I grew up on rap music. Which can be an ugly and dangerous way to grow up. Especially for an unavoidably middle class kid with a lot of identity issues. In fact let me stop being glib – that shit ruined me as a human being. At least between the ages of twelve and eighteen (sorry Mom!).
But on the upside, I have some really priceless memories of listening to New York rap records in their exact intended context: the city of their origin, during the exact moment in time they will forever reflect, either sitting around rolling shitty teenager weed with my friends or staring bleary-eyed out the window of some elevated subway car.
Here’s a reason why that’s important:
The story of hip-hop is largely being written (in the most literal sense of the word) by English majors who grew up in the suburbs. You can frown at your computer screen all you want but it’s fucking true. (Author’s note: I have no quantitative analysis to verify this, but seriously it’s fucking true. You feel free to do the quant.)
Here’s another thing:
That’s mostly OK! There are tons of really good hip-hop journalists that did not grow up in the cities that spawned the music they cover. There has been a thrilling influx of old-fashioned intellectualism in the field.
But something is missing: the thrill of physical context. We pretty much exclusively discover new music these days through the Internet. The latest generation’s idea of “being there” is witnessing a Twitter explosion in real-time. We do not ditch school early to go to HMV with our friends and then run to the nearest free apartment to put a CD in a boom box amidst the sights and smells of the city that birthed the record. And because of that, there are some records that belong in the canon of NYC rap greatness that the suburban hip-hop press just won’t get, because they weren’t there.
But I will, because I was. And each of them spoke to me and my friends and all the knucklehead teenagers in New York City in a particular way because they reflected everything around us.
Here are a few you should know (and if you don’t like ‘em fuck off – you had to be there):
The Carnival – Wyclef Jean (1997)
Everyone wants to talk about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I get it. Unbelievable album. But the first Fugees solo effort came from this guy, before he was a reprehensible charity thief. And it was so, so good. Nine-year-old Jon memorized every word of Spanish in “Guantanamera” and every word of Creole in “Sang Fézi” and still somehow only speaks one language today.
Ghetto Fabolous – Fabolous (2001)
I’ll never forget the day Ghetto Fabolous hit stores. It was the same day that Jay-Z’s magnum opus The Blueprint hit stores. It was also 9/11. As such, my long awaited afterschool trip to the East 86th St. Sam Goody was delayed. But we went the next day, and in the time of madness and fear that followed the attacks these two albums gave my friends and I something beautiful to hold on to. Ghetto Fabolous brought my mind to another world of gorgeous and accessible women and cleverly managed grown-up feelings, a world that for a thirteen-year-old felt like it could just maybe be right around the corner, and a world far better than the emotional wreckage around us.
Special Delivery – G. Dep (2001)
In 2014 G. Dep is a sad joke. A career PCP addict with gnawing guilt related to a murder he committed as a teenager, he turned himself in four years ago and is now serving a long prison sentence. But in 2001 he, Black Rob and Shyne were the future of Bad Boy – the jiggiest group of New York rappers around, the guys who made my surrounding area of Harlem seem like the epicenter “hustling” and all its rewards. Child of the Ghetto is a multidimensional classic, and “Special Delivery” and “Let’s Get It” were the musical distillation of everything a wide-eyed urban youth thought was ‘cool’ at thirteen.
A Gangster and a Gentleman – Styles P (2002)
This album set a personal record for “most consecutive time spent in discman.” A Gangster and a Gentleman soundtracked pretty much my entire second half of 2002 – the year I pretty much entirely forgot how to behave. It imbued me and my friends with a skewed sense of criminally minded chivalry, as Styles managed to make drug dealing and death threats sound like a damn near noble pursuit.
Diplomatic Immunity – The Diplomats (2003)
The Hip-Hop Writers of the Internet have an obsession with eccentric Diplomat king Cam’ron, so this double album does get quite a bit of due. But if you weren’t there, in uptown Manhattan, when it came out, you’ll never quite understand what this album meant. Because it meant EVERYTHING. FUCKING EVERYTHING. G-Unit captured the national stage but Dipset created an entire lifestyle out of fierce (and somehow communal) individualism. And sped-up soul samples. And pink shirts. I remember, with extreme clarity, riding in a taxi through the 96th St. Central Park transverse on a sunny afternoon, listening to Hot97 as Cam’ron told Angie Martinez he was unveiling a new group called “The Harlem Diplomats.” I thought it sounded weird and dumb. Then he unveiled “Oh Boy.” Shortly after I was wearing a 2XL pink tall tee and pining for the day when I could tell girls “I’m eighteen but I’ve lived a crazy life.”