In 1984 (I think), I was mailed a mysterious black cassette tape. Before you ok boomer me, I was 9. It was, in fact, a present for my 9th birthday. It had nothing with it – no liner notes, no J-card, no letter, no explanation that I can remember. It simply said “Street Beat” on it in my Aunt Elaine’s handwriting. I think she dubbed it off a record or something!
On it was a compilation chock full of all the original hip-hop stuff – the actual old-school songs and artists. Sugar Hill Gang. Grandmaster Flash. Kevie Kev. Songs like White Lines, New York, New York, and All Night Long (Waterbed) (what the HELL does “Watashi-wa, Tokyo suki” mean??). These songs were 7, 8 minutes long, by the way.
I didn’t spend a lot of time on the typical tunes white guys around my age seem to be obsessed with like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. No sir. THIS tape played in my Sony Walkman until it damn near wore out.
That started me off. After that, it was break dance this, break dance that. Hip-hop culture really swept the country and no, we weren’t all rappin. We were all breakin. I spent fourth and fifth grade wearing parachute pants and spiked wristbands.
I would obsess about cardboard and linoleum. I’m still like that by the way, but for different stuff. Everywhere I go, if I see any body of water, no matter how small, I say “ooh does that freeze over?” – I’m all about hockey and getting a skate in now. Back then it was all about breakin. I changed my name and made everybody call me Breaker. I labeled my desk with electrical tape spelling “Breaker”.
They even held a break dance competition at the Taos Fiestas. I joined it and at the last minute, teamed up with another 4th grader named Harley Davidson (yeah that was his given name).
I watched Breakin’ a lot of times and had the soundtrack. At that time, rap wasn’t part of it. In fact, the songs with more rap vocals were kind of annoying because they might not be as danceable. Rockit was the pinnacle for that.
This was the music I was actually formed on, in addition to anything my parents had on vinyl (Beatles much?) and everything my dad played on the guitar and sang. That was all old Western Swing country. Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Doc Watson (oh man Tennessee Stud is catchy, but my dad does it better, says I).
I think you can see how disparate these two sets of influences are…
But here’s the point…
We’re not a homogenous people, us Americans. We really are a melting pot. The more generations we create, the more we mash together.
There’s a whole slew of reasons I call myself a hip-hop artist even though at this point nobody else would. But I came up obsessively listening to these early hip-hop records. I learned to rap by memorizing every word of Young M.C.’s “Stone Cold Rhymin’”. But obviously, there’s 100 other influences in there too. Rock, country, jazz, blues.
It’s American music. Not purebred, not singular – like all our dogs growing up, it’s a mutt. Just a solid, tail-wagging, loud-barking, chicken-stealing doggo of beats, rhymes, and jammin.
I think it’s important for us to embrace that mashup, that togetherness, while simultaneously having respect for where our influences came from. It’s easy to just look at things from your same point of view, but when you’re encouraged to try new ways of thinking, learn other cultures, and gain influences outside of your sphere, things get better for everybody.
I don’t know why my aunt Elaine sent me that tape, but I do know it was a huge part of what I became in life. I’d love to think part of that is a person who digs other perspectives and respects multiple cultures. At least that’s what I want to be. Maybe that’s why she sent it.
Elaine’s on my list. So hopefully she’ll respond and tell me why she sent “Street Beat” – the tape which sent me on this path!