could be ruthless, calm as fuck on the outside,
but flooded with adrenaline, because the other
rapper was coming for me, too. It wasn’t a Marquess of Queensberry situation. I saw niggas get
swung on when the rhymes cut too deep. But
mostly, as dangerous as it felt, it stayed lyrical.
I look back now and it still amazes me how intense those moments were, back when there was
nothing at stake but your rep, your desire to be
the best poet on the block.
I wasn’t even in high school yet and I’d
discovered my voice. But I still needed a story
Hip-hop was looking for a narrative, too.
By the time the 1980s came along, rap was exploding, and I remember the mainstream breakthroughs like they were my own rites of passage.
In 1981, the summer before seventh grade, the
Funky Four Plus One More performed “That’s
the Joint” on Saturday Night Live, and the
Rock Steady Crew got on ABC Nightly News
for battling the Dynamic Rockers at Lincoln
Center in a legendary showdown of B-boy
dance crews. My parents watched Soul Train
every Saturday when we cleaned up, but when
my big sister Annie and I saw Don Cornelius
introduce the Sugar Hill Gang, we just stopped
in the middle of the living room with our jaws
open. What are they doing on TV?
I remember the twelve-inch of Run-DMC’s
“It’s Like That” backed with “Sucker MCs” being
definitive. That same year, 1983, the year I started
high school, Bambaataa released “Looking for
the Perfect Beat” and shot a wild-ass video wear-
ing feathered headdresses that they’d play on the
local-access channel. Annie and I would make
up dance routines to those songs, but we didn’t
take it as far as the costumes. Herbie Hancock’s
“Rockit” came out that year, too, and those three
records were a cultural trifecta. Disco, and even
my parents’ classic R&B records, all faded into
the background. Everywhere we went there
were twelve-pound boom boxes being pulled on
skateboards or cars parked on the curb blasting
those records. DJ Red Alert debuted his show
on Kiss FM and Afrika Islam had a show, Zulu
Beats, on WHBI. The World’s Famous Supreme
Team did a show you had to catch early in the
morning. Kids would make cassettes and bring
them to school to play one another the freshest
new song from the night before. I’m not gonna
say that I thought I could get rich from rap, but
I could clearly see that it was gonna get bigger
before it went away. Way bigger.
Jay-Z, from Decoded. After almost fifteen years as
a crack-cocaine dealer, Jay-Z sold CDs from his car
in the early 1990s, cofounded Roc-A-Fella Records
in 1995, and landed a distribution deal with a
major label to release his debut album, Reasonable
Doubt, in 1996. Two years later, he bought a beat
that sampled “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” from the
musical Annie; the resulting hit led to album sales
of more than five million copies. In 2008 the rapper,
born Shawn Carter, married the singer Beyoncé
Knowles. They have three children.
Divine Inspiration of Music, by Nicolas Régnier, c. 1640.