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.
And so the new time came upon us with the death of the Grand Incredible and the conversion of KRS to the sentinel pose of Malik Shabazz. That year, all our boomboxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy. Before then, the music was escapist and fun— some beats and the dozens, fat chains and gilded belt-buckles. But Chuck D pulled us back into the real. Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so grating—drums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off-beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere.
His style was baffling, but within it we beheld a recovered collective memory. The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out each other's eyes. We were all—even me—so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. Dad tried to explain The Fall, but he was an elder and full with his own agenda. Chuck was one of us, and once we got it, we understood that he spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time. He took us back to '66, showed us Hoover and his array of phone taps, the grafted, with their drugs and guns like blankets for Indians. We fell, blinded, corrupted, consumed by Reagnomics, baseheads and black on black. But now was the hour of '88. Now was the time to reverse our debased years, to take over, grab our guns again and be men.
By then I had met the great lion, Afeni Shakur, most famous of the Panther 21. She'd moved to Baltimore some years earlier, and among the Conscious she was legend. Afeni was an old comrade of my father's, but when the Panthers went to war with each other, they came down on different sides. They had comrades who'd killed their comrades, but still, all through another decade the human touch pulled them back together.
I had heard the tales, and measured against the everyday sameness of my father, Afeni was large. But what struck me was that the legend was human—that she smiled when she saw me, cooked spaghetti, and found my baby brother amusing. Her son and daughter spent time among us. Bill and Tupac traded lyrics. I took Sekiywa to see Snow White. But even then their clan was glamorous, and of that final faction that held out a Marxist hope of the empire's ruin.
Here is how it all came together: Bill, Sekyiwa, all of us, we knew who we were, in the rote manner of knowing where two streets intersect. But anything more than that, a feeling for why any kid would grab a black beret, guns and law books, was only partially there. I was slowly coming to a dawning, and then one afternoon Sekyiwa and me sat on my bedroom floor pumping "Rebel Without A Pause"—Hard, my calling card/Recorded and ordered, supporter of Chesimard
Sekiywa looked up, "That's my aunt." Rather her aunt's slave name. But Sekyiwa only partially understood how the name Chesimard had come to Chuck D. The next day I went to my father for the story. The story was all of two sentences, and then Dad, reaching up to his bookshelf for the Knowledge Of Self. On the cover, her face was off-center. She wore an Afro, and glanced over her shoulder. On the cover was her name—Assata Shakur. I'd started down this path a few months earlier, burrowing through African Glory, a book my father republished. But now I truly became a seeker. This was not my father's story and then it was, for there, inside the tale of one Panther, was the story of them all. The cowboy impulse took me first, the thought that I, for all my awkward hands and crazy-glued glasses, was rebel blood, and that thought filled me with a stupid, childish pride. But all of us need myths. And here out West, where we all had lost religion, had taken to barbarian law, what would be our magic? What would be our sacred words?
In the summer of 1988, De La Soul ushered in the D.A.I.S.Y. age (Da Inner Sound, Y'all).
I took to Consciousness because there was nothing else, no other logic to counter death for suede, leather, and gold. My father bet his life on change. For the glory of ex-cons, abandoned mothers, and black boys lost, he had made peace with his end. I was a coward, mostly concerned with getting from one day to the next. How could I square my young life with this lineage? What would I say to the theology of my father, which held that the Conscious Act was worth more than sex, bread, or even drawn breath?
There were no answers in the broader body, where the best of us went out like Sammy Davis, and spoke like there had never been war. I will avoid the cartoons—the hardrocks loved Billy Ocean, Luther was classic, and indeed, I did sit in my 7th period music class eyeing Arletta Holly, and humming Lost In Emotion. But you must remember the era. Niggers were on MTV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadroons, big-upping Fred Astaire and speaking like the rest of us didn't exist. I'm talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Ritchie dancing on the ceiling. I'm talking the corporate pop of Whitney, Richard Pryor turning into the Toy. It was like Parliament had never happened, like James Brown had never hit. All our champions were disconnected and dishonored, handing out Image Awards, while we bled in the streets.
But now the word turned Conscious, De La refused to scowl, and Daddy-O shouted across the Atlantic gap. First, Chuck, then KRS, and then everywhere you looked MCs were reaching for Garvey's tri-color, shouting across the land, that self-destruction was at end, that the logic of white people's ice had failed us, that the day of awareness was now.
Across the land, the masses fell sway to the gospel. Old Panthers came out in camouflage to salute Chuck D. Cold killers would get a taste of "Black is Black," drop their guns and turn vegan. Brothers quoted Farrakhan with wine on their breath. Harlots performed salaat, covered their blonde french rolls in mudcloth and royal Kinte. Dark girls slashed their Appolonia posters, burned their green contacts, cut their hair, threw in braids. Gold was stashed in the top dresser. The fashion became your father's dashiki, beads, and Africa medallions.
Big Bill was touched by the transformation, trading the every-day struggle for The Struggle. The same music that pulled me out of my fog, left him reeling. Again and again he went back to the lab, reveled in mourning baselines, and crafted sweeping images of the great Satan's fall. They added Joey on the keyboard, changed the group's name to the Foundation, and switched their sound until it was holy and urging rebellion. I played his tapes along with all the others, and began to understand.
I was 12, but when I heard Lyrics of Fury—"A haunt if you want the style I posses/I bless the child, the Gods, the Earth, and bomb the rest"—I put away childish things, went to the pad, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed and put pen to pad.
Chuck D spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time.
My hand was awkward, and when I rhymed, the couplets would not adhere, punch lines crashed into bars, metaphors were extended until they derailed off beat. I was unfit, but still I had at it for days, months, and ultimately years. And the more ink I dribbled onto the page, the more I felt the blessing of the sacred order of MCs. I wrote everyday that summer, rhymed over B-sides instrumentals, until my pen was a Staff Of The Dreaded Streets, (plus five chances to banish fools on sight) and my flow, though flicted and disjointed, made my hands tingle.
I'd walk outside, and my head was just a little higher, because if you do this right, if you claim to be that nigger enough, though you battle only your bedroom mirror, there is a part of you that believes. That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I beheld the greatest lesson of 88, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.
I felt a light flowing through me. I awoke, excited, hungry to understand this immediate world, the black people around me, and how they—we—had all fallen to this. Now I knew Lemmel in a fuller sense, that it was troubled because all things worth anything ultimately are. That my world, though mired in disgrace, was more honorable than anything, was more beautiful than the exotic counties way up Reisterstown and Liberty Road. All the ghettos of the world, with their merchant vultures, wig stores, sidewalk sales, sub shops, fake gold, bastard boys, and wandering girls, were my only home. That was Knowledge and Consciousness joined, and when I grabbed the mic, that was the alchemy I brought forth. When I was done, I emerged taller, my voice was deeper, my arms were bigger, ancestors walked with me, and there in my hands, behold, Shango's glowing axe.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic.