack Fulla Gunz."
Noise: Where did the idea for "Gunz" come from?
C-Lean: You know, you heard about Columbine, you heard about Virginia Tech, but we noticed we were hearing about it a lot more where it wasn't being publicized like those two. I remember about two months ago, there was a school shooting in Jersey, and they just played a little ticker-tape at the bottom [of the screen]. They didn't do any kind of story or other news on it, and I thought, "This has just become so looked over, I don't think people want to deal with it unless it's directly dealing with them."
N: Have you had any personal experience with, or know anybody who's thought about taking this kind of drastic action?
CL: I got bullied when I was younger, and as I got a little bit older, I did my share of bullying. I remember being pulled into the counselor's office one day with three of my buddies, and she basically told us, "Y'all are ruining this kid's life because y'all won't leave him alone." That really brought it to my attention how much damage you can do to somebody just by making fun of them.
N: How did the song come together, from trying to make a statement about bullying to someone bringing a backpack full of guns to school?
CL: The best way to bring something into the light is to catch people's attention right off the bat. And the most drastic way to do that is, you know, shoot up the school. We take you in the mind of the shooter, and as we're going along, we explain how he got there, what things have led him to that conclusion and at the end, we make the point that until [bullying] is dealt with properly, it's just going to keep happening.
N: Were you intentionally trying to shock people with the song?
CL: Of course it's going to be controversial. It's not only a controversial topic — it is shocking the way we go about it, and I think that's the best way to get people to listen to it. At first people are going to be really angry that we're shooting up the school, and then once they really listen to it, if they're listening to it for the right reasons and giving us an honest chance to say what we have to say, then they'll realize, "You know, these guys are actually making a good point."
The sickest thing is these kids who go shoot up their schools, they're looked at as crazy, as violent, as psychotic people, when in all reality, there's something that led them to that conclusion. They didn't start out that way, or else they would have been killing things their whole life.
N: What kind of reaction have you got from the song so far?
CL: I've seen a couple comments on our Web site, huntzville.com, where we have a blog about ["Gunz"]. One kid was like, "I've been bullied at school, and I heard your song, and it just made me feel so much better." It allows them to take their pain out through music. People are quick to react, but they're slow to prevent. We want people to help these kids out before it gets to that conclusion — if dealt with properly, it won't end up so bad — and also, we're here for those kids who are being bullied and pushed around, that it doesn't have to lead to this.
N: You don't think the song romanticizes shooting up schools at all?
CL: I think it brings a harsh reality to the picture. When you romanticize something, it makes it look fake, like, "That can't really happen." We're talking about something that actually has happened, several times. That's the main reason we're talking about it, is that it is happening, and nobody's talking about it.
N: If this character in the song is trying to get back at bullies, why would he take out the custodian and the teachers?
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CL: First of all, once you take care of the first person you kill, there's really no stopping. You kill one person, you're going to get punished horribly, so why not take out the next person? He saw you do it, take him out, you know? Once you get to that point, you really just don't care anymore. All morality goes out the window.
N: Do you think music can still shock people like N.W.A. and Eminem did?
CL: Definitely. We're talking about something that hasn't really been discussed at all. I remember Pearl Jam had a song called "Jeremy" where they were talking about it. But not only has it not been talked about, it's never been talked about from the perspective of being the shooter. Rap has always been about having a good time, but it's also been about struggle and dealing with society and a lot of important issues. Most of the things you hear on the radio today aren't talking about that.