on Language, and the Careful Appreciation of Rap Music

When I was 9 years old, a rapper named Calvin Broadus from Long Beach, California, released an album called “Doggystyle,” using the stage name Snoop Dogg. Somehow, through the pop-culture distribution channels of the early 1990’s, a cassette tape of that album made its way into the Walkmen of me and my third-grade friends.

We tossed around Nerf footballs and drank juice from paper boxes on the carefully landscaped lawn of our shiny, brand new elementary school while Snoop chanted into our boombox, “for all my niggaz and my bitches and my bitches and my niggaz wave yo motha fuckin hands in the air, and if you don’t give a shit like we don’t give a shit, wave yo motha fuckin’ fingas in the air.

According to my parents, the first word I ever uttered was “moon.” There was something special about the way it sounded, I think – almost being a palindrome, its rhythmic quality, the brightness of the moon itself. Maybe it was also the first poem I ever wrote – just one word.

I ended up learning many more words, at least partially thanks to hearing them on the radio. The rhymes about Glock bustin’, gin sippin’, and panty droppin’ meant very little to our young minds, because as far as I know, none of us had any idea what those phrases actually referred to. But what held our attention, I think, was how gigantic it all sounded – and nothing can capture the imagination of elementary students like the apparent invulnerability of adulthood, especially magnified to the size of Snoop Dogg’s gangsta persona (most grata.)

I wouldn’t say that skin color had any influence on how we consumed this music – ours might have been the first generation to have no preordained conception of racism, it having decayed for long enough not to be passed down from parents or siblings or aunts and uncles who went to segregated schools. The fact that Snoop Dogg was black and talking about crime wasn’t a consideration to the mixed race group of kids standing around a well-maintained playground in the suburbs. All we seemed to care about was how many explicit lyrics we could sneak into our ears before running home for dinner.

Of course, there were controls in place to keep this music out of the hands of us. As an adult I learned all about Nancy Reagan’s crusade and the RIAA and the Parental Advisory warning label, but as a child, none of that ever trickled down far enough to keep Snoop from teaching me what ‘chronic’ was.

Time passed, the novelty of Snoop wore off, and America provided fresh new infatuations like Green Day, Nintendo 64, Quentin Tarantino, and when we became old enough, girls. Rap continued to fill the airwaves, but I don’t think it ever sounded as big as it did the first time I heard ‘Lodi Dodi.’

As my friends and I moved through the middle grades, and began taking more complicated lessons in things like civics and biology (as opposed to whatever it was we were learning about in the early days) we started having to write more, read more, be able to talk about ‘Pride & Prejudice’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. I suppose, for most of us, our vocabulary increased to include words and phrases like ‘a la carte’ (the serving style of pizza at lunch) and ‘polynomial equation’ (something in math class that was annoying) and ‘girlfriend’ (the person whose mom lectured you about the perils of kissing.)

The language of schooling got more complicated, and so did the language in the music. Instead of craving the bombast of SoCal gangsta rap, I started hearing more complex lyrical ideas in the music that found me – who is this long haired man from England, and why is he singing about something called “Glycerine?” Why does an “old mother cry” when “lightning crashes?” Who is “Lump,” and why does she “live alone in a boggy marsh?” Alternative rock music of the mid and late 90’s had a more abstract lyrical quality than what I had heard before from rap – more fantasy, maybe – and my innate interest in all things surreal led me to chase after it.

Rap was still around, and songs like “First of Da Month” easily gripped my interest – I guess the 8th grade makes a young person more aware of calendars. I also found, from groups like the Pharcyde and a Tribe Called Quest, that it was possible for Rap to be emotionally anxious, not unlike how growing up felt.

IT wasn’t until high school, when drinking and drugs among my peer group wasn’t unheard of, that the rap we first listened to years ago started to make sense – ah, so that’s what drinking a 40 oz is like. The older songs earned a kind of nostalgic rekindling, now replete with newly understood meaning. 2Pac’s ghost gave everyone an anti-hero (what every 16 year old needs) who was too dead to challenge our idealistic view of his cause by perpetually making a spectacle of himself, as is the case with most living celebrities.

It was also around that time when poetry started to make sense – Cummings, Kerouac, Ginsberg, those white guys influenced by jazz who existed in the American past and used carefully chosen words to express the nature of their times. I didn’t sense any connection between my appreciation for the two modes – but the old poetry, and the new Rap, weren’t completely divorced from each other.

In the few years before I turned 20, Rap made such an impression by way of it’s ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude that I wanted to permanently pledge allegiance to it. Tattooing a Wu-Tang ‘W’ on my arm seemed like a good idea. For an outcast, (who was devotedly listening to OutKast) it was the easiest way to shun a world I was afraid of entering as an adult, and an attempt to link myself to a culture, that looking back, I didn’t really understand.

I eventually started feeling guilty about the ‘blackness’ of the tattoo, since I’m the protean example of a typical white Suburbanite. Eminem and the Beastie Boys are all great fun, but the undeniable truth is, Rap is predominantly an expression of African-American culture. At the time of getting inked, it seemed okay, but since then I’ve become regretful – not because I’m ashamed to be associated with the group, but because I don’t feel like I’ve ‘earned’ it, not having gone through any of the troubles or lived the life described in those songs (and not wanting to.) I’m in the process, now 10 years later, of having it removed.

Masta Killa and Brian, 2011
Masta Killa and Brian, 2011

When I got serious about college, I started studying language. I read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky. I read Calvino and DeLillo and Didion and Wolfe, I read Byron and Eliot and Emerson and Dickens. I read Angelou, Tolstoy, and Cervantes.

I learned how language is the constructing principle of our reality. It is the master key to all doors, and interacting with it carefully determines the place we hold in society. I also realized that music is just as important to our understanding of the world – after all, the word uni verse, our term for the space in which humanity exists – from the Latin, translates to “one song.”

I figured out that the words we use define our lives. If you learn the vocabulary of finance, you’ll make a lot of money. If you learn the vocabulary of anatomy, you’ll become a doctor. If you learn the vocabulary of surfing, you’ll get a suntan.

If you learn the vocabulary of Rap, you will…. well, I don’t know. I guess it depends on who you already are, and what it means to you. If you’re talking about Snoop Dogg’s vocabulary, or Wu-Tang’s vocabulary, or T.I.’s vocabulary, then maybe you incorporate those stories of sex, violence and drama into your own life. Maybe you end up cheating on your wife and losing all your money in a divorce. Maybe you end up in a fight at a bar that costs you thousands of dollars in court. Maybe you follow a drugged path of self-destruction.

I don’t like to propose a causal, deterministic relationship between the consumption of entertainment and real-life experience – I’ve always believed people can see as much violent television or watch as many racy movies as they please, and never be any worse off for it. But there’s something about entertaining yourself with language that is heavier than entertaining yourself with something like video games, because language is the means by which you build dreams, aspirations, and expectations of the world you live in.

(As a disclaimer, I do believe that some of the street knowledge embedded in Rap can be empowering to those who are stuck in a situation that requires them to survive at any cost. But I also think it can be unnecessary for someone without their back to the wall.)

All of these fantasies that I heard rappers boast about when I was younger turned into things that would be completely miserable, if they became problems in my own real adult life.

That’s why I began to listen to Rap carefully.

I saw families disrupted by substance abuse, and read enough about crime in the local newspaper (and was blessed enough not to have been directly affected) I realized there isn’t glamour in any of it, only heartache. A television show called the Wire redefined everything I thought I knew about the streets, drugs, and police (the payload of much Rap music.)

In the Wire, it’s clear that there is nothing ‘cool’ about an environment that produces a character like ‘Bubbles,’ a homeless addict whose luck never showed up. There’s nothing ‘gangsta’ about getting shot in the face while walking out of the movie theater with someone’s ex-girlfriend. There’s nothing ‘wealthy’ about having to replace your cell phone every week because your ‘job’ makes you a target for wire tapping (well, I guess we’re all kind of wire-tapped now. But I digress.) There is nothing ‘evil’ about police who want to bring justice to murderers.

There’s nothing easy about the show, and it challenged a youth I spent imagining (and that pop culture spent selling to me ) the idea of ‘thug life’ as the path to luxury.

When I hear rap now, I still feel an elemental connection to the sound of it – the sampled snare and kick, a soft piano tremolo skirting the rhythm, the echoes of a hard consonant on the fourth bar. Instrumentalists who make the music without the words (like DJ Cam, RJD2 and Wax Tailor) get far more play in my stereo than whoever is winning the Grammy for ‘Best New Rap Artist’ this year, or last year, or ever.

The current class of dance-club infused Rap hardly seems related to the genre I used to enjoy. I would say that all rappers are spitting lyrics that are essentially meaningless, but I’m holding out hope that my lack of attention means many are lurking in the shadows, doing something interesting. There is still creativity in the genre that impresses me – the Roots, Shabazz Palaces, and on rare occasions, even Kanye West.

I’ll always feel connected to the sound, and appreciate the cool place that repetition of rhythm can take me to, and maybe every now and then I’ll just want to wave my motha fuckin’ fingas in the air — but when I want poetry, these days, it’s much more gratifying to open (or turn on) a book.

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