Back in the Day

It happened again.

While DJing a solid set of ’90s-era hip-hop at a friend’s backyard barbecue this past Fourth of July, that familiar reminder tugged on my shirt sleeve and smiled its shit-eating grin. “Told you so,” it always seems to say. In the past I would roll my eyes and make the Whatever Face, shrugging off the reminder with a yeah-times-three-ellipses. This time was different. I actually looked that reminder in the eye and smiled back. Yeah-times-one-ellipses.

Took me long enough to figure out that hip-hop and the summer go hand in glove. Simply put: songs sound better in the openness of the park or on the streets, as opposed to the enclosed space of a club; DJs make summer-themed blends; the paint on the wall glistens that much more; and fresh to def makes so much more sense when it’s not buried underneath layers of coats, jackets, hoods, etc. Heat and beats make for a good combination.

No surprise then that most of my memorable experiences related to hip-hop happened during the summer. I’m not talking about my favorite songs or best concerts, but rather the moments that made me pause and reflect. I’m talking about the moments of clarity. I’m talking about the moments that made me realize why I listen to it, talk about it, and stay with it. These are just four of my personal favorites:

“Brass Monkey” in the big yellow bus, June 1987.

You’d think it would be a shame to spend a childhood bussing to and from school in a melting, steel lunchbox under the laser gaze of the Angeleno sun. However, even yellow bus ridahs could make the experience palatable by forming a consensus over one radio station. About once a week, contingent on our good behavior and ability to agree on one station, the bus drivers would let us listen to the radio. As is the case with most compromises, Kiss FM, the stock mall muzak station found in every major American city, became the de facto weekly selection.

Being a quiet Peabody, I never paid the radio vote any mind until one day late in the second grade. School was close to an end and the students were already in a summer state of mind. All year a small group had been lobbying for KDAY, L.A.’s first bona fide hip-hop radio station. At the time rap was relatively new, but was already considered the Nth incarnate of the Devil — i.e., there was no way in hell a school bus driver would let the kids listen to rap. However — maybe because the hip-hop quorum was exceptionally vocal; maybe because summer was so close and any potential parental complaint would be lost in the vacation shuffle; maybe because the driver just said eff it — that day was different. Whatever the reason, the driver agreed to change the station to KDAY.

At first, the difference was hardly discernible. Aside from the winning voting block happily chattering and singing along to the songs, the majority of the bus carried on as usual. Then those stuttering bleats came on. The air went still. Every conversation stopped and the bus’ collective attention switched to each fart of the horn, as if to catch it like a mosquito. For the first time in months, I broke from my normal routine of staring out the window and looked around. I became anxious, because any break in a child’s routine was usually met with oohs, ahhs or some audible declaration. The calm was absolutely unnerving.

When the 808s kicked in, everything changed. Children jumped from their seats and began flailing about like drunkenly shaken Muppets. And then as if on cue they all sang together: “BRASS MONKEY! THAT FUNKY MONKEY!” So frantic was this energy that the bus momentarily rocked during that first chorus. Scared me. I was used to seeing kids my age run wild, but I had never seen such unhinged pandemonium — over a song. The bus driver immediately shut off the radio and began yelling at students to sit down and shut up. He quickly used the radio as a bargaining tool by arguing that if we couldn’t calm down, there would be no more radio. Ever. Some semblance of order was quickly re-established as students returned to their seats and fidgeted anxiously.

When the song slowly panned back up everyone continued singing in a subdued manner, but the air remained electric. By now, the shock had passed and I sat enthralled with the feeling that this curious song about a metal marsupial could have such a profound impact on other people my age. As I quietly sang along with the final chorus, I realized there maybe something more to this hip-hop thing.

Summers in the attic of Record Surplus, the ’90s.

No A/C. A half-broken listening station. Smelly guys. A bookshelf of tapes. And an entire attic filled with worn, yet choice LPs for a buck (or four on the dollar during sales).

After an afternoon of weeding grandma’s garden and re-painting her exterior walls under the searing sun, yes, this was my sanctuary. Sure, the heat, the smell, and the dirt felt no different from the day’s work. However, that attic was like a crash course in music history. And the gems that rose to the surface would make even the staunchest anti-consumerist bow down: Beastie Boys “Paul Revere” b/w “The New Style” 12″, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, EPMD’s Strictly Business, Al Green’s I’m Still in Love With You, the High School High soundtrack, Large Professor’s “Ijustwannachill” 12″, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, Eddy Senay’s Hot Thang, Too $hort’s “The Ghetto” 12″, and Stevie from Music of My Mind to Songs in the Key of Life.

And that’s just the hip-hop and soul…

The Chronic, June 1994, and Life After Death, June 1997, in various friends’ cars.

Being from Los Angeles it should be no surprise that many of my formative music experiences happened while in transit. That said, the appeal of test-driving music (literally) is far more commonplace when one considers the following equation:

Speed + Choons = Sex on Wheels

Throw teenage hormones and a little summer sun in the mix and it’s a wonder that kids are tricked into thinking that alcohol or drugs are needed to enhance the music listening experience.

While the above equation holds true no matter your age, puberty makes it so much sweeter and memorable. Which explains why Dr. Dre’s solo debut and Notorious B.I.G.’s swan song became heavyweight experiences the summers after their initial release. Both albums were popular soundtracks during my final year of junior high and high school, respectively. However, Dre’s G-Funk thesis was tailor-made for the summer, not Christmas-time (the album was released in the winter). And though Biggie’s near simultaneous murder and album release in the spring quickly pushed his stature to mythic proportions, his slick Bad Boy production shone brightest under the sparkling sunshine.

So, picture this: a car, baked under the sun, filled with four guys and a bass-overloaded monster like “Dre Day” or “Hypnotize” rolling around happily like a bloated pig in a puddle of mud. What better way to push out the stillness of L.A.’s dry heat? Dre or Biggie became synonymous with the time not just for their songs or their talents — their music was like central cooling.

Nas, Central Park Summerstage, August 15, 2004.

Those who attended this concert understandably speak of it in reverent terms. Nas played a free show in his hometown’s signature park. He performed his hits. He invited welcome guests: Q-Tip, AZ, Mobb Deep, and Busta Rhymes. The concert was programmed as a tribute to the history of hip-hop. As such, his openers, Rock Steady Crew and Kid Capri, took a trip down memory lane; Nas himself opened with a solid set of Illmatic songs. The crowd sang along with every song. It rained. It stopped raining. The line outside bum-rushed the gates. Yes, it was one for the books.

However, this concert was personally memorable because it met different expectations. I felt skeptical whether 5,000 fans of ’90s-era hip-hop would show up in spite of the inclement weather. However, when the snake charmer bass line of “N.Y. State of Mind” kicked off Nas’ set, the crowd released a collective, “Ooohhhh…”, like all the air in each person’s diaphragm had just been punched out. Immediately all the frustration of waiting in a long line for hours in the unbearable humidity, cops on smelly horses, and the constant rain delays disappeared. And that sense of belonging rushed right back. As I dragged my weary body back to Brooklyn, I finally felt at home, like I received a solid gold affirmation that hip-hop was indeed alive and breathing in New York City.