Music has always been there. On weekends, my mom would put the stereo on blast as she cleaned up the house. Her collection gradually grew over my childhood. From MJ to Sade, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott and many others. Those were the days when I learned how to slow dance to music I did not yet like. Pretty much if it wasn’t on the radio, I didn’t like it that much. Fortunately for me, 90s black radio was a Hip-Hop and R&B wonderland. When it came down to it, there was balance. It seemed like the “party/gangsta” artists were just as popular as the “conscious” artists.
My parents weren’t super, super into Hip-Hop. Of course they knew all the old school classics. And whenever one would come on, my dad would turn the radio up, roll the windows down and proceed to embarrass me with his rapping-while-driving routine. Eventually, this came off as normal to me. I assumed every black father was into Hip-Hop. So I thought it wouldn’t be a problem when I asked my parents this, “Can I go to the record store and buy The Real Slim Shady single?”
They didn’t get it. Why was their straight-edged, nerdy child interested in the most controversial motor mouth on the planet? (At the time.) That’s when I found out that they may have not been as into Hip-Hop as I thought. That it was, if anything, just one of the many aspects of black culture that they chose to embrace. Even though I couldn’t understand half the stuff Eminem was saying, I knew there was something different about him. Dr. Dre the beatmaster drew me in, and from then on I was hooked. Dre and Slim Shady were the reasons why I wanted to become a producer when I was a kid.
Instead that Christmas I got Stankonia. The first album I ever owned. In hindsight, the fact that I got this was further proof of their lack of knowledge about Hip-Hop. At the time, Outkast’s Ms. Jackson was destroying the charts worldwide. It was the most played song on the radio. Now Outkast are legends. But the purchase was probably made because of popularity. Not quality. (Not to say the album wasn’t great.)
As a kid, I always did things as precisely as I could. On open-ended test questions, I attempted to fill up the exact space given. I bubbled in multiple-choice questions as dark and round as possible. I read the manual thoroughly, before starting any board/video game. So when I first played Stankonia, it only made sense that I read through the liner notes in the album booklet and then, listen to the CD in its entirety. No skipping to the major singles. Well, this proved to be a challenge. The only thing I was interested in listening to was the singles. But it was the only album I had. Eventually, I had to start listening to the rest of it, lest I become bored to death. So on one long car ride, running errands with my mom, I listened to the album in its entirety.
At first it was weird, and as I kid I kinda felt uncomfortable consuming so much uncensored material. I still thought cursing was a very bad “sin,” so I never could fully rap along when I listened. Beyond this, the rest of the album was just a shock. This was probably the first time I listened to music that wasn’t on the radio or television. Now I was really hearing what Outkast was saying in spaces where funny sound effects previously resided. I was hearing all of Andre 3000’s sexuality, Big Boi’s pimpin’ chauvinism, and their affiliate Killa Mike’s killer violence. It was a weird, prepubescent time. And I tried to enjoy it because well, the beats were hot, right? Yet the lyrics were something I just learned to ignore. It was over my head both in maturity and (maybe) comprehension.
My next major album was Ludacris’ Word of Mouf. This was also the last uncensored album my mom would buy for me. Somewhere between Stankonia and Word of Mouf I was introduced to the Internet. Man, the Internet changed everything, like, EVERYTHING. And I grew up in it, with it. We’ll cover that in the next chapter. But yeah, Ludacris? He had a crazy flow only rivaling Busta Rhymes at the time he started to get popular. It was like controlled chaos. His music videos were just as off the wall as his lyrics and delivery. I just couldn’t get enough of it. Yet that one day when I decided to play the album in the living room stereo was it.
“I got hoes in different area what?!? Nooo no no. Next time we’re getting the censored album.”
And that was the beginning of my never-ending quest for Internet literacy. (To be covered in Chapter 3.) Let’s get back to the Music though. We’ve barely penetrated the membrane of my musical make up.
A few different things were happening at this time that made me develop the appreciation I have for music now. I was drawn to everything about music and regret not taking it more seriously in middle school. I took up lessons (not by choice) in alto saxophone after an old Selmer from the 70s was passed down to me. I think it was my cousin Eddie’s, and was sitting in the attic of my Aunt Lala’s house for years before it was given to me. Poppy, my grandfather, was ecstatic. He had it in his mind from the day I started playing that I would be the next Coltrane. I started off taking music lessons at a music school in Mt. Airy. But after a few months, I don’t think I learned much of anything. Mainly because I never cared to practice. But when sixth grade came around, somehow I managed to be admitted into the concert band. To my luck, we had a new and lenient music director. I quit the bell ensemble and after school soccer in favor of a new challenge.
I don’t remember the first time I practiced with the concert band but I do remember one thing: I couldn’t really read sheet music. I knew things here and there, but the basics weren’t (and still aren’t) solidified in my memory. In order to feign comprehension I pulled some “Drumline” Nick Cannon-type antics. When playing a piece for the first time I’d play only the parts I was confident I knew. The whole time I was listening to the other instruments; determining if I was in the melody or harmony of the piece. Using this information, I would fill in what I didn’t know too well with notes that seemed to fit. I’d play by sound at every band practice up until the semester-end concert.
I wasn’t particularly good at this. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever played one piece exceptionally well in my four years at J.R. Masterman. But it allowed me to sneak on by with very little self-practice. Enough to gain acceptance among the big time players: the jazz band.
What drew me to the jazz band was that the tunes were at least somewhat recognizable to me; compared to the dull, andante moderato, barely epic scores of the concert band. We were playing Carlos Santana, Duke Ellington, and other greats; many of which I didn’t really know. Yet since I heard their songs in movies and commercials, it motivated me to actually learn the pieces. With jazz band came a whole lot more undesired practice. Concert band practice already consumed my special homeroom period. This is where we talked about all the cool taboo stuff; sex, drugs, sociopolitical issues. Just about anything that didn’t fit perfectly under the major subjects. Every Wednesday, I missed out on all the juicy conversations my homeroom peers were having. Now in addition to this, I would be missing recess and after school activities to practice for jazz band. If you ever seen the cartoon Recess, you’d remember how important any little bit of free time was for a young middle schooler.
You would think that after all this practice I would have gotten a grasp of the basics by now. Yet I was still playing by ear and filling in the other bits that I couldn’t read well. Playing jazz was so freeing, so it was much easier for me to half-ass my way through it. I hoped my improvisations came off as attempts in stylized playing. Sometimes I wish I took it more seriously. But I always felt like I was missing out on things by dedicating so much time to music. I wanted to be in plays, join the robotics club, play tennis after school. But there was not enough hours in the day to dedicate to everything. I wonder if my choice not to try harder with music was an act of rebellion against my mother. Or just a general frustration with the idea of sacrifice. There was just not enough time in the day to fulfill all my interests.