“Luke, what does smack that cheese mean?” two of my college-aged co-workers asked me the other day.
We were closing down the restaurant, and like usual, we were listening to hip-hop. The subject matter of the question: a song by Lupe Fiasco, in which the chorus is, “stack that cheese”. It’s not “smack that cheese” I explained to the ladies, it’s “stack that cheese,” cheese is money, and to stack money means to save it, stash it away.
Another piece of modern lexicon was added to their brilliant young minds, and we went back to cleaning. Then I wondered, when did I become a hip-hop historian?
For me hip-hop is a love-hate relationship. If there is one form of music that speaks directly to my heart it is hip-hop. If there is one form of music that disgusts me it is hip-hop. Hip-hop is alive. Hip-hop is dead. Hip-hop is sitting on the mountaintop, singing the praises and joys of being alive. Hip-hop is down in the gutter, sipping hard liquor and syrup, waiting to be resurrected. Hip-hop is a reflection of the human condition.
I don’t remember where my first hip-hop tape came from, probably a Sam Goody store at the mall, but I remember its manila color, and the energetic vibes that the Beastie Boys created. It was License to Ill, a 1980s classic, with Led Zeppelin sampled guitar riffs and outrageous lyrics. Lyrics that would later shape high school and the excessive partying that led into higher education. Simply put, the Beastie Boys were trouble, and what does the confused youth love more than trouble?
In high school, when the world moved into CDs, I kept Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre stashed away in my desk, for fear my parent’s would find it. In essence the songs on Doggystyle were similar to License to Ill, partying, misogyny, and standard misbehaving; which is exactly what I wanted to get into as a teenager.
I now look back to the 1990s with nostalgia. So out of reach. Many say the golden age of hip-hop was in the 1990s. In the nineties, to me, hip-hop was simply rap, music that was made for partying, for escape, firmly removed from reality. In my senior year of hip-hop I decided I was tired of rap, and became a hippie, perhaps just for a change in drugs to do at parties.
So the golden age of hip-hop, a crescending wave, crashed over before I even realized it was there. Luckily, at my third college, up in Gunnison, Colorado, I realized there was more to live for than partying. There was the outdoors.
Hip-hop was invented in the concrete streets, in New York in the 1970s. Founded within black culture, there were three essential ingredients in hip-hop: the music, graffiti art, and breakdancing. It didn’t take long for hip-hop to spread across the globe, or to become commercialized. Still, today in 2014, the essence of hip-hop remains alive and vibrant: kids are still rapping, dancing and creating art with the same tools from the inventors (at least in a figurative sense) from America to Zimbabwe.
So I moved from an urban existence in Illinois to the rural Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and finally discovered the true beauty and genius of hip-hop. I made the transition from being a hippie, to being, well, just me. Doors began to open in my mind. My friends and I would take trips all over the country to climb, and hip-hop was always on the stereo.
One buddy in particular, Big Red the Superjock, was a DJ on the local radio station in Crested Butte, and we had intricate discussions about our favorite artists and their work. Hip-hop was more than just music for partying, way more.
Hip-hop is art; it is about knowledge and self-discovery, and in the words of my second favorite duo, Black Star, “Life without knowledge is death in disguise, that’s why knowledge of self is like life after death. Apply it to your life let destiny manifest.”
I learned about the drug epidemic, about how many rappers only escaped jail because they got into hip-hop (Former crack dealer Jay-Z being the most famous). The anger and injustice of 400 years of slavery was voiced through many artists. Tough and honest voices against capitalism, though hip-hop has been noted as the only pro-capitalist form of music out there (again the contradictions). Another great duo, Dead Prez, raps about a proper diet, exercise, love, poetry and yoga, “You are what you eat, so I strive to eat healthy, my goal in life is not to be rich or wealthy.”
My favorite was (is) Andre 3000, of the duo Outkast. Such a poetic pure soul, Andre 3000 is still ahead of his time, 20 years into his career. He embraced the cool of hip-hop, while remaining true to himself, “Softly as if I play piano in the dark, found a way to channel my anger, not to embark. The world’s a stage and everybody got to play they part.” When Andre 3000 raps, whether it is about struggle, drugs, violence or love, you feel his soul. When he says, “we the coolest mutherfunkers on the planet” you feel like the coolest mutherfunker on the planet.
Even the Beastie Boys came around. My path mirrored theirs. After years of partying and debauchery, they started rapping about meaningful topics. They apologized for their misogyny and stopped carrying weapons. They started getting involved in the Free Tibet movement, and featured Buddhist monks on one of their tracks. Before his untimely death Adam Yauch aka MCA, spent a winter dirtbagging it as a snowboarder at the Alta ski resort.
So there it is, a brief history of how I became a hip-hop historian. I kinda like it that, like myself, hip-hop has a few grey hairs. The art is getting better, and worse, all at the same time. It’s everywhere, from commercials to street corners, but the essence of hip-hop lies within the doers: the graffiti artists, the breakdancers, the up and coming rappers; people trying to make something from nothing.
And if you’re still confused whether you should be smackin’ or stackin’ your cheese, you can buy me a beer; we’ll talk.
This article is published in today's Durango Telegraph