Hard to believe it's been 20 years since gangsta rap went overground with N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. Through Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg to Tupac and Eminem, it launched most of hip-hop's biggest stars for a good decade, but these days even artists like T.I. and Lil Wayne have sacrificed 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 suburban parents now 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." The track 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.
Huntzville live at SXSW 2007
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 - 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 major university like Virginia Tech, it's still major headline news).
In the past week, a teenager in Florida pled not guilty to second-degree murder in the 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 mish-mash 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 - 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, Devin the Dude) stitches a deceptively tuneful quilt over loping beats straight out of "Mind of a Lunatic," and say what you will, Huntzville can write them some lyrics.
Morally, Rocks Off 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.
If one of the main purposes of art is to provoke a reaction in its audience, and force them to examine their beliefs and values, then the title of Huntzville's forthcoming LP Disrupting the Ordinary (due early next year on Willie D's Relentless Music label) is dead on. Listen to the song - which is the freakin' radio edit, if you can believe that - and let us know what you think. - Chris Gray