This is a guest editorial by Daniel Isenberg, a creative director at Octagon and a music journalist who has written features for Complex, Pitchfork, and XXL, among others. Isenberg is also a GRAMMY-nominated songwriter for his work on Matisyahu’s Youth LP and author of the illustrated children's chapter book My Name is Spit: The Dunk Dance.
My nine-year-old son discovered Eminem last month. I know this because when I passed him the aux cord on our way home from his basketball practice, he plugged in his iPod Touch and put on “Godzilla.”
I said, “You know about Eminem?!” And he responded, “Yeah, he’s the world’s fastest rapper.” So I asked, “Where’d you hear this song?” And he replied as if I should’ve known, “TikTok.”
It turns out a hashtag (#GodzillaChallenge) put my son on to one of the greatest rappers of all-time.
Then, just as things all started to make sense to me, he threw on “Rap God,” as if to say, “I know the deep cuts too, Dad.” I was impressed.
My son is going through his discovery phase with hip-hop right now. Sure, the paths to discovery are much different than mine were when I was a kid. There’s no Yo! MTV Raps or Sam Goody. There are TikTok and Spotify.
But hey, if TikTok led him to Eminem and inspired him to go digging on Spotify through his back catalog, I can’t be mad, right? He’s developing his own taste for hip-hop, and as the person responsible for introducing him to the culture, I couldn’t be more proud.
I’m 41 years old, which means I grew up during hip-hop’s coming-of-age. Hip-hop and I were born only a few years apart. So I feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to passing down what I know about hip-hop to the next generation, and the lessons it taught me, especially when I see hip-hop, at times, losing sight of its essence.
This is why I decided to take a detour from rap journalism recently and write my first children’s chapter book, My Name Is Spit, which centers around a fourth-grade boy who learns how to be an MC when he joins a hip-hop workshop at his local Boys & Girls Club.
The fictional story behind Spit is inspired by my seven years working as the Cultural Arts Director at the Boys & Girls of Northern Westchester (2007-2014)—a job I coupled with my music writing—where we integrated hip-hop heavily into our daily programming.
Every day after school, and through the summers, our Cultural Arts Center gave club members from elementary to high school-age the opportunity to actively participate in hip-hop culture.
With the help of fellow staff members and local mentors, we built a program from the ground up where club members learned how to make their own beats, write their own songs, engineer their own recording sessions, design their own album covers, choreograph their own dance routines, and more. And whether it was through filming music videos, hosting open mics and live performances, or releasing compilation albums featuring their own original tracks, our club members always had a platform to share their talents with the community.
I’ve seen first-hand the effects these hip-hop programs had on Boys & Girls Club kids. It gave them a chance to participate in something that connected with their interests. It challenged them to overcome their anxieties and bring their personalities to life through their writing, production, dance, and art. It gave older club members a chance to be real-time role models and share their skills with their younger peers. And it instilled a sense of pride in everyone involved, bringing kids and staff together through their shared love of music and creativity.
But above all, it gave club members an alternative to getting themselves into trouble after school in the streets.
I left the Boys & Girls Club in 2014 to pursue the next phase of my writing career in advertising while continuing to keep one foot in the rap journalism game. And in the process, the void of teaching kids about hip-hop has been filled as I raise kids of my own.
I have three sons (nine, eight, and five years old), and through the years of regularly playing hip-hop music for them in the house and the car, they’ve grown to love it as much as their dad. So I’ve done everything I can to foster that love, from teaching them how to DJ and make beats on the iPad to bringing them to live events so they can see and feel how music is made with real instruments.
And of course, we’re still listening to and talking about hip-hop music together every day. Sure, some of the stuff they like isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and they don’t go crazy every time I try to put them on to a Grand Puba classic. But we find common ground with artists like Drake and Travis Scott, and the bond it creates is beautiful. With every listening experience comes an opportunity for me to share stories and lessons that relate to the music, and for them to share their discoveries with me.
And most importantly, helping my kids develop their interest in hip-hop offers them a clear alternative to the never-ending request for brain-melting screen time that modern parents like me are forever at war against—especially while schools are closed and everyone is stuck at home social distancing. Now, when they fight me to play more Fortnite, I can encourage them to make a beat with me or DJ for a family Nerf basketball dunk contest instead.
Maybe one day, as they get older, they’ll want to take it a step further and record songs of their own. (I set up a makeshift studio in our kitchen over the weekend to give it a try during our time at home). But even if they don’t, that love and passion for the music, and that outlet for them to be creative, has been instilled in them forever.
These experiences with my kids, and with the Boys & Girls Club, are brought to life inside the pages of my new book My Name Is Spit. And I’m proud to pass them down to the next generation. My only hope is that Spit inspires them the way hip-hop has always inspired me.
Author’s Note: Now is as good as a time as ever to bond with your family over your shared love of hip-hop, music, and the arts. I hope this article, at the very least, provides you with the inspiration to give it a try. Stay safe, everyone.