Everlast – What It’s Like (1999, Tommy Boy)
Why It’s Perfect: Everlast’s sole solo hit single What It’s Like skirts the fringe of a category of hip-hop tracks I like to refer to as ”The Streets Is Bad!” PSAs (or SIBs). Pretty much every rap record’s got at least one, usually thrown in to excuse the cap-busting, bitch-slapping, crack-slinging lifestyle being promoted elsewhere by demonstrating how godawful things are for brothers and sisters on the street. 2Pac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby is probably my favourite example just by virtue of the almost ludicrous number of awful happenings he manages to cram into four minutes. It’s a rare ”Streets Is Fuckin’ Terrible!” PSA. (As an aside, I’ve more than once heard people arguing about how true that song is; Pac read an article and then made a bunch of shit up. Now quit it, you.) Anyway, What It’s Like has a few factors which make it distinct from the usual ”Streets Is Bad” PSA:
1. It is based on an acoustic guitar riff that could’ve been cribbed from The Counting Crows.
2. Everlast is white.
3. Not like, mulatto white or Capicalasian white or “a long time ago grandpappy got frisky with the help so I got a little bit of soul” white. White white.
4. Said white guy was the lead rapper on Jump Around by House of Pain.
These give the track no advantage over non-Counting Crows, non-white white, non-leaping inclined SIBs; in fact, earnest white people are almost invariably worse at them. So why, to repeat the question, is this a perfect pop single? Well for one thing, it’s probably the first real example of contemporary folk since Billy Bragg crossbred Woody Guthrie’s style with the attitude and volume of The Clash. Think about it: folk’s the people’s music, but the people haven’t listened to the music pigeonholed as folk in some time. Here we have a damn convincing fusion of folksy fingerpicked acoustic guitar with a kicking hip-hop beat (the current music of the oppressed), a surprisingly awesome mix which would eventually be rediscovered half a decade later by fellow rotund white rap dude Bubba Sparxxx on his superb Deliverance LP. In spite of the seeming incongruity of writing a song castigating people for not knowing the streets that sounds fit for an open mic at your local Starbucks, there’s a degree of honesty in Everlast’s decision to bridge these hip-hop and blues elements with what we might call for lack of a better word “white music.” He might be acting like Mr. Cautionary Tale, but it works because he’s not doing it over a cheap G-Funk beat with gunshot samples.
The track is at least as catchy as say, Jump Around, and nowhere near so embarrassing; whoever let Everlast know that his resonant, blues-inflected voice was better suited to this sort of talk-singing than the awkward b-boy flows of years past deserves a fucking medal, because his voice has a raspy sureness to it that inflects his very basic rhymes with something that sounds rather like wisdom. Plenty have dealt in song with the issue of teen pregnancy before Everlast, with most falling into a simplistic Let’s Talk About Issues/”Streets Is Bad!” category. Everlast’s take isn’t the most finely nuanced portrait out there, but he does admirably avoid casting the character as a one-dimensional hapless victim (“don’t you know she’s got a baby?!”). The lines, “And she sweared,/ ‘Goddamn, if I find that man / I’m cuttin’ off his balls’” do a much better job of capturing the frustration and hurt a woman might experience after being knocked up by a deadbeat than whole verses lamenting the socio-economic unfairness of her situation.
Similarly the last verse, regarding a drug pusher who “pulled out his chrome .45 / talked some shit / and wound up dead,” while a little obvious in its scene setting is also remarkably evenhanded in its portrayal of stupidity and tragedy. Like the best folk storytellers, Everlast manages to create a rich narrative space within quite modest means. That captivatingly circular riff doesn’t change much throughout the song’s deceptively lengthy running time (though it does build just the right amount of tension when it withholds the expected resolution for dramatic effect), and the chorus isn’t a barnburner, but it all feels more clear-eyed and sober than perhaps it has any right to. It just works, really, really well.
Defining Moment: Slang and curse words are rather unique in language in that they may be deployed as shorthand to establish a persona. What I mean by that is, saying “broke they heart” rather than “broke their hearts” or sprinkling a few f-bombs throughout a song can immediately create the impression of ‘realness’ or character. It’s often used rather cheaply to this end, and can easily lose its effectiveness, but when Everlast does it here it does add to the sensation that these are actual situations. The bad news is, the radio edit absolutely butchers the tune. I’m not sure why, but they went to town with the whitewashing, not only cutting out perennial objectionables like “fuck” and “shit” but also “drugs” and even “gun.” They fuzz out the castration reference (my pick for song highlight), which makes it sound like the girl got so distracted thinking about cutting off the dude’s balls that she accidentally got them caught in her mouth. Worse, the final verse becomes almost intelligible:
I knew this kid named Max
He used to get fat stacks out on the corner with [blank]
He liked to hang out late at night
Liked to get [blank] faced
And keep pace with thugs
Until late one night there was a big [blank] fight
Max lost his head
He pulled out his [blank]
Talked some [blank]
And wound up dead
What could Max possibly have pulled out that required a bleep? His penis? It baffled me as a teenager that anyone would write a song about cockfighting hoodlums, and it continues to baffle me now.
Watch the humorously butchered radio edit, with terrible music video to boot!
Other Great Songs by Everlast: The only other potential ‘great’ song Everlast ever cut by himself was Black Jesus, a similar composition to What It’s Like with more ornery guitars and a cranked up blues quotient. Put Your Lights On, his collaboration with Santana during the Supernatural sessions was equally excellent and proved a surprisingly good synthesis of his signature folksy hip-hop and the Mexican axe god’s sinuous soloing. Nothing else Everlast released is as good at either track, but his work during this period was still admirably solid and a nice reprieve from the more sophomoric rap-rock which was dominating the airwaves at the time. It’s worth checking out if you come across it.