I originally posted this on the site five months ago, but I did some house cleaning on the blog and had to re-post it. Please excuse any dated references.
My buddy Tyson texted me last weekend and suggested I tell the story of how we used to find hip hop music when we were in high school. I feel like I’ve written on that topic before, but it’s worth telling again in greater detail. I hope someday my kids will see it and think, “Oh my God, my dad is so old!” It’s pretty crazy to think this was only 25 years ago when you consider how different it is finding and purchasing music now than it was in the 80’s and early-90’s. I might as well tell them a tale about how I had to shear the sheep so I could make blankets to stay warm in the winter. For the record, that never happened.
I grew up in a town called Pulaski, about 15 miles northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the time Pulaski only had about 2,000 people. Green Bay isn’t exactly Gotham City either. I’m pretty sure the only reason anybody outside of Wisconsin has heard of it is because we have the unique privilege of owning an NFL franchise. You can fit nearly every citizen of Green Bay inside the football stadium…blah, blah, blah. If you’re an NFL fan you’ve probably heard it more times than you care to remember.
As a kid who loved music in the 80’s you had two options: You tuned your radio to 101.1 WIXX or 105.7 WAPL. WAPL was, and probably still is (as far as I know), known as “The Rockin’ Apple.” It’s a current/classic rock station based out of Appleton (thus, the Apple). If you wanted hits/Top 40 stuff you listened to WIXX, which is where I spent all of my time.
There were very few, if any, black people in Green Bay. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you saw a black person here at that time it was most likely Johnnie Gray. The music on our local radio stations reflected that. As a kid, the only current black musicians that existed as far as I knew were Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston. You were not going to find much R&B, and rap was non-existent. Literally. I didn’t know the art form existed. When “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith and Run DMC came out I had never heard anything like it, but I liked it. When “Fight For Your Right” by Beastie Boys came out, it honestly just sounded like a bunch of screaming white boys to me. I didn’t realize I was being introduced to a different genre of music. By the way, “screaming white boys” is a criminal miscategorization of Beastie Boys. But, based on that one song, I think it’s accurate.
In 1988 DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” infiltrated WIXX. It took until I was 12 years old before I was introduced to actual rap music that wasn’t infused with electric guitars. Yes, it’s Will Smith and he’s rapping about being picked on for wearing funny clothes at school and joyriding in his parents’ “brand new Porsche” so it’s not the hardest of hip hop, but it was hip hop nonetheless. I don’t care if you think JJ+FP are soft. DJ Jazzy Jeff is one of the greatest hip hop DJ’s who ever lived (and is still making cool music, by the way) and Fresh Prince was a great storyteller and MC. On this I will not budge. They introduced me to rap music, I still love them and will be forever grateful. My mom bought me the He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper cassette and I was hooked.
Not long after, other hip hop and R&B music started trickling in. Tone Loc, Young MC, Bobby Brown, MC Hammer. I loved all of them at some point. Then I went to band camp one year (yes, I went to band camp, mother fucker) and befriended a kid from Milwaukee. It was there that I was introduced to Kool Moe Dee, LL Cool J, and NWA. I’m talking about the old school, pre-Mama Said Knock You Out Cool J. Radio. I’m Bad. Going Back to Cali. Also, NWA was like learning about a whole new world for this kid. I felt like Magellan, except instead of finding the Spice Islands I was finding Compton.
Now I really had a problem. There was music out there that existed that I loved, but there was absolutely no way for me to listen to it. There was no “urban” radio in Green Bay. We didn’t get The Box or BET here, and even if we did, my parents didn’t have cable. I’d see the occasional Yo! MTV Raps episode, but they weren’t playing much outside of the Top 40 stuff we were getting on Green Bay radio. Green Bay newsstands didn’t carry Word Up or The Source. Vibe and XXL weren’t around yet. Most importantly, neither was the Internet. It’s a problem my kids with their fancy Apple Music and Pandora could never fathom, thank God.
By the time I got to high school I had found my kindred spirits. My friends Tyson and Tews were also in the same situation, and we ended up finding what we needed at Port Plaza Mall. Port Plaza had Musicland and Sam Goody, and both of those places had cassette singles. Cassette singles were 1991’s version of buying a song from iTunes. Sometimes singles were $2 or $3, but you could always find some for just $1. The $10-$12 cost to purchase a full cassette or CD of music I’ve never heard was way too much at that time. My parents would drop us off at the mall and give me a couple bucks for lunch. I’d buy two soft shell tacos at T Bell for a buck and spend the rest on cassette singles. We had to buy our music based strictly on the way it looked. I don’t know where I’d put our batting average, but I’d say we were close to .300. If you bought three singles and got one winner it was a good day. We discovered a lot of good new music that way that we would’ve never heard otherwise. The one that stands out to me was discovering Outkast because Tyson bought the “Southernplayalistcadillacmuzik” single years before Outkast became known around these parts.
Once we were old enough to drive life got even easier because Tyson and Tews had cars. CD singles were more prevalent, but cassette singles were still cheaper and they had cassette decks in their cars, so we stuck with tapes. Plus, my dad certainly would not approve of the explicit nature of the music I was listening to. One of my cousins found a 2Pac CD once and when my dad angrily questioned me I panicked and said it was Tews’s. That led to Tews getting a stern lecture from my dad about his music and me giving him the CD out of guilt. When I apologized to him I’m pretty sure his response was, “You know I don’t give a fuck.”
Tyson’s Chevette and Tews’s Ford Tempo became sanctuaries for good hip hop. We also had summer jobs and a few bucks in our pockets, so there was more room for experimentation. If we hated a song we got we’d protest by throwing the tape out the window. If you were an Adopt-a-Highway volunteer and you found cassette tapes lying along the westbound lanes of Highway 29 in the early-90’s, I sincerely apologize.
I also had a brother in college. I’ll never forget the day he came home with the CD’s Check Your Head and Low End Theory and said, “You’ve gotta hear these.” He was right. I discovered 2Pac on a trip to visit my brother at Northern Michigan. I went to a CD store there and bought it because “this looks like the guy from Juice.” Spoiler alert: it was! Two years later he was the biggest name in hip hop.
By the time I got to college there was one other way to get cheap music (or so we thought): Columbia House. It was a mail-order CD club. They always had some kind of insane deal where you could buy 10 CD’s for a penny, then as long as you bought two more CD’s at full price within the next 24 months you could quit and keep the free CD’s. What we didn’t know was how many times you’d accidentally end up paying $25 for a CD you didn’t want because you forgot to reject their monthly club CD that they’d automatically charge you for and send. It was also near-impossible to quit. It took a lot of discipline to come out ahead financially in the Columbia House scam. Discipline they knew I didn’t have. If you joined Columbia House you were going to pay for those 10 CD’s and you were going to end up paying a lot for a pile of music you didn’t want. Still…TEN CD’S FOR A PENNY! The lure of it was too hard to resist.
One of our ill-advised forays in to Columbia House led to us choosing a CD called Do You Want More?!!!??! by a band called The Roots. I had never heard of them, but the picture looked cool and who cares anyway? Ten for a penny! 25 years, countless albums, seven concerts, three bass players, and two late night TV shows later, The Roots are still my favorite band. I guess Columbia House wasn’t such a rip off. I ended up paying $25 each for some Hootie & The Blowfish and Shania Twain CD’s I didn’t want, but it helped me discover my favorite band long before I would have otherwise. Thanks, I guess?
I would’ve fallen in love with them eventually anyway, but I’m proud to say I got in near the ground floor. I was listening to “Distortion to Static” 15 years before Late Night introduced Questlove and Black Thought to the mainstream. I knew they were the best, most versatile band on Earth long before they got a chance to prove it on a nightly basis. I could continue about my love for The Roots (and likely will at some point) but I’m actually here to praise a track that was buried in the middle of 2004’s album The Tipping Point. From what I can tell, their most critically panned album. It’s not my favorite Roots album, but a 5.4 on Pitchfork? Seriously, fuck you, Pitchfork. If I want people to tell me how much my favorite music sucks I’ll go back to high school.
I’m here to praise a song called “Web”. The sixth track from The Tipping Point. “Web” is everything I used to love about hip hop: A dope beat and a skilled MC talking shit. That’s all I want or need. Yes, I love a lot of other music and a lot of other hip hop, but at the end of the day give me those two things and I’m happy. The Roots stripped everything away and gave us a killer breakbeat and a dope verse. It should be a crime to single out a Roots song that appears to be 100% built off a sample, but damn. They just let Black Thought get his on this one. Questlove probably never spent less time on a Roots track than he did here. Just press play on that beat and let Tariq* go off. No hook. No singing. Barely a bass line. Just a lone note on the one.
* Is it Tariq or Tarik? I’ve seen both. I pride myself on spelling and it’s disrespectful to spell a name wrong, so which is it? It can’t be both.
One more thing about “Web”. For me to say it’s just a skilled MC talking shit is underselling it. This is Black Thought. Tariq Trotter.
No hyperbole. He’s the greatest MC of all time. If you’ve ever seen him live, you know I’m right. He’s not just talking some nonsense about “wave your hands in the air” on this track. He’s “getting more chips than a corner store.” He’s got a “portrait of Malcolm X on the door while he’s eating MC’s like a carnivore.” He rhymes Patti LaBelle with mademoiselle. He’s the greatest, and it shouldn’t have taken ten minutes with Funkmaster Flex for you to realize it.
Hold tight, cuz it’s not over yet. I don’t even feel like I’m not sober yet.
Go out and buy some Roots records and give them a listen beyond what you’ve heard on Jimmy Fallon. If you get a chance, go see them in concert. They don’t tour 280 days a year like they used to, but they’re still doing shows when they’re on a break from the Tonight Show. They’ve put out more great music in the last two decades than anyone. Real musicians who have been perfecting their craft playing hip hop. There’s nobody like them. And they showed up in my mail one day 25 years ago amidst nine other CD’s I don’t even remember. Never tell me “music today sucks.” You don’t know what it’s like to have to work for it. It’s out there. You just have to dig…and you might end up having to throw some of it out on the side of Highway 29.