What exactly did it take for a white guy from the Panhandle of Texas to become a hip/hop-head? There are a multitude of ways that my music tastes could have been infiltrated, some I have a reasonable grasp on and others that betray my understanding altogether. However, the one that I probably understand the best is my complete inability to turn down a bet, dare, challenge, or whatever you want to call it. I, personally, call it a death wish. Some turn out better than others: snorting a Pixie Stick for $5 in middle school was probably the worst one. (To this day, certain things still have a slight hint of cherry in their aroma.)
But it was leading up to 2011 when I took on the challenge that would completely reinvigorate my love for music. A friend of mine, who was a music sales rep for one of the major music sellers in the country, challenged me to listen to a year of hip hop. He sent me a list of around 70 classic hip/hop albums, mainly from 1985-2000 and I chose 52, one per week. And thus began the revolution of my music tastes.
I cannot rightly take you through the whole experience of the year, so I will try to give you a glimpse. My first album was Lucy Ford: The Atmosphere EPs, because I had already bought it and it was handy. Slug, the emcee for Atmosphere, is a nice entry point for people who know little to nothing about hip/hop and base their negative opinions of hip/hop on other negative opinions by people who never really listened to it either (these people may or may not have been largely white). I can speak somewhat cynically here, because I was one of those people. The only album I had really listened to in the genre before 2011 was N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, but that had always been a trendy thing for white middle class high school kids to do. I was, however, about to enter into the wide world of hard and funky beats.
No holds barred. Take no prisoners. Do or die.
I went from A Tribe Called Quest to Public Enemy to Beastie Boys to Eric B. And Rakim to RUN D.M.C., Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, Wu Tang Clan (and its individual members), Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, MF Doom, Madlib, Company Flow (and its members, mainly El-P) and to a few of my Christian brothers in DeepSpace5. I journeyed across a reasonably good cross-section of the hip/hop landscape. So as the beats traversed my ears week after week, I began to pick up on the slang, the types of samples commonly used, cultural observations of these ghetto reporters and visions of these prophets of the streets. And the strangest thing happened somewhere in that year— I began to care.
I began to care about the things these emcees were flowing about. I began to care about the specific problems that were part of the black community. And, most importantly, I began to dig into how the gospel could answer those issues that were as much a part of hip/hop as the soul/jazz/funk samples that were being mixed by those wizards of the turntable. A white guy, who lived a majority of his life in a town that had probably no more than four black families within its city limits, began to be moved across the tracks, to the streets, to the ghettos, to the places that most comfortable, American Christians would never want to go nor to understand.
I inundated myself with documentaries, books, artwork (largely graffiti) and anything else that was essential to the definition of hip/hop, all the while coming to understand elements of my faith that I don’t think I ever would have understood if it had not been for this personal displacement. Yes, there is gratuitous violence in gangsta rap music, but there is gratuitous violence in the ghettos. Yes, there is gratuitous misogyny in hip/hop music, but there is gratuitous misogyny in all parts of our country (and in all cultures). And, yet, we only point our collective finger toward this one genre of music. Classic avoidance of blame. These things should be fought against, but pointing the finger just at hip/hop is not going to fix it. We need to point that finger right back at ourselves, for we are just as much a part of the problem. Part of our effortless ability to shift blame lies in our society’s lack of knowledge about the origins of hip/hop and what it was originally meant to do. At the dawn of hip/hop, its creation was meant as a force for good, to provide an identity for a ghetto youth that felt abandoned (by migration out of the inner cities to the suburbs). Afrika Bambaataa could be said to be the father of hip/hop, because it was largely his vision. He wanted to give the black youth something to make their own and they did, at least until the record companies saw the profitability of hip/hop in the mainstream.
All of this to say that what I came to find in hip/hop was grace. Grace, because it is given not earned. It is the doctrine that renews all without allowing any single person to boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). I can hear the laments in hip/hop of a fallen world. The laments of the black community scarred and angered by their collective history in America. You want to see part of the reality of the fallen world we live in? You ain’t gonna find it listening to music within the Christian subculture. You gotta displace yourself, like Amos, the Judean who spoke the judgment from God to Israel, and be willing to place yourself near the ugliness and sin and relate to the brokenness and suffering of humanity before the beauty of Christ’s work and the bright glory of God will fill you with hope and give you the courage to speak truth and shine that light in the darkness.
My Personal Selections for Your Listening Pleasure:
- Buhloone Mindstate by De La Soul – Probably my favorite hip/hop album. Soulful, jazzy, and fun. Hard to go wrong with the first four De La records.
- Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest – The first three Tribe records are essential hip/hop listening, but this one is my favorite of the three.
- Madvillainy by Madvillain – One of the more recent selections. Short, punctuated songs with no hooks. Brutally honest collaboration: Madlib’s production and MF Doom’s flows are tight. An absolute classic.
- Things Fall Apart by The Roots – Though, by no means, the best hip/hop crew, these guys put together a smart, socially conscious and emotionally resonant album here.
- Cold Vein by Cannibal Ox – Probably the least accessible selection in this list. This is a powerhouse record. The flows are bleak and forward (and not devoid of “hard language”), but the atmosphere that is produced by El Producto is truly moving. Think of that one record you always listen to when you are feeling melancholy. This is that record translated into hip/hop.
Blake Collier has been blessed as an interim college minister for a Presbyterian church in Amarillo, Texas. He has his Masters in history from Texas Tech University, which he, still to this day, finds extremely unmarketable and incapable of being terribly useful. He makes shoddy attempts at poetry, fawns after Flannery O’Connor and has seen Grosse Pointe Blank near one hundred times. But, most important of this highly incredible information, is the fact that he is a sinner saved by grace, something that can only be explained by the ravenous pursuit of God. Check out his insanity and varied loves at fromexilegrowman.tumblr.com.