In the summer of 1988, De La Soul ushered in the D.A.I.S.Y. age (Da Inner Sound, Y'all).
I took to Consciousness because there was nothing else, no other logic to counter death for suede, leather, and gold. My father bet his life on change. For the glory of ex-cons, abandoned mothers, and black boys lost, he had made peace with his end. I was a coward, mostly concerned with getting from one day to the next. How could I square my young life with this lineage? What would I say to the theology of my father, which held that the Conscious Act was worth more than sex, bread, or even drawn breath?
There were no answers in the broader body, where the best of us went out like Sammy Davis, and spoke like there had never been war. I will avoid the cartoonsthe hardrocks loved Billy Ocean, Luther was classic, and indeed, I did sit in my 7th period music class eyeing Arletta Holly, and humming Lost In Emotion. But you must remember the era. Niggers were on MTV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadroons, big-upping Fred Astaire and speaking like the rest of us didn't exist. I'm talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Ritchie dancing on the ceiling. I'm talking the corporate pop of Whitney, Richard Pryor turning into the Toy. It was like Parliament had never happened, like James Brown had never hit. All our champions were disconnected and dishonored, handing out Image Awards, while we bled in the streets.
But now the word turned Conscious, De La refused to scowl, and Daddy-O shouted across the Atlantic gap. First, Chuck, then KRS, and then everywhere you looked MCs were reaching for Garvey's tri-color, shouting across the land, that self-destruction was at end, that the logic of white people's ice had failed us, that the day of awareness was now.
Across the land, the masses fell sway to the gospel. Old Panthers came out in camouflage to salute Chuck D. Cold killers would get a taste of "Black is Black," drop their guns and turn vegan. Brothers quoted Farrakhan with wine on their breath. Harlots performed salaat, covered their blonde french rolls in mudcloth and royal Kinte. Dark girls slashed their Appolonia posters, burned their green contacts, cut their hair, threw in braids. Gold was stashed in the top dresser. The fashion became your father's dashiki, beads, and Africa medallions.
Big Bill was touched by the transformation, trading the every-day struggle for The Struggle. The same music that pulled me out of my fog, left him reeling. Again and again he went back to the lab, reveled in mourning baselines, and crafted sweeping images of the great Satan's fall. They added Joey on the keyboard, changed the group's name to the Foundation, and switched their sound until it was holy and urging rebellion. I played his tapes along with all the others, and began to understand.
I was 12, but when I heard Lyrics of Fury"A haunt if you want the style I posses/I bless the child, the Gods, the Earth, and bomb the rest"I put away childish things, went to the pad, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed and put pen to pad.
Chuck D spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time.
My hand was awkward, and when I rhymed, the couplets would not adhere, punch lines crashed into bars, metaphors were extended until they derailed off beat. I was unfit, but still I had at it for days, months, and ultimately years. And the more ink I dribbled onto the page, the more I felt the blessing of the sacred order of MCs. I wrote everyday that summer, rhymed over B-sides instrumentals, until my pen was a Staff Of The Dreaded Streets, (plus five chances to banish fools on sight) and my flow, though flicted and disjointed, made my hands tingle.
I'd walk outside, and my head was just a little higher, because if you do this right, if you claim to be that nigger enough, though you battle only your bedroom mirror, there is a part of you that believes. That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I beheld the greatest lesson of 88, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.
This essay is adapted from Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, copyright Ta-Nehisi Coates 2008. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Spiegel & Grau.
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