Below is an audio installation of the registers of gun-talk set out in Harcourt's Language of the Gun. We should not approach these tracks as ethnographic testimonies, but we can approach them as a performative rhetoric, as a reformulation of the current art of 'governing thru crime' . These are not simply revolutionary or reactionary, but like past slogans ("black is beautiful", for example) aim to repossess dominating perceptions.
In these tracks we see that guns are normal, American, freeing, stabilizing, even sacred. What kinds of policies would we implement if we were to accept these sentiments? Would we admit that abstinence, or abstinence for those with a criminal record or within certain cities, is impractical if not untenable? Would we start teaching gun education alongside sex education- showing proper techniques to avoid stray bullets in the former and broken condoms in the latter? Or, confronted with this normalized gunplay, would we try even harder to get guns off of city streets by any means necessary? Take a listen and see for yourself.
Killer Mike “Shot Down” from Ghetto Extraordinary (unreleased, 2006)
Registers: Institutional Legitimacy, Second Amendment
As evidenced by the unreleased nature of this album, Atlanta native Killer Mike has struggled to find his role in today’s hip-hop landscape. He is his generation’s Ice Cube, combining political insight with an oversized personality.
Both artists steep their dealings in firearms in the political dimension. The refrain in the chorus of “Shot Down” is simple: if police departments have guns, so will I (“I don’t really trust y’all to be servin’ and protection’/Fuck 911 I got a Smith N’ Wesson”). Race here is secondary, it is the agency that is the problem (“Black cops beat your ass like Rodney King/White cops shoot your ass right in front of your mom/Leave a throwaway in your Black palm”). When confronted, the register sarcastically switches (“I tell ‘em like a white boy I like huntin’”) but is then broadened by using the same constituency (“Anymore gun questions ask Charlton Heston”). The appeal of gun ownership is not just the de-legitimacy of municipal institutions, it is also a basic constitutional right. The invocation of the Second Amendment extends gun-carrying past a Durkheiman conscience collective which deems police brutality is wrong, or even an argument for self-preservation. It reminds the listener that there is no need to explain their ownership- guns are legal, guns are American.
Notorious B.I.G. “Party & Bullshit” from Who’s The Man Soundtrack (Uptown/MCA, 1993)
Register: Entertainment, Fetish
Biggie recorded this track at the age of 20, but there is already a feeling of nostalgia to this track. In the same way that a pair of sneakers might be forever intertwined with the 6th grade, firearms here act as commodity-markers. (“I used to have the tre duce/And the duce-duce in my bubblegoose/Now I got the mack in my knapsack”). But the quality of the surrounding products has not changed; a bubblegoose is a fashionable jacket, a knapsack is just a backpack. The quality of the firearm improves slightly- but the point here is not status. Guns are ubiquitous- (“Seen my man Sei that I knew from the projects/Said he had beef, asked me if I had my piece/
Sure do, two .22's in my shoes”) to the point that they are treated as an accessory, you bring along for a successful evening, like a condom or a driver’s license (“Niggaz wanna front, who got your back? (biggie!)/Niggaz wanna flex, who got the gat? (biggie!)”). Guns are fun, something to liven an evening.
Mobb Deep “Locked in Spofford” from Juvenile Hell (4th & Broadway, 1993)/ Mobb Deep “Right Back At You” from The Infamous (Loud, 1996)
Registers: Self-Protection, Raw Action/Confrontation, Rational Actor
Queens emcees Progidy and Havoc formed Mobb Deep after meeting at an arts high school in Manhattan. They released Juvenile Hell when they were 17, and it shows. Their hardcore content sounds like two kids trying on their dad’s jacket- the shoulders don’t quite fit. Which is what makes “Locked in Spofford” so interesting.
Until 1998, Spofford Juvenile Center was New York’s only juvenile detention facility. In their depiction1 incarceration is in part defined by its minimalism. As we saw in Harcourt’s Tucson study, the registers of gun-talk can be strategically maneuvered. At Spofford, guns are taken for granted- something to yearn for while incarcerated like a sexual encounter or a favorite meal. This loss transforms a youth’s relationship with their new penal circumstance, creating a new practical turf to navigate. The almost sentimental longing for a firearm is offset by the reduction to broad physicality (“Damn, I wish I could put my hands on a nice-ass tec and blow a nigga to Babylon/But if you don’t got a knuckle game that’s a damn shame”). In this depiction, incarceration neutralizes commodities and emphasizes skills. This creates a schema which rewards not only tenure but raw skill. But the realization of this system does not necessitate the passive, or unskilled, prisoner becomes a lame duck (“Props I gotta earn, plus I gotta pay my dues/So in the meantime, I got a ox [box-cutter] in my pocket”). It is no surprise that the loss of firearms necessities the importance of more classical invocations of masculinity.
He is imprisoned, excluded from a fabricated broader society, for the type of act that brings inclusion in his own social world. But he then excludes himself from the incarcerated society as well. In Clemmer’s carceral study he identifies one indicator of an inmate’s high degree of prisonization to be “a blind, or almost blind, acceptance of the dogmas and mores of the primary group and the general penal population”. If a the dominant penal culture valorizes skill, then the carrying of “a ox” or “a blade with a Kool-Aid smile” knowingly refuses the primary group’s dogma. Weapon carrying then not only subverts facility regulations, but also the prison community’s egalitarian impulse to reduce each member to their incarcerated essence- their time served, their due respect, their physical prowess.
Using Clemmer’s rubric, weapon carrying thereby constitutes a firm connection to the norms of an inmate’s society outside of the facility’s walls; in Mobb Deep’s Spofford, it is an act which suggests a lower degree of prisonization. Guns represent normalcy, even freedom.
The second track addresses a confrontation back on the street. (“Now run for your life- or you wanna get your heat, whatever/ We can die together/ As long as I send your maggot ass to the essence/I don't give a fuck about my presence”) This is not a case of total negation, as, if nothing else, the need to kill is affirmed. The gun brings with it a mystical, yet entirely nonchalant certainty of terror. (“Pick up the handle and insert the potion/Cock the shit back in a calm like motion”). If guns represented normalcy in jail, then this is their blasé affair. And just as that normalcy promised freedom, so here does their ease of use. By engaging in a gun fight, just as in Russian Roulette, chance and luck are key. There is no possibility for advantage because there is no strategy or skill-set. By shedding such rational conceptions, guns become peculiarly freeing.
______________________ 1 I have no idea whether either were actually incarcerated there, but if not it’s safe to assume a member of their cohort in Queensbridge Projet was.
Sadat X & Lord Jamal (Brand Nubian) “Pass the Gat” from In God We Trust
Registers: “Righteous” Slaughter, Institutional Legitimacy
Brand Nubian, all “Five Percenters”, seeped their content in their Islamic faith. The chorus here encapsulates the spirit: “pass me the gat, I gotta fight back/I ain't rollin over on my motherfuckin back”. The call to arms is at least in part due to institutional distrust (“Rodney King ain't this God-ly king/Before I take a whippin, I'll dump a fuckin clip in the police, who give us no peace, to be deceased I'll have a feast, as I commence to slay the beast”). Going along with Jack Katz, cursing situates this response as a sacrifice where the attacker acts as priest. “If the priest is stained by the blood of the sacrifice… that is a measure of the priest’s devotion to society.” (Seductions of Crime 37). The devotion easily transforms into martyrdom- the integral aim is not to avoid the whippin, but to not go out without a fight.
The last line reframes the task beyond survival or self-protection. Katz describes this as “righteous enraged slaughter” in which the attacker “attempts to embody in his victim marks that will eternally attest to the assailant’s embrace of a primordial Good” (18). Being without a firearm is not only to be being caught unaware (whereby brutally beaten) but also to be passive, or more importantly purpose-less, God-less. Guns are sacred, guns are cleansing.
Beanie Sigel “If I Shoot You”
Registers: Rational Actor, Raw Action/Confrontation, Second Amendment
Beanie Sigel is an oft-incarcerated, and shot at, Philadelphia native. His verse here addresses his increased physical threat as his fame grows, a generic hip-hop trope.
Sigel addresses the inherent problems of felon-in-possession statutes. He presents the issue as purely rational, as a question of survival (“Because I’m a face with a name/With a little bit of change/I gotta carry a gun/Either that or my momma burying her son/It’s either him or me- and I ain’t the one”). Allowing him back into his community, or if you are famous your city, is a zero-sum game.
To use a Bourdiean framework, the juridical field is trying to condition Sigel’s habitus- by which I mean roughly the dispositions that have been deposited in him by his social surroundings. But the Faustian decision between recidivism or personal peril is made in what E.B. Pashukanis calls a “peculiar juridical reality, parallel with the real world” (167). Even the abstract punishment of possible incarceration, itself the most overt tentacle of Court control, is no match for being “stiff with two to the brain”. Carrying a gun is a social necessity, not a rational choice that can be manipulated by a system of deterrence.
Clipse “Ma, I Don’t Love Her” from Lord Willin’
Clipse are a sibling duo from Virginia, much beloved by hipsters for their odes to cocaine dealing. That realm seeps into this otherwise unremarkable R&B affair in a caustic vow of fidelity (“Sayin that I cheat/Right, maybe with my heat/Got a pearl handled chrome thing that I call Sweets/I greet wit her, creep wit her, even eat wit her/Late nights under my sheets, yeah I sleep with her/But thats it”). The relationship with the firearm is consistent, even trite. Guns are trustworthy, steady. Guns offer companionship.
As we will explore in future postings, there are plenty of references to the sexual appeal of guns. The relationship described here however leads us to Marx’s conception of commodity-fetishism. To Marx we are so removed from an object’s production that we can only see it as a commodity. Commodities become “sensuous things which are at the same time supra-sensible or social.” (Capital 165). But we work backwards, endowing an object with magical powers and then attempting to understand what draws us to them. This creates what Marx describes as a ‘social hieroglyphic‘ whose value is “as much men’s social product as is their language.” (Capital 167). Viewing the relationship with “Sweets” as a social product is illuminating. The gun becomes loyal because of the preponderance of snitches in the neighborhood. The gun becomes trustworthy because of the poor state of Black romantic relationships.
Federal gun statutes presume exactly the opposite. Let’s say “Sweets” is a Beretta 3032 Tomcat, manufactured in Maryland. If Malice of Clipse was arrested in Virginia Beach with “Sweets” in his possession, he would be charged with bringing her from Maryland to Virginia, thereby affecting interstate commerce. By actively disregarding these social relations that change an object to a commodity, the law makes an assumption that would be valid only in a non-market economy. Any policy or law that aims to reduce gun violence cannot make such blatantly incongruous claims and instead must view guns as social products.