What were you doing in 1986?

If you were a suburban kid with access to a radio or MTV, you were experiencing the dawn of rap as a commercial force to be reckoned with. The genre had been around for awhile, of course, but this was the year it really started to enter the wider marketplace; the year it was cool to wear Adidas, fight for your right to party, and understand that it really didn’t matter whether Johnny and Gina made it or not.

To celebrate suburban rap’s 21st birthday, a number of bloggers, writers, and friends will be sharing their memories of this era, and talking about the songs that acted as their gateway to rap — the music that, in Jason’s words, made it “safe for crackers.” Break out your Bugle Boys and get ready to rock the bells!

This week’s entry comes to us courtesy of — wait for it — Jason Hare, who all of you remember from the preceding paragraph (and know and love as a permanent fixture around here since pretty much the beginning of the blog). In other words, he needs no introduction:

My very first experiences with rap were during the summer of 1987. I was 10 years old and attending sleepaway camp — Camp Somerhill in upstate NY — for the first time. We were dirty little bastards and refused to shower until it was absolutely necessary. I don’t think I stepped foot into a shower until the second week of camp, after I drew black magic marker all around my right eye in order to enter the “Rocky Balboa Lookalike Contest.” (I wound up looking more like Petey the dog from Our Gang, but I won the competition.)

As I entered the communal bathroom/shower area, I heard a number of people singing, seemingly taking turns warbling their favorite tunes at the top of their lungs. I hadn’t heard of any of them before, although I later figured out that one of the favorites to sing was REM’s “Superman.” I still remember standing in that shower, my head full of shampoo, when I heard two kids chant: “I did it like this, I did it like that, I did it with a wiffle ball bat.”

I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, but it seemed disgusting. I loved it.

Those two kids were in the bunk next door to mine, and a day or so later, I heard the line again, this time coming from their boom box. A bunch of young-sounding kids with loud, nasty voices. I entered their bunk and asked what they were listening to. One of them handed me the plastic cover to Licensed to Ill. I was fascinated. The cover was grungy, just like the vocals. I felt immediately welcomed into the clique of older kids as they held the cover up in the mirror to show me how the letters on the plane spelled out “EAT ME.” Nevermind that I had no idea what “eat me” meant.

We listened to The Beastie Boys all summer. “Paul Revere” (download), “Brass Monkey” (download), “Girls” (download), and especially “No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn” (download), which I remember was mangled into “No Sleep ‘Til The Bus Stops” on one of our field trips. Oddly, nobody seemed to have any real affection towards “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” but it wasn’t until I returned home that I realized it was the big hit from the album. The kids at camp weren’t interested in the “rock” song — they were only interested in the quick-spouting rhymes. I don’t think any of us wondered — or cared — whether they were black or white. We just cared that they were young, boisterous and completely fucking obnoxious. I had never heard anything like it before, and not much since then has had the same impact on my ears.