“Hey Mom. Can I buy this album?” I asked at the young age of ten, while holding Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP. There was only one song I cared about, “Real Slim Shady.” I had never heard Eminem before this song, nor had I heard rap before, either. I clearly recall the first time I heard this song and fell in love with the craft and style of hip hop music.
“But it has a parental advisory sticker on it,” she said, a bit hesitantly. She had never heard Eminem, either.
“It’s alright mom. There’s only one song on here that I want and it’s not even bad. They play it on the radio all the time,” I plead, trying to convince her with any argument I could muster.
“Well, ok,” she said. My mission was accomplished.
Right away, after we got in the car, I tore open the album and threw the CD into the radio, found my song and turned to it. After listening to it two or three times I made the mistake of letting the album play the next song which was filled with a more than hefty dose of foul language, course content, and colorful details of mature matters that would make a sailor blush.
“Oh, hell no!” She exclaimed and proceeded to turn right back around and return the CD.
This was the first and only CD my mom ever returned when I was a kid. Although that experience was a rocky one, my fondness for hip hop continued to grow. There was a fair bit of rebelliousness to fight back against the authority figure that was my mother. Yet, there was something deeper that enraptured me. At first it was the fast paced, wildly catchy beats, and the mastery of language that touched on subject matters foreign to my simple suburban life. Still, the foreign world that was described in detail captured my attention better than any class, or hobby. It was where I found endless depths to plunge and satisfy my craving for something different, new, and edgy. Of course, I was too young to understand what most of the lyrics were talking about, but who cared? The beats were exhilarating, the lyrics captivating, and only the cool kids listened to this stuff.
As the years carried on, I continued my dive into hip-hop, further exploring its many facets, but without ever truly understanding. Yes, I could answer who the original founders were, where they were from and every other trivial fact, but I didn’t know the spirit of the music. How could I when I never experienced the things these artists rhymed about? At such a young age, I didn’t know any better. Hip hop satisfied the craving of my young soul to be immersed in all things tough. Like watching a war movie, or nonsensically working out with my shirt off. I didn’t understand, nor did I strive to. I had some whimsical idea that by listening to this music I was by default like them.
It was not until much later, after I got arrested, that I began to truly understand hip hop. In jail, I met a lot of guys who were aspiring rappers. They would write their lyrics late into the night under either the moonlight from outside, or the dorm lights from inside. Everyone with a breath in jail had a song that was decent. Some might have one that was really good. All of them shared a passion for music and all of them touched on a common theme familiar to us all. Having friends leave who once were close, having dirty cops mess with your case, dreams of one day making it big, hopes of one day getting out and living life to its fullest. All themes everyone in jail could understand and relate to.
There is a special memory I have while a pretrial detainee in Gwinnett County Jail. I would call it a blessing to have been housed in a dorm with some of the most skilled artists in the jail at the time: Ana(mosity), T.Y., Apollo, and Dirty. Ana had recently moved from Detroit and was one of the most skilled musicians I’ve ever met. He spoke with a heavy raspy voice that hid the fact that he had an incredible singing voice which he entwined with his lyrics. He was often referred to as a more street version of Drake. T.Y. was born in N.Y. and still carried that swag about him. He had one of the most diverse styles I came across and had the uncanny ability to keep a song going on time without a beat. His style reminded me of a young Method Man but with a deeper New York accent. Apollo was the local legend who, had he not been locked up, was well on his way to becoming an Atlanta celebrity. He was the most well known in the jail and probably the most quoted (quick side note, all of these men eventually stopped sharing new music because other people, who were getting out, were stealing lyrics, and these four could not copyright their music). Dirty was born and raised in Chicago and had a style as unforgettable as his personality. I have never seen someone who could create as masterful a beat with his hands, a pencil, and his mouth while simultaneously rhyming. Blew me away every time he did it. He could rhyme as fast as Twista, or keep it steady and dense like Talib Kweli.
These four individuals all put out hits. Not that I’m a professional, but if anyone with connections to the music industry heard any of these guys for even a minute, it would get them a record deal overnight. They all had their songs that they sang routinely in various dorms, and people were singing their songs like new radio hits. Every night all 146 of us in the dorm were witness to the confluence of talent these four possessed.
One evening, during our last period of free time, the four of them came together and started going back and forth, letting loose their best hits, their new works, and even a couple songs they were working on together. Slowly a group started to form. First it was their brothers who brought packs of tobacco, bombays, and coffee, then friends and interested listeners. Soon their little corner was packed, and not much later the whole rec yard was flooded with people bobbing their head, and bouncing up and down to the music. We all knew the lyrics, the highs, the lows, what the hooks were, and where they hit. With each song, you could feel the energy building.
“If I die tonight, don’t worry,
throw it up and do it big for me…”
“Why these n***** wanna lie on me
Is it cause I keep that fire on me?
My n***** switchin’ sides on me
They wanna testify on me….”
“Today I be Gucci
Next day I be Louis….”
The most electric moment of the night came during one of Ana’s songs. It was a song we all knew well and could relate to deeply, about a guy being turned on by his friend in a felony case, a situation very similar to Ana’s case and many others listening. The moment came in the song where, if there was a beat, it would drop. The crescendo of raw emotion expressed by everyone yelling out all at once “AHH!” Imagine the scene from the movie 300 when King Leonidis cried out to his soldiers “Spartans, what is your profession?!” and their response… that exhilarating power was what we felt.
That night ended with everyone high off the vibe, heads buzzing from the combination of caffeine, tobacco, and sugar without a care in the world. It’s not like we had work in the morning, anyway! Days like that were life rafts for our soul for a few weeks. We were all trying to escape something and music allowed us to. We could not buy radios or any other source for music to be played, so hearing it live was our only opportunity; it worked better than any headphones or stereo could.
I never understood hip-hop so intimately, or even music, for that matter. When I first heard these guys and their heartfelt lyrics, it was like they were talking about my struggle as well. They rhymed about what I was going through, what I was feeling and what my situation was, and it further captivated me. If music was the vehicle to escape then hip hop was the genre that spoke to those in the heart of the struggle. That struggle, which was the heartbeat of hip hop, I never knew until now.
The four artists kept writing their lyrics and singing their songs, keeping the spirit of all the listeners high and hopeful. Unfortunately, there was another distinction three of these men shared aside from being skilled lyricists, and that was being charged with murder. I did not know the intimate details of their case but they were all caught up in a bad situation. They were all looking at life sentences and none of the three seemed too optimistic about how their case was going. Whether it was because of, or in spite of their situation, they managed to create hits with beautifully crafted words that even the good ole’ boys could relate to and bob their heads to on occasion.
Still, to this day I find myself humming their songs and those of other skilled artists I met. It resonates with me deeper than any song before or after because these were songs I lived. Unfortunately, in time, the lyrics will slowly be forgotten and later, the melody. The feeling and the memory, however, will never die. Maybe a new song from some young artist will strike a note or use a hook that recalls these forgotten treasures. Hell, maybe these three men get out, sign a deal and never look back!
The three charged with murder received life sentences, and all three are currently on appeal (again, all through word of mouth). Dirty, the one who did not have a murder charge, has been cycling in and out of jail and prison both during and after I left. I know vague details of what happened in each case. I was good friends and/or roommates with each of them, and we were all in the same boat. I couldn’t help but reflect on the dichotomy of the situation. How these three men, charged with terrible crimes, could be the source of relief and hope to countless others. Men who, in the eyes of the majority of society, were cast into the category of undesirables, yet were seen by their peers as musical messiahs.
They will be remembered as individuals who helped unburden the crushing weight of everyone’s circumstances with music. Unfortunately, the songs of these men may be lost like some buried treasure on some desolate beach. I continue to listen to hip-hop in the hopes of one day finding that treasure, that lived experience through music, again.