Started From the Bottom, Literally: Darrein Safron & Hip-Hop’s Relationship With Homelessness

Financial rock bottom has historically been a powerful motivator in hip-hop.

"Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart." - Chuck Palahniuk, 'Fight Club'

This morning (May 15), Strange Music newcomer and St. Louis native Darrein Safron joined label boss Tech N9ne and label mate Stevie Stone for an interview on Sway In The Morning, during which he talked about his lifelong dream of being a career musician.

Before being discovered by Tech N9ne, however, Darrein had exhausted what seemed like all of his options after being kicked out of his mom’s house and essentially becoming homeless—a circumstance that ultimately intensified his drive rather than extinguishing it.

It was the pressure of rock bottom that formed a diamond of creative motivation.

The idea of “rock bottom” was an especially poignant message in the movie Fight Club, which resonated personally during my formative years. While the above words ring a little too nihilistic for me these days, they remain rooted in very real and rather common experiences.

When I was 20 years old, I made the decision that finding my next dose of Oxycontin was much more important than having a stable residence. After some incredibly regrettable behavior, I was given the boot from my childhood home and told to fend for myself. With every penny of my income helping to pay for several $60 pills a day, my options for a living situation were relegated to the couches and floors of anyone who was willing to have me.

To say I was ever homeless would be a gross misrepresentation, but it was a sharp left turn from my previous path of middle-class privilege and a brief but potent staring match with the eyes of true struggle; of truly losing everything.

Hip-hop, for better or worse, was born from struggle. It was born from hijacked powerlines, amateurishly refurbished equipment and the sonic leftovers of disco and soul’s fading popularities. To this day, much of hip-hop’s content is rooted in chronicling its contributors' triumphs over what to many would seem like insurmountable odds.

“Started from the bottom now we here,” while succinctly stated by Drake in 2013, is more so a culmination of nearly 40 years of the musically-documented struggle than it is a catchy single.

Many of my favorite artists—from KRS-One to Jay Electronica—have spent some of their formative adult years toiling in homelessness. These artists, for one reason or another, were forced to hit rock bottom before becoming the musical celebrities we know them as today. Before they were emcees or singers, they were, at one point, seen by society as vagrants, bums or any other of the multitude of stigma-perpetuating monikers we’ve given to those that we see as below us.

Boogie Down Production’s powerful black empowerment anthem “The Homeless” likely wouldn’t exist without KRS’ personal experiences at The Bowery Mission homeless shelter in Manhattan. A$AP Rocky likely wouldn’t be the multi-faceted entertainer/entrepreneur he is today had he not spent nearly two years floating between homeless shelters with his mother after his father’s incarceration on drug charges.

In all pockets of hip-hop—from Brother Ali to Lil' Kim to 2Pac—the simultaneous pressure and freedom of having nothing can produce some of the most driven, creative and business-savvy artists the world of music has ever seen. Not only has that intense struggle birthed powerful voices, it's allowed those voices to come back and speak on those experiences, broadening our understanding of homelessness and the conditions that lead to it. Considering roughly 1.56 million people in the U.S. alone—that's one in every 200—are homeless, that perspective delivered through the mouths of people we now see as productive members of society is an incredibly important one. 

If hip-hop is truly a soundtrack to struggle (which historically, it absolutely is), homelessness is the apex of that struggle, and for those who have been persistent and lucky enough to make it out, those experiences have often gone on to become powerful and emotive inspirations that have led to some of the best hip-hop content of all time.