by: Douglas Grant
A discussion of creative boundaries and dream chasing inspired by a theatrical classic…
I’ve never been a “dirt rascal pimp,” but the other day I found myself empathizing with Djay, the Memphis hustler turned underground hip-hop MC. Regardless of how far removed you may be from his day-to-day life and code of ethics, if you have an artistic endeavor with something to say then you should be able to relate to him on some level. He does, after all, go through quite an ordeal in order for his voice to be heard.
Djay confides in his bottom girl Shug that he thinks he’s going through a mid-life crisis, and sees little hope for himself within the context of his daily routine. He wants more for himself, as many of us do, but it never crosses his mind to pursue his life’s dream until he sees the success of Skinny Black, his peer who made it out of Memphis by “hustling his underground tapes down at the drive-in out the back of his Cutlass.” Skinny Black puts his voice out there, and the right person hears it. His demo tape turns into a Platinum album. Djay is envious of Skinny Black’s fame, but he’s also able to reconsider his own situation. Both of them use to spin records at their schools back in the day. If Skinny Black could find success in the rap game, then why not Djay? A lot of us, myself included, will often put our life goals on the back burner when we dismiss them as fantastic or unrealistic. We’re afraid to chase down a dream because so few people succeed at the same dream, or because other people may keep us down. And then you see someone just like you who’s made it, and if you’re wise you’ll tell yourself that it’s never too late and starting today you’ve got your eye back on the ball. I came very close to dismissing my plans of becoming a writer, and although it certainly isn’t my bread and butter I can’t imagine how unfulfilled I’d feel if I hadn’t reconsidered.
Djay wants fame and everything that comes with it. After he mistakenly believes that he’s gotten in good with Skinny Black he tells his friend Arnel, “The next time you see me, man, I’m gonna be a hundred-feet tall, man.” But just as much as the fame he wants his voice to be heard. His life has been anything but easy, and he’s got a story to tell. He needs to purge himself of all the negativity that’s built up in him from his life’s trials. His co-producer Shelby encourages him, citing the fact that rap music is coming back to the south, a place where beautiful music is often made with simple tools.
“You’ve got to get what you got to say out there,” he tells Djay. “Because you’ve got to. Every man…every man has the right, the goddamn right, to contribute a verse.” Sometimes there are a lot of barriers to getting our voices heard creatively. These barriers usually come in the form of experts in the fields we want to go into, gatekeepers who want us to fork over our hard earned money to actualize our dreams. However, today’s a new day and a lot of us are able to cut the middle man out. Whatever it is that you do creatively, there’s a reason to be optimistic.
There’s no record executive who stands in Djay’s way, but he does feel he needs Skinny Black’s help as an endorser if he’s ever going to make it in hip-hop. Things don’t turn out the way DJay had planned, and he ends up going to jail for it. But despite the lengthy stretch he has to serve, he finds out that the very thing he did to land him in prison, namely beating Skinny Black half to death, is the thing that gives him an incredible amount of street credit. Sometimes we make decisions that threaten to ruin our aspirations. One wrong turn and we’re sure that we’ve essentially ruined our chances and ended our careers. And then that one little decision inadvertently becomes the best thing that could’ve happened to our careers. And more often than not these decisions are made based on our scruples. Djay doesn’t end up becoming Skinny Black’s puppet artist. He becomes the guy who slapped Skinny Black. Nothing boosts rap careers quite like a good old fashioned rivalry.
If we do make it, if we do realize our dreams, then I’m sure one day we’ll all look back with fondness and admiration for what we accomplished with only hunger, talent, and limited resources. I love taking those who I’m a fan of and exploring their earliest works. It makes me come to know how he or she got from the then to the now. My respect deepens when I find out this person pulled it off with financial limitations and the “simple tools” that Shelby alluded to. For Skinny Black it’s the demo, North Third Thugs, that he cuts in his mom’s laundry room. For Djay it’s the tape he cuts in a room soundproofed with paper cup holders and produced with a Casio and a church choir microphone.
“It’s not enough for a man to climb Mount Everest, y’know,” Djay tells Skinny Black. “He got to do that shit with the least amount of tools.”
“Like the Samurai say, the sword is only as powerful as its master,” Skinny Black replies. The two have their differences, but they both agree on the power of their rawest material. True, Djay has to invest in a studio grade microphone in order to eliminate distortion, but that’s because he cares so much about being professional at his craft.
There’s nothing I love more than a good rise to the top movie. Sometimes it’s the rise and the fall that intrigues me. But Hustle & Flow barely scratches the surface of Djay’s rise. And the audience will never know if Djay truly makes it in the rap game; when we leave him he’s still got eleven months left of a prison sentence. And at the risk of sounding cliché, Hustle & Flow is about the journey, not the destination. Djay doesn’t have a platinum album or a ticket out of Memphis, but his girl Nola has gotten his voice out over the radio waves, and for him that’s enough at the moment.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t really concerned with finding commercial success as a writer. Of course I want that for myself. But for me what’s really important is getting my thoughts out on paper, and I’m doing that. Djay chases a dream that’s laden with so many setbacks and long shots that a lesser man might have called it a day. But his diligence pays off, even when he ends up going to jail for it. I would urge anyone who finds him or herself down and out with discarded creative ambitions to sit down and watch this movie again. It just might be the kick in the ass you’ve been waiting for.
“Everybody gotta have a dream.”