hip hop music

May 9, 2003

Stagger Lee, the O.G.'s O.G.

Here's a lengthy feature in the Guardian breaking down the history of Black folk (anti)hero Stagger lee. It's written by Cecil Brown, who wrote the cult classic novel "The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger", and just released a non-fiction work named "Stagolee Shot Billy", from which this essay is drawn.

Brown was immortalized on Richard Pryor's concert album "Bicentennial Nigger", when Richard pointed Cecil out in the audience and talked about how much he liked "Jiveass Nigger", plus how jealous he was that Brown came to the show with Rosalind Cash.

I think he may be reaching a bit with some of the connections drawn between Stagolee and Hip-Hop, such as when he points out that they both make use of cliche.. similarities don't always indicate influences. But this is still a nice offering, highly informative. I recommend reading the whole thing but I will paste some of the section that deals with Hip-Hop:

Godfather of Gangsta

In the red-light district of St Louis in 1895, a pimp shot a man dead in an argument over a hat. The ballad telling the story has been recorded by hundreds of bluesmen and jazzers - and even the Clash. It also helped create modern-day rap. Cecil Brown tells the remarkable tale of Stagolee...

...In the development of rap music and hip-hop culture, Stagolee's influence is very clear. It persists in rap in the use of the first-person narrator, the performers' adoption of nicknames, the social drama, the humour, and participation in the commodity culture. From the 1930s to the 1950s, most reciters of Stagolee told the story in the third person. After the rise of the toast tradition in the 1960s, most reciters told the story in the first person. The audience sees through the eyes of the character the rapper creates. The "I" is the bridge between the "I" of the rapper and the "I" of the character.

A reciter of Stagolee associates himself with the hero, but he also makes clear that he is not Stagolee. He can effectively change himself in the eyes of his spectators and listeners. In gangsta rap, the performers are acting out the lives of the criminals in an effort to dispel the criminal from their midst, as a way to get rid of the negative energy.

Stagolee is also present in rap music in the use of cliche: Stagolee is composed of cliche lines that are easy to remember. In rap music, performers found it necessary to use such cliches to keep the rap going.

The final influence that Stagolee has on rap was participation in commodity culture. In the 1890s, the Stetson became a symbol of black male status; in the late 1990s, baggy pants became a signifier of status. As in ear lier generations, ghetto blacks fight against a white appropriation through weird dress. To be able to purchase these commodities, young people in the ghettos resort to hustling, as their parents and grandparents did. They can't afford to believe that a nine-to-five job would solve their problems, because they could never get those jobs.

So gangsta rappers use the lifestyle commodities - cars, clothes, girls - as signifiers of success and wealth. They scrap the old cliche of the ghetto hustler with a slick suit and a truckload of hot goods for the new archetype of the rapper. The term and the concept of the modern-day "mack" are a retrieval of the old cliche of the St Louis mack that Lee Shelton once embodied. And it is not just the mack who is revived, but the women who will do anything for him, including sell their bodies. The girls rappers talk about are whores, or "ho's", just as they were back in the pre-industrial ballads of Stagolee...

Posted by jsmooth995 at May 9, 2003 5:58 PM

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