Halloween in Madison, Wis., is a pretty big deal. The city shuts down its main drag, State Street. Locals and visitors spend the night at house parties or reveling on State and most importantly, everybody dresses up.
The enjoyment we receive from these frightening costumes hinges on the opportunity to be exposed to and experience our fears without actual risk. I experienced them firsthand, having road-tripped up north to the Cheesehead state this past weekend.
At a Madison gas station we met a man who introduced himself as Drastic, a rapper from Milwaukee, "Out here in Madtown to do some shows, some promotion, know what I'm saying?"
I bought his mixtape for $2.
Drastic's CD is called The Lost Tapes, a fact communicated via Sharpie on a once-blank CD-R. The disc lacks a track list but offers the rapper's personal phone number.
So my friends and I popped in the disc. Mostly we made jokes about his declaration that a few obviously orchestrated songs were "hot freestyles" and the recognizable DJ drops. One friend said Drastic was "endlessly talented."
But while we laughed, I had sort of a weird epiphany. The Lost Tapes is really not that bad. The production is professional, and the beats are admittedly derivative but certainly entertaining. His flow is unremarkable but passable. Most importantly, his lyrics are honestly all right — "The game without me is like Tina Turner without Ike/Or the '96 Bulls without Mike" — and comparable to billboard chart rap.
When we hear popular songs, we hear them from a detached perspective. We know they've "made it"; we don't know them personally. We only understand about them what they want us to understand. The same could be said of any street hip-hop act — T.I., Gucci Mane, etc. These acts are the scary monster costumes you see on Halloween — something you want no direct contact with, but you're thoroughly content to enjoy it from a safe distance.
Drastic is more like a costume you see on State Street, remark to your friends how astonishingly realistic it is and then realize it's an actual ghoul. The content of his rap could not be more commonplace in its genre, and yet it's somehow thoroughly affecting.
When he raps "I'm hustling, try'na get paid/I'm tired of selling dope," I don't think about how badass he is. I think about how I just bought a CD from an actual drug dealer.
The level of emphasis hip-hop as a genre puts on "being real" is bizarre. Jeezy raps that he's "as real as it gets," Killah Priest can't stand "fake MCs" and hundreds of thousands of suburban kids remind their friends to "keep it real" as they head their separate ways from soccer practice. If being real is so important, why isn't anybody listening to Drastic? In fact, Drastic wonders the same on "Track 12" — "Why all these other rappers getting rich an'/I'm still on the block and ain't got a pot to piss in?"
That's the hallmark of underground rap — commitment to storytelling whether the facts command adulation. You say you're looking for real? This is as real as it gets.