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 the man who brought you the Complete Idiot’s Guides to Chicago, Slayer, and Minnie Riperton — yes, it’s that crazy bastard Harmolodic, and he’s assembled a typically diverse mix of memories and music for our enjoyment. Take it away!

Picture it: the back of a school bus, riding home at the end of the day in a small New England town, 1987:a short, clean-cut goody two shoes of a fourth grade boy is finding himself at the verbal mercy of three bullies in fifth grade. They are holding down the very back seats of the bus like a pack of German shepherds. This fourth grader is at a loss, having moved from an even smaller, predominantly white New England town, where he was the most popular and well-liked in his class. Now he’s trying his best to shout back insults to these bullies, something he has never had to do before. Wit he has not, only volume. But even his volume is snuffed when, suddenly, without warning, the three bullies break into a seamless flow, as if they had been rehearsing for hours the night before:

Hey! You over there, I know about your kind
You’re like the Independent Network News on Channel 9
Everywhere that you go, no matter where you at
I said you talk about this, and you talk about that
When the cat took your tongue, I say you took it right back
Your mouth is so big, one bite would kill a Big Mac

You talk too much, you never shut up
I said you talk too much, homeboy you never shut up!

I mean, what can one do in such a situation? Exactly what you would do — shut the hell up for the rest of the ride, that’s what. So much for “safe for crackers” — Run-DMC’s “You Talk Too Much” (download) nearly cut one small white boy’s pride down to nothing, and it wasn’t even coming from the mouths of its originators!

These bullies, and some of our hero’s new friends, also found that the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill was an effective ego booster. And more harmoniously, this same school bus’ occupants often found themselves breaking into chants of the lyrics to “Paul Revere,” which made everyone feel super cool and tough, boys and girls alike (though there were few girls who joined in, to be sure), to chant “I did it like this / I did it like that / I did it with a Wiffle ball bat.” However, our hero’s mother was not about to let her little boy take an LP into the house that bore Tipper Gore’s ugly black-and-white “Parental Advisory” logo. Aye:yet another stumbling block into hip hop.

To make matters worse, our hero’s closest friends didn’t really like rap at all. One friend had an older brother who was teaching him all about the Doors, the Who and Led Zeppelin. Soon, this same friend would be hardening his rock preferences with Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne and AC/DC. “When are you going to be out of this rap phase?” he would ask. Our hero could only do one thing — keep his fascination with rap close to the vest, and make friends with Doctor Dre and Ed Lover instead.

Yes, Yo! MTV Raps became his outlet, and it was here that he latched onto De La Soul’s ultra funky hit “Me Myself And I” (download), and marveled over the “three sided” 12″ single (there were two concurrent sets of grooves on side two, so you had to be very careful about where you placed the needle on the flip side so that you would hear the song you wanted. Who ever thought of such a thing? Pure genius!). Then there was the irresistible melody and dancehall beat of the Wee Papa Girl Rappers’ “Wee Rule” (download). Better still was MC Lyte, whose “Lyte As A Rock” (download) appealed to his nature as a teacher’s pet. And an important lesson he learned from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” (download) is that, before you can boast, you gotta have both skills and confidence. And these guys had both nailed. Our hero knew he had a long way to go.

As he learned to keep his own mouth shut more often, our hero could sense that perhaps L.L. Cool J might have done well to heed this advice when he recorded “Clap Your Hands” (download). He managed to get his hands on the “clean” version of the Walking With A Panther cassette, and yet, some things are easily figured out if only one word is obscured. I mean, who in their right mind would ever claim, “I’m so bad, I can suck my own %^&*?” Maybe if you’re trying to get a schoolboy to laugh hysterically, sure, but I don’t think that was the idea here, you know? Couple that with the line, “I’m like a muscle man in jail — they leave me alone,” and I think you know what I’m thinking here about ol’ L.L. Ladies Love Cool James? Uh huh.

But the true moment when our hero lost his innocence at the hands of hip hop arrived on his first listen to Tone Loc’s Loc’ed After Dark cassette. No, it wasn’t “Wild Thing” or “Funky Cold Medina” that achieved such a lofty objective. Rather, it was a six-minute cut stuck in the middle of side two that did the trick. He didn’t know quite what he was hearing, but he knew it was bad.

“It ain’t harmful like heroin, this stuff’s cheap”: hmm, could be talkin’ about cough medicine. He tuned out as he started thinking the track was kinda silly. But then:

“I said, oh shit! This brotha’s got the munchies!”

Uh oh, is he rappin’ about what we think he’s rappin’ about?

“But everything is funny when you’re smokin’ mary jane” — MARIJUANA!! “Oh my God, I can’t let my parents find out!” is the thought that immediately rushes through his mind. “This is BAD!! I can’t believe I have a drug song!”

Ironically, it was this song that made his mind safe for the 20th anniversary of Woodstock. And though all the lyrics about bongs and resin and roach clips went completely over his head, now, of course, he knows what every single word means in Tone Loc’s “Cheeba Cheeba” (download). Not that he’s a pothead or anything. Just experienced, that’s all.

And our hero is? As our man Anthony Kiedis once rapped with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “If You Have to Ask” (download), you’ll never know.

About the Author

Michael Fortes

Michael Fortes began writing for Popdose upon its launch in January of 2008, following a music writing journey that began with his high school newspaper and eventually led to print and web publications such as Performer Magazine and Bullz-Eye.com. Born and raised in The Biggest Little State in the Union (otherwise known as Rhode Island), Michael relocated in 2004 to San Francisco, where he works as an office professional during the day, sings harmonies in Sugar Candy Mountain at night, and religiously supports the local San Francisco Bay Area music scene nearly every chance he gets.

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