Most of my readers will probably look at this question and think that it is one of those silly questions or messages where someone asks or says something odd or outrageous just to see how I might respond. It’s funny to imagine Richard Milhous Nixon simply having rap music explained to him.
But, in reality, Nixon actually did mention the possibility of him becoming a rapper if rap had been popular when he was young. At Nixon’s Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, visitors used to be able to tour the exhibits while listening to the 37th President of the United States guide you via an audio recording (I’m not sure if you can still take the tour guided by Nixon’s voice; when I visited Yorba Linda in 2004, I just did a self-guided tour). The small house that Nixon was born in stands on the grounds of Nixon’s Library, and visitors listening to the audiotape while making their way through the house had their attention directed to several musical instruments that belonged to the Nixon family. When the former President referenced the instruments (on the audiotape) and mentioned his lifelong love for music, Nixon added, "I have often though that if there had been a good rap group around in those days, I might have chosen a career in music instead of politics."
Was he serious? No, of course not. Nixon did have an appreciation for music, and was confident enough in his abilities as a pianist that he played in public from time-to-time. But Nixon was also notoriously awkward and uncoordinated; he usually needed help to open bottles of any type and was so inept when it came to technology that it really is entirely possible that the infamous 18½-minute gap on the Watergate tapes was the result of Nixon clumsily erasing and/or taping over part of the recording.
One of the most crucial building blocks that make up the foundation of a good rapper is rhythm. Not only was Richard Nixon completely absent of rhythm but his lack of coordination actually made anyone around him seem awkward and out of place. Oddly enough, the rest of Nixon’s story resembled that of many contemporary rappers — as a young man, he faced quite a bit of adversity, growing up in an impoverished family on the West Coast (WESTSIDE!) and losing two brothers at a young age. He also had a way with words that very well could have translated into success for rap music in a different time period. While attending high school, Nixon represented the West Coast on the national level in debate/oratory contest. Later, he became the captain of the debating team at Whittier College and coaches marveled at his unique ability to successfully take on any viewpoint on any of the subjects up for debate.
It’s certainly a funny and outlandish image to picture Richard Nixon as a rapper. It’s even funnier to try to figure out who Tricky Dick’s favorite rapper would have been (I’m going to guess Mystikal just because it’s the strangest combination I immediately thought of). But, unfortunately, he wasn’t serious about wanting to be a rapper. And while his verbal skills and talent as an orator could have made him a dangerous freestyler and potential success in rap battles, the complete absence of rhythm would have been a lethal handicap to his reputation as an MC.
(Just out of curiosity, though, what would the best rap name for Richard Nixon be? Just his old-fashioned “Tricky Dick” moniker? “DJ Watergate”? “Presidential MC?” “DJ POTUS?” Since Nixon tried so hard during his lifetime to get his initials over like TR, FDR, JFK, and LBJ, how about “MC RN”?)
Of course. Now, I know that there’s a tendency in nearly all areas of entertainment to look at what is fresh and new and anoint it as what is best, but it is worth saying that I’ve been listening to hip-hop for as long as I’ve been able to turn the radio stations on my own and buy music and I strongly feel that Nicki Minaj is probably the best female MC of all-time if we’re ranking rappers separately by gender. If we don’t rank rappers by their gender, Nicki Minaj is still near the top of the list; she’s an incredible MC.
Is she my favorite female rapper? She’s up there, but, no, not just yet. I think that my favorite is probably still Lauryn Hill. I don’t know if I am physically capable of hearing a Lauryn Hill track — whether it is solo (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is one of the greatest albums of all-time) or from the Fugees — and not listening to every word and every beat. I’m also a big fan of Missy Elliott (I can’t wait until she finally drops Block Party!), Eve, and, of course, the late, great Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. And not only would I be remiss, but I’d be downright embarrassed if I didn’t mention the first-ballot Hall of Famers — pioneers like Roxanne Shante, Queen Latifah, Lady of Rage, Monie Love, and MC Lyte. Also, they didn’t last very long, but I’ve still got love for Infamous Syndicate.
Music is subjective, so a lot of this is a matter of personal opinion. I am a big fan of both Jay-Z (I understand that he dropped the dash, but I’m forever trapped in 1997) and Kanye West, but I think that Jay-Z is better. Now, that could all change someday and a lot of that is due to Jay’s longevity and the expanse of his overall discography. I’ll also acknowledge that if you look at each track that they’ve made individually, Kanye probably has a better overall batting average of hits (good or great songs in comparison to “eh” songs) than Jay does, but again, that’s also largely due to how many songs Jay-Z has made over the past 20+ years.
As an MC, I agree that Jay-Z is better, but I also think Kanye is underrated when it comes to his ability as an MC. Few people doubt Kanye’s talent and I doubt many hip-hop fans would disagree that he’s a nice rapper, but even with all of that I feel like his ability as an MC is often overlooked because of his personality and public image. Still, Jay-Z is one of the best ever, and even if some of his newer songs aren’t setting the world on fire (let’s go ahead and pretend that most of Magna Carta Holy Grail didn’t happen), he’s still at the top of his game as an MC. With both guys, few rappers can even approach them when it comes to content or delivery.
What I like best about Jay-Z and Kanye West is that they are the opposite of Lil’ Wayne in one crucial way. When Weezy drops a new album, I pick it up knowing that there are going to be ten tracks that I delete immediately, one that I play constantly for the next few weeks, and two or three that can go either way but which will usually need a half-dozen plays before I can make a decision on them. With Jay-Z and Kanye, I usually don’t delete anything because if the tracks don’t catch on immediately, I know I’ll soon catch myself repeating a hook or even randomly realizing, “Oh shit, that was a triple entendre!” If quality rap was just about flow, Tech N9ne would be selling records like Lil’ Wayne and if it was just about lyrical content so would Talib Kweli, but the very best, like Kanye and Jay-Z, have the total package. Jay-Z put it even better in Moment of Clarity: “If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did 5 mil’ — I ain’t been rhyming like Common since”.
That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate some of Lil’ Wayne’s stuff (some…I’m not a huge Weezy fan), Talib Kweli, or Common. In fact, Common is one of my favorite of all-time — I mean, if you only know Common from AMC’s Hell on Wheels (or, tragically, from Just Wright), do yourself a favor and go listen to the last verse from “Soul by the Pound” on Can I Borrow a Dollar?. Anyway, the point being that Jay-Z and Kayne are on a completely different level than almost every other rapper who has ever picked up a microphone, so it’s really difficult to choose between them, especially when I am a big fan of both, but I give Jay-Z the edge while not counting out the fact that Kanye may someday surpass him (but probably not). Most of all, I’m glad they work together so frequently.
Damn, picking just the top five off-the-top of my head is really difficult, but here we go:
1. 2Pac — All Eyez On Me
2. Dr. Dre — The Chronic
3. 4080 Magazine — Bay Area’s Greatest Hits, Volume 1
4. Wu-Tang Clan — Enter the Wu-Tang Clan: Return of the 36 Chambers
5.(tie) Wyclef Jean — The Carnival; Snoop Doggy Dogg — Doggystyle
I’m leaving out so many incredible albums that it hurts my heart to post this, but I feel okay with this list for now.
I don’t know what you’re asking me to do. All you did was throw out the names of two human beings and expect me to just make some magical connection or infer the intent of some question that you didn’t even ask. This is where I answer questions, not decipher what the questions might be.
I do know one thing is certain. I know that you’re not asking me to compare Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea as MCs. I know that you’re not asking that of me because I don’t have stupid readers and that would easily be the dumbest question that I’ve ever been asked.
Nicki Minaj is an MC. Nicki Minaj is a rapper. Nicki Minaj is a hip-hop artist. Nicki Minaj is all of those things (and many other things, too), and I know that you are not comparing her with Iggy Azalea, or asking me to compare them. Because Nicki Minaj is all of those things, and Iggy Azalea is none of those things.
The only similarities between what these two women do is that they make noises with their mouths into microphones and people give them money and recognition for doing so. But one of them also gets — I’m sorry, one of them “earns” respect. And one of them is just on TV and the radio constantly.
Nicki Minaj is a hip-hop artist, a rapper, an MC. Iggy Azalea is not. Iggy Azalea is a performance artist, and that’s the choice that she made and the choice that millions of people seem to support, just like millions of people supported performance artists like Bozo the Clown or Gallagher or Al Jolson. There are many performance artists in the world and many of them work hard. Some of them are talented and some of them are terrible. Some performance artists are respectful, culturally significant, and can be educationally important; some performance artists are offensive, either purposely or cluelessly ignorant, and, quite frankly, in certain cases, seem to be just a can of shoe polish away from performing in blackface.
Nicki Minaj is a hip-hop artist; Iggy Azalea is a performance artist. They do not do the same thing and they certainly are not at the same level. One of them does not deserve to be compared to the other or use the word “realest” in reference to herself. And, to be honest, one of them has fans who should be embarrassed for allowing music they think is catchy to blind them to blatant and shameful cultural appropriation.
This isn’t my area of expertise, though, so what do I know? I’m just a guy with opinions who knows hip-hop when he sees or hears it, and likes to think that authenticity is one of the most important factors behind making a hip-hop artist a hip-hop artist.
Oh man, I’m not sure. There are a lot of rap songs that mention Presidents that I really like! And that’s not even counting songs that just mention the word “President” like Eric B. is President from Eric B. & Rakim or Jay-Z’s Dead Presidents.
I really like the whole song Mr. President from 2Pac — the version from the Happy Home single, not from the Still I Rise album (which was retitled Letter to the President). It’s not really specific to an individual President, although it’s a song about the dangers and difficulties of life in the inner-city and addressed to President Clinton.
And because I am, deep down, a 19-year-old punk, I still enjoy these lyrics from Eminem’s Criminal:
"My morals went (fart noise) when the President got oral
Sex in his Oval Office on top of his desk off of
His own employee, now don’t ignore me, you won’t avoid me
You can’t miss me, I’m white, blonde-haired and my nose is pointy”
However, the best history-related rap song ever is the song from the Hamilton Mixtape that Lin-Manuel Miranda performed at the White House:
"The ten-dollar, Founding Father without a father,
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder/
By being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,
By fourteen they had placed him in charge of the trade and charter/
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered or carted
Away across the waves, our Hamilton kept his guard up/
Inside he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter”
Tomorrow is the 18th anniversary of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright’s death. The rapper died on March 26, 1995, about a month after checking himself into Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and finding out that he was suffering from AIDS, not asthma as he had suspected. Eazy-E became a hip-hop legend after bursting out of Compton as a part of the revolutionary group, N.W.A., along with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren. The controversy stemming from N.W.A.’s gangsta rap classics such as “Fuck Tha Police”, “Gangsta Gangsta”, and “Straight Outta Compton” led to the FBI actually sending a letter to Ruthless Records in 1989 condemning the content of N.W.A.’s music because they felt it encouraged violence against law enforcement.
So, what’s that have to do with Presidents?
After a $2,490 donation to the Republican Party, GOP heavyweights Bob Dole and Phil Gramm invited Eazy-E to the National Republican Senatorial Committee Inner Circle’s “Salute To The Commander-in-Chief” luncheon on March 18, 1991 in Washington, D.C. Senate Minority Leader Dole sent the gangsta rapper and former drug-dealer the invitation himself on February 8th, writing, “Elizabeth and I are looking forward to seeing you in Washington on March 18.”
Rocking a black leather suit topped off by his trademark Los Angeles Raiders hat, Eazy-E enjoyed lunch with some of the GOP’s top brass — people like Dole, Gramm, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Schultz, and Sam Walton — and a speech by President George H.W. Bush. While the voice behind “Boyz-N-The-Hood” didn’t get a chance to actually meet President Bush, Eazy-E made it clear that he was a fan and was even disappointed that Bush didn’t speak for longer. While he famously rapped “Don’t quote me, boy, cuz I ain’t said shit” in “Boyz-N-The-Hood”, Eazy-E’s spokesperson said that the rapper “Loves the President. He thinks he’s a great humanitarian and that he did a great job with Desert Storm.”
That might seem like something that would take away Eazy-E’s street cred. Ice Cube certainly thought so, as he made clear after leaving N.W.A with his diss song “No Vaseline” when he repeated, “I never had dinner with the President!” and accused N.W.A. of ditching Compton. But maybe Eazy-E and George H.W. Bush had far more in common than most people would imagine.
See, Eazy-E and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre and DJ Yella and MC Ren aren’t the only people to come “Straight Outta Compton”. In 1949, George Herbert Walker Bush and his family (including another future President, George W. Bush) lived in the Santa Fe Gardens in, yes, that’s right, Compton, California. The second child of George and Barbara Bush, Robin, who tragically died at the age of 4 of leukemia, was born in Compton. So, while Compton was a different place in that era, two Presidents of the United States represented the “CPT” — at least for a short time. And, as the photo at the end of this post demonstrates, young George W. was even strapped — more cowboy than gangsta, not surprisingly — as many young people have long been on the South side of Compton.
Interesting, I was just debating this very question with distinguished scholars from the American Antiquarian Society. And before he passed away, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and I frequently argued over whether Masta Killa should be considered a full-fledged member of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Anyway, GZA has the nickname of the “Genius”, but RZA is obviously the leader, the true brains of the clique, and the the sun in the Wu-Tang Clan solar system that the other members draw their energy from and orbit around. If we’re doing an old-fashioned Wu-Tang roll call (“The RZA, the GZA, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon the Chef, U-God, the Ghostface Killah, and…M-e-t-h-o-d MAN!”), we have a lot of talent, but RZA has to be the President. The great thing is that President RZA has himself a built-in Cabinet with his fellow killer bees!
And, if RZA is in the top spot, I’d want Ghostface Killah as his VP. As I said, RZA is undoubtedly the leader, and while I’m a big fan and think highly of everyone in the group, I think Ghostface’s talent level is above and beyond any other Wu-Tang member. I’d want him right at the top with RZA, ready to take over, if necessary.
(By the way, I’d like to see Eric Foner or Cornel West or H.W. Brands try to answer this question. WU-TANG!)