One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music originally appeared in Razorcake #96, released in February 2017. Here is a printable PDF and full text of the article.
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One Punk’s Guide to Rap Music by Chris L. Terry
The art of peer pressure
October 2012. I woke up when it was still dark and biked through Chicago’s Far North Side to catch a bus. I was teaching creative writing for a couple of nonprofits, and would sometimes spend half the day taking mass transit to different meetings, trainings, and classes. This morning, I was going to meet with a high school principal and sign paperwork that would allow two of my students to graduate. I was proud.
From my window seat, I sipped coffee and watched the sun rise over beige buildings, then get sliced by newly bare trees. The bus crawled down to the West Side, the black section of Chicago with less name-recognition than South Side.
I could have used more sleep, but I was excited to give Kendrick Lamar’s new album, good kid m.A.A.d city, my undivided attention during the hour-long ride. I was sucked in immediately by the first song, a precise tale of meeting a girl at a party, sneaking off in his mom’s minivan for a booty call, and getting cornered by gangbangers after parking on the girl’s block.
good kid is about coming-of-age in Compton, California, where violence and vices can suck any young person in. Throughout the album, young Kendrick foams at the mouth after smoking laced weed, gets harassed by cops and gangsters who can’t believe he isn’t gang-affiliated, narrowly escapes arrest after breaking into a seemingly empty house with his friends, and sees one of those friends get shot by a rival.
Kendrick Lamar is an astoundingly insightful and technically gifted rapper. Throughout this album, his perspective is that of an innocent victim of circumstance. This isn’t a deflection. Listening to good kid is an empathetic experience. It makes you feel like these extraordinary bits of bad luck can happen to anyone, and that fifteen minutes can determine the rest of your life.
I’d been thinking a lot about how circumstances can narrow options while teaching high school students and incarcerated kids, who often had a heartbreaking amount of things in common. I led writing exercises that helped my students pinpoint their own turning points. I’d been wondering about mine, too; about things I’m proud to have done, and questions I wish I’d asked.
I was born in March of 1979, two months after the first rap record was ever released. That would be Rapper’s Delight by The Sugarhill Gang. It’s the song that starts off with some funky gibberish: “Hip hop the hibbit the hibbit to the hip hip hop ya don’t stop the rocking…”
You know it.
My parents didn’t play it in the hospital when I was born, but I feel like I’ve been hearing that song for my whole life. In my geekier moments, I’m pleased to be the same age as rap music. We’ve grown up together.
Before I loved punk, I loved rap
It started like most hip hop stories: with educational television.
For those of you not born at the ass end of Generation X, Square One was a public television show that used funny sketches to teach math. I loved it, maybe because my hippyish parents didn’t sanction much TV watching, and I had no real sense of my options.
One evening in 1987, eight-year-old me was watching Square One when this skit came on with funky music and three guys standing outside of a snack truck, shouting about eating lots of burgers. In between verses, one of the guys imitated the beat with his mouth. Out in my suburb, it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
At dinner, I tried to beatbox, too. Spaghetti flew. My dad told me to “stop spitting.” I told him and my mom about what I’d seen—the group was called The Fat Boys. That weekend, Dad took me to a record store in Boston, and I picked out my first tape, The Fat Boys Are Back.
The Fat Boys were a New York rap trio originally known as The Disco Three. Their manager remade them as an approachable, humorous act, and this earned them success in an era when the mainstream still viewed rap as profane and far too black.
In the mid ‘80s, The Fat Boys were in a watch commercial, released the legendary “All You Can Eat” video (set at a Manhattan pizza buffet, of course), collaborated with The Beach Boys, and even starred as nurses in a movie called Disorderlies, which features a boob scene that my goon friends and I rewound a solid dozen times at my ninth birthday party.
The Fat Boys were essentially the prototype for the rapping cartoon animals you see in ads for macaroni and cheese, but I’d say that their music is more than just a novelty. Next time you’ve got a few minutes to kill, go online and pull up some of their videos and TV appearances. There are none more likeable.
To paraphrase Notorious BIG, I let my Fat Boys tape rock until the tape popped, and was talking about it in my third grade class when one of my classmates said, “Oh, you like rap? Do you like DMC? My babysitter likes them.”
This led to my first moment of geeky jealousy, where I suddenly had to know everything about this cool new bit of pop culture.
That night, I asked my dad about DMC.
“Never heard of them,” he said, shaking his head.
My father is a big music fan. By then, he’d already exposed me to music that I still love—Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters—by pulling their LPs from one of his many particle board record crates and cranking them on the living room stereo. Realizing that there was interesting music that he didn’t know about was a big moment. I’d just found out that there was a whole world out there beyond my house.
But Dad wasn’t going to be outdone.
Later that week, I came home from school to find this purple and green record propped up on the hall table. On the cover was a photo of two black guys standing in front of a tall window in leather jackets and fedoras.
Dad swooped in from the kitchen, snapped up the record, and led me to the stereo by the piano.
“They’re not just called DMC,” he said. “They’re called Run-DMC. I guess that’s their names.”
“Which one is DMC?” I asked.
Dad was already sliding the record out of the sleeve. “I don’t know. The clerk at The Coop didn’t tell me that.”
He put the needle down and it was just two voices, louder than I was allowed to speak at home. The first guy shouted, “Now Peter Piper picked peppers,” then the other guy chimed in, “But Run write rhymes.”
They went back and forth a couple more times, then these big drums with bells kicked in. Dad moved to block the record player, a habit from years earlier when my sister and I would dance to Michael Jackson.
Run-DMC’s Raising Hell was my first LP, and I’ve still got that copy, complete with abrasions at the beginning of “It’s Tricky” from the time I almost lost my stereo privileges by trying to scratch it on the family record player.
Most thirty-year-old rap sounds quaint now, but Raising Hell is still a thrilling listen. Rick Rubin’s production is super stripped down. The bulk of the music consists of nothing more than the two MCs’ voices, trading shouted bars over swaggering, bare bones drum beats. Sounds as simple as record scratches, bursts of electric guitar, and extra percussion come in as hooks, but the songs never feel rudimentary or half-cooked. It set the quality bar high for rap records, and I can hear its influence to this day, from the way “My Adidas” inspired tons of rappers to give free product endorsements to giant corporations, to bare bones (and also Rubin-helmed) records like Yeezus by Kanye West.
I’m also reminded of rock bands like AC/DC and The Ramones, who used minimalism for maximum impact. And, speaking of rock’n’roll, the biggest song on Raising Hell is a remake of Aerosmith’s boogie rock classic “Walk This Way,” featuring two members of the band. This single was a smash hit, and is generally credited with (or blamed for) bringing rap music to a white, suburban audience.
The suburbs, and transitive theory
My family—my black father, Irish-American mother, and equally mixed little sister—lived in an upper middle class Boston suburb through the early 1990s. There were hardly any black people around, and I often joke that there were none of us left after two unrelated events: black boy-band New Edition’s breakup and our family’s move to Virginia.
In Massachusetts, most of my classmates were Jewish. Even though we celebrated different holidays, a lot of my friends and I had similar curly hair and full lips. I didn’t feel like I stood out until adolescence set in, and I got old enough to understand that I had a different heritage. I wanted to know more about myself, and rap music was my way into a black identity.
I’ll spare you the oft-told story of rap’s genesis in the black communities of blighted, 1970s New York City, and just say that rap is a black art form. It didn’t cross over to mainstream <ahem, white> audiences for a solid decade, and more than twenty years went by before Eminem showed up and destroyed the idea that white rappers lacked the skills to pay the bills. That cultural fortitude is incredible. It took white people two minutes and seventeen seconds to hijack rock’n’roll from Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the 1950s. And think about how quickly any idea can go global now.
This is all to say that, in suburban Boston, in the late ‘80s, there was still a sense that rap was a dangerous inner city movement. Even when I was only ten years old, classmates would crinkle their noses and ask why I liked it.
This created a conflict for me, a black fish out of water. While listening to controversial music appealed to my budding rebelliousness, I was drawing connections using the transitive theories I was learning in math:
If Rap = Black
and I = Black
then I = Rap
If Rap = Black
and Rap = Not around here, buddy
then Black = Not around here, buddy
If I = Black
and Black = Not around here, buddy
then I was in a hostile environment.
Realest babysitter alive
Preteen-me fed his growing record jones by babysitting. One day, a mother asked me to come by to meet her kids. My mom drove me over. We both felt a little weird going in, because this woman was a stranger, and the first person to ever request an interview. Maybe that’s why things got awkward, fast.
The prospective client wanted to talk to me more than she wanted me to hang out with her kids. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, in the house’s foyer, while late afternoon sun streamed through the window between the tall plants in her front yard. My mom stood by the door. I was eleven, mainly concerned with hunting down R-rated movies, and completely unaware of the way a white adult might take my tall frame, scowl, and pubescent deep voice.
I told her I liked rap. She asked if I liked MC Hammer, who was all over the radio that year. I screwed my scowl tighter and said, “MC Hammer’s a sellout.”
My mom’s palm slowly rose toward her forehead. The interview ended shortly after. In the car, my mom told me I’d blown it. I said I didn’t care.
These days, rap is the dominant form of music in the United States, so it’s hard to believe that, a quarter of a century ago, a debate was raging in the hip hop scene over whether rap music should cross over and go pop, or maintain its cultural and artistic integrity in the underground.
Keeping it real can mess up your business—be it music or babysitting—but as someone who linked his hip hop bonafides to his wobbly new black identity, I skewed toward the most hardcore gangsta and political rap I could find. This led to conversations like this with my father:
Me: “Who’s Farrakhan?”
Dad: “Some clown who makes people who need help feel better about themselves.”
Me: “If ‘Ho’ is short for ‘Whore,’ is it spelled W-H-O, like ‘who?’”
Dad: “I think it’s just spelled H-O, but don’t say that word. Your mother will be upset.”
Me: “Okay. … But, that messes up alphabetizing it.”
Dad: “I don’t think ‘ho’ is in the dictionary, but really, it’s best to just not say it.”
I heard “ho” in gangsta rap. The most popular stuff was based in L.A., where NWA had helped to kick off the movement a few years before with their album Straight Outta Compton. Compton garnered a lot of controversy for luridly violent lyrics and a song called “Fuck Tha Police.” NWA were nothing if not direct, and grade school me relished every cuss word.
I heard about Farrakhan, the black Muslim leader who claims to have been abducted by Jewish aliens, in political rap like Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and the X-Clan. In addition, they discussed black issues of the day, which are sadly identical to current concerns: state-sanctioned police violence, mass incarceration, and the cycle of disenfranchisement in poor neighborhoods.
The gangstas thought pop rappers like MC Hammer were wimps. The political guys thought they were sellouts. And they did sell. Think of songs like “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, “Bust a Move” by Young MC, and “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice. To this day, they fill dance floors at otherwise awkward social events like weddings and work parties, and for good reason: they’re catchy, energetic, and patently inoffensive—designed to bring people together, for better or for worse.
Rap vs. Hip hop
Generally, rap is the music while hip hop is the culture that surrounds it.
To call music hip hop is to tie it to certain aspects of the culture. For some, hip hop must include the original Four Elements of 1970s hip hop: MCing/rapping, graffiti, b-boying/breakdancing, and DJing. For others, hip hop’s Golden Age (beginning with the release of Run DMC’s Raising Hell in 1986 and ending in late 1992 with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic) is the standard. This era’s rap had sample-based music and vocals which emphasized lyrical intricacy over melody. Some of rap’s most iconic music came out at this time.
Preserving either of these eras in amber goes against their innovative spirit. That’s why I prefer to say “rap;” it leaves room for the new ideas that constantly spring up.
With that in mind, this narrative is moving into the 1990s, the most formative years of my life, and what many fans would say was the best decade for rap. Since one of my favorite current groups, Shabazz Palaces, says, “Every time we move, we do it straight up,” I’ll try my damnedest not to come off as stuck in the past.
I mean, the ‘90s sucked
Minimum wage was $4.25 and CDs cost seventeen dollars. You’d have to work half a day to gamble on an album that might have three good songs. Meanwhile, only a few people had the internet, and the ones I knew who did weren’t into rap. I got music by dubbing tapes from my friends’ cool older brothers, and spending my babysitting, birthday, and Christmas money on tapes and CDs. My dad, forever supportive of a fellow music fan, would always help me stretch my cash, and would usually let me play my new tapes in the car. I loved riding with him.
It was 1991, the day after Christmas, and I was sitting in the family car while my dad was in the grocery store. I’d stayed behind to listen to “Check the Rhime” by A Tribe Called Quest, the song it had taken me most of the drive to cue up on my new tape.
The Source and every other scrap of hip hop media that I could find said this album was a big deal, and I liked “Check the Rhime” when The Fly Girls danced to a snatch of it on In Living Color. It was cool without being “too cool for you,” and struck a rare balance between sounding refined and lighthearted. The jazz samples gave the music a warmth that I will forever associate with car heaters, ski jackets, and other defenses against the winter cold up north.
I turned the music up a bit, looking through the windshield at the gray snowbanks and the bundled-up suburbanites picking their way across the icy lot and into the market. LL Cool J and Terminator X had songs about pumping hip hop in your car, and I felt like I was taking part in a rite of passage by doing the same. I nodded my head to the beat.
Then Dad—the only black man in sight—came out of the store and hurried toward the car. In the driver’s seat, he frowned, turned the music way down, and said, “We can’t play it this loud.”
“Why?” I asked. “It’s just the car. It won’t bug Mom.”
“But it can still disturb people,” he said, pulling out into the light holiday traffic.
This was just a few months after Los Angeles cops were filmed beating Rodney King during a traffic stop, and the story had been in the news all year. Still, I failed to connect that nightmarish, grainy video to our lazy morning, even though both revolved around black people behind the wheel. Blasting rap in the car, even something as benign as A Tribe Called Quest, could draw the type of negative attention that throws you to the ground, with half a dozen cops going to town on your head, ribs, and crotch with nightsticks.
I couldn’t verbalize it when I was twelve, but I remember finding A Tribe Called Quest accessible in a way that other rap groups weren’t. Tribe had a middle class perspective, and seemed like guys I could be friends with. Seeing some of my own experience and potential in their music gave it more meaning, and began to add dimension to my idea of myself as a black person. It got me thinking that the experiences I was already having were black, because I was having them.
The album with “Check the Rhime” is called The Low End Theory. It’s loaded with spacious, jazz-based music, and lyrics about dealing with the group’s newfound success. “Fame is hard” albums can be a drag, so a lot of people ride for the follow-up, 1993’s anthemic Midnight Marauders. I prefer Low End Theory because it was my first, but both albums are essential.
A Tribe Called Quest were part of a colorful, bohemian-leaning New York crew called the Native Tongues, that also included De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, and actual women—Monie Love and Queen Latifah. They were among the first well-known alternative rap artists, and pioneered a jazz-rap sound that inspired some other crucial ‘90s albums like Gang Starr’s deadpan Hard to Earn and Daily Operation, and Digable Planet’s slept-on, Black Power-chic 1994 swan song, Blowout Comb.
I used to make myself mixtapes
There’d be rap on one side and alternative music on the flip—Nirvana, Fugazi, and the punk bands I’d found by working backwards from them. I couldn’t figure out how to flow the two styles together, so they existed on opposite sides of the tape.
We had a boombox in my middle school homeroom, and I was quietly playing the rap side of my latest mix one day. The first song was “‘93 ‘til Infinity” by Souls Of Mischief, a crew of motormouth Bay Area teenagers who’d got their hands on the second most iconic horn blast in hip hop history (The first? “They Reminisce Over You” by Pete Rock & CL Smooth). This guy Dave who used to wear his older brother’s Doc Martens but then started hanging out with the preps screwed up his face and said, “You like rap? I thought all you skaters just liked classic rock.”
Dave may have been the last teenager on earth to learn that hip hop and skateboarding were cross-pollinating—maybe because hip hop had become a global force, maybe because the new popularity of street skating brought skateboarding to racially diverse urban areas. Regardless, I shrugged, pointed from the speaker to my griptape-shredded sneakers, and went back to bobbing my head and trying to flirt with the only girl at school who had Manic Panic’d hair.
Souls Of Mischief were part of Hieroglyphics, a young rap crew who went independent early on, and continue to collaborate. In addition to the first Souls album, give Del the Funky Homosapien’s first two albums (I Wish My Brother George Was Here and No Need for Alarm) a spin—he’s got a bottomless vault of P-Funk samples, and a great sense of everyman humor, like on the song “Sleepin’ On My Couch.” Want to get grittier? Casual’s Fear Itself will do you right, especially “Lose in the End” about the People’s Park riots. Maybe it was being from the skateboard-friendly Bay Area, but I think their popularity with skaters was indicative of a bigger cultural shift.
A lot of white ‘90s music mashed up different genres, created by different races of people. The Beastie Boys alternated between rapping about arcane ‘70s pop culture, playing instrumental soul, and ripping through hardcore songs. Beck rapped lackadaisical non sequiturs over a bluesy slide guitar. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion played a dumpster-dived mashup of Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown.
This global magpie ethos was liberating for me at the time. It made me feel like my blackness and my whiteness didn’t have to be oil and water, and that the right song off the Beasties’ Ill Communication could create a bridge between The Meat Puppets and Wu-Tang on one of my mixtapes.
It’s funny to feel nostalgic for that era now. At the time, white musicians’ clumsy appropriation seemed like an effort to prove that they weren’t closed-minded racists. But the movement that they set in motion has evolved. Now, the fake Jamaican accent in a third wave ska song, or the Beastie Boys’ take on meditative Buddhist chanting can sound more like colonization than liberation.
1, 2, 3 and to the 4
It was near the end of eighth grade and I was skateboarding in a train station parking lot with a few guys from school. It was one of four commuter rail stops in our town, and we loved grinding and sliding our boards on this one’s tall yellow curbs. This day, something I’d only read about in Thrasher Magazine had happened: girls came to hang out.
Melanie and Kate used to run with the preppy crowd but, they’d come into this school year wearing trendy alternative clothing, like black bellbottoms and super-long knit hats, and started hanging with the skaters. I wasn’t one of the cool skaters, so this didn’t do much but confuse me. I wanted a girlfriend, bad, but I thought being a skater was about being an outsider. Melanie and Kate weren’t outsiders.
They were sitting in the middle of a small traffic island, twisting a pair of headphones to play into both of their ears. I was gearing up to try and impress them by doing a noseslide on the curb at their feet.
Then I heard Melanie rap along with her music, “1, 2, 3 and to the 4.”
Kate smiled and added, “Snoop Doggy-Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the door.”
Later, I’d read that Dr. Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic changed everything for rap. It glossed up gangsta rap’s sound (but not lyrics) and got it on the radio. Commercial ambition and antisocial subject matter started to work hand in hand, and rap hit an even bigger audience, leading to all sorts of awkward shit, like white kids at my Boston school assuming black L.A.’s drawn-out, nasal cadences as they rapped Snoop Dogg songs.
Dre’s biggest albums—The Chronic, Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Style, and NWA’s Efil4zaggin—are still incredible feats of production, with deeply funky samples layered one on top of the other and blown-out to hi-def cinematic proportion, but the lyrics are hard to take if you’ve ever cared about someone who isn’t a cis straight man. There are a lot of bitches and hoes in there, never mind the oddly homoerotic disses (they tell a lot of people to suck their dicks).
I wasn’t thinking that big that afternoon at the train station. When I heard Melanie and Kate rapping, my board clattered into the street. I marveled at how I spent so much time trying to get my own thing going, away from the rich snobs who made me feel excluded at school, and now two of them were hijacking my favorite skate spot, singing along to a tape I’d owned for months. That same broadsided feeling would pop up later in life, too, when drunk randos tried to start trouble at punk shows, or competitive grad school classmates started asking too many questions about what I was writing, but this was the first time I’d ever felt like my sanctuary had been invaded, maybe because it was my first sanctuary.
My dad had been out of work for a while, and my parents decided to move us to his inexpensive hometown: Richmond, Virginia. I’d lived in the same house for my whole life, and definitely did not want to leave. It took us over a year to actually go, and in that time, there was some discussion of staying. This uncertainty made that year feel like an eternity, and by the end, all I wanted was stability and close friends nearby, but did not have either.
The last couple rap tapes I got before finding out about the move were The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and Kill My Landlord by The Coup, and I played them for all of ninth grade, trying to recapture the innocence and excitement I felt when I plunked down my birthday money and bought them at the Tower Records on Newbury St. They were cool. They were things I’d sought out on my own, and I trusted myself.
The Coup are a Marxist hip hop collective from Oakland. Most of their cheeky protests and references to Maoism went over my head, but their music was organic-feeling funk, and MC Boots Riley’s sarcastic tone matched my mood.
Almost twenty-five years later and I’ve yet to take The Pharcyde’s first album out of rotation. If streaming counts, I’ve owned it on five formats. The Pharcyde were a quartet of cartoon-voiced young guys from Inglewood, California who traded fast rhymes about madcap everyday adventures—fucking each other’s moms, crushing on teachers, waiting for the guy with weed to show up—over super upbeat music. Listening to the album is like watching Roadrunner and Tom and Jerry at the same time, plus it’s loaded with funny quotables like, “I got more flavors than 7/11 Slurpees, and if Magic can admit he got AIDS, then fuck it, I got herpes.”
Even moreso than A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde sounded like a close-knit group of friends clowning each other on the bus, and I wanted that in my life so bad.
Do you wanna get $
Things did not go well in Richmond. We lived with my grandparents, then got an apartment. My Ivy League-educated father still couldn’t find work. I could read out loud without stopping, so I got put in Honors English where we memorized lists of verbs. I got a girlfriend and she cheated on me. I felt like a loser, and like there was no point in risking more humiliation by trying to win.
My favorite rap groups put out uninspired new albums. Puff Daddy and Mase ruled the airwaves with slick and flossy rap that celebrated overcoming adversity, however briefly. I felt like they were rubbing their success in my face. I hated it.
A skater friend took me to a five-dollar punk show at a club in our neighborhood. I loved seeing band members step from the crowd onto the stage to play weird and aggressive music that sounded like inside my head on the nights I couldn’t sleep. It was inclusive. I felt like I could do it. I was hooked.
I spent the next three years exclusively into punk and hardcore, peppered with record store guy rock like T. Rex and Big Star. My band drove up and down the coast playing skate parks and gutted tire shops for thirty people. I wrote zines and printed them for free in friends’ parents’ offices. By doing, I was succeeding, and that was something I didn’t think I could achieve elsewhere.
I spent those three years denying myself as a black person. I surrounded myself with white people who didn’t listen to black music. At home, I’d put on headphones and sneak Curtis Mayfield, or worn-out tapes of old rap favorites. I felt awkward around black people, like I was letting them and myself down, but didn’t know how to stop.
I floated in a world that did not seem sustainable, and wanted to create a safety net. Reveling in not having a net requires a fearlessness that’s contrary to my black middle class upbringing. We’ve just arrived and always feel ourselves teetering. So, I couldn’t give myself over to the nihilism of the traveling gutter punks (or gangsters), and I didn’t have the privileged comfort of the white punks who treated this bare-bones lifestyle as an ethical choice.
In my blackout, I missed the Wu-Tang Clan’s murky, mystical, and unimpeachable run of mid ‘90s solo albums (Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Links, Ironman). I missed the way the Notorious BIG could say so much with the space between his perfectly chosen, simple words (Ready to Die). I missed the grand detail of Nas’s street narratives (Illmatic). I missed social and cultural touchpoints that would have made it easier for me to relate to the black people I now saw everywhere in Richmond, where they’d never been in Boston.
White hip hop fans bum rushed my life
The harmonica-playing stoner at my bakery job stopped staring into the giant stainless steel bread mixer for long enough to say, “Man, Wyclef is like the next Bob Marley.”
The music on the stereo was a mix of old soul and the boho rap I used to like, shared with an island accent, so I picked up his solo debut, The Carnival, and found a used copy of The Score, the blockbuster second album by him and Lauryn Hill’s group The Fugees. I played these albums before bed, thinking that the Native Tongues had passed Wyclef the torch, and feeling that particular punk rock guilt of loving something mainstream.
I went to visit Boston and my friend Mike had spent the last few years buying records. We sat in his bedroom, where he had set up DJ-grade turntables, and he spun Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Blackstar, a collab album by a couple of underground giants from Brooklyn. They were part of a scene that existed in opposition to what was on the radio, and I found myself agreeing with their scorn for commercial rap, but stopping short of wondering about the long-term possibilities of existing solely to resist. I chased the ripples of their work outward, and got the answers before I could raise the questions when I threw on Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, a classic album which explores black life, starting off by saying:
“We are hip hop
So hip hop is going where we going
So the next time you ask yourself where hip hop is going
Ask yourself, where am I going? How am I doing?
Til you get a clear idea.”
A goth hockey jock I met in college (Yes, this was the late ‘90s) invited me to his dorm. His white, proto-Juggalo roommate put on Aquemini, the third album by Outkast, the Atlanta duo who put southern rap on the map.
I remember feeling right at home with Outkast’s drawls and humid, soulful music, until the roommate started complaining about how loud “the niggers on (his) dorm floor are every weekend.”
My goth friend and I showered him with, “What the fuck?”s and I left shortly after, borrowing the CD, torn between feeling like this racist didn’t deserve great black music, and thinking I should return it, so he could work out the kinks in his worldview, one unrepentantly black and eccentric Outkast track at a time.
We could have fixed the van’s tape deck, but…
We were a bunch of broke twenty-two-year-olds and that money could go to the bean burritos and cheap beer that sustained our band on tour.
We figured that no tape deck meant no arguing over music, so we listened to the radio. The early 2000s were an innovative time for rap. Outkast was simultaneously getting quirkier and more popular with their Prince-obsessed album Stankonia. Virginia spawned two futuristic producers: the Neptunes, which featured a young Pharrell Williams and created pulsing, ticking minimalist beats for Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and The Clipse; and Timbaland, who composed gigantic, shuddering synth opuses for Bubba Sparxxx, Justin Timberlake, and Missy Elliott, a funny, body-positive, hard-partying woman rapper from Virginia Beach.
When Missy’s “Get Ur Freak On” or “Grindin’” by The Clipse comes on, I’m transported back to the bench seat in that beat-up band van, where I’m glugging gas station coffee and staring out the window at the gray interstate, thinking there was fun in the world that I could finally have.
Do You Want More?!!!??
My band broke up after a hundred-day tour and, at twenty-four, I was feeling like the old guy at the party in Richmond. I decided to join my sister and some of my friends in New York City, where they were either working for book publishers or just able to go to the store and not run into half a dozen people they could gossip about.
When I left, some of my Richmond friends said, “Whatever. See you in six months.”
Being around people who couldn’t imagine living elsewhere made me feel like a dick for thinking Richmond wasn’t good enough. Who was I to want more?
I started to understand the aspirational rap that had turned me off in the mid-‘90s—how it strived, and celebrated finally having nice shit. I didn’t need to reach Mase’s “On a yacht, nigga/fuck a boat that row” level of stunting, but I wanted more than just white people around me. More than getting trashed four nights a week. More than minimum wage, to use more than my hands and back.
Kanye West made me feel like that was okay.
His first album, The College Dropout had just come out. Gangsta rap was popular, and people didn’t know what to make of this professor’s son who rapped about self-consciousness, stupid retail jobs, and HBCUs. He was a spazzy preppy underdog who refused to choose sides and worked with conscious, underground rappers like Common and slick mainstreamers like Jay-Z.
It made perfect sense to me.
Kanye has always been an egotistical loudmouth, who interrupts awards shows to give his opinion on the nominees, and says the first thing on his mind during a TV interview. This arrogance is the main reason that his haters don’t like him, but I see it as a form of self-love.
When Kanye says that his new record’s, “not album of the year. It’s album of a life,” I hear another black hero like Muhammad Ali and Prince, who needs to emphasize his prowess to close the gap between his abilities and a world that expects and accepts so little from black people. We have to be twice as good to be recognized. We have to shout twice as loud to be heard. We have to believe in ourselves, because no one else does.
I can’t decide if this form of self-love is in line with punk’s empowering Do It Yourself autonomy, or against its egalitarian humbleness, but it sums up my conflict as a black punk rocker. Ultimately, I hope to draw from Kanye and, say, Fugazi: working to achieve the best while trying to see all as equals.
I played The College Dropout in the moving van that I drove to Brooklyn. When I pulled the CD out of the stereo, Kanye’s chipmunk soul beats were on half the songs on the radio—from Cam’ron’s strange, funny, and vivid Harlem narratives on Purple Haze, to Common’s golden, soulful tributes to black life on Be.
Kanye evolved as I grew up. I got chills when “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” a song about the cognitive dissonance needed to be a consumer and an oppressed person, debuted on the radio while I was in a Manhattan office building, realizing that I hated my first job that didn’t involve a cash register. I listened to Graduation during my first vacation as an adult. I played Yeezus during an insomniac run along the Chicago lakeshore, trying to beat the anxiety out of my head as I anticipated the release of my first novel.
From forlorn autotune to gospel interpolations, Kanye always tries something risky, and always proves himself to be ahead of the game. While I don’t love all of the trends that he has kicked off, I can’t hate the innovator for his imitators—especially when his music has followed me, eliciting some of my most powerful emotional reactions to art. I’ll cry when I hear a new Kanye song, just like I did the first time I saw Prince step on a stage in person, or like I do almost every time I hear President Obama speak. I feel overcome with emotion because they make things feel possible.
While his music and persona have grown increasingly erratic in the last few years, I could still make a strong case for any Kanye West album. His masterpiece is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a proggy epic made in the emotionally drained years after his mother died. Every song’s production is gigantic and unique, and his lyrics are the most extreme examples of the tension between his arrogance and self-awareness. On a song like “Power,” he sounds triumphant and suicidal all at once, and listening is the audio equivalent of speeding off a cliff.
One time for me, one time for the DJ
Some of my strongest memories are brief snatches of running—a view that I passed, and the song that was on my earphones at the time. I see the sun through the trees near the soccer fields at the bottom of Prospect Park whenever I hear the part of Lil Wayne’s “We Takin’ Over” freestyle where he careens off the rails, ditching the song’s stunning, complicated phrasing, and spitting choppy words, “Beef. Yes. Chest. Feet. Tag. Bag. Blood. Sheets. Yikes. Yeeks. Great. Scott. Storch, can I borrow your yacht?”
I’d finish these runs relaxed, with my head full of ideas. I was in my late twenties and looking for the creative thing that would balance the responsible adult life that I’d been building, to give me a stronger sense of purpose, and bring me the fulfillment that I wasn’t finding.
Lil Wayne is a New Orleans MC who got his start as a teenager in the delightfully sleazy Cash Money/Hot Boyz crew, the same party animals who brought us “Bling Bling” and “Back That Azz Up.” Wayne had a bunch of hits, but no one had him marked as a craft-based contender for Best Rapper Alive. This changed in the mid ‘00s, when he released a nonstop stream of psychedelic, word-drunk mixtapes for free online. Releases like Da Drought 3 and Dedication 2 were loaded with tangled raps about addiction, depression… and blowjobs over the hottest beats of the day. Maybe Google’s algorithms know my interests too well, but Wayne’s name comes up first when I search the names of some of those original songs.
50 Cent may have been the first rapper to get a record deal by releasing mixtapes, but Wayne proved that releasing music for free online could be a smart artistic and business move, and it still has a strong hold on the ever-flailing record industry.
I wound up in Chicago, getting a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. During afternoons spent writing, I’d hope that my most imaginative pages would find their way out of my computer and flood the world like Wayne’s music.
A word about mixtapes
At first, mixtapes were actual cassette tapes, made by taste-making hip hop DJs, and blending together the latest hits with rarities and tracks from up-and-comers. Over the decades, the format morphed. Now, a mixtape is a rap album that’s available for free online. As record sales drop across the industry, a lot of recent artists have built careers around releasing album-quality mixtapes for free, and making money by touring and shilling for different companies.
Regardless of how you feel about seeing your favorite rapper in a soda commercial, mixtapes give the musicians greater artistic control. They’ve no longer got the label in their ear, telling them to hop on trends or collaborate with popular artists. Instead, you get the musician’s complete vision, and for free.
Some great examples:
Run the Jewels, II. This is the safest bet for a punk rocker who wants to hear some current rap. Killer Mike is a community activist and former Outkast protégé. El-P used to run the label Def Jux, whose motto was “Independent as Fuck.” El-P, known for a dystopian sci-fi style aesthetic, produces beats that make you feel like you can rip the roof off a Chevy. Listening, you get the sense that they’re close friends. Both guys rap, trading rapid-fire bars while bringing out the best in each other—Killer Mike’s southern bounce adding structure to El-P’s clots of words while El’s metaphors inspire Mike to dig a bit deeper personally. Their shit-talk is pro wrestling level ridiculous, and they rap about police violence, government surveillance, and wack rappers with a shockingly personal touch.
Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap and Coloring Book. Chance is an A-list rapper who is not signed to a label, and does not sell his music. He’s a nimble MC with a voice like a jazz trumpet and a penchant for warm-hearted positivity that rarely cloys, because he knows how to balance it with insight and ambivalence. Acid Rap is him being like, “I’m twenty, some of my friends have died, my folks want me to go to college, but I need to drop acid and figure out what these dreams are that I’m chasing.” Coloring Book came out three years later, and has a more nostalgic feel. The songs about god skew too far toward music theatre for my taste, but you can practically see the lightning bugs as Chance raps about summers past.
Danny Brown, XXX. Danny Brown’s a Detroit rapper whose high-pitched yawp of a voice obscures that fact that he’s a technically gifted rapper who draws super-personal connections between trauma and partying. Before he got on the festival circuit by rapping over bombastic EDM, he released XXX, a Wu-Tang raw collection of songs like “Scrap or Die,” about scavenging for sellable scrap metal in abandoned houses.
Das Racist: Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man. The New York duo of Heems and Kool AD made brainy and stoned rap satirizing to-the-minute hipster culture and people’s reactions to their brownness—Heems is Indian-American, Kool is Latino. My favorite song is “You Can Sell Anything,” where Heems raps, “What good is all your money if your style’s still tasteless?/I celebrate the fact I moved into my momma’s basement.”
Shabazz Palaces: Black Up. Shabazz Palaces didn’t release their stuff for free online, but should be mentioned here for their contrary nature. In an age where artists cultivate an air of accessibility through social media, Shabazz did the opposite. No one knew who they were for two EPs, and their Afrofuturistic music had to be taken at face value. Come to find out that they’re a Seattle-based duo, featuring a former member of Digable Planets. They combine booming old school drums with space age synths and live African percussion, and Black Up is one of my favorite albums because it sounds like a cool breeze in the dead of a stifling hot night.
I was insecure because I realized/ain’t no room for the civilized
The world came at me hard in 2012. My parents’ money troubles had them in their least stable position yet, and I wanted to help but hardly could. I’d just finished grad school and was juggling part-time teaching jobs while finishing my first book. I was seeking a stable life as a creative person—two things that can feel mutually exclusive. I felt greedy for following my heart.
Killer Mike’s RAP Music spoke to this conflict. Mike was in his late thirties and contemplating retiring from rap when he first paired with producer El-P to make a classic album that shoveled personality and pathos into the hard-hitting political rap of Ice Cube and Public Enemy.
RAP Music (RAP being an acronym for Rebellious African People) spoke to my conflicts—the excitement of small victories, nostalgia for simpler times with your family, the ways that race-based trauma can ripple through generations, and the dissonance between loving where you’re from and hating the way that it treats its citizens.
It felt like a perfect portrait of the conflicted black adulthood that I was seeing in myself, and I played it over and over—while cooking on my one day off from a sixty-hour workweek, while staring out over houses from the Red Line train, and while running along the Chicago lakeshore and staring at the distant downtown. The trunk-rattling beats dredged up history and pushed me forward, embedding Mike’s nimble cascade of lyrics into my own consciousness.
I felt like I’d found the friend who’d tell me to do better, who I’d sometimes tell to shut up. I played it over and over. I did better. I shut up. This record was me, exaggerated, in the old-school Cadillac I’d never drive. Like Mike says in the title track, “This is what my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”
Chris L. Terry’s debut novel Zero Fade was on Best of 2013 lists by Kirkus Reviews and Slate.com, and shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. He lives in Los Angeles, and has contributed to Razorcake since 2006.
Art Fuentes: Born in East L.A., like every good Mexican boy, Art was raised in the Imperial Valley of California, where he was bathed in cartoon and monster movie glory from both sides of the border. He began scribbling at a young age and later found out he could get paid meager wages to do artwork and illustration. He currently lives in Orange County CA and spends his time spilling ink on his drawing board and trying to sell his paintings.
Razorcake is a bi-monthly, Los Angeles-based fanzine that provides consistent coverage of do-it-yourself punk culture. We believe in positive, progressive, community-friendly DIY punk, and are the only bona fide 501(c)(3) non-profit music magazine in America. We do our part.
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