A few weeks back, I attended an album talk for noted hip-hop lyricist and producer Pharoahe Monch’s 1999 album, Internal Affairs (released on seminal label, Rawkus Records), at The REACH, the new arts and culture center that’s part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The talk, part of the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture series, was a panel discussion that, along with Monch, included his right-hand man, producer Lee Stone, and luminary producers DJ Scratch and Diamond D from the Diggin’ In The Crates Crew. The panel was moderated by Jerry L. Barrow, currently an editor at BET, who was also a writer for Scratch Magazine and hip-hop’s bible, The Source (and who I met earlier this year doing a talk about Ava DuVernay’s award-winning series on the Central Park Five, When They See Us).
I provided all of that information for two reasons: 1) When Notorious B.I.G. said on “Juicy,” that “you never thought hip-hop would take it this far,” I’m sure hip-hop at the Kennedy Center (which has quite the robust hip-hop programming nowadays; props to 2018 Root 100 honoree, Simone Eccleston) where Nas or Common performing with the National Symphony Orchestra is now commonplace is exactly what he was talking about; and 2) For a person like me who grew up on ’90s-era hip-hop and will still debate you about who’s the greatest rapper—Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas—this was like a Christmas gift that I didn’t even know I wanted that became my favorite present of the year.
Listening to all of the people on stage, several of whom are responsible for parts of the soundtrack to my life, reminded me of just how much I love both ’90s-era hip-hop and hearing stories about the creation of albums and the culture around the time. It reminded me that of all the early aughts black movies, Brown Sugar continues to be my favorite and by a wide margin. And why I still have all of my old Source magazines and refuse to part with my CDs, and why signed CD inserts by Lauryn Hill, Goodie Mob, etc. are things I just can’t ever part with…
...I’m still in love with hip-hop.
In the movie Love Jones—either the greatest or most over-rated black movie of all time—Larenz Tate’s character, Darius Lovehall (a pantheon level stalker), says that “romance is about the possibility of the thing.” And that’s where I land on my affinity and love for hip-hop; it’s all about remembering that feeling and thinking about what was possible and the excitement of that possibility. Listening to Pharoahe Monch talk about the creation of individual songs and the studio sessions where Canibus walked in and watched a movie for two hours instead of writing a verse (back when studio time cost real money) for the song “Hell” or how Monch successfully begged Mobb Deep’s Prodigy for an Alchemist-produced record that would become “No Mercy,” or Maxwell hilariously running up on him at a club after the album dropped and then making sure he got paid for a sample used on “Queens” warmed my heart and soul.
Hearing how Busta Rhymes was the reason “Simon Says” blew up in New York City (and eventually America) because he literally lost his mind over the song to the point that he took the digital audio tape from the studio straight to radio and then Flex dropped bombs all over it, similar to how Cam’ron and DipSet took “Oh Boy” straight from the studio to the radio, took me right back to 1999 and thinking about where I was when I first heard “Simon Says” and the conversations about just how nice Monch was with my boys on the campus of Morehouse College. As it turns out, listening some 20 years later, I still remember the feeling associated with the music of my youth and I guess it never goes away. I was as hype hearing the backstory in 2019 as I was invested in the love in 1999.
I vividly remember the feeling of hearing Outkast’s “Elevators (Me & U)” for the first time, the same way I remember hearing De La Soul Is Dead for the first time.
It’s why I, along with what I can only imagine is a gang of others, devour hip-hop-related anything. I’m not even sure Hulu’s Wu Tang: An American Saga is any good (it is, however, slightly ridiculous in a fun way), but I’ve watched every episode with my full attention because it’s the backstory of RZA, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, GZA and ODB (so far). I’m watching like I don’t already know any of this but my entire ’90s were spent learning everything I could about the Wu even though I wasn’t even really a fan like that—I do completely acknowledge and respect the influence and legacy and who doesn’t love Ghostface Killah?
Slow Burn, a Slate podcast, recently debuted its third season and it’s dedicated to the story of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G., which has only been told a million times in movies, television shows, podcasts, books, poetry slams, plays, etc. I’m sure even aliens know the whole-ass Tupac and Biggie story at this point and yet, here I am, listening to this podcast like I’m learning brand new information. Somehow, hearing the story all over again feels like the first time. If there’s a documentary about anything hip-hop related, there’s a better than 90 percent chance I will watch it and treat it like a class I need to graduate from college. I don’t care if it’s about Poor Righteous Teachers or Snow, I’m there. I spend way too much time listening to interviews on The Breakfast Club or VladTV about a whole culture and industry that was moving around me that I always wanted to be part of and decided the only way to do so was to write about it.
Whether it’s about samples or the studio sessions or the clothing, the culture of hip-hop and the music are part of the fabric of my being at this point of my life. And even at 40, I could listen to a two-minute story about a two-bar loop and feel entirely like it was time well-spent.
For my 40th birthday this year, I went, by myself, to The Roots Picnic in June, entirely to hear one song. The Roots were celebrating the 20-year anniversary of their most successful album, Things Fall Apart, and performing the album in its entirety to close out the festival. On this landmark album is the song “Act Too (Love Of My Life),” which is easily my second favorite hip-hop song of all time behind Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” I paid good money on the trip, a hotel and festival tickets literally to see that one song because I have no idea when or if I’d ever see it performed again. I wanted to see that one song performed live because of how much it resonates with me and how it has maintained its place in my life for 20 years. And it was entirely worth it, plus I got a whole dope-ass festival experience waiting to hear it.
Apparently that love of hip-hop never goes away and the way I interact with the culture now is the same as it ever was.
To quote Black Thought on “Act Too,” “...Sometimes, I wouldn’ta made it if it wasn’t for you, Hip-Hop, you the love of my life and that’s true…”
Besides God and family, you’re my life’s jewel—hip-hop.