This is the first in a series of articles in which I reflect on my upbringing in Lithonia, Georgia. Much of it relates to Hip-Hop, and how I truly discovered a culture that would eventually define my outlook on life. This was my world from childhood to adolescence.I get very defensive when people refute the idea that Hip-Hop started in the Bronx. Writer Charlie Braxton once put it, “Hip-Hop is the one form of Black popular music that doesn’t have its origins in the south, but its deeper roots are in the south.” I take the idea that Hip-Hop “started” in my birthplace as confirmation that I was meant to be a creative force in this world. It’s that sacred to me.
Now there’s nothing wrong with hometown pride, but being raised in the south showed me firsthand how hometown pride can become a barrier that prevents communication between Black folks. Yet even to this day, being raised south of the mason Dixon broadened my horizons much more than I care to admit.
When I was nine years old, my family relocated from The BX to Lithonia, GA. I wasn’t exactly happy about this, as we visited relatives in Georgia the year before and I thought it was boring. Regardless, there I was, living in a four bedroom house within a cul-de-sac in a Lithonia neighborhood. I thought the kids talked funny, and they thought the exact same about me. Still, we found common ground in toys and cartoons. In a few short years, my tastes would grow to fully accommodate rap music.
AT the time, NYC still had that mystique. Native Georgians would be loath to admit it now, but there was a time when they sweated New Yorkers HARD. Kids would always ask me what it was like up there. Since I wasn’t anywhere near old enough to have run the streets, and only had a casual acquaintance with Hip-Hop, I couldn’t tell them much Rap music was their only reference point, along with movies like Krush Groove and Beat Street.
Even then, Georgia had its own rap scene going. While my older cousins would keep me hip on what was burning up NY radio at the time, my playmates (most of which were Georgia natives) put me on to what cats in Atlanta were bumping. I heard mixtapes by “King” Edward J, who eventually sired the likes of DJ Smurf aka Mr. Collipark.
Many of the local rap groups took their cues from the prominent New York rappers of the day. In fact, MC -Shy D, arguably the first true superstar of the ATL Hip-Hop scene, was a native of The Bronx River Projects. He came to GA in the late 70’s
“Fresh Party,” A Friday night mixshow on urban radio station V103, would play songs from local groups like Success-n-Effect and 1.5 Posse. They also played healthy doses of current NY hits, Miami Bass, and L.A. Electro. I can still vividly remember when the 2 Live Crew’s first album, The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are, was passed around among neighborhood kids like contraband. Most of them got it by way of their older siblings. My young friends and I would listen to it with the volume down low, giggling at the profanity.
Once my older cousin Tony (who would go on earn a tiny bit of notoriety as one half of the Wyld Pitch records duo Hard Knocks) saw my burgeoning interest in Hip-Hop, he sought to mold it. When I was ten, he sat me down and showed me a film called Wild Style. After the film, I started gushing about Chief Rocker Busy Bee. He then played me an old school battle tape of Busy Bee getting annihilated by some guy named Kool Moe Dee. After that, he would often loan me records from his personal collection to get me acquainted with the right artists.
Due in part to the influence of my relatives, and my own personal choices, I gravitated toward golden era NY Hip-Hop, particularly the “Strong Island” sound. The monotone of Rakim and the raucousness of Public Enemy felt hypnotic to me, while the booming 808’s of the ATL Bootyshake and Miami Bass scenes played as something of a novelty. Likewise, many of the Georgia natives I knew began to feel a sense of alienation from the new generation of NY wordsmiths. As my neighbor across the street would say frequently back then, “I can’t understand what they saying.” To add insult to injury, the production style coming out of the five boroughs was changing. Producers began to rely less on 808’s and more on James Brown samples. By the time the West Coast Gangsta rap made its presence widely known, my neighbor found a sound and style that better suited his southern roots.
Between 1988 and 1990, I experienced rap’s first real generation gap. While super lyricists, “conscious” rappers, and hippies were changing the face of NY rap, the south and west coast began building on the sonic traditions established by songs like “Planet Rock” and “Drag Rap.” My New York relatives were skeptical of such innovations from the start, and mocked them more as the years went by. I adopted and grew to mirror their disdain.
I was never much of a fan of party and club oriented rap music. Had The Fat Boys or Run DMC debuted any time after my 12th birthday, I would have looked down my nose at them. Being around my relatives and other NY transplants, just augmented that sentiment.
Now I see how myopic such attitudes were. I also can look back and see how they turned admirers into enemies, and perhaps stunted the growth of NY Hip-Hop in the long run. The disdain that New Yorkers showed for early forms of Southern rap (and southern culture in general), would soon manifest itself in a civil war that I saw play out in Georgia area high schools during the early 1990’s. Harsh words were exchanged and blows were thrown. I avoided most of it, as my introverted and humble nature prevented me from going beyond a certain point with Northern hubris (as well as an aversion to getting my ass whipped).
When I moved back to New York during my senior year of High School, the things I had seen gave me a unique perspective on Hip-Hop, but that is another story for another time.
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