How Hip-Hop Revolutionized Murder Ballads
Let’s begin by disabusing you of the idea that a murder ballad is a slow song. When we talk about murder ballads, we’re using the original definition of a ballad — or as the Oxford English Dictionary describes it:
“A poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the folk culture.”
The original murder ballads were an early form of true crime writing that served as a way for an illiterate population to get and share gory, blood-splattered news from all over Western Europe. It was a format largely by and for the common man, so it makes perfect sense that the two genres of music who would most closely embrace the murder ballad would be country and hip-hop.
“American country music is obviously rooted in this tradition that goes back to these [murder] ballads from the British isles,” Harold Schechter, author of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment tells Radio.com. “And in terms of hip-hop…you’re talking about a kind of music in a way that comes up out of the streets and addresses the kinds of issues that ordinary people are fascinated by and that reflect certain kinds of social realities and actual crimes that are going on in the community.”
While everything else about country and hip-hop might be different, their audiences have one key element in common: admiration for outlaws. Hip-hop has produced plenty of outlaws: to name just a few, the Notorious B.I.G., whose semi-autobiographical debut album Ready To Die would become an instant classic; Jay-Z, whose early career mining his experiences as a hustler-cum-criminal lead him to an estimated net worth of $500 million; 50 Cent, whose debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ detailed how he lived through being shot nine times.
Hip-hop has the distinct advantage of being able to craft folktales around an artist. While murder ballads were composed by anonymous writers to detail true crimes, hip-hop’s take on the genre loses anonymity but keeps the violence and often serves as a cautionary tale or the means to an end for crafting a persona.
But as music writer Alan Light points out, in the emerging days of gangsta rap in the late 1980s well into the ’90s, it was often the critics of hip-hop’s murder ballads who were quick to draw a line between their existence and the destruction of modern society — in urban centers.
“I think there’s a case to be made, at least looking back at the Ice T and N.W.A. records and the way that those records were made, though obviously they’re coming from a different place and using a different structure, that there is a relationship to murder ballads. There is a relationship to the idea of using killing as a narrative force, as a central element in a story that you’re telling. And as a way to live out and work out fantasy and imagination. I always felt at that time the hip hop audience just wasn’t given enough credit.”
Light detailed the cultural circumstances around the release of Body Count and Ice-T’s 1992 single “Cop Killer,” a song that is still not commercially available today. Warner Brothers Records removed “Cop Killer” from Body Count’s self-titled debut album among many protests, while the group later made it available for free online.
“This is something that Ice-T and I talked about a lot, at the time, which is the sense that these kids are too stupid to understand what’s real and what’s fiction,” Light said. “And they can’t make those kinds of literary distinctions that are granted in country music, in folk music, in western movies.”
As hip-hop has become more mainstream (meaning, embraced by middle class white America), it has both moved away from glorifying violence in the past decade and seen its violent lyrics increasingly more likely to be written off as fictional storytelling. It’s interesting to watch this evolution when you consider that the 1930s-1960s saw a rise in murder ballads that addressed a rising social consciousness around civil rights.