At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Wu-Tang Clan co-founder Ol’ Dirty Bastard crashed the stage, took the mic, and issued a now legendary proclamation. “Wu-Tang is for the children!” he boomed. In the years since, the statement has often been relegated to a sort of tongue-in-cheek and ironic remark (what with all the profanity and violence often portrayed in Wu-Tang’s verses). However, those who dismiss it as such fail to see the seriousness with which the late ODB meant it. And not just for Wu-Tang but for hip-hop in general as well. Education has been the historic charge of hip-hop since its inception. Social justice, racial politics, the Black experience in America — these have been the timeless themes. Thankfully, there are still rappers who carry on that tradition.
One of them is Complete the Emcee, one-third of the iconic local hip-hop power trio Fort Nox. As he has done throughout his career, with his latest solo album entitled L.I.F.E. (Lyrics Intended for Everyone), the inspirational flowmaster is set on bringing a positive message to listeners of all types.
“I find it ironic that in hip-hop, that story we’re all familiar with [about the supposed invention of hip-hop], with [DJ] Kool Herc and his sister and their two turntables in the Bronx in 1973, happened to all be at a back-to-school party,” he said. “It was literally created for the children. Why have we moved so far away from that?”
L.I.F.E. was released on June 14, Complete’s 53rd birthday. As a work, it is a total reclamation of hip-hop as a force for active positivity. Not only that, but as it was designed, it’s damn good music that literally anyone can enjoy.
“I wanted to approach it in a sense — as the title alludes to — to be something everybody could appreciate,” he said. “I feel like in a lot of cases, whether intentionally or indirectly, certain groups or audiences are left out. We all feel like beats are all about us as adults, and there’s never any inclusion for the children. I wanted to present something that in one breath, an older person could listen to and appreciate, and at the same time, a younger person could be privy to without being exposed to or being made to tolerate a lot of what they have to experience nowadays with most music.”
What he’s alluding to without saying it outright is profanity, something that, although it doesn’t bother him personally, he’s just never employed in his verses, even back to his work with Fort Nox. In his view, the language can sometimes be a roadblock to the message he’s trying to relay to certain audiences. It narrows his reach.
“It’s always been an undertone to the direction I try to go,” he said, “even in the group. There’s three different personalities and three different styles. My tone and my conversation, my direction, have always been to try to leave a certain mark. Whether or not it reaches thousands or even hundreds of people, I feel like once you put something out there in the atmosphere, who’s to say it won’t reach someone else later down the line?”
From opening track “The Apple Didn’t Fall Far,” which fittingly features Complete’s son D-Ruff taking verses, L.I.F.E. is a 12-song syllabus on one man’s outlook, developed through broad life experience and set to smooth head-bobbing beats by the likes of Ernie G, Amazin, and the late Beatnerd Hub. It amiably continues the themes the MC has given voice to consistently over his three-decade career.
“It’s basically the concept of love,” he said simply about the album’s content. “It’s the concept of inclusion, of trying to find that very fine point of tackling something everyone can agree on. It’s a little education, a little background on the story of what I have experienced as a Black man and what we have experienced as a people, just some education so hopefully people can be a little more appreciative of other people’s experiences or just the things that are touching to the normal everyday person, like the birth of my first grandson.”
Not every message Complete is delivering on L.I.F.E. is directly biographical. “Back Road” is an ode to simple unexpected human kindness. The rapper puts himself in a fictional narrative about being in a major car accident and feeling like he’s been left for dead until a hiking stranger comes along and helps save him.
Though an idealist at heart, Complete said he’s not naive about how effective his efforts might be in providing music that’s enjoyable to listen to but also capable of touching a place deeper than just the ears. He is undeterred nonetheless.
“Is that going to be achieved?” he asked himself about having his message broadly received. “I highly doubt it, but this is something I just wanted to put on the table and be made available, to bring something with honest and actual intention. The reception I’ve received so far has been reward enough.”