In a world where hip hop dominates the music business, its roots as a genuinely challenging genre seem a world away. This is one of the reasons why we’re so excited to get our hands on The Money Store, the debut album by Death Grips, which follows their killer mixtape Exmilitary from last year. It’s a reminder of the fact that when hip hop abandons its tiresome obsession with idiot materialism and posturing, it can still sound vital and relevant. And it also got us thinking about the days when there were some truly, and even refreshingly, frightening people working in the genre — so here are some artists who’ve terrified the establishment and/or your correspondent over the years. (And no, we’re not including Big Lurch — PCP-catalyzed cannibalism is a whole category of its own.)
Sure, Flavor Flav is reality TV’s cuddliest lunatic these days, and Public Enemy are more respected elder statesmen of the rap world than they are harbingers of the imminent doom of American society. But you can see why the group terrified the white establishment when they first appeared — a fiercely literate and very angry MC, a gurning nutcase with a clock around his neck, and a DJ who went by the name “Terminator X,” backed by music that sounded like a tape deck disintegrating and three large men who looked like they were part of some sort of paramilitary terrorist group. It’s no wonder they had right-wing shock jocks the nation over choking on their collective cornflakes.
Similarly, with Curtis Jackson now a thoroughly rehabilitated figure, with a nice big mansion in Connecticut and a book about how to deal with bullying, it’s easy to forget just what a genuinely terrifying figure he cut in his early videos. Exhibit A: the video for “Heat,” which plays out like an episode of The Wire or something — it catalogs 50’s “associates” kidnapping a rival gang member, beating him, torturing him, and eventually murdering him. It’s all narrated by the rapper himself, and if he’s not a gun-toting, leering, homicidal sadist… well, he’s doing a fine impression of one.
We don’t mean to sound mean-spirited here, but damn, the plastic surgery Lil Kim’s had over the years is frightening.
Ah, Bushwick Bill: the man who goaded his girlfriend into shooting him (which she did) by threatening to harm her baby, and then tried to sue the brand of alcohol he’d been drinking at the time for “aiding and abetting a felony.” The whole case is more sad than anything else, but still, there’s something singularly disconcerting about Bushwick Bill. His bandmates weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs, either.
Not scary, you say? You’re clearly not a teenage girl, then.
There’s an argument to be made that Tori Amos’s reworking of “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” is even more disconcerting than the original, but either way, the song should serve as a reminder of the time when the world was convinced that Eminem really was insane and potentially homicidal. The on-again, off-again relationship with the mother of his child, along with his fraught relationship with his own mother — both cataloged in songs from his first couple of records — played out as very public dramas, and it wasn’t any sort of a giant leap to imagine the scenario described in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” having actually happened.
Freddie Foxxx/Bumpy Knuckles
A 6’2″ man mountain whose nickname “Bumpy Knuckles” apparently came from the appearance of his fists after meting out a pounding to someone who crossed him? Yeah, we reckon that qualifies as scary. As Slug of Atmosphere once said about Foxxx, “when someone can be nice to you and still scare the shit out of you — that’s gangsta.”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Surely the most genuinely certifiable man ever to grace the world of hip hop (and that’s saying something), ODB was generally more hilariously crazy than terrifyingly crazy, but that doesn’t mean you’d be leaving him alone with your kids. His FBI file — released under Freedom of Information earlier this year — makes for interesting reading.
We’re sure that Bizarre’s oh-so-shocking persona and lyrics are at least somewhat contrived — he’s always struck us as a bit of a hip hop Steel Panther — but it’s neither of those things that we find terrifying about him. No, it’s that damn shower cap. There’s just something singularly freaky about seeing a large sweaty man wearing a piece of frilly plastic headwear. If we saw him coming our way, we’d definitely be crossing the street.
No, he’s not actually a rapper, but the man who allegedly once dangled Vanilla Ice off a balcony to encourage Vanilla to sign over the publishing rights for “Ice Ice Baby” deserves a place on this list regardless. His aura may have diminished in the 21st century, but during the “glory” days of Death Row there wasn’t a more feared man in hip hop — if you crossed him, you might well have ended up as food for his piranhas.