Welcome to the ceaseless conflict, one not unlike that described in Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” Mobb Deep’s “Survival of the Fittest,” or the Game’s “Start From Scratch.” Ever since Chuck D said, “I’m a black man, and I could never be a veteran,” even rappers who’ve rejected the armed services have made hip-hop a document of perpetual urban combat. And now that a number of its soldiers have moved from our streets to Iraq’s, they have begun reporting from new front lines.
A few months before Iraq’s first democratic elections, many U.S. base camps were renamed. Camp War Eagle — called “The Dirty Bird” by the soldiers living there and located just a mile from the rebel-filled Baghdad ghetto of Sadr City — was redubbed Camp Hope. Soldiers once instructed to fight an all-out war on terror were told that Americans now needed to project an image of generosity in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their mission’s ambiguity and daily blood toll drove 1st Cavalry Division, 1-12 Taskforce’s Sgt. Neal Saunders to construct a makeshift hip-hop studio where he and his fellow GIs could vent their frustrations. Tracked between assignments — conducting dangerous house searches, pushing through ambush-ready streets — the resulting album is a rap answer to Dispatches (Michael Herr’s up-close chronicle of the Vietnam War), delivered by the ultimate embeds.
Live From Iraq charts a yearlong tour of duty, zeroing in on the troops’ troubled minds. In “The Deployment,” a static metal riff, a blues moan, and a stuttering kick drum back Saunders as he describes enlistees crying while they load planes for Kuwait, knowing not everyone will return. The songs that follow often slow to a convoy crawl, but when the IEDs go off, the tracks collapse into fear and rage. Guitars twist like Arabic wails on “24 Hours” as Saunders raps about a soldier who sweeps the city for insurgents. There are “no neutral sides,” he tells the Iraqis, just an assignment to “force the peace out of you.” Like the street soldiers back home, he doesn’t know what he’s fighting for, only that he must remain loyal to his people. But he also identifies with those who are supposed to be his enemies. In the chorus, he begs the civilians at the other end of his gun to make things easier for themselves: “Just give me this country for 24 hours.”
With the soldiers’ fear comes loathing — of Iraqis, of bunkmates who talk tough and fold in combat, of R&B singers who clock millions off soldier chic, even of civilians back home who have warm, safe beds and real freedom. On “Behind the Screens,” generals chopper in to spin the media while ignoring rank-and-file requests for adequate gear. “Why the fuck we train soldiers [if we] let politicians fight wars?” Saunders asks. The soldiers are America’s pit bulls — raised to kill — and when the government changes the mission to peacekeeping, the troops feel betrayed. “Telling me, ‘Wave and be nice’ / Shit, I’m trying to grab my dick / And walk this country like I’m God,” Saunders raps. “Instead you made me a bitch / And now this country think I’m soft / And they’re killing us quick.” This war isn’t just a failure of diplomacy; it’s a cultivation of big-balls imperialism in desert camouflage.
Live From Iraq deflates corporate rap’s gun-waving profiteering by refusing to glorify violence. “Lace Your Boots” sets field recordings of Baghdad gunfire to a chopped and screwed beat as Sgt. Ronin Clay says, half in disbelief, “Niggas talk it, but I live it.” On the title track, Saunders says war is “the true definition of going hard, no games / This is hundreds of bodies in the street when we bang.” On “Fuck ‘Em,” the beat pumps like sclerotic Timbaland, and Saunders takes a last shot at an administration whose mission he no longer trusts: “This is the attitude they gave us, the attitude they forced us to have.” In the end there is no relief, no rebuilding, and no exit. Just a harrowing record of war that must be heard.