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A Trip Backward In Time…

March 6, 2010

Last night, I was reminded that there is a certain distinctive scent that wafts through every middle school gymnasium.  When you’re young, it’s the scent of possibility–of hope unrealized.  At some point, it turns into the scent of nostalgia, which can sometimes be rather pungent but at other times can be just as sweet as when you were in 8th grade.   On this night, the aroma of nostalgia is delicious, taking me back to a time when a red Kangol might adorn my head and Adidas were the only shoes that could touch my feet.

I won’t bore you with the story of how I ended up on this particular time-traveling basketball court, but suffice it to say that while my body remained in 2010, my mind found itself in the old Auburn School Gym in Auburn, Kentucky circa 1987.    It was in that gym and the school next to it that I was first introduced to hip-hop music.  I still remember the first rap song I ever heard, Doug E. Fresh and Ricky D’s “La Di Da Di”, which I heard from my good friend Boogie.  With that song began a love affair with a style of music that was both completely foriegn to my white-bred countrified ears but at the same time completely familiar to my soul.

I fed my obsession with the soundtrack to Krush Groove, a movie I had no chance to see in theaters in south-central Kentucky.  But even though I had to wait for the film to come out on video, my fresh BMG mail-0rder music membership let me get the cassette soundtrack delivered right to my door.  If I remember correctly, I splurged and got Krush Groove and LL Cool J’s Radio at the same time.  The soundtrack had the only Kurtis Blow jam I ever really liked, “If I Ruled The World”, my first contact with the Beastie Boys, “She’s On It,” and my favorite slow jam of all time, the Force M.D’s “Tender Love.”

My second purchase, Radio, introduced me to the world of Todd Smith, which at that time was indistinguishable from the Bronx.  Cool J’s early music typified my favorite mode of rap music:  simple beats and rhymes.  Most of my friends gravitated to the first big hit “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, which was also featured in Krush Groove.   But I was more partial to “Rock The Bells”, which despite sounding like a Run-DMC throw off was much more challenging lyrically.   Although Radio was never one of my favorite albums, it helped mold my ears to the minimalist beat-and-scratch heavy hip hop that serves as the blueprint for the rap music I love most.

The album that serves in my mind as the soundtrack for that era is largely forgotten nowadays, however.  Most everyone who listens to rap can cite the career path of “La Di Da Di’s” Ricky D, more famously known as Slick Rick.  Rick’s career took off with his 1988 album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, and while I agree that this is a classic album, his former partner Doug E. Fresh released one of the untold masterpieces of hip hop, The World’s Greatest Entertainer.  Prior to this album, Doug was known primarily as a beatboxer but in Rick’s absence he took up the rhyming slack to great effect.

Released on the small Reality label and produced by Bomb Squad veteran Eric “Vietnam” Sadler, TWGE is basically beats, samples and rhymes.  James Brown is used both as a resource for samples and as inspiration in much the same way that Fela Kuti utilized Brown’s musical genius as a jumping-off point for modern Afrobeat music.  Over twenty years later, it doesn’t sound as if there’s anything particularly original about TWGE and perhaps there’s not, but for whatever reason each song spoke to my young mind in a different way.  There was the funk of “Every Body Got 2 Get Some” and “On The Strength”, the laid back groove of “Keep Risin’ to the Top”, and the dance party vibe (and beatbox harmonica) of “Greatest Entertainer.”   And I’m not aware of any other hip-hop song with the stones to move from a Phil Collins sample (“In The Air Tonight”) to a Jackson 5 sample (“One More Chance”) in the same song, “Ev’ry Body Loves A Star.”  And the African rhythms of “Africa (Goin’ Back Home)” started my life-long love of the music of the motherland. 

TWGE also contained one of the most amazing songs I’ve ever heard in my life, “The Plane (So High)”.  This track starts out like a slow jam with a repeated bell riff and a synth underbelly that continues for over a minute before Doug ever raps.  The vocal is a kind of hypnotic chant that draws you into an overall vibe that is soulful and a little creepy at the same time.  Beginning as a recitation of Doug’s inner monologue while he boards a plane, the random thoughts giving us such lines as “If I’m in love does that make me a lover?/If you see a wrinkle does that mean I’m old?/And am I wrong to say what I want in this song?” 

Doug’s thoughts turn toward his lover, using the plane he’s on as a metaphor for their relationship:  “I left it all up to you/But you felt that your heart would melt/And got scared and fastened up your seatbelt/Because the plane was going too high in the sky/And I didn’t know that you were scared to fly.”  The story moves the song into a crescendo at around the 3 minute mark:  “An uncontrollable urge/That’s why I’m on the verge/Wondering if actions speak louder than words.” He then leaves his lover with the assurance that “no matter what you feel about me inside, sit back, relax and enjoy the ride–on the plane.”

My reverie is suddenly interrupted by a stray basketball zipping in front of my nose.  The scent of hope is replaced by the stench of burnt nacho cheese.  I expect we all romanticize the music of our past, and I am no different.  But there is something in these seemingly forgotten songs that makes a cold night in a small, crowded gymnasium a little more tolerable.  And so I raise my plastic cup to you, makers of Krush Groove and Doug E. Fresh, because you have made me what I am today!  Which is not all that impressive, but don’t hold that against yourselves, OK?

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