So the world might end later this week. If civilization does go all Cormac McCarthy on us, I think I owe a beer to Nas, a spliff to Busta Rhymes and whatever the thinking-man’s drug is to Chuck D. Now, I won’t actually be able to make good on this promise on December 21. I mean, I’ll be dead, probably roasted by nuclear lasers, and I don’t personally know any of these musicians. It just feels like I do. Their apocalyptic thoughts and predictions have been swirling around my head for way too damn long.
Yes, it’s true. Hip-hop musicians actually do have something in common with Glenn Beck: They preach apocalyptic messages all the freaking time. Lil’ Wayne is little more than Harold Camping with dreads. He read about the Mayans in an encyclopedia on his tour bus and decided the world would end in 2012. The internet then decided his face resembled an old Mayan statue. Haha, internet. I’ll miss you when we’re all zombies on the 21st, and our arms permanently tilt upwards and fingers curl from rigor mortis, preventing us from surfing our beloved web.
That scary day is coming really soon, but the hip-hop genre has been obsessed with the end since the beginning. Busta discussed a charred end to the world on the intro to his 1999 album E.L.E.(Extinction Level Event). It was released four years after “Everything Remains Raw,” a song in which Busta claimed there were only five years left. “Raw” came out 16 years before Pitbull’s apocalyptic 2011 hit, “Everything Tonight,” and 14 years post-Blondie.
Back in 1981, Blondie became an unusual/extremely unofficial addition to the genre, performing the first single containing rap to reach No. 1 on the charts. Deborah Harry raps about a murderous man from Mars. This man eats Cadillacs, Subarus and then bars once he runs out of cars, topping the insane eclecticism by speaking French for one line. The name of the song? “Rapture.”
The rhymes were bubble gum, light and fun, more party than politics. Hip-hop musicians generally tend to rap about themes (think money and women, or, conversely, change and unity) that, more or less, fit into one of those categories. But the social and the socially-conscious both rap about the apocalypse, an event mentioned by Public Enemy and Pitbull, by Ice Cube and Vanilla Ice.
A while back, I called Daniel White Hodge, a hip-hop scholar and author of The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and A Cultural Theology. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going cray and interpreting my own version of the apocalypse through rap because I’d been analyzing the book of Daniel every night before going to bed. Don’t judge.
White Hodge says most rappers come from impoverished, often crime-infested inner-city neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods imbued their residents with a “black and white” view of the world, one looked at through a lens of hopelessness, yet often with the outside shot of survival and ascendance to a better place.
I also called Concordia religion professor Lorenzo DiTommasso. He’s super-smart when it comes to the apocalypse, being the author of the forthcoming The Architecture of Apocalypticism. He said followers of apocalypticism have a black and white view of the world and believe that the current reality is flawed, beyond repair, and will be swept away soon, taking them to a transcendent reality, which will contain everything our world lacks.
So rappers fit the apocalypse lover model to the T. They also have an unquenchable thirst to shout these thoughts in every bar and chorus. As Gucci Mane says, “We Cocky.” Rappers want to speak, and they believe people will listen. Tupac once said rappers are like wise men, storytellers, “like the seventh sign, we are bringin’ news of the apocalypse. It’s comin.’” He also said “picture me rollin,’” and Kenny “Special K” Fisher used those words for his senior quote in Can’t Hardly Wait. So there, people are listening.
The messages we hear just haven’t been consistent. Public Enemy raps about an end brought by them, with serpents coming out of the sea and buried cities on “Raise the Roof.” Vanilla Ice keeps it simple, and, in Vanilla Ice fashion, incoherent. He raps on “Elvis Killed Kennedy”: “Can’t you understand the plan/world destruction push the button end of discussion.” On Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day, he talks on the title track of a collapsed civilization and that he “likes this world.” Grandmaster Flash discusses the rebirth more than the end in “Beat Street,” painting a portrait “where the colors would swirl and the boys and girls can grow in peace and harmony.”
They aren’t sure how to prepare either. Because Pitbull is contractually obligated by the devil he made a deal with to become famous to reference sex and clubbing in every song, he references sex and clubbing in “Everything Tonight,” ensuring his denizens that heavy drinking and going home with him are necessary because “we might not get tomorrow.” Quite the contrast compared with Afrika Bambaataa. Always an activist for change, he raps that we need to “start to look for a better life” in “World Destruction.” He echoed his lyrics in a recent interview on The Word TV, saying we’ve disrespected the planet and need to give love back to the universe. In the 1994 song “Crumblin’ Erb” Outkast admits there is “only so much time left in this crazy world” and, unsure of a master plan, Big Boi and Andre 3000 decide to live “just crumblin’ erb.”
They could be crumblin’ a significant amount of herb, depending on which rapper’s apocalyptic calculations they’re listening to. Most hip-hop musicians are vague, like Outkast, just rapping that the end could come soon. Busta Rhymes, though, knows how 2011 Doomsayer of the Year Howard Camping feels. Dude incorrectly predicted the apocalypse. Damn. In Busta’s defense, he did provide the voice for the Reptar wagon in The Rugrats Movie.
In a January 1999 interview with Newsweek, Rhymes talked about why he anticipated the end of times in 2000. “The Y2K problem, the impeachment of the president, doing away with a cash society and the bombing of Iraq. As a society we’re conditioned to not want to hear the truth when it’s not good truth.” The Y2K bug, impeachments, a move to electronic money – holy shit the problems of the 90s were ridiculously first-world!
Unlike many rappers, Busta grew up in a suburban, two-parent household. His long-held apocalyptic messages may have stemmed from obtained ideologies rather than an upbringing defined by hopelessness. After all, he was a follower of the Five Percent Nation, an Islamic sect in which followers believe that 85 percent of mankind is headed toward destruction. Another 10 percent knows the truth but withholds it. The last five percent are the spiritually enlightened, a group of believers that includes, according to articles from The Independentand Hip Hop Wired, Busta, Method Man and other Wu Tang members, Afrika Bambaata, Canibus, Rakim and Nas.
All of them have rapped about or discussed the apocalypse, possibly sharing because they wanted to spread their deeply-held beliefs. I’m all down for respecting somebody’s beliefs, if they’re genuine and nonviolent. Rhymes, though, didn’t treat 1999 like it was his last year on earth unless he believed the money he made on earth would convert to traveler’s cheques (oh, 90s!) in the afterlife. Rather than repenting, he marketed his Bushi clothing company. He signed on to co-star in the movie “Shaft,” which would be released in 2000.
In 2006, he dismissed the validity of his prediction in an interview with The Guardian, saying, “I didn’t mean these things in a literal sense; I’m not Gandhi. I’m not here to predict the future. I’m just here to show people certain things.”
Look, I’m not Gandhi. I’m not here to analytically discuss consumer trends. I’m just here to write E.L.E. went platinum about a month after its release.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was to sell albums,” White Hodge says of apocalyptic motivation. “At the end of the day, rap music is a commodity.”
Yeah it is. I went to a pretty good Bone Thugs ‘N’ Harmony concert last year, and before one song they asked the entire audience how badly we wanted to make money. Then after the encore they announced how badly they wanted to take our money, charging us if we desired autographs or pictures.
And right now the apocalypse machine is churning out good business. Pitbull’s hit reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the UK. Nas rapped Mayan-influenced lyrics on his 2010 album Distant Relatives. Nicki Minaj and Jay Sean have a song titled “2012.” Drake raps on “I’m On One”: “Put an end to your world like the Mayans.” The Game responded to the question of what will happen this December by telling World Star Hip-Hop, “we’re all going to die.” Even Busta Rhymes considered rejoining the onslaught, discussing but never releasing an album he planned to title E.L.E. 2.
So many rappers, so many songs, so many messages and only one guy got this end of the world thing right. Andre 3000 waxes apocalyptic on The Love Below’s “Love In War,” predicting and parodying at the same time.
“Tonight we’ll make the prettiest song no one will ever hear, no one will ever hear, no one will ever/ These ain’t the times be alone, cliché the end is near, cliché the end is near, cliché the end is…”