Reviews: Grindin’ by Clipse

Grindin’ is a rap song about dealing drugs. It evolved gangsta rap, thumbing it into coke rap, a subgenre of a subgenre of rap that was rooted primarily in talking about dealing drugs in clever ways, which became a dominant trend in rap. (Also, it became the North Star for the Neptunes, an affluential production duo.)

The following names are of characters from a TV show called The Wire, which ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008 and examined the caustic effects of drugs in Baltimore.

Omar Little: He is a self-employed mercenary. He sticks up drug dealers for a living.

Avon Barksdale: He’s the leader of a fiercely successful drug operation. Cutty: He’s a reformed enforcer from the drug trade. He runs a boxing gym now.

Bunk Moreland: He’s a detective in the homicide unit of the Baltimore PD.

Slim Charles: He mostly works as an enforcer for whichever drug cartel needs him.

Bubs: He alternates between being a drug addict and a recovering drug addict.

Stringer Bell: He’s second-in-command in the Barksdale organization.

This is not a comprehensive list of the people on the show, and the descriptions here can hardly really be called descriptions. But they will do.

“The game is out there, and it’s either play or get played.” —Omar Little

Pusha T is one of two members of the Clipse, and just that quickly you know that Pusha T spends a lot of his time talking about drugs, because his name is Pusha, referencing “pusher,” which is slang for “drug dealer.” 

The other member of the Clipse used to call himself Malice, and just that quickly you know that he spent a lot of time talking about bad things, drugs and the such, because his name was Malice. In 2012, Malice changed his name to No Malice, a reflection of his conversion to Christianity. 

The religiosity was largely inspired by the 2009 arrest and eventual incarceration of Anthony Gonzalez, the group’s former manager. Gonzalez admitted to being the leader of a $20 million drug ring that had moved a half ton of cocaine, a full ton of marijuana, and hundreds of pounds of heroin to different parts of the United States. 

He received thirty-two years in prison. No Malice still raps about the bad things, the drugs and such, and he does so with the same concrete resolution he’d flexed before, but now it’s of a different tone—a no-thank- you tone; a good-bye tone.

Pusha T admires The Wire. This makes sense because The Wire is wonderful and largely considered the finest television of its time and all time. But it also makes sense because the way you would talk about it—an unflinching, nuanced, steadied drug drama set in a city in the northeastern United States that forgoes celebrating drug culture and drug dealers in favor of positioning them as a reflection of that culture—is the exact same way you would talk about the Clipse’s music. 

They make drug records. More accurately: They make coke rap records. They did so in the ’90s to moderate success, but after linking up with production team the Neptunes, they did it in 20022 better than anyone had ever done it before, specifically with “Grindin’,” and effectively legitimized the coke rap trend that would come to dominate rap in the years that followed.

“We gon’ handle this shit like businessmen. Sell the shit, make the profit, and later for that gangster bullshit.” —Stringer Bell

At the beginning of “Grindin’,” Pharrell, one-half of the Neptunes, introduces everything by saying, “Yo, I go by the name of Pharrell, from the Neptunes, and I just wanna let y’all know the world is about to feel something that they’ve never felt before,” and as far as boasts go, it was similar to most, but also as far as boasts go, it was truer than most.

The Neptunes are maybe the most influential production team of the last fifteen years, and they were definitely that from 2000 to 2010. They built up large, large hits for Snoop (“Drop It Like It’s Hot”), Nelly (“Hot In Herre”),

Justin Timberlake (“Señorita”), Kelis (“Milkshake”), Britney Spears (“I’m a Slave 4 U”), Jay Z (“I Just Wanna Love U”), and more. But none matched the weight, the ingenuity of sparseness, of “Grindin’.” It sounded like someone was beating on a garage door, which connected it to the past, but it also sounded like someone was trying to make a phone call from outer space, which connected it to the future, and that’s exactly what it represented, both in production and rap.

“I’m just a gangster, I suppose. And I want my corners.” —Avon Barksdale

There’s a scene in the final episode of the second season of The Wire where a plan Stringer Bell laid gets tangled up and a hit man he hired named Brother Mouzone ends up getting shot but not killed. 

Stringer visits him in the hospital, and while there he asks Mouzone who shot him. Mouzone doesn’t say. When Stringer mentions the exchange to Avon, he says he asked Mouzone who shot him. 

Avon, flabbergasted, asks him why, but in a voice that lets him know it’s less a question and more an admonition. “Why, what?” Stringer asks. “How you gonna ask a soldier like Mouzone a question like that?” Avon barks. “Either he’s gonna say or he’s gonna work it out. Either way, you ain’t got to be asking him for shit.” Watching it unfold, I had no idea Stringer had done anything wrong, but as soon as Avon explained it I understood. Watching The Wire is great, but it always reminds me that I am not a gangster.

There’s a part in the third verse of “Grindin’” where (No) Malice says, “Four and a half will get you in the game / Anything less is just a goddamn shame.” 

It’s an easy bar to learn, and it’s fun to say, but I didn’t have any idea what it meant for the whole twelve years between when the song came out and when I wrote this paragraph right here. 

I didn’t know if “four and a half” meant hundreds, dollars, or guns or crack rocks or hot dogs. When dealing with cocaine, an eighth of a kilogram is the minimum amount considered to be major weight (an eighth of a kilogram is 4.5 ounces). Isn’t that interesting? Listening to the Clipse is great, but it always reminds me that I am not a drug dealer.

“The game done changed.” —Cutty

Pusha T and Malice are from Virginia Beach, Virginia. There’s an argument to be made that their prominence signaled the potentiality for other cities not known for rap to become known for rap (Memphis, Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., etc.). There’s also an easier argument to be made that the success of “Grindin’” was the continuation of the radio dominance of the Neptunes, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland, all also from Virginia, and all interested in evolving rap into etherealness.

“Thin line between heaven and here.” —Bubs

Right around the time that Malice was deciding to become No Malice, Pusha was deciding to join Kanye West’s GOOD Music label. No Malice found Jesus. Pusha T found Yeezus. I’m glad everything that’s ever happened in the whole history of the world has happened because it led to me being able to write a No Malice/Pusha T, Jesus/Yeezus couplet. This book is a success, as is history. Sometimes the universe serves this stuff up right in your face and all you can do is be thankful.

“If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie.” —Slim Charles

There have been stages to gangsta rap, which definitely is what coke rap is rooted in. Early gangsta rap, tied to the crack epidemic of the ’80s and early ’90s, was not an uplifting narrative; it didn’t have any Horatio Alger in it. It was meant as the loudest kind of analysis, an unsettling look at the aftershocks caused by the drugs and the drug war. It grew from there into what Dr. Dre and Snoop turned it into, which is to say a perfectly stylized version of itself. 

Then came the American outlaw Tupac, and after his death things started to tip. Crack, while still a nasty problem, wasn’t the rampant epidemic it was anymore, and so the violence that had been attached to it tapered off. (“In 1991, 50.4 African Americans per 100,000 were killed. By 2000, that number had halved itself. Actual murders committed by young black males dropped from 244.1 per 100,000 youths in 1993 to 67.3 in 1999.”) 

Biggie had turned the lens inward, examining the effect the drug trade had on a person philosophically and intrinsically (Jay Z occasionally did this, too, though never as well), and Nas sat on his stoop and reported on the entirety of his universe like no one else had or could. But, absent a sense of true urgency, gangsta rap floundered otherwise. Puff showed up and yanked rap in the direction he took it, commodifying commodities, commercializing everything with light-speed, slapping Cîroc stickers on everything and swapping out bandannas for velour Sean John sweatpants. 

And then the Clipse walked onto the radio with “Grindin’,” and Oh my goodness, what TF is this??? It was back to drug dealing, but it was this new thing, from this new perspective. There was no romanticizing, no upsell, just d-boy rap championing d-boy rap. The post-crack, post-Tupac gangsta rappers were supplementing true chaos with charisma, and the result was an inescapable feeling of secondhandedness. The Clipse were the opposite. There was no charisma. They had reverse charisma. The Clipse anesthetized the process. They removed the emotion. They were workaday hustlers. It was perfect.

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