Tag Archives: Mos Def

I Got A Story To Tell, Part 2

When I first starting thinking about Part 1, I wanted to figure out not just why, but how I started listening to rap. My parents and friends didn’t really get me into it. I didn’t just wake up one morning and think, “You know? I’d really just love to jam out to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”

In my immediate recollection, I thought that for most of my childhood and adolescence, I was a rock-and-jazz nerd, the type who claimed to like pretty much everything but “rap and country.” Upon reflection, though, it’s clear that rap played in my ears about as early as I can remember. I have these vivid memories of my brother E’s bedroom, at 5 or 6 years old, in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sweats, dancing hard and arrhythmically to his Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer cassettes.

If trying to turn a skeptic, this is probably the worst introduction to rap one could conceive (other suggestions?). If you nostalgically think these guys were just fun, and not truly terrible at what they did, perhaps you haven’t listened to “Ninja Rap” in awhile:

Thankfully, it wasn’t too long before I had an album by a rapper who didn’t wear balloon pants. Indeed, the first hip-hop album I really remember loving was Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, which E bought shortly after it dropped in 1997, the year that Biggie was shot, and (for better or worse) a new era of the genre was afoot. I was 11.

At this point, The Carnival was an anomoly in my fledgling music collection, which remained dominated by the popular alternative rock of the day. I spent much of middle school mocking and trashing the shallowness and showy gangsterism of popular rap while secretly bobbing my head to “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” and “Ghetto Superstar,” two of the catchiest singles of their time, both of which can still light up a dance floor. It’s sad the performers on these hits left us before their time. I miss you, Mase and Pras.

While I loved these songs, it wasn’t until I was a high school freshman that I outwardly embraced some rap. E (3rd time this guy’s shown up; in conversations with friends, older siblings seem to play a big role in shaping these tastes) had been turned by some older friends of his, and his rap collection grew. On rides to and from school he would pump this stuff into my head, classics of the genre like 36 ChambersLife After DeathAll Eyez on Me, The Chronic, and Doggystyle. This year (2000-2001) coincided with the height of Napster’s popularity, and E exploited it to great effect, compiling mix after mix of hits, classics, and rarities.  Those mixes–and notably Doggystyle–cemented my appreciation of rap on a superficial level. Sure, rap could be shallow, sexist, homophobic, crass, stupid even. But some of it was damn good fun.

Certainly, this was the primary appeal Doggystyle held for me. Snoop Dogg was the most laid back motherfucker alive, as far as I was concerned. His casual vulgarity shocked me. Songs like “Ain’t No Fun” and “Tha Shiznit” contained a joyous, profane (and indeed, misogynistic) vitality that nothing in my alternative rock collection came anywhere near matching. Although the album was nearly a decade old when I discovered it, it was fresh to my ears, and entirely unique to what my friends were pushing on me at the time (mainly classic rock albums by Jimi Hendrix and The Grateful Dead).

I loved the old Snoop and other classics from those mixes, but I still didn’t really respect the genre. Besides a few exceptions in my brother’s catalogue–such as some 2Pac and Big L–I loved the rap I was exposed to in those days because it was shocking, funny, or catchy. I didn’t love it because I thought it was great music. In this way, rap remained ghettoized from the rest of my music for much of high school.

Then, mysteriously, during my senior year one underground rap record took much of my high school by storm: Immortal Technique’s Revolutionary: Volume 2.  

It’s hard to overstate how strange this phenomenon seems. This album is still only a minor underground success–Immortal Technique isn’t even much of an underground star, in terms of popularity. And yet, in my small, 85% white and Catholic hometown, word of mouth and CD-Rs made it spread like a pregnancy rumor. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but R:V2 might have been more popular in my high school than in any other in America.

I can’t speak for my classmates, but Revolutionary: Volume 2 struck me for a few key reasons: One, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Instead of rapping about asses and chains, Technique rapped about his disgust with GITMO and Fox News. His raps gave voice to my teenage angst and anger about the War on Terror and the Bush Administration. The album is aggressive and powerful, even if its message is not always the most nuanced, and even if its political statements are sometimes over the top (it occasionally pushes 9/11-as-an-inside-job conspiracy theory). Still, political songs like “Peruvian Cocaine” and “4th Branch” have character and force that match any rhymes this side of Public Enemy; “Leaving the Past” is downright beautiful. In these songs and others, Immortal Technique can frighten and incite. Unlike some other rappers who glorify or even fabricate their violent pasts, IT makes his listener believe not only that he went through some hard-hitting shit, but more importantly, that he came up through a scary world that his listeners wouldn’t know, want to, or survive.

Perhaps the album’s greatest triumph is “You Never Know,” which to me, stands alongside classics like “Suicidal Thoughts” as among the most moving songs in all of rap. A story of lost love, “YNK” details Technique’s relationship with the woman that would have been the love of his life, it would seem. Not only does he respect her (unlike other women he disparages in his occasional rhymes of sexual conquest); he makes the listener believe that this woman’s death is the source of any misogyny he retains. Moreover, the heartache in his voice makes it hard to believe this story isn’t true. What was the last rap song you heard that made you feel for the MC? That nearly brought you tears? “You Never Know” does both.

Now, I’ve come to hold certain critiques of Immortal Technique. On his raps, he can sometimes be self-righteous, an egoist, a sensationalist, homophobic, and a conspiracy theorist. But I’ll probably listen to Revolutionary: Volume 2 for a long time, because it was the record that made me take rap seriously. On this winding path, it was probably the most consequential turn.

After R:V2, I sought out more socially and politically oriented hip-hop, falling inevitably on the more popular artists known for (and sometimes derided as) “conscious rap,” namely 2Pac, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and The Roots. In college I started to accumulate much more, and eventually embraced more mainstream rappers, in particular the Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, OutKast, and Kanye West. I’m at a point, three years after college, where I don’t have the time or money to explore or buy all the hip-hop I want. I feel like I’m playing catch-up on two decades of classics–from Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest to Jay-Z and Eminem–discovering old albums like I did with classic rock when I was in high school. It’s exciting and invigorating. By dismissing an entire genre, especially one as large and diverse as hip-hop, I didn’t realize what I was missing out on–a veritable golden age that passed while I was growing up. It took me far too long to love hip-hop, but better late than never, I suppose.

I realize that tracing this path is probably not very interesting to the few people who may read this, and I apologize for navel-gazing. But I want this blog to be more exploratory than explanatory. I want writing to help me organize my thoughts and to help me understand the world around me. I’m just trying to figure out how I got here.

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I Got A Story To Tell, Part 1

“You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us…
…the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
ask yourself, where am I goin? How am I doin?”

Mos Def, “Fear Not of Man”

I used to hate rap. Well, I used to think that I hated the vast majority of it. Lately though, I’ve been listening to so much hip-hop, with so much joy, I’ve been wondering how I got here. Why do I now like hip-hop so much more than I ever have before?

It seems that often, during particular periods of my life, the music I’ve loved the most has mirrored some attribute I’m seeking at that point in time. Music I’ve loved has satisfied a need, desire, or emotion I’ve felt particularly strongly during particular eras.

I should clarify. As a kid, I wanted to be older, and simultaneously, I found myself enjoying the alternative rock that my older brother, his friends, and the older kids on my bus seemed to love. In middle school, I wanted to be less of a nerd (a fruitless quest), and a desire “to be cool” led to an affection for punk rock, the music listened to by schoolmates I deemed “coolest.” In high school, I remember having an angsty desire for a more “meaningful” life–one more engaged with the world at large and more mature. Musically, I think this is the thread that connects the music I liked most back then, which was mostly classic rock, Phish, and jazz.

Certainly, there is more to it than this armchair psychology. I could go on at length about what I think the musical bona fides of all this music is/was to me. For some of it, maybe it was as simple as “this sounds cool” or “I dig this.” But criticism isn’t my point here. My point is that there’s more to it than just what, sonically, I appreciate about the music.

Growing up, regardless of whatever auditory pleasures I found in it, the music I loved filled a void: apart from merely sounding great, it sounded cool to me specifically because it made me feel older, cooler, or more mature than other music did. And as I’ve gotten older (though not necessarily cooler or more mature), I think my growing love of rap is filling a void as well.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve often complained to friends that too much of my time has been spent in rumination, planning, and indecision, often resulting in inaction or procrastination. As a result,  I’ve sought to hone a sense of forthrightness and productivity. And while the hip-hop I’ve embraced offers a plethora of great qualities–unique, creative, and catchy beats; clever, powerful, and funny rhymes; honest, heartfelt, and compelling voices–most of my favorite rappers exude those traits, through their voices, work ethic, and that boom-boom-BAP that drives their drums and turntables.

Kanye and The Roots (especially ?uestlove) are workaholics.  Ghostface, Mos Def, and Biggie may be very different rappers, but none of them sound like ditherers. Even the rappers often perceived as “emotional” or “laid back” exude a self-assuredness that seems almost unbreakable. Just listen to this classic cut from A Tribe Called Quest:

The aloofness is completely owned. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip sound like the kind of guys who stay above the fray not because they’re timid, but because they know better.

To be sure, there is a lot of “assertive” rock that I love, too. But the confidence in the rap I’ve come to love often feels more genuine and more alive. And nothing is better when I need to get things done, or to put a bit of a strut in my step. (It should be noted that, without a doubt, throughout even among the best of the genre, this confidence often manifests itself in cockiness. And to be sure, there is a lot of rap filled with inane braggadocio. But for somebody who battles indecision, that confidence–and even, cockiness–can be inspiring, particularly when it comes from lyricists who are clever, powerful, funny, and smart.)

At least since the death of grunge, rap has been the most dominant form of popular music; it doesn’t need a defense from me, and there are many reasons to love it. This aspect is but one of them, but I think it’s one that’s been most instrumental to my recent embrace. Whatever the reason, my love of hip-hop is here to stay.

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