I recently had a birthday party. My first in at least a decade. Maybe two. Since I’m older than 30, and people older than 30 almost never have birthday parties on their actual birthdays, it didn’t fall on my actual birthday. My fiancee's and my birthday are nine days apart, so we decided to split the difference and have a joint party. Which at first sounded about as fun as a joint endoscopy but turned out to be actually fun.
Towards the end of the night, after most people had already left, a high school buddy and I were sitting on my couch, listening to Spotify, when Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)” came on. Although we were both tired (it was after 3 AM, and we’re old) and drunk, the song immediately perked us up, and we violently nodded our heads in sync to its iconic intro.
"To all the killers and the hundred dollar billers..."
"...for real niggas who aint got no feelings."
After clumsily (but earnestly) rapping Prodigy’s entire first verse along with him, we settled back down, allowing the visceral impact of the hook to jog our memories about that era in rap. We grew up on Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang and Capone and Noreaga and Biggie and Nas and Clue mixtapes and Canibus freestyles. And while I won’t say that era was better than any other era (it was, but I won't say that now because it's besides the point), our memories of it transcend sheer nostalgia. That four year, 1994 to 1998 span—years that overlapped with us entering high school—made us life-long fans of rap music. My appreciation for Kendrick Lamar and Rick Ross and Drake today is due to a connection to music made 20 years ago.
The day after the birthday party, I took my fiancee’s nephew ("Derek") to the YMCA to play basketball. He’s 12. On the way to pick him up, I listened to Fabolous’s Soul Mixtape. Usually, when anyone much younger (nephews, nieces, etc) or older (parents, aunts, uncles, etc) gets into the car with me, I’ll listen to the radio. That day, though, I forgot to make the switch. And, as soon Derek got into the car, a very aggressive chorus of "fucks" came through the speakers. Embarrassed, I quickly turned the music down, and we started talking about Kemba Walker and left-handed layups.
When I was a child, we’d listen to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and Miles Davis and other artists he grew up on. People who grew up on rap—specifically, the ultra vivid and ultra violent rap music from "my" era—will not have that luxury.
I know I’m not the first person to recognize the unique dynamic of being a rap fan. Well, unique in comparison to other popular genres. When my dad would drive me to school and basketball games when I was a child, he'd play Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and Miles Davis and other artists he grew up on. People who grew up on rap—specifically, the ultra-vivid and ultra-violent rap music from "my" era—will not have the same luxury. I can’t image a parent (well, a responsible parent) breaking down “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” the same way my dad broke down "Trouble Man" to me. While not embarrassed (at all) that I’m a fan, part of being a responsible rap fan is acknowledging and understanding that some of the music can be embarrassing if heard around people who don’t happen to be your peers.
Something else recently dawned on me, though. Something that adds another layer to the cognitive dissonance needed to be a fan of a certain type of rap music. The first rap album I owned was LL Cool J’s I’m Bad. But, I didn’t become a "hip-hop head" until maybe 1995, when Raekwon and Mobb Deep and Biggie and Big L dominated the airwaves and the homeroom conversations. And, while I know a part of me appreciated and admired their creativity and lyrical dexterity, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this anti-social and nihilistic music most resonated with me when I was a teen—the time when I was the most anti-social and nihilistic. Although I wasn’t outwardly rebellious, the music connected to the latent rebellious spirit that I, like most other teens, possessed in spades.
Considering the content found in most popular rap—and most rap I currently listen to—I doubt I’d be a fan if I was first introduced to it as an adult in 2013 instead of a teen in 1993. Maybe I’d appreciate The Roots and other acts with more conspicuous connections to jazz and/or R&B. But, I’d likely find most of the rest to be noisy, vulgar, and embarrassingly misogynistic. Basically, I’d be my dad.
I don’t know if this is a "good" or "bad" thing. Perhaps it’s just a thing. Rap may be the most prominent example, but from Egg McMuffins to Ironman there are a bevy of things I can also name where my adult appreciation of them is largely due to a juvenile connection. And, while my words may suggest otherwise, this adult appreciation of rap music is very real and very healthy. All of my favorite albums in 2013 were rap albums; all of my favorite working musicians are rappers.
Yet, as my man and I rapped the chorus to "Shook Ones Part 2" on the night of my not-birthday birthday party…
"...Living the life that of diamonds and guns
There's numerous ways you can choose to earn funds
Some get shot, locked down and turn nuns
Cowardly hearts and straight up shook ones, shook ones…"
...something felt a little off. Maybe the alcohol-induced fatigue messed up my rhythm. Maybe I was too distracted by the knowledge that I’d have to spend the next morning putting away food and cleaning up party residue.
And, well, maybe I’m just getting old.
Pittsburgh-native Damon Young writes about things. And, @verysmartbros, he (occasionally) tweets about things too.
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