My father was an Elvis man. My mother, a decade his junior, was a Beatles fan. And the two rocks didn’t roll together. “Don’t Be Cruel” never followed “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” They were heard on separate radio stations. You had to choose. That’s what I was taught, or at least it was strongly suggested. I liked both, the Brits and the King, until rap’s counter current swept me so swiftly across the generational gap that I tuned the dial to hip-hop and never looked back.
I was in fifth grade when I started listening predominantly to rap music. It was 1988. Will Smith complained that “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and Slick Rick told a dystopian “Children’s Story” while levelling “Hey Young World” at the guys in my neighborhood with saccharine lyrics best described as a PSA: “This rap here, it may cause concern it’s / broad and deep, why don’t you listen and learn / Love mean happiness, that once was strong / But due to society, even that’s turned wrong.”
Back then rap was a novelty on the pop music stage—catchy, cute, comical. But underground it was not so subtly working up a storm. I was ten years old when I heard the album that changed me immediately, and American culture eventually: NWA’s Straight Outa Compton. The second song off the Angelinos’ debut album, and arguably the most notorious of the past three decades, was what today would be called a protest song: “Fuck Tha Police.” Back then it was called “discouraging and degrading” by the FBI’s assistant director of public affairs, Milt Ahlerich, no less, in a letter to NWA’s distributer. The general public’s reaction to the record is well known; outcry, bipartisan denouncement, censorship, threats to prosecute, pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth. Nothing new here. It was the same rumpus as when Elvis gyrated his hips, and when the Beatles grew out their hair. I’d been baptized in my generation’s counterculture. To celebrate and identify with it, I loosened my belt and let my jeans sag. This history is less known; school administrators grumbled, PTA meetings convened, I was called names, and my NWA cassette was confiscated. Who knew music could be so powerful? I’d be a rap fan for life.
It’s not like I had issues with law enforcement. I was a preteen. I didn’t even know where Compton was. Besides, my favorite track on the album was “Express Yourself,” which after all the keening and righteous convulsions seemed even more to my point. I was all shook up, because some fellows on America’s other coast did something simple and extraordinary. They sampled a 1970 funk tune and spoke their minds. What they did wasn’t new, but what they made was. Music, if it has any value, persists in such a Modernist maxim: Make it new.
Want to know why kids are different today? Listen to the music. Before I sat down to write the Editor’s Letter for At Large* No. 11, the Music Issue, I listened for hours. Searching for the counter culture. Waiting to receive the message. It wasn’t easy; music in the U.S. today is so diverse and miscenginated, the lyrics suffused with a sort of merciless ebullience, or otherwise tragically medicated and even menacing. And that’s just what I heard played on one radio station. The many ways to consume music is mind boggling, and you can listen from almost anywhere at any time, a rate of consumption that blends all sounds natural and synthesized into a kind of sonic stew. Finding a song, or an artist for that matter, that fits neatly into a definitive genre brings to mind needles and haystacks. It may be neater to just invent a new category, like Rap and Punk did. But that would be missing the bigger point. Music has not only become more consumer accessible, it’s become easier to make and disseminate. Movies once had the power to make a hit through context and major distribution. Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” for Despicable Me 2, and Ray Parker Jr.’s titular “Ghostbusters” spring to mind. Now, social media does the trick (Kiki, do you love me?). Musical forms all but dead will get a vocalist discovered and signed if a video goes viral. When a 10-year-old Mason Ramsey yodeled in Walmart it wasn’t as provocative as screaming “Fuck tha police” on stage in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, but it sure ran counter to expectations. It earned Ramsey a gig at Coachella and a contract with Atlantic records.
If the state of popular music is anything to judge by, American culture has stopped flowing in any discernible direction. The movement seems more like magma, a convection current rising to all places at once, animated by a deep, liquid well, erupting with unknowable results. Some of this is explained by our more informed, hyperconnected world naturally becoming more open and tolerant. If there’s a new generation gap the fault is here: total acceptance—of subgenres, sounds, gender, sexuality, race, class, all matters spiritual and material, and musicians’ willingness to experiment and talk about it.
Back when rap was disrupting class, and people like my elementary school teachers struggled to understand what the attitude was about, rap artist KRS-One gave us a tip: “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live.” That wouldn’t make my father like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” any better when I strolled around our house, boxers billowing from my jeans, rapping the lyrics out loud. But the basic view that music is created through experiences, and then in turn shapes our experience, applies to all genres, especially the new ones. My dad should know, he’s an Elvis man. Elvis borrowed from Chuck Berry. Biggy Smalls borrowed from Mtume. Everybody borrows from somewhere, but the rule must not be broken: Make it new. Or, as Dr. Dre said on my old favorite track, “Don’t be another sequel. Express yourself!”
— Erik Rasmussen