In retrospect, growing up in Oakland during the last two decades of the 20th century meant that exposure to hip-hop music was a foregone inevitability. And in my case, when I heard and took serious notice of hip-hop for the first time at the age of 10—in the form of Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 single “Paid in Full”—this initial discovery was a personal tipping point for me. I wasn’t just exposed to hip-hop, I was transformed by it. The energy, the poetry, the melody. Man, I was all in. I mean, all in. And my passion for hip-hop would continue to grow exponentially throughout my pre-teen and teenage years, right into my early adulthood.
Now, granted, a middle/upper-class White kid from the East Bay who listened to hip-hop was no anomaly. My love for hip-hop was certainly not unique for my demographic and geographic. However, while many of my White friends were listening to hip-hop’s more playful, crossover-friendly acts like Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, Too $hort, Tone Lōc and Young MC, I found myself gravitating toward the more politically and socially righteous artists that my Black friends were championing like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Paris, X Clan and Poor Righteous Teachers, among others. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to and appreciated the full spectrum of hip-hop styles, and tried not to discriminate. But there was something far more stimulating to my ears about the acts that had more meaningful and provocative things to say. The acts that challenged me, as the listener, to think differently and analytically about America’s complex and interconnected social, political and racial dynamics.
So why did this particular strain of hip-hop resonate so profoundly with me? On a fundamental level, my socially liberal upbringing had a lot to do with it, as I was nurtured by parents who possessed a broad worldview and taught me to value and respect other people, regardless of—or more accurately, because of—their respective backgrounds. Thanks in large part to my parents, I’ve always been interested in hearing—and inclined to empathize with—the perspectives of people whose life stories are different than my own. But more than my own predispositions, I think I gravitated toward so-called “conscious” hip-hop artists because I was able to discern a great deal of truth and insight within their music. And perhaps surprisingly to some, the experiences and ideas they explored were not completely foreign to me. For despite my well-rounded upbringing and the socially progressive, culturally tolerant reputation that my hometown and other neighboring East Bay cities are known for, I witnessed plenty of racism during my adolescence.
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Justin Chadwick is a columnist for soulhead.com, whose #LongPlayLove series celebrates the anniversaries of albums that command a sentimental place in his mind, heart and soul. Follow his insatiable passion for music on Twitter @justin_chadwick.