“The Strength of Street Knowledge”

Yes, I was one of the those fans that lined up this past weekend to see Straight Outta Compton, the bio-pic on the rise and fall of the musical genius known as N.W.A. And yes, I was one of those kids, one of those white boys from the suburbs, who was a huge fan of the powerful lyrics Ice Cube wrote about a world I would never understand.

As a kid, I didn’t listen to heavy metal. I wasn’t into alternative music like REM or U2 or Depeche Mode. No, I was into rap. As a young kid growing up in North Jersey, Run DMC was my gateway music. I was immediately taken by the lyrics and the poetry. As I got older, my preferences got a little harder. I loved the post-License to Ill Beastie Boys. I couldn’t get enough of Public Enemy. I cherished a bootleg cassette I had of 2 Live Crew (which I just told my mother about last week). And I got amped listening to N.W.A.

I looked at music like Public Enemy and N.W.A as I assume my parents’ generation looked at music by folks like Bob Dylan. It was protest music. It spoke truth to power. It gave voice to many previously without words. And to kids like me, it pulled back a curtain so we could catch just a glimpse of the world, of the struggles, and of the realities that were foreign to us, but important to our development into men (and into hopefully responsible men).

As I got older, my musical tastes matured. In college, I took a real liking to 3rd Bass (it was even on my college answering machine, where they sampled JFK). Jay-Z and Eminem and Snoop remain on my regular play lists today. But N.W.A and Public Enemy are still my go-tos.

I’ve introduced my kids to a little of it, namely Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. They sadly know Snoop from his work with Katy Perry. And they love Salt n Pepa from the Geico commercials (yes, I’ll wipe a tear).

Twenty-five years ago or so, I was taken in by the movie Do The Right Thing. Originally, the draw was the music (obviously). But I still regularly watch the movie (it is one of the staples on my iPad) because of the story it tells. As an Italian-American, I feel a personal connection. I still don’t want to accept that no matter how open-minded we all can claim to be, that we all have a break point, and we all have that inner Sal (or worse, the inner Pino) with us. I don’t want to ever be so blind to the realities around me.

So this weekend, I watched Straight Outta Compton, and was completely taken in. The music reminded me of my childhood, while the story was one I was aware of, but not completely familiar. In many ways, it was a Shakespearean story, as the lives of young men who would grow up to be the Dr. Dre of Beats headphones fame, the actor known as Ice Cube, the felon Suge Knight, the up-and-comers Tupac and Snoop, and the visionary Eazy E were intertwined over a relatively short period.

How does all of this relate to my regular writings here on Eduflack? I’m not exactly sure. I do know that my childhood, and the soundtrack of that childhood, is an important piece of who I have become and the work that I do. I know that the social, justice, and educational issues hit in those songs continue to be topics that we struggle with today. And I realize that there are still far too many kids, and they were kids back then, whose voices aren’t being heard.

This morning, I found myself listening to nothing but rap on my morning run. It gave me a lot to think about and a lot to reflect on. As luck would have it, I hit the home stretch as a song from Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC fame) hit the shuffle. The song came out in 2007, just a few months before the adoption of my son was official. Every time I’ve heard the song since then, I think of my son. And those thoughts usually come with tears.

That’s why rap is the soundtrack of my life. It isn’t because I was a suburban kid thinking I was an OG. I wasn’t pretending I was understanding what it was like to come of age in South Central. It is because I happened to be listening to Public Enemy as I was driving back from a college internship interview, only to learn later that the Rodney King verdict had come in. And it is because in his song Just Like Me, DMC captures feelings about my kids and adoption that I couldn’t previously verbalize.

Taylor Swift (even when she tries to rap) and Meghan Trainor and even Katy Perry don’t make me think. Dre, Cube, and E do. each and every time.

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