My most personal “hip-hop” memory knows no competition in my thoughts. You would’ve thought the setting was some alternate reality version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where, instead of books, rap music was outlawed. My bedroom was turned into ground zero for rebellion. At any moment, the authorities could’ve busted in, armed with “Turn that noise pollution down!” commands; the New York City premieres of songs the likes of Nas’s “I Gave You Power” cut short.
This wasn’t a futuristic world, though—it was suburban New Jersey, circa 1996. Or any year from 1993-or-so onward; fact-checking off of memory is blurrier than a car’s windows after a hot-boxing session. Every Sunday night, starting promptly at 10 p.m. eastern time, I’d locked myself in my room, sitting next to my dual-cassette-playing stereo, FM dial tuned to Hot 97, ready for Marley Marl and Pete Rock to “lay some treats on usssss!” Me, specifically, with a fresh blank tape in one of the two cassette decks. Being that the Marley and Pete’s “Future Flavas” show kicked off at such a late hour, and Sunday being a school night (in ’97, I was merely a high school sophomore), I had to drown out the sound by plugging headphones into the stereo. This allowed me to blast the music at full volume, which made the tape-dubbed versions play at maximum boom. Without those headphones, mom and pops would’ve shut down the operation upon first bass line.
It was me against the system. A lame and humble match of wits between a hip-hop-loving kid and his just-don’t-understand parents. It was also the closest I’ve ever felt to being “hip-hop.”
The procedure was simple yet effective. Whenever Marley Marl and Pete Rock dropped something new, I’d push down the Play and Record buttons simultaneously. It was all about instinct—if the track began with scratches and vintage boom-bap bass, I’d assume it was either some new DJ Premier, or, at the least, a passable Preemo knockoff, so I’d record it. If a kung-fu sample opened the song, it had to be Wu-Tang, and anything Wu was an instant record. The process went on for three hours every Sunday, thanks to the equally-great “Stretch Armstrong Show” that followed “Future Flavas.” Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito’s two-hour serving of exclusives was where I first heard Eminem (in the form of “I Just Don’t Give A Fuck”), as well as records by soon-to-be-personal-favorites such as Screwball, Dilated Peoples and Company Flow. By the 1 a.m. mark, I was exhausted, yet beaming from all the quality hip-hop. Monday mornings, on the other hand, were Hell on earth. (How fitting, then, that my first listen of Mobb Deep’s “Drop a Gem on ‘Em” was orchestrated by Sir Armstrong)
On any given Sunday, I could’ve filled up an entire 80-minute blank cassette, sides A and B consumed. The goodness continued on through the week as I’d chop and screw what I’d taped as if I was some low-rent, suburban Ron G. Totally pro bono, I’d then distribute my Maxell-packaged “mixtapes” throughout my Bergen County, New Jersey, Catholic high school. Proof that hip-hop truly was, and still is, worldwide.
There’s a point to this one-way trip down memory lane. I’ve been on the XXL team for nearly two months now, and since day one I’ve repeatedly asked myself, “What does hip-hop mean to me?” The complete answer deserves more than one blog, so I then started trimming the response down to a simple, “What’s my most personal memory of hip-hop?” Without a doubt, it’s those nights as a youngster when Marley Marl, Pete Rock, Bobbito and Stretch Armstrong introduced me to the latest and greatest in hip-hop. Shit that I’d otherwise not hear or ever knew existed. Later this week, I’ll dig some underappreciated albums out of the dirt to give the discs their just due—all of which I first caught wind of thanks to those childhood days when I couldn’t live without my radio.
It’s your turn now. Do you have a hip-hop-specific memory that’s totally your own? Or at least feels totally personal? I apologize for the stuffiness of this topic, by the way. It’s never a bad thing to momentarily bypass the jokes and shocks, though, right? If I’m wrong, then let me know. I’ll gladly turn the sarcasm back on. —Matt Barone