When I finally made an opportunity to sit down and write seriously about my interest in music, there were only two people I knew I really needed to talk about. One was my Dad, and the other was Seth Boyd, my friend from high school, whom I’d fallen out of and then back in touch with.
Seth and I forged a connection over hip hop, the first music we felt we could claim as our own. If it wasn’t entirely our own – we were acutely aware hip hop was Black music in origin and at its highest level of expression – then it was our music more than our parents’ music, more than any mainstream radio station’s playlist (where it wouldn’t be found for several years). In identifying with it we set ourselves apart a little (for the record, I was trying very hard to set myself apart). Anyways, I’ve written about all that before (https://hatii.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/remembering-my-friend-seth-boyd-aka-cadence/). Funny, I had just gone to see Raekwon the Chef at the Middle East and was looking forward to leveraging that fact to earn back some credibility as a true hip hop head with him.
Finding Seth again after about 25 years was one of the strangest and most wonderful reunions I’ve experienced, and largely for one reason. While I was delighted to hear that he’d married a wonderful woman and was thriving, when he said he was still rhyming, making beats, and recording, I was knocked flat on my back. This would be like if you reconnected with the kid you used to draw comic books with and he said, “Oh and yeah, I’ve developed laser beam vision and the power to fly through the air at will.” No one we knew, or seemed likely to ever know, was about to become a rapper. It wasn’t even that we were white (though that seemed like a ground-rule foul, as he might say). It just was not a fate for mortals.
But there it was, Seth was in fact a rapper. On top of that, he was all the rapper I’d hoped and knew he could be; intricate, clever, insightful, topical, uncompromising, righteously left but still fun. And always funny.
Here’s some thoughts that have been running through my head since I learned of his passing yesterday.
Almost anything I could say about Seth must close with the phrase “before or since.” His qualities, which his other friends have noted already, were the sort rarely encountered elsewhere, and never in the combination he carried so effortlessly. Whenever I began to distill his characteristics to a form I could take the measure of, it was his span of knowledge, gifts, and interests that threw me off. They reached all over the place. Looking at them together, you had to remind yourself a single person encompassed this range.
He had an enormously broad musical mind, was drawn by a call to serve youth, remained totally loyal to friends, and possessed a penetrating political intelligence and depth which constantly surprised me – this is a kid who, in high school, was writing monologues mocking politicians like Evan Mecham (who briefly succeeded in rescinding MLK Day in Arizona), and Lyndon LaRouche.
He could perform on stage, tell great jokes (which he also did on stage, at least once that I know of), navigate tricky emotional territory, nail the perfect closing remark, and then talk about some weird policy thing it made no sense for him to know so much about. Truly, the guy contained multitudes.
Too thoughtful and observant to neglect himself or anyone around him, in his unassuming way Seth’s internal confidence made him seem fearless. He was unabashed by compliments not out of false modesty or disbelief, but out of self-belief. This quality, of course, is truly rare. In an adolescent it was uncanny, baffling, and inspiring.
Starting center on a basketball squad cursed with uselessly high aptitudes in the creative arts, Seth was unfazed in defeat (which we claimed relentlessly for four straight years). On the other hand, he never gloated in triumph either, deferring drama to chronically angst-drunk friends like me, and he didn’t indulge in evident emotional peaks and troughs.
That this man, this bone-dry wit who had to break deadpan so people could recognize when he was being ironic, was deeply devoted to soul and R&B music was one of the paradoxes I had looked forward to grilling him about. (Indeed, one of the things that most excited me about moving back to Massachusetts was gaining proximity to the guy who served as my fellow traveler — and eventually as my guide — on the trails hip hop was blazing early on)
That wit; it was so quick and true it was often invisible, and he knew it. While our basketball coaches told us never to telegraph our passes, I think Seth was often compelled to signal his jokes with a slight flourish because, he knew, otherwise very few listeners would (or could) catch on. If he was too gracious to condescend, he was equally too generous to withhold his gifts, humor being one with which he was greatly endowed.
No less than his wit, I know I often leaned on his 6-foot-plus frame, at least psychologically, as My Big Friend, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that. It never crossed my mind whether or not Seth had my back. His loyalty was unspoken, and daunting. I’ve often worried that I failed to live up to it, or return it in kind.
Strangely, Seth’s physical size struck me all over again when we re-connected again, in the summer of 2008 (bizarrely, our reunion took place in New York City, in the basement of an East Village club at 11 in the morning, where he was filming a video for a song he made the music for).
If I hadn’t grown used to it over the years, Seth’s physical bigness would have registered as discordant. For me, it was incidental, almost distracting, that he stood above six feet, rose broadly through the torso, and kept his head shaved. This of course was how conventional rappers looked, by the most shopworn conventions. I wonder how he dealt with assumptions about his intentions and breadth of mind, because his bouncer’s build so starkly belied his personal and artistic identity. Likely he encountered misjudgement; his direct gaze often gave him the alert, soulful look of a Mafia consigliere, but never gave him away. Still, he never adopted a persona which might capitalize on his size, or exploit it. Seth was gentle without exception, but never a patronizingly ‘gentle giant’. At his height, he couldn’t help but look down when he engaged with others, but he never looked down on anyone in any other way. He was too nimble, his turn of mind too incisive to play the paternal friend who treats people like they needed protection. Seth was the kind of guy no one could condescend to (I saw Seth use his wit cuttingly only once, and only in response to a snub), and he would never inflict that underestimation on anyone else.
Of course, throughout all there was hip hop; as a top-level lyricist, MC, and beatmaker Seth had a cabinet-maker’s precision with cadence of course but also with words, metre, beats, hooks, stabs, grooves and licks. If any art world were anything like a meritocracy, fucking kid would be world-famous.
But Seth also had a gimlet eye for bullshit and hypocrisy which I think probably kept him sane, and may also have kept him from buying into any aspect of hip hop that was not about great music (which in turn allowed him, instead, to simply create it).
The thing about this digital world is that everything peaks and crashes in about 5 minutes and while you can’t get rid of anything, you can’t really make any kind of meaningful memorial here either.
So do me this; next time you’re out with people you love, raise a glass or your hat to them, and to yourself, and you together with them right there, right then. To love and be loved and feel good and know all of those things at the same time is one of the few blessings we get for free here. They say nothing good happens quickly, which makes this the exception that proves the rule. A good man has left us; now let’s take care of each other.
Memorial service and obituary: http://www.mackinnonfuneral.com/obits/obituary.php?id=282066