Mos Def opens his album Black On Both Sides with a challenge to the audience. “The next time you ask where is hip-hop going, ask yourself, ‘Where am I going? What am I doing?'”
I write this mainly because I often have no idea where I’m going or what I’m doing. Somehow, I’d love to blame it all on hip-hop.
There’s a part of me that never recovered from when the Boot Camp Clik released For the People and it sucked. For months, nay, years prior — the release date was pushed back several times — I awaited the BCC’s compilation album as some sort of validation for the many hours I had spent pumping up their stock to non-believers. At the height of my rabidness, I sat two friends down with Smif-n-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ and made them listen to the entire thing. I chimed in on my favorite lines throughout – blissfully oblivious that doing so probably sullied their ability to actually hear the music.
When I come around the block / I give mad love to the heads that I know while the heads that I don’t know watch.
Steele’s line from Stand Strong is the absolute peak of the album — halfway through the listen, it marks the point from which the best songs succeed one after the other until the album’s dramatic close with P.N.C. — partners in crime. The line portrays the elegance of simplicity itself. Living a block from Franklin Avenue as I do now, I can imagine Steele descending to the street from his building, the pounds going around the circle — some warmer than others. I could imagine it then too. Just as clear.
One of the friends who sat through my inquisition later claimed that it was upon hearing that line that he decided to give the BCC a chance. A year later the two of us drove to Providence for a BCC show at Lupo’s. I wore the Duck Down Records t-shirt I had purchased online. One of the girls we saw the show with claimed she knew Buckshot from Jersey and cried when she couldn’t get backstage. Nine years later, I can recall the excitement I felt when Rock stage-dived near me and a crush of bodies, hands raised to the rafters, pushed towards his surfing body — just to touch him.
I haven’t talked to that friend in years, and can’t remember the last time I listened to Dah Shinin’ from start to finish. Not including b-sides and other rarities, I’ve only encoded five songs from that CD to my computer; For the People rates one song — for loyalty’s sake. For The People was one of many albums of the coming era that eschewed sampled beats for a synthesized soundscape with a few live instruments. Hip-hop producers, with a few notable exceptions, weren’t as adept then at writing music and the beats suffered greatly. For that, I entered a period of cognitive dissonance with the music. Sure it sounded like the stuff I loved, but wasn’t quite it. Years would pass before a new crop of producers injected soul back into the music.
Or maybe I wasn’t listening right.
Years have passed since I anticipated an album as fastidiously as a nephew’s birth or an inamorata’s embrace. Hip-hip is in younger, more capable hands than mine now. And I wonder if I’ll ever order a t-shirt from inside a record liner again. Because of it, I’m just as proud to catch up from time to time. To see where hip-hop is going. Every now and then I pull out one of my prized possessions: the 12-inch single of Buck ‘Em Down. In the song, Buckshot predicts the rise of the Boot Camp Clik four years hence; the same year I finally saw them live.
In 1998 I couldn’t wait / to get all my brothers and do shows from state to state.
Last week I photographed a postal service van whose scribbled graffiti asked rhetorically, “Damn, we still here?” Buckshot surely might have answered in the affirmative. Years ago. And he’d be right once again.
There are some of us who have learned to see through our ears. And for that, we’ll always have someone to blame. Even if it means we don’t always know where we’re going.