When I was in college, my favorite album was NWA's EFIL4ZAGGIN, and it played a key role in one of the highlights of my entire life.
I went to the University of Colorado, where I majored in film production. It was a competitive major, very competitive, and I really wanted in. My sophomore year I worked hard to put together a solid film for the panel of judges, and I got picked.
But the thrill didn't last. I got in, but I didn't fit in. The department had a strict hierarchy, and I was at the very bottom of it. Bottom line: Nobody liked me, other than my fellow bottom feeders.
I was pissed off and disillusioned, but I found solace in the new NWA album released that year. I've always liked angry music. Punk. Death metal. Hip hop. You name it. But this shit was hardcore. Side one was all about murder. And side two was all about rape and murder.
I'm a muthafuking nigga wit an attitude
I got a case of spitting in a muthafukers face
So me and my ace we got a taste
Of a muthafukers billy club he took his gun and
Put it to my head and said nigga start running
So tell me what's the next episode
Is he crazy does he want to chase me and waste me
I thought run nigga run but I caught myself
Because my secondary thought was death
i get hit hard real but still muthafuker said
I want another black muthafuker dead
I listened to it constantly, usually on my little Walkman, as I made my way around campus or Boulder. I cranked it so loud my ears would practically bleed, and I'd just leer at the world around me, which was the polar opposite of the world NWA described. Boulder is so white the KKK demonstrated there and said, basically, "Why won't you people join us? You’ve created our dream community!"
And I was white too, obviously. I was raised in all-white communities. KKK dream communities, where I had no meaningful contact with black people. Yet I identified with the words of NWA, especially while I was working on my senior thesis film, which was a horrible experience. I spent more than $2,000 on this film. Worse, my job was to act as the director, to be in charge of a crew of fellow film students who didn't like or respect me.
Well, my director of photography apparently cared so little about my project that he failed to load the camera properly, and I wound up with hundreds and hundreds of dollars worth of over exposed film. Just clear plastic. Put it in the projector, all you get is a white screen.
I was devastated. Not knowing what else to do, I just started pouring out my feelings, writing with a fine-point pen directly on the worthless film, writing each word over and over again so it could be red when projected at 24 frames per second.
Then I added a soundtrack. NWA.
Lost in the motherfucking world of madness, sadness,
But Dre is just a nigga that's glad it's
sucker motherfuckers like you making whack jams,
because it only you shows you how dope I am.
Never try to ignore us,
When I'm expressing, stand still like you're full of riggermortis.
Cause I'm a real nigga, but I guess you figure,
You could break me, take me, but watch me pull the trigger.
Dre is just a nigga with heart, a nigga that's smart,
A nigga that's paid to say what others are scared to play.
We started out with too much cargo,
So I'm glad we got rid of Benedict Arto.
Yo, N.W.A., criticized for what we say,
But I'ma do this shit anyway.
Cause I'm the motherfucking doctor, never faking,
Yo Yella, kick the motherfucking break in.
I know I said side one of this album was all about killing, but this is about art. It's about personal expression, pride in that personal expression. Fierce pride. And as a young artist, trying to develop and defend my voice, I was feeling it.
I ended my film with a little throwaway clip a classmate had taken of me storming toward the camera and giving the finger. While this angry image of me flashed on the screen, MC Ren declared "NWA takin' over this motherfucker!"
I entered it in annual student film show, which is a huge event -- a packed crowd in one of the biggest lecture halls on campus. I was nervous. The crowd sat quietly while my film rolled, my angry words mixed with those of Dr. Dre. Then the film ended, the screen went blank, and the crowd erupted in enormous applause.
That was one of the highlights of my life.
After I graduated, I stopped listening to NWA. All the violence in the lyrics got to me. It was too close to reality. Mainstream media began to catch up with NWA, and spread stories about what was going on in our nation's inner cities. Their album EFIL4ZAGGIN came out during the height of the crack epidemic, and violent crime was tearing communities to shreds. By listening to NWA, I felt like I was somehow supporting this, and I wanted no part of it.
Ironically, this was a time of change in hip hop. Artists were rapping less and less about political issues and empowerment, which was the norm when I first got into hip hop, listening to artists like Public Enemy and KRS-1. Now the norm was gangsta rap -- songs about violence, sex, drugs -- and white folks were buying it more than anyone else. It didn't feel right to me. It seemed like a macabre minstrel show.
A few years later, though, I sort of slipped, and bought a Dr. Dre disk. I couldn't resist. I heard a song on the radio and the beat was so good I just had to have it.
Still fuckin wichya
Still waters run deep
Still snoop dogg and d-r-e, '99 nigga (guess who's back)
Still, still doing that shit, huh dre?
I was living in Kansas City at the time. I'd just moved here to take a job as an investigative reporter. KC was the first city I'd ever lived in with a substantial black population. And I decided to focus my investigative reporting there, to find out what was going on the east side of town, to expose politics and institutional structures that keep my new home town divided and unequal.
Now I gotta pause here to tell you how cool this job is. As an investigative reporter, I felt like a bad ass. I was just an average Joe, but I was penetrating the corridors of power -- city hall, the justice system, the state house -- with the mission of letting everyday folks know what the hell was going on. And when I succeeded, I felt so powerful and tough. It was exhilarating, and Dre's beats fueled my exhilaration. I'd listen to it in my car as I drove around the city, doing my thing, and I would get PUMPED UP.
Then I started listening to the lyrics, and I found I could relate to them. Dre was rapping about being a professional at the top of his game.
It ain't nothing but more hot shit
Another classic cd for y'all to vibe with
Whether you're cooling on a corner with your fly bitch (beyotch)
Laid back in the shack, play this track
I'm representing for the gangstas all across the world
Still (hitting them corners in them low low's girl)
I'll break your neck, damn near put your face in your lap
Niggas try to be the king but the ace is back
So if you ain't up on thangs
Dr. dre be the name still running the game
It wasn't hard for me to draw a metaphor from the music -- from "another classic CD for y’all to vibe with" to "another scorching investigative report," from "representing for the gangstas all across the world" to being a common man fighting so all my fellows can know what they have the right to know. Snoop even makes a direct reference to news: "If you ain’t up on things."
And, like my earlier college experience with NWA, this was a key turning point in my life. Earlier, I was taking a stand for my voice and my vision as an artist. Now, with Dr. Dre, I was coming into my own as a professional. Like Dre, I was "running the game."
But I'll be honest with you, it's not easy to tell these stories, especially to a video camera, not knowing who's going to hear my words and draw conclusions based on what I've said. I knoow I'm treading a thorny patch here. The music and words I've identified with in these instances liberally use a term that's inappropriate for a white guy like me to appropriate. It's like Spike Lee's Bamboozled where all these white folks start walking around in black face.
Worse, or deeper, it's like what Frantz Fanon writes about the colonizing white viewing the colonized black as a savage with the keys to some twisted notion of liberation.
But I can't escape the realness of the connection. And it reminds me of something I read recently in a book by James Cone about how Jesus was black. Now, I'm not afraid to say that I’m a believer. I try to live by the principles of Jesus's life, and I'm still struggling to understand what that means. Cone's words really shook me. He wasn't talking about physical features, the hair as fine as lamb's wool and all that. He was talking about blackness as a state of being, That the Gospels were stories about liberation and that salvation lies at the site of the struggle, among the poor and the oppressed. And in our world, in our era, in America and across the globe, the poor and oppressed have, by and large, black and brown faces. Cone argues that in order to be saved you have to die of your whiteness and be resurrected black.
In other words, in the words of my current favorite rapper Kanye West, the artist I listen to constantly as I move into the next stage of my life, as I emerge as an agent of social justice, you gotta get down.
Get up i get (down)
Get up i get (down)
We are all here for a reason on a particular path
You don't need a curriculum to know that you are part of the math
Cats think I'm delirious, but I'm so damn serious
That's why I expose my soul to the globe, the world
I'm trying to make it better for these little boys and girls
I'm not just another individual, my spirit is a part of this
That's why I get spiritual, but I get my hymns from Him
So it's not me, it's He that's lyrical
I'm not a miracle, I'm a heaven-sent instrument
My rhythmatic regimen navigates melodic notes for your soul and your mental
That's why I'm instrumental
Vibrations is what I'm into
Yeah, I need my loot by rent day
But that is not what gives me the heart of Kunte Kinte
I'm tryina give us "us free" like Cinque
I can't stop, that's why I'm hot
Determination, dedication, motivation
I'm talking to you, my many inspirations
When I say I can't, let you or self down
If I were of the highest cliff, on the highest riff
And you slipped off the side and clinched on to your life in my grip
I would never, ever let you down
And when these words are found
Let it been known that God's penmanship has been signed with a
language called love
That's why my breath is felt by the deaf
And why my words are heard and confined to the ears of the blind
I, too, dream in color and in rhyme
So I guess I'm one of a kind in a full house
Cuz whenever I open my heart, my soul, or my mouth
A touch of God reigns out