Self-Destruction vs. We’re All in the Same Gang
ith respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.
For history’s sake, the charity single was birthed in 1984 with Band Aid’s timeless classic, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” Sir Bob Geldolf’s attempt at corralling a cavalcade of British pop artists of the era in order to stave off hunger in Ethiopia. America and Quincy Jones followed up the task a year later with the watered-down “We Are the World,” featuring mega-stars like Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen putting ego aside to croon inspirational verses for the same cause. Did either succeed? That’s another battle for another time, one in which Canada’s version, Northern Light’s “Tears are Not Enough,” can’t be discounted.
It was inevitable that hip-hop adapt the traditional posse cut into a weapon of positivism. 1988 was a time when the only disparity between the East and West Coasts were in style; long before Tupac and Biggie, label wars, and death threats. Beefs, most notably the rivalry of Kool Moe Dee and LL Cool J, were settled with light-hearted diss tracks, lyrical proficiency, and creativity, instead of gang arsenals. And, as opposed to the paeans of pop do-gooders, hip-hop was more concerned with the problems at home, the ills that were affecting the communities that gave them an audience rather than the third world.
It was KRS-One and Chuck D that sparked hip-hop’s conscience, forming the Stop the Violence Movement after an innocent bystander was slain at a Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy show in the Bronx. The infamous “chain-snatching” wave of violence and the spreading crack epidemic were a dark cloud over the burgeoning NYC hip-hop success stories funneling into the suburban psyche. “Self-Destruction” was an attempt to eradicate those stereotypes, to educate about the rapid increase in black-on-black crime and bring together a cadre of talent for one moment of unified old-school love.
The West Coast followed suit in 1991 with the West Coast Rap All-Stars’ “We’re All in the Same Gang.” Sandwiched between films likeColors and Boyz N the Hood, the track dealt with the visible conflict of the Bloods vs. Crips in South Central Los Angeles. With Dr. Dre on board, and hip-hop becoming a household commodity thanks to “Yo! MTV Raps,” a laundry list of rappers came knocking to be a part of this one.
Fast forward to the present. I’m hard pressed to find another song of the same ilk made since. Posse cuts are rampant, with Dipset and G-Unit competing for sales rather than turf, but there’s no longer a prominent discourse, socially or politically, which makes these tracks vitally relevant even today and calls for blow-by-blow reevaluation as to which one resonates the most.
Neither producer was particularly adventurous. D-Nice chopped up the J.B.s for “Self-Destruction,” and Dre rearranged James Brown’s “Night Train” for “Same Gang.” This being D-Nice’s first production credit, at the tender age of 18 no less, he safely crept close to his skeletal work as DJ for the Boogie Down. For such a young artist surrounded by giants, he conducts a competent replicate of old school minimalism, using nuances like scratching and vinyl rewinds to accent a club of legends.
Dre, meanwhile, had a bit more fun with his contribution by splicing in 16-bar interpolations of the featured artist’s “hits” (Ice-T’s verse over “Colors” and Digital Underground’s over “The Humpty Dance”) and CNN clips about gang violence to break the monotony. Considering this was Dre’s stopgap between N.W.A. and The Chronic, “Same Gang” tends to sizzle with a proto-g-funk bounce, a sign of great things to come.
Winner: “We’re All in the Same Gang”
“Self-Destruction,” to this day, remains a militant pro-black and educational anthem, in part because of the song’s unforgettable monotone chant, “Self Destruction/Ya Headed for Self-Destruction.” “Same Gang’s” chorus, sung by Dre’s then-protégé Michel’le, lends to the tracks more blaxploitation vibe. Here she vamps on Roberta Flack, but unfortunately tacks on an unneeded public service announcement in an irritating Betty Boop-esque speaking voice.
This battle lies in the eye of the beholder. On one hand, “Self-Destruction” is made up of an East Coast, old-school, hall-of-fame list of MCs from Kool Moe Dee and Just-Ice to Doug E. Fresh and Public Enemy. But “Self-Destruction’s” glaring weakness comes in splitting up the groups throughout the verses. Members of Stetsasonic and Boogie Down make appearances, but the talent pool is spread thin throughout. What “Same Gang” lacks in veterans it easily makes up for with diversity. The has-been and criminally overlooked got a moment to shine, including stellar performances from Def Jef, King Tee, Above the Law, and Tone-Loc (yes, very underrated). In addition, a handful of mainstream heavyweights, like M.C. Hammer, Young M.C., and the aforementioned Digital Underground, provided an outsider’s view of the glorification of gang violence and a light-hearted approach to the sobering reality of it all.
Winner: “We’re All in the Same Gang”
There’s really no contest here. “Self-Destruction”’s best verse comes from the all-time greatest female rapper, MC Lyte, not to mention a rare glimpse of Ms. Melodie, the black queen of Boogie Down Productions. Unfortunately the West Coast was, and still is, overwhelmed with misogyny. Only Oaktown 3-5-7 and Body and Soul make an appearance here, and I’m almost positive they got the chance to participate because they were background dancers for their male counterparts.
Again, it’s hard to dispute KRS-One’s intentions for the Stop the Violence Movement. In later years, he came to coin the phrase “edutainment” to describe the goal of Boogie Down Productions’ music. In “Self-Destruction”’s first verse he lays out the plan of the movement in an entertaining, albeit pedantic, dissertation on black on black crime in NYC. In “Same Gang,” King Tee is left with the daunting honor, rhyming “crew-cut” with “poop-butt,” never really driving home the message and giving everyone else in the song a softball to hit out of the park.
Like most of the videos that premiered on “Yo! MTV Raps” in the late ’80s, “Self-Destruction” was made on the cheap. It fluctuates between a group shot in color, to black-and-white montages of various rappers in front of a Malcolm X mural. The only real redemption comes in the beginning: KRS-One plays the teacher, preaching his message in front of a round-table discussion with his followers, everyone nodding along in unison. “Same Gang”’s video follows the narrative of a ghetto adolescent trailing his big brother for the nightly drive-by shooting on what looks like the back-lot for John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood set. Eventually the big brother is spotted by the rival game at a youth basketball tournament, but little brother steps in between, making both sides reconsider their violent ways. As clichéd as it sounds, the video works well, interspersing the West Coast Rap All-Stars spitting their verses (except for Hammer, who, in patented Hammer pants, sticks out like a sore thumb) with blatant but effective cinematic moments.
Winner: “We’re All in the Same Gang”
For those keeping score, that leaves us with a draw, and that’s how it should be. Neither track could be faulted for trying to spread a message of anti-violence in the hip-hop community. But if I have to choose a winner, it’d be “Self-Destruction,” by inches. It did come first, two years before the West Coast showed up and cared, and was birthed by the pioneers of a genre that still shows some growing pains (socially, politically, sexually) even in an era where it appears to reign supreme.