(Originally published on the Rancho Relaxo blog on June 3, 2008)
In 1987, Curtis Jackson III was 12 years old and living in Queens with his grandparents, following the murder of his mother. If his grandparents subscribed to cable television, he might have seen a music video for “Top Billin’”, the surprise hit B-side from Audio Two’s single “Make It Funky”, on upstart music channel MTV. 1988 marked the launch of Yo! MTV Raps, broadcasting hip-hop into households across America, attaching visual significations to a burgeoning musical movement. It was also the year Curtis started selling cocaine.
20 years later, Curtis Jackson is better known as 50 Cent, and he doesn’t have to sell cocaine anymore. He is the second highest grossing rapper in the world with an estimated 32 million dollars in earnings in 2006 alone. He has his own brand of bottled water, condoms, body spray, a line of shoes under license to Reebok, two video games, a best-selling autobiography, two novels, and a film career. Audio Two, the duo of emcee Milk D and DJ Gizmo, have been relegated to relative obscurity. Their two LPs What More Can I Say? and I Don’t Care: The Album (both titles referential to single “Top Billin’”) sold so poorly that their third didn’t see a release. Milk D attempted to continue a solo career with the help of producer Rick Rubin, but it received little commercial or critical attention.
Despite Audio Two’s lack of future accolades, “Top Billin’” retains certified hip-hop sure-shot status. A golden era gem, it is referenced and sampled by both the hip-hop mainstream and underground. The likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, MF Doom, Danger Mouse, Madlib, and even Ed-Bangette Uffie have paid homage to Milk D’s laid back party rhymes and the disjointed funk drum programming by Stetasonic. But the most noticeable Audio Two reference in recent memory comes from 50 Cent on the first single from his 2007 album Curtis entitled “I Get Money.” Although it did not achieve the chart topping status of 50 Cent’s early singles (peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot Rap Charts), it was critically lauded and served as a ubiquitous promotion for Curtis, mainly through the success of the single’s music video.
Landing on the top spot on BET’s 106 & Park hip-hop countdown, the music video is an overwhelming piece of work. It begins with an LCD light marquee scrolling 50 Cent’s name in neon blue that explodes in digital flames, replaced with the minty green text “I Get Money.” The camera rapidly zooms and the shot cuts to a tightly framed letterbox image of Curtis blowing out two green candles in the shape of a 5 and 0. The candles are set on stacks of bound $100 bill bundles, as if they were a cake. Out of nowhere Funkmaster Flex declares, “This is the hottest record out.” The camera pulls back to reveal Curtis Jackson wearing a dew-rag, smiling. He wasn’t actually blowing out the candles; he was fanning them with a handful of more one hundred dollar bills.
The song’s production is minimal and aggressive. A dark meandering synth line accompanies gunshot snares, deadened kick drums and lack of hi-hat to create an undeniably sinister backing track. The letterbox frame around 50’s smiling face begins scrolling the text “I Get It, I Get Money” and the 1987 vocals of Milk Dee from Audio Two are sampled into a stuttering declaration of wealth, forming the song’s hook, “I get money, money I got.”
The video’s images loosely follow the lyrical content, displaying visual proof of 50 Cent’s bank balance. As Curtis rhymes about Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars, and Ferraris, the cars are used as stripper poles by a near-naked collection of hip-hop video girls. He brags about writing child support checks before the baby is even born and hands a check for one million dollars to a woman standing next to a 5 year old dressed in matching G-Unit T-shirt and headband. After a catalog listing of euphemisms for money, 50 Cent breaks open a package of Wonderbread to reveal it to be full of even more one hundred dollar bills.
The scrolling LCD marquee from the intro letterboxes the video for the entirety of the song, adding textual reinforcement to the lyrics and images. It follows the song’s hook with the text “I Get It!!” “I Get Money!” and “I Run New York!”, but also divulges from the lyric content, baiting other rappers with lines like “Pay Attention Stupid This Is Hip Hop” and “Watch This Sucka, Curtis Is Comin’ I’m #1”. The neon text declares “I’m Still Undefeated Undisputed, Hahahaha Straight To The Bank.” The subtitles conclude with a smart bit of marketing, a listing of the producers featured on 50’s new album. Curtis sold 691,000 copies in its first week.
But let’s backtrack 20 years. Back to when 50’s sneakers were a few sizes smaller and they weren’t his own signature Reebok model. In 1987, the release of “Top Billin’” by Audio Two was accompanied by a video of it’s own. It begins with a lo-fi digital wipe to reveal rapper Milk Dee drinking milk from a glass bottle.
The first striking parallel between the two videos is the use of textual supplements. Instead of the Technicolor scrolling marquee that letterboxes 50 Cent, Audio Two uses white poster board, held by extras that are presumably friends of the group. The poster-board subtitles stick to the song’s lyrics. Instead of reiterating Milk D and DJ Gizmo’s wealth, they serve as textual accompaniment for the subject matter of the lyrics. The low-budget aesthetic ads to the playful, relaxed and informal tone of the video.
From here things start to get confusing because I have a certain reverence for old school hip-hop music video aesthetics. Production values are so low they’re nearly non-existent. The locations and crowds couldn’t feel more authentic and relaxed. Everyone in the videos just seems to be having a great time, proud to claim the spotlight and show the world how they live. For a fan of old-school hip-hop who wasn’t ever a participant in the early subculture, these videos are a testament to my after the fact nostalgia for hip-hop’s roots.
Audio Two’s dingy production values, candid-style footage of the group, and choice to include footage of a concert performance, albeit one most likely staged for the filming of this video, captures that sense of realism that fuels my appreciation of older hip-hop. But by getting wrapped up in the joyful, asexual movements of Audio Two’s dancers, the genuine excitement of the crowd shots, and the silly milk bottles everywhere, it’s easy to ignore that both songs are essentially proclaiming the same thing. Milk D rhymes about partying, girls, money, and being a better rapper than just about anybody else. 20 years later 50 Cent is rapping about the same things, the difference is that he has the bank account to back them up.
The hip-hop stars of the eighties could not fathom the wealth and excess of rappers like 50 Cent and I love them for it. The bragging about money and fame seem an after-thought to the good times displayed in the video, not the driving force behind them. The depiction of money in Audio Two’s video is so detached from the duo that it’s almost ignorable. The shots of small-faced $100 bills are shown in passing, a quick cut to the bills blossoming out of an extra’s jean jacket pocket. The signification of money isn’t directly attached to Milk D’s image, it is acknowledging a consequence of his success. The shift is subtle but incredibly important. Money is a result of his identity, not a defining characteristic.
Many of the prominent symbols in the videos have evolved to explicitly include money in their significations. Audio Two’s matching embroidered jackets have warped into a bulletproof vest encrusted with diamonds spelling out Curtis. The hip-hop video girls have gone from wearing discreet black leotard pants and tube tops to G-Unit stripper wear. Instead of serving as silly ambiance, children are depicted wearing gold chains and showing a gleeful dependence on Curtis Jackson’s bank account. The charm of these visual signs, formerly rooted in sincerity, has evolved with cold calculation.
Even the chorus of “I Get Money” holds a fundamentally different signification than Audio Two’s original lyrics. The sampled line from the Audio Two song, “I get money, money I got”, is a party-rhyme twist of syntax that allows Milk D to use the words hunnies and hot to brag about his sexual appeal in the following line. It supports Audio Two’s chorus, “What more can I say, top billin’”, by building an image of self esteem that isn’t directly tied to any single signification in the video, but rather Audio Two’s overall success. 50 Cent re-appropriates the line as part of a branding statement, a specific and fundamental idea that drives his image and lifestyle.
I’m not trying to say that Milk D wouldn’t flash a smile if someone put a stack of hundreds in his hands and told him to use them to fan out candles spelling Audio Two. Filming a video for “Top Billin’” in 1987 was a financially driven marketing decision, but also served an important and authentic document of a cultural movement that hadn’t quite yet hit the mainstream. It was an investment into the talent, charisma, and legitimacy of a growing musical genre. 20 years later, “I Get Money” and 50 Cent’s entire mythology isn’t a slap in the face of hip-hop’s original values, but a reaffirmation of their power. It stretches the ideas to their absolute limits, detaches them from their original signification, and hollows the core, creating a social figure whose perfect exaggeration of a culture has come to define it.