As I reached fifth grade, Lithonia, Georgia’s fascination with New York City was still quite palpable. Many of my classmates knew the lyrics to the Fat Boy’s hit “Wipeout” by heart. On Fridays, we were often rewarded with a free period where we had a little freedom and were allowed to bring toys and other things that normally wouldn’t be permitted during school hours. One kid brought in the Vinyl cover for L.L. Cool J’s sophomore album Bigger and Deffer. Once, while on a field trip, a few of my classmates showed our music teacher how to play the bass line of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” on his guitar. New York was still very clearly the apple of everyone’s eye, and all was right with the world. Well, things were about to change in a big way, and the warning shot came in the form of a cop flick.
That spring, I started seeing TV commercials for a movie that had a lot of my classmates buzzing. It was called Colors. Though I was a budding film buff in those days, I had little interest. It had only one of the three elements I considered necessary at the time: Ninjas, robots, and guns (I was raised on Star Wars, karate flicks, and anime. I was that kind of kid.) Still, my classmate’s enthusiasm piqued my curiosity. One of them talked wide-eyed about a daytime talk show which profiled members of the gangs featured in the film. Most of what I knew about gangs at the time came from after school specials, but my classmates seemed to have heard of these two particular gangs even before this movie emerged on the scene.
From the very moment of its release, Colors was a lightning rod for controversy. It put the Bloods and Crips, two ultra violent Los Angeles gangs that had been warring with each other since at least the early 1970’s, on the national radar. The film was garnering a reputation as being a feature length gang recruitment video. Gang members in St. Louis, MS and Omaha, Nebraska cited it as a major influence. Ever the media savvy, self-appointed censor of my household, my mother banned me from seeing it. Of course, that only made it more fascinating.
My best friend, who lived across the street, borrowed a cassette of the film’s soundtrack from his cousin. We played it on his boombox while sitting on his porch. It featured the original version of Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw,” which was love at first listen for me. The beat was infused with adrenaline, and Kane was as serious as a heart attack.
Another track, which also happened to be the film’s theme song, also caught my attention. The opening of the song had a weird noise over a creepy synth bassline, sounding like a prison cell gate slowly being pulled shut. It conjured images of a gang rumble in my mind. Then the opening line came in:
I am a nightmare walking, psychopath talking
King of my jungle just a gangster stalking
What the hell was this? Kane sounded hard, but this guy sounded…scary. It gave me the chills, but it also appealed to my action movie sensibilities. What exactly was this scary world the rapper described? Again, Tony said “The jammy’s whack,” seemingly trying to crush my enthusiasm. The song still had a visceral impact on me, his objections be damned. It was a second case of love at first listen.
A pair of brothers from my subdivision actually got to see the film a few weeks after it opened. For weeks afterward, they took to wearing blue railroad handkerchiefs tied around their heads Aunt Jemima style. It was doubly funny, considering we lived in the most middle class suburb in human history, and their mom worked for Morehouse College. No matter what, “suburb n****s” always want to be down.
It was around this time that I finally got to see Colors on home video. I convinced my dad to rent it for me while my mom was away one weekend. What I had built up in my mind to be an insane gang movie was actually a mundane police procedural. The Bloods and Crips were just window dressing. There were a couple of cool shoot outs, including a drive by on a church during a gang funeral. Other than that, it was boring as hell.
In the summer of 1990, my neighbors started relating stories of having encountered transplanted Bloods and Crips in the Atlanta area. One told me how a friend of his in the military got his blue car shot up after parking it in the wrong neighborhood of a Los Angeles suburb. The news even started reporting on how members of the Bloods and Crips were recruiting in downtown Atlanta. My best friend across the street even told me they had been recruiting at our local High School, Southwest Dekalb. Refusals of their invites where often met with bloody consequences. To this day, I have no idea how much truth there was to that story.
Seven years later, after I’d relocated to Mount Vernon, NY, history repeated itself. Blood sets began popping up in Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Harlem. The news media caught wind of it, and panic overtook the city. As violent initiation rites, random subway patrons were slashed on their faces with razors. Teenaged aged girls were gang raped. Once while on 125th street, I saw a group of teens rocking red Yankees fitteds. They all had the same “Dopeman” Afros that I had seen on cats down south and on west coast gangsta rappers in their videos. Never in a million years had a I ever thought I’d see such things in New York. As it turned out, “suburb n****s” aren’t the only ones who want to be down. Ultimately, everyone does.
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