I took my fiancee’s nephew (“Derek”) to the YMCA to play basketball. He’s 12. On the way to pick him up, I listened to Fabolous’s Soul Mixtape. Usually, when anyone much younger (nephews, nieces, etc) or older (parents, aunts, uncles, etc) gets into the car with me, I’ll listen to the radio. That day, though, I forgot to make the switch. And, as soon Derek got into the car, a very aggressive chorus of “fucks” came through the speakers. Embarrassed, I quickly turned the music down, and we started talking about Kemba Walker and left-handed layups.
I know I’m not the first person to recognize the unique dynamic of being a rap fan. Well, unique in comparison to other popular genres. When my dad would drive me to school and basketball games when I was a child, we’d listen to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and Miles Davis and other artists he grew up on. People who grew up on rap—specifically, the ultra vivid and ultra violent rap music from “my” era—will not have that luxury. I can’t image a parent (well, a responsible parent) breaking down “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” the same way my dad broke down “Trouble Man” to me. While not embarrassed (at all) that I’m a fan, part of being a responsible rap fan is acknowledging and understanding that some of the music can be embarrassing if heard around people who don’t happen to be your peers.
Something else recently dawned on me, though. Something that adds another layer to the cognitive dissonance needed to be a fan of a certain type of rap music. The first rap album I owned was LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad.” But, I didn’t become a “hip-hop head” until maybe 1995, when Raekwon and Mobb Deep and Biggie and Big L dominated the airwaves and the homeroom conversations. And, while I know a part of me appreciated and admired their creativity and lyrical dexterity, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this anti-social and nihilistic music most resonated with me when I was a teen—the time when I was the most anti-social and nihilistic. Although I wasn’t outwardly rebellious, the music connected to the latent rebellious spirit I, like most other teens, possessed.
Considering the content found in most popular rap—and most rap I currently listen to—I doubt I’d be a fan if I was first introduced to it as an adult in 2013 instead of a teen in 1993. Maybe I’d appreciate The Roots and other acts with more conspicuous connections to jazz and/or R&B. But, I’d likely find most of the rest to be noisy, vulgar, and embarrassingly misogynistic. Basically, I’d be my dad.
The preceding passage is from “Hey Young World: You Don’t Have to Be a Kid To Fall In Love With Hip-Hop, But It Sure Helps” — a piece I wrote for Complex earlier this week.
Although I made it clear that I’m still very much a fan of some very vulgar and very violent rap music — and I don’t feel bad in anyway about that status — I do sometimes wonder if I should feel bad about it. Basically, should I be more bothered by how easily I do the mental gymnastics needed to compartmentalize the music I listen to as just music?
Also, although I can be a bit robotic, I’m not actually a robot. (Surprise, right?) And, because I’m not a robot, I can’t say with 100% certainty that the music I listen to doesn’t have an effect on both my psyche and my personality. Who’s to say that 20 years of listening to violent, vulgar, and misogynistic rap music hasn’t made me a tad more violent, a bit more vulgar, and a little more likely to have negative feelings about women than I would have if I’d never been exposed to it?
(And yes, everything I just said could also be said by someone about TV and movies. But, music tends to be experienced on a more intimate level, and, generally speaking, I think it has more of an effect on you than something on screen does.)
Anyway, am I alone here? Any other long-time hip-hop heads (or just casual fans of rap music) experiencing the same type of ambivalence? Do you ever wonder if you might be too old — or too smart, too educated, too responsible, too feminist, etc — to still love rap as much as you do?
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)