Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ridiculous But True Stories of Stuff That Happened to Me

Vol.2: Rappin' Ross

I was born in 1972. That means that I was a teenager in the 80’s. And if you know anything at all about modern music, you know that the 80’s were the birthplace of (at least) a couple of different genres and sub-genres of music: hair metal in the early 80’s, grunge in the very-late 80’s, boy-band-sugar-pop somewhere in the mid 80’s, etc.

Arguably the most pervasive and culture-altering of those genres was the music form commonly known as “rap” or, as it’s termed these days, “hip hop.” I won’t go into too much of the whole “history of rap” thing because there are obviously much more comprehensive – and probably more accurate – sources for that sort of thing.

I’ll only give you a few little tidbits as they relate to a larger story; a very ridiculous and absolutely true story of something that happened to me. Here we go.

It was autumn 1984. I was in 7th grade. The fashion was Izod shirts (or Polo, for the wealthy), parachute pants, tight-rolled Levi’s, and Air Jordans (or penny loafers for the die-hard preps and the aforementioned affluent). I was a shy, middle-class kid with a stutter and an as-yet-unrealized aptitude for lyric-crafting.

My brother Ken, 3 years my elder, was a true music lover and one of those people who was always listening to obscure music that would be cool 6 months later. That was a really big deal back then, because you didn’t have the internet or mp3’s or any of those futuristic luxuries. He was kind of a pioneer, I think, in terms of his music tastes. To this day, actually, he’s always asking me to listen to stuff that I’ve never heard of.

Like most younger brothers, I looked up to my older brother, and spent a lot of my time following him, literally and figuratively. So when my brother started listening to this crazy, new “street poetry” called “rap music,” I listened to it, too. We were, almost certainly, one of the few white suburban households in small-town Texas that had UTFO, Run-D.M.C., Whodini, and Kurtis Blow blasting away on the massive, faux-wood speakers of our hi-fi (some of you think I meant to type wi-fi, because you’re so young and innocent).

I liked rap. I didn’t understand most of it, and I knew that it was, at times, kind of dirty and scandalous, but I liked it. You’d really have to go back in some kind of time machine to understand the cultural impact that it was making at the time, but this was brand new stuff. I mean, there’s nothing new under the sun and all that, but rap music in the 80’s was the closest thing to a new musical art/media form that any of us will likely ever see. It’s crazy how hip hop has now taken such a prominent spot in modern music. But back in 1984, rap music was new and underground, and I was somehow vaguely aware of it in a way that lots of white folks probably weren’t.

So that’s a snapshot of the cultural angle. Here’s the real story.

I rode the bus to school. I have no shame in that. I ate in the cafeteria, too. And we didn’t have a fancy-shmancy food court at Anson-Jones School, so what I’m saying is that I ate Salisbury Steak and square pizza and such. It was great preparation for my someday-career as a worship leader. In the last 10-12 years, I’ve eaten a boatload of camp food, which is pretty much the same as school cafeteria food.

My bus arrived at school about an hour early. It had something to do with where I lived and bus schedules and such. You might actually be surprised how many kids there were at school at that time of the morning. A couple hundred, probably, out of maybe 1000-1200 kids in the entire school.

But I think maybe I was one of the only white kids that arrived that early. I’m not sure why that was. What I do know is that the 7 am crowd at Anson-Jones was predominantly black and Hispanic.

Stereotypes aside, that created a certain kind of mood. I’ve seen sketches on “Saturday Night Live” and “Chappelle’s Show” that imply that, when white people aren’t around, blacks, latinos, and other “not white” people have lots of fun and music and dancing. This was actually like that. Walking thru the schoolyard was like driving down the street during a little tiny, ethnic block party: break-dancing, laughing, singing, and all kids of games. It was really fun.

Naturally, I befriended some folks. And after a few weeks of this, I found myself most mornings standing in a circle, watching (mainly black) people “battle” with words that rhymed. Thanks to my big brother, I knew what they were doing (you have to remember that rap was anything but mainstream at this point). I’d heard this before. But let me tell you, seeing it in person was way cooler. There was all this added tension and humor and energy. It was all very intoxicating to a white kid like me.

I could go on for days about the way those mornings shaped and changed me, and about the kinds of friendships that I formed (many that lasted all the way thru high school). I’m even fairly certain that those times were in some way tied to my years-later desire for a multi-colored family. And I most certainly got some of my embarrassing love for dancing during those times.

But none of that is the point of the story. And I’ve taken plenty long enough to get there.

Once I got acquainted with some of the kids and this “game” that they were so fond of playing, I pretty much hung out there all the time (even after my white friends got to school). I stood on the edge of those circles and bobbed my head while the guys in the middle made beat-box noises with their mouths and insulted each other for fun. I stood there with the dancing, noise-making masses, enjoying the show, waiting to see who would “win” and who would be next to jump in the circle.

And I think I was kind of a funny gimmick to many of those kids. They liked me well enough , but they were also very interested in what I was doing there; me with my preppy clothes and my unmistakable foreign-ness.

So there I was, minding my own business, when all of a sudden, one day I started rappin’ (I don’t think you’re allowed to use the entire i-n-g when you do present tense on the word “rap”). It wasn’t quite that simple, but that’s what happened. These kids were doing a friendly battle, and one guy started mixing in some lyrics from a song that I knew (this happened, from time to time, in the free-style battle: you’d be doing your own thing, and then you’d throw in a few lines from a rap that you’d heard somewhere else; it was all perfectly legit). And when he finished saying those lines, I kept going. It was a knee-jerk thing. I loved that song, and I knew the lyrics pretty well, so I was kind of “singing along,” and then he stopped and I kept going. Well, everybody heard, and you should’ve seen the ruckus that ensued. Those kids made quite a racket when they heard me reciting the lyrics to a song they thought I had no business knowing. And reciting it on the beat, no less. It was crazy. I was some kind of hero. Or some kind of party trick. I don’t know.

So that started a new kind of thing. From that point on, I would get “invited” into the middle of the circle from time to time, to throw around any lyrics that I knew. The kids who could really rap took it easy on me, and everything was always fun and light-hearted. I didn’t have any idea that in other places around the country, people were involved in “rap battles” that were actually really tense and antagonistic. Like break-dancing, rap had become a way to gain respect without violence. In that way, it was kind of beautiful.

So that’s all I knew. Rap was fun.

So there I was, minding my own business (am I allowed to say it twice?), rappin’ with the kids from 7:00 to 8:00, 5 days a week, when all of a sudden, one day, the whole deal changed. I wish I knew what predicated the change, but I only know my own perspective on the deal, and it never occurred to me to find out more.

Here’s what happened.

A bunch of us are rappin’ and dancing and such, and this kid walks up to me and says “Curtis wants to battle with you.”

I had two questions:

Who is Curtis?

And why does he want to battle with me?

So this kid, who I knew a little, told me that Curtis was a pretty good rapper, and that he’d heard about me and wanted to have a battle.

Another question:

What am I supposed to do?

Several of my friends laid it all out for me. I would go home and write a ton of rap lyrics. Just piles and piles of as much original material as I could come up with. I would need to write it in several “verses,” because the rap battle would have a kind of back-and-forth quality to it. I’d seen this before, of course, because that’s what happened every morning with the other kids. But I had no way of knowing how much of what I had been hearing was original, pre-written material, how much was off-the-cuff freestyle, and how much was stuff from the radio. I wasn’t that well-versed in the whole thing.

So I was surprised to find out how much work it was all going to be. But on the other hand, I’d never had this much attention in my whole life, and that was kind of cool.

(At this point I suppose I could go into a whole side-story about chubby, non-athletic, stuttering kids who ride the bus, and how I’d never known anything remotely resembling popularity, but that’s too much info for this story, so just trust me that this was a pretty tempting proposition for me.)

I said I’d do it. I had no idea what I was really getting into, but I agreed anyway. Every great story has a moment like that, right? “He had no idea what he was getting into, but he couldn’t resist.” Or whatever. This was that.

So I went home and wrote some lyrics. They were mainly about – and I’m not proud of this – how cool and good-looking and tough I was, and how not-cool and ugly and not-tough the other guy was. And I’d never laid eyes on this “Curtis.” It was all really judgmental and presumptuous, when you think about it.

The next morning I got up and rode the bus to school, like every other day. Was I nervous? I don’t really think so. I had absolutely no sense of what this was all supposed to look like, so I had no anxiety. Oh man, if I had known, I would’ve been soiling my 501 Blues.

Here’s how it went down. If it seems over-dramatic, please remember that I was viewing this thing thru 7th-grade lenses. This is just how I remember it.

When I got to school, they were waiting for me. Maybe 8-10 kids. All black. I knew a few of them, but some were just faces that I’d seen here and there. But they were all part of this thing, whatever it was.

They walked me to another part of the schoolyard, to an area that I’d been to several times to watch the other kids rap and break-dance. Then I saw him. Curtis. It had to be him, because he was looking right at me, and he was the coolest black person I had ever seen at that point in my life. Handsome, lots of afro, well-dressed, tasteful amounts of bling (back when it was just called jewelry). He was tall, maybe 5’ 10”, which was big for a 7th grader back then.

He was surrounded by maybe 8-10 of his own people. All black. There was a pattern developing here, and I was an aberration in it. Oh well. Perhaps this was some kind of racial progress; reverse Affirmative Action; I don’t know.

Curtis looked serious. It was weird. It was so much like what I imagine a pre-arranged fight would have looked like, just before the fists started to fly.

Then someone started explaining everything. I didn’t catch all of it, because I was starting to get nervous, but I mined enough from the speech to know that I was supposed to go first.

Someone started up with the beat-box. In fact, 2-3 of my guys all started making beats for me, mainly with their mouths, but with their hands and feet, too. It was cool, but I didn’t really have the time to take it all in.

I started rappin’. And yes, my first words were, ahem, “Well my name is Ross but they call me ‘The King’…”

No one had ever called me “The King.” Not once. It was the first of many lies that I would tell in the next few minutes.

I talked about how much the ladies loved me. Not true.

I talked about how my skills as a rapper were known far and wide. Absolutely false.

I made ridiculous claims about certain parts of my anatomy. No comment, other than to say, I was 12 and I was an insecure idiot.

It went on for maybe 3-4 minutes. I didn’t mess up. I didn’t stutter. In that way, it was like singing (stuttering never shows up in singing, which is another of the great mysteries of the disorder). That made it even more attractive and intoxicating.

The crowd went crazy. This was new for me. Again, I had never seen anything resembling popularity, and it was fairly off-putting to be cheered. Black people sometimes cheer a lot better than white people. But that’s irrelevant. I loved it. I got high on it.

When I finished, somebody else started making beats, and Curtis started in. His rap was pretty good, too. He was definitely a lot smoother and more confident than I was, but his lyrics were, honestly, not as strong.

He went for maybe 3-4 minutes. The crowd went crazy again.

My turn again. I had prepared well. My second “rap” was even stronger than the first. And now, instead of merely bragging dishonestly, I was taking shots at poor Curtis, who had certainly never done anything to deserve the lyrical wrath of a pasty white kid wearing one of those fake Polo shirts that actually had a guy on a horse carrying a flag. Sears sold them, I think.

It’s sad, because I actually remember a couple of lines from the rap. It’s important that I remind you that I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD.

Check it:
“The boys call me cool and the girls call me ‘honey,’ but they call you a fool, cuz you look so funny.”

And the classic:
“Now I’m just gettin’ goin’, I’m just gettin’ started
Your rhymes are a joke and your clothes are retarded
You’re dumb, you’re stupid, and you smell like you farted.”

I actually said those things.

Everybody loved that last bit. Several kids started holding their noses and waving their hands in front of their faces as if Curtis, who I doubt had passed any gas, was a walking, couth-less toot factory. When big groups of black people think something is funny, they are very, uh, overt about it. It’s beautiful really.

Curtis had another turn after that, and maybe there were a couple more exchanges. I don’t totally remember. But I know that when it was over, there was a general feeling among everyone that I had, by some unknown system of scoring, “won.” Who knows how these things are decided? But that was just the general mood.

I figured that was it, but then Curtis says to me (and I remember this like it was yesterday, for some reason):

“This is a 3-part rap. We’ll do the other parts tomorrow and the next day.”

A 3-part rap. He said it like that was some kind of normal thing. I’m curious, even now, if he just made that up, right on the spot, as an attempt to salvage his status as one of the premier rappers at school. After all, I’d just beaten him, sort of, and he needed to keep that from being the end of the story. Who knows? I was such a newbie in this whole scene. It wasn’t like I’d been super-informed through the proceedings thus far. Perhaps a “3-part rap” had been the game plan from the start.

At any rate, I had more writing to do. So that night I wrote some of the same. I remember it came easier that night. I can’t recall any of the lyrics that I wrote (and I can’t tell you how much I regret that), but I came to school the next morning more confident and, I thought, adequately prepared.

Boy was I wrong.

The first day (Part 1 of the Great Interracial Rap Battle of ’84), there had been maybe 20 kids watching and/or participating in our little party.

The second day there were at least 50.

I didn’t know most of these kids. But apparently a good chunk of them were my peeps. I now had a rather large entourage of beat-boxers, dancers, and general posse members who were more than willing to accompany me into battle. Curtis had a big crowd too. And of course there were some folks just there to watch Part 2 of the show they’d missed the day before. Like I said, it was like 50 people total.

The battle went about like the day before, only this time it was more like Curtis came out slightly ahead. He had underestimated me the first day, but he made up for it.

When it was all over, there was a general sense that the score was 1-1. My posse patted me on the back and encouraged me to come strong for day 3.

One funny side note is that, once the bell rang and school started, I just went to my regular classes and other activities, as if nothing had ever happened. I hung out with mainly white people, and none of them even knew this was going on.

But in the hallway, throughout the day, my “before school” friends, they of darker skin, would give me “the nod” as they passed me in the hall. And some of them called me “Rappin’ Ross.”

I’m serious. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. This is really how it happened.

Day 3. I came ready. It had been difficult to write new and original-sounding lyrics, but I had found the zone, and I brought what I thought was my best material yet.

I would never find out for sure. There would be no Final Chapter to The Great Interracial Rap Battle of ’84.

When I got to school, my crew was waiting for me again. We went straight to the spot where we had met with Curtis the two previous days. To our surprise, there were already a bunch of people there. What were they doing? As we pushed through the crowd, we realized they were there for us. They had come to see the battle.

It was too crowded. We couldn’t make it happen. We found Curtis, and we worked it out with him to take the battle behind the school. Maybe we could find a spot back there.

But the crowd just followed us. And it grew. In public school, when a crowd is gathered around something, everybody wants to know what that “something” is, so they just join the crowd and try to get to the middle of it. That’s what happened. When we got to the concrete basketball court behind the school, the crowd was really kind of immense. We couldn’t even hear ourselves. We tried to start the battle, but it just wasn’t working.

We started trying to figure out our options, but before we could get very far, the security showed up. Vice principals and other serious-looking grownups broke in. They were expecting to find people fighting in the middle, but instead they found us, making noises with our mouths and making our words rhyme.

A bunch of us got taken to the principal’s office. I had never been, so I was pretty nervous, but most of my posse acted like this was no big deal. They kept saying stuff like “this is nothing” and “we got this.”

It took a while to explain to the principal what was going on. He kept asking questions like this:

“So nobody gets hurt?”
“Is it singing?
“What exactly are you wrapping?”

Poor guy. He was so not down.

They finally let us go. But first, the principal made us promise to stop doing this “rap” thing. He really did. Well, actually, he made me and Curtis promise to stop. All the other kids, in their selfless efforts to keep me out of trouble, had been trying to convince him that Curtis and I were really talented, and that it wasn’t our fault that the crowds loved us.

So he made us promise to stop. I didn’t have the cultural awareness to cry “Censorship!”

Anyway, here comes the punch-line. If you’ve read this far, you certainly deserve it.

As best as I can remember it, the principal’s exact words to Curtis and I were (and I swear I am not making this up):

“Guys, you’ve got to stop rappin’. We can’t control the crowds.”

Seriously. That’s what he said.

Never before and, sadly, never since, has this happened to me. I have been writing what is, I hope, meaningful, thought-provoking, spiritually intense music for about 15 years now. And never once have I been told that the crowds couldn’t be controlled. In fact, I once was asked, after playing for half an hour, “when is the band going to start?”

“I am the band, and I just finished my first set.”

Obviously the crowd was completely under control at that gig, with absolutely no assistance from any security or other official personnel.

No, the only time I worked people into a frenzy was when, at age 12, I told rhyming lies about other people smelling like farts and me being called “the King.” A guy with my ego kind of deserves that, I suppose.

Three days. My rap career lasted three days. But strangely, years after it was all over and mostly forgotten, I’d still occasionally be called “Rappin’ Ross” by my non-white brethren as they passed me in the hall. I think I even got that one at my 10-year reunion.

Three days of rappin’. And it got me 15 years of, well, I don’t know what to call it.

Whatever. At least I didn’t have to do any encores.


Johnny! said...

That is the greatest thing I have ever read.

billy newhouse said...

We need to find Curtis and settle this once and for all. Do you have anyone on top of that?

I've heard you share part of that story before, but the full version is even better. Thanks for taking us back to 1984. That is good stuff.

I never participated in any rap contests, but I did get in my first car wreck listening to Snoop Dogg in the early 90's.

Dr. Drew said...

Ross, this is incredible. I liked and respected you a lot before I read this, but I honestly think I like you more now. Your story has so much going on, and I could talk a lot about race history and hip hop and race relations and leisure and all sorts of things. Wow.

I won't go there but I will add that I had a similar experience to you although it didn't lead to any grand rap battles. In middle school, I somehow found myself in a circle of black guys who were rapping. They were singing "Nothin' but a G-Thang" and at some point, maybe the 2nd or 3rd verse when Dr. Dre comes in with "well, I'm creepin, and I'm creepin and I'm...creepin" these guys stopped and didn't know the words or something, and I picked it up to incredulous looks. That was it for me though, no rap battles ensued. Anyways, you should start experimenting again, with hip hop or slam poetry or something (I'm serious). I think you could shake things up a bit if you laid down some wicked deep spiritual slam poetry one Sunday night (remember those conversations we had about non-traditional forms of worship?)

I'll leave this link for everyone. I found this movie called "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme" on netflix, it was amazing. You can pretty much watch it on youtube, start here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=sHMUnzllrcI&feature=related


Shane said...

i have not read this yet, but i did put 30 minutes in my schedule for next week, so i can read the whole thing in one sitting


Todd Wright said...

Shane is funny. Very, very funny.

rk said...

Yeah, it's kind of sad, isn't it?

But hey, i post 6 times a month, and i post long. Todd, you post 58 times a month, and you post short.

Am i right or am i right?

Shane said...

thanks, todd

do not get me wrong - i will read and thoroughly enjoy whatever tale ross puts forth here - always do

and i post 3 times a month and short, so i am not dissing - just making jokes

CB said...

Great story Ross. I remember making up rap songs with lyrics that didn't make sense (or speeled wrong), but needed to rhyme...like "i am the s to the m to the double o, t ,h ,e, that's me they call me the smooth mc, you see...." wicked.

LP said...

"Curtis"..... ??? ... or, Kurtis, as in Kurtis Blow? Check out a certain scary white boy's influence on a rapper's career from Kurtis Blow's bio:
He went on to record a song titled “King’s Holiday” . He also spent several years hosting as a DJ in LA every Sunday night on the "Kurtis Blow Old School Show." A theology major at Nyack College, Blow's recent focus has been on spirituality, evidenced by Kurtis Blow Presents: Hip Hop Ministry, a compilation of Christian rap.
KING's Holiday??? Old School???? THEOLOGY major, Hip Hop Ministry???

Ahh, yes, my friends. Ross has won the 3rd round.

Shane said...

i have read the first third of this story and it has truly whet my appetite - that's right!

just like a goos story teller/lyricist - you have hooked me once again, ross

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

A great story! I am moving your blog up to the top of my list. My first exposure to rap was with the Sugarhill Gang. When are you coming to Ft. Worth? I'd love to be part of the crowd.

Shane said...

i was finally able to finish the post and it was worth the wait - so fun to read about 1984 and think about those days.

and this story was great - you were very hip

Ryan "Tank" said...

Oh man, that is genius! You really brought me back, man. I remember carrying around a Sony boombox with 4" mids on each end and a radio mix tape that started with Whodini's "Big Mouth". Simple time before people started wrapping about killing each other and ho's. I can also remember starring wide eyed in 6th grade at a black high school kid that came to our music class and was Freestyling raps from words we were throwing out. I rememeber the crowning victory from our class was when we asked a friend of mine named "Tootie" to come up and beat box to his rap. It was like Tootie went from no-one to hero in an hour. Good times man.

Stephen Gray said...

Great story, Ross!

Chrystal Sturm said...

Hysterical. Engaging. Educational. Absolutely intriguing (I even paused my TV show!). Very fun read, Ross!

The only thing that would have made this any better for me (a highly visual person) would have been a Rappin Ross photo circa 1984. I want to see the Polo Club shirt (that's the actual label of the man-on-horse logo'd shirts), the blonde, moussed hair-do, braces and teenage acne. Did you wear glasses? If the penny-rolled, stone-washed jeans could be included in the photo I'd be in heaven. Here's hoping for an edit!! Thanks for the belly laffs. :)

Kevin Sturm said...

Chrystal (Benton) Sturm was laughing out loud at her computer 10 minutes ago and I innocently asked, "What is so funny?" She quickly gave me the URL.

As a side note in our family it is totally normal to sit in front of the TV watching a digitally recorded show with two laptops up wirelessly wasting time. I occasionally ask what is happening in the show as I can't watch TV and read semi-interesting material online. Chrystal is amazing at that, as another side note. We are the epitome of too much digital input...

Back to commenting...I laughed so hard at that story I had to stop reading and take a breather three times. As a too tall (6'0"), too skinny (120 lbs) kid with bad acne and really thick glasses that went to a junior high that was probably 60% Mormon I could not even relate. But I lived that story vicariously, as the best nickname I got in junior high was Spermy (an not so flattering derivative of Sturm).

Rap on!

Kaity said...

It took me a really long time to get around to read this whole thing... but i eventually found a class where i didnt need to pay attention. Let me just say... That is awesome!!! You are hero!