Saturday, December 08, 2012

Self-Discography #17: "Hot, Cool & Vicious" by Salt 'N' Pepa

I am not a black female rapper.

The fact that I physically couldn't be was only luck of the draw. Happenstance. It was simply a technicality. If I was supposed to be anything I wanted, this was something I was going to leave on the table, genetics be damned.

I banished the thought.

In retrospect, I know why, at the age of 13, this was my vision for myself. A childhood diet of sweet radio-friendly pop and disco, gloomy rock that was little more than a D&D soundtrack, and male MC-fronted rap that did nothing but boast about its importance and a desire to be indomitable created a palate that needed something else. Add to the mix two other details: my closest friends were all female; my school more black than white. Drop something like the irresistible "Push It" into the middle of that and suddenly ambition was everywhere--from simply wanting to dance better than your classmate to trying your hand at scratching out rhymes in your notebook.

I had a personal phenomenon on my hands in 1986, but not yet the brain to see what it meant: an acute mix of feminism, upward mobility desire, and the freedom to identify on a public level with two African-American women who were not dressed in low-cut dresses and playing the role of lover/girlfriend to any number of the world's Keith Sweats. These were gender roles turned on their heads. This was a reflection of the girls I knew--strong, funny, already their own people. And this flew in the face of all that was expected of me.

Gay boy in training. Posse of female friends. Salt 'N' Pepa. Yeah, it all makes sense. In fact, it's become a cliche now that pop culture nostalgia is something we consume on a daily basis. But when you first experience it, when you are so strongly drawn to something, you only know how you feel.
And what I felt was that I could play my cassette copy on my fake Walkman for hours on end, memorizing and mouthing phrases that would become part of my vocabulary--and often shouted/sung--for the next 25 years:

"You ain't gettin' paid, you ain't knockin' boots, you ain't treatin' me like no prostitute."
"Your mouth is gettin' sassy, don't make me have to hit it."
"And another thing? Please take off my gold ring."
"You ain't Alice, this ain't Wonderland."
"Have you ever been to jams where people just stand? They pay to come in and they don't even dance."

I knew then as I know now that "Hot, Cool & Vicious" is a bit of a mess: a murky mix of pop-leaning hip-hop with often-simple but still catchy rhymes, sometimes even repeating the same word to make sure it hangs together. But the simple, stuttering drum beats, hand claps, and deft sampling of classic R&B and soul kicks it into a category of its own. Salt 'N' Pepa were not the first female MCs, but their interplay, their attitudes, and the playfulness--the feeling of being in on a very serious joke--is still necessary, a reminder that your can define "femininity" (and by extension "masculinity") the way you want.

And I just realized.

If it's all about word choice, delivery, attitude, self-respect, and creating sex appeal based on your talent and brains as much as your body ...

maybe I really am a black female rapper.

From 1986.


Sunday, September 30, 2012


"If I'd known leaving every home would get me here, I would have gone sooner."  

There's home to be found nowhere--stability in being thoroughly dislodged.

I try to remind myself of this before I go anywhere. I may only be driving for the pleasure of driving. I may be sitting on a plane for 12 hours to emerge in a place I feel I have always known. I long for home and long to be untethered. I dream of my own bed and dwell on those that will only be mine for a few hours--things to be seen and felt for a brief period before they disappear into my memory, objects I will never truly know again.

I had an English teacher in middle school who was fond of telling us to explain the moments between the moments. In other words, don't tell me where you went and the "foreignness" of it; detail the steps you took on the pavement. Describe how the air smelled in that moment you descended a flight of stairs. Can you capture the emotion of the music you hear while traversing a public square? It's a simple writing prompt, but I summon it whenever I can. I like to collect facts, but I am always interested in coloring in their outlines with those moments. Don't just keep a journal that's a black-and-white list. Make it an explosion of colors. Create your own synesthesia.

Forward/backward: dual vision. I feel it as a language. I can speak it, write it, but not clearly translate. Which is the point. My writing about the places I go is at once perfunctory, an outline, and utterly nonsensical--an inside joke I hope no one ever has to try to unravel. For someone who has been guilty of saying structure and clarity are the main tenets of my writing, the mess of these travelogues is, frankly, refreshing.

I am shelving and filing the notebooks today and packing a leather booklet and multiple pens. I am flexing the muscles in my fingers, wishing them into paintbrushes. I am dreaming of the countries I've waited 25 years to see. I want to make a home out of each of them.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


I never feel quite so typically American as when I get to drive down a ribbon of highway in the middle of a beautiful landscape.

Perhaps it's a moment for which only one raised on a steady diet of car commercials can pine: in which the asphalt is slick but not slippery, where the surf meets dramatic cliffs, where the snowy mountains beckon in the background. Of course, the underlying message is "If you can afford to buy this--and even if you can't, you should--you, too, can have this bird-like euphoria and throw off the shackles to experience nature without really experiencing it."

I just can't help it. I understand so clearly how much I like to drive, what a waste of fossil fuels it is, and how I've been force fed keywords and emotional adjectives about what that experience "should be." None of this, however, keeps me from feeling emotionally overwhelmed on a backroad, or from staring at atlases and maps, plotting a potential road trip. I want to see where the faint grey lines, in particular, lead. I want to have three weeks to tour through what some may consider a wasteland and others may be too nervous to explore. I think of the five or six states I have still not seen; I wonder how silent a place can be; I try to remember the last time I saw an explosion of stars overheard.

A few weeks ago, I shunned the interstate through the middle of California to thread my way up and over the mountains of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. On this tiny road that seemed to serve no real purpose, there were almost no people--just a dry riverbed and giant pines growing up out of collapsed rock faces. When stopping to get a look at the vista of craggy brown mountains and scrub giving way to the secluded valley below, the only thing I could hear was the wind and a faint hum of insects. It impressed upon me the moments over the last 30 years where I've had these moments of falling in love instantly with a view and knowing I might forget the details: Badlands covered in fractured piles of snow and ice; a brilliant patchwork of New England fall as seen from a hillside; the dangerous beauty of the red rocks of Utah in July; a rain forest on the Oregon coast; an almost indescribable vista from an empty Alaska highway that runs in the steep shadow of a mountain chain.

I wish we were all allowed these blocks of time to explore our own country, to see what we often only get to imagine, and dream with these images burrowing into our brains. It's an ideal I will aspire to later in my life, I think. I make jokes of retiring in the California desert--of moving as far away as possible from the sound of helicopters, screeching brakes, and strip malls. But what I am really doing is writing itineraries in my head. I am memorizing routes, numbers, possible roads that could be washed out in the spring and closed in the winter. I am imagining roads that don't even exist. I am committing myself to a life in which marveling is as integral as sleep.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Liner Notes for a Lost Mixtape

Dear ____:

What do you want to hear? What state of mind are you in? What's happening, has happened, or maybe will? How do I remember you? How do I think of you when I am alone at 2 a.m.? When is the last time we talked? Did we laugh? Were you frustrated? Were you perhaps mourning someone who left you unexpectedly, or was it that you woke up from a years-long sleep and saw the world differently? I think I know.

The keyboard may fade into the ether. That guitar fuzz might come to an audacious full stop. This singer isn't the best, but damn, listen to those words. I see nothing wrong with book-ending '80s-inspired synth with heartland folk. You always did like to dance. We always did like to drive at night and smoke cigarettes and sing along until our voices were hoarse. I always wanted to be able to make sound like this. I always wanted you to notice why you're so special to me. Did you ever wonder, too?

Will these songs tell the future? Will they make you smile as you clean the house and dance along in the process? Or will you misplace this and find it years from now wondering what was happening the day you received it? Will that just dredge up a shard of the past you would rather forget? Did you think maybe I wouldn't notice? Did you believe I wasn't thinking about you? Do you understand how that isn't possible? I think--and listen--all too often.

Sometimes I want the music to go on forever--a constant stream into your house, your ears, filling any gaps that have been opened and feel empty. This is poetry. This is fortune telling. This is truth. My brain and my mouth won't get in the way. I feel it like a waterfall cascading upon my head, stunning and crisp. I want to sing to you. I want you to join in. There is still time to jump in the car in the middle of the night. There's still time to do the things we always wanted. You know that, right?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Who the Hell Are You?

Obligatory acknowledgment (and stating the obvious) that I haven't written anything here in 11 months. Maybe a bunch has happened. Maybe nothing of much consequence has. Writing about nearly a full year of day-by-day details would surely make you do little more than scroll to the end to see if there is, indeed, a punchline. (Hint: There is not.)

I kept waiting for some revelatory moment and all I got were a bunch of loosely connected epiphanies and ephemera.

Many of the writers I admire speak of writing like a muscle that must be worked--flexed, released, trained, learned, disappointed, perhaps, but always moving forward. I have never been that person who writes every day. Even at the height of my quasi-manic writing, it was never daily. And I often compared myself to those writers who feel compelled to make it almost like a ritual prayer. It is their instrument, after all, right? My only explanation looking back now at 11 months--honestly the longest I've ever gone without writing one sentence or paragraph that was purely was for my own exploration--is a loss of confidence. That old story. Not that I really knew that while in the midst of it. But when six different people referred to me as a writer (casually in conversation, introductions at parties, in questions they asked), it's hard to bark, "I am not a writer."

Besides, what does that even mean?

I don't make my living this way (duh #1). I don't care much to do so (duh #2). When I worked in publishing, I had the glamorous ideal of "being a writer" sucked out of me (duh #3). I am not good at selling myself (duh #4). I live in a country where artists are routinely looked upon as being elitist and somehow not "real workers" (duh #5). Yet, here I am, still a writer, with articles published, years of blog posts, some kind of need to keep presenting myself, my view of the world, my understanding of what it means to be in any particular moment.  

Maybe you are a fucking writer.

That phrase bounced around in my head on more than a few nights, as I stared at a digital clock that seemingly mocked me with its keeping of time, and reminding me that if I didn't sleep I'd be less clear on the subject when it got light again. But I am just synthesizer of information, I reminded myself. I look at ways to bring things together, to make things happen, to make sure others get what they need.

 Then what do you need?

And then my brain and I decided on a truce of sorts. Don't call me a writer; I won't tell you what you need.

Funny thing about brains, however, is that they don't just STOP. Even when we say we're "spaced out," "out of it," "busy," "so busy," or even "relaxed," they just keep whirring along, not really caring about your choice of polite lies. And suddenly I realized that if this was how it was going to be, I had to do it how I wanted...and I picked up an essay I wrote over five years ago, deciding I needed to make it into an object--something beautiful--and that I needed someone I knew to help me do that.

And here I sit. With an essay in front of me that needs my help to be better; with a friend of mine 800 miles away who's miraculously agreed that she could illustrate it, and I feel the synthesis beginning. Again. I don't know how it will be done. I don't know who will pay for it yet. I don't know if anyone aside from a random assortment of acquaintances will care. I do know, however, that it will be something I always wanted it to be. Apparently I am a synthesizer--a writer of sorts who creates some kind of linguistic alchemy.

So much for the brain truce. I give up.