(Editor's note - "diegetic" is from the Greek "diegesis")
For a show so entwined with contemporary hip-hop, there isn’t a lot of rap on The Wire. Come to think of it, there isn’t a lot of music of any kind. HBO’s quiet storm of a hit show, which began its fifth and final season this week, has long been treasured for its thorough depictions of the city of Baltimore. The hour-long drama has also, to considerably less fanfare, managed to nail modern-day hip-hop’s current goals and obstacles, frustrations and triumphs, swagger and sadness. Consider: This is a show about poor black people peddling dope just to get by, the mostly white, middle-class people trying to catch them, and the paper-chasing institutions that rule over them all. The characters of The Wire are the characters of America’s drug trade. Therein, they are the characters of contemporary rap’s lyrical output.
And there are a lot of characters; try 50 significant characters throughout its four seasons thus far. The show’s creators, former Baltimore crime reporter David Simon and former Baltimore cop Ed Burns, as well as their staff of writing giants – crime novelist George Pelecanos, Richard Price (Clockers) and Mystic River penner Dennis Lehane among them – have crafted lasting impressions out of otherwise bit parts and have gotten the acting to back up the plot points and dialogue. The complications are huge, the politics are daft, the streets are watching and all except the last part are a lot for, say, Young Jeezy to jam into three verses over a DJ Toomp production. Still, they are the same, even as The Wire steers far clear of the cocaine rap that dominates most of hip-hop’s vernacular.
Music on The Wire happens the way we hear music every day: in our car, from our radio or blasting out of the trunk of those guys way over there. Unless the dial is at our fingertips, we don’t control it. Emotional attachments to the soundtracks of our lives are either planned (which is kind of phony) or completely coincidental. There are no epic Yo-Yo Ma strings to score “Act III: Your Latest Fight With Mom.” For those on the streets of Baltimore, it’s a raw recording of a New Jack two-step number from Rod Lee titled “Dance My Pain Away” blaring from a set of speakers blocks away as two teenagers debate whether they should stand their ground and die or take one on pride’s chin and live. That far-off jam, thumping incessantly like the very heartbeat of such mortal decisions, is the type of music that dominates this awkwardly titled soundtrack.
The two-disc set features music from many B’more rap acts but very few resonate within the drama’s boundaries. In the first four seasons of the show, there were only a handful of musical moments that echoed Simon and Burns’ dense thematic landscape, and some of those aren’t included on the soundtrack. The Wire wouldn’t be The Wire without Prez setting up to the tunes of Johnny Cash in seasons two and four, or McNulty crashing – twice – while listening to Flogging Molly, and it would’ve been nice to relive those moments, this time remembering to breathe. Thankfully, we still get every version of the historically too-long introductory theme song one could hope for, not to mention the tracks from the final scene of each season (Paul Weller’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” floods the memory bank in an instant).
Nonesuch and Wire music supervisor Blake Leyh have utilized this soundtrack to preserve for history’s sake the times when music, coincidentally enough, made sense within these people’s lives.
Even with Flogging Molly’s frat-boy punk kicking off an episode or Solomon Burke’s beautifully timid “Fast Train” ending a season, The Wire remains hip-hop because its audience is hip-hop.
“You don’t see us being embraced by a whole lot of other people other than rappers,” says Tray Chaney, who plays drug-dealing horndog Malik “Poot” Carr. Whether it’s Method Man’s small role as Cheese or Freeway’s video for “What We Do,” which features many of the principals from the first few seasons, rappers have wholeheartedly showed their love for The Wire. Symmetrically, the actors on The Wire have been drawn to the world of music, including Michael K. Williams (gay street vigilante Omar Little), J.D. Williams (Preston “Bodie” Broadus), Idris Elba (the late, great Stringer Bell) and Chaney himself, who was dancing at the Apollo before he hit puberty.
“The Wire is a hip-hop driven tale; it’s really related to the hip-hop community and the streets,” Chaney says. “We’ve been fortunate enough to hang out with some of the biggest music stars in the world and I think we just caught that bug.”
One of The Wire’s greatest successes is showing that everyone makes money from drugs – be it the corner boys, the downtown lawyers or the police department’s middle management – and the same holds true for the surrounding entertainment business. Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Simon’s Shakespearean street tale both make their art from pain and the successes bestowed by avoiding it enough.
That’s where The Wire is the embodiment of hip-hop, its backbeat found in the swagger of Bodie’s spit, the snarl in Omar’s self-reliance, the sadness in Bubbles’ eyes, the self-destruction in McNulty’s passion, the twinkle in Poot’s girl-chasing eye, the laughter of Donut’s latest auto theft, the compassion in Chris’ vacant-building murders. It’s there where the pieces matter, singing softly and masked, as if to shield our eyes for us. Nobody should have to witness what these characters go through, but – from a safe distance – maybe we can hear firstname.lastname@example.org