“I used to be cool, until I stopped filling out my W2.” —Ice Cube
There’s a lot of rap music about the usual G shit—selling drugs, pimping—but there are just as many jams about making minimum wage or hustling mixtapes to pay rent. There are stories about literally buying one’s way into the American Dream, and tirades about confronting its empty promises. This tension has defined the genre since its inception. We asked Vice hip-hop columnist, NYC producer, and DJ Skinny Friedman to mix up the next entry in Cluster Mag‘s series—just in time for the launch of our WORK issue.
From Too Short’s verse about the IRS to Aesop Rock’s alienation, to T.I. and Biggie’s respective views on working the corner, this live 45-minute mix takes us through a small encyclopedia of stories about the meaning of work, in a genre built by the disrespected and disenfranchised.
Friedman provides background on each of the tracks, so read up while you listen.
Danny Brown – “Scrap or Die”
Danny raps about selling stolen scrap metal in burnt out Detroit with your crackhead uncle. The name is a play on Jeezy’s “Trap Or Die.” It’s both funny and ironic and a nod to the fact that a hustle is a hustle, whether you’re selling crack or scrap metal.
Ice Cube – “Bird in the Hand”
Ice Cube explains why one might choose a life of crime over the straight and narrow, with very specific shouts to early ’90s politics. Contains the line “blacks are too fucking broke to be Republican,” which, yeah…
E-40 + Too Short – “Rapper’s Ball”
So much financial advice in this track! E-40 tells you to buy a car before you buy a house. Too Short complains about taxes.
Aesop Rock – “9 to 5ers Anthem”
Millennial ennui in rap form. It’s tenuous, but it’s worth noting that today’s job market is similarly unappealing to poor people who don’t have a lot of opportunities and to 20-somethings who are finding that the only real opportunities for employment are on Wall Street.
Webbie + Lil’ Phat + Lil’ Boosie – “Independent”
Say what you will about rap’s misogyny, but rappers love women that can pay their own rent. Lil’ Phat died recently (RIP!), and I ran back his line about how he doesn’t want a girl that smells like onion rings a couple times.
Too Short – “In the Trunk” / “In the Trunk (DJ Premier remix)”
One long-ass verse about Todd Shaw’s career, fake rappers, and bitches. Bonus vintage jazzy Primo remix!
T.I. – “Doin’ My Job”
T.I. gets introspective over a pre-fame Kanye beat, explaining that his drug corner is just his place of residency and he doesn’t want trouble any more than his neighbors do. “With all due respect, we ain’t even fuckin’ with y’all!” It’s not a great argument but “bein’ under 25 and stayin’ alive is hard work” is some heartbreaking shit.
G-Side + Krismas – “Rising Sun”
Huntsville, Alabama’s finest have made a lot of great rap songs about working a regular-ass job, but “Rising Sun” really drives home the point that going to work is probably a better way to get yourself a nice car and some clothes than selling drugs. The whole song is quotable, but “the whole point of flipping a brick is to flip it legit” is probably the best; every hustler just wants to stop hustling.
Young Jeezy – “Thug Motivation 101”
In his prime, every Jeezy song sounded like the hood version of “Gonna Fly Now.” His entire first album makes you want to stay up all night perfecting whatever it is you do. Shout out to Ray the Destroyer, who was like, “Jeezy is terrible strip-club music because it makes you like, ‘Why the fuck am I in the titty spot? I got work to do,’ and then get up and go home during a lap dance.”
Kanye West – “Spaceship”
Kanye works retail, and, like everyone who’s ever worked retail in the history of retail, steals clothes and gets high on the job. He hates it and his manager is racist. He quits. I cut the song short, but Consequence’s verse includes some depressing reflections on the rap game from a dude that was in Busta Rhymes videos a decade ago and still hasn’t quite gotten over it.
8Ball and MJG + Cee-Lo – “Paid Dues”
Memphis indie legends talk about working their way up from the bottom. Bonus reminder that Cee-Lo is a legend and gets to do whatever he wants with his fame.
Rich Kids + Wacka Flocka Flame – “My Life”
Doesn’t contain a lot of actual content about work or grinding, but teenagers from Atlanta making triumphant sing-song rap about how successful they are (whether they are successful or not) is some quintessentially American shit.
Lupe Fiasco – “Hip-Hop Saved my Life”
Not as corny as it sounds like it could be! Actually a small, inspiring story-rap about starting a rap career.
Biggie Smalls – “Juicy”
Not the first “I did it” rap, but probably the biggest.