Note: Arrest The President is a new weekly TROY Blog column that will look at rap, past and present, from a socio-political perspective. Enjoy.
I grew up on the northern edge of a mid-sized New Jersey industrial/port city, in an apartment complex that slouched at an intersection with seven other buildings whose occupants kept shifting. Cross-Town’s kaleidoscopic nature was a local secret unless you scrunched your clammy earlobes to the concrete. Then you’d find that this vaguely pretty ‘hood —-nestled smugly between Westminster’s micro-mansions, a series of cemetaries, and the state’s biggest airport —- demanded that its residents code-shift with verve.
My early training (‘85-’90) in merging local dialects —- boricua/quisequeya spanglish, Jamaican and Haitian patois, street talk —- taught me to flow with the shockwaves of change. Elders served up tawdry, unverifiable just-so stories about the inherent flaws of other ethnic groups or social classes. This pressure did not stop us from mingling but paranoia, fueled by the crack wars, colored our curiosity. Even in elementary school we pursued friendships cautiously. On television and radio, journalists, academics, and politicians performed a non-stop smear campaign against urban youth, painting us all as nascent criminal predators. We believed it, lived it, loved it a little too.
Middle School meant getting bussed across town. Court-ordered integration overlapped with turf rivalries; crews that used to blend nicely forgot how to act. The incompatibly layered housing stock loops that flickered across my scratchy school bus window for the whole length of Broad Street seemed to ache with upheaval. Architectural styles signaled toxic, superlocal, alien ways of life that seemed liable to leak out and fuck with you. Your personal enemy list was rearranged as quickly as the grapes, sevens, and bars on A.C. slots.
Any herb walking the streets thinking he could start shit with the Polo-clad Trinis from the semi-detached houses near Jefferson Park was asking for trouble. Doubly so if he tried to post high like the Northside garden apartment goose-down boosting boricuas or sleep soundly while the Guess-obsessed midtown morenos from the co-ops plotted his demise. By high school the rowdiest crews, now fully committed to the drug trade, recruited crimeys from all backgrounds. Those of us who were not thugged out beyond self-defense had to move warily.
Without unaplogetically thoughtful music and literature, the ghetto nerd universe might have imploded from stress. Mercifully, ‘95 saw two bundles of high explosives in the form of rapper Raekwon’s solo debut Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Dominican-American author Junot Diaz’s first published book Drown. Fucked our heads up, to say the least. Both works commanded us to imagine our environs as a locus classicus, not just of street dreams gone sour, but also of poignant, flavorful works of art.
Fans of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx are struck by the breadth and depth of the “Shaolin” world depicted within; I was doubly struck when I learned of the actual physical smallness of these north shore Staten Island neighborhoods. Raekwon’s Shaolin is not the same emblematic “everyghetto” inflated to austere celestial proportions in classic old school rap like Eric B. and Rakim’s “In The Ghetto.” The place is drawn instead to encompass the spectrum of social ills commonly associated with NYC’s poorest neighborhoods but it is imbued by Raekwon and his collaborators with its own particular cosmopolitan “exoticness,” aurally and verbally sketched.
In the imagination of Raekwon and his fellow rappers, Shaolin’s placement just a stone’s throw away from more affluent locales and the famous ferry transforms it from a blighted outpost on the wrong end of de facto segregation and the illegal drug trade to a way station that spirals out into worlds of intrigue, vice, and opulence. In Drown, Diaz’s rendering of the London Terrace apartments on the very end of Jersey facing Staten Island is approached differently: the slums and the lives of its inhabitants, many wind-swept from Latin America, are drawn plainly and perhaps pathetically, but with respect to their magical idiosyncrasies.
Both works put me and my crew on the map. Our somewheres, defeated by de-industrialization, mattered. The proof was in and about us, in the surreal twisted words and phrases, garish gear and home furnishings, convoluted visions of uplift, duels between solidarity and selfishness, and even in our misguided, resourceful pursuit of food, drink, weed, and women. All of this could be put through the filter of the mind and shot out to a waiting world of hidden slums and backwaters. I read and lent out that little paperback until the adhesive dried and pages flaked off, and bumped that purple cassette until the shit popped. — Thun