[1 May 2008]
I don’t remember the first time I heard the song “The Power” by Snap!. Maybe it was on the radio. Maybe I saw the video at a friend’s house, or maybe it was playing in the mall. All I remember is being stopped in my tracks by the beat, the hook, the raps. In short, vocalist Penny Ford had me at “I’ve got the power!”
In 1990, when Snap! released its debut album, World Power, I was a seventh-grader at Talmadge Middle School in Independence, Oregon, a semi-rural area where farms give way to bland streets of ranch houses. My memories of the time are of trying to sneak chewing gum into class, going to Friday night dances at the local Elks Club (where DJs from nearby Western Oregon State College would play risque songs like “Do Me” by Bell Biv Devoe), and trying to avoid the wrath of the popular girls, whose favorite sport seemed to be making fun of anyone who wasn’t them.
Thanks mostly to my older sister, whose musical taste ran more toward Hüsker Dü than Wilson Phillips, I had already diverged musically from many of my classmates. For the most part, I didn’t mind being labeled as different. But even as I was defiantly popping my Dead Milkmen/Ramones mix tape into my Walkman on the school bus, I wasn’t immune to some of the hits I heard on the radio.
Before “The Power”, my attention had briefly been caught by Bell Biv Devoe, MC Hammer, and even Vanilla Ice, but there was something about Snap! that sent me running to the record store with my allowance money. I spent $9 for an eight-song cassette, and I can say without a doubt that it was worth it. Not because “Blase Blase”, “Oops Upside Your Head”, “I’m Gonna Get You (To Whom It May Concern)”, and all the rest were such earth-shattering tracks, but because this album, unlikely as it may sound, proved to be the gateway through which I discovered the rich world of hip-hop.
The raps on World Power were the first I ever willfully memorized, and my efforts bear fruit to this day. Even now, I often catch myself running through these lines from “Blase Blase”: “If you wonder wonder wonder who I be / I’m the superdopeincredible Turbo B / Licking the lyrics skillfully, like a champ / Grab the microphone, and all the suckers are breaking camp”.
The satisfaction of rapping along with Durron “Turbo B” Butler was different than singing along with the Beatles or R.E.M.. And I couldn’t get enough of the beats. “The Power” became my new favorite dance anthem, crowding out “Pump up the Jam” by Technotronic and blowing “U Can’t Touch This” out of the water. It was while mouthing Turbo B’s braggadocio lyrics that words like “sucker”, “posse”, and “jam” crossed my lips to take on a whole new meaning. I was hooked.
As luck would have it, my Snap! obsession was interrupted by a short, static-filled glimpse of the video for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” during a late-night MTV marathon at my best friend’s house. I didn’t know A Tribe Called Quest from a hole in the ground, and I had no idea I was listening to a sample of “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. All I knew was that I was hooked, again. A few weeks later, the same friend gave me ATCQ’s Low End Theory for Christmas, and the deal was sealed.
Outwardly, my love of hip-hop didn’t change anything about me. I didn’t start wearing an Africa medallion or Cross Colours. Even if I had wanted to, I don’t know if I would have found them in the local mall. Other than a few kids who half-heartedly sported Starter jackets and baggy jeans, hip-hop fashion hadn’t made many inroads into rural Oregon’s junior-high population. Style-wise, I continued down the path laid out for me by my sister and her ilk, which called for Doc Martens, dyed hair, cut-off jeans, and striped tights. But inwardly, I was forever changed. I kept discovering more and more hip-hop, and enjoying the strange places it took me.
In high school, a pencil-necked white boy from Alabama, whose vices were limited to coffee, cigarettes, and politics, played me The Chronic by Dr. Dre, introducing me to gangsta rap. He called it his “war music” and considered it a necessary soundtrack to Diplomacy, a board game similar to Risk, but much nerdier in that it takes at least several hours to complete a game.
In college, I met the man who would become my husband by rapping along with the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique at a party, matching him word for word. He courted me via Post-It notes on my dorm-room door, each featuring obscure Beastie Boys quotes (such as “I saw you at the checkout line / You dropped your coupons, and you were looking fine”).
I won a free Heineken during my first and only visit to the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe when I met the host’s challenge: identify the famous rapper son of the next performer. The Trinidadian-by-way-of-Queens woman who took the stage read a poem about her short-statured son and the diabetes they shared. I knew it had to be Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, he of lyrics such as “I’m all that and then some / Short, dark and handsome” and “When’s the last time you heard a funky diabetic?”.
Throughout it all, my personal style and taste in music evolved. In high school, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and the Fu-Schickens took turns in my car stereo with the Cure, Ella Fitzgerald, the Clash, Tom Waits, the Specials, and Nirvana. In college, I discovered Elliott Smith, Sebadoh, and Fugazi, along with Dr. Octagon, Wu-Tang Clan, and the Pharcyde.
Then, just as now, people express surprise when I reveal my love of hip-hop. Apparently 29-year-old, white, small-town newspaper editors who favor 1960s vintage clothes, gardening, and knitting aren’t the genre’s target demographic. But if we only liked what was expected of us, what fun would that be?
Loving hip-hop for what it is, without feeling like I need to change my lifestyle to justify it, reinforces my belief that all music is for everyone. It has showed me that the music itself is more important than style, more important than culture, and more important than any of the other trappings that seem to accompany it. And I owe all that to a cheesy dance song cranked out by a couple of German producers.