Hip-Hop's Daisy Age

I was a chubby kid in West Baltimore. Crack addled the streets; De La refused to scowl. How the summer of '88 became my generation's greatest.

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Book Excerpt

Editor's Note:

This summer marks 20 years from what is considered by many to be hip-hop's Golden Age, a tumultous period in urban life that fueled an explosion in black cultural nationalism in cities across the U.S. The following essay is adapted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood , Spiegel & Grau (2008). A memoir, the book explores the writer's coming of age in the shadow of a charismatic older brother and a father who was a former Black Panther and rebel book publisher.

My older brother, Big Bill was a disciple of the Golden Years—a kid who knew the difference between Jock Box and the original DMX, a kid who could speak on the wonder of Jazzy Jeff pulling transformers and bird-songs from black vinyl. In those days, to be a black boy was to beg your parents for a set of Technic 1200s turntables and an MPC sampler. Failing that, it meant banging on lunch tables and beat-boxing until you could rock the Sanford & Son theme song and play.

Deep in the basement of West Baltimore, Bill stood in his homeboy 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 come home 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 greatest season of my generation.

I was so much softer then, all chubby and smiling. My skin was clear and brown. My eyes were wide like my name. My style-less haircut was the handiwork of my father, my widow's peak crawled out like a spy. Amidst the tangle and chaos of West Baltimore, I was a blue-jay. Rapacious jaguars clocked my every move. I spent my first year of middle school catching beatdowns and shrinking under the patent leather Jordans of live niggers out to make their manhood manifest. It was not my time. I was all X-Men, polyhedral dice, and Greek myths. Bill was of a different piece. He was tall and smooth as Kane touching "All Night Long." He pulled shorties with all the effort of a long yawn, and, like so many, believed that he would make a living off his jumper. He spent loose-time out on the block laced in puff-leather, Diadora and Lottoes, packing a tool and clutching his nuts. When bored, he gathered his crew and brought the ruckus, snatching bus tickets, and issuing beatdowns at random. They gave no reason. They published no manifestos. This was how they got down. This was the ritual.

We were united by the blood of our gorgon father, who was, all at once, a North Philly refugee, retired Black Panther, Vietnam vet, rebel publisher, and progenitor of seven children by four women—some born in the same year, some born to best friends. He drew lessons from all of these lives, and from his perch, high above our small world, he dispensed his bizarre edicts. He outlawed eating on Thanksgiving, under pain of lecture. He disavowed air conditioning, VCRs, and Atari. He made us cut the grass with a hand-powered mower. In the morning he'd play NPR and solicit our opinions, just to contravene and debate. Once, over a series of days, he did the math on Tarzan and the Lone Ranger until, at six, I saw the dull taint of colonial power.

 

Wonder Years. Our father was a black nationalist Vietnam vet who outlawed eating on Thanksgiving and disavowed air conditioning, VCRs, and Atari.

On our life-map, he drew a bright circle around 12-18. This was the abyss where unguided, black boys were swallowed whole, only to re-emerge on corners and prison tiers. But Dad was raising soldiers for all terrain. He preached awareness, discipline, and confidence. He went upside heads for shirking chores, for reaching across the table for the hushpuppies, for knocking over a pitcher of juice. His technique was random—you might get away with a sermon on the virtues of Booker T., or a woman he left behind in Vietnam. Or you might catch the swinging black leather belt.

We took comfort in the rebel music that was pumped into the city from up North. Hip-Hop was the rumble of our generation, unveiling all our wants, fears, and disaffections. But as the fabled year of '88 came upon us, we saw something more in the music, a deeper thing that interrogated our random lives and made us self-aware. We needed 1988, like the mariners of old needed the North Star. I needed a text for understanding my present crack-addled world; Bill needed some conception of a future.

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