Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Crime Pays: A Breathing Shark Mix
Lately, I've been really into two things: The Wire and the Wu-Tang Clan. The former is a TV show about, well, a lot of things, but it boils down to cops and criminals in Baltimore. The latter is a long-running hip-hop collective from Staten Island. These two things are similar, and the reasons why are simple, which is ironic, because both are intimidatingly complex. The Wire and the music of the Wu-Tang Clan are both at their best when they tell intricately detailed, painstakingly realistic crime narratives. They go deep into the minds of drug dealers and murderers, exploring the ins and outs of the drug trade. They have superb eyes for character detail and ripping storytelling ability.
The show and the group are currently occupying most of my headspace, and as a result, I've been thinking a lot about crime. Primarily about dealing drugs, but other types of crime as well. And, like everything I think about, it eventually circled back around to music. I started thinking hard about great songs that tell crime stories, came up with many, narrowed it down to fifteen, then put them in a playlist and uploaded it to the Internet. These songs are crime songs, about everything from multiple murder to drunk driving. If you study this mix, maybe you'll grow up to be as a gully as me.
Break the law by downloading as a zip here. Snitches get stitches.
THE RAP SHEET:
GZA - Gold - buy
It was hard to keep this to just two Wu-Tang-related songs, because there are so many excellent little short stories (audiobooks?) in every member's discography. However, this track from Liquid Swords is probably my favorite, and the most like The Wire of any I've heard. GZA is like Stringer Bell on this song, cold and focused, looking at dealing like a business, worrying about the quality of his product, and killing when he has to. This song is basically my favorite parts of the first season of the show in four minutes, complete with detailed descriptions of the life of a drug dealer and a chess metaphor. Waiting for the train overhead to make noise so he can shoot a competitor? I wish I was GZA/Stringer Bell.
Curtis Mayfield - Pusherman - buy
Here's a different view on dealing than GZA's. While not as detailed as "Gold," "Pusherman" it doesn't glorify the life. It's a sarcastic, despairing take on hustling. It's an anti-drug song, but you could easily misinterpret it, with its funky drums and seductive offer, "want some coke? have some weed."
Ghostface Killah ft. Raekwon - Kilo - buy
And now back to Wu-Tang glorification. This song is basically an instruction manual on how to produce and sell crack. According to Ghost, the drug trade is dangerous, but with potential for wealth and glory. Again, it's all in the details: mayonnaise jars full of water and crack, handing out lighters to clients during the holidays. It's what makes it realistic, separates Ghostface and Raekwon from mere braggarts. This is the closest rural whiteboys like myself can get to knowing what it's like to be Scarface. I could have gone with something from Only Built 4 Cuban Links, but I wanted to give you a chemistry lesson. Educate yourself!
The Velvet Underground - I'm Waiting For the Man - buy
It's not just dealers who write songs. This song is a step-by-step chronicle of the process of buying heroin from one of the preeminent junkie icons, Lou Reed. Reed has said that everything described in it is probably still true today, except the price.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Henry Lee - buy
This is a haunting duet with PJ Harvey. It's pretty much exactly what a duet between Nick Cave and PJ Harvey should be: a creeping murder ballad from two of the creepiest, most death-obsessed musicians out there. "Henry Lee" is traditional, rearranged by Cave, and a passionate tale of jealous, murderous love. Crime isn't just an urban phenomenon; sometimes bodies get thrown down wells in the backyard.
Big Black - Things To Do Today - buy
More black comedy from Big Black. Further evidence of their mastery of simple brutality and razor-sharp humor. This is based on the true story of the Billionaire Boys Club, a Ponzi scheme that led to murder. I love the title, which makes murder sound like an errand. And what's colder than "kill the dog, evidence?"
DRUGS AND MURDER
Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Tired Eyes - buy
This is a song from Tonight's the Night, one of the druggiest, most on-the-verge-of-collapse, most BEST albums ever released. It tells the story of The Doctor, a man who, as the song says, shot four men in a cocaine deal in Topanga Canyon. Neil Young is both recounting and listening to the story, and pleading for dead men to come back. Some of the rawest emotion you'll ever hear.
The Hold Steady - One For The Cutters - buy
Craig Finn of the Hold Steady is a Ghostface-level storyteller, and this is his "Shakey Dog." It's the story of a girl who goes away to college, parties a little too much, and gets mixed up with some townies she shouldn't get mixed up with. Things start out fine, then escalate into crystal meth use, class conflict, existential ennui, and stabbing. It's a disturbing, reflective song, plotted like a movie and packed with rich imagery in every line. The "Cutters" of the title are residents of Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana Univeristy. This song is driven by harpsichord. I'll keep preaching the gospel of the Hold Steady until I die, and this song is a large reason why. It has everything you could ever want in a song.
Notorious B.I.G. - Gimme the Loot - buy
Biggie is Omar Little in this song. An eccentric renegade robbing drug dealers and killing anyone in the way. Actually, he's not quite Omar, because Omar has a code, whereas Biggie is just on a rampage, unrepentant and evil and insane. Also, Biggie would kill you if you said he was like Omar, because Biggie ain't gay. He raps in two distinct, equally threatening voices and declares that he doesn't give a fuck if he kills pregnant women. It's pretty much the most gangster thing I've ever heard.
X - Johnny Hit and Run Paulene - buy
White-knuckle rockabilly punk from X on this harrowing story about a serial rapist and one woman who fights back. It's easy to let the lyrics become secondary to the hard-charging music here, but paying attention will disturb the holy living fuck out of you.
Mr. Bungle - Love Is A Fist - buy
This is irresponsible of me to post, because domestic violence isn't funny, and this song makes a joke out of it. But how can you deny the gnarly metal of the chorus and John Zorn's evilly skronking sax? And, um, this song is a little bit funny. "I feel strongly about violence." C'mon, that's funny. It's just a song by some sickos who really like Blue Velvet, alright?
The Clash - Bankrobber - buy
Similar to Wu-Tang, it was difficult to settle on just one Clash song about crime. This band approached crime and poverty more thoughtfully than any rock band before or since, and "Bankrobber" is as brilliant as any of their other, better-known songs. This dubby number about a Robin Hood-esque thief is supposedly based on Mick Jones' fantasy about his grandfather, who may have been involved in a bank robbery.
Bruce Springsteen - Atlantic City - buy
For as long as I have been aware of him, I have argued that Bruce Springsteen sucks. He is prone to overblown melodrama, working-class-guy hypocritical shtick, and all-around tastelessness. Recently, however, I've found that I need to reevaluate that stance, because this album, Nebraska, is excellent, and this song is the standout. It is lyrically one of the best songs I've ever heard. No exaggeration. I get goosebumps on top of my goosebumps after every line. It is both specific and subtle, perfectly balanced between the two. It is enriched by outside knowledge. It is philosophical and sociological, but handled understatedly and gracefully. Plus, it's a perfect crime story about a man driven by circumstance into a gig with the Mob.
Pitchfork Militia - Crash - buy
Gonna get real drunk and drive my car gonna get real drunk and drive my car gonna get real drunk and drive my car and crash.
WHITE COLLAR CRIME
John Hiatt - Shredding the Document - buy
Not everyone can be hard like Biggie. Some of us have to get money in other, less violent ways. This was Jeff Skilling's theme song. Some go to jail, others get sex changes and go on Larry King.
Now you know how to sell drugs, suppress evidence, and get away with murder. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors!