For the better part of my years on this planet, that’s what I thought: rap music is not for me. And it wasn’t. I lived worlds away from whatever I perceived as the worlds of “rap” and “hip hop.” The closest I was willing to get was Will Smith as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and maybe Blondie’s “Rapture,” even though I hardly identified with either. And though, growing up, my parents tended to frown upon most forms of music that weren’t classical or jazz (i.e. “just noise”), listening to pop, rock, R&B, or even rap was never expressly forbidden. That which threw a monkey wrench into whatever thoughts my folks had about music, was the car where we were allowed to listen to adult contemporary and the oldies. The flavorings in everything from Glen Campbell and Abba to The Platters and The Ronettes were probably what initially drew me to 80s and 90s pop music in general. Trying to conform to the crowds and enjoy The New Kids on the Block was just something I couldn’t do – that vain attempt muted (but didn’t destroy) my interest in pop music for several years. Instead I turned towards classic rock and heavy metal; I just didn’t have the big hair and band shirts to prove my love. That path led me straight into grunge and alternative, and eventually into punk and electronic. The road to rap wasn’t one that I outright avoided, it was simply one that I didn’t follow.
But then I heard songs from Sage Francis and Atmosphere, and they made me completely reconsider that road not taken.
It wasn’t like these songs fell on me out of the blue. They were on a 2-disc album that I had then recently bought: Punk-O-Rama, Vol. 8. In prior years, I had become a rollicking fan of the Epitaph label, which I knew primarily as a signer and supporter of punk banks (in all their variations). I had picked up all the previous Punk-O-Rama albums and nearly wore them out with use. When I popped in the first disc of Vol. 8, I was taken aback upon first hearing “Makeshift Patriot.” What the hell was a rap song doing on a punk album? I wondered. I wasn’t sure I really liked it or not at first, but Francis’s post-9/11 message was hard to ignore. “Makeshift Patriot” wasn’t exactly a booty-shaking tune, but it told a story and Francis was damn good at telling it. I came to like the song, like, really like the song. Maybe, just maybe, could I like rap too?
(Language warning; possibly NSFW)
But it was the song on disc two, “Bird Sings Why the Caged I Know” by Atmosphere that really sealed the deal. I had heard a lot of angry songs before, but this one struck such a terrible chord with me that it almost made me uncomfortable. The intense anger that came through its lyrics (courtesy of Atmosphere’s frontman, Slug) was palpable and raw. And it was personal — a man scorned who took out his fury on the woman he had loved in verse. Hearing that song for the first time was scary, sad, and emotional. I can honestly say that it was the first song that ever moved me to the brink of tears, tears of fear and joy.
If that was rap, well, hell…I wanted ALL of it!
(It bears mentioning that, by this time, I had met my husband, who big into rap and old-school hip hop. Through him I learned to appreciate the genres, but it wasn’t until hearing those songs on that Punk-O-Rama album that I actually considered purchasing rap music on my own.)
From that point on, instead of glossing over rap music when it came on the radio or when the majority I was with wanted to listen to it, I listened. Music is all about storytelling, a fact that had become lost on me over the years of me simply moving along to rhythms. And a rapper’s story is no less worthy to admire and consider as than that of a guitar hero’s or pop star’s. Because rap is about words as much as beats, it was easy enough for me to tune into them with any given song. But I also really started listening to song lyrics in general, even ones that I had heard over and over before. From that I found plenty to be disturbed by in songs that I adored, as well as plenty to be happy about in songs to which I had paid little attention.
My adventures in rap and hip hop are barely a decade old, song I’m not going to sit here and proclaim anything other than I’m glad to have it in my regular rotation of music. Suffice to say that this musical tangent has led me off on quite a journey that’s spread far beyond rap. In fact, these days, though there’s still plenty of unlikeable music out there, I won’t make any blanket judgment calls until I’ve listened to an artist or genre. Except for when it comes to Justin Beiber. And contemporary country. That music is not for me. (Yet.)