Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Real Hip Hop (Is Over Here) - Introduction

The following is the beginning of a series of personal thoughts and discussions about the place Hip Hop culture has had in my life; past, present and future.  I've considered this post for more than a couple of months, trying to sort and proof my recollections, but I came to the conclusion as usual that my stream of consciousness yields the most honest results. In fact, there's really not enough words I can attribute to my complicated relationship with the music and the culture.  As someone who grew up in the suburbs of New York and came to the birthplace of what we know as Hip Hop as a young adult saddled with a lifetime of issues, I cannot conscript my experiences to one post.  In fact, I cannot fairly tell this story alone; I hope that some of my fellow auteurs will follow my lead and contribute to the tale as well.  

Also as such, I wish I had more pictures to go along with my tale, but unfortunately many of my vintage photos and drawings were lost in the fire. The picture above was one I took during a sound check for a concert I worked for several years ago. It seems appropriate somehow...

The most difficult part of all of this isn't even where to begin, rather it's where to end. Because, as anyone who knows anything about Hip Hop, ya don't stop... 

Summer of 1985, one year into junior high. I began to attend a summer playground program a half-mile or more away from where I lived in the Mid-Hudson Valley.  Among the new friends I made there were a couple of kids who lived practically next to the park itself, and right next to each other: Tom Loughran and Mike Perrini. Tom was the oldest of five brothers of Irish descent, Mike was the son of the substitute nurse at my former elementary school. Both liked to ride BMX bikes and skateboards; Rad Boys if you will.  They also liked to listen to music. Mike hands me three vinyl albums he had and figured I would like: Escape (Whoudini), Fat Boys (Fat Boys) and King Of Rock (Run-DMC).  I gladly accepted them and took them home for a spin on my plastic Barkers record player...

This was not, repeat NOT my introduction to rap music or Hip Hop, though I was a fairly young boy. I distinctly remember listening with my brother and oldest sister when they played certain records and cassettes or tuned into the distant radio stations emanating from The City that I had some fond childhood memories of, but rarely visited. Instead, this became the catalyst for fully embracing the culture that was emerging from the far-flung boros and creeping out to distant sentinels in the tri-state area. Before that, I'd already become aware of the lifestyle, the language and the rhythm that was in simpatico with simmering yearnings for understanding myself.  Visions articulated in straight-talking poets over often synthesized rhythms and syncopated beats. It was an edgy contrast to the staid, laconic suburban environment I was developing in, but later realized I had a strange disconnect with at a crucial age when I had to learn to make decisions on my own. It corrected my own vision of the world in many ways; not always in good ways, but in ways that directly effected the decisions I would learn to make.

In hand, I was dealing with three distinctly different groups with different sounds, yet they all propelled me in seeing something I had not seen before, and if I did it was in a totally different way than I was used to.  I was transported and in subtle ways transformed. The first two albums had come out a year earlier and I had likely heard some of their tracks in the background, but now that I had the solid substance in front of me, I was able to clearly identify the names of all the tracks and the style of music they produced.  The last one was new, and combined what I was familiar with from the environs I was in with what was now piquing my interest the most.  Each had their own distinct style and evoked different moods and sensations in different ways, but it all led to the same conclusion: this was Hip-Hop; moreover it was a style that was emerging which was more sophisticated than the "party emcee" that until then dominated and battled with each other over simple break beats. This would later affectionately or derisively be called "The Golden Age". 

The funny thing about discovering something "new" is that you suddenly realize how much of it has been around you the whole time. Terry and Joseph had stockpiles of records and cassettes laden with soul, blues, funk, disco, jazz, classical and even some rock of various genres. There were also lots of comedy albums (that I wasn't really supposed to listen to)... but as I looked closer, I found Hip Hop albums mixed in the treasure trove as well. I didn't know Terry had Sugar Hill Gang with "Rapper's Delight" and I didn't know Joseph already had Fatback Band's "King Tim III" (which was actually released a few months before "Rapper's Delight" and thus is considered the first commercially released rap record). Of course they both had Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on vinyl... the funny thing was, although vinyl was fine, I gravitated towards the cassettes because they were not only more portable, but recordable as well. Plus, the record players I was able to use were not necessarily the best quality (ever try to scratch on a Fisher-Price record player? Yeah, don't bother), and Mom wasn't about to let me use hers, so again I borrowed whatever I could get my hands on to either listen or record.

I constructed intricate metal coat-hanger towers along the mantle in my bedroom towards the window so that I could get the best radio signal coming from the south (I picked up more than city signals at night) and then pressed whatever cassette player I had to the speaker of whatever radio I had to record the late night weekend rap shows I remembered hearing from time-to-time when I was a little younger.  My niece Anese (Nikki) would join me on occasion to listen in and help fine-tune the radio signal.  The first rap radio show I remember listening to fully was Mr. Magic on 107.5 WBLS, but soon enough I encountered 98.7 Kiss FM with Chuck Chillout on Fridays and Kool DJ Red Alert on Saturdays. I was peripherally aware of 92 KTU from earlier years of listening with my brother, but the KTU I knew disappeared in 1985; the same year I began to formally build a Hip Hop collection.

It didn't take long for the rest of my family to figure out what I was doing in that regard; within the next couple of years I was given even more albums and cassettes to add to my collection (Kurtis Blow, Ultramagnetic MCs and Boogie Down Productions were Christmas gifts), along with my ritual taping of Chuck Chillout and Red Alert (I took over for Joseph when he got a place of his own). Mom was tolerant to a point with my new-found obsession; she did complain about Public Enemy's very loud and repetitive hooks on their "Nation of Millions..." album for example, but I'm almost certain she was intrigued by some of the sounds and lyrics I was listening to.  Even Dorothy had occasion to catch one of the lyrics of a different song and repeat it (though more confounded more than anything else, let's say she wasn't necessarily a fan), and her off-work fashion sense could have been influenced to a certain degree by the prevailing R&B/Hip Hop fashion (there is a picture of us of which I noted that she had the perfect B-Girl stance).

The best part about this era was the proliferation of music stores, big and small, where I would eventually start buying and collecting vinyl and cassette albums of all the artists I was listening to on Fridays and Saturdays. Yes, vinyl and cassettes coexisted to a large degree in large part because the Walkman and boomboxes made cassettes viable, but vinyl was still popular and respected not only for the familiar "warmth" and dust ticks/pops, but also because they were an integral part of making the music and the sound effects that were genuinely part of the culture. It was out of this milieu that Cut-Up City was born. But I'll discuss Cut-Up City in another post...

To Be Continued!