Up until I was eleven, my musical taste was a tribute to blandness — The Beach Boys, Wilson Philips, Michael Bolton. Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” was the edgiest thing in my collection. One evening, my older cousin decided it was time to rescue me. She told me to pick something to listen to from her collection of albums by Metal and hair bands. Much to her surprise, I chose the one rap album in her collection, Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster, mainly because of the mammoth sticker on the front of the cassette tape that said “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics.” (Thanks, Tipper Gore.) She cued up the song “Midnight” and put earphones on my head. Hearing that song was like riding a roller coaster for the first time. The pounding rhythm, the sirens blaring, the F-bombs flying — I was so scared I almost peed myself. But as soon as the song was over, I was absolutely certain that I had to own everything Ice-T had ever made.
Hip hop was my first love. (And as a lifelong fan of KRS-ONE, I am obliged to tell you that hip hop is the culture that surrounds rap music, not just the music itself.)
A lot of people find rap challenging when they first hear it because it inverts what they think of as musical norms. Instead of melody supported by rhythm, it is rhythm supported by melody. Instead of the bass filling out the background, the bass is brought right to the front, and the treble is asked to take a back seat. For some people, this takes a major adjustment to get used to, but for me it made perfect sense. The way that every line had to rhyme with the next spoke to my love of language and poetry. The raw intensity of the music matched my own burgeoning passion. The social commentary and politics of groups like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and NWA gave my growing teen angst a sense of direction and purpose. I embraced not only hip hop but the larger Black American culture that had given birth to it. I became radicalized.
Throughout middle school and high school, I wrote my own rap songs, which my friend Mike would mix with terrible beats made by Casio keyboards spliced into an old boom box. We were two white boys in love with rap and black culture who went to school with kids who had Confederate flags on their belt buckles and gun racks on the back of their pick-up trucks.
Wearing Cross Colours and quoting from the Autobiography of Malcolm X did not exactly win us friends. We got into fights. I would come home with bruises up and down my arms from angry white kids pounding on me in the hallways. None of that was nearly as bad as what happened to the black kids though, like the seventh-grade girl who got maced in the face on the back of the bus one day.
It sounds crazy to say it now, but back then Mike and I were convinced that we were the only white kids in the world who were into rap. We had no idea that other white kids like us across the country were becoming immersed in hip hop. At the time, the Internet was still just an assembly of Geocities pages with counters and icons that said “under construction,” so there was no way for us to connect with other kids like us. The only white rapper anyone had ever heard of, Vanilla Ice, was a national joke. For Mike and I though, the world of hip hop was so much more honest and real than the rural suburbs we lived in. It was a world where ideas mattered and where people were judged by their skills and their hearts rather than by their skin color. I was a complicated kid with a lot of strange thoughts and feelings that put me at a distance from my peers and sometimes made me feel angry or depressed. Rap gave me an outlet for all of that. It made me feel like being different was not the worst thing in the world.
By the time I entered college in the fall of 1998, other cultural and musical forces had come to bear on me. My ear was pierced, my hair had grown long, I had stopped eating meat, and Nirvana or Ani Difranco was just as likely to be blaring out of my speakers as 2pac or Dr. Dre. But I did not stop loving hip hop and I had no desire to stop rapping. Now with the aid of a four-track analog recorder and some far fancier beat makers, I began to produce and sell my own underground rap albums with titles like “The Propaganda Box” and “Hard Ass Vegetarian Salad Bar.”
My first two years of college were spent in a community college setting that was far more diverse than what I had known before. I took classes with nursing mothers, out-of-work hipsters, people in their fifties and sixties, Pakistani Muslims, and Black Baptists. In the midst of that diversity, I found a community of other rappers. I was the only white rapper in the group, but not the only white kid with an interest in hip hop culture, and so they accepted me. I did not try to do “black music.” I simply tried to be who I was, which led to things like performing in front of a multi-age, mostly black audience while wearing a pair of green pants and a neon wizard t-shirt, rapping about how “I never fought the cops with two glocks / I stepped in tube socks / and fought with tooth rot.” A lot of what I did was goofy, but the passion for political and social change was still very much present in my rhymes. That passion was what drove me and what made those around me feel like my music made sense as part of the larger world of hip hop, even if it did not look or feel exactly like what surrounded it.
Today, I still love hip hop and rap, but a lot of the things that used to be staples of hip hop culture have faded or changed. Break dancing is gone. Graffiti art has become its own animal, no longer really linked to rap. Rap itself has become popularized and atomized. Like so many other things in our consumer culture, you can now have your rap any way you like it. There are hipster rappers, horror rappers, politically conservative rappers, gay rappers, even Calvinist rappers. When I was a kid, the worldview of hip hop shaped and changed me, but these days I would not have to endure that. I could order up whatever worldview I prefer, as long as it has a nice beat and a couple kicking piano loops.
There is, perhaps, no greater mark of advancing age than the moment you begin to complain that something you love is no longer what it used to be, but that is not really what I am aiming to do here. To be sure, something has been lost from the time when rap was a counter-cultural phenomenon, but what remains just as possible today as when I was a kid is that rap can be a vehicle for passionate expression of deep and enduring truths.
Hip hop saved me because it spoke to me in a way that other things did not. Much as I enjoy and benefit from the apologetic works of C.S. Lewis, I find that his fiction speaks more deeply to my soul about the truth of the Gospel than his prose. Similarly, there are some truths that I can hear more clearly when rhymed over a beat than I ever would in a book, a speech, or even another form of music. Some kinds of truth are better accessed sideways than head on.
These days there are rappers who happen to be Christians, like Propaganda, Playdough, and the incredibly talented Canadian rapper Shad, who communicate deep truths that speak to my soul far more richly than anything I receive from other mediums. Rather than simply being vehicles of Evangelical music subculture, these are serious hip hoppers who allow their Christian worldview to affect their art but never to undermine it. I find deep resonance with what they do. It reminds me that I am still hip hop, even though it has been many years since I performed in front of an audience. Even now that I am a priest and a husband and a father and a guy with a mortgage, there are still days when I find myself filled with thoughts and emotions that can only be let out one way, by putting pen to notebook paper and letting the rhymes fly.