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Yo, check it one for Charlie Hustle, two for Steady Rock
Mos Def hits the ground running with some playful name-checking.
Here's the breakdown from Genius: "'Charlie Hustle' was gambling-addict baseball legend Pete Rose's nickname, later copped by rapper E-40 (who Mos is shouting out). Steady Rock refers to the Rock Steady Crew, a major break dancing crew formed in the Bronx that eventually spanned several countries." (Source)
Three for the fourth comin' live, future shock
Here, more great wordplay hits a brainy allusion to a 1970 book that predicted technology would basically ruin everything.
For starters, "fourth comin'" is a clever play on the homophones "fourth" and "forth." Homophones are words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings.
But Mos Def is playing with even bigger ideas than homophones here. Alvin Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock predicted an oncoming flood of technological changes so overwhelming that human beings would not be able to keep up with it. The resulting tension would create a sort of internal culture shock, a state of technological emergency. It was Toffler who first coined the term "information overload," the small-scale version of the big future shock he predicted.
Mos Def might be getting mildly prophetic here with his talk about "forthcoming live future shock"—in other words, he predicts that Toffler's disaster is on the verge of coming to pass. But he might also have known that the book was re-released in 1999 for something like the seventh time.
Years and years have passed since "Mathematics" was written, and information overload is certainly the word of the day. Given that we're living in the future, we should be able to address the issue of "future shock" based on experience. What do you think? Can human cultures keep up with their own technological advances?
It's five dimensions, six senses
We can hardly keep up with Mos Def as he shouts out more great music and cinema while also adding science to the conversation.
We're guessing this line is giving some love to pop R&B group the Fifth Dimension. It also drops the name of a 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, which made it big in the late-summer box office with a story about a boy who could see dead people (he's the kid who whispers "I see dead people," throwing some into waves of goose bumps and others into convulsions of laughter).
But let's get to the science part, already. Can anyone name the four known dimensions? Height, width, and depth are easy—those are the physical dimensions, the x, y and z coordinates that algebra and calculus deal with, and also the dimensions that are obvious to our human senses. We can tell if something is far away, high up, large, or flat. The fourth dimension is time, which is understood by scientists as a more abstract dimension necessary for accurately interpreting physics in real time.
Ever since Einstein's theory of relativity, scientists have gradually accepted the theory of a four-dimensional universe where everything takes place on an abstract four-dimensional grid called "spacetime." Are you with us? It's okay if you're not, because what we're about to say isn't easy on anyone's brain, even the scientists who came up with it: Lately, it seems like we might be dealing with way more than four dimensions, and possibly as many as eleven dimensions.
These additional dimensions are hard to conceive of, but they are necessary to explain how the universe works. It may seem like Mos Def was getting complicated with his five dimensions talk (it's hard for the human brain to imagine a fifth dimension), but he might have actually been keeping it simple.
Seven firmaments of heaven to hell
The seven firmaments refer to concepts in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scriptures.
In Genesis 1, the basic creation story for both Judaism and Christianity, God creates "the firmament," which was understood for many centuries to be the dome of sky that covered the earth.
Of course, now we know that the blue up above is not an actual dome, and "firmament" has been reinterpreted in the Christian tradition to refer to heaven, or the heavens. In the Talmud, a set of Jewish scholarly texts informing much of Jewish belief, at least one passage describes "seven heavens," an idea which remains a part of Jewish mysticism. The Qu'ran also mentions the existence of seven heavens (or firmaments) and seven earths, the nature of which have been interpreted in many different ways over time.
Of course, all these images emerged from peoples who believed the earth was flat, which made it easy to envision a layered stack of heavens and earths; the seven firmaments have sometimes been explained as planets, or even as layers of the atmosphere.
Mos Def's seven firmaments or seven heavens are probably the mystical Muslim ones. He converted to Islam when he was 19.
8 million stories to tell
Mos Def just keeps piling on the obscure allusions, this time from a 1940s murder mystery.
The phrase "8 million stories" comes from a 1948 film about New York City police, The Naked City. In the iconic black and white film noir about murder, the narration concludes, "There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them."
Mos Def, himself born and raised in New York, is obliquely referencing the people and stories of the city, suggesting that they are his subject matter.
Nine planets faithfully keep in orbit
With the probable tenth, the universe expands length
Once upon a time, people thought the "dwarf planet" Eris was on the verge of being named the tenth planet.
Instead, in 2006, astronomers decided to declare Pluto no longer a planet, leaving only eight official planets in the solar system.
In other words, these people are messing with Mos Def's numbers. They have also gravely disappointed most people who went to elementary school anytime before 2006. It's almost as bad as suggesting that there's no such thing as a triceratops.
Power-lift the powerless up, out of this towerin' inferno
Is he seriously talking about Dante now?
Well, yes. And, he's making another brilliant number reference, this time to Dante's towering Inferno, an epic 14th-century poem about a journey deep into hell.
Dante's hell is rather amusingly populated with various people he didn't like, and the inferno has nine layers—up top, the earth is a tenth. The Towering Inferno is a 1974 movie about a poorly built skyscraper that catches on fire during its opening party. It's considered a seminal example of "disaster film." Mos Def is implicitly comparing the ghetto to hell and to a burning building.
Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles
Like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Here Mos uses images of two different kinds of state-run structures—projects and prisons—to talk about the social hurdles faced by urban Black communities.
The first housing projects in the U.S. were built in the 1930s as a part of a general push for state-funded social services. Public housing was supposed to work as a government subsidy for low-income housing.
Before World War II, most projects solidly built low rises. The cheap, falling-down high-rise buildings that Mos Def compares to tall social hurdles were mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s. By the time he was growing up in New York in the 1980s, the projects were notorious for drugs, violence, and lousy living conditions. In the last two decades, much of the nation's high-rise public housing has been demolished and the residents displaced to impoverished city outskirts.
The "prison-industry complex," a fancy term for the big business of incarceration, first exploded in the late 1970s as recession and post-civil rights backlash led to a drastic increase in policing arrests, largely in urban communities of color (what people sometimes call "the inner city"). In the 1980s, the first private prisons were established—prisons run by private corporations who profit from massive government contracts.
Today, around two million Americans are in state and federal prisons, the vast majority on non-violent charges. Mos Def criticizes the prison industry and the whole phenomenon of mass incarceration in many of his songs.
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom ring
Say it backwards in your sleep, 'It's dangerous to dream'
Martin Luther King, Jr. called for big dreams of desegregation in 1963; in 1999, some of these dreams still felt far-fetched.
MLK used the phrase "let freedom ring," from the patriotic song "My Country 'Tis of Thee," to call upon the U.S. to desegregate in his famous civil rights speech, "I Have a Dream."
Mos Def cynically recycles King's phrasing when he tells people that "It's dangerous to dream," probably in order to highlight the persistence of racial segregation and unequal living conditions over three decades later.
Killin fields need blood to graze the cash cow
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants" (source).
Jefferson was using the rhetoric to justify an armed democratic revolution. But Mos Def believes that now, the tree we are feeding with blood is the "cash cow"—in other words, the interests of corporate profiteers.
He draws from extremely strong images by referring to killing fields: These were the sites in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge dictatorship murdered nearly two million Cambodian citizens in the 1970s.
Like I got, sixteen to thirty-two bars to rock it
But only 15% of profits, ever see my pockets like
Mos is doing his own personal math here.
Like most musicians, he signs recording contracts that give record companies a cut of the profits from every song. Tons of big recording artists have complained over the years about getting jacked by record companies. The recording industry's response to flagging record sales requires artists to give a cut of ring tone, concert, and merchandise sales.
Mos Def's complaints about record contracts are probably valid, especially for small-time artists struggling to make it big who are backed into that sort of contract. But a lot of people thought he should get his personal mathematics in better order when he refused to pay out more in child support for two of his five children in a 2006 legal battle with their mother—on the grounds that he couldn't afford the payments.
Sixty-nine billion in the last twenty years
Spent on national defense but folks still live in fear
$69 billion may seem like a lot of money.
Well, that was then; this is now.
Nowadays, the Pentagon's spending for each year hovers around $800 billion.
Nearly half of America's largest cities is one-quarter black
That's why they gave Ricky Ross all the crack
This enigmatic statement about how "they gave Ricky Ross all the crack" alludes to a conspiracy theory that the CIA was involved in starting the crack cocaine epidemic.
In 1999, San Jose Mercury-News reporter Gary Webb published a book called Dark Alliance detailing a series of very shady, secretive interactions he had uncovered that linked the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, crack cocaine dealers in Los Angeles, and the Central Intelligence Agency. According to Webb, the CIA looked the other way for a few years in the mid-1980s while the Nicaraguan Contras smuggled billions of dollars worth of crack cocaine into the U.S. The Contras used the profits to fund their rebellion against the revolutionary Nicaraguan government.
Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan's administration gave the Contras secret financial backing in a scandal that came to be known as the Iran Contra Affair. The particularly insidious part of the drug story is that crack cocaine was largely sold in poor, urban Black neighborhoods. "Freeway" Ricky Ross, a Black man from Los Angeles, was one of the dealers involved in the scandal. He was released from prison in 2009—stay tuned for a film on the whole thing.
It seems like Mos Def agrees with Dark Alliance, especially its message about governmental racism; to form your own opinion, check out the book or read the original series of articles from the San Jose Mercury-News.
Sixteen ounces to a pound, twenty more to a ki
How many ounces to a kilo?
Mos Def knows, and so should you. It's 35.27. Here, he rounds up to 36 (20+16).
A five minute sentence hearing and you're no longer free
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws mean that a five-minute sentencing hearing can result in a boatload of prison time.
Mandatory minimums require judges to give a certain minimum sentence for a conviction, even if the judge believes that the person could be rehabilitated or would benefit from drug treatment rather than prison. Federal mandatory minimum laws were first passed for certain types of drugs in 1986.
Advocates of mandatory minimums think that they are a deterrent and a necessary tool in the ongoing "War on Drugs." Others argue that these laws are a part of what has led to massive prison overcrowding and disproportionate incarceration of African Americans.
40% of Americans own a cell phone
So they can hear everything that you say when you ain't home
Mos Def may have been an early alarmist about the effects of cell phones in American culture.
These days, that number has more than doubled. It's our best guess that Mos Def is among the majority, but he was probably right to worry a little bit about privacy matters in the new cell phone culture.
Rock your hardhat, black, cause you in the Terrordome
The Terrordome is an idea from a song by Public Enemy.
The controversial single, "Welcome to the Terrordome," appeared on Public Enemy's 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet.
Young bloods can't spell but they could rock you in PlayStation
The Bloods are a notorious Los Angeles street gang.
Mos Def is pointing out that a lot of the same young people who end up in gangs live in neighborhoods with lousy public schools.
Gang members have publicly agreed on that point: After the bloody 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Bloods and the Crips formed a truce and approached the city government with a joint list of demands that included increased funding for education and social welfare programs.
Yo, it's one universal law but two sides to every story
Three strikes and you be in for life, mandatory
A controversial California law called "Three Strikes" was passed in 1994.
The law requires a minimum sentence of 25 years to life for any third-time felony charge, no matter what the charge is. Because the laws could result in somewhat arbitrary sentences (for example, a life sentence for a petty theft), their constitutionality has been challenged in California courts.
Since 1994, 25 other states have passed Three Strikes laws as part of a general trend towards "tough on crime" legislation.
By introducing the three strikes issue with "one universal law but two sides to every story," Mos Def suggests that he doesn't think the laws are fair. Every person sentenced under Three Strikes laws has their own side to the story. The "universal law" probably refers either to science or religion.
Four MC's murdered in the last four years
In the late 1990s, Tupac, the Notorious B.I.G., and Big L were all shot to death.
Queens rapper Freaky Tah was also shot in early 1999, though Genius suggests that Ill Will could also have been the fourth MC Mos Def is referring to.
Yo it's 6 Million Ways to Die, from the seven deadly thrills
Can anyone guess the reference?
6 Million Ways to Die was a 1996 Cutty Ranks album, but it was also a line in Snoop Dogg's 1993 song "Serial Killa."
The seven deadly thrills are probably Christianity's seven deadly sins, or the Cardinal sins: lust, gluttony, greed, acedia (which is like the word apathy, but from Greek…oh wait, apathy is a Greek word, too. Well, anyway, a lot of people translate it as "sloth"), despair, wrath, envy, pride, and vainglory (also known as vanity).
Mos Def suggests that the seven deadly sins may be thrilling, but they can kill you.
Eight-year olds gettin found with 9 mill's
A 9 mill is a handgun.
It's short for 9 millimeter, generally a semi-automatic pistol. An eight-year-old is, well, an eight-year-old. The problem here should be pretty obvious.
It's 10 P.M., where your seeds at? What's the deal
Yet another double allusion, this time to a Wu Tang Clan song and a public service announcement.
The Wu Tang Clan song "Protect Ya Neck" includes the line "It's 10 o'clock, ho, where the f---'s your seed at?"
The line refers to an iconic public service announcement from the 1980s in which news anchors stared into the camera and asked parents, "It's 10 P.M., do you know where your children are?"
When the average minimum wage is $5.15
You best believe you gotta find a new grind to get C.R.E.A.M.
The national minimum wage has gone up by a bit since then, but the meaning of C.R.E.A.M. is unchanging.
First things first: according to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of March, 2011, minimum wage was $7.25.
And now for the cream: Cream is slang for money, but "C.R.E.A.M." is a song from Wu Tang Clan's 1993 debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and it's short for "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."
Join the other 5 million under state supervision
This number refers to people on probation and parole.
The total number of Americans in 2007 who were in prison, jail, detention, or on probation or parole was over seven million. That's one out of every 31 adults.
The debate is still very heated about whether incarceration is the best way to deter crime and/or rehabilitate people. Drug crimes are an especially hot issue because the majority of prisoners are locked up for drug-related charges, and recidivism (getting caught for another crime after release) is very high. Studies have also shown that the prison system disproportionately locks up African Americans and other people of color—even where whites have committed similar crimes, they don't do the same kind of time. On the other hand, a lot of people believe that prisons are the only appropriate way to deal with gang violence and drugs.
In the time since Mos Def wrote, mandatory minimum sentencing has become less trendy and been reduced or eliminated in a lot of states, and alternative sentencing projects like drug courts (which sentence people to rehabilitation programs and community service rather than the more expensive option of prison) have become increasingly popular solutions.