Scars of the Souls Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don't Have Bruises
By Miles Marshall Lewis
Hiphop is dead.
Writing Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don't Have Bruises, I worked backwards from this foregone conclusion, then changed my opinion very early on. Living in the South Bronx at the time hiphop culture was born, moving to the northeast Bronx neighborhood of Co-op City and seeing things progress as a youngster, I had become disillusioned by the turn of the millennium, and I was not alone. A hot topic of debate for those of us who have seen the culture's better days, many missives on the death of hiphop float through cyberspace even now. The Source magazine questioned, "Who is killing the spirit of hiphop?" at a Harvard hiphop town hall meeting moderated by the Reverend Al Sharpton, which I attended in December 2000. Interviewing Q-Tip in February 2002 concerning an album on which he'd largely abandoned rhyming and rap arrangements, the renowned MC shared my opinion. "I can faithfully, honestly say that hiphop is dead and it follows the route of all other forms of black music," he said. "I'm really ashamed of the state it's in right now."
Hiphop as a culture and art form graduated from subculture status during the early 1990s, significantly figuring in the lives of worldwide youth and ending its standing as an underground phenomenon. With its mainstream success came more radio-friendly beats and rhymes, and certain characteristics that appealed to its wider audience were forefronted: crass bling-bling materialism; violent rap rivalries that extended beyond records into real-life shootings, stabbings, and murders; the objectification and denigration of women in videos and song lyrics. Furthermore, most modern rap music aficionados had no appreciation for aerosol art, deejaying, or breaking--sidelined aspects of hiphop culture whose former prominence I remembered fondly from the seventies and early eighties. I began to embrace more of a post-hiphop aesthetic, as if a new youth subculture was right around the corner and hiphop was on its deathbed.
Around the same time I became reacquainted with my old elementary/junior-high classmate John Reed. Beginning in September 2001, corresponding from Eastern New York Correctional Facility, John began writing me about our mutual Bronx childhood and the sad state of hiphop. John Reed is worthy of his own chapter in this book, his own autobiography really. He began tagging Dazer at the age of nine, in a Co-op City tenement-building elevator with respected artists Ex-Con and Presweet. He founded his own graffiti posse, the T.V. Crew ("T.V." for The Vandals) with Maze, Stuff, Cashier, and Zent--all junior-high classmates of ours. John Reed threw up tags with local Co-op City legends like Echo and Med before beginning to rhyme as the Almighty Cool Jay in 1982, years prior to the debut of LL Cool J. By then he had also begun to study the Five Percenter doctrines of the Nation of Gods and Earths, a more militant offshoot of the Nation of Islam popular during the eighties; John Reed became Justice Allah. As the Almighty Cool Jay he founded an MC crew dubbed the Funky Fresh 3--later the original Fresh 3 MCs--with my tweener acquaintances Harry Dee and Ice Ice. In 1982 John Reed's older brother Mark disbanded his own MC crew, Playboys Inc., and started a new group; they battled the Fresh 3 MCs for the rights to their name and won, releasing the popular rap single "Fresh" months later on Profile Records. Undaunted, John Reed launched the Boogie Down Breakers, capitalizing on his skills as a stunt roller-skater and breaker at Bronx spots like White Plains Road's original Skate Key. He would go on to battle and defeat the popular breaker Popatron, all this before the age of thirteen. This is the hiphop lifestyle that makes us sentimental.
A few words from John Reed--January 26, 2004, from Clinton Correctional Center in Dannemora, New York:
Eighth grade was a special time for me. Especially the end of the school year, 1984. I remember I.S. 180's eighth grade prom. I wore all white. White Lees with the permanent crease, white Chams de Baron shirt, white on white Adidas with white fat laces, white band gloves, a long white scarf that hung over my neck like Tyson wore his heavyweight belts, a white Kangol hat with Section Five's five popular letters ironed on the front: F.R.E.S.H. Also, a name-buckle with jay and a medallion and chain. Rather than being like everybody else who rented limousines or walked to the prom, I was chauffeured by Sha-Born. I was on the front of his bike handlebars from Section Five to the front door of 180. Everybody was outside checking out each other and I pulled up on the front of the bike with Sha-Born pedaling hard and as we planned, Sha-Born hit the brakes and I flew off the bike (another stunt) into the crowd and just started dancing. Everybody cheered, clapped, laughed, and the haters/admirers just grinned and shook their heads.
The prom ended with a breaking battle in our cafeteria; John won and walked off with Liticia Padilla a/k/a Bunny Tee, one of the finest girls in the eighth grade. He was what you might call a ghetto celebrity, one of the neighborhood superstars. In adulthood he joined the Nation of Islam as John Muhammad, moving to the South Bronx with his wife. When she was robbed at gunpoint in 1993 he tracked her assailant down and stabbed him in the leg, an accidental murder. John fled police for five months before turning himself in. Sentenced in 1994 to twelve-to-twenty-five years for manslaughter in the first degree, John is eligible for parole in 2006.
"[I]n our official seal you will see the year 1970. This is when we begin modern Hiphop. We arrived at this year knowing that Kool DJ Herc (the recognized father of Hip Hop) began playing music in the parks of the Bronx, New York, around 1972 and Afrika Bambaataa of Zulu Nation (the recognized godfather of Hip Hop) begins Hiphop in November 1974. Although Hiphop's true origin date remains a mystery, the Temple of Hiphop begins modern Hiphop in the year 1970 for teaching purposes. Not only does this year close the period in which some of the first generation of Hiphoppas were born (19611971), but it was throughout the 1970s (19711981) that modern Hiphop came into physical existence."
--The Gospel of Hiphop
Beginning this book with "Bronx Science," I aimed beyond documenting the social atomization of hiphop alone and decided on creating an essay collection revealing of my own life as a child of the culture. With the novel Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie told the story of Saleem Sinai, a character born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the precise moment that India gained its independence. The course of Sinai's life was inextricably linked to his nation's disasters and triumphs in Rushdie's fictional account. Being born in 1970 and raised in the Bronx--like hiphop culture itself--I chose to document facets of my wonder years as inextricably linked to the hiphop nation in the opening "Memory Lanes, Gun Hill Roads" section. My correspondence with John Muhammad was essential to the creation of this book, reminding me of what we'd experienced as Bronx-born adolescents in the eye of newborn hiphop's storm. Exchanging letters with John Muhammad, coupled with my disenchantment with rap music, inspired me to pen essays that dealt with the condition of hiphop culture and my visceral childhood connections with it.
In 2004, the thirtieth anniversary of hiphop culture, I wanted to capture the spirit of its three-decade history by telling some Bronx tales, my own in particular. "The Def of Hiphop" section concerns hiphop institutions like the Universal Zulu Nation, the Hiphop Summit Action Network, and the Temple of Hiphop, all working toward the benefit and furtherance of the culture. I drew the conclusion that hiphop's alive and well largely because of those organizations' efforts, reversing my initial position due in part also to the reasoned arguments laid out in "Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don't Have Bruises," the title essay. Not every selection in this volume deals with the thesis of hiphop's coming apart, but all reflect my nostalgic yet post-hiphop mood at the time of these writings. Hiphop is not dead but it's got some issues, and I felt it best to address and explore these issues in a context of compassion rather than wash my hands of the whole thing. Which would be impossible for me anyway. I am hiphop.