How Hip-Hop Gave Me a Second Chance at Life
HIP-HOP WAS BORN in the Bronx in the summer of 1973. To celebrate the music’s 50th anniversary, “Rolling Stone” will be publishing a series of features, historical pieces, op-eds, and lists throughout this year.
I try to be deliberate about describing it as a “car crash” and resist writing “accident,” because I’m not so sure. I didn’t think I was suicidal, at least not while sober.
I was in Detroit preparing for an academic conference the first time I watched the video for Ab-Soul’s “Do Better.” For my panel on Black Study & Public Pedagogy, I planned to talk about being dope. Specifically, my talk was about Black people as a drug to which America is addicted. This addiction shows itself in many ways. It has constructed categories of legal and illegal depending on who is using, like other drugs. For some, it’s described as abuse, and for others, it’s transactional, or perhaps necessary for some prescribed reason or another. The video was only somewhat related to my presentation, but I had no way to know other than to watch it. It’s all black and white. It begins with the rapper speaking while seated in a chair, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses. Before the music begins, he speaks, “The know-it-all that’s always wrong, but I be claiming I’m advanced. / This my second second chance.”
The music cues distressing scenes. Ab-Soul is falling, and we eventually see that he has jumped from the top of a building. A little more than halfway through the video, there’s a moment when he’s brought back to life, caught on the brink of leaping from that precipice by the embrace of the hands and arms of people who are apparently close enough to prevent his jump from the ledge. I cried and cried after watching those hands pull him back from the brink of death. Every time I’ve watched it since then, tears still well up in my eyes. After talking to the Detroit audience about being dope, I recommended they all watch the video if or when they had the capacity to do so.
“Do Better” is the first single from Ab-Soul’s 2022 album Herbert, and it’s about, well, doing better. It’s a welcome topic for me, and I’m sure many others will relate to the desire to realign and refocus our energies after all the turmoil we have collectively and individually endured over the past few years.
I don’t only recommend music during academic presentations. My friends know there’s a rap lyric for every occasion, and I’m always at the ready with a quote or a link to share. It’s my profession now. But before that, it was my passion. In the 50 years of hip-hop – from its purported origins in the Bronx, through my Midwest hometown of Decatur, IL, to the West Coast, and back – there have been songs for all occasions. Some rap songs describe the love we have for our mothers or the neighborhoods we grew up in, the lives we left behind, or – as is often the case – our desires to live the kinds of lives we hear rappers describe.
As a fan of rap, it hasn’t always just been what a rapper is saying that invited me to bob my head or tethered a song to a moment or a memory. It’s as much about feeling as it is about forethought. The combination of both of these appeals anchored my appreciation of the art form to my academic curiosity. Like lots of my friends, I decided I would be a rapper. In the process of trying to make my rap dream work, I delved as deeply into the archive of hip-hop stories of the past half-century as my doctoral program would allow. Hip-hop had become the way I navigated the world around me, professionally and privately.
In 2017, I released a rap album titled Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions as my Ph.D. dissertation at Clemson University. The album, like my academic presentation in Detroit, is about America’s dependency on Black bodies and Black art, and the country’s attempts, through history and in the present, to regulate Black life. It details how the U.S. treats Black people as products to be sold and traded. Hip-hop helps highlight some of the ways Blackness is arbitrarily legalized and outlawed, our presence, our bodies, and our actions elicit suspicion and surveillance, while, at the same time, reproductions of our bodies and actions are consumed and welcomed in places, like academia, where our presence is restricted, if it’s allowed at all. Licit or illicit, Black folks are dope. Owning My Masters, to my mind, is an uncut dose.
Considering hip-hop’s history of naming societal problems as a way to confront them, I wrote the album to use rap and hip-hop methodologies to highlight America’s past and present, with hopes that in the next 50 years of hip-hop, a rap album dissertation would be considered as traditional as the kinds of written documents most people submit today. It was also a way to show how profoundly hip-hop has shaped my life in ways that aren’t academic.
When I reflect on my life, I often think of the Jay-Z lines from “Murder to Excellence”: “And they say by twenty-one I was supposed to die / So I’m out here celebrating my post-demise.” I appreciate that so many people who listen to rap music might hear the same song and take away different things. It’s almost like no two people ever really experience the same song the same way. We listen and filter what we hear through our own circumstances.
Jay-Z rapping about surviving everyday American violence might conjure hundreds of different interpretations depending on the experiences people bring into the listening. In “Murder to Excellence,” he’s reflecting on his relatively short life expectancy as a Black man in a violent world, and relishing outliving those expectations. When I think of his lyrics, it’s almost always more personal and separate from that context. I’m usually thinking about the near-death experience that changed my life.
In the video for “Do Better,” it seems Ab-Soul is sharing a near-death experience that changed his life. He jumped off a freeway overpass in his hometown Carson, CA. In an interview with Charlamagne tha God, he talks about the addiction that led to his jump. He says that he’s never attempted suicide while not under the influence. There’s a history of hip-hop songs that deal with substance abuse and mental health that goes as far back as the first commercial recordings.
The well-known refrain of the 1982 song, “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is illustrative, “It’s like a jungle sometimes / it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.” The 1991 Geto Boys song “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” plumbs the depths of paranoia and depression described by group members Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill. MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie,” a rap yarn about a womanizing young alcoholic who dies tragically, was released in 1991, as well. And there’s Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” from 1994. Tupac opens and closes his 1995 song, “Lord Knows” with, “I smoke a blunt to get the pain out / and if I wasn’t high I’d probably try to blow my brains out.” In 1996, A Tribe Called Quest and Faith Evans released “Stressed Out.”
The entire corpus of DMX might qualify for this list. Along with Jean Grae’s “Keep Livin’” from 2003 where she discusses mental health over the beat to Scarface’s 2002 song, “On My Block.” And Earl Sweatshirt’ “Grief,” released in 2015 on an album titled I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside. The long list of rappers who have made music or otherwise attempted to publicly navigate issues with mental health, substance abuse, and/or suicidal ideation include Kid Kudi, CHIKA, Conway the Machine, Ye, 7xvethegenius, and Mac Miller, one of the many artists who’ve battled substance abuse. Miller was a friend of Ab-Soul, and one of the people he mourns on Herbert and “Do Better.”
In his interview with Charlamagne, Ab-Soul’s description of his state of mind when he jumped from the overpass resonates with me. Though I would say I felt fine sober, under the influence, I had an excuse to give in to any impulse that came to mind. The song and video for “Do Better” resonate because I’ve been a firsthand witness to addiction and folks I love trying to jump off that figurative ledge. I’ve been there myself and jumped. I’m not an addiction expert. I’m a survivor. Fortunately, I’ve also been caught by the embrace of folks close to me. Tragic losses sometimes leave us with unfathomable guilt and grief. That there are arms and hands – people close enough – to be embraced by is the greatest of gifts.
All those years ago, I rarely spent any of my free time sober, and the reasons for that were many, including, in part, what felt like incessant heaviness from depression and nonstop tragedy that made the heaviness thick and nearly immovable.
The way Ab-Soul describes his “incident” is that it happened in a “cinematic” way. He describes blacking out, like blinks, and each time his eyes opened he was farther along his course until he’d jumped off the overpass and was laying on the street. He says he believes a car broke his fall. “No brain damage,” he says, but teeth and bones broken, one leg taking the brunt of the fall, apparently.
I don’t remember my crash. I remember moments—drinking…laughing…texting…stopping at Walgreens…overwhelming sadness…driving…a yellow traffic light…the impact of my steering wheel on my face…the smell of grass…the sounds of crying…the taste of my blood…numbness…a cold gurney…darkness…silence…and then nothing.
My face felt mangled. The raised scar beneath the curve of my bottom lip is poorly covered with facial hair. The healed tissue inside my mouth has become the focus of an anxious tic. I catch myself rubbing my tongue back and forth against it when I’m nervous, especially when I’m thinking about the crash.
My recklessness could’ve caused so much more damage. It was a weekend on the busiest street in town. I can’t help but think of all the worst scenarios—death, of others, and my own. I imagine the seatbelt of the old Lincoln Town Car not pulling me back into my seat, being ejected from the windshield, or sitting just a few more inches to the right on the bench seat and being crushed by the engine.
I think of my mother having to plan a funeral, write an obituary, and my siblings saying goodbye and wondering what could’ve been done differently. My dad took my youngest brother and sister to the scene of the crash before they went to the hospital that night. Sometime after, my younger brother told me he was angry with me. He wouldn’t speak to me because he thought I died. I think about that, too.
Nearly as much as I think about those possible outcomes, I think about what I intended to do that evening. I wish I had clarity. It bothers me to not know. It’s difficult to accept the possible reasons. But somewhere amidst the justifying, denying, and poor intellectualizing, I know it was because I was tired. I decided at that moment to let go. I thought I was finished.
I was wrong.
It wasn’t the first time I’d confronted the toxic combination of substance abuse mixed with ongoing mental health challenges that resulted in an attempt to make it all stop in the most permanent of ways. Unfortunately, the crash wasn’t the last time I felt tired and like I was finished. It is, however, the last time I acted on those thoughts in that way. I’ve written myself onto and off of that ledge so many times trying to make sense of it. I’ve sat in front of many therapists, first by court order, then voluntarily, through rehab and maintenance of sobriety, and ongoing.
Fifteen years of sobriety have shown me that I may never know for sure what brought me to the ledge, but I do know that I don’t want to jump. When I hear Ab-Soul rapping, seemingly to himself, affirmations as the hook of the song, I hear my voice telling myself the same thing. And I’m encouraged that he’s listening. After the crash, I remember writing furiously, trying to catch all my thoughts and commit them to paper and then make music with them, or to be able to tell someone else that things can be different. Things can be better.
I think one of the reasons hip-hop – the music, the culture, and the people – have prevailed against all odds, and persist, still, is because of the insistence of its creators to make beautiful art out of some of the ugliest, most difficult, brokenness. This mythos that surrounds rappers is something I’ve witnessed as a fan, as an artist, and as a student of hip-hop. Along with the tales of love for the people and places we’ve loved, left, or maybe hoped to leave, the lives we’ve lived or wanted to live, rappers have consistently reworked trauma, navigated loss, introduced and reintroduced ourselves and our outward personas by percussively narrating pasts, presents, and futures between snares, samples, bass lines and kick drums. And audiences continue to tune in, maybe to listen intently to the words, to subtly sway to the rhythms, or to just bob along to the beat.
Though I didn’t go in-depth about Ab-Soul’s song and video when I was in Detroit talking about Black people being dope, I did discuss the legacies of hip-hop. I find it remarkable to be able to experience the milestone that is hip-hop’s 50th year. I find it remarkable that I’m still here. The Jay-Z lyrics remain an appropriate couplet to describe my life.
Celebrating my post-demise – my second second chance, as Ab-Soul described it – has included lots of therapy, writing, making music, school, cross-country relocation, learning, teaching, and starting a new career. There’s still been guilt and grief and tragedy, but there has also been joy and laughter and the occasional necessary embrace.
With Ab-Soul’s addition to the deep archive of rap music that I reference when I need to try to make sense of the world around me, his refrain more closely describes my approach to life after that metaphoric leap: “I gotta do better. I gotta do better. I gotta…”
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A.D. Carson is a rapper, performance artist, and educator from Decatur, Illinois. He received a Ph.D. in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design. His previous works include the albums iv: talking to ghosts and i used to love to dream — a winner of the 2021 Research Award for Excellence in the Arts and Humanities from the University of Virginia and a Category Winner (Best eProduct) of a Prose Award from the Association of American Publishers in 2021.
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