albumism, part I: L.L. Cool J, Bigger and Deffer

The rule was this: anyone could say whatever they wanted to say in the van, but it had to stay in the van. Swears were fine, dissing was okay as long as it wasn't meant to hurt, stupid questions, whatever tape kids wanted to listen to -- all fine. I was all about the discourse, the give and take, the things that can be done with the human voice.

My vocals exact / Like rack and pinion in a Jag
You try to brag / You get your rhymes from a grab bag
No good scavenger / Catfish vulture
My tongue's a chisel and this conversation's sculpture
I'm bad

I was 21, just done with my junior year, living away from home for the first summer ever, and was working as a counselor for an urban day camp run by my college. My kids all lived in or adjacent to the Roosevelt Towers housing project in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and they all thought I was gay, or a nerd, or a gay nerd, or a barney. They ranged in age from eleven to thirteen, they were mostly black but not all (Portuguese, Dominican, Italian, as well as the two Haitians, who were considered different from "American black"), they knew a lot more than I did when I was their age about a lot of things. What did I have to offer them?

So get down with me / Entrepreneur of funk
Not a sloppy fat punk / Or a Shaolin monk
Ain't down with Johnny Carson / Though his shoes are the jam
So the hell with Ed McMahon AND Thom McAn

Well, the van. In the van we could talk shit, play games, solve life's mysteries, crank tunes. It was the van that got us around Boston and Cambridge and out to Walden Pond rockin' NWA and Beastie Boys and Run-DMC and BDP; it was the van that got us down to Washington DC for a week-long trip, just me and 12 kids and my useless junior counselor Quincy, pretty much listening to the radio and having an insult contest (I finished third, there was no beating John C. or Darrick B.) and eventually camping out in the woods in Maryland and eating ramen for five days and getting a tour of the Senate from my former h.s. social studies teacher and spending the rest of our money at a waterpark so all we had to eat coming back were baloney sandwiches; it was the van where Biscuit attacked David W. and the van where he apologized. And we never left for anywhere without our LL tape.

Not Isis in a crisis / Or Freddy when he's ready
Or Jason when he's chasin' / My silouhette is seen / I mean
I'm icin' and acin' / Amateurs who lack it / Can't hack it
I attack it / That's why I wanna crack it

We talked about girls in the van, sex, AIDS ("Bristol Hotel"). We talked about people's messed-up families, alcoholic uncles, fears about having to be fathers someday ("Kanday"). We talked about the Vietnam War, how we got into it, what it was all about -- I broke it down for 'em. We argued about Reagan, about taxes, about how my college leeched all the city services from their neighborhood (actually, that wasn't an argument, we all agreed), about who preferred Janet Jackson to Sade. I probably learned more than them, yeah yeah, yada yada, but they learned a hell of a lot from each other, just talking, just rapping, just messing around all day.

The President spoke and he called the Pope
The Pope climbed to heaven on a golden rope
He asked the Lord to raise Michelangelo from the dead
So he could make a fresh painting of my head

I still think that "My Rhyme Ain't Done" is a crucial meta-fictional Modernist tract along the order of "The Waste Land," but better, because more engaged, more real, with a narrator who not only enters into the post-apocalyptic wasteland (of pop culture, but you know what I'm talking about) but also INTERACTS...by doing Mickey Mouse's freak and by checking out Alice Kramden's ass and traveling back in time to 1865 ("Before Booth shot Lincoln I stole the show") and the Revolutionary War ("I was down with George at the Delaware / But I wore my Kangol not the fake white hair"), and earlier...and then, it turns out, it was all just a story after all. Or was it? Doesn't matter -- it made us all crack up, there, in the van.

We busted up a rap routine at the end of the summer; I was MC Bird, my rhymes were word, etc. My first job out of college was working with that same community, a lot of those same kids and their families. I made $17,000 a year, all while paying back crushing debts. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

I wonder what happened to those kids, all men now, if they're alive. I hope they're not in prison, or they've gotten out -- I hope they all have jobs and stable lives and have transcended the traditional pattern shit they were worried about. I hope Mark N. learned to not cry when his team lost at basketball, I hope Kenny J. finished school, I hope Ralphie G. didn't have to hold his whole family together for too long, or that he's able to deal with his own self now. I hope I hope I hope.

And I hope they all listen to Bigger and Deffer every once in a while and remember the big goob in the white fedora-lookin' hat who drove them around once upon a time. More of a wish than a hope.

More of a dream than a wish.

No comments: