Or, Bowzie Bowzie Hip-Hop
“Rap is poetry to music, like beatniks without beards and bongos.”
—David Lee Roth, American Poet
Did you know that the hardest MC to ever bless the mic might have been a hairy-chested Jewish dude from California with a penchant for doing karate kicks off a drum riser while wearing tasseled pants? A man who liked his spandex pants tight, his coke white, and his women…end of sentence.
Diamond David Lee Roth might seem like an odd choice as a progenitor, or O.G., of gangsta rap, but the proof is in the pudding. Take for instance Dave’s introduction to the masses from off Van Halen’s debut album, the classic first track “Running With The Devil.” What’s the first thing Dave says, (discounting his intro bellow of “Aw, yeah,” followed by his soon-to-be trademarked kettle whistle muppet screech), what are the first actual words he lays on the listener?
“I live my life like there’s no tomorrow. And all I’ve got I had to steal. / Least I don’t need to beg or borrow. Yes, I’m living at a pace that kills.”
Right out the gate the dude hits you gangsta. Taken out of context these lyrics could seem right at home coming from N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton or off Ice Cube’s The Predator. But instead they’re the opening clarion call of a sleaze rock patron saint, a cultural force and spiritual leader of the late ’70s and early ’80s whose troublemaking influence was so far-reaching that to call him a mere lead singer seems an insult so unfathomable it’d be like calling Star Wars just a science fiction movie.
Dave detractors like to relegate him and Van Halen as a whole to the realm of butt-rock, but it is my view that Van Halen’s 6 albums made with Dave transcend butt-rock and they do so mostly on account of the charm, humor, and personality that David Lee Roth graces that music with.
It has long been my view that David Lee Roth is the only lead singer alive who’s honest enough to be completely full of shit.
He’s the only frontman who’s in on the joke of what it is to be a hard rock frontman. Like Grant Morrison’s take on The Joker, he’s aware of himself so fully that he can see the panels on the page.
But at the same time, even though he makes a joke out of much of his performance (as well as his lyrics and his stage presence), he is paradoxically being 100-percent serious and playing it like life and death. This is not irony. This is not post-modern. No, this is a sublime example of a human being existing as two diametrically opposed forces at once. This is the brilliance of one man embracing the true complexities of the human heart and mind. This is why it’s so funny when Dave says, “I don’t feel tardy.” in “Hot for Teacher” and why it’s also just totally badass. Because he’s not just playing it for laughs. Sure it’s funny, but it’s not meant to only be that. It’s like life, it’s not just one thing, it’s all things at all times.
And one aspect of life found in Dave’s lyrics and attitude, which has been severely overlooked until now, is the grittiness of his storytelling. Dave came from a fairly well-to-do family. (His dad was a surgeon.) But in the intervening years between leaving home and Van Halen’s success Dave was exposed to the seedy world of Southern California’s 1970s hard rock scene. And all the drugs, sex, and violence that were part of that culture became his fodder for some of the hardest edge songwriting in rock-’n'-roll history. And they call Van Halen party rock?
So here’s my experiment: I’m going to post a batch of lyrics or a quote and it’s up to you to determine if these words came from various notable gangsta rappers or if they came instead from the Midas touched lips of Mr. Diamond Dave himself.
From the song “D.O.A.”
“You can’t get romantic on a subway line.”
From the song “Everybody Wants Some!!”
“I don’t have no fear of death. My only fear is coming back reincarnated.”
From an interview.
From an interview.
“See, a gun is real easy, in this desperate part of town. Turns you from hunted into hunter. Go and hunt somebody down.”
From “Mean Street”
“Daddy’s little sweetie after some damn rainbow. Got the big deal in the back of a limo. Now showbiz is so thrillin’, the camera rolls she’s willin’. They won’t believe it when they see what they’re seein’. Hey, you remember when that girl was prom queen?”
From “Dirty Movies”
“Heard a vicious rumor from your mama’s tongue: you a desp’rate woman, need a man with a gun. High crime zone in the city of lights.”
From “Romeo Delight”
“Rollin with my muthafuckin strap on the side of me. Don’t fuck with the East Bay G!”
Dude, did you really think it was Dave? Really? Come on, he represents from Pasadena.
“Wanna see my I.D.? Try to clip my wings! Don’t have to show you proof of anything. I know the law, friend.”
From “Romeo Delight.”
And here’s one more, it’s for freebles:
“At an early age he hits the street and winds up tied with who he meets.”
Answer: DLR, “And The Cradle Will Rock”
Next time you find yourself rollin’ on dubs with your 9 on your side and your homepiece Jeff sippin’ on Old E, (or you know, fantasizing that you are doing so whilst safely in your suburban home and using words like “whilst” like an asshole) instead of blasting some dusties from Too $hort or Goodie Mob, why not throw on some old ruthless like Van Halen II? Just skip it when it comes to “Dance the Night Away.” I love that song, but shit is not gangsta.