Learnings from Gangster Rap

When I was eight years old, I sat, bored, at a family reunion. I wouldn’t know for years that I really just didn’t get along with my extended family, but at that point the problem was that I was eight, and could have given two shits about socializing with my extended family.

My cousin (well, cousin-in-law) Charlie was a few years older. To this day I don’t really know how much older he was, but that is neither here nor there. What is important is that he slinked on over to me, and posed a question:

“Want to go to my dad’s truck and hear something cool?”

Any eight-year old on the planet would immediately respond “YES.” I was no different. Cut-scene to the back of an old-ass, beat-up, blue Nissan pick-up truck, and my cousin Charlie whipping out his tape deck and slamming a cassette in.

“Check this shit out.”

Well I’m Eazy-E /
I got bitches galore /
You may have a lot of bitches but I got much more /
With my super-duper group comin’ out ta shoot /
Eazy-E motherfucker, cold knockin’ tha boots

Holy…It was like God (in whom I don’t believe, but serves as a semi-decent metaphor) reached down from Heaven (again, not a real thing), cut my skull off, ripped my brain out, slammed it down on the sidewalk, only then to refill my skull with His Essence (sorry, Granny Cordes) and close the cap, leaving nary a scar as evidence.

I was a golden feather flying on a wind of faeries blowing through an atomsphere of unicorn farts orbiting a planet made of blue whale balls.

Eazy-fucking-E changed my life. I learned words and combinations of words that I’d never dreamt of, and for the first time in my life recognized that I was listening to someone whose life was different—very different—from mine. I ate it up like a 007 film.

Eazy was God. N.W.A. was a fucking pantheon.

It was then that I began to lie, in earnst for the first time in my life—lied about what I was listening to, lied about what tapes I spent my lawn-mowing money on. I was hooked.

Gangster rap (specifically West Coast rap) dominated my aural life for some time. It was in ’92 that I took some of my “hard-earned” eight-or-so dollars down to The Works, the then preeminent record store in Arcata, CA, my whitewashed, tiny little home town. I intended to buy Ice Cube’s The Predator (I made good on this intention), an album that still tops my all-time charts in terms of how well-produced, written, and poingnant it is. If you haven’t ever listened to it I suggest you stop reading this, and go listen to that. Post-haste.

Luckily, my partner-in-crime, James (name changed to protect the malfeasant), was also a huge rap fan, so I had someone to talk to this shit about let alone to help me select milquetoast rap groups to tell my mom I was listening to so she wouldn’t steal my damn tapes.

Mom: “What album did you get?”

Me: “Uh…Run DMC…Back from Hell…?”

Mom: “Oh. Ok, then."

I was in, and…holy shit did this album exceed all fucking expectations of greatness that I could have ever anticipated. To this day, 24 years later, I still absoloutely fucking love The Predator. It came out right around the Rodney King trial and subsequent acquittal of the four policemen who beat him for being black.

The Predator is so on-point in terms of telling the frustrations and anger that the black community felt over that farce of a trial, and how those frustrations and that anger boiled up into the ’92 riots that anyone alive at the time would remember hearing about or, if they were lucky, watching from the comfort of their living rooms, behind the glass, so-to-speak.

But, what I loved and love about the album was also the problem—it was fable to me, the skinny, privileged white boy from a small white town in a small white county in rural white Northern (like, waaaaay Northern) California. I had neither the means nor the motive to travel to Compton, Watts, or Inglewood. I was terrified by the music of South Central L.A. at the same time I was enrapt by it.

And I still am both terrified of, and enrapt, by it, although last year, just after the horrible act of violence that led mass-protest in Ferguson, MO, something changed for me.

I think the protests and the heinous crime I saw and heard of on mass media sparked some need for me to pop The Predator back in and listen to it for the fourteen-billionth time in my life. This time was different however. It was like…the words were real. What Cube was saying, I was seeing on the TV, I was reading on Twitter, and I was hearing on the radio.

The lead track on the B-side is an interview with Cube. He says:

Anything you want to know about the [’92] riots was in the records before the riots, you know…all you had to do was go to the Ice Cube library and pick a record, and it would have told you.

Hearing that, last year, I realized that the artists I’d been listening to my entire childhood, indeed for the last two-and-a-half decades, hadn’t been telling fables. They had been warning us. They had been telling us about the harsh reality of the inner-city, and they were asking us to just listen. I hadn’t been doing that. I’d simply been playing their music.

In hindsight, it’s easy for me to justify not having listened that literally to the lyrics, but in the present, I can no longer listen to them without hearing the very real and heinous violence that is perpetrated against people of color all over the “land of the free” every day.

America has a serious problem.

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Freddy Gray. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. These men did nothing wrong other than being black in America. This is a serious problem. America has a serious problem.

It is inexcusable that my friends at work are getting text messages from their mothers and fathers asking them to “make sure your brake lights are all good, your headlights are working,” and so on. If they don’t have that in order, if they get pulled over, there is a legitimate and real chance they will never get home.

How fucked up is that? Stop and think about it. Think about the situation where you, your wife/partner/husband and children are going home from a long day and you get shot dead because you’re black and the cop, the officer entrusted with your protection, shoots you, repeatedly, because he’s scared—then goes on paid leave only to wait inevitable acquittal of murder by his peers.

That is fucked. Up.

Eazy taught me that I could say things others deems inappropriate. Ice Cube taught me to listen. These two men, of a culture completely foreign to mine, have helped me learn a lesson that is of the utmost importance if we are to survive as a country, and become one culture.

We need to listen to each other, and talk when we would otherwise feel it to be inappropriate. It’s the only way we can move the dialog forward, and the peace outward.

Black lives do matter, and until they matter as much as white lives, we are all at war.


Keith Hamilton