The first album that I ever bought with my own money was Creed’s “Human Clay.” The first concert I ever attended was Nickelback with 3 Doors Down. If it pains you to read those sentences, trust that it pained me even more to write them. Thankfully cultural tastes aren’t solidified at birth and mine have improved over the years.
I was in fourth grade when my school’s new music teacher introduced me to the Beatles. We watched part of “Yellow Submarine” in class and I couldn’t wait until the next week to finish it so I rented it from Blockbuster. That sent me spiraling down the rabbit hole of classic rock and subsequently blues and jazz.
With the oldies covered, I looked to my older brother Jon for a fresh supply of tunes. He got me into indie music by bands such as the Shins, Sufjan Stevens, Beck and others. At the time I was amazed that someone could find songs that weren’t being played on the radio.
From A.C. Newman to the Zombies, the 8,729 songs on my computer total just less than 24 days of music. It’s an eclectic collection, but I wouldn’t call it diverse.
But then the musical “Hamilton” came along and opened up the door. If by some reason you haven’t heard of one of the most lauded and successful musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda created a production about one of our founding fathers that blends show tunes and hip-hop. It had the answers to my lacking library.
The fast raps of Daveed Diggs, who plays both the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson, got me interested in his group Clipping. It was a good start, but not enough. I poured over the companion book to find Miranda’s inspirations, such as Talib Kweli and Kendrick Lamar, and listened to them. I needed to expand my horizons and I couldn’t be sated.
I know, Broadway got me into hip-hop? That’s probably one of the whitest things anyone has ever said.
It’s not that I’m so naïve or oblivious to have never listened to hip-hop before. TV on the Radio, Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley and Girl Talk occupy my iPod. It’s also impossible to ignore the colossal Beyoncé, Jay Z and Kanye West.
What “Hamilton” did was help me appreciate the lyrical density and rhyming complexity of hip-hop and rhythm and blues. It helped me realize that I’m due for another musical metamorphosis.
However, mainstream hip-hop hasn’t resonated with me for the most part. I can only bear to listen to West’s “Stronger” because it sampled the electronic duo Daft Punk. I watch Fox’s hit show “Empire” but I skip past or mute most of the songs.
So I had to look elsewhere and do my own searching. After Chance the Rapper appeared as a guest on NPR’s show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” I started listening to his albums. Yup, discovering a rapper via public radio is pretty white.
Only a few days ago Paul Banks of the indie rock band Interpol and RZA of the hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan released a collaboration album. The combo works better than it does on paper, but I have another confession to make. I never heard of RZA or the Wu-Tang Clan until I watched the indie movie “Coffee and Cigarettes.”
Yeah I know, that’s also an extremely white thing to say. I saw RZA’s two “The Man with the Iron Fists,” movies before ever fully listening to a Wu-Tang Clan album, too.
For my final confession, I never listened to Frank Ocean until I gave into the joyous internet outburst over his sophomore album “Blonde.” The hype wasn’t hyperbolic and it turned out to be worth the wait.
Word of mouth and similar styles are common patterns of media absorption. Finding something one likes because it’s associated with something else one likes is only natural. However, I can’t help but feel guilty for not discovering these artists more organically.
To make sure I no longer have any blind spots I’ve enlisted my friends to help educate me in the genre. Thanks to them I now own albums by Atmosphere and Lizzo. Time to make amends and play catch-up, beat by beat.
This column was originally published in the August 31, 2016 edition of the Valley Courier.