“Well, hip-hop is what makes the world go ’round.”
– Snoop Dogg
I should have started this letter in the 6th grade while wearing my gray and white Allen Iverson shoes. I don’t suppose the prose will be all that different; I will try to keep things brief and stick to something resembling a “main idea” or “thesis.” At times, though, I may get a bit distracted. There may be tangents. I might catch an image, a halfthought exiting my brain, and decide to hold it – to entertain it – awhile. I hope this happens. It would be appropriate, tonally and topically.
Because I’m writing to you about rap music.
You are, directly and indirectly, why I love rap music (henceforth “hip hop” – it’s the term I’ve always preferred). I hope you cringed slightly when you read that. You are why I’ve endured so many “n-words” (a word you don’t pronounce and, frankly, neither do I) and “bitches” (a term I, too, loathe) over the past two decades. You are why I kept CDs like Capital Punishment and Hits, Rarities, and Remixes – their bottoms scratched and sheered to obscurity – when I reduced my presence in your house to a single box.
Without you – and without Ryan, of course – I don’t think I’d have cared about hip hop for so long.
Let’s start at the Sam Goody in the Janesville, Wisconsin shopping mall. An unlikely place for a hip hop revolution, but the beginning of mine. At an indeterminant age, but certainly a teen age, I was forced to exchange one of my early hip hop infatuations, The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem, for a clean “Parental Guidance” copy.
You made me swap it, of course, and now, having taught middle schoolers for a few years, I can hardly blame you. It’s probably because you overheard Eminem proclaim: “Hey, Slim, that’s my girlfriend screaming in the trunk, / But I didn’t slit her throat, I just tied her up,” or maybe you passed by the bathroom once and took in a different contemplation: “I just drank a fifth of vodka – dare me to drive?”
Your repulsion was toward the violence – of all sorts, a menagerie for the depraved – of his lyrics, I’m betting. Again, I’ve never felt more simpatico with your view than when I heard a 6th grader sing:
“Let a n—– try me, try me. / I’ma get his whole motherfuckin’ family, / And I ain’t playin’ with nobody. / Fuck around and I’ma catch a body.”
That’s from Dej Loaf, by the way.
I’ve always assumed you didn’t want to accept discord, even the symbolic kind, in my life. Your efforts were sheltering, and I will always love you for them. I imagine that, in many senses, hip hop felt like a rapturous discord to the life we were attempting.
Listening to Eminem is not synonymous with going to a church sermon on Sunday, or volunteering with your grandfather, or joining a YMCA youth sports team. You defined our family’s parameters beautifully, measuring meticulously and correcting for some unexpected variables, like the emotional and literal abandonment of an alcoholic father or a sudden career change.
Presented on these terms and in this rather calculated definition, hip hop would have seemed an unacceptable addition to our life, and I believe this is how you felt. My hope here, in this letter, is to prove it otherwise. My hope is to show you that my love for hip hop did not spawn from your hatred – rather, it descended from your love.
I would never try to convince you that misogyny, violence, or substance abuse are acceptable; you raised me too well to construct or even consider a defense of those things. And yes, hip hop is rife with those sins. I don’t think this letter is the place wherein I approach hip hop’s treatment of those topics individually, nor do I even feel especially qualified to do so. And my grandest hope is that by the end of this, I won’t have to.
I’ll now return us to what will always feel like the beginning of it all: that small rebellion in Janesville’s Sam Goody. The simplistic plot – acquiring something forbidden, testing boundaries, brashly, seeing what was acceptable – is a cliché so ingrained in our culture I would blame no person for overlooking it.
Hip hop was rebellion.
In my early teens, how could I resist? It struck me as entirely renegade: utterly Western and downright Eastwood. Though the hip hop album covers of the 90’s and 00’s developed their own neon-soaked gaudiness, vacuums of cash and women and cars and jewelry and excess, I’ve always felt that the artist or group plus a six shooter would, too, suffice.
No adult I knew listened to hip hop. No one’s parents put it on in the car, or while grilling out, or before 4th of July fireworks. Though MTV was popularizing it a bit, airwaves still overwhelmingly favored pop music. So sensible, of course, but no teenage rebellion seeks sense.
My early teens, like most, were my first measurement – crucially – of self. It’s a time to try, and to become. Though I’ve met – and adored – students who arrive at a proxy-of-parent definition of self, those young people who help calculate grocery bills and remember to turn off lights and close refrigerator doors, I opted for hip hop and skateboarding and always forgetting where I left my socks.
While the process itself is profound, and Great Works have explored it thoroughly, my rebellion with hip hop – my escapade – was anything but. It was unformed, amateurish. Sure, I heard Eminem croon about girls going “’round the outside” and Nelly pine for “dubs,” but of those things, I knew nothing.
I can now admit, in the uncomfortable self-actualization of my late 20’s, that I hardly spent my early days affixed on hip hop’s lyricism. That was what rock music was for. I reserved my school bus mumbles and whisper choruses for emo-rock-punk tracks from bands like Incubus, Linkin Park, and Taking Back Sunday.
I grew up in comforts – of economics, of race, of time and place – and those bands manufactured a type of understated melancholy I understood. Hip hop will never be that, because it cannot be. While at football practice or on the bus or in a friend’s basement playing video games, Linkin Park could remind me:
“Cover up your face.
You can’t run the race.
The pace is too fast.
You just won’t last.”
Desensitized and abstract, it was me; we understood each other.
The same year that Linkin Park sang those lyrics, Chicago-based rapper Common reminded the world:
“You not gon’ respect self, at least respect the heritage.
Affecting lives is where the wealth and the merit is.
I realize what I portray day to day, I gotta carry this,
And beats, rhymes, and life is where the marriage is.”
What did I know of heritage? Of merit? Of respect? Of even affect?
And the obvious depths of hip hop were only revealed later, and luckily, too, because my teenage self would have had no appreciation. Or context.
I didn’t deserve hip hop, then. Accordingly, like most teenagers, I wasted away on lesser works. Of course Eminem was my hip hop Bunker Hill. Of course I would have died for him, then. He was aggressive, and foul, and sexual, and I had to try it, all of it, from the distant immediacy of a speaker or headphones.
I was having none of it in real life, real time. I planted roses with Grampy at Rotary Gardens; I traveled on Caravan youth group trips; I ate the meals you prepared for me, in a home, with its electricity bill paid and its heating accounted for.
This is a distance that I am describing, and I know by now that you’ve noticed. My rebellion crossed a vast distance, one I hardly noticed in the year 2000 and one which I’ve not stopped considering since. You drove the 10 minutes from our home to the Sam Goody in the Janesville, Wisconsin mall, but neither of us knew that this distance could not be measured in gallons of gasoline, or tracked by an odometer. Where hip hop has taken me, guided me, can only be measured in time – and the knowledge of the self.
Of my teenage vestiges, of those brief moments when I pay to watch Girl’s “Yeah, Right!” skateboarding video on Youtube or when I listen to “Smile in Your Sleep” by Silverstein, hip hop is the only one from which I anticipate – or expect – omnipresence.
I cannot imagine my life without it.
Even now, at 12:43 AM, engrossed in an album titled “Clairvoyant” by a progressive metal band called The Contortionist, I cannot envision my life without hip hop. At times, you no doubt find its presence antithetical to the life I’m trying to build; one modeled on the life you gave me. I understand.
But as all rebellions end to make way for planning and construction, so, too, did my rebellious love of hip hop. And what I’ve since acquired and continue to build, what I’d describe as a desire of Otherness, a love of the Other, will always be your legacy. An amorphous legacy you passed – and I’ve forged it in hip hop.
I employ, and will continue to employ, “Other” in a way that is purposefully broad.
But an example may help illustrate.
We took to a trip to Marquette University’s campus in the Spring of 2008. It was chilly without snowfall – a perfect Wisconsin day. And, as failing to navigate Milwaukee’s highways and roads was well ingrained as a family tradition, we were a bit lost. And we were quite obviously going to be late to the campus tour. I flouted, my irritation – maybe even my fury – obvious; hatred of tardiness is another inheritance, though passed down from your father.
This predated smartphones and GPS devices, so you got off the highway and approached the first gas station you saw. It was a place of Other like I had never seen – except, of course, in hip hop music videos. Each person at the gas station was black. Clenching, I balked and recommended that you try somewhere else; I meant, but did not say, anywhere else. Leading, you laughed and left me the keys with a wry, knowing smile. You walked inside while I surveyed my surroundings, doubting if any of the pumps even worked. This was the first time I’d seen several cars with honest, sparkling rims.Then, because of the directions they gave you, we made it to Marquette’s campus on time.
It would be too reductive to say that this moment led me to attend that school; of course, it would be absurd to ignore that it was your open-minded approach to Otherness which gave me the confidence to try life in a city like Milwaukee.
A city which holds nearly 70% of the state’s African American population. A city for which segregation is both all-too-measurable but also immeasurable in the way its name is whispered, often hushed, by non-residents.
A city which our high school head football once described to me as a place he would not traverse “in broad daylight.”
While walking the hallways of Janesville Parker High School, I often bopped about to A Tribe Called Quest, learning that “as we start our travels, things they will unravel,” which contains a halfway prescience. I do believe college was the start of my personal travels – both emotional and intellectual – but the unraveling began years before, with you. It began at sometime around the Weird Al Yankovic concert you suffered with Ryan and me, continued at the library and later at Camp Manitowish, and is still continuing in Charlotte, North Carolina.
And no, before you ask (though it’s likely crossed your mind): the Other is not simply a grappling with or awareness of my racial identity. That would not wholly explain why I became a Marxist in college, or why I read the entire New Testament, or why I decided to join Teach For America.
You always preferred keeping the windows open during a hot summer day, never escaping to the comforts of man-manipulated air. That’s Otherness, to me, too. You have given much of yourself, and your life, to care for your father in his time beyond twilight. You let Ryan and I paint our bedrooms, and you took us to see “Jackass: The Movie.”
This is all Otherness, too – at least, it is to me. Some of it is profound, yes, and some of it is not. That sentence is hip hop.
You have had plenty of reasons to cloister, to live a life devoid of exploration. But you calculated more for yourself, and for Ryan and I. You must have known that I would notice; I hope you are proud that the manner in which you lived has determined many of my own mannerisms.
In middle school, I made a clay plate with Pablo Picasso’s Guernica crudely recreated in the center. Even then, I knew that Guernica is more than grotesque murder from a war I never waged; and I knew that because of you.
Hip hop, like any artform, is more than the Otherness it embodies.
Sampling, the underrated historicism by which artists scavenge the vibrant catacombs of jazz and funk and rock for new sound, keeps me coming back.
The poetry of its lyrics, the sheer Aristotelian rhetoric, keeps me coming back.
The heckle of Kendrick Lamar’s voice in “Mortal Man,” and the booming disgust in Run the Jewel’s “Lie, Cheat, Steal,” keep me coming back.
But these are not your legacies. I would love to explain them to you – I just felt it more urgent to expose your own reverberations, here. To walk you to the top and let you stare at your own Wonders awhile.
Although many of my friends have noted, at times in awe and often in confusion, my love of hip hop, so few ask: Why?
Why do you keep coming back to this music, even as 28-year-old white man, a person to whom this must mean so little?
It’s about the Other, of course. It’s why I’ve re-read Dubliners, though I’ve never been to Ireland. It’s why I’ve re-watched “Citizen Kane,” though I’ve never worked for a newspaper or ran for political office.
This is the purpose of any artistic endeavor: to convey through pain, through exploration of self, the Otherness of existence, and to help us better understand it. It’s one of the first things you taught me, Mom. It’s empathy. You instilled it, and so – here I am, switching from progressive metal to listen to The Notorious B.I.G. on a Thursday evening.
I am your son – Why wouldn’t I be listening to hip hop?
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