(Non)-Rappers’ Lament

I’ve really been in a bad place lately, and, honestly, even the most caring of you who remain might be exhausted by now with any expressions of it.  Suffice to say that the more I seem to want to make progress, the more life throws me additional unforeseen expenses, curve balls and obsracles that get it the way of anything I plan and I continue to exist merely for the prospect of a tomorrow rather than find much to truly be happy about in the moment.

And as I began to see more and more in my inbox regarding an upcoming milestone that I probably should know a lot more about than I do, and I came to the realization that at best I was merely qualified enough to acknowledge it appropriately, and perhaps learn something in the process, it became apparent to me that despite what one might see at first blush, I seem to have more in common with some folks I never met who did something monumental a half-century ago a mere borough and bridge away from me than anyone I knew at the time in my isolated little world.

As Wikipedia recalled:

On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc was a disc jockey and emcee at a party hosted by himself and his younger sister Cindy at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.[25] She wanted to earn extra cash for back-to-school clothes, so she decided to throw a party where her older brother, then just 18 years old, would play music for the neighborhood in their apartment building. She promoted the event with flyers and organized the party.[26] She also styled her brothers clothes for the party.[27]

Specifically, DJ Kool Herc:

extended an instrumental beat (breaking or scratching) to let people dance longer (break dancing) and began MC’ing (rapping) during the extended breakdancing. … [This] helped lay the foundation for a cultural revolution.

Herc in 1999 holding James Brown’s Sex Machine album

According to music journalist Steven Ivory, in 1973, Herc placed on the turntables two copies of Brown’s 1970 Sex Machine album and ran “an extended cut ‘n’ mix of the percussion breakdown” from “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”, signaling the birth of hip hop.[28].

And thus a Jamaican immigrant born Clive Campbell, a couple of years older than me, who lived in a building I used to ride by when visiting my mother’s best friend who lived on nearby Gun Hill Road, summer visits I looked forward to because unlike my neighborhood they had Bungalow Bar ice cream trucks and boy, were their vanilla sandwiches GOOD!, gave birth to a genre that now captures the fancy and attention of literally the coolest, sexiest and yep, hippest, people I know.

And if you would have asked me to spot any one who has helped to make hip-hop music an institution in the 50 years since in either a step and repeat or a police lineup, you would realize exactly how clueless I am about it.  And why some of these extremely cool and sexy people think I’m such a ridiculous excuse for a person.

Sure, even I have heard of the Sugarhill Gang, who broke through with the first mainstream hip hop release to reach Billboard’s Top 40 when RAPPERS’ DELIGHT hit number 36 in early 1980.  Back then, I was probably at the peak of what some could even argue was coolness.  I had just come into some money, I actually had a girlfriend for the first time in my life, and a day didn’t go by without several people picking up a phone or even stopping by.  I was “cool” then.  At least by the minimal standards of what I thought it was.

Clearly, I never was cool enough to know much more as the genre exploded.  The next time it even crossed my path at all was a decade later when I was involved in the launch of a stealth TV series that flew under the radar on the FOX TV stations that I was responsible for.  It was an extremely low-cost effort, heavily reliant upon music videos which labels eagerly supplied for free to anyone willing to air them.  MTV was still reluctant to air a lot of the more controversial content that less mainstream labels were producing, and BET had yet to be absorbed by Viacom and become a true brand extension and compliment.  So there was a market opportunity–it would be foolish though accurate to call it a “white area”–for hip-hop videos to be aired.  And so I helped launch what turned out to be in hindsight a groundbreaking show called PUMP IT UP!, which cast a then 19-year-old rapper named Dee Barnes, one-half of a female rap team called BODY AND SOUL, as the on-air host that would interview the performers in between the videos.

I met Barnes shortly after we launched the show, largely relegated to late-late night time slots on most of our stations, and was immediately the subject of some gentle teasing, as I was perhaps one of the least aware people who knew exactly how popular she already was in her world.  Bestowing me with a pair of blackout glasses and some fake chains we used as promotional giveaways, I was dubbed “Le Bling”.  Somewhere, someone might have a picture of me in that get up, where I dare say I probably looked ridiculous.

Which is why when I learned why Barnes left the show shortly after that I was especially saddened.  Again, per Wiki:

An episode of Pump It Up! combined interviews with N.W.A and Ice Cube, shortly after N.W.A had dissed Ice Cube with their 100 Miles and Runnin’ album. The clips are shown in part in the second episode of The Defiant Ones. Dee Barnes said in the episode that there was a bad energy in the interview with N.W.A and every answer seemed to involve a diss to Ice Cube. In production, this was then combined with Barnes’s interview with Ice Cube in which he dissed N.W.A and also cruelly mimicked The DOC‘s voice, shortly after a near-fatal accident. This caused great offense to Dr. Dre, who was a close friend of The DOC.

On January 27, 1991, Dr. Dre encountered Barnes at a record release party in Hollywood. According to Barnes, he picked her up by her hair and “began slamming her head and the right side of her body repeatedly against a brick wall near the stairway” as his bodyguard held off the crowd with a gun. After Dr. Dre tried to throw her down the stairs and failed, he began kicking her in the ribs and hands. She escaped and ran into the women’s restroom. Dr. Dre followed her and “grabbed her from behind by the hair again and proceeded to punch her in the back of the head”. Finally, Dre and his bodyguard ran from the building.[6]

I’m kind of glad in hindsight that the headphones I now use most often are not Beats.

And I didn’t much about hip-hop in the ensuing years, when my life partners were far more into Disney tunes and Big Band tunes.  Until I briefly shared a life and a venue where up and coming rappers were friends and neighbors, openly producing content in their garages as the appealing allure of ganga permeated the stifling hot air of our neighborhood as I graciously walked my roommate’s friend’s Yorkie–or, rather, it walked me.  I was often invited in to be an impartial judge of the sound being created, to share a blunt, and for the artist to confess he was somehow just trying to get a bead on how available my roommate might be, because he always seem to notice that I was often offering her a ride somewhere.  He somehow thought she was my “homie”.  If only,  But at least I got some good conversation and a much-needed hit or two out of it, not to mention a renewed appreciation for the creative degree ifpoetry and emotion that rappers pour into their work,

I realized that for as smart and as creative as I am, I couldn’t even come close to his talents.  So as I thought about those very brief times when I felt like I was more of a part of life, I turned to everyone’s favorite crutch these days, Microsoft Bard, to try and create a hip-hop song that could express exactly what and why I’m feeling so so sad today.  Here’s what it apologetically just spit out:

I still remember the good times, when we were happy and free We used to laugh and have fun, we used to be a team But then you changed your mind, and said you wanted more You said you found someone better, and walked out the door

Chorus: How could you do this to me, after all we’ve been through? How could you walk away from me, when I was so in love with you? How could you break my heart so bad, and leave me here alone? How could you forget about us, and move on with someone new?

I suppose if I added some effects and had a voice like my neighbor, it might even be somewhat appealing.  Reading it, I realize it’s far better for me to try and be a better fan.

There’s plenty of celebrating going on to mark this monumental occasion.  For example, as USA TODAY’s Anna Kaufman reported:

This week, a new exhibit in New York threw its hat in the ring. To mark the dawn of hip-hop in all its industry-making, genre-melding glory Hall des Lumière is putting that history up on the walls (literally.)

The converted bank in downtown Manhattan debuted “Hip Hop Til Infinity” this week, an immersive experience complete with projections and surround sound. The display is part of a growing trend of ‘step inside the art’ style presentations hosted by museums and cultural centers.

And last week, THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Veronica Chambers published and dropped an homage which is best digested by clicking below.  I know I felt inspired by it.  I’d give anything to share it with the people who reminded me exactly how cool it can be to be a part of that world.

Happy birthday, hip-hop.  I’m glad you provide something for special people to smile about.  Perhaps someday soon so will I.

Until next time…

Hip-Hop, 50 Years Later: Still a Love Language – The New York Times (nytimes.com)




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