Being a Hip-Hop Superfan in the ‘90s in the Suburbs
I’m going back to Philly on Sunday to see Nas perform as part of his tour promoting the documentary Time is Illmatic. This will be my third time seeing Nas live. I also met him back in 1999. He is my favorite artist and I have virtually his entire catalog memorized.
However, I was late on Illmatic.
One thing that has been forgotten in the victory lap that is the 20th anniversary of Nas’s debut is that it was a commercial disappointment at first – partially due to widespread bootlegging – and did not have the reach of Doggystyle or Ready to Die or even Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers]. The vast majority of hip-hop fans were not even aware of it at first.
In the mid-‘90s, it was hard for a kid from a fairly small, predominantly white town to learn about new hip-hop artists, though I studied it as if it were my doctoral thesis. I’m sure I heard “Halftime” or “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” at some point, but the artist was just another in a sea of those I didn’t know. I would try to stay up to watch “Urban Xpressions,” but that was only once a week and it had the production quality of a snuff film. MTV played only mainstream acts, usually Death Row or Bad Boy artists, unless it was 2 a.m. and it’s not like my local cable provider was going to start offering BET. The internet was in its infancy and, furthermore, most music fans were not nearly as educated as they would become in later years. I was one of the few people I knew that read linear notes. Hell, I was one of the very few people I knew that even knew they were called linear notes.
Local grocery stores sold magazines, but none of them would have even considered selling The Source (let alone Rap Pages or Murder Dog) back in 1994, so I had to get my magazines at the same place I bought tapes and CDs: the local mall, which featured two stores that competed for the suburban music fan, a Sam Goody downstairs and The Wall upstairs. Located twenty minutes from my house, I couldn’t walk there and with both older siblings in college, I couldn’t snag a ride with anyone. Mixtapes and bootlegs were all the way down in Philly, nearly an hour away, and besides, it’s not like my parents were going to drive to Germantown Avenue just so I could get my hands on the latest DJ Clue tape, so that was out. Still, any time I did make it to the mall, I would study the cassette single and CD racks for new releases and check for new magazine editions (Vibe was always there, but it felt like their Source orders would skip a month now and then, so maybe the Illmatic 5-mic review was in one of the issues that never made it to my neck of the woods).
In hindsight, it feels like that was a century ago. Now, every song is not only available, but disposable. If someone had stolen my music collection in the mid-‘90s, it would have taken me years and thousands of dollars to recoup it. Now, it would just take an IP address, a P2P app, and some patience.
Back in 1994, if I walked into that Sam Goody with twenty dollars in my pocket, I knew I had to be judicious with my spending. I would stand in front of the racks deciding what to do. Should I get The Source and a CD single? Should I buy a new album? I like that artist, but I don’t know if that album will be any good and I don’t want to waste my money. Should I spend the extra money at The Wall for the lifetime guarantee sticker?
As you get older, music becomes less important to you because you find other ways to express yourself, but as a teenager, your music is your identity. For me, it was like I had a tapeworm for music – no matter how much I heard or how much knowledge about the artists or the industry I gained, it would never enough. I was never satisfied.
If you had told me back then that one day I could not only hear, but own every song I ever wanted and it could fit in a device that fit in my palm and every music magazine would be accessible through my computer (or my phone!), I would have considered it Utopia. No more agonizing over what albums to buy. No more waiting for the new issue of a magazine that may not even show up that week. No more sitting by the radio with two fingers hovering – one over the play button, the other over the record button – waiting to hear a song I want to dub. Finally, everything I’ve ever wanted is at my fingertips?! This is the greatest thing in the world!
And now, like everyone else, I’m spoiled and I simply take it for granted.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of six books, all of which can be purchased inPaperback, Kindle, and Nook. A former feature contributor and managing editor of I Hate JJ Redick, he has also written for XXL, Please Don’t Stare, Amusing My Bouche, Reading & Writing is for Dumb People, A Series of Very Bad Decisions, and others. He works in finance and spends his evenings changing diapers and drinking craft beer. He once applied to be a cast member on The Real World, but was rejected. You can like his Facebook page here and follow him on Twitter here.