It's time for a renaissance. It's time for a surge. Resurgence.
RAP IS SOMETHING YOU DO, HIP-HOP IS SOMETHING YOU LIVE
Everything started for me in 1993. That was the year I first got paid to act, I first stole a CD (Dr. Dre's The Chronic... easy to do), and I first tagged a building (my name was Tast-E... rave was big). Besides the usual adolescent stuff of school and trying to be cool, my life was acting and hip-hop. My ambitions were synthesised by one teenage-dream image: receiving an Oscar while wearing a leather Zulu Nation medallion over my tuxedo. From 1993 onward, when I wasn't rehearsing or performing, I was
buying rap CDs with Vince at Track Records, or stealing them from A&B Sound
passing by the showcase at Track Records and wondering if I should buy Positive K's The Skills Dat Pay Da Bills
buying The Source magazine from Granville Book Company each and every month, $3.75 total
buying Hip Hop Connection, a British rag, from that magazine store on Pender
staying up until 12.30AM each and every Tuesday night to tape Krispy Biskets on CFRO Co-Op Radio. The show went from midnight until 2.00AM but I couldn't stay up that late and anyways, I was a kid. I stayed up to listen until 12.30AM, then pressed record because my tapes were 90 minutes. Every Wednesday I would have the dopest ish to last me another week, courtesy of DJ Kilo-Cee and The Incredible Ease
attending hip-hop shows every week. I had a fake ID for only two reasons: strip clubs and hip-hop jams, like at the Starfish Room where I had my first under-age Long Island
toting around my backpack everywhere, the mark of a nerdy true-school hip-hopper -- a backpacker -- as Buckshot concurs: "Knapsack, filled with the shit that I G'd and a nickel bag of weed, yes indeed...." Except mine was filled with paint, my blackbook, and probably homework
trying to save money to buy two Technics 1200s. Vince and I decided we should buy one each and share them MWF and TThS, alternating Sundays. But then we realised that all all ALL our money would have to go into records and anyways, we were kids. We ended up not buying turntables, not even Geminis
wondering why, to this day, I don't own Wu-Tang's Enter the Wu-Tang.... Probably because I taped the album off Vince
wondering why, to this day, I don't own Biggie's Ready to Die. Same reason
buying graffiti magazines, fat laces, and rap records from Blaise, no matter where his store was. The Groove Shop in North Vancouver, F.W.U.H. in deeper North Vancouver, F.W.U.H. in downtown Vancouver... I would follow Blaise anywhere. The city's whole hip-hop community would follow him anywhere. He was necessary
buying two copies of Fat Joe's "Success" single from Blaise so that I could go back-to-back, but since I never acquired two turntables, not even Geminis, I own two copies of the same record for no functional reason
watching Prev battle other MCs
being introduced to 3 Feet High and Rising by Prev, who made me listen to the entire album on tape without pause as we made a spontaneous road trip to Bellingham
watching Hesam battle other b-boys
trying to learn b-boying from Hesam. He was patient. I can do 1.5 windmills
wishing I could triple-threat like Flipout, Vancouver's closest thing to a complete hip-hopper... MC, DJ, b-boy... three-out-of-four is pretty stellar
freestyling with James as we waited for buses at night, before realising we shouldn't attempt rapping ever
buying spray paint with James
stealing spray paint with James
clearing debris like twigs, condoms, and heroin needles after we finished our pieces so we could take unobstructed photos. James and I were fastidious about documenting our graffiti
arguing with my WCB Crew in the train yards over who gets to paint the Burlington-Northern, who gets the Santa Fe
Before our weekly graffiti missions, while James and I were selecting colours, we would listen to Artifacts's "Wrong Side of Da Tracks".
Souls of Mischief. Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Saafir the Saucee Nomad. The B.U.M.s. Paris. The Conscious Daughters. Too $hort. Ant Banks. The Luniz. The Pharcyde. The Nonce. Tha Alkaholiks. Freestyle Fellowship. Ice Cube. N.W.A.. Snoop Doggy Dogg. The Dove Shack. Anotha Level. Ahmad. Tupac. Funkdoobiest. Ras Kass. Geto Boys. Outkast. Common Sense. The Roots. Mad Skillz. Redman. Naughty by Nature. Lords of the Underground. KRS-One. Fat Joe. Showbiz and AG. Lord Finesse. Diamond D. Nice and Smooth. Ultramagnetic MCs. Chi-Ali. Slick Rick. Big L. Nasty Nas. Kool G Rap. Roxanne Shante. MC Shan. Biz Markie. Mic Geronimo. The Beatnuts. Onyx. LL Cool J. Akinyele. Main Source. A Tribe Called Quest. Organized Konfusion. Gangstarr. Jeru the Damaja. Group Home. Black Moon. Smif-N-Wessun. Heltah Skeltah. O.C.. Special Ed. Masta Ace. Digable Planets. Big Daddy Kane. M.O.P.. The Notorious B.I.G.. Wu-Tang Clan. Shyhiem. Jungle Brothers. Pete Rock and CL Smooth. KMD. EPMD. Craig Mack. Brand Nubian. Grand Puba. Leaders of the New School. De La Soul. Eric B and Rakim. Public Enemy. Etcetera...
Heads were keepin' it real 'cause shit's real so don't front, hip-hop was about one thing and one thing only: representin' your skills. Substance, knawmean?
By 1998 I had finally achieved a consistent style in my graffiti and I was in the middle of my theatre training. I was also writing a hell of a lot, both academic essays and creative shit. I couldn't listen to rap lyrics -- or any lyrics -- as those words would interfere with my words. Moreover, rap was on its way to becoming the biggest-selling music in the world, which was reflected in its content. O.C. said, "I'd rather be broke and have a whole lotta respect" in 1994, and his credo was no longer the M.O. by 1998. My personal politics were becoming clearer, and my leftist, working-class values could not blindly accept the materialism that had become rampant in rap.
Yes, materialism was always a part of hip-hop culture, but it was once naive and inspiring. When MC Shan mentioned Pumas, when Run DMC big upped Adidas, when Grandmaster Flash shouted out Gloria Vanderbilt... those were all objects of fantasy, but a modest fantasy. Despite being poor, kids could somehow obtain the right sneakers and jeans and transcend the misery of the ghetto, even if only slightly. They could feel good about themselves. From the late '90s onward, rap had become such a commercial behemoth that there was nothing naive, innocent, or ironic about rappers' wealth. They indeed did own jets and summer homes in the Hamptons. The wealthy rappers were now rapping about not only objects, but luxury objects. Inaccessible objects. Are we expected to feel good about ourselves when a multi-millionaire shamelessly, unreservedly flaunts his wealth in our faces? Some people might be inspired; I was insulted. In 1989 Kool G Rap said, "One day you will see me in a fly Lamborghini on my way to the beach pickin' up girls in bikinis." "One day." As in, the future. As in, not happened yet. As in, fantasy. In 1998 you could be sure that Puff Daddy* owned a fly Lamborghini. It was tucked away between his Bentley and Jaguar.
* I actually have nothing but admiration and respect for Puff Daddy as a model of determination and hard work. But for '90s hip-hop heads like me, his music was villified for taking rap down a luxuriously commercial path.
BACK TO 1998
I turned twenty in 1998. On my birthday, I woke up and went to track 3 on my CD player:
"I woke up early on my born-day, I'm twenty, it's a blessing. The essence of adolescence leaves my body, now I'm fresh and..."
"Life's a Bitch". Nas. 1994. Who by 1998 was a celebrity outside of rap. Illmatic is the only Nas album I care to own.
As a young adult whose sensibilities were maturing, I was not able to change with rap. Instead of following rap along its new course, I started to break away. By 1998 I was already listening to a lot of jazz, which was not the furthest departure for a rap fanatic. I preferred instrumental jazz so as to not disrupt my writing, and this led to free jazz and avant-garde jazz. Miles Davis led to Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk and Chris Speed. Around this time (since 1996, to be exact), my taste in art was developing and I chose to watch, almost exclusively, subtitled films and I had become a regular attendee of modern dance performances. I was ready to grow. Around this time, I lent Sam Gangstarr's Moment of Truth. He lent me Stereolab's Dots and Loops.
BEFORE I GET TO INDIE, MORE ABOUT 1998
Today, when people ask me what music I listen to, I say, "I come from rap, but pre-'98 rap." There really isn't anything specific about 1998 being my threshold. It's rather arbitrary. But if I were given an exam on pre-1998 rap, I would score 80% at the least. If the exam was post-1998 rap, I would score 10% at the most. I certainly do know a few things about post-1998 rap, but my confidence and experience, my bulk knowledge and interest, reside in the birth of rap until mid-'90s. What I am saying is that I cannot converse about 50 Cent or Chamillionaire or Soulja Boy. I don't know their music.
1998 was the year Mos Def and Talib Kweli released their Black Star album, full of socially critical thought with a laid-back musical atmosphere reminiscent of Native Tongues. 1998 was also the year that saw, as one of its biggest songs, Noreaga's "Superthug", whose memorable lyrics include "What what what" and "What what" and "What". More and more rap would follow the "Superthug" sound, so I started to tune out more and more rap. I cap off my rap-knowledge arrogance with the Black Star album. It's best to not ask me about rap after 1998 because I'd rather talk about Sleater-Kinney.
This is what happened around 1998: If the rap song fulfills at least 3 of the following
plays on commercial radio
plays in a giant club where Smirnoff Ice is the drink of choice for both women and men
plays in a giant club where police must be present or someone will get shanked
plays in a giant club where there are stretch Hummers outside
is the only rap song that non-rap-fans love*
is ever described as a club banger**
...then I don't want to listen to that rap song.
* "Just a Friend" is an exception
** "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang", "Gin and Juice", and "Juicy" are exceptions
Incidentally, 1998 is the year I started going to giant clubs legally -- for the "experience" -- so that is the year I started learning about what rap was being played in mainstream, thump-thump-thump clubs. And there was an increasing amount of mainstream rap to choose from.
After 1998, surely as a response to the rise of commercialism, rap branched off deep underground with artists on Anticon and Definitive Jux. With my generous appreciation for art and love of the avant-garde, I ought to have embraced these guys, but their experimentation was too fierce for a staunch rap puritan like me.
The style of rap that I cherished had plateaued by 2000 and upticks were few and far between. I had little reason to get excited, but these guys made my pulse spike: J-Live, MF Doom, Slum Village, Madlib, J Dilla, and now Danny Brown. Beats. Rhymes. Lyricism.
I credit Sam for initiating my musical tastes as an adult. In 1998 he lent me Stereolab, Isotope 217, Tortoise, Sam Prekop, The Sea and Cake, which led me to
Sleater-Kinney. Saint Etienne. Delta 5. The Raincoats. Au Pairs. LiLiPUT/Kleenex. X-Ray Spex. Bikini Kill. Le Tigre. Julie Ruin. Gossip. Bratmobile. Heavens to Betsy. Excuse 17. Electrelane. The Slits. Siouxsie and the Banshees. Suicide. Joy Division. New Order. The Velvet Underground. Blondie. Gang of Four. Public Image Ltd. Kraftwerk. Adult.. The Notwist. The Rapture. Chrisma. Deux. Flue. The Dears. Broken Social Scene. Feist. Cat Power. Julie Doiron. New Buffalo. Pizzicato Five. Sigur Ros. Mum. Interpol. Glass Candy. Soviet. Miss Kittin and The Hacker. Fischerspooner. Peaches. Chicks On Speed. Neko Case. The New Pornographers. The Hidden Cameras. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Modest Mouse. John Maus. Matthew Herbert. Blonde Redhead. Deerhoof. The Fiery Furnaces. The Rogers Sisters. TV On The Radio. The Long Blondes. The Concretes. Camera Obscura. Belle and Sebastian. Broadcast. Goldfrapp. Beat the Devil. Snowden. Destroyer. Serge Gainsbourg. Stereo Total. Les Georges Leningrad. Carole King. Ladytron. Movietone. Beach House. Arthur Russell. Antifamily. Voigt\465. Pel Mel. Etcetera...
My taste in music became more varied. My sensibilities and politics found alignment with "indie" kids. I became an avid shopper of vintage clothes, and you could hardly find a hip-hop kid who was proud of wearing used gear. As I wandered deeper into a milieu of socialism and second-hand sweaters, rap music seemed so far away with its bling. I moved away from East Vancouver in 2002, bringing almost all of my rap music with me. I recall one full year, perhaps 2005, where I didn't listen to a single rap CD, tape, or record. I was no longer interested. If being cool means rejecting the mainstream, and rap had long become mainstream, then I was cool because I was hanging out with indie kids. Who played guitars.
KEEP IT REAL, REPRESENT
Fuck being cool. If being cool means putting in effort to discover obscurities, then I was cool in 1995 for rapping to Smoothe da Hustler while everyone else was singing to Oasis. If being cool means manifesting your passion for something by learning everything you can about it (i.e. being a music nerd), then I was cool in 2001 for knowing that Corin Tucker and Lance Bangs have a son named Marshall Tucker Bangs.
After all my teens and twenties of being an obsessive music nerd who knew rappers' real names, the band members' names, who produced which track, who was doing what solo project, which group was on which label, the studio where they recorded, seeing bands twice a week, what was the newest shit... I now no longer scour pages of The Source or Pitchfork or Exclaim!. I am just as obsessive about minutiae in cinema and theatre, so to immerse myself in so much data is an exercise in self-asphyxiation. I am now more discerning with my trivial pursuits and can better determine what information is helpful to pursue and what is merely trivial. I have learned, by necessity, to filter noise. Currently, I am not interested in seeking out new music, new noise. Currently, all I listen to is pre-'98 rap. Everything else is just too much information.
I still believe it's rather cool to be a nerd, and I still derive pride from knowing useless facts, but my youthful arrogance has become a calmer confidence, my juvenile snobbery now judicious taste. I no longer scorn the mainstream -- I now learn from it and apply the lessons to my own work, especially when trying to avoid the trappings of majority ideals.
It doesn't really matter now, anyhow, this argument about mainstream versus underground/indie/obscure. It takes about the same amount of effort to obtain an album from those bearded, plaid guys who recorded in their basement as it does any album by Drake. And cool kids (formerly called indie kids, sometimes now called hipsters... not sure... but I think American Apparel has something to do with it) love Kanye as much as they love Grizzly Bear. Rap is everywhere and loved by everyone. Rap has become quotidian.
Can the quotidian --> mundane --> not special be cool? I'm not sure. I'm now over thirty. I stopped caring about being cool a few years ago and now I'm cooler than ever.
A few years ago I sensed that I was entering a new period of influence. Commercials about young families -- give your kid this processed cheese, let us mortgage your first home -- featured parents about my age. Commercials about an economical car were zippy and playful to appeal to around-thirty-somethings raised on No Doubt videos. Those cars were under $20,000, which was a figure I could comprehend; when I was a teenager $20,000 made no sense at all. Everything crystallised for me in 2011 when I saw the Kia commercial featuring hamsters and Black Sheep's "The Choice is Yours". They got it right: the hoodies, the barber shop, the ballers, the gestures... the music. That song was huge when it was released in 1991 and remains huge... for hip-hop heads of my generation. I have mentioned that commercial to early-twenty-somethings, and they responded, "What's Black Sheep? I thought you said hamsters." No matter, my So Young You Aren't Allowed To Rent A Sedan friend, they aren't trying to sell that car to you. They're trying to sell that car to me. I am that age where I could conceivably buy that car because I understand what "Starting under $14,000" practicably means, and c'mon... "The Choice is Yours"! The commercial is so spot-on that I am certain someone in a position of power at the ad agency or at Kia is my age. My generation is now capable of executing entire projects. For example, it is conceivable that every single person on a film production, from writer to director to producer to financer, be around thirty years old. An entire film production consisting of twenty-year-olds is less likely (remember, I did mention financer). My generation has now entered a new level of cultural influence, and if nostalgia can be persuasive, then prepare to be swayed by a new wave of Wu, Biggie, Tupac, and Dre.
I USED TO LOVE H.E.R.
Nostalgia. In 2000 I was all about new wave and synth and electro-this-n-that -- sounds from 1980. In 2010 I noticed new dance parties sprouting: 1990s nights and classic rap nights. If it takes twenty years for retro to happen, then my adolescence is now reborn. When I listen to seventeen-year-old Joey Bada$$'s 1999, with beats by MF Doom, J Dilla, and Lord Finesse, I am thankful that kids still care to represent (he's gotta be a rap nerd). When barely-hardly-twenties Allison raps all of Positive K's "I Got a Man", I am rejuvenated. I am hopeful that wherever rap goes, whatever after this slight resurgence, the vintage rap sound will continue.
"My plan is to force the industry to allow hip-hop to grow up. They try to force it to be a youth-based genre and that ostracises a lot of people who even know what real hip-hop is. ... Rap has to have a more mature voice and face." -- Grandmaster Melle Mel, 2007
For years I have bemoaned how rap has changed. For years I have resolved myself to become one of those dudes who only listens to classic rock radio stations because current rock does nothing for them, but for me, it's classic rap. I've been proud to say I only listen to pre-'98 rap, as if dismissing the value of any rap made since Black Star. My blissful ignorance is actually arrogant ignorance. Yesterday Vince told me about the new collaboration between Masta Ace and MF Doom, MA DOOM: Son of Yvonne. I bought the album immediately. Two rap veterans with twenty-plus years experience, on top of their creative game in a rap environment directed towards children. In spite of their maturity -- or because of this -- they sound refreshing.
I am about the same age as hip-hop. Hip-hop and I have started to mature, and with that comes maturation pains. This is a bewildering period in my life, with new loved ones born, friends marrying, friends divorcing, my professional life in flux, my domestic life in transition, relationships ending, beginning, coming, going... I find solace in my dusty rap albums. I put on The Beatnuts and I am in my childhood home in East Vancouver, listening to this album while I shower, the summer sun buoying my spirits as I attend my final day of high school. I put on The Pharcyde and I am shopping for baggy jeans with Vince on Granville Street, watching girl upon girl pass me by. I put on Artifacts and I am under a bridge in the Grandview Cut with James, spraying the final strokes on our piece: Stage, Acrow, CAS Crew.
Instead of mourning 1993, with all its hope and naivete, I will take what I've learned and move forward. Evolution is change while the essence remains the same. Rap and hip-hop have evolved, and so I will be in step. We know ourselves a lot better now.