Headed home on the freeway late one Friday night in his hometown of Detroit, rapper Obie Trice noticed air rushing into this car. He turned down his stereo to figure out the source. As he looked back his rear window, he spotted a bullet hole.
“The next thing I know bullets just start ringing out,” Trice says in an interview in the documentary Number One With a Bullet. One of the shots struck him in the head—he still has the bullet lodged in the back of his skull. Police never figured out who let off the shots.
Years later, Trice walked into a frame shop to memorialize the jacket he was wearing that night. “[It’s] gonna show mainly all the bloodstains. I’ll put that up in my big house with the rest of my plaques,” he tells the camera. “It’s gonna be dope.”
This swing of emotions—from the vulnerability that comes with staring down the abyss of death to the celebration of triumph over its imminence—establishes the overall tone of the film, which was directed by Jim Dziura and executive produced by music icon Quincy Jones. Bullet takes the viewer on a tour of the state of gun violence in inner-city America, using hip-hop artists as examples of its ubiquity—and revealing the genre as the mirror to society that it has always been.
Watch the Number One With a Bullet broadcast premiere this Sunday August 2 at 8:00p.m. ET on Fusion
“The problem with hip-hop is that the media sees rappers as glorifying violence,” said Joshua Krause, producer of the film.
“Here, we wanted to let the rappers give us the full scope of their relationship to that violence, by taking us back to the moments where they got shot, and letting them to talk about how they survived it,” he said. “There’s a lot of mixed emotions in there.”
In the film, five rappers who have survived gun violence—Obie Trice, B-Real, 40 Glocc, The Last Mr. Bigg and Young Buck—return to the scene of their shootings to explain how things went down, and how it affected them.
When we first meet B-Real of Cypress Hill, he’s walking into the Los Angeles Gun Club, a shooting range and gun shop. “That’s what happens if B-Rizzle has a hand cannon in his hand,” he laughs, pointing to a human-shaped target he just unloaded into with a comically sized .500 Magnum Smith and Wesson. In the next scene, he’s giving a quick tour of the corner he was shot on, in the late 80s.
“I was out of bounds, this ain’t my neighborhood,” he remembers of the attempted weed deal gone wrong. “Before you know it I fell to the ground, and I could barely breathe.”
Shortly after, he would go on to make his Cypress Hill debut with the single “How I Could Just Kill A Man,” in which he raps “just to stay alive, aiyyo I gotta say ‘fuck it.'” Years later, he says, people told him that they would listen to his songs “before going to kill these motherfuckers” in the neighborhood. “That made me feel fucked up more than anything because that’s not what I want my music to be about,” says the more matured B-Real.
The harsh reality of life on the streets and the poverty that begets gun violence is a necessary part of the narrative. Poverty, as presented in the film, creates physical insecurity. And out of the need for security comes the need to arm oneself, beginning the vicious cycle of offensive and defensive measures that are undertaken in inner-city America. The result, of course, is both an epidemic of violence, and reinforcement of the idea that violence is an acceptable means of survival in a dog-eat-dog world.
“There’s a tradition of, if you’re not gonna assert yourself in a physical, aggressive way, you’re volunteering to be a victim,” explains rapper Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def).
One striking scene shows two black women getting into a fistfight in a Los Angeles housing complex over what observers say amounts to $21 in food stamps. “People don’t wanna face the fact and say that ‘nah, it can’t be that bad,'” an onlooker says of the material poverty in his neighborhood, after the fight has broken up. “From here to New York it’s bad in the streets, it’s bad in the hood.”
At one moment a doctor from the University of California at Berkeley pulls up a collection of scans he has done of people who have been shot in the brain. “It’s a little bit sad that I have a bullet to the brain collection, but…,” he trails off.
“I can’t tell you how many gunshot patients over the last three or four years had ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ tattooed on their arms,” laments Dr. Scott Charles, a black doctor at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia.
“Young people who are exposed to this kind of violence, they will hope for the best, but they prepare for the worst,” he says.
The rappers who share their personal stories about surviving gunshot wounds in the film are telling quintessentially American stories. While each has found himself on the wrong end of this country’s obsession with guns, none finds it ironic that they continue to see the value of possessing a firearm at any given time. Archival clips of Malcolm X urging black America to practice its Second Amendment rights are spliced up with a clip of former National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston’s famous declaration that “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands,” only underscoring the history and tradition at play.
“I’ve never glorified being shot,” says Young Buck, recounting the story of how he nearly died in a Nashville home invasion. “There’s nothing good about the bullets when they in you.”
But still, he quotes his own lyrics about how his personal situation won’t put an end to old habits, with a shrug that seems to say “it is what it is:”
I know I’m sinning but I’m winning at the same time
Took a couple shots from a nigga tryin’ to take mine
I’m back on the block, wit a chopper and a tech nine
Just three months after he survived a gunshot to the head in Detroit, Obie Trice’s long time friend Proof (forever immortalized as Mekhi Phifer’s character Lil’ Tic in Eminem’s 8 Mile film) died in a gun fight at a nightclub, which left both shooters dead.
“I has hitting him in the face, telling him to wake up. It was a bad thing, my man laying on the bed outta there—he gone,” Trice remembers. “I couldn’t believe it. He was just at the hospital with me when my incident happened.”
Regardless, in an illustration that tragedy does not necessarily bring about change, he confides at one point in the film:
“I love guns just like a redneck in the South do.”