"Me and my boy, Frank Jr., have been listening to hip-hop since about 1978. Though we were clearly of the moment--first generation hip-hop heads with requisite ghetto passports--we were always out of step with the hip-hop moment. Much of that had to do with our general demeanors as cerebral nerds (legendary Strat-o-Matic players) and with the old men we called our fathers (Frank Sr. and AC), who instilled in us just too much respect for the Jazz, Blues and Gospel Quartets of their youth to ever think that any one form of music surpassed another. It was all a continuum.
"So, while we rocked our Run-DMC/Miami Vice gear until it was well past cliché (you know, Kangols, shell-top Adidas, dark sport jackets and pastel t-shirts) and were the first in line when It Takes a Nation of Millions hit stores, it was never as if hip-hop's fascination with the hyper-present (and the hyper-real) ever fazed us. We needed shit that was timeless -- Coltrane, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, the Dixie Hummingbirds immediately come to mind -- and hip-hop had yet to prove that it would be that in the late 1980s.
"Then one day we heard 'They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)', and it was Frank who remarked rather succinctly that, if we had been hip-hop artists, I think this is the kind of music we would have made. 'They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y)' (1992) is, of course, the now-classic single by Pete Rock & CL Smooth, and is one of the many gems collected on The Best of Pete Rock and CL Smooth: Good Life."
The above passage grabs inside my ribcage and squeezes in a way I didn’t know possible--something like a hug version of heart massage. Beat-beat indeed. Reading this hit me like reading Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow stories or Cleaver’s Soul on Ice for the first time. The details, that trans-space/time vibe you get from the syllables of someone you’ve never met who speaks as if he’s known you his whole life.
My own love affair with hip hop began in August of 1988—yes, I can be that precise.
I’d been listening to hip hop already for a few years, although in E-Town, it wasn’t that easy to catch on radio and I hadn’t yet been buying much wax. I caught some Run-DMC, some LL, Keith LeBlanc’s “Malcolm X: No Sell Out” and the only Melle Mel song I could find—don’t laugh--“Vice” on the
But when I returned from a shitty summer working a government job for students in Ottawa, my sister Anna had four birthday gifts waiting for me: The Word compilations 1 and 2 (introducing me to Schoolly D and Kool Moe Dee), Battle of the DJs (introducing me to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince), and most importantly, BDP’s By All Means Necessary with KRS-One on the cover holding an Uzi in a look-alike pose of Malcolm X holding the rifle at his window while protecting his family from the assassins who even then were closing on him.
In my hip hop deprivation, I’d never heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, nor of their brilliant “The Message.” I wouldn’t hear about the Last Poets for another half a year. So until Kris, I’d had no idea hip hop could be truly political (LeBlanc’s “No Sell Out” doesn’t exactly count, since it was a DJ cut full of MX samples, not an original song of lyrics; I suppose Paul Hardcastle’s “19” is a cousin of hip hop, which I also loved). Sure, I enjoyed “My Philosophy”’s weird wordplay on its own terms, but “Illegal Business” and “Stop the Violence” (really, the only political songs on the joint) exploded in my ears like skyrockets above my eyes.
It would take months before I was even willing to give Public Enemy a chance (partly based on my confusing them with Public Image Ltd.) and months after that that I actually started to like PE (beginning with “Show Em Whatcha Got”—never underestimate the power of a producer’s cut full of sampled perfection).
Years before Kris ever said it about himself, BDP really was hip hop for me, and was part of a summer of Africentric education and transformation. I’d read Malcolm’s Autobiography and a few other Malcolm texts years before, but that summer I came across Soul on Ice and then embarked on a solid year of reading BPP texts. I saw School Daze shortly after and the Spike Lee revolution was truly on its way. The anti-apartheid solidarity movement was alive all over the world and right in my home town, and my sister Anna and I were in it to win it... what else can I say? I’d just turned 19 and everything was possible.
And hip hop seemed—naive as it seems now—as if it were going to be at the centre of a revolution. The next four years of the genre seemed to bear that out. And then there was gangsta rap. And the small labels being snatched up White corporate giants who wanted to destroy the revolutionary lyrical content of hip hop and push gangsterism and misogyny as their counter-revolution. Never underestimate the power of corporations to co-opt and corrupt art and culture.