“Everybody gon respect the shooter. But the one in front of the gun lives forever” Kendrick Lamar Duckworth
I have an unhealthy obsession with hip-hop adlibs.
As someone who does not possess the same lyrical dexterity as their favorite artists I typically gravitate towards the elements of the song that I can shout effortlessly in public, or that provide me with an endless amount of laughter and entertainment in private spaces.
Little Known Fact: Jim Jones verse on Yung Jocs “Cut Throat” is a masterclass in adlib distribution. Following every bar of your verse with an adlib means you’re literally doing call and response with yourself. Referring to yourself as “Chef Boy-Ar-Jim” in the process is honestly just next level.
As a student of the culture I have fallen in love with the adlib, but there’s another musical device that generates the same level of enthusiasm and energy in my hip-hop heart.
Although gunshots have been used in genres outside of hip-hop it has become a steady staple of hip-hop culture. Dating back to gangster rap records in the late 80’s the gunshot has typically been used for dramatic effect to generate a sense of danger around a track.
With this in mind, I set out to conduct a deep dive on the origins of gunshots in hip-hop. Along the way I discovered some unexpected conclusions, and found many cases where the usage of gunshots in hip-hop mirrored what was happening in broader culture.
This was a fascinating journey to embark on and I hope you enjoy what I was able to discover along the way.
Let’s get it…
Chapter 1: The Origins
It’s pretty much impossible to find the first example of a gunshot in music, but I discovered that it likely started around the late 1700’s. During this period of wartime, classical composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky and Beethoven created some straight slappers that used the spark of a gunshot to bring the sounds of the battlefield to life.
Wartime aside, what I found most interesting is that the origins of the gunshot influence on modern music can be most closely be tied to Jamaican dancehall reggae culture.
Not only are dancehall DJ’s controllers equipped with an arsenal of gunshots, but the psychological effect of what the gunshot represents is quite similar to how it’s used in hip-hop music today. John Constanindes, a ethnomusicologist at the University of Montreal explained it this way in his thesis, The Sound System: Contributions to Jamaican Music and The Montreal Dancehall Scene:
“Historically, gunshots either came from lawful persons as a salute, or from gangsters seeking to disrupt the dance (referred to as licking a shot in Jamaican slang). Their inclusion on the records serves as a reminder of live events and adds to the intensity of a piece.”
Therefore I was able to conclude that a gunshot on a record not only serves as a reminder of live events (similar to how they were used to depict wartime during the 1700’s), but it also adds to the intensity of a piece.
All of these ingredients added up to how I understood the use of gunshots in hip-hop today.
Chapter 2: The Warning Shot
A gunshot typically appears at the beginning of a record, or near the record’s conclusion, and depending on where it’s used it can represent many different things.
When at the beginning of a song. The gunshot is typically used to establish a scene where danger is lurking right around the corner. This dates back to early gangster rap records like NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta” or east coast classics such as Jay Z’s “Brooklyn’s Finest,” Nas’s “Made You Look,” or Prodigy’s “Keep It Thoro.”
Sidenote: I’m not sure what’s crazier. Shooting someone within the first second of a song because you heard they were killers, or throwing a TV at someone for no apparent reason. Rest In Power to an absolute legend.
When at the end of a song. Gunshots tend to elude to a life being lost. Whether that loss was at the hands of the narrator like Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts,” or whether someone in the song was a casualty of their environment like on Nas’s “Street Dreams.”
Similar to Jamaican dancehall culture, the gunshot adds to the intensity of a piece and helps the narrator bring to life the menacing environment they’re intending to portray.
I always appreciated the literal use of gunshots in a song to establish an environment. But i’ve always felt the gunshot got even more fascinating when it became less menacing, and a bit more musical.
Chapter 3: Guns Harmonizing
In my opinion Dr. Dre was one of the key innovators in hip-hop gunshot history. Not only did he produce the early N.W.A records which utilized the gunshot effect such as the aforementioned “Gangster Gangster”, but he also revolutionized how the gunshot could be used on records.
Two great examples of this are the Chronic 2001’s standout track “Bang Bang,” and Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent’s) masterpiece “Heat.”
In “Bang Bang” Dr. Dre finds a way to utilize the cannon of a gunshot and merge it into the hook of a song. In “Heat” the song not only starts with a gunshot to signal the danger that is lurking in the air, but Dr. Dre then loops that same gunshot to use it as the backbone and structure of the song.
Sidenote: Heat is the same song where 50 Cent threatened to kill someone on the hook, followed that murder threat by singing “I aint playinnn,” and simultaneously decided that he wasn’t concerned whether the tape was played in court. Is the hardest song in the history of music? I think so…
50 Cent serves as an interesting case study, because after 50’s reign at the top of the charts there wasn’t a lot of gangstery left in this dancery.
If the goal of the gunshot was to add intensity, and provide a foreshadowing of danger to come, then 50 Cent represented the end of one of the most dangerous eras in hip-hop.
When 50 Cent’s Curtis famously lost in a first week sales battle to Kanye West’s Graduation it was the nail in the coffin for a larger shift that was happening in hip-hop culture. The era of ego, machismo, and tough guy raps were now being swapped for the pop sensibilities of artists like Nelly and stadium status level anthems of artists like Kanye West.
As the genre grew bigger, hip-hop found itself in an identity crisis. And in a moment in time, where hip-hop culture was trying to figure itself out, the biggest irony may be that this was when gunshots finally found their voice.
Chapter 4: A Voice Is A Gun
It’s a word I just learned a week ago, and still can’t spell correctly without spell check.
It means the use of imitative and naturally suggestive words for rhetorical, dramatic, or poetic effect.
The rise of onomatopoeia and gunshots started to become popular in 2009.
But it all started with with Biggie’s classic record “Gimme The Loot” in 1994.
On “Gimme The Loot” Biggie is telling tales about scheming to commit robberies. In an incredibly violent (and frankly difficult to repeat) lyric Biggie describes his philosophy on said robberies with the words:
“ And when i rock her and drop her I’m taking her door knockers. And if she’s resistant…blacka blacka blacka.”
In this case, Biggie is signifying that if a woman is resistant to his robbery attempt, then the blacka blacka blacka represents a gunshot that will lead to her demise.
Sidenote: Blacka is not only onomatopoeia for a gunshot noise, but it could also be paying homage to Biggie’s Jamaican roots. In the past, the word “Blocka” has been loosely associated with Jamaican culture. One example is Pusha T’s song “Blocka” which features Popcaan and was shot around Matthews Lane in Jamaica. I haven’t been able to find anything concrete that Biggie was paying homage to his Jamaican roots with that lyric, but considering that Jamaican dancehall culture essentially birthed the gunshot movement in hip-hop, that would be an incredible full circle moment if true.
Now let’s fast forward to 2009.
The usage of onomatopoeia and gunshots had been used sparingly since Biggie gave birth to the technique in 1994
Then in 2009, Royce Da 5’9 revolutionized how onomatopoeia could be used for gunshots in hip-hop.
On Royce’s standout track “Gun Harmonizing” he uses his voice as an instrument to represent artillery and ammunition. When speaking of the inspiration behind pursuing this technique Royce said:
“ My man Emile gave me a beat CD and that beat was one of them. It stuck out to me. I remember being in my brother’s house playing the beat on the radio and I just start thinking of this s**t with the gun noises, ‘Brah Brah Brah.’
“I was walking around the house making these noises to the beat and I remember thinking that I could actually make it into a hook. Who’s to say that I can’t? I know it’s not your ordinary s**t, but I can do whatever the f**k I want to do.”
The irony in this statement is that this technique did start to become “your ordinary s**t.” After Royce used this technique in 2009, Wacka Flocka also leveraged the gunshot as the driving force for his standout (and undisputed classic) album Flockaveli in 2010.
If you are a friend of mine, it is likely that I have asked you whether you are #TEAMBOPBOPBOPBOP or team #TEAMBOWBOWBOWBOW.
Sidenote: Real ones know the only answer is “Bop Bop Bop Bop,” because much like 50 Cent’s Heat, “Karma” is one of the hardest songs of all time.
What Royce and Flocka were doing was beginning to revolutionize how gunshots could be used in hip-hop. But leave it to one of my favorite rappers to create an even deeper definition behind what a gunshot can represent.
Chapter 5: The Cartoons & Cereal Effect
Kendrick Lamar loves using gunshot noises in his songs.
If you’re not familiar you can check out some of his best and brightest in the link here, or quickly watch this performance of “m.a.a.d city” where he uses labelmate Schoolboy Q’s “Yawk Yawk Yawk Yawk” adlib to send this audience into a frenzy.
One of the songs where Kendrick Lamar leverages onomatopoeia to represent a gunshot is the standout deep cut “Cartoons & Cereal.”
On one level the song delves into how sugar and cheap entertainment can enslave your mind.
On another level it’s a tale about how the violence his parents are trying to protect him from is still ever present in the cartoons that he watches on TV.
In many ways this normalization of witnessing violence has desensitized today’s youth, and as a result the new age of hip-hop gunshots noises have made violence seem downright comical.
21 Savage summarizes shootouts on the block with “pew pew pew”
Westside Gunn describes dropping bodies with “boop boop boop boop boom”
Desiiigner using “grrtttttuaaaaa” to represent the spray of a a machine gun.
Fivio Foreign uses “Bow Bow Bow” as the driving force of his music
Big Shaq uses so many gunshot adlibs on “Mans Not Hot” video that that it would make even Royce Da 5’9 raise his eyebrow.
Today’s gunshot adlibs no longer warn the listener of danger, they represent an even more heartbreaking observation about broader society.
Violence has become so normalized that we don’t even blink an eye when the threat is unfolding right in front of us.
Final Chapter: This Is America
Childish Gambino hammered this message home with his music video for “This is America.” While Gambino is smiling and dancing to an upbeat guitar riff several shootings occur during the music video that mimic real world events. The comical smiling and dancing simply serve as a distraction while Gambino is easily able to access firearms and continue the violent streak of shooting that continues to plague this country.
Statistically speaking 2020 was the deadliest gun violence year in decades, and 2021 could potentially be worst. Gun violence spiked at the beginning of the pandemic and shows no signs of slowing down.
Furthermore 2020 saw record gun sales and it’s pretty simple to conclude that when there are more guns, then there’s more gun violence.
With these statistics in mind, and knowing what I now know about hip-hop’s relationship with the gunshot…I was led to what many may consider a bizarre solution.
As the community that knows all too well about the effects of guns (sonically and symbolically), how crazy would it be if hip-hop artists became the unsung heroes in the fight against gun violence?
To be clear, this is not a plea for me to push any artist to do anything they don’t want to do. Furthermore in no way am I blaming hip-hop music for the rise of gun violence in this country.
(My name is Geoff McHenry not Geraldo Rivera)
What I am saying is that we have tried so many different ways to raise urgency around gun violence issues in this country and nothing seems to work.
What we need is an idea about gun control that is Made to Stick.
In their book “Made To Stick” authors Chip & Dan Heath describe the six key principles to making an idea stick with the acronym “SUCCES” (the last s is omitted.) Let’s take a look at how those principles could apply to hip-hop’s fight against gun violence.
Find The Core of any idea or thought
Hip Hop vs. Gun Shots is a simple construct and easy to understand.
Grab People’s Attention By Surprising Them
50 Cent doing a PSA pushing against gun violence is not something that anyone would remotely expect.
Make Sure An Idea Can Be Grasped and Remembered Later
Hip-Hop is the biggest and most influential musical genre on the planet. Anything said by these artists will reach many and be remembered by all.
Give An Idea Believability and Credibility
Hip-Hop artists know the dangers of gun violence firsthand based on how it’s influenced their art and how it’s affected their communities
Help People See The Importance Of An Idea
Hip-Hop artists create art, art makes people feel things.
Empower People To Use An Idea Through Narrative
Hip hop artists are some of our greatest storytellers, and their story telling prowess in many cases has reshaped how we look at the world.
Whether you agree with the idea or not, there’s no denying that there’s something powerful about the people who understand the intricacy of the gunshot the best, being the same group who help generate awareness around how and why gun violence needs to come to an end.
New York times writer Leon Bostin said it best in his piece Why Music In A Time of War
“Music must function as a reminder of the future. It can help listeners focus on the possibilities that surviving war offers.”
So what if we could use the power of hip-hop to fight for a brighter future?
What if we could tap into hip-hop’s power to move culture, and use it to help change the world?
What if the most influential people on the planet, used their influence to help bring gun violence to an end?
I might just lick a shot to celebrate.