I grew up on rock-n-roll and heavy metal, particularly late 1980s and early 1990s fare like Guns ‘n Roses, Metallica, Megadeth, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. My closest circle of friends were metal heads, true believers who listened to German bands like Annihilator and turned up their noses at the latest Def Leppard tune on the radio.
But I also had another love, one that I couldn’t share with my head-banging purist friends. I had a taste for hip-hop. Not a lot of hip-hop, but some, mainly top forty radio staples like Run DMC and Biz Markie. I adored the Beastie Boys. I loved the way they traded verses, finishing each other’s lines as though the group was a single entity. The passing of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012 hit me a lot harder than I thought it would. Though in my adult life, I remained a loyal fan of the group, my original adolescent love for the hip-hop trio had taken root deep inside of me. When I heard that MCA had died, it was like hearing that a distant but beloved uncle had passed away. I was overcome with sorrow.
I fell in love with the Beasties not through the Rick Rubin-produced (and pop culturally ubiquitous License to Ill) but with their second record, the commercially disappointing Paul’s Boutique. I didn’t come to know the band as a frat-rock cum punk trio, but as experimenters in sound, literally dropping the “Sounds of Science” a pop culture audience weaned on three-minute radio ditties. It’s no surprise that Paul’s Boutique was a commercial failure. A study in the art of sampling, the album simply couldn’t be made today. The licensing fees would prevent any major record company from touching it.
But I loved it, and I fell in love with it when I was 17 years old, sacking groceries at the local IGA. A tall, blond kid by the name of Cam Blanton worked there, too. A jokester armed with a quick grin and a razor wit, Cam seemed to swagger through the world. Girls loved him. He could run in any crowd, from the stuck-up rich guys to the low-lifes on down to the social nobodies like yours truly. For some reason, Cam and I became fast friends, and often visited my home to hang out with me and my brother, Joe.
Cam loved all kinds of music, from Hank Williams to Bobby Brown. I was going through a blues purist phase, staring down my upraised nose at anyone who didn’t listen to Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, or Buddy Guy. I was trying to learn guitar, too, copping licks from Stevie Ray Vaughan records. And, I was trying to write. My poetry at the time was filled with images of full moons and voodoo shamans, stock visions I picked up from Jimi Hendrix’s lyrics. Declaring English as my major at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, I swore that one day, I’d be a new Rimbaud, my generation’s answer to Kerouac and Jim Morrison.
One night at work, I was talking about being a poet, and Cam rapped, “You’re a writer, a poet, a genius, you know it.”
“What’s that?” I said, assuming he was making fun of me.
“Beastie Boys, man,” he said and laughed. “You don’t know the Beastie Boys?” In the days of popular radio, this would have been an impossibility.
“Fight for your right to paaaar-teeeee,” I sang.
“You got it,” he said. “But there’s more to it than that.”
Cam sometimes gave me a ride home from work, since we lived in the same area of town. That night, he slid a cassette of Paul’s Boutique in his car stereo and cranked the volume. As we crested the drawbridge to our neighborhood, west of town, the speakers thumped while the Beastie Boys rapped in that trademark fugue, tag-teaming the lines:
Pulled out a pair of pliers and pulled the bullet out of my chest
Fear and loathing across the country listening to my 8 track
Reached behind the seat and grabbed a Kool from the pack
Long distance from my girl and I’m talking on the cellular
She said that she was sorry and I said yeah the hell you were
At the time, I didn’t know Hunter S. Thompson existed, and I doubt I would have gotten the reference even I had. I had a vague idea about an 8-track player, though I’d come of age in the era of cassettes. I knew what a cellular phone was, though this was the early 1990s and years before they became ubiquitous in our society. And I knew what Kool cigarettes were. And course, I knew Clint Eastwood’s badass man with no name from High Plains Drifter. It all added up my head to … something. I wasn’t sure what. I knew I liked the album, though.
I’d like to say that Paul’s Boutique became the first hip-hop album I ever bought. But, alas, like legions of teenagers weaned on MTV’s bombastic pop culture, I owned Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme and (embarrassingly enough) a ca-single of “Turtle Power” by the quickly-forgotten Partners in Kryme. I’d also like to say that Paul’s Boutique changed my mind at the time, that I had some hip-hop awakening. But that would be a lie. I loved Paul’s Boutique, for certain. I even bought a copy of it, filing it in with my ever-growing collection of cassette albums. I didn’t even put it in alphabetical order. I simply slid it beneath my copy of Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. For years, Paul’s Boutique was the only hip-hop album that I owned.
In college, I moved in with a tall, lanky dude named Thomas. I’d met him in a creative nonfiction writing workshop I took one semester. We were both English majors who wanted to be writers and teachers. Like me, he was from a small nowhereseville town in North Florida. Like me, he’d spent a few years before college working grocery stores. Like me, he smoked too much, drank too much, and spent too much time wallowing in nihilistic self-pity. We bonded over shared Marlboro Light 100s, quarts of Natural Light, and song trading.
When he moved in, Thomas brought along his stereo system and gigantic collection of CDs. I’d made the switch to CDs, too, even leaving my old collection of cassettes at my mom’s house, some three hours away from Pensacola, Florida, where I attended school. I had a few CDs, but not many, mainly blues-rock albums and alternative albums, stuff by Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Chris Duarte Group mixed in with albums by Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains. The hip-hop crush I’d developed in my early teens had faded over the years. I could still recognize certain songs on the radio, but I saw myself as a rocker and a guitarist, not a hip hop fan. Like Cam, though, Thomas had an eclectic taste in music. His CD collection included stuff by Grandmaster Flash, Jimi Hendrix, George Jones, and Miles Davis.
Many nights, we played a kind of game called song trading. The rules were simple. You couldn’t tell what song you were going to play. You simply listened to whatever song the other guy put on and nodded your head to the beat. If you could stump the other guy with your pick by playing something he’d never heard, then you won that round. The game was informal, though. There were no prizes. The real reward were the songs themselves, gems I’d never heard, great tunes I missed in my narrow pursuit of blues purity. While the other guy’s song was playing, it was your job to think of a song to play. When the other song was over, you went over to the stereo, kneeled in front of it as though you were in church (we didn’t have much furniture; the stereo sat directly on the floor), and cued a track.
Usually, I was stumped by Thomas’s choices. He always knew mine. My music tastes were thin, pure. It if wasn’t blues or blues-based or hard rock, I didn’t know much about it. Thomas might play a song by Bob Wills or he might play a song by NWA. I never knew what might come up as he sifted through his gigantic collection of albums. And though he was a pasty white guy who eventually wrote his graduate thesis on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he had a DJ’s sense of timing and music mixing. To this day, I own several mix tapes he made during the tenure of our friendship.
One night during song trading, he put in Paul’s Boutique and played “High Plains Drifter.” We were both self-styled film critics, too, and we often watched Clint Eastwood movies, preferring Clint’s early spaghetti westerns to his later work.
“Fuckin’ A,” I said. “The Beastie Boys.”
This would have been around 1998, and the Boys had put out several amazing albums since the commercial failure that was Paul’s Boutique. Hello Nasty was burning up the charts, lead by the single “Intergalactic,” a body-moving jam complimented by an absurdly high-concept sci-fi video featuring MCA, The King Adrock, and Mike D. battling in gigantic Japanese-style robots.
“One of the greatest hip-hop groups in history,” Thomas said and nodded sagely. He probably lit a cigarette then, probably took a sip of beer.
We listened to song, nodding our heads, two white guys plugging into music that born on black streets, music performed by three former punk rockers, music that somehow wove all those disparate elements together.
“This album is like Sergeant Pepper’s,” Thomas said and I nodded in agreement. He was a few year older than I, and back then, I tended to agree with everything that he said. “Never been nothing like it, never will be again.”
Usually, when we traded songs, during Thomas’s turn, I sat only halfway listening to his choice, thinking instead about the song I’d play. He let me use his CDs, since he owned everything that I owned. But I still plotted ways to surprise him. I always felt a sense of great accomplishment when I put in a song and Thomas nodded his head and said, “Man, nice one. I’d forgotten about that jam.”
But that night, I didn’t get up to change the CD after “High Plains Drifter” ended. The songs on Paul’s Boutique never really end. They sort of flow into one another. The track listings seem an afterthought. The whole album is one postmodern Jackson Pollock collage of influences and references, bringing together characters from The Andy Griffith Show and spaghetti westerns, referencing novels and 1970s culture, quoting punk rock and hip-hop alike. We sat though the whole album and played it again, not saying much, completely drawn in by the music.
By the time the night ended, we’d drank all the beer in the house and made two beer runs. We’d smoked every pack of Marlboros we could find, digging in our couch cushions for discarded butts. And we’d played every Beastie Boys album Thomas owned (I owned none).
Thomas loved hip-hop, and by the time I went to bed that night, I can’t say that I loved hip-hop, but I can say that I loved the Beastie Boys. Like an old friend, Paul’s Boutique had waited on the right time to speak to me again, waited until the moment that I was ready to listen.
Over the years, mainly through Thomas’s mix tapes, I gradually fell in love with hip-hop. A quick scan of my MP3 collection will confirm it: I love Ugly Duckling, MF DOOM, Tribe Called Quest, MC Paul Barman, Edan, Eric B. an Rakim, Childish Gambino, and all sorts of hip hop, from the radio-friendly stuff to the underground jams. Particularly, I love complex lyrics and wordplay, so the Beastie Boys remain a favorite group. Sure, sometimes what they rap about is puerile nonsense, but then again, so is a lot of what Oscar Wilde wrote. Frankly, I don’t care that some of the lyrics are silly. The last thing I want to ever do is over-intellectualized hip-hop (though this essay probably comes close).
My love of hip hop is mirrored by my love of jazz, a music I fell for while I was learning to listen to hip hop. Both styles of music emerge from black culture, and as a Southern white guy, I continue to struggle with my love of this music. I have no claim on it. Hip hop doesn’t speak to my experiences.
Except for maybe it does. Like jazz, hip hop finds at its core the tension between the artist and the tradition, between the music and the soloist, and between the lyricist and the beat. Jazz critic and novelist Ralph Ellison one defined a “true jazz moment” as “individual assertion within and against the group,” wherein an artist must “lose his identity even has he finds it.” Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond, and Adam Horovitz—three white kids from Manhattan—lose their identities within the music and beats in order to create identities as MCA, Mike D, and the King Adrock. The Beastie Boys’ music isn’t about race, though one cannot deny that hip-hop emerges from Africa-American culture. Nonetheless, the tension between the origins of hip-hop and its current incarnation makes the music about much more than race. The music is about the artist’s creation of identity.
As such, a white kid from North Florida like me could plug into and enjoy the music. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t from “the streets” or that I lacked some sort of quote-unquote “authentic” claim over the music. What was important then and what’s important to me now is the music itself. My love for the Beastie Boys allowed me to recreate my own identity—or, perhaps a better way to say it is that the music allowed me to escape the identity of a Southern white man and refashion my identity in any way I wanted or needed.
This relationship between identity and music couldn’t be more obvious on Paul’s Boutique. On the album, the rappers become Clint Eastwood, become car thieves, become science-dropping professors, and inhabit entire hosts of assumed personas, sometimes within the same song. Add to this fluidity of identity the mish-mash of sampling and patched-together beats on the album, and one finds that Paul’s Boutique is defined by its lack of a central persona. It escapes identity in order to create identity.
Perhaps this elasticity is why I think of hip-hop as spatial and not linear. It’s lyric, not narrative, though many hip-hop songs are narrative. A linear song might begin with a guitar moving from the I to the IV to the V7. The drums come in, perhaps 2/2 or 4/4. The singer weaves a tale. The guitarist takes a solo Then, the song ends. But in a spatial, lyric tune, the guitar might refuse to move from the I (as in, say, John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom Boom Boom”), thus refusing to follow a direct line. The lyrics aren’t as important as how the singer handles them, inhabiting the character, fashioning a self that exists only within the confines of the song. In a hip-hop tune, the performers inhabit the song, existing both in the tune and as the tune. By extension, the listener inhabits the song, as well, (re)creating his or her own identity in the song’s matrix.
Maybe it’s because of this shifting sense of identity that I finally gave up my life as a music purist. Over the years, I learned that reducing music to a mere genre is akin to saying that the Mona Lisais a painting of a lady. Yes, I suppose that’s true. But the statement belies the layers of complexity evident in the painting. A descriptor rarely tells the whole story. That kind of reductive materialism undercuts the entire purpose of art. These days, my playlists are just as likely to include the Beastie Boys as they are to include Merle Haggard or Louis Armstrong.
Looking back, it only makes sense that my song trading with Thomas wasn’t competitive. We weren’t trying to outdo each other. We merely wanted to share songs and live in the space of those songs. We loved music, and the longer we could exist in the music we loved, the happier we were. Looking back, it would be easy for me to generate a list of song titles that tell some kind of a narrative story about how our lives were in college. I could speak about our love of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and the nihilistic glee we took in a line like “I won’t see you no more in this world. See in you in the next one. Don’t’ be late.” Or, I could talk about the existential anger we shared, made manifest in a song like the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”: “I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer. The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
But that would be retrospective storytelling, and somehow untrue to the experience. Instead, I think of those long nights sharing songs as extended lyric moments in which we existed in and existed as the songs we loved. As the Beastie Boys themselves once rapped, “Life ain’t nothing but a good groove, a good mix tape to put you in the right mood.”