Chapter 2.4: Musical Makeup

College. The first time in my Life when I was around peers who actually had the same eccentric music tastes as me. They had found the underground on their own just like I did. They were extremely open-minded. Some with even more eccentric tastes than I. Within this group of friends, DOOM lyrics would get quoted and any of us could pick up where the other left off. None of my close friends in high school even knew who DOOM was. I didn’t feel uncomfortable with being myself. Thank Temple University for its diversity.

Freshman year, Spring semester. Hip-Hop 101. The word had got around of this awesome hip-hop class at Temple led by a well-known Philadelphia lawyer, Michael Coard. In keeping in line with the overly blunt and frank lyrics that pervade rap music, no conversation was off-limits in that classroom. We analyzed the music for what it was, from which other discussions on society, psychology and philosophy spun off.

Professor Coard had developed the most objective system I have seen to determine whether a rapper was actually a good rapper. This system had about 15 to 20 or so factors (such as delivery, multi-syllabic rhyming ability, punch line wittiness) along with detailed definitions of each. Throughout the semester, we used these factors to create a top 20 list agreed upon by the entire class. The class was extremely diverse in major, ethnicity, and just about anything else you could think of. Some were crazy hip-hop purists who hated Dirty South rap. Others were Caucasian cheerleaders who only knew of Drake and Jay-Z. Even among this diversity, there were very few people beyond the two friends I sat with who knew of DOOM. Not even Michael Coard himself.

“When I first heard of him back in the day and he was doing that whole mask thing, I kinda got scared away from his music,” said the professor, recalling his first listening experience of the masked-villain DOOM. I guess even masks can still scare middle-aged men. Up until that point in the class Professor Coard was one of the more open-minded people I had encountered in my life. But the fact that he would deny an emcee’s skill because of his unusual appearance showed me that he still had a lot to learn about Hip-Hop. Due to his law background, Professor Coard would allow any student an opportunity in class to make their case for why a rapper should be in the Top 20. I was determined to convince him that DOOM deserved one of those spots.

I wasn’t exactly successful in my argument at the end of the semester. Coard seemed convinced that he made a mistake in judging the book by its cover. Unfortunately, DOOM didn’t get enough votes to get ranked in the Top 20. It wasn’t all for nothing though. This was how I met Azza.

Azza was one of those girls any music enthusiast could easily fall in love with. In fact, just about every guy in my music circle of friends had lusted over her at one point or another during their Temple years. I’d like to think I was the first to have met her, but we all probably happened to run into her around the same general time.

“I know you, you’re the one who introduced me to MF DOOM!” said the random chick who came up to me in the TECH Center. It was a hot summer day and I was just trying to get some editing done before going to my evening job. But all my annoyance had turned into a nice friendly smile when I turned around to her beautiful dark face. Her face finally started to look familiar when we began talking about Prof. Coard’s class. Maybe it was her slight accent, her bold coffee complexion, her deep knowledge of Hip-Hop. Whatever it was I was in lust with the full package; mental to physical.

We would encounter each other off and on throughout that summer. I was doing office work in Ritter Hall during the day and she was slaving away in summer semester biology classes. She always had a unique perspective to offer in anything we discussed. One of the few girls I had known who shared the same interests in music as me. Fall semester came and so did all-nighters at the TECH Center. If I happened to see Azza at the TECH (which I almost always did at night), I knew it would take me a little bit longer to get my work done that evening. Fifteen minute study breaks would turn into an hour of procrastination. Before I knew it, it was 2:30 in the morning and I was only a page into my essay.

One night I was in the TECH’s editing lab, getting ready for a night of film work. Azza came up behind me, “Listen to this.” She typed into my YouTube search bar a few words and then clicked the first video on the page.

“Let me know what you think” she said and the vanished among the sea of desktop computers. Sharing music with each other was our thing. When you’re crushing on a fellow music head, music exchange often becomes an alternative method of communication (or competition). “Who is Flying Lotus?” I thought to myself. What genre is it? I didn’t know anything about him. I put the earphones to my head and began to be mentally massaged by the vibes of “Fall in Love.”

When she returned later on that night, I joked around with her and said it was a whack track. I had heard better, I lied. The truth was that it was one of the best songs I had heard in the longest time. And so Azza introduced me to who is currently my favorite artist across genres: Flying Lotus.

Flying Lotus was one of those few musicians who could show you the world from a different perspective. His music in a way was similar to DOOM’s in that it forced you to think differently about song structure, sounds, melodies, harmonies, etc., to the point that you begin to think differently about Life itself. I at first thought of FlyLo as a successor to the late J. Dilla. But as I got deeper into his catalog, I realized that his could never be confined to the young, tiny genre of Hip-Hop. It was one big sound experiment. But not one of those outer limits, John Cage-type experiments. It had enough soul and flavor to be relatable to more than just a few fans of a sub-genre. Flying Lotus joined DOOM in the group of artists I felt obliged to put everyone else on to.

So what came next after this? It’s hard to tell as I write this in my small rural apartment in Ryugasaki. Of course I kept listening to music. I was constantly being exposed to new sounds thanks to my homie Brady DJ SYLO Ettinger(link). As much as he’s blown up in our four years at Temple, I still see him as that eccentric D.C. kid who lived in the same dorm as me in freshman year. During my time in Japan and his time in London, we’ve shared new and interesting musical finds. I’m looking forward to my next trip back to the States. Every Thursday night, Brady is behind the turntables doing the damn thing at his StuntLoco weekly. One of the few DJs out there that reminds me of how much an art form turntable-ism really is. The art of expressing emotions through another artist’s creation. Then copying and pasting all these works to create new feelings and meaning. A SYLO experience always makes me feel more alive than ever. I miss you homie, I know we’re gonna be out touring the world one day!

Speaking of touring the world and performing, let me not forget my first major forays into the creation of Hip-Hop. Freestyle Fridays. The Cypher. Hungry Ghosts Fam. I remember walking by the Bell Tower one day after class and watching a group of students huddled together, heads bobbin’ in unison. Being a freshman, I was a little nervous to break into the crowd to get a good view. But I saw Brady and a few other familiar faces. I heard a beatbox, a few hands clapping. Then rhyme after rhyme in a machine gun-like cadence. It was Mic Stewart.

At first I was like, “This guy is too ill! He can’t be freestylin’ off the top.” But I listened closer, he was dropping references to everything around him. The clothes people were wearing, the weather, people walking by, the news. All without missing a beat. An energy rushed all throughout me, and into my head. My face lit up with awe as I witnessed the impossible firsthand.

I felt like this before. It was during my first time at The Gathering: a monthly Hip-Hop event in Philly. The Gathering was all about the elements. The 4 Things which made Hip-Hop what it is today: Graffiti, DJ’ing, Breakdancing, and MC’ing. I walked in there one night; a naive, young high school student. DJs spinning 70s funk samples on vinyl. Kids and their parents tagging up huge posters with beautiful artwork. Breakers and poppers flowing across the cardboard dancefloors like water. And the Emcee walking around with mic in hand, keeping the party moving. Up until that point I had never known what it felt like to be in Love. As I took it all in, the energy of The Gathering entered into me. My heart fluttered; I felt light-headed. I was at home in a building full of strangers.

And I was in Love.

I knew then in my junior year of high school that music was my Love. In particular, Hip-Hop music. But at the time the pressures to conform, to fit in, follow my parents guidance were so present in my life that in time I just shrugged off the feeling. It didn’t seem possible.

Fast forward to college. I’m back at the Bell Tower watching Mic Stewart, Verbatum Jones, and others drop bars every Friday. I started leaving class early and getting to work late just to hear a few more rhymes during lunch time. When I got off at 5:00pm, I would rush to the Bell Tower hoping a few emcees were still around. If it was a nice day, there was a good chance I’d find a few. Unfortunately, on cold winter days the cyphers only lasted for one or two hours.

This was my routine every Friday for almost a year and a half. I would rush out of whatever class I was in at 1:00pm, grab a slice and go to the Bell Tower. I had work soon after that, so I could only remain for an hour on most days. I kept telling myself that one day I would just jump in and spit something. I wrote rhymes for fun in middle school. In high school, me and my homie AJ would have rap battles on AIM. I knew how to spit a rhyme. I was scared as hell though. There’s nothing more vulnerable, nothing more freeing than being in the cypher.

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