The Music’s Always On
How do I describe 90s rap? It is round, an orange, with the peel left on, but you can smell its zest as if it had been opened. Nineteen ninety-eight was my induction. I shouldn’t say I was introduced to rap music that year, rather I’d become more conscious of what the music was that was blaring from my brothers’ Fosgates. It was progressive and aggressive; for and against itself, combating against injustice and degrading its own community. But for me it was the orange peel protecting the inner fruit. That’s what rap was, the protective barrier.
I remember how it began to click. It was in fourth grade. I had gone to school three days in a row with the same pair of jeans on, the yellow mustard spot and brownish green grass stain still glowing, smeared like mixed media art. Questions bombarded my mind. Why were my classmate’s clothes so nice and neat? And why were mine baggy and dingy? When I took the bus home that afternoon, I analyzed the neighborhoods where the bus stopped to see how they differed. Parents were in the driveway waiting for their kids. The day would be full of questions up until I laid my head down to sleep. Did they have laundry in the hall? Did they keep their socks in a bag? Did they have trash on the floor? I didn’t really want answers; it was just what I thought. Weeks later those thoughts became pains. I couldn’t bridge the gap between me and them. We were kids. They never rubbed it in my face, but I knew I was an outsider, that something separated us.
Being poor and black entered into consciousness at once: the concoction casted shadows over my eyes that would be fought back against at the start of each day. I was on edge like the rest of the young black males in my neighborhood. This edginess burrowed into my head and chest and began to go to school with me. One day it let out. It exploded into a ball of punches and kicks that didn’t seem to end until I was in the principals’ office. I had never been in a fight before. The awakening had been rude and abrupt. Part of my childhood ended. I found in rap music a group of people who thought and felt like me who were from the same type of neighborhoods. I found in it a weapon to fight back with against my own anxieties and fears. It helped me to develop a tougher exterior and nurture the fruit so that it would still grow.
Nineties rap is intertwined with my brother. When I talk about it, simultaneously I talk about him. He acts as juncture. His white Ford Escort on chrome hundred spoke Daytons with the Pioneer deck; him outside armor-alling the inside with his subwoofer thumping to Master P’s Ghetto Dope. The record blares into the open air unsuppressed. The lyrics are harsh and unapologetic, tasting like metal, tailored for the time. The beats vary: quick, energetic, aggressive, to slow, melodic, mournful. The music was a barrier; it protected me. He was a barrier; he protected me. He was as tough as the lyrics that the rappers produced and a product of what they produced. It was 1998 and sunny. He wore a wife beater, starched blue jeans, Nike Cortez’s, a gold chain and a gold watch. The car smelled of orange car freshener. The invigorating smell of orange and 90s rap are synonymous…. When he was sentenced to six years in McAlester State Prison, the music was the only thing that gave me strength to face my social differences.
When you juice the orange you get the pulp as well. Pick any rap album from the 90s and you’ll find in its juice selling drugs, murder, having sex with lots of women, and hate for the police. Its pulp was Brenda got a Baby, Keep ya Head up, and See you at the Crossroads.
Nineties rap is an old school impala creeping slowly in the night with passengers toting warlike guns. At any moment rounds could chew up the innocent and non-innocent alike. It loads me into the chamber, begins to fire. Bullets drum; shells clink-clink-clink the pavement. The fear of not being able to make it was gunned down…. I harnessed raps’ energy and used it to get through the dizzling spiral of the late 90s; adopted its no-nonsense way of handling problems and fastened myself like shell casing, able to penetrate poverty, racism and my own doubts.
I didn’t read much growing up, but I had the music. It was relentless, a stray dog running loose in the streets heaving, growling. It wasn’t out for scraps, it was out for life. The artist’s told stories from its fangs snarling out lyrics that made me more determined to not fall victim to my environment. Most end up selling drugs, how this reversal came about, I do not know. Drugs and women and hatred for police never took hold, it only made me more aware their existence.
The song comes on slow, but thick, heavy like a full bodied red wine that leaves legs on the side of the glass, and remains that filling. He croons just above the bass guitar—the tambourine underneath at a southern church pace—and paints a picture of cowboy spritzed with Stetson. The rhythm gallops like a steed galloping towards the horizon, making your blood pump unable to distinguish between the wine and the adrenaline of being wide on the range, the destination, feeling. You inhale the wine before putting it in your mouth; when you do, you let the notes roll around swallowing: oaky, plumb-ish, ash. You feel as if you’re a cut of velvet.
You imagine everything as velvet. Velvet and delicate, so delicate that you’re afraid to press against the song that it might rip. The electric guitar comes unexpected and the horse speeds up and you look behind you and you realize that you are running from your fears as they race to engulf you. Unprayed for sins. Broken commitments. Beautiful injustices. You can’t outpace them and they take you, swallow you, and you realize you have wings light as cotton, as pure as white as cotton.
As the song draws to a close, you realize it was a daydream. You’re at a ravine kneeled down beside your horse as it drinks. You take your hand and run it through the water and rub it on the back of your neck, then you decide to wade out thinking drowning yourself is the only possible way to receive forgiveness. As you struggle to stay under, you break the surface inhaling air, inhaling sound, your eyes tasting the clay swirl that runs alongside the ravines’ wall. You hear the angles. You no longer chase demons and call it quits.
The song is the high that you never want to come down from. As it ends, you tighten the tape around you your bicep readying your vein for the next hit. It replays and you’re back on your horse, your soul’s velvet and forgiveness is your only wish.
Maurice Buckner is a Oklahoma native who grew up on the sun-dried lands of Lawton, Oklahoma. He has just recently obtained his Bachelor's degree in English, with a focus on Creative Writing. He is a son and a father. He enjoys passing time staring out across the land enjoying its flats and hills, or out cruising along a country back road staring at old, rusty oil pumps and cattle. He has grappled with landscape of Lawton for years and has finally come to terms that it is a part of him; it has intertwined with his double helix, and from that dry land he emerges.