How Hip-Hop Saved My Life


Up until I was eleven, my musical taste was a tribute to blandness — The Beach Boys, Wilson Philips, Michael Bolton. Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” was the edgiest thing in my collection. One evening, my older cousin decided it was time to rescue me. She told me to pick something to listen to from her collection of albums by Metal and hair bands. Much to her surprise, I chose the one rap album in her collection, Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster, mainly because of the mammoth sticker on the front of the cassette tape that said “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” (Thanks, Tipper Gore.) She cued up the song “Midnight” and put earphones on my head. Hearing that song was like riding a roller coaster for the first time. The pounding rhythm, the sirens blaring, the F-bombs flying — I was so scared I almost peed myself. But as soon as the song was over, I was absolutely certain that I had to own everything Ice-T had ever made.

Hip hop was my first love. (And as a lifelong fan of KRS-ONE, I am obliged to tell you that hip hop is the culture that surrounds rap music, not just the music itself.)

A lot of people find rap challenging when they first hear it because it inverts what they think of as musical norms. Instead of melody supported by rhythm, it is rhythm supported by melody. Instead of the bass filling out the background, the bass is brought right to the front, and the treble is asked to take a back seat. For some people, this takes a major adjustment to get used to, but for me it made perfect sense. The way that every line had to rhyme with the next spoke to my love of language and poetry. The raw intensity of the music matched my own burgeoning passion. The social commentary and politics of groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and NWA gave my growing teen angst a sense of direction and purpose. I embraced not only hip hop but the larger Black American culture that had given birth to it. I became radicalized.

Throughout middle school and high school, I wrote my own rap songs, which my friend Mike would mix with terrible beats made by Casio keyboards spliced into an old boom box. We were two white boys in love with rap and black culture who went to school with kids who had Confederate flags on their belt buckles and gun racks on the back of their pick-up trucks.

Wearing Cross Colours and quoting from the Autobiography of Malcolm X did not exactly win us friends. We got into fights. I would come home with bruises up and down my arms from angry white kids pounding on me in the hallways. None of that was nearly as bad as what happened to the black kids though, like the seventh-grade girl who got maced in the face on the back of the bus one day.

It sounds crazy to say it now, but back then Mike and I were convinced that we were the only white kids in the world who were into rap. We had no idea that other white kids like us across the country were becoming immersed in hip hop. At the time, the Internet was still just an assembly of Geocities pages with counters and icons that said “under construction,” so there was no way for us to connect with other kids like us. The only white rapper anyone had ever heard of, Vanilla Ice, was a national joke. For Mike and I though, the world of hip hop was so much more honest and real than the rural suburbs we lived in. It was a world where ideas mattered and where people were judged by their skills and their hearts rather than by their skin color. I was a complicated kid with a lot of strange thoughts and feelings that put me at a distance from my peers and sometimes made me feel angry or depressed. Rap gave me an outlet for all of that. It made me feel like being different was not the worst thing in the world.

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SOURCE: The Living Church Foundation
Jonathan Mitchican

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