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Catch more wreck on your dome than a deranged fucking barber

Sweeney Todd cuts the throat of a customer

Image: Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

  • Track: Make ‘Em Pay
  • Artist: Gang Starr feat. Krumb Snatcha
  • Album: Moment of Truth
  • Year: 1998

Wow. What a week it’s been for America and the rest of the world. That’s one fewer fascist to worry about. I’d almost forgotten what hope felt like. So it’s fitting we’re staying put in the Land of Liberty and paying tribute to one of its finest, Gang Starr. Some would say they’re long overdue their induction into simile greatness, and some would be right.

One of New York’s (via Boston) finest, Gang Starr MC Guru had a distinctive voice as smooth and silky as my ‘special’ boxer shorts. In 2010, we lost Guru aged just 48, tragically young for one of the most influential hip-hop MCs of all time. Such is Guru’s legacy that French city Montpellier named a street after him. (It’s bizarre and a bit offensive that this fact comprises the entire ‘legacy’ section on his Wikipedia entry.) But it’s still rather lovely. Maybe one day there’ll be an IHHSDB Road somewhere. I’m not asking too much is it? I’d settle for a cul-de-sac in Slough.

Born Keith Elam (history doesn’t record if he was his School’s Chess Champion), Guru briefly flirted with (seriously) MC Keithy E before settling on his famous moniker. It’s a ‘backronym’, standing for gifts universal rhymes unlimited.

Despite its title, this isn’t so much a diss track as a withering put down track. Because despite their name, Gang Starr were never particularly ‘thug’. Sure they dabbled in it, but were more often found questioning what it means to be a conscious hip-hop artist in a genre known for guns and bling. As Krumb Snatcha points out, people expect rappers to embody the stereotype to a certain degree (I’m paraphrasing). Even if they’d rather be at home working on their cross-stitching.

Guru was known for his slick delivery and cerebral lyrics on display here, which are nicely complemented by a final verse from Krumb Snatcha. He’s certainly not shy of similes, and nearly matches Guru despite having about half the airtime.

This was Krumb Snatcha’s debut, having come through the legendary Gang Starr Foundation (a sort of Hogwarts for budding rappers). We’ve already heard from a couple of graduates. There’s not a huge amount out there about Krumb Snatcha, other than he knew Guru from his Boston days. It looks as if he retired from music in 2012, possibly to take up snatching crumbs full-time.

This isn’t a hugely memorable outing by Gang Starr’s standards, but it’s solid enough stuff. Guru’s on top withering put down form here, with wordplay his weapon of choice. Whoever has drawn the irk of these two must have lived to regret it.

We’re here to focus on the similes, but we can’t get on with that without first doffing our caps to Gang Starr’s other half: the legendary DJ Premier. Even if you only have a passing interest in hip-hop, chances are you’ve fallen in love with one of his tunes at some point. His sound pretty much personifies New York hip-hop. Look at the sheer volume and variety of his output.

Premier has more collaborations under his belt than Paul Erdős. And if you get that reference without having to look at the link, you are more than welcome here. You’re reading the words of someone who catalogues hip-hop similes in his spare time. Embrace it.

As you’ll shortly see, one could describe a couple of these similes as ‘tenuous’. But like I say I’m in a good mood, and this is Gang Starr we’re talking about. So relax, turn up the volume and like a coked-up bailiff let’s Make ‘Em Pay.

The lyrics

View full annotated lyrics on genius.com

[Intro]

Yeah, you know them
They accuse the righteous people of crimes and claim that we’re wicked
Stirring up controversy, making us fight each other
All the fake rappers make it worse, they gotta pay
[more chattering]

[Verse 1 – Guru]

First and foremost, some rappers are sweet like fructose
When I cock back these lyrics, y’all punks best be ghost

Yummy. The sweet, sweet taste of a track (more or less) opening with a simile. That’s how much of a pro Guru was. And what could be sweeter than fructose, the sugar found in fruit?

I be the seven twenty-one, eighteen twenty-one
The illest one, I’m almost doper than anyone

Simile purists will be outraged by this, but bear with me. Guru is comparing his undeniable dopeness with (almost) everyone. I know it’s a stretch, and a comparative to boot, but I’m feeling generous. And Guru is hip-hop royalty, so it’s going in.

Until now I hadn’t given that random bunch of numbers much though. But thanks to Genius I know now Guru is spelling out his name, with the numbers corresponding to letters in the alphabet. Pretty clever, and hopefully interesting enough to distract you from that dodgy simile.

Straight out the late nights of Bed-Stuy
Stepping up, y’all put your weapons up, I make heads fly
You’re artificial like saccharin
You’re crazy fake, it’s more than skills you be lacking in

A second ago I asked what could be sweeter than fructose, knowing full well this line was coming up. I fed you a delicious little teaser there didn’t I? Because saccharin is way sweeter. A clever call back from Guru, and from me, which, if you think about it, makes me the Guru of hip-hop lyric analysts.

If you were also confused by ‘Bed-Stuy’ it’s fine, we’re all friends here. I had no idea until today that Guru is referring to a neighbourhood of Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant. Really rolls of the tongue doesn’t it? I can see why they shorten it.

Concepts you bite, cause your identity ain’t tight
Trying to be something you’re not, like pulling a knife at a gunfight

Nice stuff. It might surprise you to discover this is our first ever simile that references knives. Similes about guns so far outnumber them six to one. Depressingly, it’s not hard to work out why; rap’s association with firearms is unfortunately unavoidable.

I’m trooping on night air like flight number 106
And getting all up in your fucking mix

I’m a little stumped by this simile. The Genius contributor reckons it’s a reference to some Marvel comic called Alpha Flight. Not being a Marvel nerd (which might come as a surprise to you), I’m not going to argue the toss here too much. But isn’t it possible Guru is referring to an actual flight number?

There’s no mention of ‘night air’ on Alpha Flight’s wikipedia page (when it comes to research I’m as thorough as a wet paper towel). But I delved into a couple of websites geekier than this one (believe it or not, they exist). It seems that issue #106 was notable for a character called Northstar coming out. But my trail’s gone cold there I’m afraid. So in the absence of anything better, I’ll go with the Genius explanation.

You got me upset, and I got you uptight
Cause my committee’s in your city tonight, aight?
We got seventeen million of us plus, two million Indians
That makes 19 mill, lighting shit up like Wild Bill

After the previous one, it’s nice to immediately hit a simile that doesn’t need much explanation. It’s clear with lyrics like this that Guru would have loved to live long enough to see the rise of BLM.

I’ve already started going on a bit, so I’m going to assume you know who Wild Bill Hicock was. If not, do read about how often he lit shit up and take a moment to appreciate his tremendous head of hair.

I be the supreme father plus the ill kid, with drama
My karma creates the Teflon to pierce your body armour
And make sure you check the shit before you walk to me, or talk to me
Stepping to me improperly, you just may catch the weaponry
My speciality is tearing tracks out the frame
You know my fucking name, I rule all game
I’m universal on all planes, what’s your claim?

A shame there aren’t similes in this bit because it’s got some nice lyrics. But if I started analysing every line we’d be here all day. And none of us (least of all you) wants that.

I really like the last line, ascending Guru to another level. And it’s obviously a reference to that awkward backronym.

I’m not sure Teflon is the best thing to pierce body armour. It sounds as if Guru might have brought a frying pan to a gunfight now, which is pretty ballsy. (As it turns out, Teflon-coated bullets are totally a thing.)

There isn’t really a hook to speak of in this track, Guru’s keen to get on with it. So we shall.

[Verse 2 – Guru]

Yo, I be your highness, in slickness, you chumps bear witness
Tremendous trooper, verbal nigga with the fitness
Drop you for your spot with the blazer then I blast you
Slice precise like Benihana’s when I come to bring the dramas

And it’s back to knives we go. It’s a pretty straightforward simile this one: Benihana’s is a chain of Japanese restaurants. You’ll have to go to the swankier parts of London if you want to try one in this country.

Styles so swift that you can’t peep the god
As your lyrics get buried six feet deep in my backyard
I laugh hard, while you’re mental I run through mazes
Dark stages of terror to shatter your dressing room mirror
Your whole error gets crushed, your whole show gets bum rushed
Too many dumb punks want to enter this rap scene
Kicking Willie Bobo, but need to be slapped clean
Into oblivion, the true champion always rises
I bring surprises to the chief plus their advisers
Size me up and you will find nothing’s larger
Catch more wreck on your dome than a deranged fucking barber

Well. I only noticed that this first simile could be construed as a comparative when I was giving the lyrics a final once over. I think this shows that I’m a victim of my own tendency to be over-generous with my definitions. But, simply put, if the line were ‘nothing is as large as me’ it would be a straight down the line (negative) simile. This does make sense in my head, honestly. So it’s going in. But don’t let my slack attitude distract you from yet another great chunk of rap pisstaking, it’s good stuff.

Luckily, the second comparative is definitely ok, and funny too. He’s as sharp as Sweeny Todd’s razor this one. If I’d got my act together recently, I could have timed this as a Halloween-themed post. Sigh. There’s always next year.

And if you’re wondering, like I was, Willie Bobo was a renowned jazz percussionist. When not making some of the best hip-hop of the era, Guru also pioneered ‘jazz rap’ with his Jazzmatazz series, collaborating with some huge jazz names. Not as much to my liking as his ‘proper’ hip-hop, but worth checking out.

So what you made some dough, you best keep on scrambling
All your vanity is instantly crushed when I start handling
Demanding that you pay for your weak rhyme display
Coast to coast, I break the fakes everyday

And that’s Guru’s last simile and last withering put down, because now he gives way to Krum Snatcha to see us home. It’s not just crumbs he’s snatching, but similes too. He’s on fire.

[Verse 3 – Krumb Snatcha]

I see myself as the black rap messiah
Colossal, spreading my gospel through electrical wires
Spit fire through speech, so I can reach each and every
Tom, Dick and Jerry slippin like petroleum jelly

I’ve categorised this simile as ‘medical’, even though petroleum jelly has other famous uses as a lubricant.

I’m intrigued by Krumb Snatcha’s use of ‘Jerry’ here. Obviously, it helps with the rhyme. But it also turns out that Tom, Dick and Jerry is a disgusting-sounding hot drink of rum, brandy and egg. I realise this doesn’t really clear things up.

Too busy in the limelight, can’t rhyme tight
I got divine right to bring y’all to light
Something ain’t right, to be an MC you gotta thug
Or to thug you gotta be an MC, this shit is bugged
Show love but few; deal with crew and crew only
And think universal like Sony

Apart from the obvious link with Guru’s name and earlier lyric, Krumb Snatcha is referencing two of the big three recording companies here. He excludes Warner, presumably on the basis that it’s harder to come up with clever wordplay with it.

Phony pounds and fake hugs is usually avoided
Give a fuck, like Pizza Hut I got to stay noided

This one deserves a bit of explanation, especially for we Brits. The Noid (sic) was Domino’s mascot in the mid-80s to mid-90s. For reasons beyond me, Domino’s decided some weird guy in a skin-tight rabbit suit would be the perfect brand ambassador. He was apparently ‘a physical manifestation of all the challenges inherent in getting a pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less’. It makes me wonder just what they were putting in their dough mixture.

However, ‘noided’ is also slang for ‘paranoid’, so perhaps the simile is deeper than it first looks. I think Krumb Snatcha might be name-dropping the ‘wrong’ pizza chain on purpose. Pizza Hut should be paranoid about Domino’s. Have you seen what they chose as a mascot?

There’s an interesting footnote to all this. To quote Wikipedia:
‘On January 30, 1989, Kenneth Lamar Noid, a mentally ill man who thought the ad campaign was a personal attack on himself, entered a Domino’s restaurant in Chamblee, Georgia, armed with a .357 Magnum and held two employees hostage for over five hours’

I’m guessing they didn’t get many pizzas delivered in under 30 minutes that night.

‘Cause that same nigga you trust could be that same cat
Behind that gat that bust, quiet ya, with the silencer
Keep it hush, ashes to dust, then dust to ashes
Nowadays it’s who pull out the fastest, imagine this
Rap shit without this gat shit, or the phony cat
In black talking ‘bout how much his mac spit
But this year, Gang Starr got changes being made
No wack shit being played no fake macks getting paid
No Versace MCs, with a mouth full of Mo’
Soundin’ like a ho spittin’ at a fashion show flo’

If you ignore the lazy stereotype this simile revolves around, it tops off a rather lovely bit of rhyming about fakery and gangster posturing. And Krumb Snatcha’s not done yet.

I bombshell that pastel Chanel rap through a maxwell
Ever since young Krumb was taught to rap well
Going deep, process of thought when my eyes closes
Awaken with a turban, robe and sandals like Moses

Deftly avoiding the fact that I don’t understand this Chanel/maxwell business, let’s instead look at the simile. It’s what we’re here for.

This is a second simile outing for Moses. We last saw him crop up in another Premier-produced track, where Mecca Starr compared her lyrical flex to Moses parting the Red Sea. Oddly enough, Mecca Starr emailed me a few weeks back to say hello and tell me she enjoyed reading my post. I swear this actually happened. This was pretty much my highlight of 2020.

It’s been a tough year.

Travelling high sands and eastern lands for the answers
Ignorance is spreading through the streets like it was cancer

Before starting this epic journey, I thought that cancer references in hip-hop similes might be really popular. But this is only the third we’ve seen, accounting for 0.9% of all hip-hop similes. Plenty of room for growth though. Not unlike cancer.

It was blood cancer that cruelly snatched Guru away from us, lending this simile some dark hindsight irony.

Too many drinking not thinking when behind that trigger
A .38 escalate the murder rate for us niggas
It’s like microphone roulette cause nowadays MCs is getting wet
Over someone else’s fake gangsta rep

Our final simile of the track leaves us with a strong image. I like that idea of rappers playing a dangerous microphone version of Russian roulette. The entire tune is a warning about playing up to a lifestyle that you don’t actually have, that if you’re not careful you will reap what you sow. In 2020, and given what’s happened over the last week, this is a good message to bear in mind.

So including the two dodgy ones, that’s a pretty solid 16 similes in total.
The two MCs split the honours fairly evenly, but Krumb Snatcher snatches victory by virtue of having half the word count.

It’s a solid mid-table performance for Gang Starr, then. As this project goes on, I’m also going to have to up my game and find more and more simile-laden tracks. We’re going to hit 400 catalogued similes soon. Lord help me.

Lord help all of us.

The stats

Similes:16
Words:693
Words per simile:43.31
Length:4m 20s
Similes per minute:3.69
Kitchen paraphernalia mistakenly taken to a gunfight:2

Leave a comment. Bonus points for similes.