Monday, May 4, 2009

In Defence of Early Hip Hop

People tend to regard their first stumbling foray into the world of music with a sense of pleasant disinterest, as if buying that Milli Vanilli record was something that happened to somebody else. Rarely does anyone still feel passionately about the music that stirred their tender tweenie soul. It occupies a place in the nostalgic canon between pogs, colour-change T-shirts and those rubber poppers you used to lose by the end of morning playtime. Age hath greatly wearied it, and the years most unkindly condemned.

But not for me. Because you see, I spent those years listening – and I mean pretty much exclusively – to the blossoming, exciting and very hip hip hop and R&B of the day (well, not quite exclusively). I'm talking about the gloriously innocent window between around 1989, the date of Chris Hits #1 (my first compilation tape - thanks Dad) and 1993, when gangsta rap moved from the periphary to the mainstream and we all started stomping around talking about 187s and hos and trying to twist our fingers into gang signs ("Chris Hits Rulez OK" – I needed a group of friends to do it but I think it showed those bloods and crips a thing or two about dexterity).

I'm talking, of course, about stuff like this:

During the early 90s, America was cool. Unashamedly, unequivocally, universally cool. Even, surely, to Al-Qaeda (who, for the record, I think later took the command "BOOM! Shake the room!" far too literally).

Everyone - or at least, everyone at my school - wanted to be American. Everyone wanted to live in a house like the Cosby's, dance like Kid 'n Play and learn the words to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as quickly as humanly possible.

It was a time when a reference to Homebase earned you the reputation of a kid who was cool, edgy and perhaps even slightly dangerous, rather than a kid who spent his free time grouting or turning the soil and whose idea of danger was to shut his eyes and spin around in the cactus aisle.

It was a time of hope, innocence and wonderful self-delusion. Even as late as 1997, I imagine that I could pull off a Fubu cap and look more LL than Vanilla Ice.

But then again, back then, who DIDN'T want to stop, collaborate and listen! anyway? Despite the poor man's surname being Van Winkel (which doesn't seem to me to have received sufficient press coverage) and his later attempt at renounciation, make no mistake: Vanilla Ice was one cool dude. We all thought it. And if that's not joyful delusion then I don't know what is.

Sure, there were times when this god-awful sort of ethno-ragamuffin look got a little out of hand (Soul II Soul, I'm looking at you). And lot of the music videos now seem horrifyingly corny (Soul II Soul, I'm looking at you). But listen to this, this or this and tell me these guys weren't on to something seriously good. And if there's a person alive whose face doesn't light up at the words "Drrrums please!" then I haven't met them.

The point is that before it was led to the more, erm, 'unremittingly violent' side of life by Compton's finest, before America stopped being widely adored and had to rein in its braggadocio, and before we all realised that Milli Vanilli were FAKING ALL ALONG, hip hop was a happy, confident little boy who ran around in the park all day long and ate sand from the sandpit.

So you can keep your repulsive sweat-activated T-shirts, your utterly pointless pogs and those stupid poppy-off-the-finger things you used once and never saw again. This is a childhood obsession that shall never grow old. When I gaze back to the flowering of my musical youth, I remember the positivity, the funk, the energy - and being the first kid in school to learn the words to 'Boom! Shake the Room'. And the cool points I got for THAT surely forgive a thousand sins.

* That one might have been just me. I Googled the dance and - though I've discovered it had a name: the Funky Charleston - other details are not forthcoming. More of a one-man craze then. Which at least explains why no-one is ever up for doing it with me.

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