While hip-hop has always relied on competition and witty metaphors to describe an MC’s skills, a strange turn of events occurred in early 2001 - when the attacks of 9/11 replaced metaphorical terrorism vocabulary with literal Al-Qaeda-inspired vocabulary.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the entire world was irrevocably changed. I was only a few weeks into my first semester of college, Jay-Z released The Blueprint and horrifically, coordinated attacks on American soil were perpetrated by the Al-Qaeda terrorist group.
Hip-hop, like life itself, was altered as a result. As the entire nation embraced fear, paranoia, patriotism and anger, artists from all industries internalized the pain and produced creations with varied degrees of relatability.
When Cam’ron released Come Home With Me in May of 2002, he and his Roc-A-Fella boss Jay Z wisely included the track “Welcome To New York City” right in the middle of the album; the chorus a proud and defiant reminder:
“It's the home of 9/11 / The place of the lost Towers / We still banging / We never lost power, tell ‘em / Welcome to New York City”
Many artists embraced the rallying-cry mindset of the majority of the country and as a result, released inspirational, heartfelt anthems. Other artists used terrorist language as metaphors to describe their dopeness, while a select group of MC’s decided to embrace the actual names, phrases and identifiers of the alleged criminal Al-Qaeda criminal group.
Terrorism certainly existed before 9/11 - in fact, since the inception of humanity - and it’s place in song titles and lyrics is nothing new. For example, in September of 1991, a Rap-A-Lot Records group literally named The Terrorists released their second album Terror Strikes; Always Bizness, Never Personal, which contained songs like:
- “Blow Dem Hoes Up”
- “Bomb Threat”
- “Face the Holocaust”
However, there’s no denying the 2001 attacks left an indelible mark on hip-hop culture and the community.
Oft-forgotten is the February 26, 1993, attack on the World Trade Center, which only claimed six lives despite a plan which called for thousands. In 1994, The Notorious B.I.G. referenced this attack on “Juicy,” lead single from his certified quadruple-Platinum Ready To Die.
“Time to get paid / Blow up like the World Trade”
In October 2000, Binary Star dropped Masters of the Universe - self-released a year earlier as Waterworld on Terrorist Records. A near-classic, Masters of the Universe was filled with astronomy, philosophy and theology delivered through super-slick world-play - including several terrorism references disguised as rap posturing:
“Terror's what I am / Terrorism’s what I rep / Rap Hezbollah / We don't forgive or forget / Strapped with dynamite / Kamikaze rock the mic” (“Slang Blade”)
“Make a pacifist get violent / The rhythm tyrant / Attila the Hun / Hold mic’s hostage with a terrorist tongue” (“New Hip Hop”)
“We got schemes / The terrorist bomb scenes” (“Solar Powered”)
Eleven months later, 9/11 forever altered history.
Groups like dead prez were undoubtedly interested in speaking on the failings and shortcomings of American government. In November of 2002, the Florida-based duo - one of the most unappreciated groups in hip-hop history - released Turn Off The Radio: The Mixtape Volume 1 with the track “Know Your Enemy”:
“George Bush is way worse than Bin Laden is / Know your enemy / Know yourself / That's the politic / FBI / CIA / The real terrorists”
Former Killarmy founder and Wu affiliate Dom Pachino established his own Napalm Recordings and released his solo debut Tera Iz Him in 2002. Pachino - previously known as P.R. Terrorist in his Killarmy days - effectively changed his name post-9/11. In 2009, Pachino released the sequel Tera Iz Him 2: Chronicles From The Dirty Doctrine with the track “Terrorist Pirateships,” which featured fellow Wu associate Holocaust, who later changed his name to Warcloud in an act of disassociation with terrorism.
In May of 2002, Eminem released his Diamond-certified fourth album The Eminem Show, which contained the song “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”:
“More pain inside of my brain than the eyes of a little girl / Inside of a plane / Aimed at the World Trade”
This was brutal but sensitive imagery from one of hip-hop’s finest. This is also around the time the lines between life and rhymes became unrefined.
Leave it to Cam’ron to give hip-hop both some of the funniest and most creative moments as well as some of the most cringeworthy and patently awful moments in equal parts.
Later in 2002, Cam’ron and his group The Diplomats bizarrely embraced the entire vocabulary associated with modern-day terrorism, using words like “Al-Qaeda,” “bin Laden” and “Taliban” as ad-libs and… compliments.
Juelz Santana - second-in-command for The Diplomats - leaked his song “I Love You” which, believe it or not, contained the lyrics:
“I worship the late prophet / The great Muhammad Omar Atta / For his courage behind the wheel of a plane / Reminds me when I was dealing the ‘caine”
Santana attempted to defend his lyrics with a nonsensical explanation filled with confusion, but not before he changed his verse to the more-pleasant:
“I worship the late prophet / The great Muhammad Ali / The words he spoke / They stung like a bee”
Santana was arrested in 2011 - ironically charged with making terrorist threats and disorderly conduct. Following the arrest, all hell broke loose in the world of The Diplomats and their antics.
In March of 2003, the Harlem collective released their studio debut - the Gold-certified double-disc Diplomatic Immunity, a body of work with incredible production, uncountable quotables and a concrete imprint in hip-hop. The project also contained some of the most bizarre terrorist-related lyrics in hip-hop history.
“It's that 9/11 music right here, man / We in the building, man / Welcome to Ground Zero everybody … Follow me through the debris of these Towers” (the appropriately-titled “Ground Zero”)
“This is Taliban Dipset Roc-A-Fella … I'ma Taliban lyrical monster / They'll shout the city I conquer / White Ice Cinnamon Parker / Al-Qaeda’s most vividest author” (“Un Kasa”)
“I'm the realest thing popping / Since Osama bin Laden / So pay homage… Harlem's own Taliban” (“Gangsta”)
“My Dipset Taliban / We are not a crew” (“The First”)
“We on these streets like the wars on them streets of Afghanistan / Better yet of Pakistan / To America / Harlem's Al-Qaeda” (“Built This City”)
In April of 2003, the late Nujabes - one of my all-time favorite producers - released Hydeout Productions First Collection with the song “Lyrical Terrorists,” joined by Substantial and L-Universe. The track used the idea of terrorism to describe the two MC’s’ prowess over competition - not shout-out Al-Qaeda members as so many of their peers felt comfortable doing.
In August of that same year, Santana released From Me To U, his solo debut, which contained “Okay Okay”:
“A young Muhammad Atta / No plane lessons / Cocaine lessons / Just a plot of Towers / Before they crashed and divided the Towers”
In the same month, T.I. released his Platinum-certified second album Trap Muzik with “Rubber Band Man,” in which T.I. proclaimed himself “...as wild as the Taliban…”
In November of 2004, Eminem released his quadruple-Platinum certified Encore, which includes the single “Mosh,” in which the lyrics discussed terrorism in a more-subtle and nuanced way compared to Dipset.
“Maybe we can reach Al-Qaeda through my speech / Let the President answer a higher anarchy”
“We As Americans” - another Encore song - was sampled by the highly-educated Immortal Technique for his track “Bin Laden” - released in 2005 with a Jadakiss feature.
In a questionable career move, Jadakiss released an entire mixtape series entitled Al-Qaeda Jada beginning in 2007. That was... unfortunate.
Cam’ron returned to terrorist braggadocio in 2008, with “Still The Reason”:
“Remember this / I'm one that you never diss / The professional / Slash terrorist / Write your name down / Put it on a special list”
In May 2011, people’s champ Lil B released his Bitch Mob Respect Da Bitch Vol. 1 and the track “Salute To The Bitch”:
“30 rounds clips / And I'm strapped like the Taliban”
A rapper named Dex Osama was signed by Meek Mill soon before getting gunned down in October 2015.
And the list goes on…
Expertly covered by Yoh in March of 2016, Future has been one of the newest stars to embrace the Al-Qaeda dialogue and terrorist verbiage. And no one knows why. Even more recently, Young Thug included the following line from his newly-released commercial mixtape Jeffery:
“You call me Osama / I’m passing hundreds to the bombs”
Terrorism is violence and violence is a language of hip-hop. But music is culture and entertainment. Why are hip-hop artists - a culture born from oppression and intolerance - embracing any form of divisive language or systematic oppression? Surely our culture’s creatives can do better? Surely our world’s wittiest writers can arrange different references?
Really, this is less a complaint and more a misunderstanding: why did Al-Qaeda become an acceptable name-check reference after claiming the lives of 2,996 people?
By Matteo Urella, a Boston-based writer. Read more of his work at Medium.
Photo Credit: David McIntyre