Which is why meeting with James "I Know Brasco" Thornton was so enlightening.
The 26-year-old Philadelphian has released 10 mix tapes since 2002. He's been a fixture on the underground circuit since dropping out of West Chester University in 2005 for financial reasons. (The communications major intends to finish, but not with a bunch of student loans hanging over his head.)
"I know a lot of local rhymers, but nobody personifies hip hop more than Brasco," says Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard, who met Brasco while teaching his Hip Hop 101 class at Temple. "In terms of having book smarts and street smarts, he's real and thoughtful."
True, true. So much so that our lunch chat lasted three hours.
Given that 69 percent of the 212 homicides in Philadelphia this year were committed by African American males and, even worse, 68 percent of all victims were black males, who better to give perspective than someone who's seen enough to tell us what's really going on?
Brasco grew up in North Philly, 24th and Cambria. As he says, "It's not Mayberry."
That's for sure. Last July, Brasco witnessed up close and personal how mean the streets can be when his close friend and fellow rapper Marcellus Jefferson was gunned down in a drive-by just blocks from Brasco's home.
Brasco had gone into the house to burn a CD for Jefferson while his friend walked to the corner store to get something to drink.
"One minute we were sitting on my steps laughing and joking. Ninety seconds later he was dead," says Brasco, who recounts the tragedy on his latest CD, They Know I-Know, in a song titled "Patience":
That was just the devil trying to knock me off my grind/Now I do it for my homey so I gotta shine/All I need is God's blessings at the proper time.
Brasco says he has no idea who shot his friend and the Police Department says the case is open and active. Really. It has nothing to do with the "stop-snitching" credo that is automatically assumed to be a code of the streets.
" 'Stop snitching' has been twisted," Brasco explains. "If you see somebody rob an old lady or hurt a child and you give the police a description, that doesn't make you a snitch." But, he says, "if you're doing criminal activity and get caught and start giving up names, then stop snitching."
Our talk moves to illegal guns. Brasco looks at me like I'm crazy.
"The illegal stuff is more accessible than the legal stuff in the 'hood," he says. "It's hard to find things like jobs and after-school programs. That's what you can't find."
As for the perpetrators, "it's a learned behavior," Brasco says. "Some of my friends . . . never learned morals because they never got it from [parents]. They try to find it in somebody they just met, now they're bringing another life into the world - it's like a giant slide that's picking up debris along the way."
It's how Brasco has lived his life. Real. He admits he sold marijuana for a while at West Chester, not to be a drug kingpin but because "work-study only paid $3 an hour," he says. "It took a bit of stress off my mom, plus I wanted new sneakers."
Not that Brasco's mom, Wendy Alexander, knew about his dealing. It was from Alexander that Brasco and his older sister - a Temple grad - got their study habits. Alexander earned her college degree from Drexel as an adult and is now a fourth-grade teacher.
"I wasn't heavy in the streets, but I was into the streets," he says. "I wasn't raised like that."
If you come away believing he's more thug than a citizen, then you really don't know Brasco.
There's nothing gangster about being a theater major at CAPA. Or working a 9 to 5 as a custodian at Citizens Bank Park. Or lavishing his 16-month-old niece with kisses every chance he gets.
"It's all me," Brasco says. "And it's all good."
Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Annettejh.