Tuesday, November 15, 2005

get rich or die tryin?

Last week I saw the movie about a Queens bred MC who was almost killed by neighborhood drug dealers before his musical career took off. And although the audience knows his relation to some the most important figures in rap history (including Nas and Mobb Deep)… they also know his moment in the spotlight will, most likely, never compare to some of his associates.

This past week 50-Cent (forever in the artistic shadow of Eminem and Dr. Dre) made his debut on the silver screen… but the movie ‘Tragedy: The Story of Queensbridge’ is what actually got me to a theater… and it told one of the most fascinating stories of hip-hop that most histories will overlook.

no joke

A story using the history of hip-hop as a backdrop needs a character and setting to carry the audience through the various phases of it’s culture and one would be hard-pressed to create a credible character and setting as long-lived and as rich in legend as Tragedy and the Queensbridge housing projects. Director Booker Sim realized this when he set out to do a movie about the QB projects. Although he was drawn to the area by the recordings of Mobb Deep and Nas he quickly learned the name that everyone kept mentioning was a lesser known but clearly legendary MC, Tragedy, known best, possibly, as the Intelligent Hoodlum of the Juice Crew. His character provided a specific point of view that would allow a more focused tale of Queensbridge, a hip-hop microcosm for many of its most talented artists.

If hip-hop’s history was told via styles Queensbridge would take us from the recording pioneers of MC Shan and Marly Marl, through the Golden Era of style diversity epitomized by the Juice Crew (also a Marly Marl production), to the pinnacle of hip-hop poetic lyricism (arguably) captured by Nas’ album ‘Illmatic’ and through the reinvention of the East Coast ‘street-sound’ via Mobb Deep’s relentlessly cold vision ** and even through the mannerist thug styles of Capone-N-Noreaga that eventually became mainstream.

Or if you think history is defined through it’s battles you will see Queensbridge on one side of The Bronx/Queens ‘Bridge Wars’ which morphed into the WBLS/KISS FM rivalry as well as sparking the East/West Coast rivalry culminating in the murder of Tupac and Biggie. The record ‘NY, NY’ by the Dogg Pound from L.A. drew the fierce retaliation on the classic ‘L.A., L.A.’ by Capone-N-Noreaga featuring Tragedy and Mobb Deep on a track from Marly Marl.

In retelling the story of Queensbridge hip-hop, Booker Sim had to choose what to tell and how to tell it. Tragedy’s perspective allows for a subjective plotline but unfortunately gives a skewed vision of history which leads to some questionable moments. The most glaring omission from the film is the lack of commentary by QB affiliated artists MC Shan, Cormega, Nore and, most notably, Nas. Sim noted after the screening that attempts were made to contact Nas but the interviews never took place. Making a note of that within the film wouldn’t have answered the question ‘Where is Nas?’ but it would have reinforced some of the commentary by others in the film who questioned Nas’ credibility within the QB houses.

Sim presents staged scenes from Tragedy’s life which have the odd quality of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ rather than the informative tone of Errol Morris’ ‘Thin Blue Line’. It is much more compelling to hear Tragedy tell a story than to re-enact it. The bizarre scene of Trag telling his crew to see the bigger picture of ‘gangsterism’ by looking at political figures comes off as hokey while it could have been powerful presented as a matter-of-fact description by any of the people that were there hearing Tragedy draw connections between Al Capone, Manuel Noriega and Muammar al-Qaddafi.

One of the most amazing stories Tragedy tells begins with his attempt to make some ‘easy money’ by robbing some local drug dealers. After the dealers capture him, torture him and leave him tied up for days without use of a toilet they throw him into the icy waters of the East river. Not only is Tragedy weak from the captivity and torture but he doesn’t know how to swim. Somehow he washes up on the rocks of Queens and he “inchworms” himself to dry ground.

His artistic path at this time led him to the already legendary Marly Marl. Tragedy becomes the youngest member of Marly’s Juice Crew featured on the album ‘In Control Vol. 1’. Unfortunately Tragedy is sentenced to 18 months at Rikers Island where he defends himself against a prison attack with the help of a sharpened pencil. Because of that prison encounter he is put into a tougher block of Rikers. There he is taught about the discipline of Islam by Black Muslim prisoners.
Upon his release from prison, his ‘education’ leads to his ‘Intelligent Hoodlum’ persona (and album) and conversations with Chuck D about greater political struggles. But unfortunately this new found discipline didn’t prevent Trag from allegedly robbing Marly of his SP1200 and some portion of ‘publishing’ because of financial disputes.

The film shows Havoc of Mobb Deep articulate his indebtedness to Tragedy’s influence. Trag named Havoc and expected a new rhyme from him everytime he saw him at a local candy-store or else Trag would give him a ‘beatdown’. The film also shows many locals who feel that Nas’ album ‘Illmatic’ is just an interpretation of Trag’s style and that Nas is not as ‘real’ as he portrays himself when rapping. We are not shown a Nas rebuttal.

The film is full of on-location raps by QB citizens and it is striking how talented many of them are and how seemingly limited their view of life is as conveyed in their rhymes. But just when you think they all sound the same, the camera returns to one very young looking, slightly chubby young MC who raps into the camera with steely conviction and confidence in flow. The audience had to let out nervous but encouraging laughter because we all knew we were witnessing someone a little bit better than the rest. The next great MC out of Queensbridge? Maybe not… but that QB MC is inevitably on the way.

One of the most successful tools that Sim uses in the film is the mixing of that live rapping and ‘soundtrack’ recordings. The footage of Tragedy and others rapping is mixed with portions of the actual recordings. This emphasizes the lyrics and actually increases the energy of the film much the way a DJ will cut in and out at a live performance. Tragedy’s lyrics, in all of their multiple referenced, metaphorical glory, are served well here, forcing the viewer to listen to the words rather than nod to the beats. When you hear Tragedy’s lyrics it is a wonder that he is not well known outside of a ‘cult’ of fanatical supporters. His subject matter runs from heartfelt tales of family and the hood to abstract philosophical fragments to political meditations… but always with the distinct vocal precision and phrasing that you come to recognize once you have heard raps from his various phases. As ‘The Intelligent Hoodlum’ or ‘Tragedy Khadafi the Arab Nazi’ he has never quite reached the success of those he has worked with closely (Juice Crew, Nas, Mobb Deep, and NORE) but it is not due to his strengths... which would allow one to describe his career as ‘tragic’. His downfalls have sometimes been tied to circumstances beyond his control (such as addiction and death in his family) and other times the result of bad choices in the life of the streets… choices that some of the more financially successful artists may have been lucky enough to avoid. Although it would be hard to fault his necessity to steal as a boy with a drug addicted mother it is unfortunate that the film does not delve deeper into Tragedy’s later choices as a man and an admired artist faced with loss or desperation.

You can get much more detail on Tragedy’s career from Robbie over at the Tragedy Special on uncut.com but here's a few cuts...

Intelligent Hoodlum - Your Tragedy
Intelligent Hoodlum - Microphone Check
Capone N Noreage, Tragedy - Thug Paradise
Nas, Nore, Tragedy Khadafi - Calm Down (Street Version)
CamRon, Killa Sha, RZA, Tragedy Khadafi - Enemy of the State
Cormega, Tradegy Khadafi - No Equivalant
Styles P, Scram Jones, Tragedy, Kool G Rap - The Line Up
Casual, Rock Marciano, Vordul Mega, Tragedy Khadafi - Think Differently

**As an aside I have to say the most shocking information I gained from the film is that Prodigy of Mobb Deep is not from Queensbridge but from Long Island, although he is accepted, obviously, by the QB citizens as being ‘from’ QB.