Friday Five: Old Skool Rap 1

Let’s go back in time children, back to the early days of hip hop. Well, early relative to my life. Let’s keep it East Coast this week…

5. “Flavor of the Month” by Black Sheep (1991)
Black Sheep was a duo with roots in Queens, New York.  Dres and Mista Lawnge both relocated to North Carolina in their youth, which is where they met and got started.  I’m sure this had something to do with their sound.  This was their breakout single from their debut album, an irresistible hook with the jazz elements that were the calling card of the so-called “Native Tongues” hip hop collective. Black Sheep might not be remembered for much more than this song, but they were also the first hip hop group to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

4. “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul (1989)
I can’t say enough about De La Soul.  It sounds like an exaggeration, but this trio of rappers from Long Island, New York changed the world in 1989.  They did.  Pioneers of the “Native Tongues” collective, their sound was so distinctive when it hit the airwaves that you couldn’t not listen. As a teenager who just started going to parties the year they came out, De La Soul was one of those sounds that took a garage dance to another level.  They were among a handful of music makers that were on everybody’s playlists.

3. “Mary, Mary” by Run-DMC (1988)
Run-DMC came from Queens, too. By 1988 they were at the top of their game and the top of the heap of the world of rap. Perhaps the most enduring hit from their underrated 1988 album Tougher Than Leather, this “cover” of Michael Nesmith’s (of the Monkees) song is a slice of everything that made Run-DMC so distinctive. The rock-tinged sound still felt new in 1988, even after they and producer Rick Rubin (not the last time he’s on this list) had made that historic combination two years earlier with their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Run-DMC’s lyricism had become something more by this time, and the skills of Jam Master J on the turntables is undeniable.

2. “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
Eric B. & Rakim’s debut album Paid in Full was a “game changer in the world of hip hop. Most agree that the Long Island-based duo elevated lyricism and rhyming to a new level, and that made others up their game. That brilliance is all over the place in this, their second single release. Rakim is doing what nobody was doing and before you knew it, everybody was doing it. “I got a question, it’s serious as cancer / Who can keep the average dancer / Hyper as a heart attack nobody smiling / Cause you’re expressing the rhyme that I’m styling…”

1. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” by LL Cool J (1985)
James Todd Smith from Queens became LL Cool J because the “Ladies Love Cool James.” Sounds about right. This track is from LL’s debut album Radio, which was also the first full-length album release by Def Jam records. Produced by Rick Rubin (who’s pretty influential in hip-hop history), this showcases LL’s talents while providing a stripped down sound with that defined so much of hip hop at the time. Easily one of the most influential rap songs ever.  If you can put it into its context (1985!) and hear it with fresh ears, you might understand what a phenom LL was.

I was on the radio

Ring of Red: A Barrio Story is a play I wrote, based on the hundreds of hours of oral history interviews I’ve conducted with Vietnam veterans and their families. It’s on the stage now at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, with three more shows to go this weekend: Friday, September 28 at 7:00PM; Saturday, September 29 at 7:00PM; and Sunday, September 30 at 2:00PM, followed by an audience “talkback.”

Our efforts were spotlighted in a story on The Frame, and arts and entertainment program that airs on the NPR station in Los Angeles, KPCC radio.  It’s a really well put together story, one that hits all the right points when it comes to me project and the play I’ve helped produce, with the help of theater folks who know what they’re doing.

Check it out online.

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Today is the start of the 2018-19 academic year at Pomona College!

This year is the start of my 17th year as a full-time professor.  It’s the start of my 23rd year in the world of college teaching (I started teaching at the college level as a TA at UC Berkeley).  Overall, this is my 29th year in higher education.

The kid that began his undergraduate career back in 1990 would have been pretty pleased to know that someday he’d be writing the above paragraph.  Not many days go by that I don’t think and feel how lucky I am to be in my line of work.  I get to learn new things on a daily basis.  I get to write and read.  And I get to spend time connecting young people to their own journeys of discovery.

I’m a lucky guy.

I’m looking forward to this semester.  I’ll teach my “Intro to Chicanx/Latinx Studies” class, my greatest pleasure and the reason I do what I do.  I’ll also teach my “Latinx in the 20th Century” seminar, where we get to go more into depth.  As if that wasn’t enough, in a little more than two weeks, the play I wrote based on my oral histories with Chicano Vietnam vets will hit the stage.  It’ll be a busy start but I got nothing to complain about.

So happy new academic year from me to you!