According to my parents, the first song I ever memorized was “The Power” by Snap! I didn’t say my first words until I was four years old, but once the tap was turned on, it rarely shut off. There was no song that I wouldn’t belt once I had the words, but the synthetic bop of “The Power” was special. By the time I hit five, there wasn’t a street in all of Essex County that didn’t know I was the lyrical Jesse James.
A song released two years before I was even a glint in anyone’s eye was my first foray into music, but my life with rap truly began when I was introduced to So So Def at eight years old.
School days from then on out would end with Disney Adventures and running back Lil Bow Wow’s Beware of Dog as many times as my CD player would allow. I couldn’t care less about Kool Moe Dee references or Snoop Dogg features; Bow Wow was simply the hardest person I’d ever seen in my life at that point. The second I recognized hip-hop as a culture was the second I saw 13-year-old Shad Moss in a headband and warm-ups talking about Vince Carter and iced-out Mickey Mouse chains. 106 & Park was the communion cup I drank from daily.
I came a long way from So So Def and the Digimon rap. I heard my first LL Cool J song on the soundtrack to Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps. Def Jam: Vendetta let me literally step into the ring with Redman, Scarface, and DMX, whom I’d meet once again kicking ass opposite Jet Li in Cradle 2 Tha Grave. Freeway’s “Flipside” and Kelis’ “Milkshake” were my first two MP3 downloads at the dawn of iTunes, followed by a tidal wave of crunk and G-funk. I swear to you that Lil Wayne and Birdman’s “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” was my favorite song on the planet at one point. Rap in the 2000s was a kaleidoscopic playground I wanted to see every corner of, but all of that was before I’d heard DOOM.
An Adult Swim promo for The Boondocks in 2005 was my first true step into golden age rap territory. I had heard and enjoyed it before, but there was something about DOOM and his multiple personas that led me to seek it out almost exclusively. By the time I started high school, I was Huey Freeman in oversized Polos, unwilling to listen to anything that didn’t enrich my soul in some way. If it wasn’t A Tribe Called Quest, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, or DOOM, I didn’t want to hear it. I scoffed at the more raucous party songs I once clamored for. I played Nas’ Hip-Hop Is Dead and forced all of my friends to listen. My cousin would come to visit and always expected to hear the same three DOOM songs playing on my computer every weekend. My taste in rap became a less free-ranging playground in favor of a deep dive into a sandbox of Tupac and Black Star records as the backpack straps began constricting my shoulders.
It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I came to realize just how elitist my mentality was. My friends would talk about Lil Wayne’s Carter series and I had no frame of reference because I was so mad about “Lollipop.” I still loved rap but was seeing just how compartmentalized my tastes had become. Even reading fellow Booth scribe Matt Wilhite’s piece celebrating the 10th anniversary of “A Milli,” I was isolated from the teenage zeal that I brought to Kanye’s Graduation and Lupe’s The Cool because I turned my nose up to most other music.
Today, I see this mentality in some of our culture’s old guard. I see it in Ebro claiming Rae Sremmurd don’t write their own songs and fanning the viral flames of interview clips from Lils Uzi Vert, Yachty, and Xan. I see it in Michael Rapaport using his platform to rally the trolls and crack corny ass jokes on any youngin’ who would dare speak ill of the great Tupac. I understand their fear now more than I ever thought I would: Rap music and hip-hop culture are among the most dominant forms of popular culture in the entire world and it is indeed on all of us to have at least a passing knowledge of the culture’s roots.
More often than not, the disconnect scans as elders preaching the same respectability politics that keeps hoods off of young Black boys and girls' heads for everyone else’s benefit but theirs. I appreciate passing down knowledge and knowing your history, but not every 19-year-old with a microphone and a dream needs to be A-F-R-O. I'm more interested in 03 Greedo's relationship to Stevie Wonder and Paramore than I am in his (completely valid) critique of Tupac's gangster posturing, but guess what's picking up the most steam on Twitter?
I had to re-learn that variety is the spice of life. Revisiting old work by Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz with newfound appreciation still makes me wonder why I made myself so late to the party. High school me might look at my love for Lil Boat and Luv Is Rage 2 with disgust, but growth is more than worth it. The history of rap came to me through songs and mutual understanding instead of close-minded lectures, and I made a promise to myself that I’d walk through life with the same zeal for Snap! and Q-Tip that I now have for Valee and Rico Nasty. Wu-Tang can’t truly be for the children if Wu-Tang doesn’t at least try to meet them halfway, like DJ Premier with Uzi.
The great Bill Watterson ended his legendary Calvin and Hobbes comic strip with a boy and his stuffed tiger overlooking a snowy hill with wonder and glee before uttering ten simple words: “It’s a magical world out there, Hobbes. Let’s go exploring!”
I promise this Essex boy will never lose his musical wanderlust again.