It took only a few ambushes, roadside bombs and corpses for Neal Saunders to know what he had to do: turn the streets of Baghdad into rap music. So the First Cavalry sergeant, then newly arrived for a year of duty in Sadr City, began hoarding his monthly paychecks and seeking out a U.S. supplier willing to ship a keyboard, digital mixer, cable, microphones and headphones to an overseas military address. He hammered together a plywood shack, tacked up some cheap mattress pads for soundproofing and invited other Task Force 112 members to join him in his jerry-built studio. They call themselves "4th25" --pronounced fourth quarter, like the final do-or-die minutes of a game--and their album is "Live From Iraq." The sound may be raw, even by rap standards, but it expresses things that soldiers usually keep bottled up. "You can't call home and tell your mom your door got blown off by an IED," says Saunders. "No one talks about what we're going through. Sure, there are generals on the TV, but they're not speaking for us. We're venting for everybody."
Rap is becoming the pulse of the Iraq war, as the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison were for Vietnam. The essential difference is that new electronic gear is giving today's troops the ability to create a soundtrack of their own rather than having a mass-produced version flown in from home. Stateside rap sounds tame to the guys serving in Iraq anyway. This week an open-mike competition in Baghdad is expected to draw many of the front-line military's top performers. The GI rappers, many producing or aiming to produce their own CDs, are giving listeners back home an uncensored glimpse of life in Iraq, straight from the troops--troops like Johnny (Snap) Batista and Richard (Ten Gram) Bachellor, who patrol Baghdad with a unit of the Marine Antiterrorism Battalion. In their off-duty hours they place a boombox on the pavement in the Green Zone and improvise rhymes about how it feels to be shot at or to lose a friend to an improvised explosive device (IED). One of their most popular numbers starts in a hushed tone, almost a whisper: "There's a place in this world you've never seen before / A place called streets and a place called war / Most of you wanksters ain't never seen the fleet / You talk about war and you've only seen the street."
For American audiences, the best-known voices are probably the freestyle rappers in the documentary "Gunner Palace." The film, which opened in March and is coming out on DVD this month, follows the daily lives of an Army artillery unit billeted at a mansion formerly belonging to Saddam Hussein's elder son, Uday. "There's going to be a whole culture that emerges from this war," says director Michael Tucker, who lived with his subjects for two months. Spc. Javorn Drummond, 22, one of the palace freestylers, has been rapping since he was a kid, but he says Iraq was a whole different thing. "In Iraq you can lose your life in half a second," he says. "But rapping keeps you focused. If you're sittin' on a gun and you're tired, waiting for a sniper to come at you, you just start thinking up a rap and your fear goes away. It's motivation, you get an adrenaline rush from it." He and his fellow rappers Richmond (Hotline) Shaw and Nicholas (Solo) Moncrief have rotated back to Fayetteville, N.C., where they're working on a compilation CD.
Rap gave six members of the First Armored Division a way to hold themselves together. They call their group Corner Pocket. Based at Baghdad's airport last year, they were pounded by daily mortar and rocket attacks. Finally they put the whole mess into rhyme and set out to tape it as a music video on location at the airport. "Every time we'd go out to record our music, there'd be an attack and we'd have to stop," says Spc. Joseph Holmes, who laid down the music tracks for "Stay in Step." It's about the cost of survival: "Soldiers are dying every day, that's why we ain't smiling. I'm the one you see on TV / Army infantry, one arm holding my sleeve from a previous injury / Bloody desert combat fatigues, dusty and ammoless M-16 with a shredded sling /... Hit in the head and shoulder but still taking deep breaths / 'Cause I'm in Kevlar and sappy plates in my flak vest."
The big labels and distributors don't seem to get it yet. "Live From Iraq" is available on the Web (4th25.com), but you won't find it in most record stores. A gunnery sergeant in Baghdad has offered to help Snap and Ten Gram produce a CD, and they're hoping to burn four tracks soon. Corner Pocket is working on 23 songs, in the hope of finding a label that will pick them up. Hotline says he's excited by how well his privately produced CD is moving--"We had no idea this would catch on so fast"--but he's the one who's selling it: cranking up the volume at parties, hawking copies on the streets of Fayetteville, persuading local radio stations to give it air time.
Last month Snap learned that an explosion had killed a good friend in Iraq. "It just makes me want to be here more, knowing that people want to hurt us," he says. He and Ten Gram rap on: "I'm a pit bull at night, I'm out to gitcha / Devil Dog mentality bitin' whoever's witcha / I taste blood, I'm tired of marchin' in the mud / I throw down my 9 and now I'm pumpin' slugs." Refusing to give in is what the music is all about.