By: Jordan Ferguson
Last week Detroit rapper and Kanye-affiliate Big Sean swung by Funkmaster Flex’s radio show on New York’s Hot97. The subject at hand was Sean’s upcoming album release, but that’s not the story people were talking about the next day.
See, Sean brought some treats with him to Flex’s studio, specifically a track that had to be left off his album due to sample clearance issues. The song, “Control,” featured guest verses from Jay Electronica (the best rapper to never have an album out) and 2012 rap MVP Kendrick Lamar. As New York and the world learned, Kendrick had some things on his mind.
Not only did the Compton native claim the “King of New York” crown for himself, he placed himself among the greats like Nas, Eminem and Andre 3000, while declaring that today’s chart toppers like Drake, Pusha T, Wale and J. Cole among others, while cool people he likes collaborating with, just aren’t on his level, and he’s looking to lyrically outclass of all of them.
And the rap Internet lost its goddamned mind. From rappers looking to defend their colleagues they feel were unfairly dissed, to (more frequently) rappers salty Kdot didn’t feel they merited a mention, to old heads wondering what all the fuss was about (Brooklyn veteran Talib Kweli had maybe the best reaction when an interviewer went to him for a soundbite, flatly replying, “People care about lyrics?”). It was a rare moment, a throwback to a time when hip-hop supremacy rested on skills and not how many Tumblr views one scored, and was a perfect commemoration of the culture’s 40th Anniversary.
Forty years. Forty years since Kool Herc DJ’d a Back to School Jam in the rec room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx. Herc was from Jamaica, he’d witnessed the soundclash culture of the island, and brought its philosophy of competition with him to the States: it wasn’t enough to be a good DJ; he had to be the best DJ. For the party at Sedgwick, he had a new technique he wanted to try: he took two copies of the same funk and soul records that were popular at his parties, isolated the instrumental portion the kids got most amped up for, and switched back and forth between the two copies, giving him the ability to extend these “breaks” as long as he wanted to, far beyond the four bars of the original recordings. One of Herc’s crew grabbed the mic and told the crowd how skilled he was, just as reggae DJs would be “toasted” by party hosts back in Jamaica. These three elements of DJ’ing, MC’ing and breakdancing were already popping up throughout the city (the fourth, graffiti, was already giving headaches to the New York transit authority), but for the first time they combined in one place, proving how they were always meant to go together, birthing the most important cultural development of the last 50 years.
In 1986 I was starting the fourth grade at Stella Maris Catholic School in Amherstburg, Ontario, a sleepy town of 10,000 people, most of them autoworkers who commuted half an hour into neighbouring Windsor. I had the dubious honour of skipping the fifth grade, being moved ahead from fourth to sixth while being ripped out of what little stability I’d managed to scrape together in the classroom: I was already the fat kid, everyone could see that, but now everyone knew I was the smart kid, too. My fate was sealed.
Recess always used to progress in the same way: some of us would play 21 or HORSE at the basketball net, most of us teamed up in this backwoods hybrid of soccer and hockey that used our feet and a tennis ball. Whoever didn’t play hung out and watched, or dogpiled each other in the yard. One day someone had a tiny battery powered cassette player-slash-radio. They were playing a tape of Run-DMC’s Raising Hell, rewinding the cover of “Walk This Way” over and over. I remembered looking up from the book I was reading and thinking it was cool, but it didn’t hold my attention. Then whoever owned the tape deck wasn’t paying attention and the album rewound all the way, starting at the beginning of “Peter Piper.” And the bells of Bob James’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” looped over a thudding 808 kick and the deft interplay of two MCs, spitting simple rhymes about fairy tales and how good their DJ was. I had never heard anything like it. And I wanted to hear it again and again. I begged my classmate to let me borrow that tape. I was given 24 hours so I could make a copy, under threat of schoolyard justice by charley horse. That night I totally neglected my math problems and immersed myself in gold ropes, fedoras and Adidas sneakers with no shoelaces. It was the moment I met the love of my life.
It’s almost cute now to think of a time when hip-hop wasn’t a dominant force in popular culture, but in ‘86, in Amherstburg, Ontario, to be nine-years old and fascinated with the sounds you were hearing from across the Detroit River made you a freakshow at best and a “n—– lover” at worst. My parents, to their credit, never made a big deal about the weird music their son would listen to again and again, never made an issue when Parental Advisory stickers started showing up on album covers (their rule was, “you can listen to it at home, but don’t let your friends borrow it.”), but my classmates were less forgiving, and I was too enamored with the music to just lie and say I didn’t like it anymore.
Things got a little better when the Beastie Boys hit, when Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince came out, or when the Fat Boys scored a crossover hit with a cover of “Wipeout”: white guys, clean rappers, the comedically obese. Nice and non-threatening, made the music more palatable to the kids in my class obsessed with Def Leppard and Bon Jovi. It was still weird, but a bridge of mutual understanding was starting to be built.
But I had already moved to the advanced class. My family got cable in 1988, and as an only child and latchkey kid, Muchmusic was my beloved older sibling and babysitter. I watched it so much for years after I left the area, my fingers would still instinctively click 1-4 on the remote as a reflex action when changing the channel. It was through Much that I deepened my education, first with Soul in the City (the first specialty show on the network, and the first urban themed programming block on cable, including MTV), then with Rap City. I watched as Rap City went from weekly to daily, I noticed there was more and more variety in the videos I saw; something was definitely in the ether. I immersed myself in Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. I amassed a library of VHS tapes filled with videos, interviews and performances that I watched again and again. By the time I started high school, rap was established enough as an artform that the hallway douchebags returned to calling me fatass and browner; giving me shit for liking rap had become nonsensical, since they all liked it, too.
Of course, the sudden popularity of the music in my high school hallways caused me to push it away. The mooks I went to school with loved to sing Dr. Dre on the bus, made them feel edgy. I’d started to grow disillusioned. Rap used to teach me things, and as I entered my adolescence, fully embracing the airs of pretension I was already predisposed to, the street stories and hypermasculinity of gangster rap didn’t connect with me. I was in prime position to have the angels of Seattle scoop me up to noise rock heaven and I started playing in shitty indie bands.
I don’t know when the love ever really came back; I just know that it did. Even when my music appreciation was at its most rock-centric, I could find time for music with good beats, though I was most drawn to the spacier bounce of Zero7, Air, DJ Shadow or production work by Jay Dee, who would later become J Dilla. When Kanye’s College Dropout hit, that was the moment I started dipping my toes in again, not just paying attention to what was new and contemporary, but revisiting the music I’d written off during my insufferable adolescence. No surprise to discover I was much more forgiving. I heard the humour in Biggie, as a fellow fat guy I knew we had to be funny, quick to disarm a potential antagonist. I began to understand Tupac as an average lyricist but exceptional performer, the Jim Morrison of rap. Mostly, I came to realize that rap had become so big, there was always going to be elements of it I didn’t enjoy, and that was fine. I still feel that way. More than any other, rap is a young man’s game, and I will never fully understand why Trinidad James or Chief Keef exist, and I’ve yet to figure out what a Thun Thun is, let alone why I should refrain from dropping it. And I’m not supposed to get it, old heads jamming to The Cold Crush Brothers likely had no idea what to make of De La or Tribe. If my old ass wants to be challenged or get ignorant I can listen to Sean Price, or El-P or old Das Racist mixtapes. The culture’s big enough not to hold all of us.
By the time I unexpectedly ended up in Toronto at the age of 29, my love of hip-hop had returned in full force, mostly on the strength of Kanye, and exposure to Japanese acts like Nujabes, Shin-ski and Teriyaki Boyz. But it was still private, something tucked under a pair of over-ear headphones, an illicit affair between my iPod and me. It wasn’t until I was at The Gladstone Hotel for my first Hip-Hop Karaoke event, as the DJ spun classic joints to warm up the crowd, and I looked around at people, mostly younger than me, who knew every word like I did. It would not be an exaggeration to say my mouth was agape.
A hand touched my shoulder, I turned to my companion.
“You’re home now, aren’t you?”
And I was. I knew in that moment, this love I’d carried with me since I was nine-years-old child on a small town playground was something I would never hide again. And, though it seems so small and inconsequential, it’s made me a more whole person, in its way, and improved many areas of my life, because I don’t feel like I’m hiding behind anything, or a fraud. Hip-hop was always about being true to yourself, whatever that truth might be, and respecting the truths of others. Hip-hop gave me a means to identify myself from a young age, even if I was too stupid to fully accept it at the time. It’s introduced me to incredible people and works of art across media that continue to inspire and enthrall me. One of those inspirations resulted in what turned into my first book.
So Happy Birthday, Hip-Hop. Thank you for everything you’ve brought to my life, and more importantly, for everything you’ve brought to the lives of people who needed you far more than I did.
BONUS! Since books are sort of my wheelhouse, here are five books about the wonders of this thing we call hip-hop that are worth your time:
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. In a lot of ways, Chang wrote the book on hip-hop. Less a Behind the Music style expose of classic albums; the book cares more about the socioeconomic factors that created the environment that allowed hip-hop to emerge when it did.
The Big Payback by Dan Charnas. How does a style born to rock parties in a very small section of New York City turn into a global cultural, and more importantly, economic powerhouse? Charnas’s book looks at the radio programmers, journalists, label owners, managers and ad execs who kept the wheels greased just off stage, and it makes for far more fascinating reading than it has any right to be.
Check the Technique by Brian Coleman. One of the things I loved to do when I was back home with a newly purchased rap tape was dig into the liner notes, reading the sample clearances and songwriting credits. I acknowledge this is not normal behavior, but I don’t seem to be the only one. Coleman lamented the lack of substantial liner notes in rap albums, and set out to make some, talking to almost every major figure from ’85-94, discussing their classic album. An essential reference.
The Ego Trip Big Book of Rap Lists by Ego Trip. For a period in the mid-90s, Ego Trip was one of the best rap magazines going, more acerbic and snarky than The Source, helmed by four of the most knowledgeable rap nerds you could ever meet. In many ways, the Big Book of Rap Lists is the summation of all that knowledge. A tome of the sort of countdowns a hundred blogs continue to use as their bread and butter, and better than all of them combined.
Total Chaos, edited by Jeff Chang. The companion volume to Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, this anthology uses the idea that “rap is a music, hip-hop is a culture” as its guiding philosophy. Topics range from hip-hop dance, literature, photography and filmmaking, and how the sensibilities of this hip-hop shit can apply to any form of expression. Something for all interests in this one.