I walked into a record store the other week after doing some apartment hunting. I was feeling good, the kind of good I haven’t felt in weeks. I felt like I was getting things done.
I hit the rap section and the first thing I saw, the very first record, made me stop in my tracks. It was sitting there in the used vinyl section, right at the front. I honestly couldn’t believe it, but there it was: Lyricist Lounge Volume 1. Four discs of some of the most important music I’ve ever heard. Twenty dollars.
I bought it. Even if I’d been broke at the time, I’d have bought it. I saw it and realized that I couldn’t live without it.
I still remember the day I first discovered Lyricist Lounge Volume 1. Not the specific day — it was the summer, it was boring, and that’s all I got — but the day is what I remember. That moment in time. I was at the Mall of Georgia with my aunt, my cousin, and my cousin’s friend. It was a warm summer day in 1998. My aunt went off somewhere to do grown-up things like shop at JC Penny and buy towels or whatever, and us teenagers had the run of the mall. It took me about twenty minutes to realize that shopping with two teenaged girls in a gigantic mall is secretly like being on an exclusive level of hell, but I stuck it out for the whole six hours, in part because I had no choice. I was too young to have my license, and that meant I was trapped. They weren’t trapped in there with me. I was trapped in there with them.
A couple hours in, we wandered into a music store. Maybe an FYE, but probably something else that has since gone out of business. I had a little money in my pocket — we used to clean houses with my aunt and she would pay us in small faces at first and eventually big face twenties — and I had to do something to drown out the trauma. I poked around and found a tape for cheap. A double-tap set, actually. It was Lyricist Lounge Volume 1.
I loved rap before I heard Lyricist Lounge, but after I heard that tape, that loved turned into something else. I went from a passive and “oh that sounds good, who is this? I like this” listener to an active one. I started paying attention and I started demanding more, two things that have served me well in life.
The thing about Lyricist Lounge Volume 1 is that it was my introduction to underground rap. I wouldn’t become a backpacker for another couple of years, but this set me down that path. At that point in time, underground rap was as much a reaction to mainstream rap as it was an attempt to reclaim past glories and invent new ones. All these gangsta rappers, these jiggy dudes, were fakers. They weren’t about that life. They’re actors. The underground is where the real raw is. If you want true rap, you had to head underground.
This probably sounds familiar to you. It happens in comics, too, and probably your favorite genre of music.
Underground rap was new to me at the time, and I was caught flat-footed by how lyrical these guys were. Don’t get me wrong, either. Jay-Z is nice, and has been nice for years. He knows his way around a similar and he can murder a metaphor. But like… this was a whole other level. It was like opening your front door and seeing your neighborhood different. Everything is thrown into high definition and you see details you never noticed before.
Lyricist Lounge is a paradigm shift. At the time, it was just a dope, funny album with weird skits. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I can see that it shattered what I knew about not just rap, but communication. It showed me a new way to use words. I learned, even though all I wanted was something that sounded cool so I wouldn’t have to answer whether I wanted to go to Claire’s or Spencer’s next.
This album was my introduction to the Indelible MCs, a crew composed of Queen Heroin, J-Treds, Breeze Brewin, and El-P and Bigg Jus of Company Flow.
Flows aquatic like fishes’ surroundings
Underground and it’s pounding, like pregnancy
with the expectancy of three times three
I can be a bit demanding, accepting nothing less than the best
I don’t just flip shit. Anyone can, kid, I stick the landing
And stand out amongst most, so don’t stress
Trying to touch us? You can’t come close like phone sex
Background posers fiend for limelight exposure
When we rally back and touch the microphone playtime is over
Who’s trying to see the CF graf crew that visualize top to bottom
and stand out in New York like an LA gang tag do?
You talking about “Respect mines,” steady missing your layups?
Hoes to foes, I start staring, wild truculent
Heart-tearing style, fuck you then, order your demise
Prophets turned skeptics, skeptics found Jesus
Right-wingers turned leftist, everybody jumped on the dick of independence
Sorry, we don’t want you any more.
Get lost, kid, find the exit!
But is it live, you fucking suckers?
It’s the words plus the music plus the confidence that unlocked something in me. And not just this song, either. It’s the whole album. The thing about this type of rap is that you’re expected to keep up whether you understand what the lines mean at all. Breeze ends his verse with “Listen, you’ll hear voices like ‘Damn, that’s a sucker’/Paranoid, looking like Fuzzy Zoeller at the Rucker.” I didn’t have the internet as a kid, so Fuzzy Zoeller was as opaque to me as whatever the Rucker was. But I got it. I didn’t need to know the specifics to get the line. All I needed to know that it sounded great and that it’d make sense in time. “Be like water.”
It’s about magic tricks, basically. That’s what made me turn a corner in how I listened to rap and how I used words. School essays were nonsense. Five paragraph structure: introduction, thesis, content, conclusion. They were stiff and confining. I phoned them in when I had to write them and I skimmed them when I had to read them.
But raps? Raps demand close attention. “We’re bringing rap back like Wu did Wallabee Clarks” is nonsense at first glance, but once you learn about Ghostface making Wallabees some of the illest shoes ever, you get it. Literally: Ghostface made Wallys cool like Cipher Complete is about to make rap worthwhile again. Metatextually: Wallos were tired and busted before Ghost got to them, and then he hit them with that dye like boom, and check it: they’re cooler than glaciers of ice now. Rap is old and busted, behold to corporate interests, but Cipher Complete’s about to bring it back through the strength of sheer spitting.
The best rap punchlines work on several levels, no matter how dumb it is. When Jeezy’s talking about “my passenger’s a redbone, her weave look like some curly fries,” you’ve got color-based play and some incredibly evocative descriptions. You know exactly what this chick’s weave looks like. It’s like chicken & broccoli Timbs.
Clarity through obscurity.
It’s like jargon. There’s in and there’s out. If you’re in, you can listen and enjoy it. If you’re out, you’ve gotta consult white devil sophistry like RapGenius (shoulda stuck with OHHLA). Even the most basic of slang is segregated along regional lines. Everybody gets their own thing. You might want to cut or smash or drill (Black & Decker!) when you meet a pretty girl, and none of them have to do with hurting somebody else. You can shoot the fair one or scrap. Some people might squab, and the soft hearted might get their face rocked. Your girl can be your shorty or earth or ma or wiz or bird. Corner boys, d-boys, dope boys, and trap stars might hit you with the chopper or the ‘K or the nina or the ratchet or the roscoe if you’re not careful. Knahmean, yadadamean, knahmsaying, you feel me, g/gangsta/god? You can rock ice grills and mean mugs without ever seeing diamonds or coffee. Some people speak with criminal slang, and they’ll never stop speaking it.
The obscurity lets you own your words. No one can listen in and peep game unless they’re already in the know, and that in and of itself makes people want to pay attention to you. It’s yours and they want it. So they’ll do that work and figure it out, and that means you’ve won. You spun that web. You set up that trick. You made them come to you.
It’s not gibberish. It was never gibberish. You can’t treat it like gibberish and expect to ever actually understand it.
It’s a new way of thinking.
It was Lyricist Lounge first. That put me on game. I had a bunch of names to look out for now, so when Soundbombing 2 came out, I was right there. And Soundbombing 2, after the intros, starts with Eminem’s “Any Man,” a song I still know by heart. Em, at his nicest, is one of the nicest ever, and he goes off on that song.
It sets the stage for the album, because every song features somebody going off in a different way. It’s mind-expanding. “B-Boy Document ’99,” by the High & Mighty featuring Mos Def and Mad Skillz, is nuts. “1-9-9-9” by Common and Sadat X, is nuts. “Cross Town Beef,” “Next Universe,” that interlude with Tash and Dilated Peoples, and don’t even get me started on “Stanley Kubrick” (Stanley Kubrick, Stanley Kubrick…) and “Patriotism.”
A couple songs off Soundbombing 2 were too weird for me at first. I couldn’t make heads or tails of Pharaohe Monch’s “Mayor” because he had a weird flow and the song was awkward and weird. “7XL” was just aight, even if I kinda sorta knew about Brand Nubian at the time. I just didn’t get it, basically. I wasn’t on that level yet.
But the older I got, the more things changed, and now “Mayor” is one of my favorite songs. Pharoahe has some of the most amazing breath control in rap, despite his asthma, and “Mayor” is transcendant. The storytelling, the flow, the chorus, that beat, all of it is so real. Monch paints a perfect picture and gets across the stress and horror of the situation extremely well. “Peripheral vision now, doorknob shifting… optical illusion from all the coke that I’m sniffing.” dzed waggling my leg imagining i’m not afraid
But my jam is always going to be Company Flow’s “Patriotism.” I hadn’t heard Funcrusher Plus yet — good luck finding that stuff in Smalltown, GA — but I knew I liked those CoFlow cats from Lyricist Lounge. And “Patriotism” is like a blast of hate. It’s political, in the “a pox on both your houses” sense, but it’s so much more than that. The beat is dirty, dusty, digital ish, full of creeping menace, and DJ Mr Len the Space Ghost’s cuts make it sound even filthier.
The entire song is just El-Producto blacking out like so:
I’m the ugliest version of passed down toxic capitalist
rapid emcee perversion — I’m America!
Your bleeding-heart liberal drivel gets squashed
Wash em with sterilized rhyme patriot-guided weaponry bomb
from the makers of the devious hearts — I’m America!
You bitchy little dogs don’t even phase my basic policy
The bomb’s smarter, my Ronald Reagans crush Carter
With Bay of Pig tactics makin young men into martyrs
It’s coded, but the code is content, too. He’s saying things, layering words on top of words, but it gives the song an oppressive feel. You’ve gotta sprint to keep up. Who will survive in America? “Patriotism” has the answer.
It was a one-two punch for me. After Soundbombing 2, I was lost. The allure of coded language was too much, and I got big into this stuff. The homey Darryl Ayo was talking about Jadakiss freestyles on tumblr the other day, and how rappers are proof positive that writers’ block is only as real as you think it is. Rappers write and write and write and they’re always on, year after year. They produce an insane amount of content. I want to be able to do that.
All of my favorite writers, the most important inspirations for my craft, are rappers. Nas: being able to paint a photorealistic picture with just a few short lines. CoFlow: understanding that sometimes absurdity and opacity can make things crystal clear. OutKast: never, ever resting on your laurels and always pushing the envelope. Scarface: being real. UGK: being country. Jay-Z: confidence. Canibus: knowing how to stack wordplay on wordplay and come up with something ill. Lauryn Hill: carving out your own place and saying damn the consequences. Eminem: bending language to your will. Mos Def: talking about something bigger than yourself. Jadakiss: crucial punchlines. Method Man & Redman: the importance of having fun while you do it to it. Ghostface Killah: creating a new style and daring people to dislike it. Big Daddy Kane: being smoother than the average. CoFlow: being independent as fox. Rakim: being better than everyone else.
These are my heroes.
It’s only obvious to me in hindsight, but I haven’t been chasing Stephen King or Fred Saberhagen or Ezra Pound or Candide or whatever other writers I was really into as a kid. I’ve been chasing these other guys.
Lyricist Lounge changed my life, and I don’t mean that in the trite way where people actually mean “Oh, I just like this a lot and it means a lot to me.” I mean that buying those cassettes that said Lyricist Lounge down the side actually, literally, legitimately changed my life. It changed how I think and though it took a while to show, it changed how I write. I never struggled with writing, exactly, but I definitely felt more comfortable with it once I started trying to lace the phrases with magic tricks, even if every paragraph needed a translation attached to it. Make people keep up, but still keep it simple. That felt right.
Rap’s in my blood. It’s in how I approach conflict — “Be a man, say my name if you’re talking to me/ You ain’t said it? Well, I guess you ain’t talking to me” — and how I think. I love turns of phrase and dumb puns and stories and rap has all of that, and rap does it better than most everything else. I don’t think I’m that great of a dancer, and it’s probably because I grew up listening to songs that made you want throw bows or two-step rather than get down on the floor on the floor. “See, me and my niggas don’t dance, we just pull up our pants and do the rockaway… now lean back.”
Variations on a theme, off the top of my head:
Method Man, 1995: “I call my brother son ’cause he shine like one.”
Big Pun, 1998: “Been sonning niggas so long I think I got a grandson.”
Sauce Money, 1999: “Hammers fly, might miss you, but your man’ll die/ What’s the difference? Either way I’m sonning your crew.”
Talib Kweli, 1999: “I told him to slow down, he said the sun don’t chill.”
Angel Haze, 2012: “Naw, I run shit. I’m Ra, I son shit.”
There’s so many ways you can use the word son. It’s such a small word, but you can load it down with meaning.
I’ve been listening to Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing 2 near-constantly since I picked up that album. It’s been a weird trip down memory lane, but it’s like tumblers falling into place. The act of listening, of living in these albums, has been revealing things I already knew to myself. I get it. I understand it. Just the fact that I own such a big album feels good to me.
Rap is a source of infinite inspiration for me. I went through that phase when underground rap was the only real rap, but now I realize that all rap is real. I get down with Kitty Pryde, 8Ball & MJG, the Dungeon Fam, Black Hippy, Rakim, Angel Haze, Azealia Banks, XV, Esso, Kilo Ali, and Kilo Kish. It’s whatever, man. If you’re coming with hard punchlines and speakerboxxx music, I’m there. If it’s murda muzik, I’m there. If it’s laid back music to smoke a blunt to, I’m there. If it’s goofball rap, I’m there. If it’s Jim Jones over an indie rock or dance band, I’m definitely there. If it sounds like the soundtrack to a black black mass, I’m there.
I don’t like everything, but I love it all. I love that it exists. I want it all. I want to be as prolific and diverse and amazing as my heroes. I’m trying to be That Dude, not just that dude. I want Pun’s punchlines, Vast Aire’s metaphors, Nas’s grace, El-P’s off-kilter ferocity, Killer Mike’s knowledge, The Clipse’s contempt, and Jadakiss’s steez. Bone Thugs’s style, Fabolous’s track record with punchlines. OutKast’s creativity, Goodie MOb’s sense of place and self. 50’s swagger, Weezy’s charisma. Even Drake knows how to build a situation with perfect clarity. “And promoters try to get me out to their clubs/ and say I’ll have fun, but I can’t imagine how/ ’cause I just seen my ex girl standing with my next girl/ Standing with the girl that I’m fucking right now.”
I want to do it all.
I tried rapping, back in high school. I wasn’t good at it. I can be spontaneous, but rap requires spontaneity within a structure. I can’t freestyle, but I could write. Me and my friends would kick raps over pause tapes full of homemade instrumentals. We’d load mp3s into our lackluster computers and create instrumentals out of hot singles, assuming there was enough of an outro for it. But what I wrote was a pale imitation of the people I liked. It wasn’t mine. I was trying to be them, instead of trying to be me, who had been influenced by them.
Evidence said that “emcees without a voice should write a book.” Aesop Rock said “That means when I wake up and decide to comprise the new shit/ It’s not some watered down version of what my favorite crews did.”
So I quit rapping after I graduated and focused on writing. You have to destroy to build, and you have to build to destroy.
I found my voice. I figured out how to move the crowd.