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Getting 'The Message' from Hip-Hop Lyrics

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Getting 'The Message' from Hip-Hop Lyrics

Getting 'The Message' from Hip-Hop Lyrics

Getting 'The Message' from Hip-Hop Lyrics

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Author Felicia Pride hide caption

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In her new book, The Message, Felicia Pride describes the life lessons she has learned from hip-hop's greatest: self-sufficiency from OutKast, the silver linings of a broken heart from LL Cool J, and even the complexities of wealth from The Notorious B.I.G.

NEAL CONAN, Host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Some listen to hip-hop and just hear the beat. Some people listen and hear controversy, lyrics that celebrate violence or disrespect women or gays.

Felicia Pride listens to the music she grew up with and hears different messages. Take Slick Rick's "Children's Story" for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CHILDREN'S STORY")

SLICK RICK: (Singing) Here we go. Once upon a time, not long ago. When people wore pajamas and lived life slow, where laws where stern and justice stood and people were behavin' like they ought ta - good. There lived a little boy who was misled by another little boy and this is what he said. Me and you tike, we're gonna make some cash, robbin' old folks and makin' ah dash.

CONAN: A dance tune, yes, but also a grim cautionary tale about a kid who makes bad choices.

F: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs," Felicia Pride describes how she learned from the Notorious B.I.G that money may fix some problems, but can complicate others. Self sufficiency from OutKast's "Get Up, Get Out," and the pride that can accompany a broken heart from LL Cool J in "I Need Love."

Well, whether it's hip-hop, country, whatever, what life lessons have you leaned from your music? Our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can also sing out on our blog, at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Felicia Pride joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

FELICIA PRIDE: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And why did you write this book?

PRIDE: Well, I figured - I realized that as growing up in hip-hop that I used hip-hop lyrics, I use themes from hip-hop songs to explain things in my life. So, I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if I actually put this into book form and showed the diversity of ways that I used hip-hop in my everyday life.

CONAN: Well, show us. Give us some example.

PRIDE: Well, you mentioned some good ones, from "I Need Love," to "Get Up and Get Out." But for example, "Ready or Not" by the Fugees is a great song. And it basically talks about their - I liken it to the childhood game Hide and Seek, where, you know, you're counting and it's this after you're counting, you're able to say ready or not, here I come. And that's kind of how I've attempted to describe my work in that the world may not be ready for hip-hop. The world may not be ready for me, but ready or not, here I come.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PRIDE: So, it's basically me using hip-hop and sort of flipping it into a positive way that I can be able to motivate myself, that I can be able to better my life.

CONAN: A theme song for the day almost.

PRIDE: Exactly.

CONAN: Uh-huh. There's one you read about the song, "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow and this is - "The Breaks" in his version, your woman leaves, the IRS is knocking down your door, you've already lost your job, your phone bill has hit the roof, and the mob is after you. Life really can't get any worse, you write.

PRIDE: Right. And the great thing about "The Breaks" is that Kurtis Blow is doing some interesting things creatively in the song. The break in hip-hop is that point in the song where the lyrics fade out, the instrumental and the percussion takes center stage, and the B-boys, the break-boys or the break- girls would come on to the dance floor and their thing.

So, in "The Breaks,' Kurtis Blow is basically saying, you know, we all suffer from these periods in our life where things don't seem to be going right. But there is a time where you can air out your frustrations and why not air it out on the dance floor. I mean, other people have other ways that they air out their frustration, but for Kurtis Blow, who was a former B-boy, that was his way. So, he shaped the song to have several of these breaks in it. So, it's kind of a play on words in his - a play on words - a creative word play that he was doing here.

CONAN: But breaks is also the breaks of life. This is an inevitable part of everything. This is universal.

PRIDE: Exactly. It's very universal.

CONAN: There's a lot in hip-hop as a rule, though, that a lot of find objectionable.

PRIDE: That's true and I can see how they feel that way. For me, I feel that the dominant image of hip-hop is definitely one that is synonymous with, you know, half-naked women and drug dealers that - who disrespect them. But...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PRIDE: ...I realized that hip-hop is more diverse than that. And I'm interested in ushering in a balance and showing some counter-images and showing through "The Message," that there are songs out there that are meaningful and, you know, have universal themes in them.

CONAN: I'm like the middle child within the hip-hop generation, you write. Like my elders, hip-hoppers born before the mid-1970s, I cringe at the gratuitous money-hungry, violent, misogynistic and lackluster turn of some of the music. And unlike my younger siblings, '80s and '90s babies, I do remember the days when radio played fun rap. Afro-centric rap, gutter rap, jazzy rap and educational rap all in one 60-minute segment, I remember when you had to have skills to be put on as an emcee.

PRIDE: Right.

CONAN: Those are - you're already feeling old?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRIDE: I'm not feeling old but I do, I wish - I crave for more of that balance on radio, in the airwaves, in media just to show that rap isn't just gangster music, it isn't just disrespect to women, that there are those artists out there, there are those songs out there that have some meaning and that are still - can still be considered great art.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Daniel(ph) in Lakewood, Colorado. "Get By" by Talib Kweli - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly...

PRIDE: Talib Kweli.

CONAN: ...Talib Kweli helped me to overcome a drug addiction and continues to inspire me to this day. And he includes the lyric: This morning, I woke up feeling brand new and I jumped up feeling my highs and my lows in my soul, in my goals just to stop smokin' and stop drinkin'. And I've been thinkin', I've got my reasons just to get by, just to get by, just to get by.

PRIDE: That is a great song. I have it in "The Message" and it definitely is one of those words like you want to start to crave more out of your life. You don't actually - and what Talib is saying as well is that you don't just want to get by any longer, you want to soar. So that's a great song.

CONAN: There are any number of songs, De La Soul - your pick for their tune from the album "Three Feet High and Rising," "Me, Myself and I." What's that about to you?

PRIDE: That to me is about exerting individuality. I think that, especially in hip-hop, we like to act that, you know, I keep it real and I'm myself. But a lot of times we're not. And I just think in general society, it's harder to be ourselves than it is to be an image of what other people want us to be. So in "Me, Myself and I," that's just what I'm talking about - being able to be comfortable in my skin.

CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation with Felicia Pride, author of "The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs," give us a call. What songs inspire your life where get you through the day? 800-989-8255. E- mail us talk@npr.org.

And let's turn to Leon(ph). Leon with us from Athens, Ohio.

LEON: Hi, Neal. And just a great show and I love the theme. But Neal, I'm a 50-some and - I don't want to say what I am totally but I'm 50-some - and say it loud I'm black and I'm proud when I was coming up was one song that just the title and the theme really helped to give me a sense of pride in who I am and what I'm about and what the responsibility is of who I am. And then in the same era, there was another song by the Funkadelics that was called "Free Your Mind" and your behind will follow. And so - they didn't quite use that word, but they use another word similar. And...

CONAN: And we appreciate your editorial discretion.

LEON: ...both of those songs were just great songs.

CONAN: And do you still hum them from time to time to this day?

LEON: Oh yes. And I'm a minister and I even use those songs as themes for sermons at times because that's how profound they are. And I have found that those guys - many times those songs like what your guest is talking about, those are just street prophets that are bringing messages to the masses and the music form can allow us to receive things that we may not receive if they were spoken to us.

CONAN: And people might have been scandalized by the idea of quoting James Brown from the pulpit, what, 30, 40 years ago?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEON: Well, I - yeah, I can expect some of that. But I'll be quiet now and I like to hear from your guest.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Leon. Appreciate the phone call.

LEON: Uh-huh.

CONAN: Bye-bye. People take inspiration from all kinds of things, certainly James Brown.

PRIDE: Definitely. I mean, I know that James Brown had a large influence on hip-hop, so - definitely.

CONAN: And let's talk to Joe(ph). Joe's calling us from Jacksonville, Florida.

JOE: Yes. I'd like to add the song "4th Branch" by Immortal Technique. To me, it's an inspiring song because it's about empowering the little guy and the media being a check on the other branches of government and the importance of media and the importance of educating yourself...

CONAN: Is there...

JOE: ...not one of those bling-bling songs, you know. It's good political hip-hop music, it's really empowering music.

CONAN: Is there a passage that you particularly remember?

JOE: None that I could say on the air. It is a little - there are some vulgar parts of the song. He does use some adult language in it.

CONAN: And again, we thank you for your editorial discretion.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOE: Well, no problem.

CONAN: No problem.

JOE: I appreciate the opportunity to put his name out there. He's definitely a break from the normal.

CONAN: "4th Branch," is that in the book?

PRIDE: It's not in the book, but I will cosign that Immortal Technique is a dope artist. He really, really is.

JOE: He really is. He's amazing. He's amazing.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

JOE: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Here's an e-mail from Alex(ph) in St. Louis. One song that inspires me is "Give Peace a Chance" by John Lennon because it tells us that the world - that our world needs peace to make it a better place and also tells us how we can make peace with one another. That from Alex in St. Louis. And of course, people take their inspiration from all kinds of artists, all kinds of puritan. It really is. Hip-hop is the music you grew up with? If you grew up with the music of the Beetles or with the music of James Brown, that might be the soundtrack to your life.

PRIDE: Right. But I like the fact that, you know, a classic song can have relevance today, you know. A John Lennon song can have relevance today; a James Brown song can have relevance today. And I think that many of the hip-hop songs that I have in my book will have relevance from years from now as well.

CONAN: Indeed, in terms of hip-hop songs, you go back a ways, you mind the songs from when you were a kid, not just the songs that are around now.

PRIDE: That's a very good point, you know. I have songs from '79, '80, '82, so that's a very good point. Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Felicia Pride, the author of "The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs." If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number, 800-989-8255. What are the tunes that inspire you in your life? E-mail us, too, talk@npr.org.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk with Ray(ph). Ray calling us from Kansas City.

RAY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RAY: You know, I'm a baby boomer - or excuse me, I'm a Gen-Xer. I'm a Gen-Xer and I've just noticed that like myself and a lot of my buddies and my friends, we have these sort of soundtracks that we carry around in our iPods. It really sort of - like, we have these sort of playlist that really sort of depend on, you know, what kind of mood we want to be in. And one of the songs that has sort of been on continuous play for me lately is - well, the whole album from Matisyahu and the song "King Without A Crown." And to me, I guess, it just really, like, there's just something about this idea of fusion of everything, of all these different African, European, Native American - all these different influences coming together and kind of informing this brand new kind of music that I think is really embodied by hip-hop and by rap.

It's really just is inspiring and it is really - it's hard to put it in like concrete words, but it - when I listen to it, I want to be a better person.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. I have to say Matisyahu has escaped my attention thus far. But that part of being the iPod, being that soundtrack, I know Felicia Pride, in a way, that's how this book started - you were like listening to the tunes on your iPod.

PRIDE: I was. I was on a train. I was a listening to A Tribe Called Quest, a very classic hip-hop group and there was a certain line that just hit me that Phife Dawg says, he says, riding on the train with no dough sucks. And at that time, I was riding on a train with no dough and I was really basically contemplating my life. And it was kind of a jumpstart for me to think about, well, how can I change things. If I don't like my situation, how can I make it better?

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Ray, thanks very much for the call.

RAY: Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go now to - this is Gil(ph). Gil in Cleveland, Ohio.

GIL: Hey, how's it going? I'm calling about the song by Black Star called "Thieves in the Night".

PRIDE: Mm-hmm.

GIL: I really appreciated the song. It reminds me of a lot of things about culture and how it's kind of hypocritical. And how it has both two sides, too, but about how both two sides can be real.

PRIDE: Mm-hmm.

GIL: A lyric to the song that I really liked, I remembered was - in the song it says that we're chasing after death just to call ourselves brave.

CONAN: Hmm.

PRIDE: Wow.

GIL: And it's just talking about how the hip-hop culture can be so violent and promote all the - like, it promotes it, but how wrong it is and I just - I don't know, I really liked it.

CONAN: Black Star is in your book.

PRIDE: They are, with "Brown Skin Lady." Black Star is Talib Kweli and Mos Def. Their first time together.

GIL: Yeah. That's right. It was a good song, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRIDE: That's a great album.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Thanks very much for the call. In your description of that tune, you say that you would pass the black - the brown paper bag test. What is the brown paper bag test?

PRIDE: The brown paper bag test is somewhat of a historical thing where you would put a brown paper bag next to your skin to see if you are lighter than it or darker than it. And if you passed, you know, usually that meant, quote, unquote, "that you were better, because you were lighter."

CONAN: I see.

PRIDE: Lighter skinned.

CONAN: Passing would be lighter than the brown.

PRIDE: Exactly.

CONAN: Uh-huh. That's not what that song about. That song celebrates people who are neither appropriately light-skinned, as some people might argue, nor as thin as fashion may dictate.

PRIDE: Yeah. And that song, for me, was just about me being able to appreciate my body, the way that I looked, no matter how it was. And I think that that a lot of women in particular - because the song is for women - they can just feel comfortable looking in the mirror and feel comfortable in what they see.

CONAN: Let's got o Sibilka(ph). Is that right?

SIBILKA: Yes. That's right.

CONAN: In Dayton, Ohio. Go ahead please.

SIBILKA: I just wanted to say I'm kind of upset about the fact of all these people that generalize hip-hop and kind of combining it into rap, because I find that rap and hip-hop have definitely become two separate things. Hip-hop, I tend to find to be more positive. You'll find that in groups like The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, like you said before, Talib Kweli. One of my favorite groups is The Pharcyde.

PRIDE: Mm-hmm.

SIBILKA: I really, really wish they'd come back and bring something out again. And a few of the songs - a couple of songs that they've done that I've always been inspired by was run away, you can't keep just running away, you know, telling me that you can't just run away from your problems. You got to (unintelligible) when you got to stick for them. And then also, the other one is the "Other Fish in the Sea," which always helped me out when - whenever you fall,, whenever you lose the person that you love the most, you got to remember that there other people out there for you.

And I just wish people would give a little more respect to the positive hip-hop that is out there. And speaking of Immortal Technique, he is wonderful and I definitely think he needs to be heard and seen a lot more...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

SIBILKA: ...and not commercialized.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sibilka.

SIBILKA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And one of the points that she makes, this is "100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs," but you don't pretend this is the 100 greatest songs. It's not a list. It's your music and it's should be everybody's music. Not these songs, whatever their music is.

PRIDE: Right. Exactly. It's really - the overwriting theme is that, you know, we can find wisdom in music and we can find things to relate to and solace and power and peace and all these things in music, no matter what genre you love the most.

But I do like our comment about Pharycde. Pharycde's isn't the message with "Passing Me By," which is one of my all-time favorite songs. They wrote really a great group. And also, I appreciate her comment about the generalization. I think that hip-hop is generalized a lot, where it's difficult for the true artist to combat the opportunist. I think they're a lot of opportunists who are posing as artists. So...

CONAN: Felicia Pride, thanks very much for being with us today.

PRIDE: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Felicia Pride's book, "The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs." You can read about what Felicia Pride learned from Kurtis Blow's song "The Breaks" in an excerpt in our Web site, npr.org/talk.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Excerpt: 'The Message'

Message Book Cover

67. The Breaks

ARTIST: Kurtis Blow

ALBUM: Kurtis Blow (1980)

I've overslept. Now I'm rushing. Discombobulated and cranky. Skip breakfast. Get outside. Raining. No umbrella. Reach the subway stop. Soaked. Almost slip leaping down the steps to the platform. Train isn't running. Technical difficulties. The silver-lining folks would say that an attitude shift would make me see the sun. But these aren't those types of days.

Supreme rapper Kurtis Blow rhymed about the when-it-rains-it-pours-occasions in "The Breaks." In his version your woman leaves, the IRS is knocking down your door, you've lost your job, your phone bill has hit the roof, and the mob is after you. Life really can't get worse.

In hip-hop the break is a defining element. In the '70s Kool Herc, a godfather to the culture, noticed that when he was DJing parties, the dancers went crazy on the floor when the raw instrumental took center stage and everything else faded out. To keep this short interlude going, Herc began looping breaks together to create an extended play for the dancers to do their thing. It became their vacation. B-boys and b-girls released the tension mounting from their urban environment by rocking during the break.

Blow, a former b-boy, crafted his song to feature several of these interludes. He stops rapping about the struggles of life and lets dancers take their frustrations out on the dance floor. He gives us time to forget about the world and lose ourselves in expression.

The breaks of life are inevitable, but it's how we handle them that dictates how we'll survive them. Think about the brown and black kids in New York who found creative ways, such as the four elements of hip-hop, to battle their broken-glass world and in the process sparked a global culture.

As the song of life continues to spin, a break will eventually come when we can air our aggravations, release our creative juices, and prepare ourselves for the next challenge. We must press on. Until the break.

From The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs by Felicia Pride. Copyright c 2007. Published and reprinted by arrangement with Thunder's Mouth Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.