Fatherhood: My favorite hip-hop tales
Why black fatherhood stories are much-needed in hip-hop culture
Mahogany. Follow the Leader. Paid in Full. Juice. I Ain’t No Joke. When I cracked open the 2019 book “Sweat the Technique” by hip-hop legend Rakim, I expected to hear about these songs and his rise to stardom.
What I did not expect to do was listen to a Frank Sinatra song with a different ear*, and then skip around through pages to get to all of the entertaining tales about his father. A young Rakim repeatedly kept trying his dad’s patience. For me, these father-son tales are the highlight of the entire book.
Although I still cannot picture Rakim running a hot dog stand, this was indeed an idea he got from his dad. The ultimatum about Job Corps? Yup, that one I could see. Just as he does in his lyrics, I can visualize the scene in which he described how his father caught him cutting class, and it sounded like something straight out of a TV script. And then there were less-funny moments — his father found a gun under Rakim’s pillow. (I was shocked by the hard lesson Rakim learned from that one but laughed at his father’s response.)
These may be the overlooked tales in “Sweat the Technique,” but are so necessary to read in hip-hop culture. Rakim — who is notoriously private — could’ve easily just talked about his rap career and left family out altogether, but he clearly felt one was as important as the other. Generation Y and Z, plus my fellow Millennials, need to be able to hear tales of fathers who stuck around, not just the ones who disappeared. And books like these give them the opportunity to do so.
I grew up in a household with parents who were married, but too often as a kid I was asked, “So, your father is your real dad? And he married your mom?” There was instant disbelief that this was a possibility. I was asked that all the way up until the end of high school. Unfortunately I was one of very few of my friends whose father was active in her life. My friends’ mothers were always around, but most of their fathers were long gone. Meanwhile my father took his cues from his own dad — my grandfather. And the cycle continued with my older brother, who has two sons with his high school sweetheart (and wife).
I salute single mothers (and fathers) for taking on both roles. But I also like to see the men who influenced the young men I grew up with, including the ones I only know from television and radio.
One of my earliest recollections of fathers in hip-hop was Nas creating a video with his musician father, Olu Dara. That video “Bridging the Gap” forever became one of the most important videos in hip-hop for me.
It was extremely rare at the time to see an African-American rapper with his dad — and “Bridging the Gap” had the nerve to be a bop, too, so that made it even better.
Onscreen fathers weren’t a complete novelty. In the past few decades, there were quite a few shows with African-American fathers as main cast members: “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “The Cosby Show,” “A Different World,” “Family Matters,” “Living Single,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” “Sister, Sister,” “Moesha,” “One on One” and “The Carmichael Show,” to name a few.
Then Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens’ “Living Single” created a link between hip-hop and TV sitcoms — with both father-son and father-daughter interactions. But now all of those shows are either canceled or ran their course.
A few new ones have come around such as “Blackish,” “Queen Sugar,” “Black Lightning,” “The Chi” and “All American.” These are all solid shows that don’t make a mockery of the men in them.
But there weren’t really any family-friendly black reality shows directly linked to hip-hop — until 2005.
While most reality shows are heavy on the drama and light on common sense, a few broke the mold. I love to see shows with hip-hop fathers involved in their kids’ lives. “Run’s House” starring Reveren Run (of Run DMC) gave us an inside scoop on Russell “Russy,” Daniel “Diggy,” Joseph “Jo Jo,” Angela, Vanessa and a small storyline on Rev’s adopted daughter Miley.
And although T.I.’s recent gynecology spying soured my take on “Family Hustle,” the family-friendly show from 2011 was a solid spin-off from his wife’s original reality show “Tiny and Toya.”
By the time Angela Simmons and Master P’s son Romeo Miller (along with hip-hop elite like Percy “Master P” Robert Miller, Sandra “Pepa” Denton and Damon “Dame” Dash) opened the floodgates for “Growing Up Hip Hop” (and now the Atlanta and New York versions), these shows became staples. And viewers get to see the father-parent relationships between Romeo and Master P; Dame Dash and Boogie; Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins with Jordan and Britney Atkins; Irv Gotti with Angie and JJ; William “Flavor Flav” Jonathan Drayton Jr. with Dazyna, Will and Quan; and Joseph “Fat Joe” Antonio Cartagena with Ryan.
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And this is even after the highly entertaining “Follow the Rules” aired in 2015, with just Ja Rule’s family. (“Gotti’s Way” had plenty of drama, but it wasn’t as much of a feel-good show. That’s why I respect that Irv Gotti tried his best to stay away from the drama on “GUHHNY” — regardless of another cast member’s aunt who is absolutely pointless and painfully immature.**)
In the coming years, I hope to see African-American artists continue to tell their fatherhood stories on and off the screen. As influential as hip-hop already is in clothing apparel, marketing, music and politics, it’s always good to see and read about these family moments, too.
* You’d have to read the book to understand why Rakim made me appreciate Frank Sinatra’s song “Fly Me to the Moon” in a different way.
** Charlie Baltimore, you and your daughter Siaani get nothing but respect from me. You handled yourselves well the entire season.