ETHNOGRAPHIC WRITING: The MC's Job, Apparently

If you're at least my age and hip-hop has constituted a staple in your diet as much as fast food, you'll fondly remember Show and AG's "Represent" from their 1992 Runaway Slave: the posse cut that features the recently deceased Big L (R.I.P.), among others, spewing out some of the illest battle rhymes to date. This head sets it off not giving a damn about anything: "Yo on the mic is Big L the brother who gives flames god/known for sending garbage MC's to the graveyard/I pack a gat not a slingshot/step to this you get an ass-whipping like Rodney King got."

Two years later, Nas blesses us with his masterful Illmatic, which includes his own ode to "Represent"-ing, held by some as the best track on the album. This Nas story by Aesop begins: "Straight up sh*t is real and any day can be your last in the jungle/get murdered on the humble guns'll blast n*ggas tumble." The next year, Nas' Queensbridge cohorts Mobb Deep commence their foremost LP with the line: "I keep it real pack the steel hold my nine..."

Since then, hip-hop has gone more global than McDonald's, and the fever for the flavor of "representing" has waned in hip-hop artists' vernacular. As few as maybe two years ago, the hip-hop vocalist's primary focus involved overtly "keeping it real," understood as portraying an accurate picture of the artist's origin both as an artist and (presumably) as a minority youth-at-risk. Now, no one admits this priority, but everyone expects it as they do from an anthropologist: all of hip-hop culture, condensed in the "real it," should come across in the MC's final product.

But what is this "realness" exactly? By what standards do we judge it?

It can't be sales; if so, all of hip-hop's children live amongst Puffy's opulence and DMX's barks. I, for one, don't own a canine, nor do I want any of my boys that resemble one to get at me. Of course, I do sip $100+-per-bottle Crystal with fellow real ones...

So I guess it's not verisimilitude either.

An appeal to some basic, instinctual desire for a fantastic, vicarious life, maybe?

I guess I do wish I had the luxury of not liking it if it didn't bling bling; I mean I go to Harvard, right?

Oh brother, you're thinking, another moralistic purist and hater. I prefer the term "mainstreamly challenged," thank you.

Truthfully, I'm not a member of the 700 club, nor do I toil against the pursuit of verdant uncentered portraits of dead presidents in the name of Big Government and Che Guevara. Get yours, if you must; I will not be a red octagon for the capitalist driver or passenger. However, as a long-time hip-hop fan, I do hate two things: lies and wack-ness. Both of which seem to permeate mainstream hip-hop.

Instead of bowing before MTV's shiny-suit-ridden, treble-enhanced Jam of the Week, I pit myself against the MC I have yet to meet through lyrics saturated with wordplay and allusions and urban imagery and political consciousness. I pump my fist when a colleague on stage instructs me to, roam sidewalks with a perennially playing walkman, love few things more than a huddle of cats dropping science to beatboxes and split cheap cigars open while listening to my newly-purchased Roots album (by the way, buy it now, it's truly ridiculous).

Nonetheless, globally speaking, I am one of few, and I acknowledge my minority demographic. Happily, even; and why not? I belong to an equally worldwide (though less exposed) counterculture that values quality sound and whose members struggle for cultural survival in the face of the Mainstream Threat by battling each other, be it on microphones, turntables or breakdancing floors. And I try to portray it in the scribbles that cover my book of rhymes; and that's real, baby paw.

But is it? Why is my preference for mixtapes rather than champagne or handguns more "real"? And am I actually "representing" hip-hop culture with rhymes that depict those preferences--particularly as a privileged Harvard student? I used to believe so wholeheartedly; but as I meet more and more people who could care less about what a b-boy is, I'm starting to doubt it.

Maybe I'm not poor enough to be an mc, since I never actually needed to sell crack, a la also slain Biggie Smalls. Or maybe I'm not imaginative enough to deliver "Ten Crack Commandments" despite my relatively comfortable upbringing.

Notwithstanding, in the words of everso-real Superthug N.O.R.E.: I don't care. I love rhymes, scratches and graffiti, and no one can make me feel otherwise. However, now when I pen a battle rhyme, I can't help but wonder: who is this MC, "real"-ly, against whom I'm writing?