Chapter 2.3: Musical Makeup

High school. Mixtape season had begun. The computers were faster. I got my first mp3 player that could hold more than thirty songs. I was downloading new songs almost every weekend. Lil Wayne was sort of like a virus at this time. I couldn’t relate to the whole “Money Over Bitches” mentality. How could I? I was a teenager with neither. I remember one day riding around with my uncle and cousin. They were blasting Dedication 2 loud enough to be heard within a two block radius. I didn’t like it. All cursing and violence. I couldn’t relate to that life. Yet ‘Cannon’ got my head bobbing. It was a while since I heard the Philly native, Freeway, on a track. And with Weezy too? That was a big deal at the time. We arrived at my house. My cousin popped the CD out.

“Here, take it.”

“You sure? That’s yours cuz.”

“Nah, you good. I know where I can get more.”

I thought he was giving me an actual album. Something that he brought at the record store. I had made mixtapes before, burned albums for friends. I knew what a mixtape was. But Dedication II didn’t sound like a mixtape. It sounded like an album. For sure it was a mixtape though. Something you could get for free, legally.

I didn’t really have an interest in it at first. But soon enough, Lil Wayne was everywhere. Hopping on every hit remix. Pumping out mixtapes every week like Lil B would do in the coming years. There was so much Weezy that I began to question if he had a team of ghost writers. Because beyond the explicit content his rhymes were consistently dope. Punch line rapping was becoming increasingly popular at the time. Weezy could turn a stream of far-fetched, nonsensical consciousness into something comedic and relatable. I hadn’t heard such off-the-wall rapping since Busta Rhymes back in the 90s; or any era Busta was making hits.

In high school I also got into Kanye West a lot more. There has always been something weirdly magnetic about his music. I never really liked his personality after College Dropout. But my iTunes clearly showed that I played his music the most out of any music on my computer. It’s so complicated. Do I really like his music? Or has the fact that he repeatedly exclaims his greatness brainwashed me into loving his music? As much as I don’t like his egotism, I gotta admit he was always a step ahead with his creations. He just had the ear for what was next. At the same time he is no doubt a trendsetter. Maybe we’re all just following his lead.

Here I was in high school, listening to rappers I loved for their lyricism and beat selection. Every new Tony Hawk release exposed me to a little more of the underground, as well as the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. The Internet was becoming more accessible. Eventually our family graduated to broadband. I dug deeper into the virtual crates, downloading and creating mixtapes for my parents and brother. Mixtapes to me seemed like the perfect gift to give to my parents. Although my mom always appreciated her gifts, I’d be hard-pressed to see my dad use/wear a Christmas gift at least once. So I turned to music.

I would take note of the times my parents would turn up the car radio. If they really got into a song (dancing, singing, the whole 9), I would go find it and download it. By the time Christmas or a birthday rolled around, I had the most unique present for each of them. I also would add in a few songs I liked, just for a little flair.

I had my favorite rappers, and I was exposing myself to different genres too. But I didn’t have that one musician who really spoke to me. That’s when Lupe came along. And subsequently, my reconnection with Pharrell.

Lupe Fiasco was a breath of fresh air in Hip-Hop, and my life. He played videogames, watched anime, was a geek, wore glasses. He was the nerd of Hip-Hop. Not just an emcee I could partially relate to. I could relate to all of his rhymes! And his content didn’t come off as phony or fake. He had the lyrical finesse and wittiness of every other rapper. He just had different content to talk about.

Kick, Push…now that was storytelling. I listened to it almost everyday. That song was probably the reason why I stopped playing Tony Hawk and attempted to learn real skateboarding. I didn’t succeed of course. To this day I can barely kick, push on flatland. But that song inspired me to take the chance. Black and skateboarding didn’t go together where I was from. In fact, the only black skater I knew of was Kareem Campbell. So skating just didn’t seem like a black thing. And I wasn’t prepared to break barriers. I didn’t know at the time why I always was afraid to do new things that many black people weren’t doing.

I didn’t fully understand these fears until I learned about symbolic annihilation in college. Basically, it’s a cultural phenomenon in media which suggests that underrepresentation of an ethnic group in media perpetuates social inequality. When I didn’t see black skaters and astronauts on television as a kid, I really thought these goals were unobtainable. Although I eventually quit skateboarding, I have Lupe to thank for showing me that I could be myself, and still be accepted by others. If an artist like Lupe didn’t come along maybe I’d be following my parents dreams instead of my own right now.

Lupe Fiasco continued to inspire me as I began to veer away from the popular artists and create my own taste. I discovered N.E.R.D. after listening to “And He Gets the Girl.” I traced the sample back to their song “Maybe.” At the same time, video games were also in the background, influencing my musical palette. SSX3 had an Electronica-ish remix of “Rockstar”, which I couldn’t get enough of. Pulling off insane airs, avoiding avalanches…all the while that song was on repeat. N.E.R.D. was really a black rock group. And they made rock that appealed to me. All this time I was thinking Pharrell was just that cool guy with the high-pitched voice in every video. But he really was a NERD like me!

As I got older I fully realized Pharrell’s genius. Thinking he was making cameos in all these music videos. But he (and Chad his band mate) was really producing all of the beats to these hit songs. Just about every hip hop hit in the late 90s early 00s was produced by the Neptunes. Pharrell showed me that creativity comes from being open-minded to new ideas, sounds, genres, etc. So, I began to explore even more.

During the 2000s a very mysterious and obscure group was being heavily sampled in Hip-Hop and R&B. I first came across them at the end of sophomore year of high school. I was pursuing a fine chick I met at a leadership conference. Which meant to me in those days, stalking her Facebook and Myspace to find as much commonalities as possible. Then, “randomly” bringing these things up in conversation. In the music section of her Facebook page she had a link to “Digital Love.” I clicked on it and was lead to a music video I had never seen before, from a group that was totally new to my ears. It was different. It wasn’t human, yet so full of emotion. It was Daft Punk.

I wasn’t sure if I actually liked their music at first. But to impress that fine chick I was pursuing, I acted like I was really into them when we messaged on Facebook. Eventually, I gave up on her thinking she was out of my league. But the act I put on had now got me interested in Daft Punk. Who were these robots? And why did this electronic music feel soulful? And the music videos, unlike anything I had seen at the time.

Somehow I stumbled upon the website, Who Sampled. Probably from always Googling what samples created my favorite rap beats at the time. Busta Rhymes was taking over the scene (like he does every once in a while) and “Touch It” was blowing up. I always had a thing for beats that are simple yet addictive. Or just art in general that is simplistic yet beautiful. I had found out where that sample came from. It was Daft Punk. Next was Chris Brown’s “Wall to Wall,” another hit more subtly sampling Daft Punk. Then the even more obvious, “Stronger” from Kanye West. The “Stronger” video was probably the most recent appearance of Daft Punk in years. They would keep up this incognito act for long after that. Their most public appearance since then had to be the 2014 Grammy’s.

The best way to describe Daft Punk’s influence in my Life: the gateway drug. They were the gateway drug to Electronica. The repetitive instrumentals were reminiscent of techno and house, and their children: Baltimore Club and Ghettotech. The robotic voices reminded me of talk-boxing, something I was somewhat familiar with via car rides with parents, listening to the old head stations. After Daft Punk it only made sense (like it would to any drug addict) to go deeper down the rabbit hole.

I would find out later in college that my beloved and highly sampled Daft Punk were actually master samplers themselves. This electric, technological, soulful music was rooted in the predecessor genres of funk, rock, and jazz. The album, Discovery, was filled with samples upon samples. But it was so well-crafted that it sounded like it was created in the future. I wasn’t that let down when I realized Daft Punk was using old parts to make new (cars?). It just showed me how Universal music really is. How much genres really do melt into each other when mixed the right way.

Throughout high school, my main sources for discovering new music were friends, radio, video games, and rarely television.  I’m sure there were music blogs on the Internet at the time. But I don’t think Google searches were quite at the level yet to give anyone exactly what they were looking for; so I never found any I liked. After quitting football in sophomore year and taking up the less intensive track and field, by senior year most of my school afternoons were spent kicking back in the computer lab. I’d play Facebook Tetris with friends, practice coding and photoshop, and of course listen to music. The now defunct Imeem was a popular site to stream music for free. The only other site you could really do that on was Youtube. Even with Youtube though, you couldn’t determine streaming quality. Imeem was strictly audio and therefore, better. Imeem also had this cool feature that Youtube didn’t have at the time: autoplay. The autoplay option didn’t necessarily play music from the same artist over and over again either. For the first time I could actually discover new music on my own.

One day, I started off with the highly abstract “Low Class Conspiracy” by Quasimoto. After first hearing the song on the T.H.U.G. soundtrack, I had yet to come across anything similar. Ironically, (thanks to Imeem) through Quasimoto I found Madlib. Some hysteron-proteron, right? The longer I listened to that autoplay sequence, the deeper I descended into Hip-Hop’s underground. Until I came upon an artist that was so unique, yet so familiar. I was hooked because it was so different, so weird, yet so lyrically…astounding. It was the greatest villain of them all: MF DOOM.

I realized why DOOM had a hint of familiarity when I stumbled across his feature on the first Gorillaz album. When I was younger, I really thought the character of Russell was one extremely talented rapper who had an obsession with modifying his voice. But besides the familiarity, there was something about DOOM that was addictive. At first, honestly just bout everything he said went over my head. I couldn’t get the punch lines, why there were no hooks, why some songs seemed to just stop abruptly with no finality. Up until then I expected all rap songs (or any songs) to have verse-chorus-verse-chorus etc. type structure. I also expected to understand at least some of the references. I also never knew a rapper besides Diddy to go by so many aliases: simultaneously. All of these weird, interesting aspects about The Villain were hitting me at once. I couldn’t help but explore his discography more.

Early in 2009, the Spring semester of my senior year, MF DOOM released Born Like This under his new alias DOOM. I only found out about it because it was promoted all over Imeem on release day; full album stream included. To be honest, upon first listen it was the craziest mish-mash of unusual beats, on top of even weirder flows. But the fact that it was so different only made it more bangin’. I actually didn’t enjoy it a whole lot, but I felt it was something I would appreciate when I became older and smarter. Most kids aren’t born with a love for classical or jazz. It’s something that grows on them as they learn to appreciate music. It was the same thing with me and DOOM. The same old verses just got better over time.

DOOM’s experimental yet highly skilled lyricism opened the door to my mind a little more. I started being much less judgmental of music and started to dip into more experimental genres. I stopped pressing fast forward and started giving anything at least one listen. At the same time, The Villain blew my mind so much that I felt obliged to inform any Hip-Hop enthusiast about him. I just couldn’t get how underrated he was, even in the underground scene. As the Internet began to burst at the seams with data, exposure to anything new and interesting became the cool thing in my general circle. Hip-Hop heads and music enthusiasts became more pretentious due to their knowledge of obscure artists. DOOM became that one obscure artist that I could get all snobby about. Windows down, blasting Madvillainy through Philly.

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