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"Gimme the Loot": Voices and Storytelling in Hip-Hop

"It's mostly the voice" - Guru

If you ask someone what makes a rapper great, you'll get a lot of different answers: their rhymes, their flow, their storytelling abilities. But vocal control is underrated among hip-hop heads today. Listening to "Gimme the Loot" for the thousandth time recently, I started thinking about how rappers manipulate their voices not just to contribute to the sound or emotion of the track but to embody different characters and tell a story. Here's a short history of the development of this method of storytelling.

Shawn Brown - Rappin' Duke (1984)

Remember "Rappin' Duke?" Biggie mentions this track as representative of the primitive state of hip-hop at the birth of the genre. Emcees saw themselves as entertainers first and foremost and they weren't above putting on silly voices and clowning around. The first example I can find is the robotic voice on Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force's 1982 hit "Looking for the Perfect Beat." "Rappin' Duke" is just one of many novelty rap songs that would follow in the '80s. Here's a song where a British DJ raps as a number of his characters from 1983. Here's a song from '85 with commedian Joe Piscopo rapping as Jackie Gleason and Eddie Murphy as Ed Norton. I'm sure you could find many more, but I'm more interested in the next stage of the evolution so let's move on.

Slick Rick - Mona Lise (1988)

Slick Rick is the guy who took a dumb gimmick and used it to master the art of storytelling. Listen to the way he raps and sings back and forth with himself on this track, and imagine that all you'd ever heard before that was "Rapin' Duke." One thing you'll notice on this list is that most rappers never change their voices to play different characters, but those who do do it a lot. Ricky D does it on almost every song. On the same album he does it on Indian Girl Kit, The Moment I Feared, and of course the classic intro to Children's Story. Then he keeps on doing it—on A Love That's True in '94, Trouble On The Westside Hwy in 2004, and Auditorium with Mom Def in 2009. And that list is far from exhaustive. In fact it's one of the most striking elements of his style, and I shouldn't have to tell you how influential that style was —only Rick could get his songs covered by rappers as different as Mos and Talib and Snoop.

Digital Underground - Doowutchyalike (1989)

"Doowutchyalike" is pure '80s silliness, but don't ignore its innovations. Shock G is the first rapper to trade bars with an alter-ego, the ugly Humpty Hump. Humpty would reappear on The Humpty Dance (peep Tupac in the background there) and later on 1991's Same Song, Pac's recording debut. Humpty is inspired less by Slick Rick's vivid storytelling and more by novelty songs like "Rappin' Duke," and yet the music and the lyrics have obviously improved a great deal from those early days, and it's possible to imagine rappers using this technique to create serious characters. Unlike Slick Rick's, these songs are obviously primarily intended for dancing, but there's a potential here to use this alter-ego concept for some pretty sophisticated storytelling.

Tupac - Solja's Story (1991)

Pac may have learned this technique from Shock G, but he uses it to tell a story more like Slick Rick did. Here he tells the story of two brothers, based on the life of the gangster/revolutionary George Jackson. This is a traditional storytelling song like Ricky D used to tell, but the lyrics and the flows finally sound truly complex and modern for the first time. This is probably the first song on the list with no recognizable humor. It's not as sophisticated as "Gimme the Loot"—he raps one verse in one voice, then switches for the next—but it's a compelling statement on the cycle of violence in the hood and how policing and the prison system feed into it. It would receive a posthumously released sequel with When I Get Free.

Redman - Redman Meets Reggie Noble (1992)

Redman is the first to modernize the concept of trading bars with an alter-ego, and wed modern styles with traditional humor. He's obviously inspired by Slick Rick—his song A Day Of Sooperman Lover, which also features the adventures of an alter-ego, starts with a high-pitched kid's voice begging for a bedtime story, just like Children's Story—but he improved the verisimilitude of the technique. You could almost think there are two rappers facing off on this track. These songs are humorous, but they aren't just jokes anymore. If you want more check out Sooperman Luva II, 3 and IV.

Positive K - I Got a Man (1992)

Listen to this song and you might not notice anything special, but the female voice is actually Positive K's pitched up. This song is notable mainly as the first example I know of with a rapper using electronic pitch modification to create a different character.

Biggie - Gimme The Loot (1994)

This song is a masterpiece of vocal control and storytelling. There are still Biggie fans to this day who don't realize Biggie is playing both characters in this story. The acting is excellent —you can tell one character is younger and more nervous from his pitch and his speed, as he tries to impress his older, more experienced partner. Biggie liked this storytelling technique so much he did it again on Warning. I don't know if he ever talked about his inspiration, but he did enjoy Redman's first album (after that it got a little too weird for him), and he obviously liked Slick Rick enough to jack his line on "La Di Da Di" for the chorus of "Hypnotize." Still, these songs were totally new in proving that you could use your voice effectively to tell a story without acting the least bit clownish, accompanied by the latest flows and the best beats. This is not your dad's "Rapin' Duke."

DMX - Damien (1998)

Like a lot of rappers on this list, you can tell DMX is consciously using his voice as an instrument when he growls, barks and shouts like he's possessed. According to the interviews, he considers Slick Rick one of the five biggest influences on his style, and you can see that expressed on Crime Story, where he voices an angry policeman, himself pretending to be a woman, and his scared friend on the phone. DMX also acts out the angel and the devil on his shoulder on Stop Being Greedy, God on Ready To Meet Him, released later that year, and Damien again in a sequel.

Peanut Butter Wolf feat. Lootpack & Quasimoto - Styles, Crews, Flows, Beats (1999)

This is the first appearance of Madlib's high-pitched alter-ego, Quasimoto. This is a partial return to the silliness of the '80s. The following year he would release an entire album as Quaz.

Eminem - Kim (2000)

The vocals on this track are masterful—the fact that "Kim" is obviously just Eminem imitating his former wife's voice while she begs and screams adds an extra demented twist to the whole thing, and the emotion he invests in both voices is almost as important in selling the story as the lyrics. Eminem is more proof that rappers who use their voices to play characters tend to do it a lot. He used a vocal effect on the intro to his demo, and he never stopped experimenting. In fact he uses weird accents on most of Relapse, to some fans' chagrin. Compare his voices and flows on Stan to those he uses on Drug Ballad, Stay Wide Awake, and My Darling, which conveys evil in a way reminiscent of "Damian."

Eminem pays frequent tribute to his influences. His Slim Shady persona owes a lot to "Redman Meets Reggie Noble" in its portrayal of inner turmoil and instability, and indeed Em acknowledges Reggie as his GOAT. In the first song on his Slim Shady EP he even borrows the line "I'm low down and dirty, but not ashamed" from Redman''s "Soopaman Luva 3." He also describes himself as "just a product of Slick Rick and Onyx" on another song.

Sticky Fingaz - Oh My God (2000)

Sticky Fingaz is sorely underrated these days, but he deserves to be counted as one of hip-hop's great storytellers. On this track he plays the part of God offering reassurances to himself in the middle of a mental breakdown. The emotion of his vocal work is up there with Em's on "Kim." The song this album comes from, [Blacktrash] The Autobiography of Kirk Jones is a concept album the likes of which we did didn't really see again until Kendrick came on the scene. Seriously, go listen to the whole thing. The song Baby Brother features Kirk watching his little brother getting trapped in the cycle of the streets in a way that reminds me of "Solja's Story." The little brother meets a similar fate in both.

Canibus - U Didn't Care (2001)

I'm not going to cover the whole Canibus-Eminem beef, but it's full of a lot of great vocal work and lyricism. Here Canibus raps with the vocal inflections and flow of Stan, dissing Em. On one of Eminem's responses, the 2003 Can-I-Bitch, Marshall transforms Slick Rick's "Children's Story" into a diss in turn, featuring a hilarious impression of Bis. The line "Bite another line from Redman's song!" Is a bit ironic though, considering his own history. Canibus would, like Eminem, borrow a theme from Redman again for Bis vs Rip (2002), where Bis fights his more aggressive alter-ego for control over his life. The sequel, Rip vs. Poet Laureate, features Bis going up against his own sampled voice from Poet Laureate Infinity(Read up on the concept at that link if you're unfamiliar).

Ghostface Killah feat. Raekwon - Maxine (2001)

I can't shake the feeling I'm forgetting some of Ghost's great storytelling songs. In any event, this scene at a drug house is described with Ghost's typically vivid stream of consciousness lyricism, creating a chaotic, uncontrollable atmosphere. On Beat the Clock (2004), Ghost acts as his own hype-man, egging himself on as he raps with a quick, almost breathless flow. Shakey Dog (2004), the tale of two men plotting a stick-up that quickly spirals out of control, is clearly a homage to "Gimme the Loot." Really, for a rapper known for such photorealistic storytelling, it's surprising he doesn't use this technique more often, but even in these songs the changes to his voice are subtle and almost missable.

Mac Dre - Something You Should Know (2003)

You may notice that there are not too many West Coast or Southern rappers on this list so far. I may be skipping some important examples, but I couldn't find or remember many. Mac Dre is a great storyteller and he's not above throwing on a faux-Arabic accent for his character Al Boo Boo, but even he doesn't use the technique for storytelling too often. If anyone has examples of Too $hort or early E-40 changing their voices like this. I would love to see them. It's a bit odd, because Bay Area rappers definitely have a flair for the theatrical. Anyway, here's another great Mac Dre storytelling song, without voices unfortunately, in the meantime.

Jay-Z - "99 Problems" (2003)

A little surprised that Biggie's former protege doesn't tell more stories this way either. The Southern cop is a great character though.

Nas feat. "Scarlett" - Sekou Story (2004)

This song is a real throwback to that Positive K type shit. Some people may find this use of a voice synthesizer corny, but I think Nas does a great job using it to explore a character. In the first track he makes us feel "Scarlett's" grief, rage and uncertainty after her husband's murder, and on the next, Live Now, he takes us a decade into the future to her deathbed, where she expresses thanks to Nas and gratitude for a wild life well-lived with her dying breath. Nas would modify his voice again on the 2006 track Who Killed it?, imitating James Cagney's voice as he plays the part of a hardboiled detective. This track is definitely a little reminiscent of the novelty songs of the '80s, which is appropriate for a song with so many references to the early days of MCing.

K-Rino - The Debate (2008)

Finally a rapper from the South! This song is a pretty straightforward debate between a creationist and an evolutionist. K-Rino is another underrated lyricist. He has a lot of songs where he tells a story from the perspective of different characters—Two Sides to the Story (2008), The Sorcerer's Den (2010), The Maven( 2013), The Magnificent (2014)—but he uses different voices very little or not at all in most of them. Anihhilation of the Evil Machine is another exception (I admit I'm not familiar with all his work so I may be missing a lot of other great examples). His storytelling style is otherwise somewhat of a throwback to Slick Rick's, in that he tells clearly fictional stories with multiple distinct characters that sometimes have little to do with his main persona, which is pretty rare for modern MCs.

Elzhi - Hands Up (2008)

"You know I'm out for the loot!" This story of a stick-up gone wrong is clearly another tribute to "Gimme the Loot."

Freddie Gibbs - The Wrong One (2009)

Rediscovering this gem from Freddie's early mixtape days is actually what got me listening to "Gimme the Loot" again. It's yet another failed robbery story, with Freddie in the role of the younger, eager-to-prove-himself stick-up kid this time. The difference, as you might guess from the clarity of the imagery and rawness of the emotion, is that this song is based on Gibbs's personal experiences. He mentioned this experience of getting stabbed in the eye again on a freestyle dropped a couple weeks ago. Gibbs has a lot of great storytelling songs on his early mixtapes—Queen (Luv U 2 Death) and The Girls Love It for a couple examples—but as far as I know he has never used his voice to play another character like this again. If you listen to those early tapes, he was willing to try any style at least once, and usually sounded like a professional doing so, even if it didn't become a permanent part of his repertoire.

E-40 - The Art of Story Tellin' (2010)

E-40 is a guy with total mastery of his voice and his flow. The two voices on this track aren't that distinct, but the way he slows down and speeds up his flow to build and release tension is great. He uses dense slang to obfuscate what he's talking about, almost as if he is planning out the hit on the phone, worried it might be bugged by the cops. With how expressive 40's voice is, I'm surprised I can't think of any more examples of him using this technique.

Kendrick Lamar - I Hate You (Letter to Death) (2010)

Kendrick would later reuse this drum break as a callback to this earlier track in Sing About Me, I'm dying of Thirst. His claims, "The Marshall Mathers LP changed my life" and explains "The day I heard The Marshall Mathers LP, I was just like, How does that work? What is he doing? How is he putting his words together like that? What's the track under that? An ad-lib? What is that?" You can hear Em's influence not just in Kendrick's rhyme schemes, but also in the restlessness with which he's always changing up his voice to express emotion or contribute to the atmosphere of the track. Unlike Em, he doesn't play separate characters or invent alter-egos too often. But compare the voice of "Confident Kenny" on Backseat Freestyle to "Kenny in the Midst of a Mental Breakdown" on U. They might as well be different people. Or listen to the way he changes his voice for the chorus, the refrain, and the part where he speaks as his conscience on Swimming Pools (Drank). That kind of vocal dexterity is a big but underrated part of what makes his verses so interesting.

Tyler, The Creator - Goblin (2011)

Tyler is another rapper of the same generation whose influence from Eminem cannot be exaggerated. It may be surprising to younger fans who got into Tyler on Flower Boy or Igor, but he used to be just as shocking, edgy, and angsty as young Marshall. Goblin opened with this track in which Tyler voices both himself and his therapist. And Relapse also starts with Eminem having a conversation with a doctor that turns out to be his alter-ego, Slim Shady. "When someone gets blamed cause some white kid had aimed/His Ak-47 at 47 kids/I don't want to see my name mentioned" is a sentiment Eminem has expressed a number of times himself: "Two kids, sixteen, with M-16's and ten clips each/And them shits reach through six kids each/And Slim gets blamed in Bill Clint's speech to fix these streets?/Fuck that!" On the next song, Yonkers, Tyler's alter-ego Wolf Haley continues this conversation with his therapist. Later Tyler would release Colossus (2013](, his story of an interaction with an over-attached fan, although he claims any inspiration from Stan was unintentional. Of course, Tyler's sound has evolved enormously since then, but there are still faint traces of Eminem in the way he uses his voice to express emotion.

Captain Murphy - Mighty Morphin Foreskin (2012)

Captain Murphy is another producer's alter-ego with a pitch-altered voice, a kind of hybrid between Quasimoto and Eminem, since Flylo takes on a much darker persona than Madllib.

Delusional Thomas feat. Mac Miller - Grandpa Used to Carry a Flask (2013)

And Delusional Thomas was Mac Miller's version of Quasimoto. "Having conversations with yourself/Getting into arguments." This song really brings you into Mac's head and all the personal issues he was dealing with.

Joyner Lucas - Literally (2017)

On this song, Joyner has a conversation with his dick. Sounds like a silly premise, but this is a surprisingly serious song. Joyner's debt to Eminem is well-known. I think this is a good place to stop since it shows how many different moods and stories a simple technique like changing your voice a little can serve.

And that's it. RIP to all the rappers on this list who died young; there are way too many. Hope you enjoyed this write-up! If there's anything I missed or messed up please let me know. I'd love to hear other songs that use this technique as well.

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