Flat Tire

We were back in the East Village where the night started. In Maharlika, the stylish Philippino restaurant, numbly recounting how it all went down. Snoop Dogg’s Doggy Dogg World from 1994 spilled threats in that sluggish, Long Beach way. Dangerous and casual. It felt like a California decision to drive 3 hours (“If we can do it in two and a half hours or less, let’s go,” Joe suggested) to a casino in Connecticut – it felt circa 1994 too. Eric B. and Rakim’s Don’t Sweat the Technique was next. I wondered aloud if they had a DJ, wanting to send some approving eye contact his or her way. “It’s Pandora,” Nancy informed me. Shit is almost too easy nowadays I thought, taking a swig of my San Miguel in silent tribute to a harder time.

I was just joking around the day before. It was the end of the workday and concentration was elusive…But wait. I’ve told this story ten times and still haven’t found the hook. In each re-telling, I started obsessing over petty details because the symmetry was so uncanny. But it bogged down the story’s pacing and killed its comedic effect.

For instance, I like thinking about how Sandrine decided to skip a screening of 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (the 1979 documentary about Bronx street gangs) in order to ride up to Mohegan Sun with us, but we all wound up in a gas station in the Bronx hours later anyway trying to change a flat tire. The gas station was tucked in an industrial zone just off the highway that seemed to be untouched by aggressive ‘quality of life’ policies and re-zoning that have transformed many dilapidated neighborhoods in the last two decades. She got to see the ‘for real’ side of the Bronx depicted in that film after all. A lot happened that night, but the story is really that nothing happened. A net zero effect. It took everything we had to go nowhere. Had we in fact been gambling all along?


T-Shirt Weather

The California-lization of New York’s weather is evidence that the forces of globalization – the process by which any locale in the world becomes like a quaint Bay Area suburb – are manipulating the environment, flattening it. This shift in the world’s weather patterns might ultimately mess heavily with New York’s sensitive arrangement of culture and intellectual life. New York’s crack-era rap music from the 90s seems mired in an eternal winter, but would it be more like the drawl-ly rhythms of California gangsta rap (made for driving sinisterly in sunny weather) if New Yorkers expected 70 degree weather everyday? Would rap even exist if New York was encased in the air-conditioned geodesic dome imagined by Buckminster Fuller?

Another question: Could the homogenizing force of climate change greatly alter the patterns of another institution of contemporary life: tourism – which depends on a delicate balance of societal stability and exotic difference? I once saw a ritualistic rain dance by Native Americans in a touristic section of Berlin, a city whose bleak winter weather offered an appropriate backdrop to its modern history and lends gravitas to its contemporary art scene. This tableaux on a crowded Berlin street could be read as a kind of environmental, cultural confusion where the truths of dislocated and local racial histories were distorted by the demands and desires of tourism. The significant crowd that had amassed to watch this dance lost themselves for a minute and Berlin became nowhere. Its history disappeared.

For the 2008 Olympics, China was able to shut down rain (for the opening ceremony) and conjure it (to freshen Beijing’s polluted air) at will, but could they impose a “real” winter on New York next year? China’s motivation: it would symbolically solidify their monopoly over this century.

T-shirts have a way of aging quickly, especially those made specifically for the tourist industry. My parents buy me one of these whenever they go on vacation, marking the cities and landmarks they’ve visited. But one stands out: a yellow shirt with a blue, quickly-rendered ink brush graphic of a simplified globe. “The world is my home” is scrawled above it. Unlike the other t-shirts they’ve bought me, I have no idea where they got this one. And its point is clear: it doesn’t matter. Could’ve been anywhere.

Cormega’s “Raw Forever”

In the mid 90s hip hop heads were as desperate to know who Cormega was as they were to peel off Ghostface Killah’s mask. Cormega’s name reverberated in the beautiful nightmare Nas described on One Love, his letter to a jailed friend: What up with Cormega, did you see ’em, are y’all together? When he finally released his first album The Realness in 2001 after disputes with his label and beefs with former associates, it felt like it dropped 5 years too late. On that album, he rapped with a straight-forward poeticism about the morally conflicted condition of the hustler, themes that Jay-Z had already monopolized by then.

Ten years later, he has released Raw Forever, an understated and intense work that feels like a small victory for the possibilities of rap to speak to the down-and-out in all of us. The two-disc set is made up of a best of compilation and a surprisingly effective collaborative effort with a live band called The Revelations, who played on Wu-Tang Chamber Music. Cormega titled the tracks with Roman numerals according to their order on the disc. Track 2 is titled “II” for instance. This small act of music biz mockery undercuts the expectation that there has to be a unique subject for each track; in reality Cormega has always rhymed about one thing: the uncompromising code of the streets.

Though his music hasn’t changed much over the last 10 years, the rap world around him has. New York boom bap fell out of favor in the mainstream and the South’s sound rose to dominate urban radio. It seemed like any rapper who wasn’t from New York had a shot at the big time, or at least their 15 minutes. Eminem from Detroit, Nelly from St. Louis, Kanye West from Chicago, Lil Wayne from New Orleans, T.I. from Atlanta, Rick Ross from Miami, and now Drake from Canada. As America’s economy boomed, rap softened; honesty, self-effacing humor and vulnerability became fashionable. In this new context, rappers like Cormega seemed cynical and reactionary.

But now in the midst of a global economic plunge, his directness when talking about his own uncertain place in the game feels right and exact as in when he fires off the following lines on “IX”: My cocaine flow solidified I spit crack nowEver since I started rhymin the crime rates lowerI’m too young to die, too old to try the corners. Cormega’s outlook really hasn’t switched since he rhymed these words in “The Saga” in 2001:

uneffected by police intrusions
or street illusions we were consumed wit’
I’ve even grown away from people I grew wit’
I mean we cool, but I don’t need to bullshit

Perhaps the greatest victory on this album is “VIII” which re-introduces us to Red Alert, Parrish Smith of EPMD, Grand Puba of Brand Nubian, KRS One and Big Daddy Kane on an old school posse cut backed by a smooth funk melody. Red Alert introduces and closes it out in his helium tinged rasp and each rapper seems invigorated by the company. In the middle of it, KRS-One pulls out this line: they standing next to the flesh, I’m next to the soul. Cormega has stayed true to who he is, experimenting with the form of the music but not messing around with his narrative. This new album shows him as an important artist for this moment.

A Plea for a Hip Hop History Exhibition

When I was working at the Queens Museum some years ago, I meekly proposed a 5 borough, 5 museum exhibition on the history of hip hop in New York, essentially the definitive hip hop history show beginning with its genesis in the Bronx in the early 70s. The Queens Museum would cover the culture’s history in Queens and the Studio Museum in Harlem and/or El Museo del Barrio, Bronx Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center would examine their borough’s history with hip hop. And in fact, the show should include a Long Island and a New Jersey museum for all the contributions to the hip hop narrative coming from those corners. Imagine the kind of show any of these museums could throw with the history and material that’s just sitting in these communities. Think about all the forgotten pioneers whose memories are waning, whose personal effects are endangered by time and the elements.

The Queens Museum could uncover the different scenes in Queensbridge, South Jamaica, Hollis, and Lefrak City. Even Flushing (my neighborhood), stomping ground of Large Professor and Action Bronson, would get some shine. The show would look into break dance and graffiti crews in Queens and their relation to counterparts in the Bronx. It would reveal the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic on rap music’s development. It would look back to those first park and house parties that germinated the whole culture. It would be a multi-generational reunion at the Queens Museum. At the VIP opening, I can imagine LL Cool J from Hollis kicking it with The Beatnuts from Jackson Heights and Lloyd Banks from South Jamaica. But this shouldn’t just be a memorabilia show; it should examine the specific social, political and economic forces that influenced how hip hop developed. Like any good exhibition, it should be as much about the conditions surrounding a cultural form as the cultural form itself.

The idea never went anywhere, mostly because I didn’t sell it with the enthusiasm and determination it needed, but I hope it happens with or without me. (Honestly, if someone from any one of these institutions wants to pick up the idea and roll with it, I’m not mad at that.) And now that I’m at the Museum of Chinese in America, the question is not if I’ll do a show about hip hop, but when and how. This show would start with the question: What is the Chinese relationship to music, dance, and written language?  And then more personally, why was I so drawn to graffiti writing styles and rap music from the east coast as a teenager even though I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of San Francisco? Curating is autobiography through the back door of cultural anthropology.

My Hip Hop

I moved to New York 12 years ago to see the world described by rap music – a loud concrete maze of crime, corner ciphers, eternal winters, army fatigues, Timberlands and fast talk. And tonight after dinner with fellow Asian American-from-California curator Aimee Chan, I set out to write about hip hop from my own perspective, but what more can you say, and how better could you say it, than what Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, or Tricia Rose with Black Noise, or Nelson George with Hip Hop America, or Hua Hsu with a body of articles and reviews revolving around hip hop. Chang wrote a defining piece of the hip hop generation, tracing the beginnings of the culture from Jamaica’s political strife to the street gangs and peace deals of the Bronx in the 60s and 70s. Rose rightfully asserted the role of women into hip hop history while also juggling a narrative about stylistic advances and the technological revolution that hip hop exemplified. George made that history personal in his book which I still haven’t read, while Hsu uses hip hop as a backdrop to pick apart the nature of cultural identity in a globalized, connected world. Other thinkers have done major work on the subject and big props must go to them.

I can get with all of the scholarship but I still identify hip hop with the ‘realism’ version of New York City, emanating like steam out of a manhole from the beats of DJ Premier, the tortured impassioned crooning of Mary J. Blige, and the street Shakespeare of Ghostface and Raekwon. Listening to the revolutionary funk of The Coup and Paris shakes me back to an angry, politicized Bay Area intellectualism. The Hieroglyphics and DJ Q-Bert brought the defiant nerd intensity of the Bay’s subcultural scene to hip hop. In Houston, Scarface and The Geto Boys laced soupy, languid beats and hooks with extreme, Gothic tales from their hood. They set the stage for the experimentation of Organized Noize and Outkast, whose lyrics described the desires and realities of a struggling class in Atlanta.

Hip hop for me is winter in New York, when the subways turn medieval, as artist Daragh Reeves pointed out years ago. Bums mumble jovially, dark stares from the tired eyes of rich and poor alike, the screeching, the rats, the garbage, the smells, the foulness…is hip hop to me. On street level, it’s the black Escalade with tinted windows at night, the cops, the new Nikes, the Black culture, the Puerto Rican side of things, Canal Street, Jamaica Ave.

When I got into it, rap described a specific place to me, one I didn’t know, and because of that the music I gravitate towards delivers various local angles to me. But the world has changed a lot since hip hop’s golden age to the point where cities across the world have become more alike than different. This is globalization, in which the world traveler can comfortably navigate a foreign land as much as his or her own. And I understand that this traveler demands a different, less threatening kind of music. Something that can be a walking-around soundtrack in Brussels as well as driving music in Port Charlotte, Florida. But I’m still looking for more lyrics and beats that can define me, where I’m from, and where I might want to go next.