I spent the better part of yesterday listening to classic hip-hop while I worked. I was a latecomer to the genre and my exposure was limited to the commercially successful stuff of my adolescent years – Nas, Biggie, Tupac, Jay-Z and the gangsta tip. Only very recently have I opened my mind to the true classics: that brief era between 1988 and 1992, where samples came from the best, the lyrics flowed and the message was uplifting. I’m paging through this catalog with the eyes of a child, wondering that such music was ever possible. Digable Planets. Tribe Called Quest. De La Soul. Pharcyde.
When I was in high school, just a few years after this golden age, I competed for the debate team. We would travel with the kids who did speech events to local tournaments, riding in our school’s battered yellow vans until we were old enough to drive. One of the speech kids, Rahman, was a hard kid to get a read on. His excitement seemed to live on a different frequency than the practiced cynicism of smart prep school kids. And yet he could transform himself from a boisterous five-foot-three to a poised, commanding presence during speech competitions. Declamation, Original Oratory, Dramatic Interpretation – he killed them. Even on the national level. He forced the debate kids to raise their game.
Our junior year, national finals for the National Catholic Forensics League were held in Detroit. We stayed in a high-rise hotel complex in a section of Detroit that was already decaying, forbidden by our coaches from leaving the building. The entire hotel was serviced by two elevators, which took hours (we felt) to ferry all the competing students between floors on the morning of the tournament.
Friday night, as we caught the elevator back to our rooms, Rahman dashed through the lobby to get in before the doors closed. We groaned inwardly – some of us out loud. We had cases to review for tomorrow’s marathon of debates. We already had those world-weary shells that all high schoolers wear. The last thing we wanted to deal with was Rahman’s enthusiasm.
And he was practically glowing. “You guys,” he said.
“One of the kids from Bronx …” – Bronx High School of Science – “… said one of the greatest rappers of all time is here! In the hotel!”
“I’ve got to find him,” Rahman said. “I’ve got his tape in my bag. Gotta get his autograph.”
“Rahman,” we asked. “Who is it?”
He said a name. All of us laughed. “Who the hell is that?” we said.
I don’t have many regrets from high school. I wouldn’t turn back the clock to take more AP classes, talk to more girls or stay out later. I’ve come to terms with the child I was back then, and I’m happy with the man I am now. But not a month has gone by in the last five years when I haven’t wished I took better note of that name. Q-Tip? Chuck D? Rakim? I know Rahman was a big De La Soul fan; could it have been them? It’s lost. I was lost in my own thoughts. It wasn’t one of the three rappers I’d heard of at that time; it might as well have been gibberish.
I wish I’d paid more attention. Think of the world that would be open to me today.