Reminiscing About My Hip-Hop Rebellion

A while back--and apologies to Brian and Chi for not posting this sooner--I participated in an Asian American "blog summit" on the meanings and potentialities of the Golden State Warriors' Jeremy Lin. It's been up for a few weeks here (I also wrote about Lin for Ta-Nehisi over here.) Below, one of my "summit" colleagues, Jay Caspian Kang, recalls an unlikely reunion with a once-beloved song, and the memories carried by a stray out-of-out-of-context horn line.

* * *

SAILING TO BYZANTIUM
By Jay Caspian Kang

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
--W.B. Yeats

You gotsta understand, Trick loves the kids
--Trick Daddy

1.

I don't quite remember where I was going, but at some point during my first year of teaching creative writing at a school for the children of San Francisco's liberal elite, I was walking down a hallway littered with unwashed, one-hundred-pound bodies, when I heard, with Swann's delight, a long-forgotten saxophone phrase. The sound was immediately swallowed up by the white noise created by forty teenagers talking all at once, and, as I picked my way through the tangle of legs, I wondered if what I had heard had merely been a misfire of my nostalgic imagination. Putting on a tired look, the look all scared first-year teachers reserve for these sorts of walks down the hall, I scanned the morass of faces for the source, but was quickly confronted with the ridiculousness of this particular witch-hunt--the phantom song had come out over ten years before and there was no reason for any of these kids to have ever heard it. But then, at the end of the hallway, I heard it again--the mellow sax, the tapping of the snare. I looked around and saw two kids sitting on a bench by a lone window. One was holding his iPhone up to the other's ear.

I asked, "Why are you listening to that song?"

The kid holding the iPhone looked up at me and smirked. He and his brother were in a rap group together. Their lyrics were almost exclusively about rolling joints and running guns. I, despite my attempts at becoming a grown-up, liked both of them for it. He said, "Yo. Mister Kang. What do you know about Smif-n-Wessun?"

I didn't trust myself to answer his question, but I hated him for asking.

2.

From 1992 to 1998, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I listened only to hip-hop. Like all kids who never can quite stretch their rebellion out to match the template in their heads, the music replaced the everyday facts of my suburban life with a proxy life, absurdly applied, sure, but prettier than what I had been dealt. Just as Homer Simpson cannot recall a time when he had hair without dragging along Queen or Grand Funk Railroad, almost all of my memories of adolescence are just memories of taking the bus to Schoolkids Records in my hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to buy Southernplayalisticcadillacmuzik, Ready to Die, Tical, Only Built for Cuban Linx, Me Against the World, The Infamous, Illmatic, Lethal Injection, Soul Food, and E. 1999 Eternal. I can remember listening to all these albums in my friend Seth's car, and I can remember Seth's graffiti-inspired handwriting and how it made every mix-tape seem all that much more illicit. I can remember the first time I watched Menace II Society, the first time I realized that 90 percent of my sense of humor came from Fear of a Black Hat. The clarity of these memories has convinced me that there was something vital, important about this music, and while I know it's probably the same for all generations and their rebellion rock, I cannot quite divorce myself from my conviction that we, suburban kids in Volvos bumping Biggie Smalls, were somehow special.

Since then, I've sat through enough lectures and seminars and I've heard enough words that described what we were doing and none of those words made me feel very good about my childhood interests or my ability to relate to anyone, really, but despite knowing better, I still hawk over the memories of those songs with a zealot's singular focus. And just as the zealot cordons himself off from all similar, but perhaps, not-perfectly-alike iterations of himself, I cannot, again, despite knowing better, quite bring myself to not hate all these fucking kids who bump Nas and think they know what's up.

3.

Allow me this: Our interest in rap was sincere. And with the help of some math, I've gotten over feeling guilty about it. (embarrassment is another issue.) Consider the first few bars of Dead Prez's "They Schools," which, to those of us who couldn't accept the indignity of Zach De La Rosa's ethnic ambiguity, was our own personal "Killing in the Name of"

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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