For as long as I can remember hip-hop artists and people who claim to be experts in hip-hop culture have bandied about that phrase or some variation of it - keep it real, keepin' it real, etc. - to help make their case that hip-hop is about raw truth.
And for as long as I can remember, I have thought that notion was partly bogus. Rappers lie like rugs.
For that matter, lots of musicians from lots of genres lie like rugs.
But the thing about rap is these days it is the opiate of the youthful masses. It is currently the only musical style that enjoys massive crossover appeal along all racial and ethnic and class and cultural lines in the U.S., and maybe on this planet.
If you're a rap hater, hold on a minute before you cheer, because for me, rap is a lot like race or gender, in that people who are inclined to dislike its "members" will often declare all those members bad, based on the actions of a some.
Besides, there's plenty of crappy bubble gum pop music that doesn't mention violence or drugs out there. And do you need me to tell you the state of rock wangs chung as well these days?
I'm a child of the hip-hop generation. As I've said before, I grew up on Run D.M.C., and Heavy D., and Fab Five Freddy, and the Sugar Hill Gang. I love the organized rebellion that prompted members of this Gen-X parallel generation to dig deep in the 1980s and call attention to poverty, and government fraud, and the breadth of the AIDS crisis, and so on. Even Ice Cube and NWA, while menacing and scary in some of their early music - Cube's pre-Are We There Yet? days - used at least some of hteir platform to call out corruption in the LAPD, scold teenage girls who let smooth-talking boys into their pants and got pregnant, and so on.
But I've been equally disappointed over the past 10 years or so with the element that has dominated hip-hop music by making songs almost exclusively about having deep pockets, being thugs, selling drugs, and scoring tons and tons of women, and flashing wads of cash.
And I admit I've been a hypocrite. There've been times I've listened to this stuff - not so much over the past few years - with the same excuse one might make for Penthouse: I listen for the beat, as in I "read" it for the letters.
My disappointment lies in the fact that there is so little substance to so many of the newer hip-hop artists.
If the Furious Five talked about poverty and crime back in the day, you'd better believe they were decrying it.
So we have a generation of rappers now whose claim to fame is a collective autobiography in which you could easily swap out the names and keep the story the same: I once dealt drugs. I hate cops. I may've had to kill a man once in the course of doing "business," but if I did, it was only 'cause I had to.
Those are the staples by which you become a successful rapper these days, unless you're one of the consciencious crowd, like Kanye West, and Common, and (if they're still making music) Dilated Peoples.
I often wish that the kids who buy into this "real" thing really knew that their favorite rapper probably grew up nowhere near "the hood," probably never bought drugs, and probably went to college. His folks probably kept him on their health insurance plan till he was in his mid 20s. He's probably never had so much as a parking ticket.
And you know what, that's OK! It's good that their favorite rappers had "normal" upbringings. It's bad that their favorite rappers pretend to have had bad upbringings, thus giving these kids the impression that cashing in on the bad life is something to aspire to.
Anyway, I said all that to say this: yet another rapper has been busted in this phoniness.
The Herald's Crime Scene blog referenced last week an investigation by TheSmokingGun.com that revealed Miami rapper Rick Ross - you know, The Boss, the guy who brags about knowing Manuel Noriega and being owed favors by the former dictator, the guy who boasts of major coke deals on his tunes, and talks scornfully of law enforcement? - used to be a law enforcement officer himself.
That's right. Rick "he who scorns cops" Ross was a corrections officer, a prison guard, a screw, as the inmates like to call 'em.
Naturally Ross denies this and says it's a conspiracy, though The Smoking Gun, through Freedom of Information requests, managed to get copies of Ross's job application, his payroll info, a photo of him in his prison guard's uniform, and so on.
Here's what's so funny about all this to me: there's nothing wrong with being a prison guard. But this guy's apparently contrived image of being such a brutal thug would be irreparably harmed if he admitted that he once worked an honest, law-abiding 9-to-5 job.
Damn shame when you can't even admit having had a job before.
Now, as we reflect on the apparent fraud of Rick Ross's image, can someone tell me why he should retain any more credibility than did Vanilla Ice when he got busted for being a fake thug?
I'm just askin'.