In 2011, Eminem cruised down 8 Mile Road on his way to the Fox Theater in Chrysler’s $12.4 million dollar Super Bowl commercial. Eighty five years prior, Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson released “Up & Down Eight Mile Road,” an ode to the same road Eminem would eventually travel down. The difference? Those Charlestoning through the 8 Mile with their woes couldn't actually listen to music while they drove until four years later, when the Galvin brothers introduced the first mass-produced commercial car radio, the Motorola 5T71.
Forget Dr. Dre and Paul Rosenberg, without the Galvin brothers Eminem wouldn’t exist and 8 Mile would still belong to Kahn and Donaldson. Even back then, when the automobile industry was just beginning, something about cars attracted musicians. On the other side, even with such an advanced piece of technology to marvel at, the ride was incomplete without music.
Thanks in part to the 5T71, the listening populus has been able to enjoy artists of all eras and genres sing about cars while we drive them down the roads that take us anywhere we want to be. Everyone from Meatloaf to Prince have car songs, they're certainly not unique, more than any genre hip-hop has really taken automobiles to heart. For rappers, they are bold demonstrations of wealth and power. In fact, rappers love cars so much they dedicate singles to specific parts of cars - rims, tires and trunks - and have even been known to liken cars to women. I’ve learned to appreciate that narrative, but it’s not me; I can barely change a tire. For rappers cars are signs of wealth, for the fans of those rappers, car music can be priceless.
I haven't properly heard an album until I’ve had time to drive with it. I need to sit in traffic with it, speed to it. I need to drive around at 1:30 in the morning with it; something about an empty road opens up your mind to the music. When I listen to albums at home, I’m rarely just listening. Twitter, FIFA, Facebook, TV, texts, roommates, they're are backseat drivers. They roar like engines and screech like tires, thwarting an intimate moment between me and a piece of music. Out on the road, though, it’s really the only time you have to be alone with the music. You can hear a new snare you couldn't pick up on at the gym. You may have missed that one line while you were grocery shopping, but not in the car. In a car you can immerse yourself in the music. The way Khan would cruise the road with his lady escaping the watchful eye of her family, those late night drives with music can provide that same privacy.
For as introspective as the car can be, it's also fun to roll the windows down, turn up the bass, and let the world in. No matter how old I get, no matter how ridiculous I feel, when I play the “U Don’t Know (Remix)” the windows will go down and the volume will go up - rain, sleet or snow. In fact, I prefer it when it’s cold, when the the rush of cold air whips around, ruffling my hair and making me unable to think. It's the physical manifestation of how “U Don’t Know” makes me feel; pure and unbridled chaos. If it’s a summer day, I may go with some Frank Ocean, the windows down, basking in the sun while cruising, but I’ll always prefer the odd looks I get when M.O.P. is blaring at abnoxious levels.
On the other side, I love hearing what other people are listening to. You know a song's truly important when you hear it coming from other cars. Hearing something you love, even for just a second, can give you a little rush. When you hear someone else playing your song, that person becomes your best friend if for just a moment. I've bonded with complete strangers over music at red lights and in parking lots. ScHoolboy Q always seems to illicit a reaction from someone. We're often so focused on where we're going and what we are doing we forget about other people. But even if it’s just for a second, for the span of a red light, music has the ability to bring two complete strangers going to different directions together.
As great as it is to be alone with the music, that communal feel is just as important. It's the same reason people watch a movie at a public theatre. There's absolutely something to be said for a car full of people and the perfect soundtrack. I know it, you know it and Kendrick Lamar knows it:
Bumping Jeezy first album looking distracted / Speaking language only we know, you think is an accent / The windows roll down all I see is a hand pass it / Hotboxing like George Foreman grilling the masses / Of the working world
The way Kendrick paints us that picture, the reference to Jeezy always draws me in. It completes the picture for me. I feel like I’m in the white Toyota with him because I’ve been in that situation before. I know what he’s feeling. I’ve never committed a robbery and I’ve never purchased a Jeezy CD, but I’ve cruised around town with a car full of friends blasting music, doing things I know I shouldn't be doing. The soundtrack is vital to that experience. For me and my friends, it always seemed to be Sublime. Cursing around the neighborhood hotboxing was never a good idea, but when everyone was back home from college and staying with their parents, what else are you going to do? It was stupid, we all knew it, but when we would play Sublime's 40z To Freedom I wasn't left with much choice. When you are riding around with the homies, listening to your songs, you feel invincible. The song drowns out the nagging whispers of your conscious. It's you vs. the world and that music is your entrance music.
As one of my favorite car rappers, Big K.R.I.T., says on one of my favorite songs to cruise to, “See it ain't just a car, it ain't just a whip. It's a time machine, it's a spaceship, it's precious.” For him it's the cars themselves that take him back, for me it’s the music in them. Cars are indeed time machines, I can tell you just where I was on the 495 where I first heard Kanye. When I drive along Beach Drive I think about that first summer I got my license and drove up and down that road for hours listening to the same one mix CD over and over and over. Cars can transport us to times in the past as well as make us imagine places we’ll never go. I’ll never drive a Buick or a Cadillac. I’ll never enjoy the sweetness of candy pain. But when I bend corners with K.R.I.T. filling my scratched Elantra, that car filled with Gatorade bottles and Taquito rappers turns into a car that would make Pimp C jealous.
Even before Cadillacs and Monte Carlos, shit, even before cars had radios, music and cars have had a natural bond. Maybe it's just that music sounds better surrounding you in a car's sound system, but I think it's more than that. It's the freedom both provide, the ability to take us places we'd never been, and then bring us back home.