My Dad Is 74. For Father's Day, I Interviewed Him About Hip-Hop

"I was there from the beginning. I didn’t know what I was seeing."
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My Dad Is 74. For Father's Day, I Interviewed Him About Hip-Hop

The hot Virginia air is whipping through the car as the polyrhythms of KAYTRANADA’s “Track Uno” waft through the speakers. I didn’t think my father would be awake during our drive home from my niece’s graduation ceremony, but out of the corner of my eye, I see his head beginning to nod.

“Hey, who’s this?” he asks.

I tell him we’re listening to KAYTRANADA, a Canadian producer who makes music with a lot of rappers who I enjoy. A smile cracks the surface of his face as the album continues. “ONE TOO MANY,” featuring Phonte, in particular, warrants some serious movement.

“It feels like one long DJ mix,” he comments as we pull into a rest stop for snacks. “That kid’s got soul.”

At that moment, I think about the relationship between KAYTRANADA and his father. Per his 2016 FADER cover story:

“At one point, the three of us are sitting around Kay’s computer listening to his music with his dad, who has a near-spiritual pride about hearing his native country’s influence in Kay’s newest songs. “Me, I didn’t accept that he wasn’t making Haitian music at first,” his father says. “But Kevin, he’s a revolutionary. Now I understand that he didn’t forget Haiti! You can feel it!” Kay puts on a song from 99.9%. “Tak takka tak, tak tak tak, takka tak tak!” his dad exclaims, taking a sip from his Heineken and hitting his knee to the beat. “That’s Haitian roots!” —Alex Frank, "Kaytranada Is Reaching 100%"

Born in New York City in 1945, my father, Marion Green Jr., knows a thing or two about how an intergenerational connection is sacred. Music painted his life from diapers to Dickies. He sang in a doo-wop group called Connie & The Decoys and mastered the art of roller-skating by the time rap music first emerged in The Bronx in the early 1970s. When hip-hop was born my father was already a grown man, but his perspective on the genre has grown as he’s watched rap music evolve over the past 45 years.

Rap’s roots in jazz, R&B, and gospel helped my father appreciate the genre from a distance. My growing love for the culture helped feed my musical wanderlust, from Kanye West and Mariah Carey CDs to aux cord playlists featuring Flying Lotus and The Internet. At 74, my father never stopped looking for new sounds. Like Q-Tip’s father, my dad knows everything comes in cycles.

In honor of Father’s Day this year, I interviewed my father Marion Green Jr. We talked about his relationship with rap music, its roots, and why 2Pac is his favorite rapper of all time.

Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below. I love you, dad.

What was your first experience with hip-hop culture?

Dad: My first experience with hip-hop culture was during the blackout of 1974. I was living in The Bronx. I would have been 29. I was at my friend Pam’s mom’s house and we were having dinner. Just as we sat down at the table, the lights went out. I said, “Marlene, where’s the fuse box?” I look out the window and everything is dark, and then I hear this music; it was James Brown. They were using the double cassettes with the boombox. These guys were dancing on a piece of cardboard, but I hadn’t seen what they were doing before. I was looking at this guy from the window and I said, “Pam, come quick! I think this guy is having a seizure!” (laughs). She came to the window and said, “Nah, that’s just those stupid boys. They’re breakin’.” That’s what we called breakdancing.

That was my first exposure to hip-hop. I was there from the beginning. I didn’t know what I was seeing. It wasn’t even being played on the radio at that point. All they had was the rhythm breaks from James Brown and other people’s older records, which is why they sampled his music so much.

I was already roller-skating, and I had gotten good at it. At one point, I was a co-manager and a skating instructor at The Roxy rink in Manhattan. A promoter from England came to The Roxy, her name was Blue. She went into The Bronx and saw all the rappers and the DJs and she had this idea to bring them to The Roxy. It broke after that.

As someone steeped in established genres like R&B, funk, soul, and gospel, what was your first impression of rap music?

It intrigued me. The innovative nature of the whole thing got to me. In the Black neighborhoods, the kids don’t always have access to instruments and music lessons, so they couldn’t form bands. So what they did was take the music that was already recorded and augmented it to fit their style of expression.

They took the hook or four bars here or there. Samplers were out, but everybody wasn’t using them, they were recording it to tape. I thought that was brilliant. People wanted to downplay it because no one was playing any instruments. But they are. They’re taking music that’s already out and re-appropriating it to translate it to today’s expression. It reminded me of The Last Poets, who blew everybody’s mind when they came out. It was in the rawness of their lyrics. They had a song called “Gashman” that was about a dude who got a lot of pussy all the time. That’s a rap song (laughs).

People would also say [hip-hop] wouldn’t last and that it was garbage and that the rappers were talking all this junk. That’s what the white people first said when they discovered R&B. They even named it rock ‘n roll. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the influence of R&B on popular culture, and it’s the same way with hip-hop now. I act in commercials, and the music they license is R&B or rap. The way people dress is influenced by hip-hop, too. It didn’t die; it only got stronger.

How did you feel about rap music when I was born in 1992?

That is when the music began to split into different segments. Now you had gangsta rap and whatever else. The record companies began to have more of a say. Before all that, the rappers were promoting themselves. They sold their music out of the trunks of cars and now they were getting big record deals. The record companies leaned into the gangsta rap idiom. Some of it was valid because music is an expression of your life experiences, and there was room for that. What I didn’t like was when they talked negatively about and disrespecting women. That I never liked. It’s one thing when you’re bragging about the car you’re driving and the champagne and the money, but if you call them bitches and all of that, that’s unnecessary. But that’s the only complaint I had. I’ve always thought it was innovative. And a lot of musicians I knew incorporated record scratches and rap verses into their songs.

Do you remember the first time I expressed an interest in rap music?

Well, let me say this. You expressed an interest in music period from day one. As you know, you didn’t talk at all as a toddler. The doctors were telling us you had developmental delays. But even when you weren’t talking, you loved music. Whenever music was playing, you would run over to the TV or the record player or whatever it was and sit and listen. But you got most of your exposure to hip-hop from school and your friends because I didn’t play much rap around the house. I would play Earth, Wind & Fire, The Temptations, Sly & The Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Dionne Warwick, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Eric Benet. You kinda brought it in.

Do you remember one of the first rap songs or artists I fell in love with?

At one point, you were interested in 50 Cent and Lil Bow Wow. I had even bought you a couple of outfits and a G-Unit jacket. I’ll also never forget the day you played me a Kanye West song that sampled Gil Scott-Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is.” You said, “Dad! Kanye’s got this great song!” And then I told you about Gil Scott, a forefather of hip-hop. Some years later, I took you to see him at B.B. King’s in New York City and we shared catfish fritters. I got to see how taken you were by his performance.

Before that show, I fell in love with his 2010 album I’m New Here, and he recited part of his poem “On Coming From A Broken Home” over a slowed down sample of Kanye’s “Flashing Lights.” That show was a full circle moment for me.

I’m glad we got to experience that together.

What was it like watching hip-hop grow with me through middle school and high school?

By that point, it was obvious the genre was here to stay. When you were coming out of high school, you had also gotten into the older acts like De La Soul and Nas and Digable Planets (starts hummingCool Like Dat”). I made a comparison with myself at your age. Music was changing when I was coming out of high school. The group I sang with [Connie & The Decoys] sang a capella, which they called doo-wop, and that had been the mainstay of R&B. Berry Gordy came along and changed all of that. 

I felt you and your music were going through the same thing. All these groups were hip-hop, but they pulled from different elements. We don’t just pluck it out of thin air. It’s all informed by gospel, R&B, and jazz because it’s part of the Black experience. I think about an artist like Kirk Franklin, who made straight rap music that informed the movement and dancing and the atmosphere. All the other gospel groups coming along doing the same thing are imitating him. It’s cyclical.

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Who’s your favorite rapper of all time?

He was always very outspoken and timely and controversial.

So 2Pac. (laughs)

Yeah, without a doubt. I knew of Pac when he first came out, but I didn’t pay too much attention to him. Not being a real follower of hip-hop, my impression of him was what I read in the papers; I figured he was just another talented young guy who was throwing his life away. Then I had heard the song about his mother [“Dear Mama”] and to what he was saying. His music had a lot of gravitas, which was impressive because he was so young. The music he had behind him also sometimes sounded like jazz or good R&B. I love a lot of other artists, but 2Pac is the man. He and Snoop Dogg. I look at them as men of all people: they can relate to everybody and everybody can relate to them.

What’s your opinion of rap music in 2019?

It’s grown by leaps and bounds and become much more sophisticated. It’s so ingrained in the consciousness of society it comes up everywhere now. It’s the genre that’s driving the record business. If not for hip-hop, everything else would die.

Name a few of your favorite rap or R&B artists who I have introduced you to.

The Internet, Anderson .Paak, Donald Glover, KAYTRANADA, Oddisee, Flying Lotus. These acts are kinda jazzy at the same time as being hip-hop and we will see their music as timeless. 

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