I’ve heard it mentioned on occasion that everyone has one story in them that only they can tell. A story so inextricably entangled in the core of that person’s most authentic self that to withhold it does a disservice bordering on insult [series like The Moth or the back page of Toronto Life butter their bread on this very theory].
For a while now, I’ve known what my story is, I’ve just been trying to decide on the medium to tell it in [closest I ever came was about a dozen pages worth of graphic novel scripting, still sitting on my hard drive. If any artists out there want to take a crack, email me]. Longtime readers know I will always maintain that my coming of age, while not necessarily unique, or stuffed with hardships, was just really fricking weird.
When you grow up in a rural part of Southwestern Ontario, Canada, during the 1980s, surrounded on all fronts by body shops, dilapidated tractors, abandoned barns, and poorly tended corn fields while the nascent forms of hip-hop, house and techno are crossing the river via radio signal from a Black cultural giant like Detroit…when you gravitate towards that culture, in that environment, it cements your outsider status, and it leaves you with a sense of, not isolation necessarily, but of standing apart, being out of step. And that feeling never really disappears. Sometimes you’re reminded why.
A few weeks back I came across the above photo on Facebook. As a joke, it’s a cute pun but not very funny; as cultural commentary it’s a ‘facepalm and move on,’ type of trifle. It just amazes me that this some people still find the need to engage in this insecure dick swinging, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Take my Pops. He took me to buy Fat Boys tapes at Devonshire Mall when I was nine years old, I still remember him trying to explain to the clerk what exactly it was I looking for [“I think it’s called ‘rap,’ or something? I don’t know, it all sounds like garbage.”]. He loves to make jokes deliberately getting the names of MCs incorrect [‘Biggie Big’ is a personal favourite of both of us]. He’s watched me embrace this music for almost 30 years, he knows I’m writing a book about it, yet there is definitely a part of him that still cannot believe that this music, this culture, still exists, let alone evolved into the economic titan it is today. And that’s not entirely unreasonable of him: the origins of the music and the cultural concerns present therein couldn’t be more foreign to him. They should be foreign to me; I’ve yet to suss out a reasonable explanation for why it resonated with me so fully, but it is what it is. Between the rhythm of the beats and the education in classic soul, jazz and funk they’ve always provided, I’ve just always found it a more rewarding musical experience than ‘Arrrrr, rawk!’ [I’ll give some slack to Deftones, who fully exposed their desire to be a Depeche Mode cover band somewhere around 2005. Abe still plays too busy, though].
And I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve never looked down my nose exasperated at a crew of gel-spiked dudes in Affliction t-shirts throwing up the devil horns at the camera, but I’ve tried to adopt a certain level of cultural detente with those camps as I get older and mellowed out; as the homie Big Ghost once said: “I aint really mad at it tho…like it aint horrible or nothin. It jus dont got no real purpose in my iTunes.”
It’s funny, I remember a few months back watching Lords of the Underground perform at Hip-Hop Karaoke’s Competition Round. In the middle of ‘Chief Rocka,’ Mr. Funkee cut the beat off, and said the following before he finished his verse:
“Let me explain something to y’all. I been doing this shit for almost 22 years. And there’s people that still can’t say this shit. So on this whole tour we’ve been on, I’ve been breaking this shit down so that people can understand it, because it’s important for us to communicate as hip-hop artists. Because they don’t want hip-hop to flourish, they don’t want hip-hop to survive, they don’t want…they hate this shit, dude. Trust me.”
I remember standing in the crowd thinking, ‘well, that’s a little dramatic.’ After three decades, the music had gone from a block party conceit to a globally dominant culture, and you can’t play the underdog once you’re on top.
But then I see that photo. And it occurs to me how wonderful it is that after all this time, this hip-hop thing can still get people shook enough to draw their lines in the sand, even via something as benign as a chalk sign.
That’s a beautiful thing.