Drive-Bys: Private Eyes in Hip Hop

Essay by Ray Garraty

"There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn't bear it. The concept brushes perilously close to the hated 'informer'. You can get away with most anything except 'telling'."

Ken Bruen, The Guards

The same could be said about rappers. Hip hop artistry often borders on thuggery. It might be unfair to say that hip hop started as a music for thugs and about thugs, but a certain element of life on that side of law was always in there -- or very close by. Rap music is generous with tales of street life: pimps, hoes, guns, drugs, even murder -- one can recall rap albums called Music for Drive-Bys and Murda Muzik. But when someone does something illegal, the last thing he or she wants is some private eye spying on his business.

When I started looking into the topic, I didn't expect to find much sympathy for P.I.s. I also didn't expect to find many songs with private detective as a protagonist -- and I didn't. So my first idea -- to rank rap songs by how much P.I. is integrated into a song -- was soon canned: there are only a few songs where a song is actually about P.I., not just one sentence about him.

So I came up with another idea -- to just rank the songs by their overall quality. If a track is good, it's on top of the list, no matter whether a song is about P.I. or just a shout out to one. Let's start...

TOP TEN

10

"0% Finance"
Performed by GZA the Genius
From the 2008 album "Pro Tools"
..Buy this track

Creeping with his visors low, high-beaming
Temper would accelerate, private eye scheming.

Well, in this track by Wu-Tang member GZA the P.I.s are doing their job, actually. He raps about cars, metaphorically telling a tale about people. This track would be higher because of its solid storytelling, but GZA's monotonous delivery drags it down.

9

"Criminal"

Performed by Eminem
From the 2000 album "The Marshall Mathers LP"
..Buy this track

Come back, shoot the eyewitness
Fire at the private eye hired to pry in my business
Die, bitches, bastards, brats, pets
This puppy's lucky I didn't blast his ass yet


No love for P.I.s here. The final song from The Marshall Mathers LP finds Em spitting pure hatred at everybody who doesn't understand his music. On his third album (produced by Dr. Dre) Eminem delivers the best songs of his career, and it's hard not to like this particular cut.

8

"Alligator"
Performed by The Uncluded
From the 2013 album "Hokey Fright"
..Buy this track

We had found a mystery VHS tape in a secret drawer
When our parents left for work we fed it to the VCR
Specimens of hair and sweat intended for a private eye


It's not specifically about a P.I. but what a hell, it's still a great song. The Uncluded is a recent-ish project duo of rapper Aesop Rock and singer Kimaya Dawson. The song is about children and pornography (but not child pornography).

7

"Lay It Down"
Performed by Lil Wayne (featuring Cory Gunz & Nicki Minaj)
From the 2013 album "I Am Not a Human Being II"
..Buy this track

Came out the bank, bye teller, give a bum money, hi fella
Bad lil ho, high yellow; brand new Roley, sky dweller
Just left from Dubai, flew private eye


Another song that not about P.I.s. Private eye here is 'private jet+red eye'. The reason I included it here is it's a good song. Nicki Minaj here spits a verse about high life. Femme fatale of modern rap laughs at other female rappers. They are losers for her.

6

"GNG BNG (Remix)"
Performed by Flying Lotus (featuring Blu)

Eyes looking for loopholes
But I despise private eyes
Just as much as nine to fives


Man, that Blu hates private eyes. Though mostly "private eyes" is in here is just for a convenient rhyme. It happens. Indie rap artist Blu spits abstract lyrics here, and he is a good spitter, and gives us the message that private eyes are no better than cops that have badges and work 9-to-5.

5

Drunken Sleuth
Performed by Marco Polo (featuring Invincible)
From the 2013 album PA2: The Director's Cut
..Buy this track

Put me on the case, a private eye, no time to waste
I'm ride or die
My motto, 'Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide out
Tell the truth, or the world will find out'


Now that's a song about being a private eye. Finally. And another female rapper, Invicible, who I know nothing about, raps here from the POV of a sleuth who is "always on the hunt for truth." Marco Polo is responsible for beat here. The song is good, although not quite as memorable as I want it to be.

4

"Lyrical Wizardry"
Performed by Junior M.A.F.I.A.
From the 1995 album "Conspiracy (PA)"
..Buy this track

Extra .380 on a string 'round my neck cos feds check the waist
No time to waste, grab the loot and escape before next break
Heads are clockin, private eyes are watchin'

Here we go, gangsta in action, and private eyes only add problems. Junior M.A.F.I.A. is a trivia question now, and Conspiracy was their only album.

But...

The founder of the group was The Notorious BIG himself, and his wife Lil Kim was one of its members. How cool is that? (Even if Biggie himself doesn't rap on it).

On this cut only one member, Kleptomaniac, raps, but man! He delivers actual lyrical wizardry. The song may sound like a tiresome tale of MC bravado and street life, but Kleptomaniac's skills as a rapper makes this song exciting. Bleak, dark beat, skillful delivery, P.I.s, what else do you need?

3

"Dangerous Grounds"
Performed by Method Man (featuring Streetlife)
From the 1998 album Tical: Judgement Day 2000
..Buy this track

My lethal injection, destroyin evil
Hot Nikkel, private eye one pistol
Aimin at your brain tissue, do or die

Another Wu-member song? Yeah, they all were (and are) good (I must confess, I grew up on West Coast rap -- NYC hip hop was not my thing as a kid). And Method Man is always just funny as hell. He makes a perfect blend of street smartz and pop culture references. And private eyes are part of that culture. If you're mentioning Ben Casey, M.D., why not P.I.s, right?

2

"Soopaman Lova IV"
Performed by Redman
From the 1998 album "Doc's da Name 2000"
..Buy this track

Left court for child support, bitch attackin my bucks (WHY?)
They wanna fuck with certified private eye
Every week, check stubs to show the judge I got a job

Wait, another Wu track? What can I do? Wu-Tang liked not only shaolins but, it seems, P.I.s as well. Redman wrote a song about cartoonish/thuggish Soopaman Lova IV, a P.I. of sorts (or, more likely, someone posing as one). Whatever. The song is a lot of fun, and shows that rap music has some love for private eyes.

1

"Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy)"
Performed by Big Punisher (featuring Inspectah Deck & Prodigy)
From the 1999 album "Capital Punishment"
..Buy this track

Rip through the microphone, chrome dipped lyrics
Are known to split stone, you private eyes home in
But can't seem to clone

What a track! Big Pun may be forgotten today, but he remains a legend in certain circles. He died too young, but he was a great MC. Capital Punishment was the only album released in his lifetime.

On this cut Pun teams up with two other legends, writer and felon Prodigy and Wu-member Inspecta Deck. And it's Deck who in his verse mentions private eyes. Deck claims here that he is so good that no one can steal his style. But the star of this cut is Big Pun himself, rhyming so fast and on the point, it's no surprise he's called one of best lyricist of all times.

In fact, 'Tres Leches (Triboro Trilogy)' is probably the most powerful song on the album. Truly great MC is original MC, and you can't confuse him with somebody else. It's like in fiction, original voice always stands out.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • "Pay It Forward" by Starlito (featuring Billy Blast, Fish & Petty)

Starlito is good, but his homies are whack rappers.

  • "Animal Planet" by GZA

Another GZA track, but once again GZA's delivery leaves much to be desired.

  • "Co$$ Is" by Co$$ (Cashus King)

Nice gangsta rap, but nothing memorable.

  • "Kool" by Large Professor

Prof keeps his cool, but P.I.s here don't play any significant role.

Essay respectfully submitted by Ray Garraty, April 2014.


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