The Madness of Gangsta Rap
By Haider ShahbazAugust 31, 2015
Diary of a Madman by Benjamin Meadows-Ingram and Brad “Scarface” Jordan
IN 1991, two poignant frames hung in the exhibition “Black Youth and Mental Health.” Both by black British photographer Dave Lewis, the first photograph shows gradients of radiant yellow that crop a black man’s face, focusing on a single eye, brow, and half of a nose. The second shot is taken from underneath a glass table, capturing the bewildered face of a black man dressed in denim and a wool beanie, as he studies, palms outstretched on the table, a scatter of colorful pills. The photographs are especially memorable for the glowing colors they employ to filter the black man’s image, the melancholy on the subject’s faces dully reflecting the brightness around them.
Scarface’s memoir, Diary of a Madman, frequently reminded me of Dave Lewis’s photographs, because, like them, the memoir tries to simultaneously hold color and depression — life and death — in a single frame.
It opens with an attempt at suicide. At 13, Scarface, tired of not getting attention from his absent mother and overworked grandmother, his father long dead, decides to take all his mother’s blood pressure medication. The attempt is not his first. As Scarface explains: “You name it, I’d tried it. Slitting my wrists with a box cutter and bleeding out all over the bathroom floor, putting loaded guns to my head, all of that shit. If you’d asked me then, I’d have told you straight up: I was ready to go.”
But he doesn’t go. Instead, he ends up an integral, perhaps the most significant, part of James Prince’s Rap-A-Lot Records, becoming a member of the Geto Boys, a group that was largely responsible for the rise (and notoriety) of Southern gangsta rap in the early 1990s. Soon after, he launches a solo career and releases such influential records as The Diary, The Untouchable, and The Fix, all of which received high praise from hip-hop critics. As Chris Rock said, while picking his top 25 hip-hop albums for Rolling Stone: “He is the most underrated rapper of all time and absolutely in the top three. You cannot get to four without mentioning Scarface. Any rapper knows that.” The albums didn’t undersell either — Scarface has six gold- or platinum-certified solo albums and three as a member of the Geto Boys. He also served as the president of Def Jam South, signing and developing the careers of artists like Ludacris.
If the memoir is an opportunity to celebrate Scarface’s contributions to hip-hop, it is also a way to account for the obstacles in the way of both his and hip-hop’s rise. Beginning with a two-year stay at the mental health facility of Houston International Hospital following his suicide attempt, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on lithium and Mellaril, the memoir goes on to depict Scarface’s struggles with what he describes as a “supervised, controlled environment like a school, a hospital, or jail.”
He observes the following about his teenage stay at the hospital: “I would have been just another black boy lost in the system, neglected, forgotten, and locked away by a society that never wanted me in the first place.” He arrives at a similar conclusion when the record label Geffen backs out of distributing Geto Boys’ music, citing offensive content as the reason, while continuing to distribute other controversial artists like Andrew Dice Clay, Slayer, and Guns N’ Roses: “If you ask me, Geffen just didn’t want to see a bunch of niggas make some real money. When you think about all of the shit that we went through just trying to find a place to put our music, it’s hard not to see that shit as what I really think it was: active discrimination.” Time and again, the reader is confronted with incidents of institutionalized racism: encounters with racist cops, backlash from the media concerning his music, the DEA trying to set him up, his observations of prison while he was incarcerated (“black inmates were always kept in small groups and we were always outnumbered”).
Images of dead bodies mark the memoir with a morbid rhythm. The rapper confronts his first death at the age of seven, working as a stock boy at a convenience store when the cashier is shot during a robbery. A few years later, a neighbor shoots his wife in the head, and Scarface sees the body lying outside their house. His friend Rudy is shot by an off-duty cop during a fight in Louisiana, another friend, Big Mello, dies in a car crash, his father is shot dead when he is nine years old, and of course, there is the murder of 2Pac, a close friend of Scarface’s. Unfortunately, and this should go without saying, it is not a coincidence that Scarface witnesses widespread death. As he makes clear — “when you live your life in the streets, death is never too far down the road” — death is a constant threat in poor black communities in America. In particular, the War on Drugs is shown for what it really is — a technology and politics of death: “Once that crack came in, it got to a certain point where you’d hear those shots go off and you didn’t even want to go look anymore. You already knew someone was dead. It had become an everyday thing.”
Anybody familiar with Scarface will know that he frequently discusses death and depression on his tracks. His music has always dealt with grim subjects, not only the general depictions of violence and crime common to gangsta rap, but also the bleak, despairing thoughts that accompany such a life. As he explains in the memoir: “I’ve always known why we were making the music we were making, just like I know how a lifetime of subtle and blatant racism and oppression can make you want to reach for your pistol and either shoot the oppressor or shoot yourself.” From as early as “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” the breakthrough single by Geto Boys, and “Diary of a Madman,” the single off his first album that serves as the memoir’s title, Scarface had mastered the art of narrating the psychological effects of racism. Looking at his catalog, it is easy to see how “a lifetime of subtle and blatant racism” fuels his obsession with death and violence. Some of his most famous songs (“A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die,” “Hand of the Dead Body” [with Devin the Dude’s melodic chorus, “Gangstas don’t live that long”], “Crooked Officer,” and “I Seen a Man Die”) exhibit impeccable craft in their exposure of the fatal conditions gripping black communities.
“Smile,” arguably Scarface’s most successful song, is a collaboration with 2Pac, released soon after 2Pac’s death and meant both as a tribute and a valediction. Pac raps the first verse, which he begins with a discussion of the black man’s misinterpreted image in the media (“No fairy tales for this young black male”), then goes on to confront his personal scars (“Why shed tears? Save your sympathy / My childhood years were spent burying my peers in the cemetery”), and ends with a message directed at his fans, but also, in some ways, at the wider black community (“To all the seeds that follow me / Protect your essence / Born with less, but you still precious / Just smile for me now”). In its conclusion, Pac’s verse adopts an assertive black power message, encouraging black people to appreciate themselves despite being born under repressive conditions.
Scarface’s verse — reminiscent of Pac’s for the most part — attempts to portray the conditions of oppression in black communities: “A man without a focus, life could drive him insane / Stuck inside a ghetto fantasy hoping it’d change / But when I focus on reality we broke and in chains.” However, at the end of the verse, Scarface shifts somewhat from Pac’s message of self-love: “Had a dream of living wealthy and making it big / Over football chose to cook raw, wouldn’t take but I did / And after all my momma’s thanking God for blessin’ the child / All my momma gots to do now is collect it and smile.” Happiness, in Scarface’s verse, does not result from personal conviction, but from the material prosperity of those who depend on him. Assuring the security of his mother, but leaving his own fate unexplained, arguably more endangered, Scarface manages through the verse’s deliberate ambiguity to simultaneously protest and boast. In his brilliant construction, the joy of prosperity does not cancel out the terror of death and imprisonment (and vice versa) that continue to haunt his life beyond the verse.
He emphasizes the same contradiction in his memoir:
It was about carving out a space and a success that couldn’t be stopped or controlled by some crooked-ass cops or the state or corporate America or anything that had anything to do with the traditional white establishment. We knew we couldn’t win the race. It wasn’t designed for us to win, not no way, not no how, so it didn’t even make sense for us to try to run in it. Instead we looked for ways around it, and that’s where the dope dealing and the music came in.
Revisiting the sentiments of “Smile,” Scarface shows that even though “we couldn’t win the race,” the “traditional white establishment” could be partially, or momentarily, overcome by “carving out a space” outside of its control.
While Pac’s formulation of resistance depends on the negation of unjust conditions in black communities with images of self-ownership, an oppositional view that rests on confronting the forces of evil with good, Scarface’s verse effectively captures the contradiction of simultaneously succeeding and losing. It honestly portrays the stakes involved in producing wealth and culture in a racist, globalized, and highly commoditized society, the exact foundation that saw hip-hop become an international multimillion-dollar phenomenon. One might even go so far as to propose that Scarface’s verse, coming after Pac’s (who had recently been murdered), marked the last breath of the black power paradigm, and the beginning of a time in which a wealthy industry and a fertile culture like hip-hop could exist, unapologetically, alongside the planned deployment of militarized police force against black people. A contradictory time like ours, marked by Beyoncé’s royalty and Michael Brown’s murder, is best contextualized not only by the vision in Scarface’s verse, but the vision embedded in hip-hop’s historical rise itself, and the precise contradiction that animates this powerful memoir: a near-impossible wish to succeed despite an imposed culture of death.
Diary of a Madman can be read as a rags-to-riches tale. It takes us through the classic arc: Scarface grows up a black man in a low-income neighborhood with few opportunities and goes on to become a platinum-certified artist, a highly respected veteran of hip-hop, an innovative, handsomely paid music executive. But the book also leads us through a parallel narrative, beginning with a teenage stint in a mental health institute and ending with Scarface’s own incarceration. As he says in the introduction:
One minute, I’m in the hospital depressed, and the next minute I’m at James Prince’s ranch recording an album with a bunch of motherfuckers I hardly know. One minute, I ain’t got a dime in my pocket; the next minute I’m buying houses and cars on fucking credit cards. One minute, I’m just another nigga with no father from the Southside of Houston, Texas; the next minute, motherfuckers are calling me the Godfather of Southern Rap.
The achievement of the book is precisely its unsettling ability to view life and death together, the coexistence of the rewards of success and the technologies of subjugation. The interplay of the two narratives — Scarface’s ability to look in both directions at once — makes this book a remarkable personal memoir as well as an insightful study of the circumstances that have established hip-hop in the popular imagination.
Haider Shahbaz was born in Lahore and currently lives in Las Vegas, where he is enrolled in the MFA program at University of Nevada. His reviews have appeared in The Believer Logger, Jadaliyya, Himal SouthAsian, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp a Butterfly" marks the triumphant revival of the black postmodern epic tradition.
Autobiography and memento mori from hip-hop's rising memoirist
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!