Art, Artifice, and Artifact
I was born in 1964 in small-town Enid, Oklahoma. The youngest of six, I was immersed in Black Power politics and culture well before I learned to read. My two oldest sisters, afros like small planets, integrated the Enid High School orchestra, my brother was likely among the first Black students to play in the school band (trumpet, under the influence of Miles Davis), and another sister led Black student demonstrations. I was too young to understand most of this activity, but was informed by it, as well as by the Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka poems taped to the walls of my eldest sisters’ room.
By third grade my best friend Zack, a full-blood Cherokee, and I were obsessed with cars, basketball, and the etymology of language. Phonemic reading strategies still fresh from first grade, we moved on to question the logic of words: Why is that thing called chair? Why is that a sofa? I was already fascinated with sound and symbol after growing up in a house filled with my siblings’ music.
I was a chubby, wide-eyed Black boy wrestling with the transformative audacity of words and deeply affected by their myriad vehicles. I quoted the comedian Flip Wilson, with the plan of becoming him later in life, and by sixth grade I was on to Richard Pryor. I recited scripture and performed in holiday shows with my cousins at church. I, for about two years, hung out with a dude who cursed at his parents, which I found exhilarating and stupid at the same time. Then, there was the ever-present electricity of violence in the house that made me wince, made me quiet, and made me hide in syllables and imagination.
Words and music were sanctuary and edification.
The sibling closest to me in age is the fourth girl child in the family. Four years separate us, and though this chasm is no longer significant, it was life changing when I was twelve. My siblings were ideas and occasional visitors. I spent most of my teens alone in a house with blue-green shag weary from aged footprints.
But they left their music.
Earth, Wind & Fire is why I picked up a tenor saxophone. Stevie Wonder is why I picked up a pen. Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and the Sugarhill Gang put it all together for me.
The first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight” unexplainable changes occurred in my being that I did not fully comprehend for a decade. The Sugarhill Gang furthered/reinforced a way of seeing I was stumbling to master — the teenage-male hormonal need to string words together with a cleverness that produced laughter, swagger, or girls — sometimes all three, though usually not in that order of import.
I was a ninth grader at Longfellow Junior High School (all of the middle schools in Enid are named after poets) when I first heard “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Music and the ability to make others laugh has remained, and likely will always remain, central to any relationship I forge. My best friend Russ and I still, two years later, had the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation, in addition to our personal favorites: Russ — ABBA, Bay City Rollers, and early seventies rock his older sisters inflicted on him; me — Kool & the Gang, the Spinners, and always Stevie. Later that school year a friend, the son of a university professor, would visit an older brother in California and return with one hundred albums by bands with the weirdest names he could find: Human Sexual Response, the Legendary Pink Dots, the Police, etc. His shopping excursion indelibly informed our sleepy town lives. But, for me, not quite as much as:
I said, a hip hop the hippie the hippie
To the hip, hip hop, and you don’t stop, the rock it
To the bang, bang boogie, say up jump the boogie
To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat
Now what you hear is not a test — I’m rappin’ to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends
Are gonna try to move your feet
— From Rapper’s Delight
That was it for me. Word as rhythm. Word as beat. Word in conversation with rhythm. Word as art, artifice, and artifact. We abandoned the Bee Gees very quickly.
Almost as quickly I became the hip-hop pusher for teenage white dudes drunk on 3.2 beer and curiosity. I still, to this day, have no idea what happened to my copy of the eponymous Kurtis Blow vinyl. But for a time I was the link to rap for a small group of middle-class white dudes who dared not venture into “The Ville” to buy records.
The literal “other side of the tracks” in Enid is called “The Ville.” This is the Black side, the “hood,” on Enid’s south side. The kids from “The Ville” and the kids from my neighborhood attended Longfellow, which was, and is still, considered the “thug school.” Enid’s apartheid was palpable. Blacks could only visit the skating rink on Sunday nights, “Black Night,” until the seventies and my elementary school was closed due to desegregation in 1975.
I wandered from hip-hop for a portion of the eighties in pursuit of all things political, angry, and not made in the United States. My disillusionment with the nation, its politics, and most of its culture led me to Africa, the West Indies, and Europe. Though I kept in touch with hip-hop, I was mostly elsewhere — Mutabaruka, Miriam Makeba, two-tone ska bands from England. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” and other overtly political tracks kept my attention, but I didn’t feel rap speaking to where my head was in 1984. Many tracks in that moment felt like recycled disco, but this also marked the emergence of Run-DMC, Whodini, and the Treacherous Three. I just wanted emcees to say something that would make Ronald Reagan vomit, and then disappear. I also wanted the music to capture my imagination.
My prayers were answered in 1986 and it was on nonstop for a long minute. The years between 1986 and 1996 constituted the first significant era in my life, in terms of rap and personal growth. No way to say this better than a sampling from my discography:
King of Rock — Run-DMC, 1985
Licensed to Ill — Beastie Boys, 1986
Criminal Minded — Boogie Down Productions, 1987
Paid in Full — Eric B. & Rakim, 1987
Yo! Bum Rush the Show — Public Enemy, 1987
By All Means Necessary — Boogie Down Productions, 1988
In Full Gear — Stetsasonic, 1988
It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back — Public Enemy, 1988
3 Feet High and Rising — De La Soul, 1989
The Cactus Album — 3rd Bass, 1989
Business as Usual — EPMD, 1990
Fear of a Black Planet — Public Enemy, 1990
Step in the Arena — Gang Starr, 1991
Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde — The Pharcyde, 1992
Can I Borrow a Dollar? — Common, 1992
93 ’til Infinity — Souls of Mischief, 1993
Midnight Marauders — A Tribe Called Quest, 1993
Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) — Digable Planets, 1993
Blowout Comb — Digable Planets, 1994
Blunted on Reality — Fugees, 1994
Illmatic — Nas, 1994
Ready to Die — The Notorious B.I.G., 1994
Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik — Outkast, 1994
Do You Want More?!!!??! — The Roots, 1995
Gothic Architecture — Rubberoom, 1995
Stakes Is High — De La Soul, 1996
Certainly there are many groundbreaking albums not on this list (I hear my boy Adrian Matejka saying,“Where’s the Wu, Q?”). This is simply the partial soundtrack of my movement from Oklahoma to Chicago, my transition into manhood.
Hip-hop, in 1988, helped remind me who I was and that in which I believed and held sacred. I moved to Chicago in 1989, leaving behind an ugly experience in broadcast journalism and, for nearly two decades, contempt for the state of Oklahoma only natives can truly appreciate. I was fired from my first professional gig in TV news in Oklahoma City largely because life inside Babylon’s mouth involved perpetuating a conservative right-wing agenda and sustaining an ill-fitting fear of African American men. My deep conviction to journalism serving as “the public’s trust” was met with a battle with my own naiveté. I experienced the excitement of hearing Dan Rather voice an international news scoop I helped initiate, while being assigned the task of greeting the Grand Wizard of the state’s Ku Klux Klan compound.
Chuck D sorted it out for me.
Public Enemy guided me toward self-worth, reclamation of history, and Islam. Though my belief in diversity and my background did not completely jibe with the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad or Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, PE led me to discipline, faith, and a community of serious Black men. I liken my years as a practicing Muslim to the military in many ways. I needed to grow up and, after being fired from Channel Nine, discover a deeper and sincere purpose for my life. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, along with the Holy Quran and the teachings of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), were my textbooks. I also returned to poetry, long since abandoned when I became more immersed in broadcast journalism.
One week after my twenty-fifth birthday, I arrived in Chi-town with two suitcases, a folder full of poems, and dreams of becoming a poet and cultural worker in the city that fed some of my guiding lights: Haki R. Madhubuti and Gwendolyn Brooks. I received the amazing blessing to have been mentored by these two giants.
Ms. Brooks possessed a guarded optimism toward hip-hop. She appreciated rap as poetry, or at least as lyric. But, she found most of the language unoriginal and the music mostly boisterous. Ms. Brooks never employed profanity in her work. She considered swear words a reflection of a poverty of ideas, which in turn would make most rap Fat Albert’s junkyard. However, as she shared in workshop, if there is no other word that will be as precise in communicating your concept, then use that word. She believed in “exactness” and her enduring poetry bears witness to this.
Though Ms. Brooks harbored some appreciation for emcees’ wordplay, her disappointment with the lack of political or social consciousness in most hip-hop affected her desire to mentor many young emcees. This is not to suggest she turned anyone away who reached out to her, as that is not the case. But Brooks and Madhubuti, unlike Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni, did not actively embrace emcees and the art. The one possible exception may reside in the son of our former Chicago State University colleague and close friend, the late Dr. Donda West.
I consider myself, for the most part, a direct descendent of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), at least contextually. BAM doctrine supported art “for, by, and about Black people.” This tenet was introduced to me via my siblings’ afros in 1973. It was reaffirmed by hip-hop, furthered by my work in Chicago’s public schools, and crystallized while raising four sons in what some people call a “war zone.” Malcolm X said, “Pro-Black doesn’t mean anti-anything.”
Recently, my oldest son, Nile, and I watched the Time Is Illmatic documentary on the creation of Nas’s masterpiece, one of my favorite records of all time. He paused the film often to ask questions about many topics: the early beefs between the Juice Crew and Boogie Down, and Nas and Jay-Z; was Brooklyn that violent when we lived there in his toddler years; what happened to AZ? Illmatic, of course, is on his required old school listening list. Though it may have been another late night conversation for Nile, it is a moment I will cherish for many a day. This is how I feed my sons. This, to me, is hip-hop.
Quraysh Ali Lansana was born in Enid, Oklahoma and earned his MFA from New York University, where he was a Departmental Fellow. He is the author of the poetry collections A Gift from Greensboro (Penny Candy Books, 2016); mystic turf (2012), They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (2004), and Southside Rain (2000); his...