Prelude to Initials B.R. (Part 1)

A two-part introduction to the debut album. Initials B.R. is out April 4…

The first record I was ever given—or ever really owned for that matter—was LL Cool J’s Bigger And Deffer. When I received the present for my eighth birthday from my father’s coworker, I had no idea what was in store for me. It wasn’t Elvis (my first musical infatuation). It wasn’t David Bowie (my perennial musical hero). But it was utterly new. And it was mine. It clearly left an impression…

I don’t claim any kind of authority in the realm of rap knowledge. But like anyone concerned with some subject over a long period of time, you discover at some point that the individual present moments that seemed so dire at the time have congealed into a historical perspective that’s far more meaningful. Everything lines up in rows and columns and reads like a story. With regard to my rap romance, I can evaluate the world I lived in at any given time in conjunction with the music to which I listened.

For the most part, through my listening childhood, I was still just a kid. I chose Public Enemy and Ice Cube alongside Moni Love and Father MC. It was a strange, enchanting world that I was young enough to ingest, but fresh enough not to process. I noticed things change in my relationship with rap in the early and mid-nineties, as grunge and alternative began to hack at the music industry and the subversive urban genre grew into its hand-me-downs. Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, A Tribe Called Quest: these figures heralded a new age for a new musical landscape. I went through puberty with this music, growing with it as it too began to demand the respect of adults. And by the time I finished growing twelve inches in eighteen months, I felt so intimately involved with rap music that it was more familiar to me than my awkward body. I had arrived and so had rap. I drove my car around Denver consumed, blasting the opposing epiphanies of Common’s Resurrection and Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus, marinating in the defining spectrum of my musical understanding, thinking without worry, “It will never get better than this.” In some ways, for me at least, it didn’t.

In 1996, when Busta Rhymes rapped “There’s only five years left” in the introductory track of The Coming, he wasn’t far off. As the nineties elapsed, the schism between commercial and underground rap became the defining characteristic of the genre itself. Entrenched against Puff Daddy’s & Hype Williams’s decadent and blinding vision of the promised land, the indie renaissance made Rawkus Records the Mecca of underground hip-hop culture. Yet just as soon as it had risen to prominence, it pulled its best Sugarhill Records impression, short-sightedly letting their greed get the better of the music they built. Soundbombing II was the zenith pronouncing the denoument of golden era rap, bearing “1-9-9-9” as its poster-child and Mos Def & Talib Kweli as its prophets, bragging that they knew the real Eminem as he shrewdly slipped away towards unbelievable fame and fortune. The abysmal self-destruction of the Rawkus enterprise was the Y2K of rap. By 2001, the upstarts were doomed. It took just five years.

In the post-apocalyptic rap world, New York crumbled at the hands of the marauding South, the West built their Alamo around the great white hope and gangster nostalgia, and avant-gardists such as Def Jux and Anticon scurried through the rubble surprising the establishment with firefights like erratic survivalist militias and pesky terrorists. Meanwhile, against all odds, the music managed to conquer the world. But we all know how that went: Jay-Z the emperor, Kanye the crowned prince, 50 Cent the enforcer, Lil’ Wayne the court jester, Drake the savior, and more nobodies than ever fighting for the crumbs. Here we are.

But really, where are we?

To be continued…

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