The Hype Man…
You exist in the shadows of the spotlights. You’re important….but rarely do we remember you. It’s a thankless job. The only times we tend to notice you is when you’re doing something distracting, annoying or just wrong. You are, by far, the most visible non-entity in all of music today. You are the hype man.
Before the star comes out from the backstage (doing whatever it is that stars do), you’re there. Every time that emcee runs out of breath, you’re there with an on-time accent, punctuation and interjection. When the rapper is passionately rapping to the right side of the crowd, we’re on the left biding our time with you, patiently waiting for the both of you to switch. We desire your proximity to the main attraction. You are meant to enhance, not distract. And here, at Forth, we love your unsung sideshow.
Spliff Star – It takes a lot to keep up with the ever-animated Busta Rhymes but Spliff Starr has been doing it for almost 20 years. Since Bussa Bus’s debut album, The Coming, Spliff Star has been the right hand man of his energetic cousin, joining him in every over-the-top, patoi-tinged, carnival, live show undertaking. As a member of Flipmode Squad (now called The Conglomerate), Spliff was able to contribute lyrically but we all know where want to see him – right beside his cousin in oversized rap wear.
Memphis Bleek – Bleek is one of the few who’s managed to stay down with Jay through it all. It can’t be easy keeping up with the most celebrated rapper of the modern era. But growing up in the same Marcy project building as Mr. Carter, Memphis Bleek has been able to travel the world as well as release a few minor hits on his own. Every now and again, Bleek will creep up on you and deliver a fire verse as well (I’m thinking of this one). It must also hurt to be out ‘little brother’-ed by Kanye, when Bleek has been Coming of Age since ‘96. He may still be “one hit away,” but by today’s standards, Bleek wasn’t too shabby at all.
Flavor Flav – The prototype of the hype man. Flavor Flav provided the perfect comedic foil to Chuck D’s sociopolitical diatribes. Adorned with an oversized clock, Flav elevated the role of sideman jester to the level of performance art. A songs like “911 is a joke” was able to provide the laugh to mask the ugly truth. In a group fit with the S1W army, militant Professor Griff, Harry Allen the media assassin and a DJ called Terminator X, Public Enemy covered all bases with the lighthearted facts masked as frivolity in Flavor Flav.
Freaky Tah – The first on our list that is no longer with us, lost too soon to the often blurry line between street reality and the music that reflects it. Freaky Tah’s gravely and gruff tone provided the perfect background vocal counterbalance to Mr. Cheeks’ settled, raspy rhymes. In the mid-90’s, The Lost Boyz dropped East Coast party anthems that capitalized heavily on the genuine crew love of Tah and Cheeks. Murdered in 1999, Freaky Tah is one of hip hop’s unsung heroes. Here’s an LB IV Life handshake in his honor:
St. Lunatics – Yes, I know this is technically a group, but let’s be honest: City Spud, Murphy Lee, Ali, Kyjuan, and that one dude with the Phantom of the Opera mask formed like Voltron to create one five-part hype man. I’m aware that they had solo “careers” as well, but I mean, this isn’t Slaughterhouse that I’m talking about. These guys were tailor-made for obscurity, but no one should ignore their expertise in backing up the predecessor to Flo Rida. Guilty admission: I liked this when it came out.
Bishop G – Fellow emcee and partner from the Chi, Bishop G has the daunting task of backing up the supremely cerebral and consistently controversial Lupe Fiasco. While he’s had moments of sublimity himself (see: 3rd verse on “Little Weapon”), Bishop seems content playing the position (see what I did there?) of the homie-in-arms slash hype man du jour. Our live experience is enhanced as a result.
Proof – Eminem’s childhood friend, Proof provided true Detroit street credibility to the 8 Mile import early on in Marshall’s career. As a member of D12, Proof would trade verses with his crew when he wasn’t side by side with the largest selling rapper in the world. Proof’s murder in 2006 sent Eminem into a spiral of prescription drug addiction and depression. While we may have lost a talented rapper, actor and hype man, Em’s subsequent troubles show that the world and those close to him lost much more.
Scaff Beezy – It must be tough playing the sideshow role to the most popular female rapper who you’re privately dating but must publicly deny because it’s both bad for business and sacrifices her risque image. However you slice it, that is the very position Safaree “SB” Samuels (aka Scaff Beezy) found himself while dating the first lady of YMCMB – Nicki Minaj throughout her ascent to rap dominance. However so, he did it with aplomb, making sure to keep his distance when offstage, but provide vigilant onstage and in studio support. Ike Turner minus the beating, SB seems to have been much more than hype man, but creative consultant, assistant, co producer and friend.
Joe C. – I can’t, in all honesty, say I was/am a fan of Kid Rock. However, I always had to pause when watching him perform. Who’s this little guy on stage with him? Not even 4 ft. tall, Joe C. was one small ball of vulgarity and irreverence. He was part Flavor Flav and part Bushwick Bill and added much intensity to the rap rock fusion outfit during the heyday of the late 90s. Passing away in 2000 from coeliac disease, the motor city’s Joe C was small in height but tall in stature.
Professor X – In a time when funky sociopolitical rap wasn’t “alternative” but a viable part of mainline hip hop, X-Clan did it better than most. Alongside Brother J, Professor X offered an elder spoken word-like narrative to X-Clan songs, often speaking in riddles of activism and militancy. Adorned in tribal ankhs and pink cadillacs, Professor X was PE’s Professor Griff mixed with Wu Tang’s Poppa Wu. No longer with us due to a complications with spinal meningitis, the Overseer may have died in 2006 but his impact remains.
Tony Yayo – The majority of the public’s first encounter with Tony Yayo came via tshirts demanding his freedom from state confinement in what has become all too familiar hip hop fashion. I’m not sure we ever expected much from Yayo. He’s always been what he’s been – the beneficiary of fame (and a “career”?) by proximity. However there’s something to be said for being the reliable hype man to a guy who survived 9 bullet shots. And even with all that substandard rapping, Tony Yayo managed to harness Fiddy’s star power for his debut album (“Thoughts of a Predicate Felon”) to go platinum. Shoot me now. Scratch that, Tony might think I’m serious.
I couldn’t think of a worthy 12th hype man (I mean do you really want to read a write up on Big SANT or Crunchy Black?), so I figured I’d round out the list with a little trivia. Below are 3 guys that fall somewhere between hype man or 2nd option in a group. They are not who you first think of when you picture the musical act, but they add a distinguishing quality that won’t allow you to excise them from the feature attraction altogether. They contribute verses to songs and in some cases released solo efforts, but were they playing second fiddle in a group or really just a glorified hype man. You decide:
Hype man or 2nd Option?
Phife Dawg – One of the most iconic groups in hip hop history consisted of a hype man (for one album – Whaddup Jarobi!), a DJ and two emcees. However, Q-Tip has always been the more charismatic frontman of the group. What to make of Phife? I’ll make this short: there’s not a bone in my body that would allow me to relegate the man who kicked off “Buggin Out” to sideshow status or hype man. Verdict: strong 2nd option
Vin Rock – Naughty by Nature owned much of the 90s. For many of rap artists, they were the realized goal – crafting hit songs with palatable commercial success without undercutting their street bona fides. The trio tends to be thought of in terms of it’s lead emcee, Treach. After discovering that Vin Rock, who shared mic duties on many songs in the catalog, was reciting rhymes written by Treach, it’s hard for me to give him the 2nd option. Verdict: Hype man
Sen Dog – Here is something you can’t understand! Cypress Hill were West Coast luminaries which bridged the gap between the brown and black experience. While everyone can associate lead rapper B Real’s nasally flow with the gangster rap classics, Sen Dog was there for every one of those jams often providing the notable inflections that stick with us even now. To be honest, I can’t remember liking any Sen Dog verse ever and tend to think of him only in complementary terms. But due to the fact that I fear his street rep, I can’t in good faith (or with the expectation of ‘good health’) call him a hypeman. Truthfully, he can be whatever he wants to be. Verdict: 2nd option