The year was 1999.
I was hired as a Staff Reporter for The Source. (How I got on is a story of epic proportions for another day.)
When I interviewed for the job with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, the editor-in-chief, I came to him with a ton of ideas for stories and columns.
One of the ideas was for a monthly column following three brand new rappers who were navigating their first year in the music industry. I thought it would be awesome to revisit them every month as they signed their contracts, recorded their first album and began the journey to fame.
I had big dreams for the column too. I’d choose people in different regions and actually fly out to see them, (with a photographer!) every single month.
I added the idea to my proposal for my interview with Selwyn but I knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell it would ever actually happen.
But a few weeks after I started at The Source, Selwyn walked by my desk, on his way to the fire escape, (which we called the “porch”), to read some copy. On his way, he leaned over my cubicle and said, “Aliya. The story you pitched about following the new rappers? You should get moving on that.”
I was floored.
I quickly called up all the publicists I knew and asked who was newly signed that would make sense for this column. My editors had decided I would choose one rapper from New York, one from the Midwest and one from the west coast.
I knew immediately who I was going to choose from NYC: A young rapper named Lady Luck.
A year before, when I was an editorial assistant at Billboard, I’d been listening to Ed Lover’s morning show where he had an on-air freestyle battle segment. This teenaged girl came on-air and ripped it. Legend has it that Ed Lover personally walked her over to Def Jam after she won several times and there was talk that she was signing to the label. She was sixteen years old.
I did a brief interview with her for Billboard. She was boastful, witty, energetic, loud and all-around awesome.
I got approval from my editors to follow Luck for the year. She was starting her senior year of high school that September which gave the story layers that I thought would be amazing. A 17 year old girl starts senior year being signed to Def Jam?!
AND you’re on the radio in rapid rotation for a Pharoahe Monch song called “Simon Says,” featuring Method Man, Redman and Busta Rhymes?!
THAT is how you’re starting senior year?
My editor told me I had to roll with her on the first day of school.
“Call Gaby at Def Jam,” he said. “Tell them you want to come to her house in the morning and follow her all the way to school. Interview her on the way. And then interview whoever you can outside the school before she goes inside.”
I was on it. I called Gaby, Luck’s publicist at Def Jam.
She said no.
“I’m sorry Aliya,” she said. “I already have a writer from a different publication following her on the first day of school. You can definitely interview her the next day. She knows about the column and she remembers when you interviewed her at Billboard. She’s excited. But we have to wait until the next day.”
I wasn’t having it. I needed to be there on the first day. I needed to see how she walked through those double doors.
Now, at this time, as far as hip-hop was concerned, there was The Source—and then there was everybody else. So I tried to play hardball.
“I don’t know if I can do this column FOR THE WHOLE YEAR if I can’t roll with her on the first day,” I told Gaby.
Gaby didn’t budge. It wasn’t happening.
“What magazine is it?” I asked. If it was another rap magazine, I would have to find another rapper. There was NO way I was following behind any other mag with this story.
“It’s The New Yorker,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
Back in the ‘90s, mainstream media love for hip-hop acts was hard to come by. I knew there was no way I could trump The New Yorker. Gaby knew every rap act would eventually cover Lady Luck. But getting coverage in The New Yorker, (not New York, but The New YorkER), was something special.
I told one my editor the situation. He shrugged it off.
“Do you need to interview her that day?” he said. “Or do you just want to see her in action that day?”
“I really just want to see her,” I said.
“So go see her,” my editor said. Get to the school early on the first day. Wait around. She’s bound to show up and make an entrance. Take some notes. Interview some of the other students. Then interview her the next day and when you write the column, add in what you saw on the first day.”
I called Gaby back and told her my plan.
“No, Aliya,” she said. “Don’t do that. Just wait until the next day. I don’t want the New Yorker reporter to think I booked two reporters. Just wait.”
I said I would wait. But I had my fingers crossed.
The day before the first day of school, I bought a Jansport backpack, a crisp pair of Air Force Ones and some baggy jeans.
Yes, I decided to go to Teaneck High School, blend in with the scenery and observe Lady Luck on the first day of school.
I wore my disguise to work to get approval.
Riggs Morales, then the Associate Editor at The Source, looked me up and down carefully.
“Yo, you really look like you’re in high school,” he said, smiling. “But don’t get the kicks dirty before tomorrow. No high school kid would come on the first day with anything on their Ones.”
I nodded dutifully and listened to all the other act-like-a-high-schooler-advice.
(Looking back, I don’t know what the big deal was. It was 1999. I had graduated from high school nine years before. It’s not like I was 40 years old, married with two kids and a dog trying to pull it off. But I felt very conspicuous. I did not think I could pass for a high school student.)
The next day, a car service picked me up from my apartment in Brooklyn at 5:30 in the morning and took me to Teaneck, New Jersey. The driver was a bit confused by the baggy-jeans and baseball-hat wearing chick in the back seat but he didn’t say anything.
I made the driver park a block away and told him not to leave until I came back.
There were throngs of kids heading to the main entrance to the school. I didn’t stand out at all and no one gave me a second glance. I circled around the entire school to make sure there were no other entrances. When I saw that there was only one open, I posted up and waited.
Thirty minutes later, whispers started to travel to where I stood.
There was Lady Luck, a gleaming Def Jam chain around her neck, walking up to the entrance like a candidate on the campaign trail. A few kids took pictures of her. One kid even walked up and asked for her autograph. She shook hands with folks and waved.
She was also being trailed by a reporter, an older guy who was scribbling furiously in a notebook.
I smiled to myself. I got exactly what I wanted. I saw the awesome scene of Luck’s first day. And Gaby would never even know I was there. I watched Luck interact with the reporter and the kids, taking notes and absorbing the scene.
I packed up, turned to leave and found myself face to face with security and administrators.
“Let’s go! Everybody inside. Report to your first period class immediately!”
I panicked and tried to break away from the pack of the kids heading into the building.
“Nope, let’s go young lady,” said a principal-type, herding me inside the building with the rest of the kids.
Ten seconds later, I am now INSIDE Teaneck High School, walking down a random hallway. I figured I’d just fake like I was trying to find my class for a few seconds and then make a break for it out of one of the side exits.
Except there was a security guard glaring at me at every single exit door.
I’m standing at a locker, trying to figure out what to do and I see Luck walk right past me, with a gaggle of friends, laughing and talking.
I figured since I was stuck in the building, (while The New Yorker reporter was still outside), I’d get more color for my story.
I kept a safe distance and took mental notes on Luck’s interactions with her friends, (who were acting more like her sycophantic entourage, laughing too hard at all her jokes and looking around to see who could see them with her).
After a few minutes of that, I was good to go. I had to get out of there before my driver left me. I turned to try to find an unmanned exit door.
“Hey you!” someone shouted out.
I froze. Then kept walking.
I turned around. Luck was walking towards me.
“You go here?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You ain’t go here last year did you?”
“Nah,” I said. “I just transferred.”
[Note: WHY DIDN’T I JUST SAY NO I DON”T GO HERE I JUST CAME TO GET SOMETHING?!]
Luck looked me over.
“I’m Luck,” she said. She smiled bright. “Welcome to Teaneck High.”
I thought I was going to pass out.
Next thing I know, I am now IN Luck’s entourage as they trail the halls, looking into classroom windows, waving at folks and generally acting up.
A security guard began to approach and all the kids scattered. Luck grabbed me and walked me down a hallway.
“Where’s your schedule?” she asked. “I’ll show you where your class is.”
“I— I don’t have a schedule,” I stammered. “I didn’t get it yet.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” said Luck. “Come on, I’ll take you to guidance. They’ll print one out for you.”
I protested, trying to tell Luck it was okay. But she insisted, practically dragging me into the guidance office. There was a long line of kids waiting to speak with a counselor so I had a minute to think.
“Thanks Luck,” I said. “You can go. I’ll get my schedule.”
The plan was to get to the counter, tell them I needed transcripts for my sister or something. And then break out. But Luck wasn’t having it.
“Nah, I’ll stay. They try to act funny-style on the first day of school.”
I remember being completely petrified at the whole ordeal. But I also remember thinking as a reporter, how dope Luck was. She truly didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. And though I think she was doing a little grandstanding in her own way, she seemed to be genuinely concerned about this new kid who didn’t know where to go. She probably also wanted a reason to keep roaming the halls instead of going to class.
When I was next in line, I knew I had to think of something. I heard each counselor ask the same thing to each student: Name? Birthday?
What was I going to say? I was the same age, if not older, than a few of the teachers in that school! Exactly one year before that day? I WAS A HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY TEACHER.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar face. It was a teacher from my old school! I knew she’d transferred to a different school. What were the flipping odds she was HERE of all places. She was on the phone. But her eyes lit up when she saw me. She motioned for me to wait for her to get off the phone.
“Luck, I need to use the bathroom,” I said. “Now.”
I got out of line and fast-walked out of the guidance office.
“You ai-ight yo?” Luck asked.
“Not really,” I said.
Luck showed me to the bathroom.
“Come inside,” I said.
Luck gave me a look like she was questioning her decision to take me under her wing. But she came inside the bathroom.
I grabbed her shoulders.
“Luck, I’m not a new student here.”
She stepped back.
“Then who the hell are you?”
“It’s me, Aliya. From The Source.”
Luck’s eyes grew as wide as saucers.
I dug out a business card from my pocket and pressed it in her hand.
“It’s me Luck. I interviewed you last year for Billboard."
“Gaby said you were going to interview me tomorrow!”
“I know, I know. But I really wanted to see what things would be like for you on the very first day so I…”
Luck exploded in laughter.
“YOU GANGSTA YO!” she screamed, laughing hysterically. “YOU SNUCK INTO MY SCHOOL?”
I tried to shush her but it wasn’t working.
“Look at you,” she said, still laughing. “You got your outfit hooked up and everything. How old are you?”
“Wow. You old son!”
“I need you to get me out of here,” I said. “Now.”
“You know what? There was something about you I thought was weird,” said Luck. “I kept seeing you. For a second I thought you were following me but I was like nah, she’s just trying to figure out where to go…”
“Get. Me. Out. Of. Here.” I said again.
“Aiight, I got you,” she said.
Luck led me to the one unmanned exit door.
She pushed open the metal doors and I stepped out into the sunshine.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.
“Yo,” said Luck. “You crazy.”
I ran down the steps of the school and tried to find my driver. He was parked directly in front of the school.
“Excuse me young lady!”
Oh for God’s sake what now.
I turned around.
It was the reporter from The New Yorker trotting down the steps toward me.
“So I see Lady Luck befriended you,” the reporter said, taking out a notebook.
“Yeah, you could say that,” I said, one eye on my car, praying the driver wouldn’t leave.
“I’m a reporter for a magazine called The New Yorker. Have you ever heard of it?”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“I’m doing a story on Lady Luck. Can I ask you a few questions about her?”
“Sure,” I said.
We talked briefly. And then the reporter asked for my name.
“Aliya S. King,” I said.
And how old are you?
The reporter scrunched his eyebrows but didn’t say anything.
“This story will be out in October,” he said. “Check it out, you might just get to see your name in a magazine!”
“Wow,” I said. “My name in a magazine. Imagine that.”