After moving from New Jersey at the age of 5, I grew up in a not-so-great part of South Florida while my parents started fresh in new careers so that we could get out of that not-so-great area. I'll always remember the neighborhood I grew up in for a few reasons. First, the shitty apartment, with an A/C unit that always leaked and the constant break-ins that plagued the place. Second, the oddly diverse group of friends I came to have in the five years we spent there.
Our next door neighbor emigrated from Africa (which country I can't recall). The lady who lived above us was some sort of Eastern European. The next building over was entirely rented out by a massive Venezuelan family. I also rode the bus with a kid from just about every South American nation and some really weird rednecks. But, my best friend on that bus was a kid named Robert, who taught me everything I needed to know about rap... at nine years old.
The first conversation we had is still a clear memory to me: I was sitting in the retractable fire exit seat midway through the bus and he sat down next to me. The first thing he said to me wasn't, "Hi, what's your name?" or, "Can I sit here?" but, "My name is Robert, do you like music?" At this point in my life I was a pretty shy kid, and didn't have a lot of friends besides those I had class with everyday, or the ones in my building, but I said, "Sure."
What came next was basically like being thrown into a foreign country without one of those pocket translator things. He asked, "Do you like 'Back That Thang Up' or 'Back That Ass Up' more?"
This opened Pandora's box, in all it's utterly confusing, dumbfounded glory.
I had no fucking clue what he was talking about. I was a sheltered white kid who was raised on Billy Joel and Garth Brooks. Hearing another kid my age say the word "ass" was a shock to the system, so my brain was scrambled enough just processing the fact that I had heard it and wouldn't be whooped into tomorrow for repeating it in my answer, "Back That Ass Up."
"Yeah, me too. I like Juvenile a lot." The rest of the 15-ish minute ride to school became a crash course in late-90s hip-hop that I wasn't too sure I needed at the time, but it happened just about everyday of my fourth grade year.
Like I said, I was a pretty sheltered kid growing up, so rap music wasn't exactly on the docket for me. It wasn't even a privilege I could obtain, it just wasn't something I was familiar with. At all. That is until I began getting lectures from Robert. From then on, I would turn on my TV in the morning before school, and instead of ESPN or Nickelodeon, I flipped to MTV or BET. Of course, this was back when networks actually played music videos during the light of day and not at 3:30 am. I gave myself the Cliffsnotes of hip-hop every morning so that I could get the references right on the way to school.
At this point in my life, music was not a vehicle for thought. It wasn't even a vehicle for good or bad taste, it was just music. The meaning behind any of the metaphors, or vocabulary that was being used meant nothing to me, I just knew it couldn't be repeated anywhere near my parents and almost solely on that bus.
A quick shout to my bus driver, Mr. Green, who I had every year I spent going to Winston Park Elementary. He was a good man from what I recall. He loved R&B music, new and old. He would bring a new cassette every Friday and play that instead of the radio (which was always a local rap/R&B station), so getting exposed to some new music that I knew wouldn't be played at home was a pretty big deal. I vividly remember a day when he put an Al Green tape in and sang Unchained Melody over the speakers. He also sang Happy Birthday to every kid when the day rolled around. He passed away a few years back, according to an old buddy who now teaches at our old school.
Your Playlist for Part I: