I bypassed last week’s Old School Friday because I had Record Store Day fish to fry. You’ll forgive me. I have faith. I also have some Me Phi Me in the CD player.
I mentioned in my original entry in the Old School Fridays series that I at one time owned every rap album in the BMG monthly music catalog. No exaggeration, really. As a result of that obsession to discover this totally new (to me) arena of music, I had a lot of bad CDs… but for every three truly terrible rap records I bought, I discovered something spectacular, something that I probably wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
Me Phi Me’s ONE came out in 1992 as a rebuttal to the gangster rap that had just begun to gain some crossover attraction. For this album, I have no particular story of discovery or happenstance, but it’s always stuck with me and grounds me in that Detroit-era time period. Best classified as “folk rap,” Me Phi Me (born La-Ron K. Wilburn) hailed from Flint, Michigan and he conceived the name Me Phi Me as an homage to the historically black fraternities Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi.
He gained some notoriety for appearing on the Reality Bites soundtrack, but beyond that and some buzz bin play on BET and MTV, Me Phi Me never gained much widespread popularity. Snippets of lyrics always stayed with me, especially this second verse from “Keep It Goin”:
You heard the rhythm
Saw the mechanism, what a funky system
Coming from the capital P, the H… I am a new age warrior
Fighting the battle for joy and euphoria
I march to the beat of a different drummer
Spring, winter, fall and summer
To show them what happens when you’re proud and strong
You keep going all night long
“It Was A Good Day” dominated the radio and video charts in early 1993, my last months in Detroit before moving to Pittsburgh. I most associate that song with my transition… which speaks to its omnipresence, because even though I had Ice Cube’s The Predator — on cassette, mind you — I rarely let the tape roll beyond the fourth track, “Wicked.” In my mind, the best song solo Cube ever recorded.
I had just been introduced to NWA by my little friend, Jeff, a year or so earlier. And I say “little” not to be somehow dismissive or derogatory, but because Jeff was just a short little Jewish dude, a fact I documented, with some context, in my mini-memoir about Detroit, the Detroit Tigers and whiffleball, Mickey Tettleton. Jeff had an older brother, a slightly less-short Jewish dude, who was in high school and supplied Jeff with all kinds of classic rap all on well-spun cassettes, often without inserts. They were old to him, but brand f’ing new to us. Not only did I first learn about NWA from this apparently endless wellspring but also Johnny Clegg & Savuka. Indispensable musical education, if you ask me. I dubbed Jeff’s inherited NWA tape, Straight Outta Compton, and that dub remains the only copy of that record I ever owned… until I recently picked up a new pressing of the record on vinyl. Modern music consumption has become akin to the snake eating its own tail.
Suffice to say in the time after discovering the pure, explicit awesomeness of Straight Outta Compton, I’d become very familiar with all of the solo records released by the members of NWA and devoured them all… though I never especially understood the appeal of Eazy-E. If I remember correctly I ended up giving that one Eazy-E record to Jeff. The weekend after Ice Cube released The Predator, I encouraged my mother, as only a fourteen-year old could (somehow deluding myself that I’d managed to convince her that the outing was for her own benefit), to take me to the CD store. At this point, most music stores had ceased to carry vinyl. Cassettes and CDs shared space on the floor. CDs lived in the middle of the store while the cassettes lined the exterior walls. I rushed though the near-empty Camelot Music to beat all of people who *weren’t* mobbing the “I” tab in the rap section. “I” tab. No new Ice Cube record. I asked the clerk. I remember this conversation vividly. He said, “No more Cube, kid.” Color me extraordinarily confused. Your job is to stock the music and you’ve somehow overlooked stocking enough of the new Ice Cube record? Then the clerk suggested that I go look for the tape, waving somewhere in the general direction of the back wall.
I was beyond purchasing full albums on cassette. WE HAVE COMPACT DISCS NOW! THE FUTURE IS NIGH!
But I wanted this album. I needed it. So I swallowed my pride. Ice Cube’s The Predator became the last record I ever purchased on cassette tape. I found that tape recently, as I cleared out some old boxes in my basement, in an old plush Denon cassette case, the ones that came with the blank tapes. It had lived, right alongside that dubbed cassette of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton for 20 years. And then there was the cassette singles for “I’m Too Sexy” and “My Name Is Prince.”
I’ve been looking for new ways to keep the focus of this bl-g on music and nostalgia and still keep up with the regular demands of curating such a website. I’ve been consumed with the James Bond Social Media Project and posting lengthier stories hasn’t been in the cards. So today I’m giving birth to a new 30Hz series.
One of the passions from my teenage years that I’ve always carried with me, perhaps asynchronously, is my love of classic old school hip hop. Starting at around age 10 I confounded my parents by listening to Run D.M.C., De La Soul and LL Cool J, to name a few of those early favorites. I tried to pin the whole phenomenon on my dad’s Sugar Hill Gang record. I was a kid that grew up in rural Michigan, outside Kalamazoo… on a farm. Nobody in that two convenience store, two video store, two bar, one grocery store town of 2000 people listened to rap music… if you 12 and weren’t listening to Guns ‘n Roses (or New Kids on the Block in certain circles), you weren’t listening to music.
When I moved to Detroit in 1990, suddenly I had radio stations that only played hip hop… I could walk into a record store and find rap and hip hop music on just about every end cap. Though I may have listened to a little rap music before, now it became a crutch, a new identity. At one point I remember owning every record in the “rap” category in the BMG Music Club catalog. When someone stumbles onto my collection of records or CDs, there’s generally a pause followed by a statement that’s really a question cloaked in insecurity. How does one respond to such a discovery?
“You listen to a lot of rap music.”
For the longest time, I never knew how to respond . Who doesn’t? was never really an acceptable response, even in jest. After a few dozen iterations, I stumbled into a sweet spot, an answer that both humors and illuminates by implying partial truth and stereotype.
“I grew up in Detroit.”
“Ahhhh…. yes.” *nods*
But the truth is that I’ve always listened to all kinds of music… but rap and hip hop from the late 80’s and early 90’s struck a chord at exactly the right time of my youth. I was a fish-out-of-water farm boy suddenly attending a ritzy Grosse Pointe prep school with three-story gleaming white pillars out front. Dress code. Shirts with little horses, ties and khakis. Who was I? How did I fit in here in this world of Polo shirts and mansions and in-ground pools? Though I made friends with, well, we’ll call it “relative” ease, I was more comfortable around other kids who also had a Detroit address. But why was that? Indeed, most of the kids with the Detroit zip codes were black, but just as many were confused Caucasians like myself who were just trying to fit in somewhere, anywhere. I don’t think of the Grosse Pointe/Detroit divide as some sort of modern Mason-Dixon microcosm, but rather as an artificial divide between the kids at my school who felt that there was no other place but “here” and those that didn’t know, exactly where “here” was. I just happened to live on the side of Mack Avenue that made me an outlier, that perhaps accentuated my pre-existing awkwardness. Detroit public schools were a disaster. At the school I would have attended had I not gone to private school, seven kids were shot when a guy just walked in from the street and started shooting in a hallway. I drove past this school every day to get to mine. This also makes me consider the sacrifices my parents had to make in order to send me through the doors surrounded by pillars and marble instead of metal detectors.
The question then was: How the $*%$ did I get here? …wherever “here” really was…
Now, I wonder who I would have been without those three surreal years between rural Southwestern Michigan and Pittsburgh. If I had to pinpoint one part of my life that left the strongest imprint, it’s Detroit. Without question. But do I understand why that city still resonates so strongly in my personal identity?
So, in honor of those confused, formative middle school years, I bring you Old School Fridays, at the frequency of 30Hz. And for my first entry, I bring you a song that dominated the radio in 1990, my first year in Detroit. When I hear this song I immediately recall my art class where we could always listen to whatever channel we wanted while we worked. When Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” came on, someone always rushed over and turned up the volume… and many of us would sing along… until our teacher wandered over, ever so casually, and turned the volume right back down from whence it came. BBD’s “New Jack Swing” sound wasn’t exactly rap — but it was the best gateway drug imaginable.
I will save this picture on the off chance that one day I can build my DREAM house and find this architect and this decorator and tell them to make me a dining room like this. I think it's one of the first formal dining rooms I've ever really liked.