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It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Still not a playa: Lee Williams explores hip-hop's pimpin' problem
Michael Marko

You know I -- thug 'em, fuck 'em, love 'em, leave 'em/'Cause I don't fuckin' need 'em..../I'm a pimp in every sense of the word, bitch.

-- Jay-Z, “Big Pimpin'”

“Big Pimpin'?” snorts Lee Williams with a mixture of derision and incredulity at the mention of Jay-Z's signature tune, whose heavily aired video features the rapper and an attendant thong-clad harem cavorting on Miami Beach amid flowing champagne and sparkling jewelry. “I'm sorry,” Williams scoffs, “but there's got to be more to the black experience than “Big Pimpin'.' If you were to approach a girl on the street with that type of conversation, you'd get slapped. Yeah, this is the music they're shakin' and dancing their asses to, but what are they really thinking about when they're not at Level going, “All my real live niggers throw your rollers in the air?'”

Williams's tone never grows strident; he speaks with the same measured cadences and honey-inflected timbre he uses when he's onstage rapping with his group the Square Egg. The clue to how disturbed he is lies in his body language. As he continues talking, sitting at a table inside a South Beach sushi bar with his girlfriend, Ariella, he begins rocking back and forth tensely.

“Chuck D said it best,” Williams says. “There's such a small percent of the population that can relate to being millionaires at twenty. It's almost ludicrous that these are the types of things they're singing on and on about.”

While Chuck D himself recently may have been relegated to the Internet conference circuit (academics and e-commerce analysts pay far more attention to his current pronouncements than most people within the hip-hop milieu), a host of younger MCs have sprung up to carry on his message -- and they're no longer from the extreme fringes of the hip-hop world. Artists such as Common, the Roots, and Mos Def may be playing theaters as opposed to the voluminous arenas that Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Jay-Z fill on their national tours, but this insurgent cadre of socially conscious rappers is wielding a moral influence far beyond its chart positions and ticket sales.

True, this past August's The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards chose the multiplatinum Jay-Z to open its presentation at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. But when barely halfway through the show a fist-swinging melee broke out in the audience, leading police to forcibly clear the hall, it was Mos Def to whom The Source turned. His heartfelt mea culpa over the event's violence preceded the awards show when it was later broadcast on UPN-TV.

In the aftermath of The Source awards brawl, there was much public hand-wringing over whether that night's denouement was simply the unfortunate result of a few rowdy individuals or if it signified a deeper crisis in hip-hop culture. In Lee Williams's view, stunted aesthetics are a chief culprit. “If you hang out on the basketball court with some of these kids, and you talk about something that's not Nas, they're like, 'Oh, you must listen to Britney Spears.'” He sighs and shakes his head as his food sits untouched before him. “If you're talking about music's origins, where the samples came from, Sly Stone, then it's: “Ah, I don't listen to white people's shit.' I'm talking about Sly.”

Williams leans back, running Sly over his lips as if it were a word from a long-forgotten language. “I am black, therefore I can't listen to Jane's Addiction,” he quips in singsong. “I am white, therefore I can't listen to Common.”

His own refusal to respect those boundaries was clear from a recent live set at the Marlin Hotel. There, ensconced within the Marlin's intimate, grottolike performance space, Williams effortlessly moved through a snatch of laid-back verse while the Square Egg played a jazzy shuffle. Then he suddenly launched into a more charged flow as his band downshifted into a jagged funk vamp. Sonically it's akin to Guru's ongoing Jazzmatazz project, except that where Guru relies primarily on taped loops and vintage Blue Note-era breakbeat samples to create a comfortable aural bed for his rapping and sundry sideman cameos, Williams's use of a cohesive unit of live musicians opens a wider realm of possibilities. It's hip-hop that's fully aware of its R&B past -- an electric Rhodes piano rides an organically supple groove -- but isn't afraid to take surprising rhythmic turns. The Square Egg has issued two different collections of studio tracks as self-released CDs, but with its current lineup, it's as a live entity that it truly shines.

What's most striking, though, is Williams himself. There's a feeling of true vulnerability in his rapping -- not the histrionic yelping of today's chart-bound popsters but an honest display of emotion. As he grips his microphone and sways in time with his guitarist's clipped, angular riffs, it's clear that this is more than just artifice, that Williams is willing to expose a very personal piece of himself. And while it's precisely such spirit that makes the Square Egg one of Miami's most exciting acts right now, it's also undoubtedly what fuels Williams's sense of frustration: Why aren't more rappers willing to act as if hip-hop matters?

“It's easier from a marketing perspective,” he explains, “to sell people jumping around on TV going, “Bling, bling' and doing doughnuts in a Lamborghini than it is to put somebody on the radio who has something intelligent to say. I understand that.”

What's missing, he insists, is a sense of balance. There's plenty of room for rappers who just want to be entertainers, but they should be treated as such: minstrels not role models, pop stars not artists. Williams cites the New York City duo Dead Prez and their current single “Hip-Hop” as a manifesto, but at the first mention of that group, a cross look forms on Ariella's face. It's clear this is a sore spot between them.

Dead Prez's M-1 and Stic.man are members of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, based in St. Petersburg, Florida. But it's not their espousal of that organization's belief in revolutionary socialism that disturbs Ariella. Rather it's Dead Prez's lyrics about “running up on some crackers” and dealing with “Mister Charlie.” Ariella looks away from both Kulchur and Williams and says, "I don't need to go hear some group that says, 'Kill Whitey.'" As one of the blond-haired, blue-eyed devils that Dead Prez rails against on their Let's Get Free album, it would appear she's less than thrilled with her black boyfriend's praise for the group.

“I don't agree with all Dead Prez's politics,” counters Williams to Kulchur, “which is why I'm sitting here with you and Ariella. And I can understand why some white people might not want to listen to music that tells them they're the Devil. But it creates a middle ground, it pulls people more to the center. If you've got these guys on one side just riding around saying, “I got your baby's momma pregnant because she got in my car,' and you've got Dead Prez over on the other side saying, “It's bigger than hip-hop' --”

Williams launches enthusiastically into “Hip-Hop”'s key stanza:

In the real world it's bigger than all these fake-ass records where poor folks got the millions and my woman's disrespected/If you check 1, 2 my word of advice to you is just relax. Just do what you got to do/ If that don't work then kick the facts/If you a writer, biter, flame-igniter, crowd-exciter or you wanna just get high then just say it/But then if you a liar, liar pants-on-fire, wolf-crier, agent with a wire, I'm goin' know it when I play it.

Smiling in admiration, Williams says, “That song breaks down the whole rap industry. There's just too many kids jumping around like clowns, rambling on about all the things they've got, and they're really just helping Tommy Mottola make money. That's fine. This is a business; that's what we do. But it can't just be about “Big Pimpin'.' There's got to be more.”

Kulchur turns to Ariella. What's it like living with such a tortured soul? Back on more comfortable ground, she answers confidently: “Lee leads a very normal life. He washes dishes, cleans the floor. He's very calm at home.” Williams blushes slightly as Ariella continues: “And then he goes to do a show, and he's jumping up on a table, carrying on, ripping his shirt off.” Eyes widening, she adds, “This whole other persona comes out. Then we go back home, and he says, 'Don't forget to feed the cat.'”

“There you go!” Williams says with a grin. “That is the black experience. We're just normal people trying to enjoy life.” He pauses and reflects: “I guess it's not even the black experience; it's just people's experience. You just want to be well-enough off to take care of your family. And ideally everybody wants to see everybody else comfortable.”


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