III. PERSONAL HISTORY
“People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”
– title of A Tribe Called Quest’s debut record (Zomba, 1990)
“Hadn’t I just been a special white boy?”
– William Upski Wimsatt, Bomb the Suburbs
My interest in sample-based hip hop’s use of older music started, as many musical fascinations do, in a bedroom, though not my own.
In 1985 I was 15 years old, well into my sophomore year of high school and entering a friendship with Seth Boyd, a boy in the year before me. We had found common ground in a love for hip hop, and since we lived in neighboring towns—he in Cambridge and I in Somerville—we started hanging out and listening to music together.
Seth and I attended the Cambridge School of Weston, whose ponderous name charted its origins, 100 years ago, in Cambridge to its current location in Weston, an affluent suburb about 45 minutes outside of Boston. CSW sat high on the list of expensive high schools in the United States, and far left on the continuum of educational and political philosophies. Our athletic teams were comic, our dance and theatre programs epic, and we cleaned up in the Boston Globe Scholastic Art Awards every year. Teachers and headmasters were known by their first names, and most campus rules were debated in weekly schoolwide assemblies, presided over by a Student Moderator.
Though Seth and I played on the school basketball team’s starting lineup all four years, this had nothing to do with our heavily subsidized status at CSW. Teachers certainly encouraged our efforts at writing fiction and essays—we were each told we were gifted at points—but I don’t imagine that our funding had to do with outstanding academic brilliance (or mine certainly didn’t). We simply needed help if we wanted to continue at the school. Seth’s mother was a technical writer, mine a graphic designer; his dad was a Harvard researcher and mine was a Boston public high school teacher. Many of our classmates’ parents seemed to have had similar jobs, but many others were high-tech entrepreneurs, architects or bankers, and a few were old rock stars, or psychic healers.
I quickly realized that my familiarity with hip hop was thoroughly pedestrian compared with Seth’s. His explorations in the genre were fearless and omnivorous, and his record collection dwarfed mine. While I was still dismissing artists on the basis of un-serious stage names—the Fat Boys were about as far as I would tolerate in what I considered a sternly cutting-edge musical phenomenon—Seth would bring home records by artists who called themselves things like Ice-T, the Fresh Prince, and Son of Bazerk, or had suspiciously electro-oriented names like Mantronix. Stuff you’d play in a dance club, I reckoned, not the b-boy battlegrounds I fantasized about breakdancing in. I admired his faith in the genre’s resilience, though it appeared to me that in the new rap marketplace, buffoonery was rapidly overtaking quality.
It wasn’t that I had a big problem with dance music. My father kept our house awash in music, and far and away the majority of the vinyl on our stereo was by Black artists, much of it irresistibly dance-able. During my upbringing our living room was immersed in the music of Jimmy Reed, King Sunny Ade, J.B. Hutto, Earth Wind & Fire, Joan Armatrading, Dizzy Gillespie, Lonnie Liston Smith, Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Koko Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Archie Shepp, and what seemed like a million others. I awoke most weekend mornings to my parents dancing in the living room to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Marvin Gaye, or Etta James. They took me to house parties (and threw some) where disco played all night long, and the dancing my favorite part. At some point someone, maybe one of my older cousins from Connecticut, referred to me as a dancing fool, and I decided that label was fine by me.
By ten years old I’d become, like a lot of kids in the late 1970s, a devout rollerskater. Recreational, practical, trendy, rollerskates were the perfect extension for almost everything I liked to do; go to friends’ houses, Harvard Square, and the MDC pool in the summer, as well as play tag and, crucially, get out of harm’s way quickly. I learned to dash up and down stairs, play basketball, street hockey, and hide-and-seek in skates—everything but swim. For a while I held a job as a rollerskating courier. I lived on polyurethane wheels for at least half of my second decade of life.
It was rollerskating that brought me that brought me to funk. The burning focus of my weekends for the three years before I turned 13 was a converted warehouse by the wastes off of Route 2 at Somerville’s decaying borderline; the Bal-A-Rou roller rink. Huge and utterly unprepossessing (the building was a warehouse to its very soul), it squatted lopsidedly in a nether zone off the highway, sunk into a strip of asphalt with no sidewalk to distinguish the road from the Chinese restaurants, truck stops, gas stations, and car repair shops tossed out along the pitted, intermittently streetlit road.
If that nameless street was unaccommodating of pedestrians, it made some sense—no one approached the Bal-A-Rou with intentions of being on their feet for long. Least of all myself, there to skate until they kicked me out of the place.
At home on the other side of town, watching the clock, ironing my Nino Cerrutti shirt, and praying my lone pair of Jordache jeans dried in time (occasionally I’d let my mother put them in the oven very carefully, just to speed the process), I pondered strategies for negotiating the upcoming evening without humiliation, and possibly enjoyment.
As a rank outsider under the thinnest veneer of belonging-ness, without an older sibling, Little League jacket, or a tam-o’-shanter bearing my youth hockey team’s name to announce my affiliations, I was an unknown quantity to most other kids. Some potential belonging-ness gambits at the roller rink were obvious (mouthing the words to the song the DJ was playing shows you know cool music), but the angles were still tricky (only if you’re reciting them off-handedly, not actually singing—and not like you’re talking to yourself). I was trying to both read and transmit codes I didn’t quite comprehend (could I mouth the words if the song was sung by a lady?), while bearing up under unbreakable sexual tension, trying to evade a thousand concealed opportunities to fall into searing shame (what if I mouthed the words and got them wrong? And everybody would see?). The roller rink easily (and gleefully) built into a fraught fantasia of dangerous leisure.
But the most baffling aspect of the Bal-A-Rou was that it was segregated. Not strictly segregated—Barry, the DJ, was Black for instance—but the perfectly obvious fact was that Friday nights were white and Saturdays were Black. In reality, every moment the Bal-A-Rou was open was white because Somerville was predominantly Irish-Italian, Catholic, and clannish in that way (that is, in that racist way), but the transformation on Saturdays was breathtaking to me.
In fact the Friday/Saturday division was almost literally breathtaking in that I couldn’t talk about it with other kids. I didn’t know how. Most of the kids I knew from the rink, tough kids who lived in Somerville’s eastern neighborhoods, seemed to feel the switch that occurred between the Saturday afternoon session (grade-school birthday parties and kids with strict parents) and the Saturday night one was a comic inevitability, tolerated with smug bemusement. They didn’t have a choice, but if they did I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have wanted to surrender Saturday nights to a bunch of Black kids.
The lack of love for the weekly change of clientele was palpable; once a night, when Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock n’ Roll” came over the speakers, the opening riff launched fists-aloft sing-alongs which felt more like a tribal declaration than a hit song. My friend Jeff Melvin was the only other kid I knew who got as enthusiastic as I did about Saturdays, and he was such a widely-acknowledged weirdo that no one was surprised he loved the Saturday sessions. I never heard anyone else there mention the total, clockwork shift in the rink’s clientele.
Friday nights were all about speed; feathered hair, black tour T-shirts, REO Speedwagon and Foreigner, Black Sabbath and Kiss pounding out of the massive speakers slung above the vast, slightly warped ring of linoleum. Fridays champed and kicked with brawn and a romantic kind of velocity; the “men’s fast skate” rocketed into a breakneck hockey drill under the disco lights, fuelled by Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” Despite that we were all skating in circles, it felt like the goal was epic victory somehow. “Women’s fast skate” was all about icy efficiency, and—for me—standing agog rinkside.
But Saturday nights were all flash; Kool & the Gang, Shalamar, Newcleus, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious 5, Evelyn “Champagne” King. And the skating was all deep style, the synchrony on the floor graceful, swinging, and precise. When the “men’s fast skate” began, ignited to the strains of the Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” we hit the floor hard and fast, but with a kind of refined fluidity. When the speeding pack of silk shirts and tinted shades hit the turns in headlong hurtle, we leaned into them as one, blindly reaching out hands to steady ourselves and, inadvertently, one another.
But best of all, there was dancing. There was no dancing on Fridays, or not for us boys anyway. Girls could dance but it was mostly a joking thing among friends, played for laughs—parodying the idea that one might really, actually dance. Otherwise aggression—the bone-breaking speed, the brittle, shuddering hockey stop, the collective chant to Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero”—was the only acceptable expressive outlet.
On Saturdays the session ended a half-hour early when everybody kicked off their skates and took to the rink in their socks, dancing until they turned the houselights on and cut the music. I had never seen anything like that before, and never wanted anything as strange to my experience to last more, or longer, than that moment; so late into Saturday it was almost Sunday, I could break the rules with everyone else and shuffle onto that electrified gauntlet, that rink my feet had never touched, and dance upon it.
Two years later I was still in search of that thing, but further from it in ways I was barely able to name. I’d left Somerville public schools for the shaded quadrangle and teachers-on-a-first-name-basis arcadia of the Cambridge School. I began to spend less time with my old friends in Somerville, and most of the rules I’d hoarded in order to pass for normal there faded away too.
Increasingly, Seth and I would spend weekend afternoons in his bedroom, listening to his latest finds before heading out to Harvard Square to play video games, eat pizza, and eventually look at more records. The swoony noir of Roxy Music, Prince’s horny funk-rock, and Kate Bush’s art-rock operas held no appeal for my friend, but I realized I was getting the best exposure I could to music I would likely never buy for myself, so I listened hard and didn’t push for reciprocal consideration for New Order.
One afternoon Seth did something that made me realize I was not listening to rap records nearly as hard as he was.
“So check this out.” Seth pulled out a black LP with yellow circles scattered across it, each framing a cut-out of different singers’ heads. Blocky capitals read “James Brown’s Funky People.” The design looked crappy as a supermarket-sale banner (the cover, I told myself yet again—another sure gauge of a record’s quality) and the Godfather of Soul’s involvement appeared to be nominal. I was as ready to believe James Brown liked this record as I was to accept that the British legislative body smoked Parliament cigarettes, or Roy Rogers ate fast food at truck stops. This was the kind of record my Dad made me listen to—just what I’d escaped from before coming over!
“OK. What’s this?” I asked. He took the vinyl disk out and handed me the sleeve. A crackle came over the speakers, then; horns, the hiss-hush-crack of high hat and snare, and a delicious bass lick. “James Brown, right. Cool. Why am I listening to this?” I asked.
Was there supposed to be some kind of revelation here? Metalheads worshipped guitar solos, punks hated acoustic instruments, hippies loved them, and rappers sampled James Brown; these were truisms of the tribes.
“Nope, the J.B.s. You don’t recognize that?”
“The J.B.s? Is that a James Brown cover band? ‘Cause they sound like wanna be one. This song is OK. What else ya got?”
“No—the beat. Here.” Seth was the only person I know who touched records as much as he did. Or record players. The tone arm, the platter, the needle, even the belt drive underneath, which I didn’t know existed before he told me he had dismantled and reconfigured his. Now he lifted the tone arm and placed it back toward the beginning of the record; again, the tight, clean rhythm and bassline. “It’s from Eric B. and Rakim. ‘I Ain’t No Joke.’ You know this one. Here.”
Seth pulled Eric B. and Rakim’s classic debut from a nearby milk crate (glimpse of ludicrous Gucci tracksuits, “dookie” gold chains, reams of dollar bills, ice grills), whipped it out and dropped it on the platter.
For the tenth or twentieth time, that peculiar shift occurred when the musical vestige overtook its source, and the association between the two pieces of music came clear. There it was, of course; slightly obscured, but clearly legible. A meaty James Brown-style break, perfectly chopped and looped, motivating the rhymes.
It was a fun kind of audio prestidigitation, nothing wildly significant. But what struck me then, for the first time, was that Seth had picked out and identified music neither one of us could’ve been expected to know anything about.
James Brown was then (as now) an acknowledged titan, though by the early 80s he was drifting into ridiculousness; he made a cameo in Rocky IV (itself a dogged revival of a spent franchise) reminding us he was indeed still “Living in America,” and Eddie Murphy played Brown as an addled, incomprehensible loon in Saturday Night Live skits. But you would still hear “I Got You (I Feel Good)” on the radio and so JB remained a presence. Like the portrait of long-dead President Jackson on the 10-dollar bill, he was part of the blur of significant cultural personages, someone you knew of but hardly knew anything about. You felt he was probably important, but that he didn’t really matter.
And though the J.B.s were plausible—their affiliation with Brown was musically obvious, and there was Soul Brother Number 1’s titular co-sign, and they definitely got the initials right—no one really thought about James Brown’s band, they thought about James Brown. And no one had heard this music since what, 1973? The J.B.s were a hidden treasure to us, and if by pursuing their work we were vicariously shuffling through DJ Eric B.’s record crates (and perhaps even his earliest inspirations; his parents’ record collection), that felt like a worthy quest—what Eric B. knew was clearly worth knowing. Finding music like this was an act of will, creativity, resourcefulness, and, crucially, recovered memory, made more exciting if the memories happened not to be our own.
Discovering James Brown’s Funky People was a small but significant turning point in my relationship with Seth. As I drifted further into more predictable waters of the pop music ocean, on to romantic sad-boys like the Smiths and the Cure and yacht-rockers Steely Dan and Sade, Seth kept blindsiding me with feats of sample-spotting. His subsequent purchases took in jazz, musicals, novelty records, children’s music, film soundtracks, and many arcane tributaries of soul and funk.
In the last few years I’ve started thinking about those afternoons; two white kids, friends from a suburban private school, holed up in a bedroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts— hometown, of course, to Harvard, Radcliffe, and MIT— listening to generation-old Black music that our parents may have heard although it wasn’t marketed to them, or to anyone our parents really knew. Some of this music scarcely registered within its intended market. How did we develop an interest in these B-sides, chart also-rans, and nearly-forgotten songs from 15 or 20 years ago? Why did we mythologize the artists, hunt their records down, scrutinize liner notes, album-core text and grill record-store clerks to glean clues for further searching?
When we considered it intellectually, our love for rap music and its stories of sex, violence, and deprivation sounded bizarre, but it felt just right; rap voiced some of our unexpressed fantasies, it was music which no one before us could claim because it hadn’t existed before us. This was our rebel music; and within the microclimate of the Cambridge School of Weston, punk and hippie rock were default options, but hip hop worked better for us not only because it felt more “authentic” but also because we felt it was never intended for us.
Even as hip hop expounded on experiences we couldn’t relate to at first hand, the crack-fuelled fires raging within the inner cities smouldered at the edges of our own neighborhoods and its residual effects were never very far. We felt some of that heat, the swelling power of the new cocaine derivatives poisoning the neighborhoods we skirted. Some of it was reflected in the impossibly glamorous clothing, cars, and jewelry the rappers we loved wore—thrilled but guilty, we knew this. But also, we lived in the city. Few of our classmates did, and as city kids on scholarship we often felt like outsiders around them.
But claiming old soul as one’s own would have been a lame, conservative move in our estimation. Krush Groove and Wild Style were cool movies whose soundtracks announced them as hip hop to the core; The Big Chill, with its cherry-picked roster of Motown hits, was not cool. Not that the music wasn’t good, it was—but nostalgia? No. Plus Motown didn’t really belong to you. Michael Jackson wasn’t even on Motown anymore. Motown belonged to our parents.
At around the same time Seth started hitting me with vinyl obscurities, I started seeing breaks compilations appearing in stores; Ultimate Breaks and Beats, unlicensed collections of songs recently sampled by hip hop producers, were put out on vinyl by New York DJ Lenny Roberts’ Street Beat Records, and marketed, to the degree they were marketed at all (as he was distributing illegal bootlegs, Roberts understandably kept their existence at a fairly low profile ), to other hip hop DJs and producers. Then came sampled artists’ responses to their work being used in hip hop; collaborations and/or musical admonishments, as in Jimmy Castor’s “Tellin’ On the Devil,” and James Brown’s “Rapp Payback (Where Iz Moses).”
The genesis comes full circle with hip hop DJs like DJ Shadow forming Cali-Tex Records and Eothen “Egon” Alapatt with his Now-Again imprint on the hip hop label Stone’s Throw, re-releasing sampled artists’ records packaged the same as when initially released, but in deluxe editions which might include extensive liner notes, new interviews with the artists, new photos, outtakes, B-sides and additional rarities. These efforts, though exceptional and which the compilers can’t expect to sell in volume, are clearly carried out by virtue of love for the artistry, and in the spirit of homage.
The instigating force for the bizarre scene in Cambridge, and in hundreds of other bedrooms, basement recreation rooms, and record stores in the US and abroad, was hip hop. It’s not that no other force in our lives would have brought that music to our attention—we were reasonably broad-minded musically, and where I wasn’t I had my Dad to insist I give due diligence to an even broader musical range—but nothing else would have made us as intensely interested in older music in those genres, or challenged us to discover, analyze, and decipher it.
I dropped out of touch with most of my high school friends after my first or second year of college, and Seth was one of them. With leaving home and entering college we were entering a new stage in our lives, but we also happened to choose schools that created, and by virtue of their geographic isolation almost enforced, an intensely insular social environment.
I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which resembled the Cambridge School in most important respects but for being located in New York instead of Massachusetts—small, expensive, artsy, suburban, cool but not tough, too left-wing to know what to do with its elite status—and Seth went to Hampshire, also similar to our high school but situated further out in Massachusetts, and further out in left-field generally, to judge from Seth’s reports.
When I last talked to Seth before we fell out of contact he was still DJing, had started rhyming a bit, and had taken up with some friends at Hampshire and formed a rap group. I thought this was cool and was surprised he had found folks interested in hip hop out there. But I suspected that a rap group formed at a liberal arts college in the rolling hills of western Massachusetts probably wouldn’t thrive, and that similarly, Seth’s devotion to hip hop would surely fade soon after as he immersed himself in college life.
I went away to Sarah Lawrence and did college badly. The collegiality, however, swept me in immediately; the intensity and psychological over-investment engendered by the school’s microcosmic social intrigues escalated to hostage-drama levels. Unstructured time, the shock of living away from home, and campus politics wreaked havoc on my drive to be serious, ascetic, and friendless.
SLC entertained campus politics of only one variety, besides the sexual variety, which was ultimately kind of fun because it was, well, sexual.
The un-fun politics concerned race, and it baffled us all; middle-class white left-leaning kids in an unregulated social hothouse, far from home and sipping from a firehose of new ideas simply had no idea how to deal with race. Looking back, I’m not sure the Black kids—also mostly middle-class—really did either.
The chorus of pop culture we harkened to, from which only Spike Lee’s movies and rap music seemed to be interested in addressing race (surely, we’d graduated from Bill Cosby’s aspirational sitcoms?), offered few answers. Lee’s movies, with their flawed, hyperbolic New York characters and morally tangled stories, left us pissed off and burning with more questions than answers. And hip hop seemed to counsel us to either burn down the nearest representation of the Establishment, keep dancing, or do something as fantastically alien to our experience as drink 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and gun down our gang rivals from the windows of an Oldmobile 98.
Early in my first semester, I woke up to a bracingly different kind of alienating experience; out of what seemed like the clear blue sky, student protest had shut down the school. The campus was buzzing nervously with the news that the Black student union had taken over SLC’s main administration building, a towering Victorian mansion on a hill in the center of campus. The sit-in, which rumors said would go on indefinitely, was being held to protest the absence of tenured Black professors and African-American history courses in the school’s curriculum.
This was deeply strange to me; where I’d come from, kids got agitated over much less stern stuff than this—more anger was directed toward campus smoking regulations than social issues which affected the world outside.
The student organizers invited speakers to school to speak on white skin privilege and the persistence of racism, its manifestations in American life both institutionally and in its more subtle varieties, and how we white students benefited from them and Black people—including the ones we studied beside, our classmates—suffered under them. Each of these talks was packed, students crowding the doors and windows of the dance studio—the largest assembly space on campus—and they went deep into the night. We debated and argued what we’d heard for hours afterward in dorm rooms, the coffee house, and picnic tables scattered around campus. The discussions careened with what felt like mortal gravity, but we were grateful it was still warm enough to have them outside, sitting on the stone walls lining the lanes around the long, moonlit lawns in this strange, unchaperoned suburb of learning.
It’s hard to describe how incendiary and polarizing these events were within the student body. No one could remain neutral, and the issue seemed to hover over every discussion, even those that didn’t include race.
The ideas aired in that turbulent period cleft the student body down the middle. They either instigated waves of self-interrogation in white students who listened to the rhetoric around them (and to accounts of Black students’ own experiences with racism) and instilled a newly radical vision of the world and their place in it. Alternatively, they spurred furious denial and backlash from other white students, who felt that claims of a pervasive racism which dominated American life and insured that they benefited where others suffered, were extreme, myopic, bullying, too sweeping, too vitriolic, or all of these at once.
Most claimed that the specifics of their personal lives exempted them from guilt. How could they be racists? They were kind, gifted, talented, middle class (everyone felt they were middle class), color-blind people with cool friends of all types, and intolerant of cruelty, phony people, unfairness, and bigotry of any kind.
Some white students seemed to feel the uproar was unfair to them personally. None of what we were here to lose, gain, figure out, and possibly revolutionize for ourselves—our sexuality, famously, but also the Western canon, our cooler and wiser post-high school identities, virginity, newly familiar relationships with teachers, our career paths—included anything on this scale, anything which wagered for such high stakes.
The stakes felt terrifyingly high to me. Facing the idea that I might be racist, that I could only have ever been racist by dint of everything about my identity and history, I felt blindsided by a terrible reckoning. My fundamental legitimacy as a person was to be assessed despite—or because of—everything I had understood as essential to me. Had I fooled myself utterly, willfully blind to my oppression-wrought advantages? Other kids seemed to feel that various particulars in their lives made them impervious to these criticisms that I needed desperately to dodge. Did anything in my own life get me off the hook?
I certainly thought so. Whatever I was, a racially-unaware elite blithely capitalizing on my racial entitlement wasn’t it. Wagging the accusation of privilege at me felt like a crazy misunderstanding.
Well, mostly crazy. I had left one very expensive school full of affluent kids for another. I didn’t really have any Black friends, mostly because there were very few Black students at either place, lolling around on the quad with the hippies and punks, skipping assembly and attending life drawing with an actually nude model. And I had to admit, my friends outside of school weren’t Black either.
But I played basketball, I was the best breakdancer I knew, I paid a lot of attention to sneaker styles, my Dad taught in rough schools in the ghettoes of Boston all through the school integration crisis, and he still did. I was a deeply urban creature who’d never learned to drive and never wanted to.
Just as important to my sense of self was the fact that I was a rap music fan. Only my father’s work meant more to me within the defensive array I was building. And my Dad brought his work home with him—a lot. Over dinners at the kitchen table, on nights he got home early enough to eat with my Mom and I, his stories of soldiers and schoolbuses instilled in me a fretful, agonized sense of racial strife in the city. I wore a lot of Smiths t-shirts sure, but I liked rap from the first, and I mean the very first. Nobody was onto rap, the most contemporary and relevant of all Black music genres, before I was, I knew it.
Plus I listened to rap. Rap you could dance to was cool, but it wasn’t the best stuff out there (another bit of uncommon knowledge, I told myself, which only a real rap fan would know). I mean, the difference between the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5’s “The Message” was disco, hedonism, and funny stories versus reality, poetry, poverty, bad stuff in ghettoes—stuff you could think about. Girls who liked Bananarama and Rick Springfield knew the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” (or at least the funny, non-dirty parts). “The Message,” however, was deep—clearly the superior song.
Also, when I danced to hip hop music, I danced hip hop. I wasn’t trying to go out to some disco and just dance to whatever was playing. Not anymore. I wasn’t trying to dance to rock and roll (“dance” to rock? What, like that guy in Footloose?) My father’s students taught me the Smurf! I would breakdance for people and they’d give me money! (granted, mostly me and my friends got free ice cream when we’d set up in the middle of the local ice cream parlor). My idols were Black people—Prince, Michael Jackson, Fab 5 Freddy, graffiti artists, the New York City Breakers, Eddie Murphy. Who were these people calling me a racist?
Fortunately, this was all occurring at college, so people collectively got over it; the sit-in, the self-interrogation, the splintering discomfort. The sit-in ended with the administration promising discussions with student representatives. It seemed dubious to me that this would change anything in reality, but in fact it did.
One thing that changed was the availability of African-American history courses, which I took advantage of, and where I studied under Komozi Woodard, who became a mentor to me. By the end of my senior year I had managed to reconcile my anguish and was deeply immersed in the Five Per Cent Nation-influenced music of groups like Brand Nubian and Poor Righteous Teachers, and the apocalyptic scenarios sketched by Ice Cube.
And then fifteen years later I found myself at Vibe, one of the most important hip hop and R&B magazines in the country, talking about, of course, hip hop. My interlocutor was another of my mentors, George Pitts, the magazine’s photo director who now heads Parson School of Design’s photography program.
As I had been on those afternoons listening to music in Seth’s bedroom, I was still frustrated by hip hop. “I’ll always love rap,” I told George. “But I can’t handle the stupidness—all that booty rap, and the guns, jewelry, misogyny, the waste. Like the Watts Prophets said—it’s all just ‘party and bullshit.’”
Then George smiled at me and said, “But that’s rock n’ roll too, Damien. I mean, do you require rock to be principled and upstanding? Are you sure you aren’t asking hip hop to do more than you demand of other music?”