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Hip-hop’s “dead presidents”

With the 2012 election looming next week, are you sold on another four years with Obama? Perhaps you’re looking to change things up with Mitt. Which candidate will you choose to represent you?

I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.
Say what?!

Rather than get mixed up in all that political business, I’m here to talk about the slang dead president. The following lyrics are from “The World is Yours”, a song from the hip-hop artist Nas on his 1994 album Illmatic:

I’m out for presidents to represent me. (Say what?!)
I’m out for presidents to represent me. (Say what?!)
I’m out for dead presidents to represent me.

The first two lines sound like a straightforward call for better political representation, a desire for presidents, i.e. elected officials, to serve the artist’s interests. Constituents do tend to feel frustrated with the amount of representation they get from their politicians, right? Each of those lines is punctuated by ‘say what?!’, though, as if to demand we question the preceding statement. Maybe this idea of presidential representation doesn’t really get results, and anyone who comes along preaching trust in the government hasn’t got a clue. Ultimately, Nas resolves the question for us with a clever twist in the last line. He clarifies that it’s actually “dead presidents” he wants representing him. So who (or what) are these dead presidents?

Dead president is a slang term meaning “United States banknote”. The concept derives from a 1929 decision made by the US Treasury to standardize banknote design, which mandated the obverse of each denomination be adorned with the portrait of a deceased American statesman. As such, one dollar bills feature George Washington; fives have Abraham Lincoln, tens Hamilton, etc. Barring a few exceptions, the statesmen pictured are former presidents, and over time the portrait, probably the most iconic part of the note’s design, has become a means of identifying it. Literary types call this process synecdoche.

Stewardess, I speak jive

The Oxford English Dictionary has a draft entry for dead president at dead, adj. Their earliest recorded usage comes from Dan Burley’s The Original Handbook of Harlem Jive (1944), which places the term’s origin in early 1940s northern Manhattan (just across the river from the Bronx, where hip-hop got started some 30 years later). Burley worked as a journalist and editor for the New York Amsterdam News in the 1930s-40s, writing a column called ‘Back Door Stuff’, which featured and discussed Harlemese lingo. He first mentions “dead president” in this sentence from a 1st Mar., 1941 “Back Door Stuff”:

A Cat gets all hot and bothered in no time at all over..latching onto a sheaf of those portraits of dead Presidents on green pulp.

Judging from this quotation, it seems as if dead president hadn’t quite developed its alternate signification yet, as it doesn’t mean anything other than ‘dead’ + ‘president’ there. A little over a year later, though, it crops up in another “Back Door Stuff”:

I was ’round here playin’ the game without any fame, when my ace saw dropped a flock o’ Dead Presidents on me.
—1942 N.Y. Amsterdam Star-News 21 Mar., 16/1

In that sentence dead presidents reads much the same as we’d expect it today, provided you can translate the rest of Burley’s jive slang. Does this mean that everyone in 1940s NYC was about his dead presidents? I doubt it. In all probability, these examples of Burley’s don’t represent widespread popularity, at least not at the time. According to Google NGrams, usage of dead president doesn’t really pick up until the 1980s.

What happened then to bring dead president into public consciousness? I have a theory, and his name is Rakim.

Man, I’m tryin’ to get paid in full

In 1987, Eric B. and Rakim dropped a record called Paid in Full, which featured this rhyme:

So I start my mission, leave my residence,
Thinking how could I get some dead presidents.

I’d wager there’s not a rapper in the game who doesn’t know that rhyme by heart. Rakim is now widely regarded as one of the greatest MCs of all time, and Paid in Full became hugely influential, practically defining hip-hop music for years to come. The cumulative effect for dead president was massive, massive exposure.

Over the next few years, dead president skyrocketed in popularity, showing up in more and more high-profile places. Biz Markie spit it on 1988’s Goin’ Off. In 1989, it makes an appearance in the script for Spike Lee‘s film Do the Right Thing. This surge continued into the 90s with help from a few key drops like Nas’s “The World is Yours” (quoted above) on 1994’s Illmatic, a Hughes brothers film called Dead Presidents in 1995, and Jay-Z coming to bat in 1996 with the debut single from Reasonable Doubt, called “Dead Presidents”. Since then a host of rappers have gotten on-board (including Chamillionaire, Lupe Fiasco, and J. Cole, just to name a few), releasing freestyles, remixes, and individual tracks of their own called “Dead Presidents” as well as dropping the term into hundreds upon hundreds of rhymes.

So why’s dead president so common in hip-hop? I can only speculate. My best guess is the genre’s long-standing relationship with the struggle to get paid; terms for ‘money’ will always be welcome. Dead president in particular gets a lot of run, I suspect, because in addition to addressing the need to talk about money, it’s got a rather seditious and macabre undercurrent—the perished politician. It’s not uncommon for MCs to hail from neighbourhoods where it must seem that money has more immediate capacity for positive change than political proxy, where dead presidents get things done better than living. For hip-hop artists out to interrogate that marginalization, the image of a dead president must have some appeal.

When Tuesday the 6th comes around, what kind of president will you want representing you?