Stage Names Gone Horribly Wrong
Show business names are as old as, well, show business. In an industry where image is everything, it isn’t surprising that people saddled by their parents with average names or worse would want something that sounded a bit smoother, more glamorous. In Hollywood’s heyday, it was usually the studios who held actor’ contracts who made the name change decisions, and in some cases it seemed that the movie moguls knew best. I doubt that people would have descended in droves upon movie theaters to see a leading lady named Frances Gumm, but everyone loved Judy Garland. John Wayne evoked simple American masculinity in a way that Marion Morrison couldn’t possibly muster. It might have been an uphill battle for Archibald Leach to project an air of suave sophistication, but Cary Grant had no such problem. Even my all-time favorite actress, born Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko, probably wouldn’t have gotten far without simplifying herself as Natalie Wood.
Stars today tend to be more honest such things, most using their given names or (in the case of Tom Cruise, né Thomas Cruise Mapother) parts thereof. Among the 21 Academy Award winning best actors and actresses in the years 2000-2010, for example, only three used stage names; among the 21 winners from 1940-1950, ten did.
But there is one genre of performers that has taken the idea of the stage name to its absurd extreme: rappers. For reasons I don’t understand, there seems to be an unwritten rule that rappers must come up with some name, any name, however meaningless, and if it contains a deliberate misspelling, all the better. I looked at the 30 top rappers of all time as rated by this site, looked them up on Wikipedia, and found that only one—Kanye West—uses his real name. Here are the rest (removing the two duos from the list, as musical groups commonly choose a group name).
- 2Pac (Tupac Amaru Shakur)
- Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher George Latore Wallace)
- Nas (Nasir Jones)
- Rakim (William Michael Griffin)
- Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter)
- Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson)
- KRS-One (Lawrence Krishna Parker)
- Eminem (Marshall Bruce Mathers)
- LL Cool J (James Todd Smith)
- Scarface (Brad Jordan)
- Snoop Dogg (Calvin Cordozar Broadus)
- Eazy-E (Eric Lynn Wright)
- Chuck D (Carlton Douglas Ridenhour)
- Redman (Reginald Noble)
- Raekwon (Corey Woods)
- The Game (Jayceon Terrell Taylor)
- Kurupt (Ricardo Emmanuel Brown)
- Slick Rick (Ricky Walters)
- Common (Lonnie Rashid Lynn)
- Busta Rhymes (Trevor Smith)
- Method Man (Clifford Smith)
- Big Daddy Lane (Antonio Hardy)
- Lil Wayne (Dwayne Michael Carter)
- Dr. Dre (André Romelle Young)
- 50 Cent (Curtis James Jackson)
- T.I. (Clifford Joseph Harris)
- WC (William Calhoun)
I should point out that Rakim apparently joined the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Rakim Allah, so if he legally changed his name, he would be more like Madonna or Cher in going with the single-word moniker. A few others are loosely based on the performers’ real names: 2Pac sounds just like the rapper’s given first name, Nas could be short for Nasir, Slick Rick’s real first name is Ricky, and WC (pronounced “dub-cee,” I’m told) goes by his initials. But it’s a stretch to say that any of them uses his actual true name.
Not being a rap lover myself—OK, it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m a rap hater—I haven’t heard of most of those people, even though 50 Cent (pronounced “fiddy cent,” I’m told) was my aunt’s neighbor in a tony Connecticut town until she sold her house last month to retire to Florida full-time. (Mr. Cent—is it OK to call him Mr. Cent?—bought the house from Mike Tyson, which makes me wonder why Auntie didn’t sell sooner. But that’s another story.) I’ve also heard of two older rappers who used weird stage names: Ice-T (Tracy Marrow) and MC Hammer (Stanley Kirk Burrell). I can’t begin to know where the female rappers are and shudder to think of what they might call themselves.
What is it that makes someone want to take a stage name that is something besides, you know, a name? Sting, Bono, and The Edge have done it, but in rock such names are conspicuous. In rap, they’re ubiquitous. And some of them are so blatantly bad. What image is “Snoop Dogg” supposed to convey, a veterinary condition? And Lil Wayne is a great name for a doll marketed to toddler boys. I suppose early rappers thought it was edgy to come up with a strange name that didn’t actually mean anything, but now every rapper who does it is just another follower. Want to do something original? Have some balls and call yourself Carlton Ridenhour. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a tough guy. Ask Rosey Greer.