When I was walking from the subway to work this morning, I passed Andre Royo on the street. Royo plays Bubbles, the goodhearted police informer/heroin addict on The Wire, one of my favorite characters on probably my favorite TV show of all time. Seeing him walk past was weird; I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such a sudden, overwhelming feeling of love for such a complete stranger, and it was even weirder because he was wearing a rainbow-striped sport coat and douchebaggy actor sunglasses and talking on a cell phone. I froze, but the construction worker standing next to me yelled out, “Hey … The Wire!” Royo turned around and waved, and everyone standing on that street corner waved back, which made for a deeply strange and sort of life-affirming moment, like we were all unexpectedly united in recognizing a guy from a TV show that not many people watch.
I’ve been immersing myself in The Wire lately to the point where I wouldn’t feel right writing about anything else today. Season four is due to start in a couple of weeks, and season three just came out on DVD, and I’ve been watching old episodes on On Demand and reading The Corner and making it all the way through this long-ass David Simon interview. The show has never gotten good ratings, and season four almost didn’t happen, so it’s sort of a miracle that it continues to exist at all; I can’t tell you how amped I am to start seeing new episodes. But this is a music blog, and you’d have to stretch pretty far to say that The Wire has anything to do with music, so that’s exactly what I’m about to do. When music does appear on the show, it’s usually part of the background ambient noise, coming from a car radio or whatever, though every season ends with a long montage set to a song. The show has used musicians as actors: Method Man (Cheese), Fredo Starr (Bird), Big G from the Backyard Band (Slim Charles). A ton of the actors from the show have appeared in rap and R&B videos; Al Shipley listed damn near all of them recently. The show takes place in Baltimore, of course, and it gets a lot of local details absolutely right; there’s a great scene in season two where Stringer Bell tells a hitman from DC that he can’t stand go-go, which is how most people from Baltimore feel about DC’s big indigenous genre. As for Baltimore’s indigenous genre, the show used Baltimore club music long before the music started getting national press. I’d argue that the show also had something of a catalytic effect on the Baltimore rap scene, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the show started in 2002. Before the show gave the city some national visibility, Baltimore wasn’t a big rap town at all; now local rappers get play on local radio and guys like Bossman are landing major-label contracts. Simon says here that they’re planning on using a lot of local Baltimore music in season four, which is great, but I can’t imagine it’s all that interesting if you’re not from Baltimore. It makes more sense to question whether the show has had any effect on rap in general and whether it should.
The Wire started in 2002, the same year that Scarface’s The Fix and Clipse’s Lord Willin’ laid the groundwork for the coke-rap trend, which really kicked off with T.I.’s Trap Muzik in 2003 and which still dominates commercial rap. The show has become a big reference point for rappers. Wire references aren’t anywhere near as dominant as Scarface references or anything, but it ranks alongside City of God as a left-field cult thing that really caught on with rappers mostly because it examines outlaw life in really gripping and though-out ways. Weirdly, Paul Wall seems to mention The Wire more than anyone else, but it’s pretty obvious that a whole lot of rappers are watching the show. Now, people were rapping about dealing drugs a long time before the show started; Biggie and Jay-Z and Raekwon all had a lot to say about this stuff. But the show is a more naturalistic and detailed look at the day-to-day life of street-corner dealers than anything else that’s made its way through the pop-culture fog. The show grants its cops more airtime, and it’s also had a lot to say about dockworkers and local politicians and Eastern European prostitutes, but not too many rappers have backgrounds in those professions. It’s not really realistic to expect rappers to tell stories from multiple perspectives the way the show does; rap is a medium that’s based around the self, and it’s rarely been big on empathy. But The Wire doesn’t romanticize its dealers much. They get shot a whole lot more often than the other characters, and they have bad ideas and unrealistic dreams and weaknesses just like anyone else. They also do a lot of really odious things, like killing or ordering the deaths of close friends. Rappers make their names by turning themselves into mythological characters, and many coke-rappers do that masterfully. Pusha T’s vivid eloquence, say, or Young Jeezy’s larger-than-life wheeze are cinematic tools unto themselves. And there’s usually some vague sense of consequence, stuff like the obligatory song for dead friends or Jeezy’s evocative paranoia on “Don’t Get Caught.” But just once I’d like to see someone who raps about dealing drugs but still acknowledges his own flaws and weaknesses; it could only make the music more compelling. If nothing else, I’d like to see some of the show’s storytelling sophistication creep into the vanity-project movies that rappers make. I’m willing to take it as an article of faith that a lot of people who rap about dealing drugs actually dealt drugs at one point or another, but you wouldn’t know it from pieces of shit like Killa Season. What kills me is that we know Cam’ron watches The Wire; otherwise, he wouldn’t have cast Michael K. Williams, who plays Omar, in a bizarrely tiny role in the movie. If Cam actually has the background he says he does, he should be able to tell a story about it without getting completely ridiculous; it’s already obvious that the guy can write. I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil or harmful about coke-rap or the movies that coke-rappers make, but a well-told story would go a long way toward proving the point.