My father loved music. I remember him bringing home new 45s whenever he made a run to NYC for his job. The day he brought home the O’Jays’ She Used to Be My Girl was one I’ll never forget. I kept asking him to play it again… and again. It is probably, with the exception of Message in the Music and Forever Mine, my favorite O’Jays song. Most times, he’d also pick up a new needle for the record player, because if it was a record he particularly liked, it would have to sound extra crisp. Y’all youngsters don’t know nothin’ about vinyl…needles, etc. but that popping, hissing and crackling (chicken grease) you heard when you put the needle in the groove was pure anticipation. I remember saving my allowance just so I could buy the latest 45 single when we went to the mall. Side A was usually the hit record but every once in a while you’d catch an equally hot Side B.
Hip Hop Roots
What started me writing is music – but specifically, hip-hop. “Rap” is not what it used to be – not that that’s a bad thing. I love the movie “Brownsugar” (Sanaa, Taye) because it paralleled my introduction and relationship with hip-hop/music. Especially since I thought I might outgrow “rap.” It has grown up as well. My hip-hop experience started when I was 14 or 15. I grew up outside of NYC, but we were able to get most of the radio stations, 92KTU, 98.7 KISS and 107.5 WBLS – if the weather was clear. Why? Because we ain’t had no digital music, man. We ain’t had no Innanet. Why, in my day we had… we had… never mind. That’s where it started for me – circa 1985. Back then, my mother would wrinkle up her nose and say, “Why are they just talking over the music?” I rather liked it. I catch her nodding her head now.
Some of my best memories were listening to DJ Red Alert on Saturday nights. “Yeh-eeeeeeaaaas.” He would spin hit after hit in the span of a few hours, some of which I would record. Now, we didn’t have a line-in for the stereo, so we would rig up a cassette recorder in front of the speaker. Those early recordings had all kinds of extra noises: dogs barking, Mom dropping pots and pans in the kitchen, car horns… you name it. I could still hear the music, and that’s what was most important.
I’m sort of amazed that I had access to hip-hop at all. Our area was pretty pastoral… with farms and wayward cows in the yard on occasion. There was a housing complex about a mile or so from where we lived that put us in touch with other black/Latino youth. My sister and I would ride our bikes there to hang out with friends we’d made or watch the boys play basketball. They’re playing bask-et-baaallll. Yeah, I had a Jheri curl, but I was cute, or so I thought. Gosh, if I could only get the booty I had when I was 15 back again. *sigh* Anyway, on one of these outings, the local breaking crew came out with their flattened cardboard boxes, preparing to dance in the parking lot near the basketball court. A few of the guys were beat-boxing while some took turns free-styling. I was fascinated. One of the boys brought out his “boom box.” (I always thought that was a silly name for a portable radio. They killed Radio Raheim!!) I recognized the song immediately and began to bop my head. “Six minutes, six minutes, six minutes, Dougie Fresh you’re on. Uh uh on. Uh uh on. Real real real, uh uh on.” I’m sure I was also grinning like a fool since it was one of my favorite songs at the time. The Show. LaDiDaDi. Man. Classic. I remember one of the boys asking me why I, being a girl, liked rap. “Shut the eff up. Hot. Damn. Ho – here we go again.” But I loved it all: Mantronix, Dougie Fresh, SlickRick, Lyte, Biz, Eric B & Rakim, RUN-DMC, LL, TLaRock, Furious Five, Sugar Hill Gang, Schoolly D, FatBoys, KRS-One, BDP, A Tribe Called Quest, DeLaSoul, EPMD, Special Ed, Whodini, lawd… and one of my all time favorites, Public Enemy. I felt like I’d lost fam when people like Scott LaRock, Jam Master Jay, Freaky Tah, Tupac, Biggie, Rick James, Luther, Lou Rawls…passed. My list of favorites is too long to put here, but that’s where it began. It has never died.
The Boom Bap
There’s something about a beat that makes me go into convulsions. The rhyme or lyric that’s so profound and so smooth, it still hits me in the head twenty years later. A tight hook, well placed sample, the boom-bap, the chicka-chickaaah, the BASS. If I’m really quiet sometimes, I can hear the wondrous flow that is Bonita Applebaum. Snippets of lyrics play in my mind, sneak into my consciousness when I meditate, weave their way into my writing and speech. Little known trivia: The name of my business came from the lyrics of an old Redman song. He said “OW! Sh*%! I’m just One Hip Nic-ka.” While lyrics are important, if it has that serious beat, hook, etc., I’m good.
The requisite for tracks on my ultimate hip-hop playlist are:
– must have the ability to make me move even if I have a migraine and every muscle in my body is aching
– makes me pull out old school moves and act a damn fool
– makes me run it back 10-30 times before letting the whole thing play
– transports me to another place
Music of any kind, for me, is about passion. When music first became available on the Internet, I thought I would lose my mind. I recovered music I had lost or only had on cassette. I cried. Because, like many folks, my life has a soundtrack. There’s a John Cusack movie, High Fidelity I think… and I’m like his character in the movie: certain albums cover certain periods in my life. Certain songs carry great significance. Some are hip-hop, some are R&B. For example, in high school, I went to no soccer game, basketball game or track meet without my Walkman and my RUN-DMC and Public Enemy tapes. The song I had to hear before a basketball game was “Set It Off” by Strafe. My first two years of college it was Nice & Smooth. Dope not hype it’s dope. Dookie gold. (What the hell is that?) When I broke up with my first real boyfriend, it was Chante Moore’s Love Supreme. When my father died, it was Midnight Marauders – A Tribe Called Quest. I don’t know what it was/is about that whole album, but I’ve bought it four times — twice on cassette and twice on CD. Could be their beats, fusion with jazz samples, Tip’s hypnotic voice… don’t know, but I would listen to it for hours and hours. So much so that even now, if I hear just one song off the album, I expect to hear the beginning of the next song. I guess it was the perfect background music for my life at that time. As fate would have it, I got to see a DeLaSoul/ATCQ show when I was in college.
And it goes on… Kelly Price’s Soul of a Woman got me through a heartbreak. And while I was figuring out who I was to become, Redman’s Muddy Waters put me in touch with my grimy side and made me want to knock people the &*^% out. Gotta love his stankin’ ass. Def Squad’s El Nino defined an entire summer for me. Y’all ni88as ain’t ready. Lauryn educated me with her Miseducation. Nothing even mattered. Erykah had me hooked on Baduizm. Jill Scott soothed and comforted and astounded. And John Stephens (Legend). I just love that guy.
So is music important to me? Yeah. It is. Very. Ironically, as it relates to relationships, the best and pardon the pun, and most “harmonious” relationships I had were ones where they shared my love of music – even if it wasn’t my taste. This reminds me of someone I met once who owned NO music. No cassettes, no CDs, no vinyl or 8-tracks. That had to be about the strangest thing I could ever imagine. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford it. Even broke music lovers find ways to get their fix. He just didn’t own a radio, cassette or CD player because he didn’t like anything enough to buy it. ??? So I started thinking, if we were front row at an indoor Earth Wind and Fire concert… and they start to perform “Reasons” LIVE, he might decide at that moment that he needs to go outside… to check the air pressure of the tires… of a friend’s car… in another state…no thanks. I’m pretty certain he was gay too, just hadn’t admitted it to himself. Just be who you are. Damn. So if he stifled who he really was, then maybe he was stifling any like/love of music.
Many men I’ve dated have been ex-DJs or just had massive collections. Like me, their taste ranged from Motown classics, to reggae, to hip-hop, to 80’s pop/rock, to jazz and gospel. Sometimes jazz and gospel make me cry. Not outright sobbing usually… I just flow with it. A few years ago, I went to the Blue Note to see Arturo Sandoval. The opening act was Jane Monheit/Quartet. She sings many of Ella’s songs, as well as other standards but her voice is heaven. I *wept* when she sang Over the Rainbow. (They had a two drink minimum so maybe it was partly the liquor!) John Legend does that to me as well. He could sing the alphabet… and I would be happy. I consider myself pretty rational and emotionally stable but it just gets me. Right. Heah.
My preference still? Old school. I might throw on something jazzy like Jane, Chris Botti, Joshua Redman. If I’m feeling funky, it’s gotta be Rick James, Teddy P or James Brown. Further back? O’Jays, Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, Temptations, Four Tops… Love that Philly sound. Groovin’: Shalimar, Loose Ends, Patrice Rushen, Groove Theory, Dru Hill…. Most days, as I work, I can be caught listening to RunDMC, Redman, ATCQ, DeLa, Black Moon, Lost Boyz, MCLyte or Slick Rick. I’m having a really difficult time locating BizMarkie songs. Which saddens me greatly.
Speaking of sad, my great great aunt, who is the only “grandmother” I had growing up, has a progressive disease and is nearing the end of her life. She’s 94, but her mind is plenty sharp. We visit often and just sit with her. The doctors figure she’s through and can’t/won’t do anything for her, so she’s on pain medication most of the time. They thought she’d be gone by now but she’s tough. The other day, as she slept, I decided I would sing for her. I couldn’t remember what she liked so I asked my mother. She told me to sing something old. The song that came to mind was “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Funny, I didn’t realize how significant the lyrics were: “I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go…” I didn’t know all the words so I hummed… and my mother laughed at me. So I switched up and sang “Mon Cherie Amor.”
She finally woke up as we were getting ready to go and I asked her if she heard me singing to her. She was weaker than normal so she just nodded her head. I asked her if she thought an animal was trapped or hurt somewhere. I may have imagined it, but I think she smiled. When my mother visited the following day, she seemed a bit better. When I saw her again, she was a bit groggy but at one point she said, “Did you hear me? I was singing.” My mother and I exchanged looks like “What?” We didn’t hear anything or even see her mouth move! She laughed. We all laughed. Was it the music? It does having healing properties…
My dear Aunt Lizzie Mae passed away on February 12, 2006. She went out fighting and I can only pray God is resting her soul. For many years she would always say, “Y’all don’t forget me now. Alright?” I cannot and will not forget her, ever. She was my homegirl. On her birthday this year, a few photos of her that were on my desk toppled off the shelf. I scanned them because I designed her funeral program. I think she was just making sure I didn’t forget. Rest in peace Lizzie Mae Wilkerson. May 15, 1911 – February 12, 2006. We miss and love you.