I’m interested in the “Golden Age” of hip hop, specifically West Coast rap of the mid-80s to mid-90s, for many reasons. Growing up in Los Angeles during this period, hip hop style informs my earliest memories and has, most certainly, shaped my world view. In my scholarship, I examine how those who, for this exercise, I will refer to as soul babies*, those who were youth in the Golden Age, remember (and disremember) this political, violent, and controversial period in hip hop. What is their relationship to a new generation’s sounds and messages? In what ways are they gatekeepers of the genre? How have the aesthetics and articulation of blackness modified from the Golden Age to our contemporary moment?
In the following critical response, I close-read a classic music video from this Golden Age that would radically change the soundscape of hip hop: Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” I consider this work to be a continuation of, a pushing forward and not against, Adrienne Brown’s theorizing around the hip hop car and its relationship to the social. In her published conference paper, “Drive Slow: Rehearing Hip Hop Automotivity,” Adrienne Brown argues the hip hop car “galvanize[s] types of looking, seeing, and being related to collective forms of ownership” (267). Brown contends that Paul Gilroy doesn’t fully understand the complex relationship of black rappers and property. Widening the masculinist narrative Gilroy writes, Brown analyzes the lyrics (specifically the pronouns) employed by Missy “Misdemeanor” Eliot in “The Rain” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” to argue that the hip hop car is not a privatization that belies collectivity but, instead, the hip hop car “refuses to behave as [private property]” (271). I absolutely agree that “the hip hop car often remains rooted in the social, deriving its value from its proximity to the commons of creativity and performance” (272). The car is not only a symbol of wealth but a vehicle that signifies creative freedom, mobility, and autonomy.
I take up Brown’s call to “drive slow,” to listen and to look closely at the music and messages crafted for a collective audience. The multitudinous cars of hip hop are not junkyards of dead ideologies, but sites that house rich and living histories. I question if we can only read an “ambivalent politics” in the vehicles, which litter hip hop’s rhymes and videos (273). I’m interested in tracing how the hip hop car as signifier of autonomous selfhood or black collective has altered over time. I think that Brown’s analysis can be extended with nuance: do the meanings attached to the hip hop car change depending on geography (East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, rural, urban)? I’d argue yes. My reading of Dr. Dre’s 1993 hit, “Let Me Ride” attempts to excavate the hip hop car as it relates to the specific site of post-riot Los Angeles. A nuanced reading of the soundscape, lyrical content, and performance of “Let Me Ride” articulates a black automotivity of the Golden Age that claims a militant politics and declares the street as collective property. The car which cruises these streets, however, holds tenuous ties to collective values and, in fact, can expose the body and incite violence.
Creepin’ vs. Cruisin’: Precarious Black Bodies
“Let me Ride” begins with a chilling image of Dre with his “Glock cocked” because “niggas want these” D’s, or Dayton’s, the classic wheels gangsters are known to sport on their modified lowriders. From the outset, Dre paints a portrait of an anxious driver, one with the material means to assert his power, but who is also vulnerable to the violence inner city streets beget. Dre’s LA is a city in which men will “try to take mine,” where men kill for property. Ownership is a matter of life and death, and paradoxically, it is the moment when one owns that one is marked. Ownership is an act of exposure, a being seen that requires drivers to check the rearview.
It’s important to note that “Let Me Ride” was the third single on the landmark album The Chronic, recorded and released just months after the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots. We must remember that the “trip to the South Side” Dre is taking is a trip to South Central LA, a place where two decades later, entire plots of land still house burned and empty buildings. Brown briefly reflects upon the linkages between the riots and the hip hop car, finding “a continuity” in regards to their “approach to property” (268). Extending her analysis, I find that Dre uses a language of suspicion throughout his narrative. To “creep,” “crawl,” and “slide” is to maneuver around forces of surveillance. In this space, the primary threat is not from white police forces, but from the black community to which Dre belongs. He speaks of “bodies bein’ found on Greenleaf with they fucking / heads cut off.” Dre raps bluntly about the reality for many black men confined to urban areas. In his hometown (specifically the highly contentious area of Greenleaf Boulevard which divides Compton from Long Beach) death for young black males is a daily threat. In this post-riot landscape, blackness is precarious and home is not a safe space.
While home may not be safe, black men and women still manage to create spaces of pleasure that allow for a type of limited freedom. The hip hop cars of the Golden Age add sparkle to decaying and blighted cities. While the lyrical content of “Let Me Ride” depicts a black existence that is stifled and constantly threatened, the visual performance of blackness depicts scenes of pleasure and collectivity that stem from ownership. Hip hop cars of the Golden Age do not only “creep” down the street in drive-by shootings, they “cruise” in glory, pompously displaying craftsmanship and a type of street beauty. In the music video for “Let Me Ride,” Dre rolls his pretty ’64 Impala through the hood as crowds gather to admire the flawless paintjobs, dope hydraulics, and shining chrome of cars that signify self-expression and success. But this is a public selfhood that allows for shared pleasure. They dance and flaunt their stuff while admiring the pimped-out cars. Men and women fill the streets of LA, claiming the public space as their rightful territory (the ’92 riots show this act can quickly turn violent).
The Car as Reconfigured Spaceship
“Let Me Ride” samples the 1975 funk classic, “Mothership Connection (Starchild),” by Parliament. Parliament was and remains revolutionary for dreaming of black life sustained elsewhere, of a utopia-in-space accessed through the Mothership (a spaceship that will deliver black peoples from their earthly existences). Parliament’s funky, bass-slappin’-grooves and future-seeking lyrics have the ability to make bodies writhe and wiggle, to expand minds beyond the confining conditions that prohibit full black subjectivities. Parliament’s Afro-futuristic sound and performances provide imaginative spaces of mobility and escape.
Not only does Dre participate in the African American tradition of signifyin’ by sampling “Mothership Connection,” Parliament also samples black music before its time. “Swing low sweet chariot,” is the first line and title of a Negro Spiritual, a slave song that pleads to go “home” in the arms of “a band of angels.” Like Parliament who would later re-work these lyrics, the Negro Spiritual hints that enslaved black bodies are constricted and tired, but likewise have the capacity to dream of an elsewhere, a utopia for a “soul [that] feels heavenly bound / Coming for to carry me home.” Parliament adopts and reshapes this message for its soulful audience of attentive listeners searching for liberation and full citizenship. Parliament updates the vehicle of escape from chariot to spaceship, perhaps implying that death is no longer an option; instead, innovative and creative means of negotiation and escape must be utilized. Instead of disposing of the body in their search for elsewhere, Parliament changes the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual to a demand: “let me ride.”
I think we can read difference into the ways Parliament and Dr. Dre employ the phrase let me ride. In Dre’s world, the car offers the space for individual expression and creativity, but is not a vehicle of escape. The music video for “Let Me Ride” ends with the men driving their lowriders and women to a Parliament Funkadelic concert. Live footage from Parliament’s wild, psychedelic concert is spliced with scenes from Dre’s hood, and the resulting juxtaposition is startling. Escape is not an option in for brothers like Dre in Compton. Indeed, the car is yet another form that allows for restricted pleasure and places the black body at risk. In this sense, we can read let me ride as a plea for selfhood unthreatened by violence. Dre questions, “why can’t you let me get my roll on?” or, why can’t you just let me be? Unlike Parliament’s funky spaceship, the hip hop car in Dre’s reality does not allow for transformation or escape.