13 September 2020

Road to the Riches b Kool G Rap & DJ Polo (1989)

The late 1980s was perhaps the most-pivotal point in the history of rap music, even though it's often overlooked for more-exciting eras in the genre's history.  This was when rap was, generally speaking, transitioning from its original subject matter (social consciousness and dance) to what it has become today (money and gangsta).  And many of the popular artists from those years straddled between these lines.  In other words they often presented themselves as being in tune with the 'hood or perhaps even criminals, but they didn't tend to go as far as to actually brag about committing crimes or shooting people.

One of the rappers who defined this era was Kool G Rap.  Kool G Rap is someone whom I would say if he were born like 10 years later (after rap music really blew up), he would have been a multi-millionaire.  He is extremely-talented and was one of the last great rappers from the days when New York was basically the only place on Earth where rap music was coming from.

The cover to the Road to the Riches single.

And he was even more influential than I presumed before starting this research.  For instance I'm now reading the Wikipedia page of the Road to the Riches album, and it's saying, shockingly to me at least, that this project "is often cited as the beginning of the mafiaso rap genre".  Mafiaso rap was basically the East Coast version of gangsta rap.  Indeed the article goes on to list rappers "such as... Nas, Jay-Z [and] The Notorious B.I.G." as artists who were directly influenced by this project.  Meanwhile, the only reason I really decided to write about this song is because it's been playing in my head lately.

The cover to the Road to the Riches album.

Yes, this article is about the track, not the overall album.  For the second single released from the aforementioned project was itself entitled Road to the Riches.  Readers who are actually familiar with Kool G Rap should instantly recognize this song as one of his many classics.  And again, since we're talking the 1980s, this doesn't mean that it sold a bunch of records or achieved massive chart success.  Rather, as mentioned prior, Kool G's tracks were mad-influential.  However this is not to imply that Road to the Riches was completely overlooked, as it did manage to peak at number 16 on Billboard's Hot Rap Tracks listing.

As has already been alluded to, in the 1980s even popular rappers didn't tend to be mega-rich.  Also, this was a time before it became standard for rap artists to front like they have dough which they don't or were compelled to portray themselves as millionaires in order to be accepted.  Indeed the hip-hop acts that were really selling records back then were the likes of De La Soul, PM Dawn and the Beastie Boys.  And you know, nowadays if someone dropped a track called "Road to the Riches", dude would be talking about banging 1000 strippers in a gold-plated airplane.  But Kool G, in keeping it real, was rather rapping his about ambitions to make it big and more to the point the lessons he learned along the way.

Now Kool G. Rap's shtick, if you will, wasn't as much his street persona as it was the fact that he was, even to this day honestly, an extremely-talented lyricist.  In fact back in the late 1980s, the only individual rapper who could hang with him style-wise was perhaps Big Daddy Kane.  When people use the term spittin' to refer to rap that's what Kool G. Rap does - he spits.  He was one of the most-notable examples that rap music had become way more sophisticated than it was during its original days of the late 1970s, just a decade before Road to the Riches came out. 


My definition of a good rap - not a poem but a rap - is that with rap even if the person reading it on paper is not a rapper or even familiar with the particular song, he or she will find himself rapping.  Take this stanza from the first verse of Road to the Riches for instance:

But enough of me sweatin' Kool G Rap.  The first verse of this song focuses on the frustration the rapper faced as a result of being broke.  He found himself bustin' his ass at a conventional job but only bringing home an inadequate minimum wage in the process.  Moreover, he suffered from the type of humiliation that comes with girls not wanting to holla at you because of your meager cashflow.

But he didn't just accept things as they were.  Rather he realized that his ambition "to be a billionaire" would take "hard work for years".   And even more specifically he conceptualized, i.e. fantasized, that he could make such dough via the rap game.  And verily by the end of the verse, he is celebrating the day that he landed his first record deal.


The rapper begins the second verse by putting forth that prior to becoming a professional musician he instead chased money by selling crack "on the block".  Furthermore, he lets it be known that he was in fact a successful drug dealer.  You may recognize this tale as being the most dead-horse-beaten origin story in rap music history.  And yes, rappers who have come off as such, on the East Coast at least, have more or less copied G Rap's style in that regard.  And don't take my word for it, as this is an assertion that has been made by people a lot deeper into the study of rap music than myself.

In the process of bragging about his illicit come-up the rapper goes on to compare himself to the likes of Al Pacino and Rudolph "Pretty Boy" Valentino and accordingly presents himself as a gangster, not a gangsta.  The difference is that even though Kool G is talking about 'shooting up stores' and 'letting the pistol smoke', there isn't that feeling that he actual does such things but is rather portraying a character.  This is not to say that he never actually ran the streets.  Rather, let's say that he isn't actually glamorizing this lifestyle but is more like recounting a period from his personal history.  In other words the first verse is based on him blowing up via music, while in the second, which represents the past, he is making dough by selling drugs.


Meanwhile the best way to comprehensively describe the third verse is as a street-based social commentary.  In other words G Rap is for the most part still portraying a drug dealer.  But he is recounting his experiences in a way that illustrates just how dangerous the streets can be.  And overall, you can say the passage reads sort of like a PSA.  For by its conclusion Kool G has decided to 'make a U-turn' in terms of his lifestyle in the name of not getting himself incarcerated.  For he knows that the "rules are different", i.e. very-violent, in prison, and people who are not really about that life are exposed:

Also the third verse features some of the track's other illest lyrics, such as:

So in putting all three verses together, Road to the Riches comes off like the tale of a young man with stars in his eyes deciding to pursue his material dreams by becoming a rapper as opposed to remaining a drug dealer.  For after he becomes personally knowledgeable of the latter, he perceives that path more like the road to the jailhouse rather than to a steady cashflow.  And this idea is further buttressed by the track's music video (which it contains its fair share of blingin' and guns anyway).


Back in the days ghostwriters were virtually unheard of.  As such this song was written exclusively by Kool G Rap.  And its producer, in addition to DJ Polo, was another of Kool G's partners from early in his career - the legendary Marley Marl.  In creating the instrumental they sampled a 1974 track by the Commodores called Assembly Line and a 1978 tune by Billy Joel entitled Stiletto.

A depiction of Marley Marl, who was amongst the
first celebrity producers
in rap music. He was also
perhaps the first to perform vocally alongside his artists.

This particular song came out on 14 March 1989 as part of the Road to the Riches album.  And the labels behind it are Warner Bros. and Cold Chillin' Records.  The latter was perhaps the most-popular label in the entirety of rap music during the late 1980s, with Marley Marl being their central artist.

Kool G Rap, circa 2014.


The way of the world is that pioneers rarely get to fully enjoy the fruits of their sacrifices.  For instance you have someone like Jackie Robinson who made about $3,000,000 (in today's money) throughout his entire career, whereas Black baseball stars nowadays (i.e. those who came after him) can earn up to 10 times as much in a single season.

But this is not to imply that Kool G Rap got cheated or anything like that (although his career did suffer in the name of the gangsta rap).  After all a bunch of rappers, including permanent A-listers such as Eminem and the aforementioned Jay-Z, have cited him "as a major influence" on their careers.  Instead it just bothers me sometime how like dudes today can be selling records, as well as fans bopping their heads, based on storylines that can be traced to an artist whom many of them may have never even heard of.

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