Safe for Crackers: Jeff Vrabel Edition

Written by Music, Safe for Crackers

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!

Today’s entry comes to us courtesy of our good friend Jeff Vrabel, Chartburn member and god of freelance journalism; if you aren’t experiencing his witty rants (many of which I link to on Fridays) on a regular basis, I honestly don’t know what the hell is wrong with you. For the penultimate Safe for Crackers, Vrabel serves up a thick stack of vintage beats, some from fairly unlikely sources — but what else would you expect out of a kid from Indiana? Take it away, Jeff!

I don’t want to turn this post into a one-upsmanship-style game of Who’s Whiter Than Who Here, but I would argue that of all the crackers that have submitted to this department, none of the rest of them spent the formative days of their rap education in Upland, Ind., a hillbilly town of 39 people forgotten somewhere amidst the sprawling, Norman Rockwellian cornfields of central Indiana, kinda between Marion, Gas City, Mississinewa and Muncie. Upland was the sort of place where the 4th graders asked you what church you attended, where the only stoplight for miles blinked a sort of pathetic yellow, where the local university outlawed drinking, dancing, caffeinated cola and the movie “Footloose”; the running joke in our family was that “Welcome To Upland” and “You Are Leaving Upland” appeared on the same sign, which was funny EVERY SINGLE TIME.

Anyway, unless you play basketball or volunteer at the church, there’s not much to do in towns like Upland when you’re in the 4th-6th grades, so into our home dropped cable and into that cable dropped Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys and the like, groups who very quickly and without much explanation became fodder for my shitty boom box and its newly discovered High-Speed Dubbing capabilities. This is how I got into rap; dubbing “Raising Hell” and “Licensed To Ill” off some older kid, so sure, “Walk This Way” (download) led the way (this demo version that appeared as a bonus track on the 2005 Run-DMC remasters is here because it’s something different, and because even in demo form it blows the roof off the dump), as did the banging “It’s Tricky” (download) (also an alternate version and a “Scratchapella Mix” from some long-lost 12″, with different verses), both part of an album that seems to exist outside of time.

Do you remember the days — maybe you didn’t have these days, but I did — where you bought approximately one cassette or album per year and played the goddamn thing to within an inch of its life? That was me and my fuzzy, High-Speed Dubbed copy of “Raising Hell”; it was also me and a “Tougher Than Leather” (download) cassette that I purchased on a family vacation and had functionally memorized by the time we reached Virginia Beach. Do you want me to do “Ragtime” (download) right now? Because I can.

But here’s the thing: Growing up in a sinkhole like Upland is not something that invests a person with a lively sense of self-confidence and independence, and though my parents were not ones who would even have been troubled for long by the appearance of bad words — we all heard them from Grandma every Christmas Eve — I set out on what in retrospect was a mission to discover the poppiest, corniest, most aggressively accessible rap on the planet; in 1988, while Public Enemy, N.W.A., Slick Rick and KRS-One were rewriting the rules of racial identity in music, I was embroiled in a state of vague panic trying to sell a cassette of Tone Loc’s “Loc’ed After Dark” to some skater kid in Earth science because it had the word “motherfuckers” in the title track (download), even though that song, one of 3,492 rap songs to sample Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In,” is kinda sick. (I was a little braver when it came to “Wild Wild West,” [download] — partly because I thought Kool Moe Dee sounded like a cartoon Darth Vader).

So you probably see where this is going: While Chuck D was tearing up letters from the government, I was diving headlong into “He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper,” as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince snuggled right into my burgeoning desire for rap music that I could play at a CCD retreat if it came to that, and though the ridiculous sitcomism of that record is all people remember, it does have little tracks like “As We Go” (download) that have decent enough grooves, really (meanwhile, I’m including “Then She Bit Me” [download] from 1990’s “And In This Corner” here, because, seriously, what the hell is going on in this song?). It also led me to Young MC, who if you lined up every quasi-rapper in America in the late-’80s/early-’90s and seeded them by virtue of their badassness, would have been half of the play-in game with, I don’t know, Bart Simpson (ah, what the hell, here’s “Do The Bartman” [download]). “Bust A Move” aside, Young MC’s “Stone Cold Rhymin'” has its share of cornball rhymes and synthesized ridiculousness, but tracks like “I Come Off” (download) and “Non Stop” (download) were more often than not on my Walkman as I mowed my grandma’s lawn twice a week. Yeah. I listened to music OVER the lawn mower. And people wonder why I can’t hear a goddamn thing now.

Fortuitously, if you were like me and looking for rap that wasn’t anything like rap, this era was like a never-ending giving tree: Millions upon millions of people bought the Hammer-pants shtick and the hideous sociological terrors associated with Vanilla Ice, but there was also Bobby Brown (whose rap on “Every Little Step” (download) is genius, especially the line he rhymes with, “aah-haha-ha-haha-ahaha-aah:”), Biz Markie (“Just A Friend” [download], oddly moving), Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock (“Joy And Pain” [download], featuring the easiest chorus in the history of f—ing music) and, for Christ’s sake, a rap song about the fucking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (“Turtle Power” [download]).

It took years — and, truth be told, a much more worldly younger brother — to eventually alert me, with no small sense of shame and sympathy, to the side of rap that most other people had known about for years, although I had been hearing rumblings about it, from the kid with the Eazy-E tape on the bus (“Nobody Move” [download]), the Too Short CDs (whoa) that this little dude in my study hall stole from the mall Musicland and then sold to his classmates at what I can imagine was fantastic profit. Before long, Dave was sitting in his bedroom playing Super Tecmo and a poorly recorded radio version of the Digital Underground’s “Same Song” (download), and throwing me Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill, which, for a blank bespectacled adolescent with Harry Potter hair and no idea how to engage in subconscious rebellion, learning to make his way, was a small gateway to a larger world, which I explored with welcome.

Once, of course, I got out of a sad three-year hair metal phase.