This is Part 2 of a 10-part series. To view Part 1 about Michael Jackson’s Thriller, click here.
When I left off last time I was just a 7-year-old boy with a boombox waiting to hear Casey Kasem play Michael Jackson. As time passed I started finding other music to listen to. I loved Prince. Somehow even at eight years old I knew that freaky little naked dude in the “When Doves Cry” video was the baddest cat on the planet. Plenty more on him in a later post. I’ve mentioned this story before on the blog, but at some point my brother got his hands on a 1999 album (I think my parents bought it for him at Prange Way) and he immediately gave it back to them knowing that it was something he shouldn’t have. He was right. I think he was 10 years old at the time. My brother, Andy, was certainly different than my son, Andy, at the same age. If I played “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” for my 11-year-old son now I think it’d be the greatest day of his life. I’m already digressing. More about Prince at a later date.
I would describe my musical taste in the mid-80s as “whatever was popular on the radio.” I didn’t really have a musical taste of my own. I dug MJ, Prince, and Duran Duran. At some point bands like Simple Minds, Hall & Oates, Mr. Mister, and U2 were in rotation, but I did not feel the same about them as I did Michael. Rock music at the time just wasn’t doing anything for me. R&B at the time was more like adult contemporary with people like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker making albums that were not geared toward kids. Whitney Houston blew up, but when you think about her debut album the popular songs were a ballad about the children and another ballad about being some married dude’s sidepiece. Also not hitting the mark for this 9-year-old.
There’s a critical element about my life and development as a fan of music that I’ve left out so far: We did not have cable. That meant no MTV. The only time I got to see music videos was once a week when my boy Casey Kasem hosted America’s Top 10 on Saturday mornings, or trips to my grandma’s house where we’d spend hours sitting in Uncle Bill’s room mesmerized by videos on his amazing cable television. Quick tangent: One morning while watching the top 10 videos of the week Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” threw my dad in to another fit. It inspired him to give me the birds and bees talk WAY too early. He must’ve been under the impression I actually knew what the word “virgin” meant. She was just some chick writhing around on the ground as far as I knew. I feel like there was a gondola involved in that video as well. Am I wrong? Was she in Venice or something. Whatever. She could’ve been singing about the nastiest shit ever. It all went over my little head. I’d already been listening to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” for at least a year and believed that he was indeed singing about a red automobile. I was clueless until I got educated that morning. “Charlie, do you know what a vagina is?” Umm…fuck no. I’m seven. I still play with Cabbage Patch Kids for God’s sake.
Anyway, with limited access to MTV and our pop radio station being mostly white with the occasional foray in to MJ, Prince, and Whitney, I had no idea that the music I’d been waiting to hear had been forming for years in New York City. I got a brief taste of Run-DMC on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” remake and thought they were cool. I recall a huge deal being made of their appearance on Saturday Night Live but I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The Beastie Boys showed up in 1986 with “Fight For Your Right” but it didn’t strike me as anything different than what I was already hearing. If you give it a close listen, “Fight For Your Right” should not be categorized as rap music. It’s a rock song with some frat boys screaming about partying. I’m not disrespecting Beastie Boys because I love them and their music. I’ve always felt Licensed to Ill was overrated and definitely was not my formal introduction to hip hop. I didn’t hear the album cuts until years later. Just “Fight For Your Right” and I wasn’t impressed.
Janet Jackson released Control in ’86 and it was the first youthful sounding R&B that I had ever heard. It featured Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s production, but still wasn’t close enough to a rap album for me to feel like I was being introduced to a new genre. She was singing, not rapping. In mid-1988 I was 12 years old and going in to junior high when I heard “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for the first time. It was EASILY the coolest thing I’d ever heard. No comparison. Nothing I listened to up to that point mattered. Not MJ or Duran Duran. Certainly not the stuff that was dominating WIXX at the time like hair bands and Whitney Houston. THIS was my music.
I’m aware now that “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was soft. Bubblegum rap. A dude rapping about riding around in his parents’ brand new Porsche while Rakim was diggin’ in his pockets and coming up with lint. Call it what you want. I didn’t know it at the time and sure as hell didn’t care. JJ+FP was everything to me. I remember standing in Shopko begging my mom to buy me that tape and she finally broke down. I found out in a hurry that “Parents” was actually one of the weaker songs on the album. “Nightmare on My Street” was similar. Fun pop music, but not really representative of everything else on that album. “Brand New Funk” was the jam. “Pump Up the Bass” was another banger. My personal favorite was the title track hidden deep on Side B amid a bunch of songs that featured Jazzy Jeff’s DJ skills and very little rapping. Six minutes and ten seconds of DJ Jazzy Jeff scratching and the Fresh Prince delivering a scorching two-and-a-half minute verse with no hook. THAT was the shit. In my mind it was impossible to be cooler than Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince at that time.
He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper opened the flood gates. It didn’t take long for people like Young MC and Tone Loc to make their way to pop radio. Around that time I started going to band camp as well and hanging out with kids from Milwaukee every summer. Yeah, I said band camp. Laugh all you want. Band camp was my favorite week of the year. Living in the dorms for a week, playing music, listening to hip hop, and chasing girls from other schools? I can’t find a reason to mock that. It was the best. I soon discovered from my Milwaukee/Waukesha friends at band camp that there were rappers out there that weren’t getting play on WIXX. LL Cool J. Kool Moe Dee. Eric B. and Rakim. BDP. Public Enemy. NWA. Yeah…NWA. The same kid who was getting yelled at by his dad for some tame John Cougar shit a few years earlier was having his entire world turned upside down by Straight Outta Compton. It was an education for this small town kid.
But it all started with He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. To this day I am unreasonably defensive about Will Smith the rapper. I know he’s not the greatest MC of all time and that late-90s gettin’ jiggy shit was pretty corny, but if you try to tell me he’s wack I’m gonna call you ignorant because you’ve clearly never heard “Summertime” or “Brand New Funk”…or 2004’s “Switch” for that matter. I loved my fair share of wack MCs in my formative years and I have no problem admitting it, but the Fresh Prince is not one of them. I’m even more defensive about Jeff Townes, a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff. It pisses me off when people treat him like a punchline. If there’s a Mount Rushmore for hip hop DJs Jeff is on it. They introduced me to hip hop and I still love them for it.
Now that I’m 12 years old and have found a home with hip hop, what’s next? You’ll have to wait for the third installment.