Brian introduced me to rap music on bus #177 in what I think was fourth grade. I know it was 177 and not 181 or 161 because this memory is accompanied by a host of other unique sensory inputs: the distinct smoky smell of the beloved driver Larry that wafted throughout the bus; the smooth sound of the now-defunct radio station 98.7 Kiss FM; Larry’s gruff but endearing farewell (“bye bye, be-be”) to his preferred mom/babysitter at each stop.
Brian gave me his CD player, which promised fewer skips per minute than mine, and played for me Dr. Dre’s millennial album, 2001. We were at the verge of the Slim Shady era, and I remember being entranced by “Forgot About Dre,” a team effort by Dr. Dre and Eminem. The words were spit, not spoken, and my elementary school self was taken in by the power of their sound if not their meaning.
I was recently overcome by the sudden urge to re-engage with rap, to listen to the anthems of my youth and to communicate myself in rhyme, preferably in the context of a competitive freestyle rap battle. At the time this urge felt normal, but soon after I realized that it was quite curious. I don’t really listen to rap music now. I don’t particularly appreciate it anymore. I came to wonder what might have accounted for my past interest, an interest which was apparently powerful enough so as to be liable to resurface even years later.
Much of the reason I found rap engaging was surely due to societal and communal factors that had little to do with my connection to the music itself. Rap was (is?) cool. As I recall, its personal appeal wasn’t the associated lifestyle. MTV Cribs was a cool show, but I didn’t actually envision myself as a rap superstar with a big house, five cars, a stocked Sub-Zero fridge, and a penchant for describing my bedroom as “the place where the magic happens.” What I did want was an older brother. Knowing a lot about rap music, it seemed to me, was something that older brothers did. I was jealous of my friends who were exposed so effortlessly to an earlier generation of rap music by their more seasoned siblings. I only discovered “My Name Is” and “Guilty Conscience,” two Eminem classics that gave me an appreciation for satire and for salutary, semi-adversarial artistic collaboration due to a chance encounter with a friend’s brother’s CD collection. Achieving familiarity with a wide range of rap music enjoined me to this more mature world and helped me fill a familial void.
By emphasizing words and rhythm over instrumentation, rap was also democratic. If appreciating classical music is like appreciating dry wine, then appreciating gangster rap is like appreciating crack. (Because it’s really — sometimes unfortunately — easy to get hooked and it makes people talk fast.) I didn’t need years of training or to practice my goddamn guitar to take it in and feel like I was good at it. I could conquer a song and essentially reproduce it simply by knowing the lyrics and pacing. I just needed to not have a speech disorder, which I didn’t.
But what occupied my time and mental energy was not the search for a big brother replacement or an ongoing appreciation for a musical genre that didn’t make me feel like I should be practicing an instrument. Along with a small group of friends I became a voracious memorizer of lyrics. In hindsight, this obsession was partly egotistical: knowing lots of lyrics was an indication of having a capable memory and facilitated casually showing off in public places. Most of the bat mitzvahs I attended are now a distant haze, but I distinctly remember routinely approaching the ever-present DJ with my friend at some point shortly after dominating the competition in “Coke & Pepsi” and insisting that he play “Forgot About Dre” so we could impress our peers and their parents from the middle of the dance floor. I may have been stiff when it came to standard dance moves, but when it came to evocatively throwing around my thumb and index fingers at the same time I was a slinky fox.
However, the process of lyrics memorization was also one of learning. When I talk about memorization I don’t mean we Asked Jeeves about that shit and read it off an html website. That would have been a violation of an unspoken social contract, an unspeakable taboo. I’ll admit that I did do it from time to time. I know this because the images of the websites have been seared into my brain. At the very least, though, I avoided it as much as I thought possible, and certainly never admitted my foibles to my friends. We would spend hours trying in vain to piece together the lyrics of songs whose words we could not discern or understand. (This was not unique to rap. One instance that stands out was a particularly difficult section in the second stanza of Blink 182’s hit single “What’s my Age Again?” It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned that the words were in fact “[t]he state looks down on sodomy” rather than “on side of me.” Our lyrics may not have made much sense, but that seemed better than inventing words.) If knowing the lyrics to a song was a form of ownership, then using a lyrics website was a form of theft. I see now that this seemingly arbitrary social norm impressed upon us the importance of persistence and honest, hard work.
The search for lyrical completeness made me into a close listener. Rap songs are notoriously difficult to understand. Most rappers could use a speech pathologist or at least do some individual work on their elocution. If you want to catch all the lyrics without having to embarrass yourself by listening to the song too many times, you need to learn to pay close attention. Paying close attention is great, but it is also passive. A more active form of intellectual development was fostered by listening to the edited versions of rap songs. As I mentioned earlier, I am the oldest child, and so while my parents permissively allowed me to listen to the music, they naturally refused to purchase the unedited version. (In the back of my mind I still see the white and black Parental Advisory sticker as a symbol of titillating excitement.)
While this was at the time disappointing and made me even more conscious of my lack of cool older siblings who would have cursed often enough that me hearing Eminem say “shit” would have been of little concern to my parents, this was in fact a blessing in disguise. In a musical style which places such emphasis on flow, there was something jarring about the abrupt absences that punctured the tracks every few seconds. Rather than smooth over the problematic parts of his music, the process of lyrical excavation made necessary by the censorship turned these sections into the subjects of intense focus and near-scholarly attention. I had to use semantic context and other clues to fill in the gaps (e.g. “It rhymes with ‘truck’ so I guess we can rule out ‘b*tch’”). Tools that I would re-learn in a written context years later in school I had already passively absorbed on the digital Streets of C-C-Compton.
If my 10-year old sister is an indication, the ethos of lyrics acquisition have changed over the past decade. On numerous occasions I have had to lightly reprimand her upon noticing that she was using my computer to watch YouTube videos of pop songs that displayed scrolling lyrics. Let’s put aside that I told her not to touch my computer. It’s a shame that kids these days don’t want to put in the effort to conquering Nicki Minaj as she should be conquered: without mental crutches. Will my sister and her ilk be intellectually impoverished because of their lack of concern for the fineries of rap song listening? I’m not sure. In any case, there is still something lost by devaluing lyrical purity.
The process of reconstructing my childhood perspective on rap from a collection of memories has made me increasingly aware that memories are not static. We constantly re-remember our past in light of subsequent experiences and current views. It may be that in trying to analyze my childhood rap stage, I’ve said more about where I stand now than how I felt at the time. All the same, these memories are not mere nostalgia-inducing wisps of an almost reclusive subjective past; they are anchored by my continued knowledge of dozens of actual rap songs. The words of these songs exist outside of my head, they correspond to something shared by millions of other people, they situate me within a broader cultural phenomenon. This duality of the fixedness and dynamism, along with my recent free-style re-awakening, suggest to me that we may be too quick to separate our lives into discrete stages instead of recognizing overlap and persisting influence.
Present interests in language and writing are perhaps more vertically connected than I had thought; begotten, in part, by a hobby I had never considered formative. Maybe this realization is late in coming. As I now consider the lyrics of “Forgot About Dre” — what was once just sound has years later taken on meaning — it occurs to me that the “nowadays” of which Eminem speaks is an outcry against a human tendency toward a fallacious presentism. We mustn’t forget the proverbial Original Gangster.
This article originally appeared in the Princeton University paper the Nassau Weekly.