The rapper onscreen can’t be any older than 19 or 20 years old. The beat backing him up is as cheery as the melody he sings on the instantly catchy hook, built around a bright, gospel-influenced piano loop. He’s surrounded by friends, none of them much older than he is, a few looking significantly younger. It has all the makings of a sunny, summertime bop, but then, the rapper brandishes a monstrous automatic rifle that looks like something out of Call Of Duty, upsetting the lighthearted presentation with the contrast.
The gun draws the eye because it’s almost as big as the kid holding it; it seems out of place in the video, yet the lyrics mark it as the only thing that should belong in it. The kids, the beats, even the low-budget, shot-on-an-iPhone-in-mom’s-kitchen aesthetic all seem woefully incongruous with the casual menace conveyed by those words and that gun.
The video in question is Polo G’s “Gang With Me,” but it could belong one of any number of other rappers who’ve filled their videos with the same level of military-grade armory and sinister intent, from viral upstarts like Tay-K, whose video for “The Race” made him a superstar, to YBN Nahmir, who formed his YBN rap collective over online gaming networks and grew up playing baseball, but blew up when “Rubbin’ Off The Paint” became a Youtube favorite.
Polo’s following is practically nonexistent, the video a paid promotion to Worldstar Hip-Hop like Tay’s and like Nahmir’s, but it’s clear he hopes to insert himself as they did into hip-hop’s ongoing, ever-expanding discussion by proving his street credibility. He’s a gangsta. He’s a menace. He’s keeping it real. But why? Why would anyone want this to be their audience’s first impression of them and their art?
“Keeping it real” has long been not just a feature of hip-hop music and culture, it’s been the foundation that both are built on. Rap audiences — and consequently, the major labels and media outlets that purvey the music to their potential consumers — have long insisted on authenticity as the cardinal rule of hip-hop. In hip-hop, “keeping it real” is a badge of honor, a prerequisite, and code of ethics all at once, supposedly. Over time, the definition has shifted to mean so many different things, but over the course of hip-hop’s 45-year history, it came to be associated with a very particular attitude, a persona of violent hypermasculinity that resulted in videos like those described above becoming the standard, not an exception.
But that standard has had dire consequences for some of the rappers who’ve associated themselves with violent attitudes; 18-year-old Tay-K is currently on trial for capital murder in the state of Texas, while controversial Florida rapper XXXtentacion was shot to death just a month ago. Keeping it real, at least in the sense of the phrase that evokes street credibility and the invincible, tough-guy persona, comes with a price. The obsession with performing a twisted form of authenticity is endangering a new generation of fans and artists who’ve been inundated with that principle without ever really questioning why.
However, it wasn’t always like this.
For Rob Markman, who is currently the Manager of Artist Relations for the popular lyrics site Genius, and a veteran hip-hop journalist with bylines at outlets like Complex, The Source (RIP), and Vibe, “keeping it real” means to “keep it authentic to yourself.”
“NWA was real,” Markman said. “Even though it’s well-documented that not every member of the group was actually a gangsta, they went a long way to show America what was going on in the streets when no one else would. But I think De La Soul, who came out around the same time, kept it real too. They were just kids from Long Island, New York rapping about what was real to them.”
This is true, but there’s another part of the story. When De La Soul debuted with 3 Feet High And Rising in 1989, gangsta rap was already well on its way to becoming the dominant form of hip-hop — so much so, in fact, that De La Soul were also widely ridiculed for their “hippie” image and “Daisy Age” aesthetic, to the point their 1991 follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead prominently featured a broken pot of daisies. The metaphorical connection to hip-hop’s cultural shift at the time couldn’t be clearer, but it certainly seems that a De La Soul could be more well-received in the modern age.
Hip-hop journalist Rodney Carmichael, who is currently NPR’s resident expert and has written at The Fader and Rolling Out, expanded on the definition of “keeping it real” as it relates to solidarity within marginalized communities.
“Authenticity started out as street solidarity,” he explained. “I’d like to think today that it means being true to yourself. And for a lot of artists, I think it does. From the industry heavies to the Soundcloud rappers, this wave, this generation in some ways feels more authentic to self than ever before.”
Those Soundcloud rappers, from the late XXXtentacion and Trippie Redd to Lil Skies and Wifisfuneral, have been given perhaps the most leeway to embrace their own individual styles of any group in hip-hop. As always, there is pushback from the older heads: J. Cole took the stereotype of a Soundcloud rapper to task on “1985 (Intro To ‘The Fall Off’),” drawing the ire of Soundcloud kids like Lil Pump, but the end result was a sitdown in which both rappers were able to come to terms and find more in common than in conflict. Still, they rely on old tropes born out of rap’s fascination with guns and violence, while the mechanisms that feed their stardom — magazines, blogs, streaming sites, and social media — defend their choice to do so as a byproduct of their authenticity.
Carmichael illuminates the motivations behind using “keeping it real” to defend the shift toward hardcore, hypermasculine archetypes as the de facto baseline style of rap. “In the beginning, it was a way to defend gangsta rap’ as a representation of reality,” Carmichael said. “It was a time when powerful factions in America like politicians and corporations were denigrating the art form, without addressing the inequality that persisted in communities rap originated from.”
The story should be well-known by now. Hip-hop as an art-form and a culture ascended from the downtrodden urban neighborhoods of New York City. It was created and exported by the Black and Latino youth who used the music, dance, and language of hip-hop as a creative outlet and an escape from desperate conditions of poverty, violence, and neglect by the system.
“As hip-hop was finding itself coming out of the disco era, artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Ice-T, and NWA found early success rapping about the things that were going on around them,” Markman explained. “Songs like ‘The Message,’ ‘Hard Times’ and ‘6 In The Mornin” exploded because they were the most realistic representation of the Black urban experience in America at the time.”
However, the commercial appeal of specific artists, namely NWA and their various spin-offs like Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, and eventually artists like Tupac and The Notorious BIG, meant that record labels and advertising companies saw dollar signs in replicating the tough-guy formula. “By the end, ‘keeping it real’ had spawned into this absurd game of one-upmanship where artists felt the need to be more violent and misogynist than the rest,” Carmichael continued. “It became this race to replicate the stereotypes proliferating in the industry, not in an attempt to keep it real but in an attempt to ape models of industry success.”
“Thugs were winning, so thug it out,” he continued. “And if you ain’t a thug, you better learn to act like one. They were capitalists doing what capitalists do: Exploitation.” The culmination of this principle might be 50 Cent, the Queens-bred rapper who rose to unreal success — multiple times platinum, with a business empire encompassing music, fashion, television, movies, and even sports drinks — behind the mythological proportions of his gangsta image, made ironclad by his survival of getting shot nine times.
Kids ate up the more violent and sexist material, leading to a feedback loop of artists who may have started out hungry to illuminate their desperate circumstances switching up to serve the corporate interests which gave them the opportunities to leave those circumstances behind. “When ‘real’ becomes a marketing tool it starts to become a detriment to the genre,” Markman said.” We start off with this very simple idea of what ‘real’ is, and then once an artist takes off by exposing their truth, the industry starts to create a bunch of copycats.”
A prime example would be Rick Ross, the Florida artist who started his career as a battle rapper named Teflon as part of Erick Sermon’s immediate circle and later reinvented himself as a Scarface-esque, crime boss figure borrowing the name of notorious real-life drug dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross and stuck to it, despite threats from the real Rick Ross and photos of the rapper in his former day job as a correctional officer surfacing to puncture the gangster image with which he’d branded himself.
Ebro Darden, an elder statesman in hip-hop and co-host of the popular Beats 1 Radio show on Apple Music and Hot 97 morning show, Ebro In The Morning alongside Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez, thinks there’s an aspirational quality to this insistence on this violent form of authenticity. The on-air host whose shows have become two primary forums for hip-hop discussion in recent years says this authenticity is a power fantasy perpetrated by fans who want to believe in the “ghetto fairy tale.”
“This conversation has come up multiple times throughout hip-hop,” Darden said. “I think a lot of it is perpetrated by nerds who really wanna believe in the artists that they’re being entertained by because they’re sitting in their bedroom playing video games and they’re not really living this street shit. They wanna believe that the sh*it that they’re hearing in music is real. But I got news for you: Most of the time, it ain’t.”
In their music, Rappers like DMX, The Notorious BIG, Ice Cube, Tupac, 21 Savage, 50 Cent, Tekashi69, YBN Nahmir, Chief Keef, T.I., and others have collectively shot more guns than the US Army and sold more cocaine than Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega (who may or may not owe Rick Ross a hundred favors). However, to quote a November 2003 Jay-Z freestyle from BET’s Rap City, “They shootin’, nobody dyin’ / Somebody better put somebody body on somebody iron / Sometime soon or somebody lyin’.”
Maybe that’s why, despite the leavened expectation of ultra-violent “reality” rap displayed by the commercial and critical success of decidedly non-gangsta artists like Drake, J. Cole, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, and even stoner totem Wiz Khalifa, the Worldstar Hip-Hop Youtube page is still proliferate with videos of trap-rappers like Migos, Lil Baby, 21 Savage, Quando Rondo, and others flexing and flaunting “choppers,” “fullies,” “sweepers,” and “sticks” — all references for automatic weapons of the type many want to be banned for sale in the United States. Even when the guns themselves don’t make appearances, these rappers and others go to great lengths to convince listeners that they aren’t far from reach with hand gestures, provocative lyrics, and repeated reassurances that these rappers are “really out here.”
While such contrivances may actually be necessities of their lifestyles — many of these rappers are still based in violent, impoverished neighborhoods, after all — the exaggeration has reached nearly cartoonish levels — often to the entertainers’ detriment. Take Tekashi 69’s near-constant flaunting of a gangster lifestyle. He claims “Treyway,” a New York-based offshoot of the Bloods street gang, in his music and interviews, baiting other members of the gang like The Game and YG from Compton and rival sets nationwide. It’s resulted in dire consequences, as a recent robbery attempt left him hospitalized.
Longtime hip-hop aficionado, documentarian, Brian Zisook — founder and editor of popular rap criticism site DJBooth — (aka DJ Z) theorizes that many of today’s rappers may be acting out of a sense of obligation to fulfill a gangsta role, rather than actually documenting their genuine lifestyles. “You can speak the truth of a friend or family member and still be ‘keeping it real’ even though it’s not YOUR own personal reality,” he noted. “[However], now more than ever before, rappers are sabotaging their careers by ‘keeping it real.’ Ironically, ‘keeping it real,’ at least in modern times, has become the manifestation of whatever is trending at the moment, behaviors that are both dangerous and destructive.”
Meanwhile, though many trap rappers and Soundcloud darlings have been getting by from relating other individuals’ third-person struggles, those rappers who really do live the street life have faced tragic consequences for their real-life choices. Tay-K, 03 Greedo, Bobby Shmurda, and Chief Keef have all faced the repercussions of living the life they rap about, which have had the unfortunate side effect of derailing their careers. Tay-K is on trial for murder, Greedo is currently serving an extended sentence for gun possession, Bobby was locked up in 2016 for a litany of charges including conspiracy and weapons possession, and Keef has been a repeat visitor of the corrections system after pioneering the ultra-violent, Chicago “drill” style of rap.
“If you’re rapping about crimes that you’re currently doing, odds are, it’s not gonna go well,” Ebro warned. “Sometimes rappers who don’t live things themselves tell stories in third-person or as a witness. Then, you have rappers who perpetuate that they are this gang-banging, gun-toting, tough guy drug dealer making all this money, but those lines get blurred because people in the community are really living the lifestyle that artist talks about.”
Meanwhile, artists like Chance The Rapper, Kyle, and Drake continue to achieve unprecedented success without resorting to violent or gangsta tropes — or at the very least by lightening them. in Drake, in particular, is quick to say he knows guys caught up in the street life but doesn’t directly claim it for himself. Chance and Kyle have become the poster boys for positivity in rap, with Kyle openly admitting that he stopped rapping about gangsta tropes in an effort to be truer to himself and Chance addressing the negative aspects of a troubling addiction to prescription pills that he kicked and now speaks out against.
Markman thinks the success of these other artists doesn’t necessarily mean that “keeping it real” has lost its importance, it’s just being redefined for a new era. “‘Keeping it real’ doesn’t always mean ‘street,’” Markman said. “The College Dropout-era Kanye West was keeping it real. Drake was keeping it real when he dropped So Far Gone and talked about his feelings, heartbreaks, and adjustments to fame. Kid Cudi was keeping it real when he talked about depression.”
“There are many fans who don’t care, as long as it sounds good, they’re sold,” he continued. “But I feel like for an artist to have real longevity, then there has to be some level of authenticity in their work. What a lot of artists don’t get is that audiences are fickle, what’s cool today can change a year from now. The best artists are able to adapt with time because they share their truth with their audience.”
Carmichael asserts that the import of authenticity in rap, when positively focused, can help the genre and the culture to progress.
“[Hip-hop needs to return] back to the true-to-self ethos,” Carmichael said. “Originality, innovation, ingenuity of the sort that led a bunch of disenfranchised kids in the Bronx to start throwing parties with their parents’ records, powering up with streetlights in the park, isolating breakbeats to extend the groove, and later, sampling to replace the lack of instrumentation as a result of underfunded music education in schools. That sort of ingenuity is the real ‘keeping it real.’”
He’s right. Hip-hop is being used as therapy at special schools in underserved communities and has been used by enterprising teachers to help convey fundamentals like math and geography. Chance’s own Open Mike series of events in his native Chicago is geared toward showing kids how to express themselves creatively so that they don’t have to resort to acting out violently in the streets and can apply the same skills that go into creating and marketing music — from creative writing to implementation of business plans — to achievement in other areas of life.
Hip-hop no longer needs cartoonishly exaggerated depictions of violence, which can be as detrimental to both the culture and its entertainers, to be the sole criteria of authenticity. Hip-hop, as an art form and as a culture, may not have set out to glamorize violence but the elements of industry surrounding hip-hop, the ones who exploit the culture and the art-form, continue to do so. The culture itself can benefit from a critical reexamination of violent authenticity, in both how it fits into and affects the culture as well as the mainstream at large.
Keeping it real still seems to be the critical function of hip-hop, but the goal should be staying true to oneself, not a manufactured idea of gangsta, street credibility. It’s not only critical to the continued success of the individual artists, but also important to create new archetypes for future generations, so they don’t become trapped in a cycle of continuing violence or living out a fantasy with dangerous real-world implications.