How are you? I am fine. Congratulations on another season of your television show about making the band. The show seems to be genuinely charged and volatile for a reality-based program. That’s something. Those six kids you hired to star really don’t seem to understand much about show business, or arguing, or music, but it’s a solid program nonetheless.
One episode I recall the kids were acting lazy—many episodes are like that—but you lectured them on the consequences of laziness and how you, P, construct a track according to your own special recipe: bass line, hook, vocal hook, lyric, a bit of you talking at the audience, “uh, uh,” female vocal hook, nag of a sample and so on. Where the hi-hat comes in, where it stops. How a keyboard riff might be used as counterpoint to the chorus. Whatever. I’m guessing at the details because you merely hinted at the recipe before glancing at the cameras, smiling, then saying you couldn’t give away secrets of empire on the air. Empire, empire. Look what you’ve made! I’ve always admired your work ethic and your unsentimental grasp of what a large portion of the current leisure class wants to hear. You are imperial.
So recently I’ve been thinking about your signing of the Deep South duo Eightball and MJG, and the album you just made for them, Living Legends, and how many fans of Eightball and MJG were suspicious of this new marriage, and how much money you stand to make from the increased profile that attends heavy promotion in Middle American markets, and how your Bad Boy label’s clean, professional ’80s R&B sound might mesh with your recent embrace of southern hip hop and all things “crunk” and the particular grime-coated sound that, oddly enough, your two new clients pioneered years ago in Orange Mound, Memphis . . . And I just wanted to take a moment and explain why you should consider leaving Eightball and MJG alone. Alone, alone, alone.
You are fucking with two of the reasons why hip hop hasn’t died a miserable death, not yet, and why there is still a genuinely independent spirit in small, hard-to-spot areas of the rural South. I am a big fan. There are apparently millions of us. We love Eightball and MJG—love them like people loved Shuggie Otis or Steve Earle, artists linked to a locality who then transcended that locality and ended up defining a type, which they aren’t a version of, of course, being originals—and we need E&M to remain pure. Do you know what I mean? Pure?
You are a visitor to their purity, which is fine. As a savvy producer, you have listened to what the people want and you have embraced Southern hip hop, the money phenomenon of crunk. Crunk: slower, deliberately shiftless phrasing, more hi-hat than snare, lots of packed-club choruses and shouting. Every hip hop station in the free world has been overrun with crunk. Currently, that crunky piece of shit “Slow Motion” by Juvenile is played every hour on the hour, especially in cities like mine, and millions of what I’m guessing is your ideal demographic—herd-instinct animals with lots of credit—listen and love it (even though it sucks so bad I can’t see straight), possibly enjoying the one aspect of crunk that cannot be forced: the amateur grime of it all. But Christ, that Juvenile track is so bad, so automatic, it deserves to be studied. Please study it. Then ask yourself if, in search of a larger audience, you too have switched to autopilot and amped up the originals, turning them into mimeographs, copies of a sound they invented.
Listen, have you ever read Flannery O’Connor? You might like her. She wrote short stories set in Georgia. Her vision of race in America is instructive. Anyway, she once said that the habit of art is rooted in the personality. The authentic flows out of an understanding of the whole individual: trust in your own imperfect view of how the world is put together and you will find the universal within the comfortably local. Eightball and MJG are comfortable like that in a big way. I don’t need to remind you, P, how both personalities are so fully intact and plausible and genuine and warm and funny: Eightball weighing in at several hundred stone and dealing with his weed-related bronchitis, MJG with his shirtless chest, leather fedoras, long prophet-looking hair and wet craggy beard, and complete inability to look like anything other than a pimp. (As in someone who rents women to other men for sex.) And I don’t need to remind you that with these personalities, Eightball and MJG have been doing just fine on their own. Like the vastly inferior No Limit and Cash Money Millionaires outfits, they’ve been selling platinum records for years and years, living here (where I live) in the I-55 corridor of the American South, between St. Louis and Memphis and Atlanta, in a self-sustaining underground movement, making this half-genius/half-crap sound of humid Junes and fishing in the park on Saturday nights and weed and being all right with where you grew up and making beats with the help of a Casio keyboard and, most importantly, pimping—the wider applications of pimping, pimping as metaphor, big pimping, pimp hard, pimp harder—all of that and a bag of rib tips. (St Louis ribs, from Goodie’s Pancake House.)
Have you actually studied their solo work? Or In Our Lifetime, Vol. 1? That’s the one with “Don’t Flex” (I wanna see you touch your toes in that dress, baby) and that track with Outkast with a single chord change, an endlessly repeated syncopation—it’s almost mythic, one of the perfect hip hop tracks, a simple lesson in grace and purpose and nnh-nnh funk, a song I might play driving in the car with a friend and if the friend changed the song I would have to seriously reconsider plans with that friend. Have you actually studied Space Age 4 Eva? “Pimp Hard, Pimp Harder”? Have you studied why the fans love that track like we love Run-DMC’s “King of Rock”? Well, have you? Of course you have. And you’ve decided to put the wisdom of the Two Pimps aside in favour of something entirely your own. P, what the fuck? This is Eightball and MJG—and you have to know what that means. I’m old and I don’t give a shit about new music quite the way I used to, but some vague adolescent sensitivity is returning to me in a big way. Big way, P!
Yesterday I saw the video for the first single, the one about not wanting no drama, and I’m depressed. Did you even listen to that entrance? You could have given it to those six cinder blocks that make up Making The Band. You’re controlling, P, all that “y’all better listen up, MJG etc. back, livin’ legends, etc.” crap, and then the first verse—Eightball, resplendent—which is really diluted by the keyboard running wild and buzzing a three-note riff not just once (and not with any emphasis) but over and over like a swarm of gnats, and the one thing that everyone loves so much about these two men (the voices, the voices) is buried, and the whole thing sounds like you just located that old Casio and hit every single pre-recorded sound on deck and then hit the “samba” beat on slow and finally hit another pre-recorded sound called “Diddy” that just mumbles. Mumbles . . . oh, it’s not good.
Despite the mumbling, you’re all elegance, P. You want to know what you did well? Whatever you did with Biggie. Biggie Smalls was one elegant young man, wasn’t he? Like a big fat Cary Grant who dealt weed when he was growing up. The most elegant communicator, fluid, unbothered, possessed of a lion’s grace, which made you the perfect counterpoint, what with your little blips and responses and asides—you had wit. You had a knowledge of context. But you don’t fit anyplace but there. (And maybe with Sting.) Your aura is faux elegance, crisp as a dollar bill, and this only chafes against the unfettered grime and filth, the pragmatism, of Eightball and MJG, who are so far from elegant it’s funny. Get out of their way, please. You shouldn’t manhandle them the way you do those kids on the reality show. You took that secret P formula/recipe and thought that once again it was gold, baby, but right now Eightball and MJG are coming close to drowning in a bucket of Diddy formula. And they’re too nice to tell you to your face. So I’m telling you to your face. Pure, pure, pure. We need them to be pure. We need them, period. Del tha Funkee Homosapien is hiding somewhere in Oakland, and Atmosphere’s currently overshadowed by the whole white thing, and that last Outkast record was a big mess. Don’t let Juvenile be the answer to radio’s problems. You know what I’m saying.
As for those TV kids, the poor dears, keep at it. One day they’ll be millionaires, and they’ll start telling you what they’re really like. Remember the personalities you created for each of them, you big Frankenstein. And I hope to God you leave Eightball and MJG alone and intact, at least for reference. Then you’ll know without a doubt that you may pimp hard, but they will always pimp harder.
And I hope you’re over what’s-her-face.