By Kyle Cochrun
What we’re gonna do right here is go back, way back, back into time when I was a squirrelly dweeb with moppy blonde hair, age fourteen, on my first-ever trip to the record store. There I was studying a twelve-inch cover jacket, a colorful urban panorama drawn in wildstyle graffiti depicting cartoon figures resembling nimble breakdancers contorted between navy-blue skyscrapers and the words “Zero One” in beefy white bubble letters, all set against a buttery yellow backdrop like the flare of a thousand headlights. A face wearing oversized lenses glinting in the city lights looked up at me, urging me to buy this record. And I did.
Next morning, holed up in my unfinished basement, I slid the record out of the sleeve, placed it on the slipmat, and carefully set down the needle. For the first time, I heard the preemptive crackle of dead wax on the vinyl’s outer rim. Slabs of sunlight shone through the glass block windows onto piles of junk cluttering the outskirts of the concrete floor. The stylus dipped into the first groove. Propulsive electronic drums pumped out the miniature speaker boxes I’d borrowed from a neighborhood friend. The fast-paced rhythms, whining synthesizers, and primitive scratches of Mastermind Herbie colored a world where b-boy crews got down over electro jams spun by technical wizards catching wreck on the wheels of steel. My imagination exploded. Paul Hardcastle and Universal Funk’s Zero One exemplified the energy of hip-hop culture I was drawn to.
I reached out and stopped the record with my hand while the platter continued to spin. I moved it back and forth, forming basic baby scratches. I didn’t focus on a certain snare or kick or sound effect, just clumsily pulled the record backwards, then forwards, enthralled by the sounds I was making. The music folded in on itself; the percussion distended; hi-hats bled into low-frequency morass, then, propelled by my unsteady hand, transformed into taut clicks; a keyboard liquified, as if the tone was the surface of a puddle that my hand could shape into a ripple, then a swell, then a smooth plane. This mysterious force called hip-hop was now an obsession. I was doused in the essence of it all.
What’s the essence? For me, it’s Kool DJ Herc cruising the South Bronx in his white Cadillac, top down, mammoth rectangular speakers popping up to the polluted sky. It’s Run’s friend asking him to say some MC rhymes, which leads to Run scrunched in a classroom chair-desk, taking the test to become an MC, eventually under-handing the scribbled-to-all-hell paper into an aluminum trash can and spitting a freestyle to the proctor, Larry Smith, who, upon Run catching his breath, looks back at the members of Orange Krush, who’re chilling against the blackboard, and says, “D, for Def.” It’s Fab Five Freddy, rocking the fedora again, dragging on a cigarette on the set of TV Party, the technicolor splendor of Yo MTV Raps! suspended half a decade into the future, not even a fly in his perpetual sunshades. It’s those girls in Charlie Ahearn’s Wildstyle chatting behind the chain-link fence of the court where the Fantastic Freaks and Cold Crush Brothers are about to start a rap-battle-cum-basketball throwdown.
It’s James Brown.
The thing about fandom is you don’t have to be definitive. I aim to be distinctive, representing only my perspective. Not a historian, but a disciple of the boom-bap. Unless all historians are fans and all fans are historians in their own right, which is to say it’s impossible for myself or even the most unbiased, blisteringly factual, academic-style archivist to delineate between the essence of hip-hop from a panned-out textbook perspective and what it means, personally, to each of us who love the culture.
You collect all these sounds and styles that fad and fade into the burnt-out crabgrass and break back up through the pavement, then filter them through an MPC and boof! Everything is hip-hop. Just change out the lens, is all. I learned of so much seemingly-disparate music through hip-hop, as hip-hop. The multiplicity of the genre invites this, a sound (a movement, really) that mutates, reshapes itself into new flavors formed from old cells and continues to go by the same name, stretching its means and meaning. And yet hip-hop defines, for many, a youth subculture spawning overproduced pop spittle obsessed with violence, drugs, misogyny, and electronic sixteenth-note trap drums. And that’s not wrong, even for a movement that once boasted the motto of Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun. But it’s a misdirection, a lie through omission, a microscopic close-up of a splotch of paint splintering off a mural splashed on concrete in the midsummer heat sold as an establishing shot. Which I suppose is all we can do, each of us, to get at the truth of anything we love and why we love it.
For Christmas, my parents bought me the Numark Battle-Pak, a Happy Meal-quality starter DJ package consisting of two motor-drive turntables, a mixer, and a pair of headphones. At fourteen, my knowledge of hip-hop was limited to the soundtrack of NBA Street Vol. 2, a CD of A Tribe Called Quest’s greatest hits that a friend’s older brother never returned to the public library, and “Where It’s At” by Beck. If that doesn’t spell out White Boy, I’m not sure what does.
My buds around the way played N.W.A., preferring c-notes and shootouts to the blue-note jostle and Afrocentrism of Tribe. As teenage boys on a warpath only against the boredom of the comforts of our suburban environment, their lite fandom for pulp-mag raps probably made more sense than me devoting hours to subterranean scratch sessions and saturating my ears with music made by and for someone else. Except this wasn’t a phase. I felt that the slap crackle and snap of the snare drum, the rhymes about ill Adidas, beatbox prowess, and raising the roof, were meant for me, just maybe a part of me I hadn’t discovered yet. Culturally, time-and-place speaking, hip-hop was foreign. Instinctively, it felt like home.
For years I immersed myself in rap, electro, funk, and soul twelve-inches from used bins, branching out to techno, disco, and house. I had no experience with the culture beyond my basement. I was only certain that to explore hip-hop was to discover a world outside of suburbia in which art and life were inseparable.
I worked on scratch techniques, hunched over a sturdy wooden table splashed with polychromatic swirls of dried paint. I strengthened my wrists practicing scribbles, flares, chirps, and stabs. Friends would sit around and breathe in the particulate-charged basement air and watch as I practiced my cuts and became immersed beyond the point of holding conversation.
I started mixing once I collected more records, learning to match bpms and backspin smoothly. Youtube videos helped me study Roc Raida’s flashy battle routines, Qbert’s deft scratch moves, and J. Rocc’s buttery trick-mixing. I copped doubles and marked the labels with stickers for backspinning cues. I cut up instrumentals, moving my hands furiously, struggling to drop the needle on the precise groove I wanted. I made futile attempts at beat juggling and even practiced some behind-the-back moves. I scratched twelve-inch singles until my crossfader snapped off. From there I had to start cutting with the phono/line switch, not realizing this was a method of transformer scratching countless DJs had already utilized.
The essence expanded.
It was Tribe’s pitched-down, thinned-out sample of those keys from the twelve-inch version of “Pull Up to the Bumper” reworked into the sound of peppermint fluorescence glowing over the quietest late-night hour in the city. It was Melvin Bliss crooning to the moon over a graveyard shift piano and those spanking drums I’d heard on so many beats, the most gorgeous soul ballad ever written about the imminent takeover of artificial intelligence. Lauryn Hill harmonies. Footwork and headspins. Gold chains and grills. The doodle of a melting skyline on the center label of an Ultimate Breaks and Beats slab. Debbie Harry rapping about eating Cadillacs, Lincolns too / Mercurys and Subarus / nonstop, to the punk-rock. Eazy E on the Arsenio Hall Show in a straitjacket, Raiders beanie, and hockey mask, twirling a blade in his gloved hands and answering all of Arsenio’s questions through whispers into MC Ren’s ear. The producer of “Good Times” walking by a house party emanating the freshly-released “Rapper’s Delight,” thinking, What the hell? The sawdust-like aroma of a yellowing inner-sleeve. Queen Latifah berating a wack DJ in Juice. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Lynn Collins, Gil Scott-Heron. A scuffed copy of The JB’s “Monaurail,” the song that would be playing through my headphones if I was dropped in a Philadelphia train yard under moonlight with a bulging sling bag of Rust-Oleum cans, spray painting a masterpiece.
As I entered my twenties, I uncovered more of hip-hop’s mysteries, setting out on my bike for a record store over ten miles from my house. I’d hang out for hours with the owner, a guy who was old enough to be my dad but was at least five times cooler than me because he had a respectable, crew-dubbed nickname: Forrest Getemgump. Forrest grew up in New York in the 80’s and was a member of the Rocksteady Crew, possibly the most well-respected b-boy group of all time. He spun on his head across Europe for cash. He was also a DJ and record fanatic, turning me on to all kinds of breakbeats hidden in records I might otherwise have never picked up. He was the first person I’d ever met whose life had been enmeshed in hip-hop culture the way I hoped mine might one day be. I picked his brain for hours, slowly flipping through every crate in the store, prodding him to share stories of the New York City I’d been trying to shade into focus all these years by delving in the record bins.
One day I showed up to the shop with a travel bag of vinyl strapped across my shoulder and asked if I could spin some records on his Technics SL-1200 turntables. I’d never even touched a pair before. He said sure, then did a double-take as I gashed apart the opening groove to “Hollywood Swinging,” my best routine. By the time I blended into Central Line’s “Walking into Sunshine,” he was impressed enough to invite me to his next gig.
I stood on an elevated stage above a checkered floor enclosed by a wrap-around mirror and red pleather bench seating. The backstage rooms were undeniably renovated from private stripper booths. The Vortex concert club was located in Akron’s dissipating strip club district and wasn’t trying to hide its past life. The sign out front read that, tonight only, Sadat X of Brand Nubian and Psycho Les from the Beatnuts, both premier 90’s hardcore rap groups, were performing. I was the opener before the openers, one of three DJs, only there because Forrest convinced the guy running the gig that I could catch wreck.
When I cued up doubles of “My World Premier” for some beat-juggling and acapella blending, there was one person standing on the dancefloor. He was dressed straight from an episode of Yo MTV Raps!, rocking baggy sweats and a beanie. He nodded his head so hard it was a full-body effort, but not in the rigid style of metal fans; this aggression was controlled, steadied to a rhythmic lurch, the kind that burns the neck and hardens shoulder muscles into blocks of pavement.
My fingers trembled as I set the needle on “Award Tour.” A few couples started moseying in. They were dressed for a nice evening out and sat calmly on the benches, offering subtle head bops. I blended Tribe in with the smooveness, and Beanie Guy went apeshit. In this moment, I might as well have been Grandwizzard Theodore poised in front of his turntables thirty years prior, scratching for a crowd of party-goers sweating out a hot summer night in the Bronx.
I don’t aim to be definitive when I babble on about this rap stuff, though I’d like to be immersive.
But immersion has its limits.
I’m beginning to feel like the narrator in Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Film,” a man who wants the movie he’s making to somehow be about everything (“The wild ass is in danger in Ethiopia – we’ve got nothing on that. We’ve got nothing on intellectual elitism funded out of public money, an important subject…”). When am I going to drop an authoritative quote from Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop? How do I explain the way Qbert’s “Razorblade Alcohol Slide” frayed my brain wires and left a plume of smoke fuming from my skull? At what point do I let the Rocksteady Crew break out the cardboard and get on down? What about the Stretch and Bobbito show? That’s got to go in here somewhere. And will my omissions refine the focus or leave readers baffled?
This essay is a misdirection, but I knew that all along.
What matters more than trying to pinpoint what I believe to be the essence of hip-hop are the ways in which I’ve given myself up to it.
As a teen, I used to mow Grandma Millie’s yard for twenty bucks a job. (She overpaid, sweetheart she is.) I’d stuff the cash in my shorts, jump on mom’s bicycle, and pedal four-and-a-half miles to the record store, hopping off to trudge up the massive hill on Memorial Parkway. I’m talking massive, with broken bottles and shit littering the grass on the side of the road, cars flying by, the passengers probably glancing over and thinking, “That kid looks like he might pass out.”
In my memory, it’s always midday, bare skies, scorching sun. I’d sweat through my running shoes. My calf muscles burned. One time I got lost on the way home and had to carry the bike through woods on a series of root-covered trails. Didn’t matter. All was right with the planet when I came home with a twelve-inch single stashed under my arm.
The essence of it all is in that moment when I biked home with doubles of “Monaurail.” In the basement, I gave each record a quick swipe with a pink microfiber cloth and set one on each platter. I wrapped the crossfader in my fingers, letting it glide smoothly from side to side. I spun each copy backwards, lining up the downbeat before scratching it in. James and his bandmates shouted over the maraca-enhanced drumbeat, rhythm guitars, bubble-pop organs, haunting horns. So much soul! My hands shifted back and forth under the dim glow of bare lightbulbs. I let all thoughts disappear and became locked into the groove, alone in my basement, concentrating only on breaking it down on the ones and twos.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer and turntablist from Akron, Ohio.