My Father Wore Plaid and Hated Rap
For about ten years, between middle school and right after college, I embraced rap like a drunk does the bottle. In 1984, the music was new, addictive and it mirrored my own rebellious mood. My father, in his plaid shirts, would plead loudly with me to turn off “that crap.” Rap was always playing on my Walkman, my box or in my car. But, I eventually sobered up and quit rap at some point during Clinton’s 2nd term.
Wherever I used to drive, I made sure everyone on the street heard that Chuck D. and I were fighting the power. I was not sleeping until I got to Brooklyn. I wrote out the lyrics to La-Di-Da-Di on a textbook cover, had posters of Eric B and Rakim and Run DMC hanging in my room and wore my Adidas without laces. Deep down inside me, I knew that Erick and Parrish didn’t shoot the sheriff but were making dollars instead. Potholes adorned my lawn. I remember when Phife, Q-Tip and Ali left their wallet in El Segundo. The girls loved Heavy D and the Fat Boys were never whack.
Before going to a club and requesting White Lines, some Tribe or 3rd Bass, my friends and I would watch House Party on VHS and practice doing the Kid and Play kick step. I was adamant that Kane was a better MC than Rakim. I initially chose LL over Kool Moe Dee. BDP had it right about where rap got its start. We spent hours arguing about who was a better at beat boxing, Doug E Fresh, Biz Markie or DJ Doc Nice.
Rap lyrics and its messages went from the fun to the deep and intelligent. Run DMC rapped about their Adidas. Burn Hollywood Burn talked about the underrepresentation of Blacks in Hollywood. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince gave us the feeling of summertime all year long. Kane just rhymed with Biz. KRS-One said that you must learn. LL told me I couldn’t dance. Pete Rock and CL Smooth reminisced over you. Whodini wondered how many of us had friends. Ed O.G. implored you to be a father to your child. Kurtis Blow never caught a break.
During this time, rap got an undeserved bad rap. There were many positive messages in songs like Streets of New York, Don’t Curse, The Message, Product of the Environment, Ain’t no Stopping us Now and Self Destruction. The mainstream media ignored this. It did, however, focus on sporadic violence. This led many in America to believe incorrectly that rap promoted violence. Yes, Scott La Rock was murdered while trying to defuse a tense situation. But, there was no attention paid to the Zulu Nation and its message of peace and bringing people together. It was true that sometimes fights broke out at concerts. But, fights also happened anywhere testosterone and alcohol intertwined.
These problems the media exaggerated were exceptions. The reality is that rap was a unique venue for those who otherwise would have had no voice. It was a rich and deep music that carried with it messages of unity, culture, freedom, fun and a search for peace and equality. But,the media, as it often does, shaped and distorted the public’s opinion on rap. It kept the talented artists and the social consciousness of rap hidden from view.
While there was positivity in much of the music, there was also rebelliousness. This made it a strange and interesting partner to punk music at the time. But, the rebelliousness of rap also led to the explosion of west coast rap. That version focused more on violence, drugs, and sex. Instead of battling it out on the mic, artists like NWA, ICE-T, Snoop Dog, and Dr. Dre rapped about battling it out with bullets in the streets. Lyrics like, “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off, Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off” from NWA replaced lyrics like these from Gang Starr, “Whether you die or kill them, it’s another brother dead, but I know you’ll never get that through your head.” The market liked the west coast rap; white suburbia bought it up and east coast rap had to morph to stay relevant.
The emergence of the west coast style in the late 80’s laid the foundation for what rap is now. Today, there is no effort through the music to stop the violence, educate or respect one another. It consists of bragging about shootings, references to one’s crotch or a woman’s body parts. There is neither creativity nor melody. The lyrics and beats seem recycled from one song to the next. The way females are represented in rap music today is revolting, exemplified by Gucci Mane, “Take you to a place real private, Vick you down and let you suck my private, I have no feelings I’m a cold hearted nigga.” Any person who can swear, rhyme without reason, brag about his Tec-9 and his sexual conquests, is considered a rapper. With that, he will hear himself blaring out of car speakers at a stoplight. The beats are bit over and over again. KRS-One said prophetically in 1988, “Hip-Hop will surely decay, if we as a people don’t stand up and say, Stop the Violence.”
Around 1996, I sobered up and came to the realization that rap had been poisoned and was bad for me. At some point in life, each person realizes they are passing from one stage of life to another. My father and his father surely went through this, as big band music and swing gave way to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and then ceded to modern rock. When I hear rap today, I sigh, much like my father did decades ago when excoriating me about my music. New things spring into vogue while others, to make room, must fall and die. All things pass. But, the meaning of what we take from each phase hopefully remains.
Years ago my father did not understand how Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” could have been considered music or much less how I, or anyone, could have liked it. To him it was junk. For me, there was more to rap than just music. We were friends growing up together, having fun, exploring life, forming principles and thinking about our future.
Now, I walk in the same shoes my father did 25 years ago, as I hear a corrupted art form blaring out of speakers. If only kids these days could appreciate real music. Or, maybe it’s up to us, the adults, to develop better music for them to listen to. Either way, as my father, a parent who just didn’t understand, wore plaid and hated rap said, “What is that crap you’re listening to?!” To him I would still say, “Long live the Kane pops, long live the Kane!”