Chicago's hip-hop artists speak out about their music, kids and responsibilities
Monday, January 24, 2011
It's always a struggle for parents to filter the kind of music their kids are listening to. But it's particularly hard for fans of hip-hop, a genre that often features thought-provoking social commentary that exposes the world's ugliness through poetry. It can also be raunchy and vulgar.
I've always thought Big Boi and T.I. are capable of creating some wonderful music, but I don't play their songs when my 7-year-old son is in the backseat. Plenty of other parents probably have experienced a similar conflict.
But what about the artists who make this music? Some of them are dads, too. Eminem recently told Anderson Cooper that he doesn't cuss around his daughters. What kind of internal double life does that create? Recently, I caught up with Grammy-winning Chicagoan Che Smith, aka Rhymefest, to talk about the dynamics of being both a controversial hip-hop artist and a dad.
Smith, who co-wrote "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West, released his second studio album, "El Che," over the summer. With the religion-questioning single "Prosperity" all over the airwaves, Smith showed he is no stranger to divisive subject matter. But neither is his son, Solomon, 12. Smith introduced Solomon to his world-and not just through his own music.
"Even (with) my more vulgar stuff, I'll try to give a perspective to my son of right and wrong and what kind of entertainment value it has," says Smith. "I recently introduced my son to the Geto Boys. I introduced my son to N.W.A. I let him know it is vulgarity, but compared to Waka Flocka or (Young) Jeezy, this is revolutionary."
Smith praises older rap groups for speaking unapologetically about race relations and police brutality, quoting verses from N.W.A.'s contentious hit "F**k the Police." But he acknowledges that some instances of vulgarity are unjustifiable, and there's an easy way to tell, as an artist, that you're going a little too far.
"There are certain things that are too much. If you're not making music that you can explain to your children, maybe you're making the wrong kind of music," says Smith. "As artists, we have to stop making excuses for our behavior. We have to stop saying, 'We've got to entertain,' because ultimately you're giving that to somebody else's child."
Fellow Chicago rapper Carl Guyton, aka Agacee, takes a similar approach to his music, using someone very close to him as an inspiration for choosing his words carefully.
"I usually think of my mother. If my mother is not ashamed of what I'm saying, then my child probably won't be either," says Guyton, who has a 4-year-old son, Caleb. "I don't make the kind of music I wouldn't want my child to hear. Sure, not every single record is child friendly, but I try not to use profanity in my lyrics, and I don't disrespect women in my songs."
Michael Thompson, aka Mic Terror, whose son is 20 months old, is less stringent about what children can and can't hear.
"It's a real world out here. I'm not too much into hiding kids from it. They're going to learn it," says Thompson, drawing from his childhood memories. "As a child, personally, I was in the car with my dad and Two Live Crew was playing. Sometimes he would look at me and ask if I knew what certain things meant. I'd be like 'No.' But I learned later."
Thompson had a father to talk to him about the messages in even the most profane music, but what about children who aren't as fortunate? These are the children rappers should be thinking of, says Smith.
"There are some cold, hard facts we have to deal with. Some parents are absent," Smith says. "So where do you go from there? Where do you go when mama's working a double shift, daddy's in jail and the child is being raised on commercial radio, commercial TV, whatever's in their neighborhood and whatever's on the Internet? OK now, Mr. Rapper, what responsibility do you have?"
As role models, rappers must be accountable for the messages they put out, says Smith, especially the artists who came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"As rappers, we say, 'Man, I'm just talking about things that are around me, I'm just talking about what's in my neighborhood,'" he says. "A lot of our music is about the cold realities of the streets, but we don't address a lack of parents. And then we say, 'Well if you don't want your kids to hear my music, turn it off.' But you know better. You come from where there are no parents to turn it down."
The big challenge
While lyrical content is important to Smith, Guyton and Thompson, none of them see it as the biggest challenge for them as fathers. They've all been pretty busy. Smith released two mix tapes and a studio album last year and is working on a group project with Chicago notables Juice, Mikkey Halsted and Twan Gabbs. Guyton is promoting his latest single, "Take Control," and Thompson is pushing his latest mix tape, "Can I Borrow a Feeling."
It's no wonder all three rappers say time constraints are their main struggle.
"A big challenge is just being there. You have shows and touring and people walking up to you on the street while you're eating with your children and being like 'Give us your time now,'" says Smith. "Not letting that be a distraction from the quality time I need to spend with my children, I think, is a part of the challenge."
"Splitting time between the world of rap and time with your kid is hard," Guyton says. "If you're going to really be in your child's life, you won't always have time to go to the studio, or to promote yourself like you really need to. That's just part of the sacrifice."
For Thompson, there are two sides to that coin.
"You've got to leave for a certain amount of time and you don't get to see him. That can be messed up," says Thompson. "But there's a lot of down time being an artist when you're just at home waiting for the phone to ring. So while you're doing that, you're with him."
What about the moms?
All three rappers say they have struggled to maintain good relationships with the mothers of their children. Smith, whose son and daughter have different mothers, says he has had difficulty keeping things positive with both of the moms.
Rhyme and responsibility
All three rappers are prominent voices in their communities. Smith says he thinks rappers should take the concept of accountability a little further.
"As artists, as members of the community, we have to take personal responsibility," Smith says. "That's what I'm here to do. That's what I'm in the lives of my children to do. That's what I'm in the community to do. That's what I'm in hip-hop to do."
Three guys named Rhymefest, Agacee and Mic Terror can't tell us what music our children should listen to, but they all convey an awareness of what kind of effect music has on children. For them, there is no double life. They know what their respective messages are and they're unapologetic about them.
After the three interviews, I played Smith's album, "El Che," with my son sitting in the backseat. On it, he spits rhymes about rumor-spreading, Chicago's poverty and even the complications of fatherhood. I realized these are all things I want my son to learn about as he becomes a man, even if I had to explain away a few curse words.
Perhaps Smith's advice is sound: Listen to the artists who take responsibility for their message, and even seemingly controversial hip-hop can tell compelling stories that teach our children about the realities of a world we sometimes can't explain.