Let me tell you a little story about how the world’s most dangerous groups helped a kid from Iowa keep his sanity …
When I was a kid, I was short. Scrawny. Maybe a bit too impressionable. Forcefully extroverted and overly demonstrative, often to the point of showing off. Maybe I still am a little bit. But I’ve never been in a fight in my entire life … well, unless you count with my older brother, which I don’t, because said “brawls” (mostly pushing and shoving from both of us, maybe an occasional punch in the arm, and I think I spit on him once) always consisted of the same move – him grabbing me by my shirt, shoving me into a wall, and then pulling me off the wall and throwing me about three feet to the ground. I’m seriously still stunned he never followed it with a bound off the ropes and a flying leg drop. It was very pro wrestling. But that’s really about it.
But yeah, because I was that guy, I got picked on. A lot. But never physically. I would never say I got bullied. That’s a word that gets thrown around far too easily these days, but I got scapegoated. Often made to feel inferior. And most of the time, it was by my own friends. Sometimes I brought it on myself. Many times, I didn’t. You see, kids can be mean. And one day, you (and they) grow out of it. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t still scars. You just can’t see them.
But back then, what was I going to do? I couldn’t fight unless I was OK with getting my ass kicked every single time I tried. So inside, I burned. All the time. I was full of helplessness and rage. Blind rage. With no outlet. And if you bottle that up for too long, you might explode. Hurt yourself or somebody else. There has to be a release. Some people cry. For some reason, I never really did. I just put on a dopey grin and pushed through it the best I could.
I finally found an outlet in angry music. At first, it was heavy metal. I can remember multiple times, lying in my bed, pounding my fists on the mattress and punching the hell out of a pillow, banging my head until my neck hurt to Reign in Blood. Or Master of Puppets. Or Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying? Or Among the Living. Just releasing mental anguish.
(There’s a tremendous scene in the brilliant VH1 documentary series Metal Evolution that explains this phenomenon much better than I ever could (skip to the 5:35 to 8:11 mark). But rest assured when watching this, I was this kid.)
But eventually, I branched out. I never thought I would. I remember thinking, at age 14 and 15, that the only CDs I would ever buy would be metal of the extreme variety. I can still, off the top of my head, tell you the first 10 to 15 CDs I ever bought … Anthrax, Maiden, Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies, Slayer, Forbidden, King Diamond, Sepultura, S.O.D., Kreator, Exodus, and on down the line.
Eventually, I broke that streak with Led Zeppelin IV. Then, for some reason, it was the Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker.
But then I got It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, followed quickly by Fear of a Black Planet.
And then it was Straight Outta Compton by N.W.A.
Why did these prophets of rage enthrall me so much? It certainly wasn’t because of what they were saying.
No, it was just … how they said it.
Let’s be honest here: I didn’t necessarily identify with what these guys were preaching about. I was a mid-to-lower middle-class white kid. From Iowa. What the hell did I know about gang violence and turf wars, oppressive police violating my civil rights, selling crack to survive, or gentrification in the ’hood?
I’ll tell you – nothing.
And although I always considered myself to be a sensitive and intelligent human being with an open mind, it didn’t change the fact that I didn’t come from the most diverse community growing up (I can still probably count the amount of black kids I went to school with from K through 12 on two hands).
Truth be told, it didn’t matter how many think pieces I read in Rolling Stone or how many times I watched Boyz N The Hood growing up in an attempt to “educate” myself – it didn’t change three very distinctive facts about myself: I’m straight. I’m white. I’m male.
Because of the way those three things work together in unison, I was probably going to have more opportunities than most people, and there would probably be people who didn’t even know me who resented or hated me for these “privileges” alone. In a very general, stereotypical way, I was probably part of the very problem these guys were railing against.
But I didn’t care. And I still don’t care. The rage spoke to me. So while I can’t say I personally identified with the vast majority of the content in the rhymes they were spitting, I still respected it. Chuck D. Ice Cube. MC Ren. Standing at a pulpit, pointing their fingers at me and everyone like me, declaring, “You may not know me. You may not be like me. But you will respect me, motherfucker!” And I did.
More importantly, I identified with the conviction and the piss & vinegar they used when saying it. The anger. The authority. Listen to “Straight Outta Compton” and “Fuck Tha Police” and “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “Fight The Power” and “When Will They Shoot” (cheating there … that’s just Ice Cube) and tell me that the power with which they are presenting these “cases,” on top of those back-breaking beats, doesn’t make you want to march down the street with your middle fingers in the air. It provided another outlet for releasing my own pent-up frustrations. I just had to venture out on a different branch to do it.
Make no mistake, I’ve always been a rock guy first and foremost. Guitars, more guitars (preferably with Big Muff distortion pedals) and big-ass drums. So when I started discovering rap music, I subconsciously always equated it to the rock music I loved. Public Enemy was like CNN … well, at least CNN before MH370 (much like Metallica and Anthrax): buried within this earphoria, you felt like you learned something. But N.W.A.? It’s just pure “fuck you.” They were Slayer. Just unapologetic in the frenzy.
(Worth mentioning: It’s no surprise that once I branched out to more introspective music, coinciding with the alt-rock explosion of the ‘90s, that I discovered and gravitated toward A Tribe Called Quest.)
But time passes. Anger and resentment subsides. Even so, I still love their storytelling. Something that gets lost is that underneath their message, these guys had a sense of humor. God bless Flavor Flav. Tell me that at least once in your life, you didn’t use “you got a rip in your couch,” “your mother got gold nipples” or “wash your butt” as a snappy one-line comeback.
And Cube, my favorite, I just want you to know that if a new girl moves on my street, I’ma introduce her to my meat, know what I’m sayin’? And you best believe that if I ever get busted, I’ma go to jail in my muthafuckin’ drawers.
This past fall, my buddies and I were tailgating at Kinnick Stadium, the home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, in the heartland of Iowa. And our song of choice on this particular day was “My Summer Vacation” off of Cube’s Death Certificate. Some woman walked up to us and said there were kids nearby and could we please turn it down.
I think we said “tough shit.”
Some of this angry shit made Music or Space Shuttle’s “Undisputed Top Albums Ever” list way back in the day (2012). Read about them below:
Chris’ #8 and Todd’s #8: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back / Dr. Dre, The Chronic
Todd’s #39: N.W.A., Niggaz4Life
Chris’ #52: N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton