March 15 – Volume 16, #3
“The Year of Hip-Hop: Last Night A DJ Saved My Life”
It was set to be a van-glorious evening in a lifetime full of van-glorious evenings. The weather was pitch perfect on this early autumn Chicago day. Most of the humidity from August’s dog days had long since dissipated, and the hawk remained lurking, but still perched far in the distance.
It was the middle of the week so I had worked that day which left me mentally exhausted as usual. But I ended classes early enough to be able to fully lay out enough of my day to avoid it conflicting with my night.
As usual, I had most of my 24 hours totally mapped out and accounted for. I would take a little bit of a nap after taking the number 6 back south. I’d wake up in time to catch PTI and Around the Horn talk shit about the Cowboys while I got my mind right. Building up my appetite was vitally important because I would need a full stomach for the big night ahead, the centerpiece of which was checking Pete Rock and CL Smooth at the Shrine in the South Loop.
It had been well over a decade and a half since the Mount Vernon duo had recorded together and lord knows how long since they had performed live on stage. But even though it was what was for me –literally a school night, I wasn’t going to miss this for the world. School night or not, tonight was kind of special. That’s because I would set off seeing the Meccadon and Chocolate Boy Wonder by getting drunker than I had in years and chasing those cocktails by slipping comfortably into my bed and taking the entire bottle of sleeping pills I had bought earlier that week with intentions of killing myself.
But for once, my plan didn’t work out.
I put a lot of thought into how I was going to spend my day, so much thought had been put into what I wanted to be my last night on the planet.
I was in the very early stages of a deep, dark depression that I foolishly didn’t think I’d ever emerge from. I needed a new nigga for that black cloud to follow, because while it was out it was far too dark to see tomorrow. Tomorrow was sure to bring more torment.
But that night in the Shrine, the sun did shine bright for a few minutes. At no point that night did I bathe in the sun’s rays more than when the dynamic duo performed their classic, “One in A Million.”
The shit sounded so dope, so beautiful. The song had always ignited a spark in me, from the first time that I heard it, but now I was hearing it live. And Pete Rock was dropping the beat from the original instrumental right there in front of us, adlibbing scratches that would never be heard anywhere else. It was the definition of dopeness. And I’ve seen everybody in every possible setting. Red & Meth, The entire Wu, when Dirty was still alive. KRS. Tribe. De La. Rakim. Nas. MC Lyte. Kane. Cube. Outkast. The Roots. Mos. The Fugees. Gang Starr. You name it.
So I’m not easily impressed.
But I was this night. And I felt like if it were possible to produce something so beautiful as that sound from this awful, seemingly God-forsaken planet then maybe there was hope that something else could make me feel like that again for sustained periods.
To be sure, there are many influences that propelled me to my “come to Jesus” moment. None smaller than the fact that, let’s face it, I was likely to pussy out and am not sure I would have had the nerve to off myself. I don’t like getting fucking paper cuts. I’m not sure I was prepared to endure a wound that would fail to heal. And usually when pressed, throughout my life, my instinct has been to fight. Fight like hell. And that instinct may well have kicked in here. But hip-hop music helped to trigger that. As it always had.
I have written about why this music and culture is important for black people, for white people, for the very salvation of the republic. This month I want to speak on why hip-hop is so very important to me.
In this journey that is life, it is inevitable that we lose people along the way. Some we lose through mortality. Others prove to be false friends. Sometimes we are pushed out of people’s lives, and other times we have to discard those we love the most for the sake of our own internal peace. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more philosophical about this cycle of life and have come to learn that often times people are truly in our lives for a season. But my one constant through all this constant change has been hip-hop. Other than my parents, nothing and nobody else has been there consistently for me throughout. And since my parents raised me to be stubbornly independent, it has usually been within the confines of hip-hop that I have been able to regain my balance when life has knocked me down.
Through the years when I needed a space where I could feel understood, I could find sanctuary in hip-hop. I always had somewhere that I felt my shortcomings could be evaluated without moral judgment, but with true empathy. Hip-hop gave me somewhere I could feel like I had been heard. Not listened to but truly heard. It gave me a space where I could feel courageous and somewhere I could go and feel vulnerable without losing my masculinity. Hip hop gave me a space that I could test out new ideas that sounded crazy to everybody else.
But like any relationship, there have been times where I’ve questioned whether or not hip-hop would still be that place for me. It’s hard not to question this commitment with what the Rap Industrial Complex and their blackface minstrels have done to this music.
The prospects of this no longer being a safe space are positively frightening. I have never lived in a world where that place didn’t exist for me personally. From the time I first heard The Treacherous Three battling the Furious Five, (and probably even earlier than that if my memory allowed) I’ve always felt that I was part of a movement. And within that movement anything was possible in a world where shit seemed downright hopeless at times. And once again, when things felt as hopeless as they ever had for me personally, there was hip-hop to my rescue.
Who knows how that night in September may have ended? But I do know for sure that I entered that concert with full intention of it being my last. Not just my last concert. My last everything.
This latest stupid decision wasn’t a rash one. I had battled with it for a while, even before my world began to unravel in front of me. I had been really unhappy for a very long time. What was most disturbing about this is that I actually had a pretty good life, by all the external measures anyway. But in spite of getting a great start to a promising career while simultaneously building my own business through the support from a wonderful group of friends, family and an adoring wife, no sunshine seemed to be able to peak through the black clouds. I could deal with the bad times, but being unhappy during the good times was worrisome to the point where I felt like things would never improve and the suffering was more than I thought I could bear. I’m no coward. I wasn’t above standing up to adversity, but there just didn’t seem to be enough positives to balance out all the bullshit that is adult life.
But Pete Rock and CL reminded me of the good in life. Hearing “One in a Million” not only made me feel euphoric in that particular moment. It endeared within me the spirit of a million other moments where that song has had me feeling that way. For a few minutes I was a teenager again, hearing this song for the first time.
And I thought about all the body blows that life had given me since I first heard that track in the summer of 1993, another time in my life where I felt like I could never overcome the woes of the day. In that time; and since, I’ve battled periodic feelings of self-doubt, misery induced by loves lost that I thought I couldn’t possibly ever recover from, and many self-inflicted stumbles. I’ve had quite a few dark days since the night that Pete Rock and CL rocked the Shrine, and if I’m lucky I’m going to have several thousand more. You can’t live very long and avoid the rainy days. Even in Southern California.
But life is about –at least my life is about- chasing that next moment that made me feel like I did that night. Or how I felt the first time I heard The Low End Theory. And Moment of Truth. Do You Want More. Aquemini. It Takes A Nation of Millions and Straight Outta Compton. Good Kid, Madd City. Life is Good. And “One in a Million.”
All my problems weren’t solved that night. Far from it. Honestly, shit got a lot worse than that before it got better. By March of the next year, I would have given anything to feel the despair that I thought was insurmountable the prior September. But I had to survive September to gain the perspective of March.
What helped me survive that night was not a fear of dying. My senses now fully restored and then some, I once again hope to live a very long time. But I have forgone my fear of mortality some time ago. I hope God grants me a couple of thousand of years to see if my Cubs can end this World Series drought, but I am prepared to meet my maker at the time of his choosing. So less than a fear of death, I was frightened that someone somewhere would make a song that would make feel like that one did and I wouldn’t be alive to enjoy it.
And besides, for as many fucked up things that are going on, a planet that could produce masterpieces like that Pete Rock gem couldn’t be all bad.
I hope that you never feel as low as I did that night. And if you do, I certainly hope that you gain your wits quicker than I did, and recognize that there are no less than ten million more constructive ways to get over the hump that don’t involve suicide. If you’re an overzealous hip-hop head like me, one sure-fire way is to listen to some classic hip-hop. No matter what you’re going through, there is certainly some MC who has gone through it too and has expressed your struggle to the world. Or at the very least, that good soul music can do what it was intended to do: lift your soul for a few minutes. It can touch something that speaks to the very essence of your humanity. And that’s what good hip-hop music is, soul music. Shit, all good music period is soul music, from Bach to the Beatnuts. What saved this twisted soul on that night was hip-hop music. These moments of clarity that only hip-hop provides is what compels me to continue to fight so hard for it.
It is true that nowadays songs like “One in a Million” are truly one in a million. But not as rare as headz believe. I’ll explore this misperception next month. I hope you’ll join me then. Peace and God bless,