Today, we welcome author Owen Laukkanen to reveal how the hip hop beat of gangster rap drives his high intensity thrillers…
I grew up on rap music. I was your typical middle-class kid, playing hockey and going to piano recitals and turning the radio dial to WJLB Detroit (“Where hip-hop lives”) whenever my parents were out of earshot. Strange as it sounds, rap music is as responsible as books and violent movies for pushing me into writing crime fiction.
The gangster rap I discovered as a rebellious teen was just as violent and cinematic as the mob movies I was watching—hell, some of them were influenced explicitly by the same. The songs that resulted were gritty, three-minute noir sagas, populated by desperate, small-time crooks straight out of your favorite pulp magazine. Their creators were dark, funny, and inventive with language—just the kind of role models an aspiring crime writer needed. These days, when I need a hit of quick and bloody inspiration, these are the songs I put on:
Note #1: It probably goes without saying, but these songs are loaded with explicit content and adult situations. Be warned.
Note #2: I’m leaving out a lot of classics here, I know, especially from the West Coast. I grew up to East Coast rap, though, and this is what I vibed to when I was just finding my way.
1. The Notorious B.I.G. – N***as Bleed
Your classic double-cross story. In the first verse, Biggie’s alter ego, Frank White (a shout-out to Christopher Walken’s New York crime kingpin in King of New York) preps for a seven-figure drug deal at a local motel. By all accounts, Frank’s dealing with some shady cats, both on his side and the other, but that doesn’t stop the wheels from turning:
Think about it now, that’s damn near one point five [million]. I kill ‘em all, I’ll be set for life.
(Frank, pay attention…promise you won’t rob them.)
I promised, but of course you know I had my fingers crossed.
From there, the heist is on, and it plays out like a scene from a Brian De Palma movie, complete with bloody, climactic shootout and a funny and unexpected finale.
2. Ghostface Killah – Shakey Dog
Another heist story, another double cross, albeit with lower stakes and an insane, frenetic energy. Ghost enlists some dude named Frank to help him rob his cocaine connection in some shady tenement in uptown Manhattan. This thing is a song in the loosest sense of the word – there’s no chorus here, just Ghost describing the preparation, the characters in play and the stickup itself with a crime-writer’s eye for detail and dialogue. The writing itself is laugh out loud funny, and Ghost’s breathless storytelling propels the listener full ahead to the last line of the song, when he pulls the rug out from under us and stops the action dead on some Sopranos finale tip. There’s a sequel, featuring Raekwon, but like all sequels, it pales in comparison to the original.