I am not a real hip-hop fan. A cursory review of my CD collection reveals precisely six rap/hip-hop albums – and probably six of the most well-known in the genre, at that. It would be like owning a copy of Kind of Blue and calling yourself a jazz enthusiast.
My first cautious foray into rap was inauspicious, to say the least. I’d been hearing a lot about Kanye West, and decided to check him out. I was working in a windowless office in Jefferson City at the time, and spent many of my lunch hours prowling through the Barnes and Noble off Highway 50. One day I sneaked past the jazz albums and instead loitered nervously in front of the rap section, like an adolescent contemplating his first illicit visit to a porn shop (I suppose.) Finally I stepped forward, grabbed Late Registration, and rushed to the check-out.
Moments later I was sitting in my car, breathing deeply, feeling pleased with myself. I had done it! I had purchased a rap album! Twenty-five minutes later, once I had wrestled the plastic wrapping off the CD case, I pushed it into the car stereo, ready for a real, modern, urban cultural experience. Yes, I know, I was sitting in a parking lot in a strip mall in mid-Missouri, but you take what you’re given, right? However I quickly realized something was wrong. West’s vocals kept cutting out, as if he were rapping on a cell phone while driving through a hilly area. Consequently the lyrics made little sense. Every third word was replaced with a gnomic silence. At first I thought I’d bought a faulty disk, until I realized that my delicate ears were being spared Kanye’s potty mouth. Aghast, I grabbed the CD case and scanned it. The little sticker I had missed in the shop confirmed my fear: I’d bought the clean version.
I was seriously bummed out. I knew I was never going to be able to walk back into the shop and say, “Excuse me, I bought this in error. Could I please have the version filled with gratuitous obscenities, offensive racial epithets, and misogynistic bile?” So I drove forlornly back to the office with my incomplete, anodyne, incomprehensible purchase.
Still, I liked the CD. Kanye’s monstrous ego was oddly appealing, and I enjoyed his use of samples of old disco tunes. Feeling pleased with how very modern I was being, there followed further acquisitions by Public Enemy, Jay-Z, and Common. I still listen to these sometimes, but frankly it’s difficult. These are not albums you can put on as nice background music while the family sits down to eat dinner together – especially now that I have learned my lesson and always make sure to buy the fully-leaded, expletive-heavy versions. (There was one exciting moment when Dirt Off Your Shoulder popped up in a playlist on my iPod as the four of us were driving somewhere. Christina and I both lunged for the iPod at the same time and we almost swerved off the road.) Generally the only place I listen to this stuff is in the car, on my own. (Listening while driving has the additional advantage of curbing my inclination to strike daft crossed-armed rapper poses, since I need to keep my hands on the steering wheel.) But here’s the thing: I play this stuff at a very sedate volume, which I know ain’t right. The truth is, I’m embarrassed for myself. I am acutely aware how ridiculous I must look – a middle-aged white man, desperately hoping he’s still got it. (And I’m sure that listening to mainstream artists like Kanye and Jay-Z is probably laughable, too – like someone with a Kenny G album thinking he’s into jazz.)
But my hip-hop listening has recently received a recent shot in the arm. (There’s a joke there somewhere.) My saviors are A Tribe Called Quest. The Low End Theory is a wonderful record. The lyrics are in a different class to the solipsistic bling-bore of modern rappers or the gangsta violence of the mid-90s. The songs are clever and ironic, and a caustic commentary on the world they saw out of their Queens windows. Rhythmically, some of the things the MCs do are astonishing, and it helps that they use great jazz samples as the basis for much of their stuff. Hell, they’ve even got the great Ron Carter playing bass on one track. A lot of great young jazzers like Robert Glasper incorporate elements of hip-hop into their music, and if you listen to the right stuff, the musicality of it is undeniable. Best of all, I don’t feel like such a [deleted] piece of [deleted]-up [deleted] [deleted] when I listen to it. Yo.