Tag Archive: gangsta rap


Naughtiness

As I’ve mentioned before, I was a pretty good child. Behaviorally, I never did anything that was really dangerous; never smoked, never did drugs, never snuck out at night, was (almost) never disrespectful to my parents, and didn’t run with a bad crowd.

The biggest bone of contention between me and my parents was my musical choices. As I entered the second decade of my life, they started furrowing their brows. Bands like Aerosmith and Green Day caused them some grief, and they weren’t crazy about Smashing Pumpkins either. And it really started when I was in 4th grade and liked Vanilla Ice enough to ask for To the Extreme for Christmas. I got it, too.

But for whatever reason (fate, luck, God, circumstance, maybe all of them), I never discovered true naughtiness in music in my youth. The most I got was Steven Tyler quoting Frank Zappa (which I didn’t know at the time) singing “Buns up and kneelin’ / I was a’ wheelin’ and a dealin’.” And while that was more than enough for my parents, there were MUCH worse things out there at the time. 2 Live Crew caused quite a stir with “Me So Horny” and their entire As Nasty As They Wanna Be album, and it echoed in the church youth group my parents headed. Likewise, Digital Underground and “The Humpty Dance” crossed the consciousnesses of the teens in my parents’ youth group. They tried to play a cassette of it on a youth group road trip in my dad’s motor home stereo; he promptly threw it out the window.

Those two groups were on the periphery of my vision growing up, but Onyx wasn’t. When I was in 6th grade, there was a kid that went to my older sister’s school (Harkness Road, my own high school) that we gave a ride to in the mornings. We also took him to church for youth group on Wednesday nights (I went to the kids’ program at our church). His name was Luke, and he was what most adults would classify as a “bad influence.” My parents were friends with his mother, and I guess they were hoping good company would redeem bad character, the opposite of the way it typically works. It was through him that I experienced a number of different “naughty” things, Onyx being one of them.

Onyx were an early ‘90s rap group and a key figure in the gangtsa rap movement, a cluster of black artists that used incredibly violent imagery and profuse profanity. Since gangsta rap was meant to present an exaggerated glimpse into the black urban lifestyle and mindset, this also included rampant misogyny. Luke played me Onyx’s debut album on headphones one time, and I was particularly disturbed by the song “Blac Vagina Finda,” which essentially describes an interracial gang rape. I expressed my discomfort and distaste, and Luke laughed derisively and called me a pussy.

Loathe as I am to admit it, my desire to fit in with Luke and other people I was around caused me to wade into the sludge-teeming waters of gangsta rap for a while. It didn’t last long, since the overwhelming waves of stinking immorality bowled me over and were too much for me. It’s not that people like Onyx and Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were simply talking about sex and violence and the bad things of the world; I have no problem with that. It’s the way they talked about them. That way was extremely vulgar and obvious, which insulted the wordsmith in me, but looming largest in my mind was that it was celebratory. In their verbage, the bad things of the world weren’t bad at all. Gun violence was to be celebrated. Misogyny was to be celebrated. Illegal drugs were to be celebrated. Law and order were to be disrespected, insulted and ultimately destroyed. Love is weakness, attachment to your sexual partner is weakness, and your entire ethos is to be dictated by taking what you can get and not caring about how much damage you are causing to the people around you. Simply put, this was the opposite of everything I was brought up to believe.

So luckily, I went back to my Genesis and Phil Collins, and was on the verge of discovering R.E.M. and a world of other delights. And in the end, it worked out.

AC/DC probably would have been on that list of bands my parents were hoping I would NOT be into when I was younger. Like a few others I’ve talked about, my fandom of AC/DC is relatively recent. I was 9 when The Razors Edge came out, and I remember thinking “Thunderstruck” was pretty groovy, but the guy’s voice was like grinding gravel between two sheets of corrugated steel. And at that time, I didn’t have a clue that Back In Black even existed, let alone Bon Scott. A decade and a half later when the Jack Black extravaganza School of Rock was released, I found a liking for “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll),” which led me into Bon-era deliciousness. From there, I was hooked.

Music has always been the centerpiece of my life, the language through which I speak and am spoken to, but it’s better for certain music to enter your life at certain stages of your life than others. Gangsta rap, while it was a horrible experience for me, came around at just the right time. It taught me a very stark lesson about where my musical boundaries were, what I could take and what I couldn’t. AC/DC, likewise, came around at just the right time. Had I waded into their music at a younger age, I might have not only drawn the ire of my parents (even more than I did anyway), but I might have become a different, more depraved person. It’s because AC/DC came around when I was mature enough to deal with them that their bawdy talk and low-brow subject matter can hit me at the angle it does. If it were from a different, younger angle, it would probably be a lot more harmful.

Next: always a bridesmaid, never the best-selling album of all time.

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A word of caution: what follows is how I remember things, but not necessarily how they actually happened. An event can happen, but if it doesn’t happen to someone, did it really happen? To a certain extent, the meaning of a thing is assigned to it by the person describing it. So bear in mind that what follows is my version, which is probably different from other people who were there.

The high school I went to (7th-12th) was very small – 15-20 students in the entire school. It was a little private school in Amherst, MA that’s not there anymore, called Harkness Road High School, or HRHS. My older sister went to HRHS, too. I was still in 6th grade, not yet old enough for HRHS, when I first laid eyes on Debbie. HRHS was holding its annual prom-like event (not a dance, but rather a themed dinner). I was there, since families of students were invited. Debbie was one year older than me, and was close to finishing her first year at HRHS. I remember I was struck dumb that first time seeing her.

Debbie was incredibly quiet, passive and introspective. She didn’t talk very much, and probably wasn’t noticed a lot in her family of 8 siblings, her being the youngest. She wasn’t unusually good-looking, but she had a killer smile. It was probably so powerful ‘cause she didn’t use it very much. Seriously, she could level mountains with that smile; she leveled me.

There’s just something about girls like Debbie; a lot more is hidden from view than is shown. Most guys just pass them by, but I’m intrigued by a girl that doesn’t just give her gold away to any passing stranger. For me, though, intrigue lead to attachment which lead to kinda creepy behavior. Being a teenager, everything was a big deal for me, and thus my infatuation with Debbie became all-encompassing, 10 times larger than the vessel that held it.

For her part, Debbie viewed me as an annoyance, an unfortunate bug in her ear she couldn’t get rid of. But as irritating as my unrequited affections were, it’s regrettable that she didn’t respond with more grace, or even more temperance. Because of the people we both were (she wasn’t very direct and I wasn’t able to take a hint), things got messy. Instead of just telling me flat-out that she would never date me, she withdrew further inward, hoping I would just go away. In such close quarters – and in a school of only 20 students, everything is close quarters – I couldn’t; not completely.

Throughout my 7th grade year, Debbie and I pretty much ignored each other, though my feelings were still lightly simmering. But in my 8th grade year, they started boiling over. Everybody knew – granted, “everybody” is relatively few – including Debbie.

If the story had gone on like that, it probably would have been fine. My feelings would have eventually faded (a fire that hot can’t burn for long), and Debbie would have relaxed about me. But around a month into my 8th grade year, Debbie started dating a friend of mine, named Nick. Nick was my “bad” friend, the one friend your parents think is a “bad influence.” He was into some stuff I wasn’t, like gangsta rap and weed and smashing mailboxes. I went over to his house after school sometimes, and we spent the summer after 7th grade working for the same guy, doing random manual labor jobs around his property – if I never see another post-hole digger as long as I live, it will be a-okay with me. I didn’t really understand Nick, though I thought I did. His life was a lot harder than mine had been, and he had a large will to rebel.

But obviously, Nick didn’t value our friendship very much, at least not enough to keep him from saying yes to Debbie’s advances. Debbie might have just started dating Nick, a friend of mine, to get me to leave her alone, but it pained me for more than just the obvious reason. Other than the blatant scorn that I felt, there was that Nick didn’t view women as human beings who had actual thoughts and feelings. Instead, he thought of them as walking sets of tits, objects to be used and discarded. Or at least that’s the big talk he advertised to me, anyway.

So there you have a real-life soap opera-like love triangle, rife with teenage stupidity and groan-inducing melodrama. It seems like a much smaller thing 17 years later, but back in 8th grade, it was the literal destruction of the universe.

So I can totally understand Clapton’s wailing, moaning and sobbing over a woman he loves that just doesn’t love him back. When he sings in “Layla” to the title character, “you got me on my knees,” I get it. ”Layla” and the rest of the album it’s on mean so much to so many people because his pain is our pain. And nobody that album touches hasn’t felt that pain in some form or another.

Sometimes a musician presents his pain so honestly that it’s like watching someone committing suicide. But when you share a little empathy with the musician, it changes. His pain is your pain, so his catharsis becomes your catharsis. Art is therapeutic, but not just for the artist; it works for the spectator as well.

Tomorrow: oh, the damage a simple zipper can do…