I’ve been wanting to explain my furious and enduring love affair with the most exhilarating and uplifting forms of music on this green planet for some time now. Education takes many forms : my education in music is largely self-taught ; I’ve taken myself down elegant avenues and turned hard right with a handbrake turn on hearing a certain track. It is strange – I started my teenage years all full of Dire Straits and prog rock – Genesis, Yes, Marillion et al – but I held an eternal candle for the wild and fantastic: New Romanticism, the sub-operatics of Billy Mackenzie and the funky pizzazz with substance and heart that was ABC, doom-laden synths from Heaven 17 and The Human League.
As far back as I can remember, I was aware of difference in music. I started out with ABBA and Boney M, I knew disco and anthemic pop. Yet, I also remember Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambataa, Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, Rapper’s Delight, breakdancing, the crazy advent of The Beastie Boys and acts like Run DMC. These groups were exotic to me, creating sounds unlike anything else I had heard before. What I recall, even now, was the energy, the ire, the sheer verbal attack. The sounds of records being scratched and wondering why, whilst I grooved to ‘Ghostbusters’ by Ray Parker Jr and felt entranced by the ways Paul Weller was experimenting with funk and soul after leaving the post punk new wave of The Jam, spreading his wings with The Style Council. I revelled in difference, originality.
After leaving secondary school, I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to a school in America, about 30 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that my love started and has continued , grown, flourished and become more intense year on year. It might seem strange that a white home counties boy would dig a form of music that is so readily identifiable with African Americans. I can’t explain it, at this point, other than to say that I was fundamentally touched by rap, hip hop, the culture, the meaning, the mass deconstruction and subsequent reconstructions of sounds using samples from records that I may not have even experienced yet. I believe I fell hard for the rhythms, the rhymes, the backflipping poetry of it all for no other reason than I was caught up in it, unable and never wanting to escape.
I’ll try and explain as we go and explore some epiphanies. But, first, this – from ‘Go Ahead In The Rain’ by Hanif Abdurraqib, a volume I’ve been digging deeply over the last few weeks : ‘ …the first bits of hip-hop were born out of DJs breaking apart funk and disco beats and relegating every other sound to a graveyard until all that was left was the percussion, cut up into small, danceable portions for the people in the audience to sweat to.‘ This takes me straight to a club on the beach in Brighton, one cold, windy January evening. My girlfriend and I went to two clubs that night – the first was a hip hop night. I remember reaching into my sternum to extract the essence of what I was experiencing, whilst the snap-back, dirty groove of ‘No Diggity’ by Blackstreet coursed through my body. I can’t recall the other tracks but what remains crystal clear is the room awash with SMILING FACES. Joy echoed around that room for the time I was there, a joy I have experienced since, innumerable times.
Throughout my listening life, I have ploughed a lone furrow when it comes to hip hop, pulling along the odd fellow with me on my journey but mostly flying solo. I don’t mind that but, boy, I wish there were more souls to share my febrile passions with. So, I’m going to approach this as a remembrance of things past, present and future. Here goes…
I remember when – I first really met hip hop head on. It was the same time that I encountered R.E.M. and Steely Dan. I mean, they have also soundtracked special portions of life but The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and, even more importantly, Public Enemy were a blast to my cranium, a new experience like no other before or since. I mean, I was aware of reggae, soul and disco : the simple beauty of an endless groove, bumping urgently, an aphrodisiac of sorts, the sound of temptation, redolent of sweat and tremble. Here’s Mr Abdurraqib again : ‘But sweat isn’t always political – not when it’s the small river being formed between two warm bodies in the midst of some block party or basement or anywhere music is coming from hands touched to records.’ This sweat, this lingering spark would flow with and follow me for the next 30 plus years of my life. It still does, even now.
I remember when – Public Enemy first really HIT me and made sense. I was in Boston, 1989. I’d returned to see Boston again, at the end of my first year at University. I remember that summer due to three films, all of which impacted me in different ways : De Palma’s Casualties of War, Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and, most importantly, Do The Right Thing by Spike Lee. The opening credits of this film are incendiary. Rosie Perez executes an intensely physical street dance in front of brightly lit neon colours. At one point she dons boxing gloves, slinging at the shadows, at another she has a bright yellow skirt on and you can feel the sweat emanating from her pores. The soundtrack? ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy, a riotous call to arms, declamatory and SO LOUD, like nothing I had ever heard and perhaps never will again. It was, literally, a sledgehammer to my sensibilities : in that moment, I was reborn. Chuck D’s voice was like MLK and Malcolm X amplified, a pure, righteous teacher, a bolt from the blue into black power.
I remember when – I returned to America, again, in 1993 and toured around, settling in the deep South for a short while. During that tour, I browsed in an Atlanta record store and picked up a bunch of Public Enemy CDs and lots of other hip hop which I later crammed into my luggage. That was the year I acquired my first CD player – I had bought those discs in anticipation.
I remember when – I was travelling with a Walkman tape player – yes, really – and sitting on a Greyhound bus, travelling within New Hampshire, heading down to Rhode Island. I had Ice Cube’s ‘The Predator’ on one side, ‘The Low End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest on the other. Talk about a match made in heaven. Cube was angry, the production was raw, vicious, terrifying even. His raps were pointed, in your face, overflowing with the tumult of youth and anger at the racism within society : this was around the time of Rodney King being beaten nearly to a pulp by the LAPD. It was a challenging time for race relations in the US. The Tribe, meantime, were bringing conscious knowledge to the fore, sampling jazz and funk and bringing some perfectly executed rhymes courtesy of Q Tip and Phife Dawg. The bass lines courtesy of Ron Carter (who’d worked with the Miles Davis Quintet), were sublime, chest-high, locked in, addictive. I couldn’t get enough, ever.
I remember when – I read the end of year list of best albums for 1994 in NME. Nestled in at around 25 in the top 50 was an album that would not only completely redefine hip hop as a art form but would act as a new level of revelation for me personally. ‘Illmatic’ by Nas is as close to perfection as any single album could ever be. Just over 37 minutes in length, staggering in its lyrical scope and complexity, the musings of a 21 year old Queensbridge resident are set against some the most astonishing productions and samples. It is like a roll of honour – DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q Tip rewrote the rule book. I went on to meet people between 1995 and beyond and would rant rapidly and rabidly about the genius I had encountered. It might have been in a pub, at a party, in a cafe, wherever, maybe even a record store. Still, to this day, it resides firmly in my top 5 favourite albums. I willingly share and publicise this to any soul that will listen to my insistent resistance to anyone NOT knowing about it. That’s it – ‘Illmatic’ by Nas.
I remember when – the two times I saw Public Enemy live. First was at Reading Festival in 1993, the same year that Nirvana headlined on the Sunday. The experience was motivational and then some. The flat field set in a featureless landscape became a hotbed of undiluted hedonism and rampant self-expression. That field transformed into a sprung dance floor, like a green, grass-fed trampoline. I was floating on a luminescent high, thousands of people around me, smiling, flamingoes flying from their craniums – or something. The next time was at the Royal Festival Hall for Lee Scratch Perry’s Meltdown Festival – mid June, as I recall; it may have been 2000. The audience sat politely in the not so cheap seats. Shortly Flavor, Chuck, Terminator and the Security of the First World emerged, fully-formed as ever. The place went bonkers, bananas, the ceiling collapsed upwards, peeps leapt from those seats and started finding space to bump, party in the make believe street, celebrate, just simply rejoice in the glorious noise coming in from all 6 corners – at least that is how it felt.
I remember when – I would troop down to Leather Lane, on the edge of the City of London, into the local record shop whose name escapes me, past the broken biscuits and dodgy batteries being sold off the back of a lorry, adjacent to Hatton Garden and its diamond emporiums. As I slowed up, I scanned the racks of CDs. This is where I first discovered Wu Tang Clan and countless other acts, picking up on The Roots, no doubt, whilst also deepening my love of house and techno music. It was all there ready to be discovered. The Wu Tang were another shock to my sensibilities, the production skills of RZA completely flooring me with slowed down samples, found film dialogue about Shaolin Ninjas, dexterous sword play and some of the illest, phattest rhyming from luminaries like Method Man, Chef Raekwon and the perfectly monickered Ghostface Killah. I was standing there, all suit and tied, revelling in this new reality, wanting it more and more, finding the sounds irresistible still.
It was around this time I came across the West Coast sound – Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg et al. I was already aware of N.W.A, Ice T [perhaps the very greatest name for a rapper, ever] and Cube, I’d seen ‘Boyz N The Hood’ and been slain by its all too powerful and prevalent message. Snoop had an utterly ridiculous, smooth as caramel flow, Dre’s production skills were sublime. My love for the West reached its summit when I encountered the supernatural skills of Kendrick Lamar some 15 years later. The first time I heard ‘Good Kid, Madd City’ I was a little taken aback : it was an anti-Gangsta LP. He was ruminating on religious faith, the perils of drinking, the family unit – it was a concept album unlike anything I had heard, with 10 minute long tracks, intimate and revelatory story telling but unafraid to be vulnerable and doubtful about the choices he and his peers were making in a clearly and cruelly divided society.
I remember when – ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ came out. I listened to it solidly for weeks on end, soundtracking my commute into Exeter, my head flipping open at the sheer, incandescent beauty of those lyrics, the way Kendrick could generate and mutate within three different vocal deliveries in the space of one song. Ridiculous talent, again and over again.
I have forgotten to mention another double moment. I remember when – I first heard ‘Three Feet High and Rising’ by De La Soul. This was a multi-coloured celebration of life’s essence and woke me up from any possible slumber I might have been falling into. One of the most quotable albums in hip hop history, a bit like Pulp Fiction : you just want to keep coming back to it, again and again. Posdnous, Trugoy the Dove and DJ Maseo hooked up with Prince Paul and made history. Remember now, this was created in 1989 and it STILL sounds relevant and forward thinking in 2020. That’s 31 years, more than half of my lifetime. They have stayed with me, a constant, friendly companion throughout the ups and downs.
When I saw DLS play the Jazz Cafe around my birthday in the early 2000s, it was a dream fully realised. On the smallest stage imaginable the dynamic trio bossed the area, surrounded by a gleaming sea of smiles, bouncing, call and responsing, my own broad grin seemingly about to lead to self-decapitation. Memories are made of this type of holy experience.
I remember when – hearing ‘Poor Georgie’ by MC Lyte which subtly sampled Toto and laid claim to heartbreak with aplomb and genuine emotion. I remember when – every damn time I hear ‘The World Is Yours’ by Nas, I find it difficult it hold back the tears. Yes, I have not experienced the pain and loss he refers to in that poetic diatribe but does that matter? We often live vicariously but I admire his integrity, the realness, the authenticity. I remember when I heard Jean Grae for the first time, experienced the sternum cracking flow of Rapsody, both women absolutely owning the mic and making me smile at their fountains of flow.
I am discovering and rediscovering hip hop every week, as I am with other forms of music – genres, sub-genres, embracing difference. Some of this goes back to the early 80s, 90s, all of it makes my head nod, my lips part in astonishment, my heart beat faster, my limbs want to contort in unknown formations, makes me want to write about it, write for myself, revel in the knowledge that ‘Bonita Applebum’ by A Tribe Called Quest has a beat made up from FIVE separate samples, that my head still nods, that I don’t really care whether anyone else cares about my lifelong obsession, my passion that takes so little to be rekindled. That Mos Def is the most underrated, polysyllabic rapper who has ever taken to the Mic.
One final memory. I remember a night in Exeter, The Phoenix. I’d picked up a ticket, flying solo again. I was unbearably excited. I turned up and saw movement on the floor. near to the stage. Yup, breakdancing, some serious breakdancing. The crowd was amiable and pumped for the occasion. The DJ played out some banging joints from the past – some Gang Starr [I could write a whole blog about them alone], Naughty by Nature, Eric B and Rakim, the usual. Then, just as it seemed the crowd couldn’t be more hyped, on the stage, eruptions, minor earthquakes. The tears flowed, I screamed like a teenager, even though I was in my late 40s. KRS One – Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone. Just thinking about that night causes me to lose a little control. For an hour, the true maestro, the teacher, the philosopher held us in the palm of his hand, his flow mercurial and effortless, his message as relevant and hard-hitting in 2018 as it was in 1985.
In school, I talk about my love for hip hop to most of my students. I do this not because I think it makes me trendy and ‘down’. No, I do it because this music, this movement means EVERYTHING to me. So when I tell my Year 11s that J Cole is a genius, I expect them to check him out and have their eyes opened, their minds even wider, letting the rays of influence in.
Now, I just need to find a way to use this in my teaching… so many possibilities.