What’s More Special Than Gold? “Hustle & Flow,” Trinidad James, and the Southern Gold Standard

In the late 1990s, as hip-hop music underwent a fundamental shift caused in part by its increasing popularity and proliferation on the radio airwaves, the genre’s newfound success necessitated new symbols and metaphors. While gold had long been the quintessential symbolism for success—gold herringbone chains, gold rings, gold teeth—yellow gold passed away, receding in the dominant hip-hop symbolism of achievement. Gold was rapidly supplanted by discourses of diamonds and platinum, epitomized by  the shiny pants and pyrotechnics of Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Records.

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Platinum and diamonds have reigned supreme, along with Gucci, as markers of arrival, as an endpoint that cannot be surpassed. Even some of the pioneers of rap gold, the southerners for whom gold teeth were as much a part of the culture of lay southern populations as they were a signal of rap success, traded in their gold fronts for shiny platinum ones. (I’m looking at you, Three Six Mafia, 8-Ball and MJG.)

But in 2005, Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer uses pimp-protagonist Dee-Jay (that’s D-E-E-J-A-Y, thankyouverymuch) to make an argument for the continuing and enduring significance of gold amidst the proliferation of platinum. Brewer imposes the gold vs. platinum distinction on the diegesis to stand in for good vs. evil, authenticity vs, inauthenticity, grit-and-grind Memphis vs. New South Atlanta, South vs. North, tapes vs. CDs/mp3s, country vs. urban, and simple tools vs. flashy gadgets. Atlanta rapper Ludacris plays Skinny Black, a platinum-grilled Memphis native who has migrated to Atlanta and left Memphis “in his rearview” to advance his career. Dee-Jay aspires to a similar kind of success, but the film invites us to assume that Dee-Jay won’t accept such success at the cost of authenticity, his values, his neighborhood, and his city. Still, when juke joint owner Arnel, played by Isaac Hayes, mentions that Skinny Black’s last album went platinum, Dee-Jay responds, “Platinum. That’s more special than gold, huh?” His rhetorical query, which Arnel doesn’t directly answer, can be read as a broader comment on the death of gold and the concomitant death of a certain kind of marginalization of southern hip-hop, and perhaps the South  more generally.

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Southern hip-hop has certainly become, in many ways, “more special than gold.” Southern artists and producers have dominated the hip-hop and R&B charts almost uninterrupted for the past decade. When music and pop culture pundits proclaimed rap a dying form that had reached its apex when sales plummeted (at a time when sales were plummeting across most genres), southern artists shape-shifted into the pop stars their bluesmen and blueswomen predecessors might have been in a different time and place. Their distinctly regional brand of being-in-the-world tapped into American lust for Otherness after we had become too familiar with Snoop, Ice Cube, and 50 Cent in our living rooms. They invited us to consume a different kind of blackness: a grilled up blackness, a candy-coated paint blackness, a snap-ya-fingers-do-ya-step blackness, a Cash Money blackness, a pimp shit blackness. Catapulted definitively into the limelight, with major labels establishing explicit southern branches (Bad Boy South and DefJam South) to cash in on the regional talent, gold grills, actual and figurative, were replaced with platinum ones.

But, after enduring the stigma perpetrated by what Lil’ Wayne has called “rapper racists and region haters,” at what cost did southern hip-hop gain national and global recognition? Has it, like other popular forms, been so co-opted that it can only exist as caricature, a substance-less outline of something that was once there? Does a platinum South have redeemable qualities? Moreover, aren’t such discussions of authenticity a bit disingenuous, supporting an unhealthy nostalgia for a past that may have never been and disallowing the evolution of art and representation in tandem with changing cultural and industry norms? After all, there’s something more to be said for the deft metamorphoses individual artists undergo, and the balancing struggles thereof, than just “she/he sold out.” (Stumble onto any conversation of Lil’ Wayne and hear people wax and gush nostalgic for the days of Tha Carter III.) In a world of Skinny Blacks, is there still room for a Dee-Jay, making music “with simple tools” and “by any means necessary” to “get what you’ve got to say out”?

Enter Trinidad James.

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In case you’ve been in a hermetically-sealed chamber, Trinidad James has gold all in his chain, gold all in his rangs, and gold all in his watch. Oh, and a few gold teeth. And a gold bike. In short, he’s got all gold everything. There are no double entendres here. James makes it plain, which hip-hop aesthetes often claim is a distinctly southern ruining of the genre. Yet, there’s something to be said for the depth of the plain and direct. The beat punctuates James’ direct delivery. Synthesized, minor-key quarter notes on the first and third beat, coupled with James’ verbal emphasis on those beats, compel us to pay close attention to the narrative. The story, like gold, is about striving and commending striving, and specifically the strivings of marginalized groups. “This one for my niggas/and bitches ‘bout that money,” James tells us.

The video for his single, “All Gold Everything,” is a throwback to videos-as-neighborhood/urban ethnography. Shots of three-legged barbeque grills smoking chicken thighs, custom-painted cutlasses, pitbull puppies, plantation-style housing projects, window-unit air conditioning, Clayton County police cars, red dice, magnificent displays of body art of varying quality, and myriad kinds of gold signify a southern urban neighborhood with southern urban folks. Interspersed with these images are the usual rap fare—guns, money stacks, blunts—but the southern signifiers give the usual a different connotation. No one is making it rain. No one is popping on a pole, although James gives the women at Magic City and Onyx a shout out. The guns are framed as a necessary part of the implied business. In his strivings to represent an Atlanta that is obscured by The Real Housewives of AtlantaLove & Hip-Hop Atlanta, Big Rich Atlanta, and now Doctors’ Wives, James operationalizes gold as a powerful metaphor for an authentic black existence that respects multiple hustles, puts on for its respective cities, and that dares you to watch what it can do despite the odds against it—“don’t believe me, just watch,” James admonishes. This is a blackness that makes it do what it does, shining all the while. To shine through marginalization and urban crisis, one needs gold. Yet, this gold also incorporates more traditional kinds of striving, including educational attainment (“this one from them colleges/them bad hoes at Spelman”), inviting an expansive reading of hustling through the shared iconography of gold.

For Brewer’s Dee-Jay, gold is everything, that similar striving for something more, a standard to achieve, the end-goal. The Oscar-winning movie song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” by Memphis rapper Al Kapone declares that Dee-Jay is “trying to have thangs/but it’s hard for a pimp.” Despite the difficulties, he perseveres. From his pimping and weed-dealing hustles, to the demo tape he proudly gives Skinny Black for review, gold is a rejection of the perceived ease, excess, and hubris of platinum. Indeed, when Dee-Jay finds his tape in the dirty toilet at Arnel’s, obviously dropped there and violated by Skinny Black, the struggle between platinum and gold is moved quickly from metaphor to physical altercation. In the end, gold triumphs, landing punches and dodging bullets the whole way.

The gold-versus-platinum discourse also signifies an intraracial class struggle, one dramatized most often against a southern backdrop. Writer Antwone Fisher constructs a rags-to-riches mogul, John, who obscures his origins in a poor Atlanta neighborhood as the platinum dimension in ATL (2006). His hatred of his upbringing and the people in his old neighborhood lead him to shield his daughter from any knowledge of his poor and working class beginnings. His Buckhead home has a Picasso, he has a light-skinned wife, and his daughter, Erin, is set to go off to a fancy Northeastern liberal arts college. The gold in the narrative is embodied by a young artist, Rashad, (played by Atlanta rapper T.I.) trying to be a role model for his brother, manage a tense relationship with his caregiver uncle, and make it through his senior year of high school. Erin, desperate to have a connection with her father’s past, manufactures a gold persona, “New New,” and sneaks off to the working class black side of town to the skating ring and parties. When her gold persona is discovered to be inauthentic, love-interest Rashad feels betrayed by the performance. Again, however, in the end, gold triumphs, but this time through a compromise. Erin’s parents allow her to attend Spelman—a gold choice in comparison to the platinum liberal arts college; after all, her character theoretically would get a shout out from James—and she continues to date her gold (working class) boyfriend. Working-class-guy-saves-middle-class-girl-from-platinum-purgatory is a recurrent theme in Tyler Perry’s work as well. See, for instance, Daddy’s Little Girls (2007) where good father and mechanic Monty (Idris Elba) shows uptight Julia (Gabrielle Union) the value of a gold life, or The Family That Preys (2008), where hard-working construction worker and good father Chris (Rockmond Dunbar) is a steady gold against the excessively aspirational and vindictive platinum of wife Andrea (played by Sanaa Lathan). These films and other representations of intraracial class/status conflict situate gold as the rooted standard for black life. Platinum, these representations argue, is recklessly inauthentic.

The price and value of gold are rising in a moment where fears about the eradication of an authentic center of blackness abound. The turn South in African American culture since the 1960s reflects this fear, as does the rise of southern rap since the early 2000s. These fears exist alongside a black middle class that views itself as fundamentally distinct from poorer blacks, an aging boomer and middle-aged hip-hop generation, and East Coast rappers crying foul over southerners’ perpetuation of negative stereotypes of blackness (now ain’t that some pots calling some kettles black?). Discomfort with gold—country, working class, southern, cassete tapes—is reflective of the anxiety of respectability from which platinum seems an apt refuge. James and other gold advocates encourage us not to be fooled by a shiny platinum post-blackness. For them, it was always and will always and forever be all gold everything.

p.s. The dominant narrative of gold is masculine. Stay tuned for “All Gold Feminism.”

Comments

  1. says

    This was dope. “To shine through marginalization and urban crisis, one needs gold.” A friend of mine shared this with me recently after I played her the video for “All Gold Everything” a couple months back. I grew up in Denver, but I was in love with Dirty South music like Goodie Mob, Outkast, Pastor Troy, T.I., etc. I had to abandon the South a bit in the aughts, during what you call the platinum age, because it all seemed so rudimentary, redundant and plain stupid. I haven’t been a fan of much new music coming from Atlanta, but “All Gold Everything” was that kind of rudimentary, redundant rap song that I couldn’t deny. I even got Trinidad’s mixtape “10 pc. Mild,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve never really been able to explain why I like him – he seems to represent the kind of lyrics-as-an-afterthought rap that I despise – but I do. Your piece, I think, gets to the heart of it. Appreciate the read.

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