(an Ode to J. Cole)
The Epiphany took place at 7 am on 3/24/19
Around 2 months ago we caught wind of Hip-Hop star J. Cole’s new single « Middle Child » and I was reminded why I rate him equal on the platform of #1 in rap, and keeping true to the art and code of Hip-Hop right next to Kendrick Lamar.
I am a child of Hip-Hop. Came of age on its hind leg. And I’m a connoisseur. From Poor Righteous Teachers to Street Military (whose lyrics « Tears Came With Making This Dream » inscribe my neck). My current mood with Rap is less than disdain, but for the love and respect of Hip-Hop it is at despair. Every step backwards that an African-American has taken has been because he or she was cut off from their root. As in the plant kingdom, mineral kingdom, so in the animal. As above, so below.
So, when I catch a breath of fresh air from a J. Cole or a K-dot, I’m given enough fuel to bend just one more corner. $2 Unleaded.
Maybe then, but not now.
What touched me about this song was the dilemma J.Cole has being a « middle child » between the O.G.’s of Hip-Hop and the New Generations of trappers, swaggers, braggers. It’s like going from a Delta ’88 on swangers to a Ferrari. Zero to one hundred, real quick!
His goal was to embrace the new ones in all their glory and grime and encourage them to reach the stars while at the same time reminding the old schools to not turn their faces just because they are different, because once…they were the different ones. Kangols, shoes with no laces, 1,000 gold chains and all.
BUT…it reminded me of the FIRST middle child. And that would be me: The dash between Music and Hip-Hop. Oh yes, there was a dash before Hip-Hop and it swims in a fantastic land of where the original Hip-Hop beats came from. I’m here, maybe as the first to confess, the life I lived before I found Hip-Hop.
I was born in 1976, so came of age in the 80’s. Hip-Hop was just a twitch in some people’s behinds, ticking to the beats and rhythms that coasted the airwaves. The first song I ever heard – and the following may be disturbing to some of you, so I apologize – was Marvin Gaye’s « Sexual Healing. » No – not through the thin walls of my father’s house, but taking a nap in the back seat of my dad’s car while he was inside a Toys-R-Us boosting to support his heroin habit. Facts. Testimony. Reality. From there my musical ears was opened and I came to love hearing the likes of Hall and Oates, Sting, David Bowie, Def Leppard. Before I loved Red Hot and Stone Temple Pilots there was Guns-n-Roses, Black Sabbath and U2.
What J. Cole’s song reminds me of – as a middle child – is all the times some of the newer generation (and J. Cole’s) would look at me when a beat came on and I said – « Hell yeah, that’s originally Aerosmith’s beat. » Like…how would you know that?
Those glares and sneers weren’t always the most cordial. Infact, in their eyes, it came off quite wigga-ish. Very Carlton Banks.
But, my introduction to music was not my infatuation with music. That wouldn’t come until « I got it made » and « ’93 til Infinity. » Should I be banished because I was birthed on Enfamil and not Whole Milk? If anything, I had the best upbringing – among the original tunes that would be scratched, chopped and screwed and turned into Rhythm and Blues « My life, my life, my life…in the sunshine. »
Isn’t it to my credit that I can identify a James Brown, Isaac Hayes or Stevie Wonder beat being used? Isn’t it to my glory that I know Mc Eiht of Compton’s Most Wanted redid Anita Baker’s « Angel » in « Late Night Hype »? Or that Ice Cube’s « Be True To The Game » is Gap Band’s « Outstanding »?
However, my middle child-ism goes even deeper. And I had a rude awakening to it juts this morning.
On March 14th I sent a letter to my beloved friend asking for J. Cole’s lyrics to « Middle Child ». I wanted to study them. As I’ve done « A Rose That Grew From Concrete » (Tupac Shakur) to « Homegirls and Handgrenades » (Sonia Sanchez). I wanted to cite lines as I wrote.
On March 22nd I was moved to a new cell. The move was an error so the very next day I was moved again – not to the cell I had just left, but a whole other cell. It really infuriated me. I felt wronged for being DRY uprooted out of my comfortable cell and section to somewhere else then not being put back there. I had made the decision to protest the move. For reasons unknown to me (but what I know to be shortage of staff in TDCJ) the move was not carried out until 8pm. By then I was tired, I had enough time to think about the wonderful people working for my freedom and I simply complied and moved.
That wouldn’t be the end of the pain. I was moved into a cell that looked like it had never once been cleaned in time of the Unit’s invention. To top it off the former inmate in the cell liked to burn stuff, so black soot caked the cell. It was a horror show. There’s an ongoing rumor around the Unit that I’m being used as a one-man cleaning machine to scrub all the cells on the Unit. At the rate of my moves in the last 2 months it may be very true. Anyone that knows me, or has heard of me, knows that I am one of the most meticulous, OCD, primpy guys they’ve ever met. I’ve even be called as far as Metrosexual, but I’m unable to sign off on that at this moment. What the above means is that I don’t even unpack my property until the cell is sparkling clean, the toilet scrubbed and the holes for roaches plugged up. Only then can I unfold the most blessed items that I have been lugging around from the last 23 years. Something like « The Book of Eli ».
As with any gypsy, hermit, nomad – we survey our surroundings when we arrive. And as with the tradition of entering new TDCJ cells I take note of what is on the walls. The walls…where testimonies, confessionals, boredom is struck up like hieroglyphics in Egypt. I have been a witness to these words, cries, verses scrawled when some form of « MEANING » needed to be expressed. Some form of acceptance – compassion found in one’s own arms. S.E.L.F. Where it all began.
Giving life to my journey I once submitted a poem to PEN America around 2014 (whom I regularly interact with) entitled « The walls » which told the story of all the different things I’ve ever read on the walls in prison, the things I left up and the things I scrubbed off with cleaning materials. Some things, scrawled from pain or with an artist’s pen may be left. To reflect on. Or, perhaps, to touch somebody else that will come behind me. I won an Honorable mention for the poem and won a $20 prize. When asked where I wanted the money sent I replied in the letter – « To my daughter ». The meager gesture almost brings me to tears, but maybe it brought tears of understanding and love to her that day.
In 2016 I was assaulted by a prison guard. It wasn’t to his favor and in the end I wasn’t dropped a custody level because it was seen on camera that he struck me first. But, after the altercation I was put in a cell and after rising from the handcuffs being taken off the first thing I saw on the wall was « This Too Shall Pass ». Though we’re nowhere close to the Old Testament, prisoners are prophets. So, in truth, we really are. Some are just men who have not risen. Saints are just sinners who fall down…and got up!
When I came into this horror show of a cell it was completely covered in writing. Every wall, from top to bottom. Most of it insane rambling about crooked cops, apocalyptic bible verses…AND another one of the most mind blowing revelations I had ever experienced (One that – as we see – is going down in the history of my pen): an entire wall covered in the names of the greatest Rock-n-Roll groups ever formed. I was immediately mesmerized – as I always am – at the dedication it took to write all these names on this wall. I so admired it that as I cleaned this side of the wall I didn’t scrub too hard to erase the names, only the soot caked there from the smoke. I realized that I knew lyrics to almost half of the groups written on this wall. The same groups I grew up listening to and would sometimes hum around my homies – the old and the new – that caused them to look up and say « Really? »
Yeah, REALLY! I cannot deny the fact that I love Guns-n-Roses « Knocking on heaven’s door » (though it’s a remake. And who would know that?) The person that wrote these groups wrote them true to form. Slayer’s « S » had its thunderbolt shape (something worthy of another essay topic) and even Metallica’s « M » and « A » had its signature design. « Sad but true. »
Some of these groups I have never even heard of. But, true to my love for music and true to what this article is about I will one day know them. And now you’re going to know them. You’re going to know every dang group that is written on this very wall that I’m sitting in. Buckle up and make note:
LIMPBIZKIT STONE SOUR SKIDROW
DEACIDE IN THIS MOMENT VARUCA SALT
OZZY GARBAGE FINGER ELEVEN
HAILSTORM FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH DISTURBED
LIVE WHITE ZOMBIE 3 DOORS DOWN
HATE BREED FLY LEAF CREED
SILVERCHAIR QUEEN CAGE THE ELEPHANT
DROWNING POOL QUEENSRYCHE ORGY
STABBING WESTWARD TEXAS HATE MACHINE GREEN DAY
MACHINE HEAD CRADLE OF FILTH FOO FIGHTERS
PEARL JAM GODSMACK 21 PILOTS
NICKLEBACK THE PRETTY RECKLESS PRODIGY
NINE INCH NAILS IRON MAIDEN ALIEN ANT FARM
DEVIL DRIVER BILLY IDOL SIX A.M.
DEAD OASIS LINKIN PARK
BLINK 182 CANIBAL CORPSE U2
RUSH TOOL THE ARTIC MONKIES
THE CRYSTAL METHOD POISON BLACK LABEL SOCIETY
JIMMY EAT WORLD FALLING IN RESERVE LAMB OF GOD
DEATH ANGEL ANTHRAX SLIPKNOT
AS I LAY DYING SUICIDAL TENDENCIES INCUBUS
OBITUARY BUTCHER BABIES HELL-YEA
NIRVANA I PREVAIL PANTERA
NEVERMORE WEEZER OLEANDER
EVANESENCE MASTODON OVERKILL
PARKWAY DRIVE TEMPLE OF THE DOG DRAGON FORCE
PINK FLOYD OTEP SHADOWS FALL
AUGUST BURNS RED RISE AGAINST MOTLEY CRUE
SEVEN MARY THREE THE OFFSPRING CIRCA SURVIVE
THRICE METAL CHURCH QUIET RIOT
AUDIO SLAVE SEPTEMBER MOURNING SHINEDOWN
POPEVIL VELVET REVOLVER BLIND MELON
A PERFECT CIRCLE UNEARTHED MISFITS SIX FEET UNDER
BLACK FLAG GOOD CHARLOTTE UNDER OATH
FREE STATE FILTER DEVIL YOU KNOW
POPA ROACH SAINTASONIA AVENGED SEVENFOLD
DAMAGE PLAN GRANDSON BREAKING BENJAMIN
All in their glory. All written on the wall next to me. All given to me in the midst of reflection of being this middle child. Then Sunday morning, doing my 20 year ritual of washing linens and wiping the cell down I SNAPPED – THERE IS ALL YOUR MIDDLE CHILD. Indeed.
Being this middle child was sometimes no easy task. You get the stank eye from time to time when you can hit a Migos lyric then turn right around and hit Madonna or Rod Stewart. We (middle child #1) sometimes had to PROVE that we was just as Hip-Hop, just as square business and could swag and bang with the best of them. Most guys around me begin their Hip-Hop life at Cash Money records. Most are post – 2000.
My very first rap song I ever heard (like my « Sexual Healing ») was « LaDiDadi » by Slick Rick. My first tapes ever played were Too Short, Second to None, DJ Quick, Spice 1, Mc Eiht, AMG and NWA. Once MTV came out with Yo’ MTV Raps – the original middle child had just severed its umbilical cord and went to the tit of Hip-Hop. Now, 30 years later, I have read countless of books on Hip-Hop, studied countless of rappers and poets, poets turned rappers, professors and spoken word artist (like my personal friends The Welfare Poets) material. I could hold my own in any panel or platform. This music molded my life. Sadly, it ended up molding my life in a negative way. I had to go through a hell to realize the heaven. One day I hope to be able to go back to the Hip-Hop movement and remind it to what it should have been and should be doing. It is still a Revolution and is still – next to religion – the most powerful force in the world. After all, next to religion where can you go from South America to Japan and find one common thing? While every genre of music touches every corner of the globe, Hip-Hop has invaded cultures, languages and movements. From the Arab Spring to B-Boys rocking in Rotterdam. It’s my love. And remain so.
My transition into it came at the edge of real drums and guitars. It’s nothing to hide nor be embarrassed about. While we know Reggae and Calypso influenced the originators like DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, Rock-n-Roll, Blues and Soul all influenced the original rappers to rock the beat, shake their shoulders, dip and lean. Nevertheless, we, the Original Middle Child, salute all of you.
I’m unable to explain how such ideas pop in my head or how I get put in a cell with over 100 groups, some touched my life and are the core of the very idea I had. Such has been the story of my life – from going to death row to being on Netflix to being a Law of Party offender and advocate.
In the face of my tragedy, step by step down this road, I have made a discovery and a lesson. That it’s so much bigger than us. That what we put out to the Universe does indeed come back to us.
These days I live with the hopes to return to society to teach, to bring testimony to redemption and love, but even moreso I hold on to the hope that I’ll one day be able to dawn my black boots, pocket chain and bandana and enter an arena and ROCK ON, hardcore and Wild Out! Then be able to leave there and go bounce to 21 Savage and Drake. All because I can. All because I love life and am true to my root and religion – MUSIC!
The first Middle Child roars on, but am thankful for all those that have come after us. Now… »take me down to the paradise city, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty. Won’t you…PLEASE…take me home! »