I completely missed out on hip-hop — its birth, explosive growth, transformative cultural influence — all of it. Part of this was growing up in places where black music was either ignored or demonized (Boston suburbs, overwhelmingly white liberal arts college…). Folks I grew up with took their love of rock and roll seriously. People didn’t just dislike disco, they were so threatened by it that they burned records. The first time I heard hip-hop was at college parties, but I assumed songs like Rapper’s Delight, White Lines and The Breaks, were novelty songs akin to ’70s hits like The Streak and Convoy. Later, black music became something I was supposed to fear, lest I be corrupted by obscene acts like 2LiveCrew.
Fast forward to 2010, and the day my playlist had nothing left to offer me. For the first time in my life, I was bored with rock and roll. What were my options? I’d tried jazz and classical music, but they didn’t grab me. They felt like adult homework.
Then I remembered seeing “A Tribe Called Quest” on a t-shirt somewhere. I found their music online and chose The Low-End Theory because I liked its cover.
It was nothing like I’d expected. Energetic, playful, intense, funny, deep, provocative and inspiring. I can’t say enough. I played it over and over in disbelief at how much I loved it. Inspired, I surrendered myself to Spotify’s algorithm, and was rewarded with JAY-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop. Then, another revelation — Wu-Tang Clan.
Suddenly, hip-hop was all I listened to. It was also my secret. None of my friends were into it, and if I’d told any of the younger people at work they would have thought I was pandering. I made one tentative attempt at sharing my new passion. When a Wu-Tang reunion tour arrived at the L.A. Forum, I posted on Facebook that I’d love to go, but didn’t really feel like going alone. Who was in? None of my 1000+ friends, that was for sure. Only two could even be bothered to hit “like.”
By now I was a dad, and spending a lot more time with my son than my friends, a tradeoff I made happily. As a kid, he was happy to listen to whatever his parents did, and we were happy never have to listen to kid’s music.
I have to admit, I was conflicted about turning him on to some of the hip-hop I was loving. There was cursing, the N-word, misogyny, and the glorification of wealth and violence. I couldn’t justify these elements to myself. How would I explain them to him? Forbidding him to listen wouldn’t work. I wasn’t going to be the kind of father who grounds his kid for smoking, then lights up a Marlboro. But I didn’t want him buying into misogyny and violence as thoughtlessly as I’d accepted that “Disco Sucks.”
The solution, like it is to most things, was talking about it. Instead of avoiding, or trying to justify lyrics and personas that are about spending money on cars and in clubs and heaping scorn on other rappers, I challenged my son to consider things from the artists’ perspectives. Maybe, I told him, it’s easy for affluent white people to condemn chasing after bling because they didn’t grow up in a culture that told them expensive and extravagant things weren’t for people who looked like them. It’s human nature to want what people tell you you can’t have. Especially when those people have plenty of it. Hip-hop became an entree into conversations about inequity, racism, privilege and perspective-taking. I learned as much from these conversations as he did.
Thanks to my son’s expanding tastes (and the YouTube algorithms feeding them), I soon broke out of my ’90s bubble. We now share a love of Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco and Wiz Khalifa. Just today, we bonded once more over the fact that as hard as we’ve tried, neither of us can understand the appeal of the Beastie Boys, which is kind of ironic as they’re among a very small number of white artists with genuine hip-hop cred. As my son discovered more current rappers, one day it hit me that he’d never listened to any Wu-Tang. It was a proud parenting moment when I ushered him through the door to The 36 Chambers.
But hip-hop is more more than a way to connect with my son. I truly believe it’s an underrated source of parenting advice. One that’s only helped by the indisputable fact that your kid thinks the people giving the advice are way cooler than you.
Is there any parenting advice better than these words from Ice Cube: Get in where you fit in. Damn, I told my son, I wish I’d heard that when I was your age. Back then, I was willing to do anything to be accepted by the cool kids, no matter how often they rejected me. I never stopped to consider that I wasn’t into anything they were into, nor did I want to be. I just wanted their approval, and it never came, no matter how desperately I tried. Luckily for my son, his options today are infinitely greater than mine were. Needless to say, high school in the 1970s didn’t include after-school clubs for LGBTQ kids, coders, animal rights activists or knitters. Listen to Ice Cube, I told him. Find your tribe.
When my son developed his first crush, I turned to the sage words of Wiz Khalifa:
Treat ’em like I don’t need ‘em.
You best believe.
You in her face.
I let her breathe.
This was the opposite of the suffocating dating approach I had employed for decades. My “game” was non-existent. I was need personified and the results were dismal. Wiz Khalifa summed up a healthier alternative, in a way that my son could remember, and not just because it rhymed, but because it’s true. Neediness is a turn-off at any age.
Notorious B.I.G. may not strike most 50-year-old white dads as a parenting sage, but I beg to differ. I’ve used his music (and Wiz Khalifa’s too) to reinforce to my son the importance of generosity. Sharing feels good. Or as Biggie puts it, I give ends to my friends and it feels stupendous. I hope my son is that kind of friend, who knows the joy of sharing with people who love you for who you are.
Hip-hop has helped my son and I connect in a way I never could with my dad. Back in 1973, the first time I’d used my own money to buy an album — Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — I couldn’t wait to play it for my dad. As soon as he got home from work, I begged him to stop right where he was. I picked up the needle and moved it to the start of Benny and the Jets. I can still see him standing inside the front door, back-lit by the sun. The first piano chords had barely ended when he muttered, I don’t like rock and roll, then walked right past me into the kitchen. It was one of the worst moments of my life. Listening to music with my son heals the pain of that rejection.
I never expected to have hip-hop to thank for all this, but there it is. I’m grateful to all the artists who made it happen and thankful that they’ve made me the kind of dad who can augment his own parenting advice by saying things like, I know high school seems overwhelming, but it’s like Kid Cudi says:
Sky might be fallin’ but remember you can fly.