Friday, 1 September 2017

Oliver!: Scarface - A Minute to Pray and a Second to Die (21 March 1992)

NOTE - the lyrics in this video are uncensored.

As I write this (28/8/17), the city of Houston in Texas is currently experiencing serious flooding due to Storm Harvey.  It remains to be seen whether this reaches Hurricane Katrina proportions, but the world will be watching to see if the level of response from the authorities is sharper than it was in New Orleans, 12 years ago - and if it isn't then expect Houston's very own Brad Jordan AKA Scarface to tell us all about it.  In his 2015 memoir, Diary of a Madman, he has plenty to say about where America found itself at the end of Obama's tenure and his words take on even greater resonance after 6 months of Donald Trump:
"America is always looking for something to blame for the reason it's destroying itself.  First it was jazz that was destroying America, then it was rock and roll, then it was disco, then it was rap.  But you know, I think America is destroying America.  Our country is built is built on a foundation of rules and laws and belief systems that date back to the 1700s and 1800s, back to the time of slavery and it's fucking us up.  It's breeding hate.  It's deeper than a record.  Hate goes deeper than that." (Page 37, iBooks - Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death and the Roots of Southern Rap by Brad Jordan with Benjamin Meadows-Ingram; Dey St through Harper Collins, 2015)

In March 1992, Peel visited an exhibition of photography by rapper and TV presenter, Normski.  He didn't say whether he bought any of Normski's work, but he certainly picked up this 12" release taken from the Geto Boys alumnus's official solo debut, Mr. Scarface is Back.  Peel put the track on heavy rotation over March/April 1992 and deservedly so.  Using samples from Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues and the greeting at the top of What's Going On, this is an outstanding take on the realities of gang violence which weaves its way through three different viewpoints - the hustler who ends up dead leaving behind a daughter who he will never see grow up; the thankless lot of the women who love the dealers and criminals, thinking that they'll get to enjoy the fruits of their money, only to find themselves targets of abuse for spurious, paranoid reasons and ultimately left holding the baby; and lastly there's the foot soldier who recovers from a shooting, but instead of using his good fortune to take a righteous path pursues vengeance and takes it in shocking directions before finally being taken down for good.

For Scarface this track would crystalise two of his obsessions - the hold of the streets and death.  He witnessed it several times growing up, having been working in a convenience store as a child when a
cashier was murdered in a bungled robbery; seeing a neighbour come out of her house and die on the street after being shot inside the house by her husband and losing a number of friends and associates both to heat of the moment rows that escalated or cold-blooded executions.
"When I write about death on my records, it's almost never from a rapper's standpoint.  I write about what I know, what I experienced, what I thought, or what I saw.  But when you've had the opportunity  to see life come into this world, and you've seen it taken away, you start to look at life in a different way.  I know I did.  Just watching somebody who's getting ready to die who doesn't want to die fight for his life even though he knows there's nothing either one of you can do and all you can do is watch him go...To look them in the eyes and see life there before it's gone and then to watch it take off and to see those eyes turn into a blank stare....  I can't describe it.  It's like watching a birth.  That instant of life and death and creation and destruction -...I've seen a lot of people go out.  And it's a cold feeling.  It will give you a whole new respect for life." (Page 69, iBooks - Diary of a Madman).

The fragility of the human condition that Scarface talks about here underpins this track beautifully just as it does in all of Scarface's best work.  Although he himself talks about confrontations in his own life, he says that he's always ready to stand down if the other person will, but if they won't then he's ready to die.  A Minute to Pray and A Second to Die looks at the consequences of those who are only prepared to die.  It pities rather than glorifies, but as Scarface says, he and his contemporaries never sought to glorify violence, they only related what they had seen.  And in doing so here, he created great art.

Video courtesy of DeepNdaSouth.

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