I'm doing my last public reading of The Beautiful Struggle tonight at McNally-Jackson here in Soho. This is the last of the excerpts from the book. As I've said, The Beautiful Struggle is, at its core, a comic book. A self-aggrandizing comic book--every man is Odysseus in his own mind. Anyway, yesterday was Gwen Stacy. Today is hip-hop, and black nationalism, as a radioactive spider-bite. You'll have to come out see the kid web-swinging the city.
This, right here, is before Eazy E brunched with Bush, from that era when radio there still found money in boasting, "No rap." Up North, the new sound was the regional anthem and broadcast to whole communities. But where I was from, the word didn't come around on radio until all the streetlights were lit.
Some of you were there at the proper moment: Sprawled across a homeboy's bed, your back to the mattress, tossing a tennis ball to yourself, debating this years O's. Driving your mother's blue Cressida down Dolfield, and to all your niggers pointing out the window at Charmaine and then lying on your dick. In your cousin's basement, clutching a joystick, wondering how they could call this single-player fraud Double Dragon. Then the magic moment, when a homie puts the tape in the deck and everything inside gets very quiet.
In Baltimore the feeling was cultish, and taken in only by a few. The music of the city was the erotic throb of house. But here I am, standing before my small black stereo. Jungle Brothers is spinning on the turntable. Q-Tip pierces the fog with a nativist sword. I am on my third listen and still I do not understand.
The album is a jumble. I can't tell you what Mike G is running from. I have never heard of the Violators. I scrounge around the house in search of my father's atlas, flip pages until I arrive at a map of their great and mythical realm, Strong Island. I expect a kingdom, but all I see is a bunch of dumb islands waiting to float away.
The mystery, those great expansive plains of unsaid, sucked all of us in. No one knew how Kane came to spit in such a way that the roughest breakbeat turned coquettish, a lady in roses on a Saturday evening stroll. I'd search the liner notes for clues, playback lyrics until they were memory, and then playback memory, until I gleaned messages, imagined and real. And slowly I began to pull something from the literature. Slowly I came to understand why these boys needed to wear capes, masks and muscle suits between bars. Slowly I came to feel that I was not the only one who was afraid.
Big Bill's next step was natural in that age. Across the country black boys were begging their parents for a set of Technic 1200s and an MPC. Failing that they banged on lunch tables and beat-boxed until they could rock the Sanford Son theme song and play it underwater. Up on Wabash, Bill stood in Marlon's basement holding the mic like a lover. They called themselves the West Side Kings, which meant Marlon cutting breakbeats and Bill reciting battle rhymes he'd scrawled in a yellow notepad. He would return to Tioga with demos, play them for hours, and rap along with himself. This went on for two years before I saw the West Side Kings in action. By then the game had changed, and brothers had gotten righteous.
That was the summer of 1988--the first great season of my generation. The Grand Incredible was dead KRS converted to Consciousness and assumed the sentinel pose of Malik Shabazz. All the world's boomboxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy. Before now, the music was escapist and fun-- some beats and the dozens, fat chains and gilded belt-buckles. But Chuck D pulled us back into the real. He premiered in the colors of Al Davis, did not dance, and when he grabbed the mic it transformed into the lost rifle of Robert Charles.
Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so grating--drums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off-beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere. In the alley behind Liberty, "Don't Believe the Hype" was the loop. On weekends, amidst modules, the Player's Handbook and dice, Malik would play "Cold Lamping" and quote Flavor Flav. Dad heard "She Watch Channel Zero" and pointed at Ma--"That's how I feel about them damn romance novels. She reads. She reads. She reads." I was a reluctant covert, but captured by the many layers, the hints at revelation, and a sound that I did not so much enjoy as I felt compelled to understand. Every track was a disheveled history of music. And armed with an array of sonics, Chuck D came forward and revealed a new level of Knowledge.
I took to Consciousness because there was nothing else, no other logic to counter death for suede, leather and gold. My father bet his life on change. For the glory of ex-cons, abandoned mothers, and black boys lost, he had made peace with his end. I was a coward, mostly concerned with getting from one day to the next. How could I square my young life with this lineage? What would I say to the theology of my father, which held that the Conscious Act was worth more than sex, bread, or even drawn breath?
There were no answers in the broader body, where the best of us went out like Sammy Davis, and spoke like there had never been war. I will avoid the cartoons--the hardrocks loved Billy Ocean, Luther was classic, and indeed, I did sit in my 7th period music class eyeing Arletta Holly, and humming Lost In Emotion. But you must remember the era. Niggers were on M-TV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadroons, big-upping Fred Astaire and speaking like the rest of didn't exist. I'm talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Ritchie dancing on the ceiling. I'm talking the corporate pop of Whitney, Richard Pryor turning into the Toy and the eunuch Mr. T. Was like Parliament had never happened, like James Brown had never hit. All our champions were disconnected and dishonored, handing out Image Awards, while we bled in the streets.
But now the word turned Conscious, De La refused to scowl and Daddy-O shouted across the Atlantic gap. First, Chuck, then KRS, and then everywhere you looked MCs were reaching for Garvey's tri-colour, shouting across the land, self-destruction was at end, that the logic of white people's ice had failed us, that the day of awareness was now.
Across the land, the masses fell sway to the gospel. Old Panthers came out in camouflage to salute Chuck D. Cold killers would get a taste of "Black is Black," drop their guns and turn vegan. Brothers quoted Farrakhan with wine on their breath. Harlots performed salaat, covered their blonde french rolls in mudcloth and royal Kinte. Dark girls slashed their Appolonia posters, burned their green contacts, cut their hair, threw in braids. Gold was stashed in the top dresser. The fashion became your father's dashiki, beads and Africa medallions.
I was 12, but when I heard Lyrics of Fury--"A haunt if you want the style I posses/I bless the child, the Gods, the Earth, and bomb the rest"--I put away childish things, went to the pad, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed and put pen to pad.
At first I felt the words of others pulsing through me-- my reforming brother, the esoteric allusions of The God, the philosophy of KRS-ONE--and in truth, in many years of trying, I never completely touched my own. My hand was awkward, and when I rhymed the couplets would not adhere, punchlines crashed into bars, metaphors were extended until they derailed off beat. I was unfit, but still I had at it for days, months and ultimately years. And the more ink I dribbled onto the page, the more I felt the blessing of the sacred order of MCs. I wrote everyday that summer, rhymed over B-sides instrumentals, until my pen was a Staff Of The Dreaded Streets, (plus five chance to banish fools on sight) and my flow, though flicted and disjointed, made my hands tingle. The words were all braggadocios, but when done with the recital, even though I was alone, I felt bigger.
I'd walk outside, and my head was just a little higher, because if you do this right, if you claim to be that nigger enough, though you battle only your bedroom mirror, there is a part of you that believes. That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I knew what Fruitie was trying to say, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.
I harried Big Bill until he took me up to Wabash to spit a sloppy verse. Marlon had cordoned off his father's basement. He presided over 1200s, spinning breakbeats. Joey played with the keys until he found a riff he liked. I just sat on the couch going over my rhymes, while Bill stood blessing the mike.
By then I had raided the tall box of my father's old collection of Black Panther newspapers, devoured them during off-hours in Dad's office, and scribbled allusions to them in my book of rhymes. Dad no longer had to assign readings. My comics collections lapsed. Cartoons felt nonessential. I plunged into my father's books of Consciousness which he'd shelved in nearly every room in the house. That was how I found myself, how I learned my name. All my life Dad had told me what I was, that Ta-Nehisi was a nation, the ancient Egyptian name for the mighty Nubians to the South, but I could not truly hear. Where I'm from, Tamika is an American name. But Ta-Nehisi was hyphened, and easily bent to the whims of anyone who knew the rudiments of the dozens. But seeing Ta-Nehisi amongst the books of glorious Africa, I knew why I could never be Javonne or Pete, that my name was nation, not a target, not something for teachers to trip over, but the ancient handle for the Nubians and the glorious Egyptians of the 25th.
I felt a light flowing through me. I awoke, excited, hungry to understand this immediate world, the black people around me, and how they--we--had all fallen to this. Now I knew the streets in a fuller sense, that it was troubled because all things worth anything ultimately are. That my world, though mired in disgrace, was more honorable than anything, was more beautiful than the exotic counties way up Reiserstown and Liberty Road. All the Mondawmins of the world, with their merchant vultures, wig stores, sidewalk sales, sub shops, fake gold, bastard boys, and wandering girls, were my only home. That was Knowledge and Consciousness joined, and when I grabbed the mic, that was the alchemy I brought forth. When I was done, I emerged taller, my voice was deeper, my arms were bigger, ancestors walked with me, and there in my hands, behold, Shango's glowing axe.