“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”
– Goodfellas, 1990
In the 1980s, New York City went through the best and worst of times. While the hood was popping and rocking to the ever-growing hip-hop culture, toxic white clouds of crack hovered over those same communities. Neighborhoods such as Harlem, Bed-Stuy, South Bronx, East New York, Queensbridge and Washington Heights, to name a few, were on the verge of self-destruction.
While most MCs during that golden age of rap came from the same damaged urban areas suffering from Reganomics, crack fallout and a declining education system, there was not much poetic rawness in their observations. With the exception of Just Ice, Spoonie Gee, Schooly D., KRS-1 and, of course, Grandmaster Flash’s classic “The Message,” most lyricists were trying to be more about partying than being grimy.
Rapper Kool G. Rap was a product of hard times and fat dimes puffed in Philly blunts. Premiering on the scene during the latter part of the ‘80s, when American’s ghettos had become worse and the war on drugs was seen as a joke.
Coming up hard on the streets of Corona, Queens, which he once described as, “a little Harlem,” Kool G. Rap developed his prince of darkness persona by simply observing the stone cold players and the suckers being played. As a teenager, sporting dukey gold chains, Cazal glasses and British Walkers, he began hanging out uptown, across 110th Street, on the illmatic boulevards of the “real” Harlem.
Patronizing notorious bars and after-hours spots, G. Rap spent time with the neighborhood “scramblers,” as the gamblers, drug dealers and thieves called themselves. Without a doubt, these corrupt characters soon found their way into G. Rap’s nihilistic narratives.
By the time Corona, Queens based rapper, whose government name is Nathaniel Wilson, came on the scene, hip-hop had been popping off in New York City for more than a decade. Although in retrospect, folks try to romanticize the times, saying, “Back in the day it was all love,” they are lying.
In fact, anybody who ever attended a summertime block party, one of Russell Simmons’ parties at the Hotel Diplomat or just a jam in some housing project recreation room, could tell you stories about stick-up kids, drugs deals and brutal thugs who just came to start trouble.
However, it was within this wild world where Kool G. Rap was born, bred and, as a teenager, decided to document. With his trademarked lisp and raspy voice, reciting rhymes about the day-to-day struggle of merely trying to survive be you a drug cowboy, dope fiend or scared spectator, there is no denying the power of Kool G. Rap’s hard knock narratives.
Although G. Rap admired various rappers including Kool Moe Dee and Melle Mel, he was turned on to his biggest influence Silver Fox while chilling at a notorious uptown spot called Joe Grants. With a mouth full of gold teeth and puffing on a Newport, he studied Fox working the small stage. Looking across the room, he noticed Doug E. Fresh scoping out Fox’s act as well.
As one-third of an underrated rap trio called Fantasy 3, Fox was signed to indie label CCL Records. Though they were an obscure group, Fantasy 3 released a few singles including “City of Biters,” “It’s Your Rock” and “The Buck Stops Here.” In addition, during the same period that Kool G. Rap was maxing and relaxing at Joe Grants, future superstar LL Cool J became another one of Silver Fox’s verbal protégés.
As a student of the rap game, Kool G. Rap (who’s original hip-hop name was Sergio) was drawn to Fox’s flame, because he was enthused by the uniqueness of the elder rapper’s vocal dexterity and fly style. On regular occasions, G. Rap, Silver Fox and LL Cool J battled one another, practicing their material while also uplifting their skills. A few of those same verses G. Rap scripted during those playful battles would be used on first single “It’s a Demo.”
A few years later, in 1986, Kool G. Rap was introduced to Eric B through a friend. Already getting props as Rakim’s dj, the hulking Eric B was another Queen’s bad boy gone hip-hop. Impressed by Kool G’s flow, Eric B. introduced his new friend to DJ Polo. Although they knew each other names from neighborhood park jams and local clubs, they had never officially met; the two talents clicked right away and Polo soon introduced the rapper to “supa producer” Marley Marl. The two had gone to high school together.
Marley Marl, one of the most innovative producers of the decade, the sonic scientist sampled dusty rhythms with a Roland 808, threw down with his drum machine and created a hypnotic sound for Kool G. Rap that was gritty, furious and full of funk. First came “It’s a Demo,” but a few months after, Marley allowed Kool G. Rap to do his thing on classic posse track “The Symphony” and a ghetto star was born. Even though Kool G. Rap spoke with a slight lisp, he used that to his advantage, because it gave his alliteration and assonance a menacing edge in his delivery.
Like another lisped champion named Mike Tyson, fuming Kool G. Rap verbally knuckled-up and came out swinging; he wouldn’t be happy until he felt the competition was overpowered and devoured. Reminding one of Curtis Mayfield’s amazing Superfly soundtrack, Kool G. Rap wrote about the streets of the city from the perspective of folks who toiled those troubled neighborhoods everyday: be them teenaged mothers or OG’s, crack slingers or pipe dreamers, prison time doers or Teflon dons, Kool G. Rap’s probing rhymes were truly on point.
Sharing the spotlight with his partner in crime DJ Polo (a cut master who could mix and scratch alongside the best turntablists) on the wheels of steel, Kool G. Rap’s machine gun flow combined with eagle-eyed observations was sharper than being smashed in the face with a broken bottle.
On the hyper as a heart attack tracks “Road to the Riches,” “Streets of New York, “On the Run” and “Men at Work,” the pair created an influential blueprint of gangsterism that has impressed several generations of criminal minded rap geniuses.
Kool G. Rap’s songs were the byproduct of the screaming city and mugged crime victims bleeding in elevators, the roar of the subways and C-Lo games played in pissy staircases, the wail of police sirens and sickly bastards crying for their mommy, the repugnant smell of spilled malt liquor and the stench of raunchy sex. Yet, although he was writing about the mean streets of Harlem and Queens, in the lingo of G. Rap, “ghetto” became universal. More folks on the planet, be they in Compton or Calcutta, can relate to being poor and desperate than being jiggy and cruising down streets of gold in a Bentley.
Be you from Up-north, down south or cooling in Cali, here was a man instructing his boombox congregation, “Don’t wait for anyone to give you anything, just take it.” Straight hood, Kool G. Rap didn’t have a problem being as wild as he wanted to be. He was proud to be “hood” or “ghetto” or any of the other derogatory words folks hurl like bricks when describing his kind.
However, just because Kool G. Rap was born into poverty, didn’t stop him from living large and being in charge of his own destiny. Unlike other rappers that wore feathered costumes and resembled old funk bands decked out in sequin shirts and Funkadelic boots, Kool G. was proud to be clad in a sheep-skin coat, hoodie, jeans and sneakers.
Grabbing his nuts, because, “That’s all the white man left me,” he scribbled mental notes as he poured out a little liquor for the brothers who didn’t make it. Before anyone thought to say it aloud, Kool G. Rap was all about keeping it real.
Kool G. Rap did not make music that tried to assimilate, but was more interested in pulling folks into his world, as he shot dice on the corner, talked smack to gun carrying rivals and did whatever he wanted to do. His voice was the aural equivalent of shattered glass in a darkened alley, pitbulls growling behind metal enforced doors and random bullets in the night.
Bringing bleakness to light, he turned ghetto-angst into pure poetry; still, in his rhymes Kool G. Rap was a complex man: a poet and a thief, street corner saint and avenue shit talker, hot-blooded lover and cold-blood murderer. Kool G. Rap was the kind of dude you might see reading a book of Langston Hughes poems one minute and slapping somebody with it the next.
Without a doubt, Kool G. Rap became infamous as he dug deeper into the hell of the hood. Prompted by the many references to movie mobsters in his songs, critics dubbed his style Mafioso rap.
Like the best Scorsese/Coppola gangster flicks, his lyrics showed a range of emotions and vulnerability. Not just an action man, he grasped textures, colors and complexities in writing raps such as “Rikers Island,” a song about New York’s most renowned prison.
From cinematic outlaws to real life gangsters like John Gotti and Nicky Barnes, the mythology of gangsterism has always been a part of New York City culture. Be them traditional suit wearers in Little Italy during the fifties, leather jacket gang members roaming the Brooklyn streets in the sixties, gaudy Sugar Hill players in the seventies or wild styled crack cowboys in the eighties, folks have always had a soft spot for criminal minded characters rising out of poverty and obscurity.
Although many of the white gangsters in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas are unapologetically racist, as Jay-Z once explained to a journalist, they are still fighting against the odds as they struggle in the world. However brief their rein might be before they’re killed or sent to jail, they’re living the good life. It is this glam that Black kids hone in on when watching Mafioso films.
Beginning with his debut Road to the Riches, were like stark black and white documentaries about the lives of outlaws in the urban jungles of the world. “Kool G. Rap told rich stories that detailed what was going on in the street during the late ’80s, especially in the crack game,” says Harlem native and New Jack City screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper. “And, he did it with a traditional narrative. ‘Road to the Riches’ is a neo-realist aural movie.”
Many rappers ranging from Nas, Mobb Deep, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Fat Joe, Big Pun, Lady of Rage and 50 Cent cited him as an influence. Indeed, he was the man who gave them the courage to be all they could be without selling their souls. Be it Nas writing a meditation on life outside his project windows or Jay-Z big pimpin’ on a private yacht, they were each pulling from the same original source.
“Kool G. Rap is a supreme storyteller who just put you into that gangster world,” states Erick S. Gray, popular ghetto lit writer and co-author of the novel Streets of New York; the book was named after the Kool G. Rap’s popular Large Professor produced song from Wanted Dead or Alive (1990). In fact, more than a few novelists of the so-called “hip-hop lit” generation should donate a few royalty points “That joint he did with Nas ‘Fast Life’ (from G. Rap’s booming 1995 solo debut 4,5,6), he was telling it like it is in New York,” Gray continues. “There was a grimy feel to his work. It’s a shame he never got as much props as some other rappers.”
Although Kool G. Rap and DJ Polo only stayed together for a three more years until 1993, they managed to release two other masterful discs: Wanted–Dead or Alive in 1990 and Live and Let Die in 1992.
In a career that has stretched for more than two decades, Kool G. Rap has released seven discs and guest appeared on tracks with Pete Rock, Big L, Eminiem (who later gave him a shout-out during a Grammy Speech), MF Grimm and many others. A respected O.G. in the rap game, wherever Kool G. Rap might be today, one can be sure he is still hustling.