blowin’ wax

The first time I heard a hip-hop song was in the back seat of a white Mustang convertible that belonged to my friend Dave who lived up the street from me. Actually, I don’t know if the car technically belonged to him because his dad owned a Ford dealership, but he was driving it and I was riding in it, and at least for one warm summer night in Solvay, NY it was ours. The song was White Lines by Grandmaster Melle Mel. It was released in 1983, which makes sense because Dave was a junior then, and I would have been a sophomore in high school. I had never heard anything like it. It didn’t sound like the Police, REM, or Rush I was listening to at the time. It warned against the abuse of cocaine, but it was also party music. This was the paradox. A party song that warned you not to party. We drove around that night listening to that tape over and over. Soon, I had bought the single on vinyl. I was hooked on this strange new sound from a city far away from my upstate backwater. Next up was the Beastie Boys first album, License to Ill, with it’s paean to brass monkey. Whatever it was, I knew it was both dangerous and good. (To this day I’m still not sure what brass monkey is, but I think it’s malt liquor mixed with orange juice. Please correct me if I’m wrong.) The Beasties were soon followed by De La Soul’s first disc, Three Feet High and Rising, a masterpiece of trippy, cut-and-paste bedroom collage. Then Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. As the years rolled by, it was Gang Starr, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas. I stayed away from the angry gangster rap. My hip-hop had to have a positive message, and today, despite a few f-bombs here and there, it still does. To me, hip-hop has always been happy music.  Music, like jazz, where you can check your worries and troubles at the door. Even if it’s not me who’s rolling that blunt or taking a hit from that brown paper bag, I’m with you in spirit. Maybe I’ve lived vicariously through these hip-hoppers. Maybe for an aging, uncool white kid from the suburbs, that’s all I’ll ever be able to do. All I know is that twenty years on, I’m still listening to hip-hop. In fact, hip-hop has taken over the world, if you think about it. I play this music for my kids (minus the swearing), alongside the Beatles, Led Zep, and the Stones, hoping to educate them right and open their ears to all that music can be. Right now for me, it’s bands like People Under the Stairs and Giant Panda. What am I searching for, and what does this music, which was so foreign to the place I grew up, mean to me? Partly it’s my desire for universal brotherhood through music. Or it could be just trying to have a good time, to let my cares float away on the bobbing bass and drums. Or maybe it’s all about memories. My friend Dave died suddenly a few years ago.  Maybe my love of hip-hop is really my desire for that elusive eternal summer night, driving around in a white convertible listening to music with a friend who’s gone.

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