Lyrics tell a story, teach a lesson, influence your life for three minutes. Hip-hop comes down to just that, at the bare bones, some solid beats and words, lyrics.
"My influence is my obligation," Kamikaze says firmly. Kaze is something of rap royalty in the Jackson hip-hop community. As a rapper, he uses his talent to spit the story he wants you to hear. As a man concerned about his city, he uses the influence he gains from that talent to better his community. Everyone from children to adults to Mayor Melton knows that Kamikaze's heart belongs to Jackson.
Starting from age 6 writing poetry, Kamikaze's path into hip-hop widened with the friends he made as a young man. While Kamikaze and David Banner are now known more as individual names, once upon a time they were a team called Crooked Lettaz.
What has been hailed as a critical success in hip-hop releases, their 1999 album "Grey Skies," remains a staple of the essential Southern rap collection. Different lyrically from the members' independent releases, "Grey Skies" not only catapulted Kamikaze and David Banner onto the scene, it also nearly bankrupted their dreams. After mismanagement of the album's success by their label, Banner and Kaze went their separate ways and carved out careers for themselves, by themselves.
The difference in lyrics is obvious between tracks like "South's On My Mind" from "Grey Skies" ("I'm hopin' to give the kids something back/Instead of wild-ass stories about sellin' vials of crack") and Kamikaze's later efforts. Kamikaze defends the shift as a choice he made in the order of success and listening power. Even though his lyrics can be explicit and questionable in their effects on the younger audience, Kaze says he counters that by being a positive role model in other aspects.
Kaze also defends his newest lyrics on several tracks of "The Franchise" as politically aware, not just endorsing the rapper life that kids gravitate to. He has pursued higher education and takes that message, along with his support for the betterment of the local community, into schools and assemblies of Jackson area youth, in addition to the life he talks about on his albums.
Far on other end of the lyrical spectrum sits Skipp Coon. Skipp is an embraceable teddy-bear man with a warm personality. In the heat of discussion on the Jackson Free Press forums, Skipp declared that, "At some point, artists must understand that to be an artist is to be under-appreciated."
He contends that you have to be true to yourself and what you've been through and relate that in your lyrics, regardless of how underappreciated you might be, especially financially. Skipp counters this by finishing his masters at Jackson State while working in an environment that is not his art.
On the side, Skipp gets to create gems like "Drift," where he spits over lazy beats, "(I'm) influenced by the struggle." He pays attention to his lyrics, making sure that they won't adversely affect the kids listening to his music. Skipp, like most in the Jackson hip-hop community, is acutely aware that the biggest demographic of potential listeners are teenagers. "Rappers have the child's attention, so now you have to say something to them," Skipp says.
So what about changing your lyrics and sound to be more like the guys we hear on the radio, the ones who get the money and the fame?
"I can only talk about what I know, otherwise I'm a fraud," Skipp says. This is the point heard over and over from all of the artists. When asked, "why keep rhymes that objectify women or embrace questionable activities like dealing drugs?" The answer, time after time, "This is what I know and I want to tell you about it. I'm not telling you that this is the way for you to act, but it's the story of my life."
Another Jackson artist, or "hustler" as he prefers, Benz maintains that he raps about the streets because that is what he has seen. It's what he knows best.
Would he ever change his lyrics for money and fame? "You got to be true to yourself, because folks know when you're not," he says. "I respect what the Roots or the Coup do (with socially conscious lyrics), but if everything is the same, things get boring."
Sure enough, the track "The Wait Is Ova" smartly samples Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and declares, "I know you're tired of the same ol' sh*t. …"
Also part of the local group the Queen Boyz with Bra, Benz has released his own tracks, sneering behind his shirt that declares, "Benz B*tch." His career is "about feeding your family and helping out your friends when you can."
Other than being able to give their beats to the community, they want to take care of those closest to them. And they will say what they want and need to make sure that happens.
Jack Frost tells a similar story. Starting out in the mid-'90s, Frost moved quickly to open his own studio and teach himself what he could do with beats. A self-described "entertainer," Frost spits about what he's going through. "Rap is freedom of what you want to say," he says. "I'll rap about being a gangsta talking to God and keep it real."
On the other hand, Frost admits that the game is about what people want to hear, "It's the way the world is now," he explains. He thinks it's up to consumers to demand more from artists in the vein of lyrical content.
So what about kids who are listening to his music? "Rap is not the only avenue of affecting kids. Movies, video games, all have content that could affect kids negatively," Frost declares.
Rah Fontaine, who started his record label in 1998 in North Carolina, knows that his audience is the streets, the people who are worried about minimum wage and surviving on food stamps. That's who Fontaine talks to in his tracks.
"The street lyrics and the social lyrics have their purpose, and no one wants to listen to a whole street disc," he says. "No one wants to feel like someone's preaching to them. This is life music."
Fontaine makes a point seldom heard—"The market has categorized us and has taken away (discerning) opinion," he says.
Like Jack Frost, Fontaine is acutely aware that his career is up to the market. They are all aware that millions of dollars are being thrown behind the Snoops and the Young Jeezys and not necessarily behind the Mos Defs or the Roots. In the end, "don't be like the music. Just listen to it."