Nas Was My Gateway Drug [Theoretically Thursday W/ Wes Hull]
In further attempt to transform BFD into a more diverse blog and prepare it for the 22nd Century, we have recruited another voice. His name is Wes Hull. You can call him Wes Hull. He prefers to be called Wes Hull. He was more than enthused when I begged him to write for the site. What follows are Parts 1 and 2 of a 3 part piece about white people listening to hip hop, to kick off his new weekly column, “Theoretically Thursday W/ Wes Hull”. Ingest with jest.
I don’t listen to Hip-Hop enough, so my opinions in this article not only don’t make sense, but are completely unfounded. In addition, the albums I’ll talk about are so dated, that it doesn’t even matter if you like them or not. A cautionary tale, if you will, is what follows, and I want you to understand that though I don’t LOVE Hip-Hop or Rap, as I have always thought of it as (invent all the subgenres you want, I still won’t adhere to them), I respect it and love what I love with such ridiculous passion that I probably come off as a Johnny Come Lately, who had just finally left the cave and seen the shadows for what they were. That’s fine, just don’t call me a reviewer.
Part One: Intro to Ignorance
My first real memory of anything hip-hop related was not understanding the fascination with Rage Against the Machine. Most people don’t know this about me, but in my early high school years, I was the biggest god-awful-piece-of-shit hater in the world, just like probably eighty-percent of the 15-17 year-old bracket on Earth. I was a veritable shit-head, only listening to Alice in Chains, Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Guns and Roses, and assorted 60s-80s tracks my father had turned me on to as a kid. I did NOT listen to Rap, I didn’t listen to soul, I had a vague understanding that rock was evolved from the Blues, and that the Blues was “Black Music,” but overall I was convinced that the deepest, darkest part of humanity could be easily represented by Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley and Ozzy, with no need for fat beats or short outbursts of rhyme. In fact, I kept thinking the Beastie Boys should have just stayed a punk band. After all, “Sabotage” was their best song, and it wasn’t even rap, which was what they said they did.
There are certain things you look back to when you’re older and you think, “man, if my sixteen year-old self saw me now, he’d kick my ass all over the parking lot,” but this is one of those “God, how did I go through 10 years of relative cognitive capacity and miss what the fuck was happening in the WORLD?” I want to go back, sit my old self down, and say, “listen, kid, save yourself the trouble and open your mind to cultures and practices and music you don’t quite understand….Or I am going to have to kick your ass?”
I could do it. My 16 year old self was a pussy.
My first introduction to rap was rap metal, namely Korn, where the beat was important, and the songs were fucked up, yet somehow catchy. A band that used dub and redub to the point where production mattered more than live ability (this is an important crossroads, by the way). This was before I realized that The Beatles were doing in-studio shit that couldn’t be reproduced live (remember, god-awful-piece-of-shit hater [GAPSH]) years beforehand, on magnetic reels bigger than my head. My second, and better, experience with rap-esque metal/rock was that of Incubus and their album “S.C.I.E.N.C.E”, which was just the right balance of surfer rock, metal, and hip-hop to make a gapsh like myself open his mind and ears to a few new things a little more often. At some point in this turn of events, I revisited Rage Against the Machine, dipped my feet in them, and realized I had been swimming in their outflow for almost two years. The angst they had for practically everything made me feel closer at home with the idea that maybe I wasn’t always on the right side of the fence when it came to my ever-so-vocal-opinions.
Let me state here, before it can be left to guesses, that this was not a race thing. It wasn’t that I had no respect for black artists, or the music they chose to make. Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Chubby Checker (my limited knowledge at the time of black artists should give an idea of my education in such matters) were all African American musicians and had earned my respect as people and artists who created music. As a writer I was always in awe of musicians, in that these people made music (which I loved) out of poetry (which I hated) that made people hold them in high regard when writers of fiction and shitty articles had to starve to death, bitter and alone. Writer groupies were not a thing. But Rap, I thought, was just a misguided step along a musical evolution–an 80’s disco-type fad that would die off and become irrelevant in a few years. I’d see Bone, Thugs & Harmony on MTV and change the channel. Boring music by people whose originality relied on cutting bits of other’s music into pieces like newspaper letters on a ransom note. It wasn’t about race, it was about a flaw in understanding what could elevate music beyond it’s current forms. How could chopping up bits of old music become better than that original music itself?
I cannot tell you the first rap song I heard that I liked. I liked “Insane in the Brain” by Cypress Hill and my friend in high school would play the occasional ICP record in his Pontiac Firebird and I knew some of the words and even sang along on occasion. I liked Wu-Tang’s “36 Chambers”, what I had heard anyway and somewhere along the lines, the sampling became not a cut-up piece of song but a part of a new song compiled like a Frankenstein’s Monster–a living, breathing real person made from the parts of something else entirely. But the first time it was revealed to me that it was not a Frankenstein’s Monster, not a ransom note, but somehow a hybrid of both, was when my cousin Josh put in “God’s Son” by Nas, and “Get Down” played into my ear drums for the first time.
”Get Down” is an easy song to like–it is simple rhythm based on a James Brown sample, it has images that speak of poverty, injustice, and a want of basic human rights, it is slick and smooth and beautiful in the way that I have found Nas to be almost peerless in my weak-ass understanding of Hip Hop. But because of these things, I connected with this song as a 22 year old near-adult sitting in a hot unair-conditioned living room in Southern New Jersey, probably drinking some cheap beer bought at the local liquor store and wishing that we were doing SOMETHING beyond listening to Josh verbally stomp all over hip-hop song lyrics I didn’t even know. I remember I had him play the song over again and I set my head back and I just listened to the beat and let it move within me. I wasn’t being led to a cool fountain, this wasn’t the promised land, but there was something that changed my attitudes inside, something that made me aware of an entire version of reality I had missed. I had not lifted the veil but realized that it was translucent and that I could make out the vague shapes on the other side.
I suddenly needed to hear all of his music. So I got what I could (pre-internet sharefest), starting with Stillmatic. It was the one I had heard the most of on those lazy summer days chilling and smoking cigarettes with Josh on the porch, trying to ignore my problems by listening to Nas expel about his problems (mostly, it seems, beginning and ending with Jay-Z). That album was on full rotation on my walkman-to-cassette-player for the rest of that summer and far enough into the winter to warrant an intervention by Josh, who was so sick of me talking about Nas that he started to introduce me to other artists, the most memorable being Kanye West. He was the only person I knew who owned College Drop Out, and knew about his story before he heard Last Call. Josh, to me, will always be the Hip Hop encyclopedia, and though his tastes never officially rubbed off on me, he is still the only dude I know who’s Hip Hop knowledge outweighs all other comers.
PART 2 Realization of Self, or How I Learned Respect
Imagine yourself in a podunk town in southern New Jersey, the backyard lawn is high with untended grass that rattles against your knees when you walk through it. Late nights with thick, hot air that you can feel all over in sweet sweat and early morning confessionals that last til you can see the barest of light on the horizon. Residing in the air are thick thunks of beat that would hit you in the chest were they not coming from inside the house where you can’t even enter because of the sound but here, outside, they are tinny and strange, beer flows and laughter subsides, an occasional sound from the end of the yard indicating restless animals in the night scoping the territories for their lonely prey. The screen door that doesn’t shut quite right slams open and shut as people head in and out, accumulating on the porch, the only bare space, where cigarettes are not only the reason you are outside, but the reason for existence, the parking lot across the street where you watched the square dancers in their low dresses and ironed jeans file inside the fire hall now empty but for a solitary, faded blue Oldsmobile parked in the corner, abandoned by an elderly couple who found their way to the local watering hole and are only now resuming their journey home after last call, swaying with the breezes and laughing hysterically at some joke you can’t hear.
This was Josh’s classroom. This was where he would crank the sound until the Bose speakers filled the surrounding area with the music that most around those parts would think as “black music,” and where he would teach me a thousand lessons I could never remember and never really even try, but where he also introduced me to the idea of new worlds and experiences and Jesus Christ, will you listen to yourself? Waxing all poetic on a hot summer night and trying to segue into hip-hop, for Christ’s sake, from of all places, southern fucking New Jersey, where even the Jersey insiders only think of pineys, incest, and Atlantic City, easily one of the more pathetic towns on the East Coast, if not the one trying the hardest to pretend it still matters.
But nevertheless, this was the place where I learned how to take music for what it was, at it’s most basic: communication on a musical level, a journey into a different set of standards than the Beatles or Pearl Jam or Metallica. Here was a rhyme that you could hear a thousand times and never understand why it meant so much to you, here was a beat that you could hear for a thousand years and never stop hearing, here was an artist that impressed upon you with such urgency and need that you would feel compelled to listen to every word they said until you could no longer take it as anything but pure gospel. I listened to Eminem, I listened to Big L, I listened to Biggie Smalls, Kanye West, Scarface, Mos Def, M.O.P (BROWNSVILLE!), Cypress Hill, Fat Joe, the RZA, the GZA, ODB and the rest. I heard them, heard what I liked, and discarded the rest, as I had done with the Beatles’ early shit, significant portions of Pink Floyd’s discography, and later on David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, etc. I also, at this time, was introduced to Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Cream, (reintroduced to) Jimi Hendrix, Santana, War, Sly and the Family Stone, Elvis Costello and MC5. I had grown up listening to punk, and somehow the new age of Hip Hop matched the tenants of good old street punk rock–fuck the system, fuck the world, where’s my shit, I have been fucked over and who is responsible? It became a question, a message, I read through the lines of Jay-Z’s lyrics, M.O.P’s street battles, Wu-Tang and Eminem’s struggles to come up and be somebody/people you could look at and respect, and I felt like I was in the same swamp fighting my way out, be it the vitriol of Detroit or the wasteland of Shaolin. A poor kid lost in a sea of hypocritical politicians, vindictive parenting and oppressive government? I saw myself in these things, if not as passionately as I wanted to, at the very least acknowledging the truth of the situation.
Because I saw these things, because I thought these thoughts, I began to question what I knew about race, class, and ultimately what I knew about myself. What did I really know? Could I, as Atticus Finch states so superbly, “climb around in [another person’s] skin and walk around in it?” Could I understand what it was like to be a poor kid in a run-down town with tired, sometimes frightened parents, who are doing their best? Could I see turning to crime as an easy route to success and money? Could I see burning all bridges to move forward out of a shitty situation? The answer was of course, “of course.” It wasn’t even really difficult, and sometimes, my life and someone I heard through song or rhythm or rhyme made more sense than the drolling on of some heroin addict (Layne Stayley) or some pop-culture icon who feinted artistry until confronted with it’s label (Bob Dylan). Hip-hop was cleaner, made more sense artistically, it was punk attitude with a reinvigoration of old standards through sampling, beats, and rhyme that didn’t seem to make sense until you had popped through the bubble of your own self-induced ignorance. Hip hop wasn’t a way of life, but you could see why people said it was, just as they had said punk rock (rawk?) was a way of life, it was a dichotomy shift that because it made you see it on it’s own terms.
[To Be Concluded]
This piece, as well as other ramblings by Wes can be found at Bringapencil.blogspot.com