I’m an old man. Old enough to remember Yo MTV Raps. Old enough to remember Rap City. Old enough that when rap started showing up on the radio that you would grab that cassette tape your mom never really listened to anyways, fill the two holes at the top with toilet tissue, and sit by the radio, fingers ready to hit play/record at a moment’s notice. Only if it was late enough for all the grown-ups to be asleep for a while so if someone said “damn” you wouldn’t have to turn it off for days and get a lecture about “that music”.
See, they didn’t play that in my crib deep in the boondocks of North Carolina. After all those years of Vacation Bible School and Sunday Schools I knew that some of the words they were saying I was not supposed to like, and when I heard them in school from kids my age I stayed away from those kids for the most part, but this was different. From the mouths of these rappers they weren’t even words. They were pictures of kids running through fire hydrants, standing on corners watching girls walk by, and living a life I had never imagined existed.
New York was a TV city in my mind. I actually don’t think I allowed myself to believe it could exist. To do so would make growing up in a place that seemed to be the opposite end of the spectrum even more despairing than it already was. When I closed my eyes, I could make those televised images go away, but those songs that described a different vantage point of the same place was more difficult to erase. It was somehow more real. And I was hooked.
Then my mom met and married my pops. I won’t refer to him as anything else even though he was actually my step-dad. It didn’t happen in the time equivalent of how quickly capturing it in one sentence makes it seem, but this piece isn’t about them, it’s about hip-hop. Any rate, back to the lecture at hand (thanks Snoop). He was from what my folks called overseas, which was shorthand for anywhere not the United States. Wherever overseas was in this case, it included a stop in New York and he had family there too. It just made those beats in my head lingered a little bit longer...the boom baps a little bit more sharp…
When his family visited, I’d sit and listen to stories about NYC all night. Especially when my cousin my age was talking. It was like he was describing an alternate timeline that I could imagine myself in being a different person than that quiet, nerdy kid. By then I’d already learned that the good guy wasn’t really first choice for girls in my age range but I could imagine that other me getting a little more play from the non-church girls. You know which ones I’m talking about…the ones in the videos. This was way before the video vixen days so not those. I’m talking about the natural, but confident looking girls who if a guy could stand in the face of that dopeness and still feel like he had a chance, were worth writing a song or two.
My freshman year of high school my cousin ended up moving in with us for a couple of years. Now I had somebody to not only listen to this music with, but also could add context to them. Pre-internet/social media, you had to know somebody or know somebody who knew somebody to catch the real meanings of songs. I remember when I first found out the people mentioned in “The Bridge Is Over” were actually other rappers too. Marley Marl and MC Shan weren’t getting airplay in NC (not even on the short hip-hop block or countdowns) and I couldn’t go into the one place that sold tapes with harder content than the C&C Music Factory kind of “rap”. And I didn’t like rap. Hip-hop was the only one I had eyes for. When I’d draw on clothes and send them back up with him when he went home, I was touching her. That was good enough for me at that point.
The boundaries he pushed, being both a guest and a “foreigner”, expanded my understanding of a lot of things and hip-hop became something I started to live, not just something I listened to. Not in Lumberton though (couldn’t risk embarrassing the fam), but luckily for me I got to leave pretty often for smart kid summer camps. And just like I thought, that hip-hop version of me was pretty dope, so gradually we switched places… the other guy becoming a disguise I’d wear at home and school. Most people from my hometown didn’t even get to meet the real me. In college, they got him though, on steroids. Music by then had spread from NY to LA to the South. I even started meeting girls who knew and appreciated hip-hop as much, if not more than me. I thought we’d be together forever.
Artists that touched my life ranged far and wide. Early on in high-school it was NY-based emcees only. Familiar standouts were KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the rest of the Native Tongue, but also lesser known artists and groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, and Diamond D. The rappers and rap groups I loved early one were those that touched on topics that were affecting the black community at large like drugs, violence, and the fruitless pursuit of material riches at the cost of your integrity. Then came the Wu-Tangs and the more theatrical version of the art form. Pictures with words always held a special place since it let me see those cityscapes I longed to visit. The full list of those are too long to name, but I’ll be digging into the crates over the life of my blog contributions.
Toward the end of high school all of that changed a bit and I was drawn to more vulgar subject matter. The descendants of NWA like Snoop, and the rest of the west coast gangster rap culture held a special place in my heart. It is difficult to say which came first, the music or the change in my personal opinions about the things being portrayed in the music. In hindsight, it was more than likely a case of music influencing how I viewed the world. It did not reflect my environment, that’s for sure, as it only made me aware of and empathetic to the conditions that bred that iteration of the art form as a response. As the hip-hop got less responsible, so did I. I never really had too much love for the Southern/Midwest movements beyond Outkast and Common and skilled lyricists from New York as always had my ear, but I was bound and determined to be a part of the problem, not the solution.
The height of that would revolve around the East Coast/West Coast beef between Death Row and Bad Boy and I was approximately as much off the meter as that period of time was in hip-hop. Poor decisions and all. Tragically, both artists lost their lives in 96 and 97, so things calmed down and coincidentally my recklessness stopped as well. Life imitated art in so many ways, not as a convenient excuse, but rather as a gauge of what was acceptable within my community as I moved away from the teachings from my upbringing, becoming my own man or that’s what I told myself. Up next was the Rockafella period, and along with it a move to DC. Jay-Z and his team were all of about flossing their influence and of course we did our best to imitate that same behavior. Our parties were the dopest, we frequented the hottest spots, and we knew the flyest girls. It was a blast for a couple of years but eventually as with most things it started to lose its luster as a lifestyle. Especially after 9/11, when the importance of those thigs paled in comparison to what making a difference in life looked like and I skated back to NC. It felt empty and I was ready for something a little more filling.
Back in NC my priorities changed. Rather than listening to hip-hop with my folks or living out an approximation of their lives, the average age of my crew got a lot younger. Instead of doing the party thing or trying to prove my street cred, I became a family man. There’s not too much rap about that beyond the random track like Ed. O.G.’s “Be A Father to Your Child”. Still when I got with my girls, we’d listen to music for hours. They couldn’t understand the words of those songs we listened to, of course, but they felt the beats and because by then I was so infused with the spirit, I’d like to think they could feel me in the tracks. As they got older though, I finally gave up on the music I loved. Noticing you’re being observed, looking back on how music truly informs your opinions, and listening to the words has a way of changing you. It’s one thing to think you might be above the reach of cats you don’t know influencing your life (which you’re probably not), but another entirely if you stop to consider that you might affect someone else’s worldview before they get a chance to even experience life. It also didn’t help that around the same time the music started to change. The boom bap was gone, replaced by music that didn’t have any of the soul it had when I was grown up. The artists stopped talking about things and just started saying words. All the space in my life that this music had occupied started to slowly melt away.
I still listen to music, daily, with a vast majority of it made between the mid-80s and early 2000’s. Every once in a while, a new song will move me, usually something one of the girls brings to me to see if they can make that guy they met early on peek out just for a little bit. They know I love that guy, and he doesn’t get out much anymore so it’s always fun when he stops by for a visit. Especially on road trips. But I know deep down, I just don’t love her like I used to. I still consider some of my favorite days the ones when I’m reminded how we used to get down, like while listening to this new Kendrick. But we’ve both changed so much it can never be the same again.
Or can it?
I’m living in her hometown now…same neighborhood, so anything can happen.
I miss her though. If she ever makes it back to being as positive as when she started I’ll even quote her a lyric…call the crib, same number, same hood…it’s all good.
And if you don’t know, now you know