Straight Outta Kyiv

How hip-hop became my life.


When I first moved to the U.S. in August 1992 at age 11, I had no idea what hip-hop was other than the caricature playing on the TV set in my grandparents' living room in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Come to think of it, what I knew probably amounted to neither hip nor hop, much less hip-hop. Growing up of Jewish stock in an ethnically cohesive country during the Communist era, I could never have known that one day I would be in a place called Los Angeles. I could never have known that my young days running the streets with a crowd my parents dismissed as "riff-raff," would actually lead me to make something of myself.

Over the years I've struggled to find my place in hip-hop culture, especially as I went to college and learned about how black music had been historically exploited by the whites in power. Ironically, while I became aware, I was being socialized as a black man in Los Angeles. The more I started getting involved in the culture – the baggy jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap turned backwards – the more strangers would look at my facial features and assume I was partly African-American. This helped in the assimilation process, but I knew better than to misrepresent myself.

This constant questioning of my surroundings led me to pursue a career in mainstream journalism, but I didn't leave hip-hop far behind. Doing that would've meant leaving behind the legacy of a person who inspired my journalism. That person was Eric Grant, one of my best friends at Downtown Business Magnet High. Back then, Eric would always have the new music. When he brought in Nas' It Was Written album in 1996, I began to appreciate rap as an art.

On that album, Nas fused literature, poetry, jazz and blues to paint a picture of his surroundings. It resonated with me because it was different than the braggadocio or gangsta rap that I heard previously. I enjoyed reading growing up, especially science fiction and classics. I was pulled into It Was Written because it pulled on to the knowledge of Islam and "science" of the Five Percent Nation.

When an English class assignment called on us to recite poetry, I suggested to Eric that "I Gave You Power," a song on It Was Written that finds Nas personifying a gun, would be a good one to consider, since it contained many elements of poetry that we learned about in class. Our teacher agreed and Eric decided to use Tupac's verses from "Dear Mama." We both earned an "A" for our performance.

I still wasn't totally convinced hip-hop/rap was more than entertainment. But, I must've taken something away when I transferred to Palisades High School and for another English class, wrote an essay on Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask." Composing that at the Beverly Hills Public Library – I lived in West Hollywood at the time, like all recent immigrants from the Soviet Union – I drew on what I gleaned from It Was Written. I consider that essay my first time being published, because in addition to getting an "A," the teacher made copies for her other classes.

Unfortunately, Eric and I didn't keep in touch when I transferred schools. I dabbled with writing raps through high school but put that aside when I went to college at Cal State Northridge as a journalism major. Still, even then hip-hop wasn't far behind, because I ran into old classmates from Downtown Business Magnet who told me that Eric was elected president of the Class of 1999. They also shared the sad news that Eric was murdered in 2000 in Gardena, the city where he grew up.

In March, the eighth anniversary of Eric's death, I planned to force myself to visit his grave to pay my respects. But I got an assignment from The Source to write a profile of a rising L.A. rapper. Without Eric's influence, I doubt I would ever be in that position.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make it to his grave, but Eric's death haunts me every day. Though, mostly his memory inspires me and gives purpose to my writing about beats and rhymes.