David Gutcheon is a 37-year-old white dude who grew up in Lower Manhattan worshiping Run DMC, Stetsasonic and Public Enemy. At various times a television correspondent covering music in New York and a writer for Spin and other publications, David turned his back on mainstream hip-hop sometime after The Chronic, unable to bear the music’s descent into nihilism and inanity. He now survives on indie hip-hop from the likes of Dan the Automator, Kid Koala and Aesop Rock. Right now he is wearing Adidas and listening to Kool G Rap.
Jorteh Senah is a 26-year-old black dude who left his hometown in the tiny island nation of Trinidad to move to New York City and become a hip-hop journalist. His work has been published in Giant magazine, Rap-Up magazine, TheSource.com and a bunch of other hip-hop websites. He is currently rocking Nikes and listening to Lil Wayne.
Jorteh loves the music of today; David is strictly old-school. Together they try to make sense of contemporary hip-hop. Here the pair discuss Gorilla Zoe’s Welcome To The Zoo:
David: I’ll say this: it must have taken a huge amount of mental effort to come up with an entire album as perfectly unimaginative as Gorilla Zoe’s Welcome To The Zoo. It’s like the music’s been pushed through a fine screen, sifted to remove any element which doesn’t conform perfectly to the exhausted “Hood N—-” clichés from which it’s assembled. The result is a music product with the consistency of paste, and roughly the same nutritional content. Seriously, this is the musical equivalent of gruel. The beats are generic, inorganic and sterile — they sound like they were composed on a CasioTone, while the song titles are like entries in a comically-clichéd-rap-song-title contest: the aforementioned “Hood N—-,” “Money Man,” “Crack Muzik,” “Real Mutherfucka,” etc.
Jorteh: Well, what do you expect from a guy who calls himself Gorilla Zoe? And who explains his moniker as a metaphor representing his dominance in the “hood,” like that of a gorilla in the jungle? As he puts it in the album’s intro, “That’s why the call me Gorilla, n—-. I’m the king of this motherf—er.” Talk about monkey business… the last time I checked, wasn’t the lion the king of the jungle? If Mr. Zoe’s skills as a rapper were to be equated to the potency of an animal, he’d be lucky to be considered a gorilla. Vulture Zoe would be more appropriate name for him, since he insists on gorging off the already bloated persona of the “gangsta.” But ultimately, the seductiveness of these simplistic narratives is the only thing… um… Gorilla (I feel stupid addressing anyone, even a rapper, as “Gorilla”) has going for him.
David: I mean, this music is cobbled together from clichés so shopworn that they’re the pop-culture equivalent of clip-art — so common and generic that they’re not even worth copyrighting. Like, imagine you were writing a screenplay, and someone in your story owed money to the Mafia. Would you have to do a bunch of research to be able to write the character of the mafia guy? Nope, you can just build him out of clip-art clichés: his name is Vinnie, he wears a track suit, he says “fuhgeddaboudit.” He’s a stock character, and the qualities which he displays are so familiar that any first-time amateur screenwriter could use them without hesitation. The “gangsta” character of Gorilla Zoe represented on this album is the musical equivalent of Vinnie the Mafia Guy.
Jorteh: Here’s the thing about pigeonholing yourself into a gangsta persona: you have to be an extremely versatile and dexterous rapper to pull it off, i.e. there’s only so much you can say about being a “gangsta” before it becomes insipid. Today’s successful gangsta rappers either possess unlimited ingenuity (à la The Clipse), or extravagant street cred (à la Young Jeezy), neither of it Gorilla Zoe commands. The result is a myriad of menacing machismo that wears thin as the album progresses. It’s like “Ok, for crying out loud, I get it; you’re a gun toting, money grubbing, 24-inch-rim riding, bitch slapping, hood n—-.” Who are you trying to convince, me or yourself? The puzzling thing is that before he walked into a phone booth and transformed into Super N—-, Gorilla Zoe actually had a pretty inspiring life story.
David: Well, precisely. The real-life biography of Gorilla Zoe’s civilian alter ego, Alonzo Mathis, is what makes this album especially distressing, at least from a Bill Cosby/What’s-The-Matter-With-Black-People point of view. While still in his teens, Mr. Mathis, a music fan, got a job at a record store, and, despite being a high-school dropout, rose to become the store’s manager. In the process he saved enough money to open his own recording studio, where he met local producers who gave him beats he used in his rap demos until he succeeded in a record deal. So, in real life, Mr. Mathis is hardworking, reliable and diligent. He got himself a job, took it seriously and got promoted to a position of responsibility, and then was fiscally responsible and mature enough to save enough money to open up his own business while still in his early 20s. These are all compelling reasons why young Mr. Mathis should genuinely be admired and celebrated by the sort of impressionable urban young people who listen to records like his. He deserves to be a role model — he’s ambitious, dedicated and successful, but instead he’s peddling these creatively bankrupt stereotypes of drug-dealing and thuggery. Gorilla Joe is like a parody of a rapper that they would have on “The Boondocks.” Honestly, dude, you worked that hard for that long to get your chance to say what you wanted to say, and this was what you wanted to say? This is what the inner lives of black people are about? Having your car interior lined with chinchilla? Bitches have to take their shoes off? Ice? Rims? Really?
Jorteh: Funny enough, the same monetary savvy that you admire, which helped Gorilla Zoe get to this point, is probably responsible for the brand of music he makes, which you find so appalling. While deciding what type of debut album to make, Zoe probably took the following into account: southern-style hip-hop is dominating the music scene, with its staple finger-snapping symphonies and frivolously fraught lyrics, and while his real-life story may seem more relatable to the average listener, who else besides Kanye West has turned their narrative of parlaying a retail job into a music career into mega retail sales for themselves? In a way, the “fiscally responsible” choice was the one he made — producing a bubblegum-rap debut album. And of course, his record company, Bad Boy South/Block Entertainment, would have been pushing for a sound that sells records. Certainly we’ve seen bad music rack up bountiful bucks before, not just in hip-hop. Think back to the late 90s, when a whimsical wave of boy bands and pop princesses dominated the airwaves. Hip-hop is just going through its hip-pop era, and much like the LFO’s and Samantha Mumbas of the late-90s, Gorilla Zoe probably doesn’t give a baboon’s butt what people say about his music, as long as he’s getting paid.
David: Which brings us to the issue of money, and what this concept apparently means to Gorilla Zoe’s audience. The “money” described in these lyrics is obviously purely imaginary, existing in comically immense quantities like in a Richie Rich comic or a glutton’s fantasy of endless pie. There are endless references to getting money, and to spending money, but none to keeping money, or saving money, or investing money; and since no one who treats money as Mr. Gorilla claims to could remain solvent for more than five minutes, it’s ultimately still a fantasy of poverty– the money is fantasy money, so the daydreams of what you would do with it are pure fantasy too. “I got trash-bag money, hit the club and throw it up”– um, no, you don’t. What does it say about the condition of modern urban people, and their own opinion of their chances of actually prospering, if they no longer even bother with fantasies that might actually come true?
Jorteh: Unfortunately, Hip Hop’s mantra of “money, money, money” has become an asinine aesthetic. What was once a somewhat-sympathetic premise – many rappers come from low-income origins, hence their way of showing they’ve achieved success is by flaunting their new money – is now downright delusional. But don’t think Hip Hop fans are naïve about these claims of perpetual spending. The dirty business of the record industry is as big a part of the mystique of Hip Hop as the music itself. It’s common knowledge that a platinum plaque doesn’t necessarily translate to six figures. And though Gorilla Zoe, like many other rappers, may be guilty of leading fans on with his farcical fiscal claims, like may other rappers he also preaches hard work and “staying on the grind” until ultimate success is achieved, even if you do squander most of it on rims, ice, and all the other hip-hop trappings.
David: Alright, well, in conclusion, I think Gorilla Zoe is cartoonishly awful, from the Ice Cube Lite scowl on his album cover, to the hackneyed “Real N—-” posturing of his lyrics. nd check the self-pity: Zoe is constantly pouting that mythical enemies and opponents are trying to tear him down: “Y’all don’t wanna see me ball / These n—-s wanna see me fall… These n—-s want me to fail,” intones the chorus of “I Know.” Later, in grumbling, defensive tones, the claim that “You motherf—ers are like crabs in a bucket,” aimed, theoretically, at “n—-s” who are not “real” and do not want to see him “ball.” But who’s really pulling everybody around them down — playa haters who oppose Zoe’s ballin’ agenda, or fake gangsters who glorify gun-toting and drug-dealing from inside the safety of a recording studio?
Jorteh: I agree that Welcome To The Zoo is bubblegum rap at its bleakest. Much like its namesake, bubblegum music offers poor nutrition and looses zest in a short period of time. However, like bubblegum, which becomes bland, hard and rubbery after a few chews, Gorilla Zoe’s album does have its short-lived moments of saccharine savor. “Hood N—-,” “Money Man,” “Last Time I Checked,” “Battle Field” and “Crack Muzik” all have head-bopping appeal, if nothing else. As for fake gangsters pulling everybody down, you can blame the success of acts like N.W.A., Biggie Smalls and Tupac for Zoe’s perpetual pistol pointing. Then again, how were they to know that every Tom, Dick and Harry would change their names to Tommy Gun, Dick Deadly and Harry the Hitman, and put out a gangsta rap record?
David: Dude, that’s the second time you’ve referred to this violent, profanity-laden, misogynist advertisement for drug-dealing as “bubblegum rap.” Don’t you see how f—ed up that is? “Bubblegum” was originally a term for upbeat, inoffensive pop music which was aimed at innocent young listeners. It had sweet melodies, and bland, wholesome lyrics, and was considered appropriate for any listener regardless of age — like, you know, bubblegum. What the hell has happened to our standards if a record that has the words “n—-” and “motherf—er” in the first ten seconds of the album now qualifies as bubblegum? To paraphrase Mickey Rooney: “Hey kids! Let’s put on a motherf—ing show! N—–s.”