Back in the days when I was a teenager.
Before I had status and before I had a pager.
You could find the Abstract listening to hip-hop.
My pops used to say it reminded him of bebop.
So begins A Tribe Called Quest’s legendary album The Low End Theory. While I never attained status or a pager, you could find me listening to hip-hop throughout my teens. My pops knew nothing of bebop and usually said something to the effect of, “YOU like that rap stuff.” To be fair to my dad, it was a little odd for a nerdy white 14-year-old to be walking around Cheyenne, Wyoming spitting rhymes like it was Brooklyn. Fifteen years later, I was at a club in Washington DC. At 3 A.M., the DJ spun The Low End Theory beginning to end. It only took the first three bass notes to get everyone with glasses rushing the floor.
Like lattés, Baby Bjørns, and bicycles, we bookish white boys love hip-hop. While Maryland Delegate Justin Ross wrote white listeners were “excited to be transported to a place where people brag about gunplay, use racial epithets continually and talk freely about dealing drugs” in a Washington Post Op-Ed in 2007, I never listened to hip-hop to create an aural avatar in an exhilarating, Wire-istic other world. In fact, I spent years on the fence; debating whether Prodigy’s lyrical skills were so good I could ignore basically everything else Mobb Deep stood for. I also don’t feel there is anything particularly novel or funny about my love of the music. I love hip-hop in a very real, non-ironic way. I credit the work of alternative rap artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Mos Def for allowing this nerdy white kid, who grow up in a place where square dancing was part of the school curriculum, to approach hip-hop in a manner that was unguarded, and sincere, resulting in a much more nuanced appreciation of urban culture.
While Fab 5 Freddy was bowling with Village hipsters in 1981, most white listeners came to hip-hop a few years later, by way of movies and music videos. I remember a friend of my older brother’s walking around the neighborhood with a piece of cardboard for breakdancing. This was probably somewhere around 1984, when movies like Breakin’ were coming out. It seemed like an adolescent male fad similar to Chinese Throwing Stars and saying “Psyche!”, not a culture. While breakdancing largely faded, the music managed to stick around. By 1986, Def Jam records had successfully formulated its brand of rap ‘n’ roll—simple brag-filled raps over distorted guitar riffs, with the conscious insertion of the word “rock” wherever possible. Def Jam’s breakthrough moment was the video for Run-DMC’s remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”.
It was this song and video that first set my brother and me at odds over music. Up until then, I had pretty much gone along with what he thought was cool, groups like Def Leppard, AC/DC and Van Halen. He said, “The parts with Aerosmith are cool, but that rap stuff…come on, you really like that?” With Run-DMC continually stepping over the toxic twins, the video showed the world that Hip-Hop was the new Rock and Roll. I got it. My brother didn’t. He was six years older than me and, in my eyes, well on the way to becoming a moldy fig.
It would take a white artist to net Def Jam the world’s first #1 hip-hop album: The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill crashed the suburbs in the fall of 1987. While the Beastie Boys were white, their overt coolness and over-the-top partying were even more alienating to me than some black kids from Queens. I knew meathead party animals like the Beastie Boys—I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. We were simply incompatible. While the Beastie Boys where drugging girls with Spanish Fly, I was hoping to hook them into long-term relationships with Camus and Khalil Gibran.
This is when rap hit nationwide. The rush to tap this new market led to an age of innovation in the music, with new subgenres emerging on an almost weekly basis. Still, each of these styles was problematic for me. There were hardcore New York MCs like EPMD and Rakim. While their combative lyrics were impressive, no scrawny kid in Wyoming could really relate to them. Listening to Rakim without lifting weights just felt wrong, and I would rather feign a stomach ache or play volleyball with the girls than hit the weight room in gym.
N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (1988) would become the template for a number of late ‘80s rap albums. But gangsta rap was altogether too misogynistic and boorish, not to mention the ubiquitous use of the “N” word—I know first-hand there is nothing more awkward than pulling up to a red light next to a black person, while rocking out to “Gangsta, Gangsta” in a Subaru station wagon. The same meatheads that kicked ass to Beastie Boys now fashioned themselves as high plains gangstas, using vivid depictions of life in Compton or Houston’s Fifth Ward as audio adrenaline for their cow tipping sessions—damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.
The late ‘80s also saw the rise of political rappers like Public Enemy and KRS-One. While labeled as divisive, their political statements actually made their music more accessible to a kid like me. Like all teenagers I was sure that the world was far more screwed up than adults cared to admit and had no trouble empathizing with anyone speaking out against the oppression of an authority figure—be it a police officer, a teacher, or the poor sap dolling out change at the arcade. In 1991, the video of Rodney King’s beating validated a lot of what political and gangsta rappers had been saying for years, so suddenly liking rap was the socially conscious thing to do. The sticking point was that these artists were unwavering in their “us vs. them” mentality and a nerdy white kid, no matter how progressive, was always partially “them”. I remember how I felt, when at one of the most poignant moments on Goodie Mob’s debut album, Cee-Lo said, “Yeah, it’s true Uncle Sam wants you to be a devil too / See he’s jealous, ‘cause his skin is a curse.” Damn Cee-Lo, that one hurt. Of course, I could rationalize that by skin, he meant an oppressive political and economic system, but at least part of me felt that the artist I loved hated who I was.
There was plenty of “pop” rap try to sell a version of hip-hop to a broader audience through dance music. But artists like Heavy D or MC Hammer were too shallow to be considered anything other than disposable music. Vanilla Ice would become the most despised of all: While everyone has a laugh when they see him now, I know more than one kid who cruised around town with a fade—yes, white kids with fades, complete with initials shaved in the side—sporting clown pants and a Miami Hurricanes windbreaker.
It is into this milieu that De La Soul dropped the video for “Me, Myself & I”. Prince Paul set the stage with a simple statement: “If you take three glasses of water, and put different food coloring in them, you have many different colors, but it’s still the same old water.” Here was the multiculturalism I had been brought up with. To me the song and video were a revelation—the lack of pretense, the brilliantly executed Parliament sample, the idiosyncratic rhyme style—these guys were artists, and their experience in school wasn’t that different from mine. Granted, I never had a classmate’s wig split by an errant record, but I did have teachers just as willing to exclude students for the mildest of eccentricities. I too dreaded sitting at my desk before class, surrounded by people who thought cynicism, bluster, and intentionally cultivated ignorance constituted some sort of a style. What alternative rap offered was common ground. I always felt like these guys were more or less like me, just from a different neighborhood, and a little—OK, maybe a lot—cooler.
For the first time in my life, I was listening to rap and not wondering, what the people rapping would think of me, or what people would think of me for listening to it. I was coming purely from a place of trying to understand and connect with an art form. I did find it hard to weave through all of the inside jokes and pointless skits of De La’s debut album Three Feet High and Rising, but it was certainly more interesting than all of the hollow, self-indulgent rot my brother was listening to.
It was A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory that really turned me into a hip-hop head. The quality of the album and the universality of its core themes kept it in my Walkman for months. While the album flashed its share of braggadocio, it was also peppered with pithy aphorisms. There are timeless lines like, “How far should you go to gain respect? Ummm, that’s kinda simple just remain your own or you’ll be crazy, sad and alone,” and possibly the most concise maxim on the need to balance the intellectual with the visceral—“What is a poet? All balls, no cock.” There also seemed to be a much more progressive attitude towards women and the “N” word is only used once. This does not mean that they down played their urban roots; there just wasn’t such a focus on the sensational or controversial. It was music dealt with universal ideas from an urban perspective, producing music with integrity, as well as broad appeal.
There was a flood of great alternative rap records in the 1990s. Suddenly, a nerdy white kid like me could fully engage with hip-hop records and appreciate them purely as art. Soon, I would be buying mixed tapes through the mail, reading The Source, and making bold proclamations as to who did and did not represent “the real hip-hop”. Instead of memorizing sports stats, kids like me could rattle off verse after verse of our favorite MCs to the amazement of all my classmates, who asked, “YOU like that rap stuff?” In time, I begin to appreciate the artistry of rappers regardless of their genre.
With hindsight, critics have since viewed this movement as a failure. The standard line is that alternative rap downplayed urban roots in order to cross over to white audiences, but ultimately failed because the music was too esoteric for the rap audience and could not compete with alternative rock music for the rock audience. On the first point, I find it difficult to put a song like the Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” in the same category as “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” On the second, I will say that there was a bizarre fetish for making “rock” tracks. I always hated those—if I wanna rock, I’ll put on some Fugazi. Where alternative rap did fail was when it started being conscious of the label and tried to prove its worth by making non-hip-hop music; Common’s Resurrection stands on its own feet, there is no need to sing or play instruments. There were also very unrealistic expectations as to the potential record sales of these artists due to the massive sales of more mainstream rap artists. If De La Soul were compared to Jawbreaker instead of Jay-Z, they would have been seen as an extremely successful.
A couple of years later I would move to New Orleans, which was like moving to a different country. I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me, and I often had to ask the girl at Taco Bell to repeat herself a couple of times to understand what she was saying. But I didn’t assume that every black kid I saw was a threat to me. I thought of urban culture as a mosaic with thousands of individuals, not just a handful of archetypal characters. More than anything, alternative rap taught me that there is no future in fronting, and to not feel pressured to accept or reject every aspect of urban culture, but to just experience it from my own perspective. This is what I did with hip-hop and why I love it to this day. I see plenty of adults who were kids like me. We appreciate Kayne’s records, but laugh off his self-centeredness. We are more likely to criticize Lil’ Wayne’s non-sequesters or affinity for corny one-liners than his alleged gang iconography.
As a teen, I felt very strongly that our generation was going to define itself by bring forth true racial unity. It was a lofty ambition, and of course it hasn’t, and may never happen. But today, I hear RZA being interviewed by Terri Gross. Jeff Chang is writing, serious, thoughtful hip-hop history and criticism. Scholars like Tricia Rose are opening horizons of thought and discussion, by thoughtfully addressing the controversial aspects of the music and culture head on. We have a black president, and while there are plenty of people selling conspiracy theories, most sane people complain about his actions (or lack there of), not his hidden racial agenda. We laugh at the older generation’s fear of Common visiting the White House—“Common, seriously Common? You act like he invited Spice1 or something.” Hip-hop is discussed as an art form, not because of the massive record sales or the never-ending parade of controversies, but because a whole generation of us grew up learning what Africa Bambaataa knew in 1980: This is art which can inspire beyond the confines of a particular race, place, or time. So to all my nerdy white kids, grab a latte, pull up some Tribe on Spotify and start “Buggin’ Out”—because we all know, you like that rap stuff.
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