Didn’t I promise to do one of these each week? And now this is my first entry in a month. It’s not for a lack of effort, I promise. I’ve started probably ten of these in the last month. Apparently I’m starting the wrong ones, though, because I can’t seem to finish any. As I said back in the beginning, music often elicits very specific memories for me. Play a song; I lock into a distinct time and place. Spending time in the Bay Area a week ago brought back one of those memories
When I moved to California in late 1986, hip-hop was making its first tentative steps into the mainstream. RUN-DMC’s “Walk This Way” had been THE song of the previous summer. The Beastie Boys were everywhere. As I discovered when I started classes at San Leandro High School, there was a whole new world of music that hadn’t made it to the Midwest yet. Through home-made mix tapes and swap-meet bootlegs traded like members of a resistance movement, I learned about new groups such as LL Cool J, the LA Dream Team, and CIA, Ice Cube’s first group. I also discovered a program on the Stanford student station that played nothing but hip-hop each Sunday afternoon. Although I could barely receive it, I managed to tape each week’s show on my single-track tape recorder and listen to it over-and-over during the week. Through this show, I discovered the phenomenal Eric. B & Rakim.
Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full was the first album I had discovered on my own and bought without consulting anyone else. From the moment I bought the tape, I listened to it constantly. Rakim’s distinctive voice and style were intoxicating. Eric B. was a master of the scratch and full of obscure beats. For a format that was in its most basic form, this was revolutionary stuff. The title track is one of the true masterpieces of the early days of hip-hop, and one of the few songs of which I’ll probably never forget all the lyrics.
Paid in Full also made me famous, well semi-famous. When someone bought a tape that was supposed to be good, word got out. You became the source for other people to discover new music. People would ask for a copy, or to borrow yours overnight so they could dub their own. Guys I barely knew would call across the hall to me between classes, “Hey, I hear you got the Eric B. and Rakim tape?!” Suddenly, I was becoming moderately popular, and all because of my addiction to a college radio station. Ironically, this new notoriety came as we were preparing to move back to Kansas City, so it was bittersweet (In other words, we left before I could parlay this musical knowledge into any dates).
Three weeks before I moved, I let my friend Charlie Terrell borrow the tape. Charlie lived in Oakland. Straight out of a bad sitcom, the poor black kid from the projects and the middle class white kid from Kansas became friends. We had two classes together, including science, where we would generally go to the back of the lab and talk about music or sports, then use Charlie’s charisma to get the results for the experiments we didn’t do from girls in the class. Charlie promised he would dub my tape quickly, and get it back to me. Two days went by, no tape. Four days. Seven days. “I’ll get it to you, man, don’t worry,” he would assure me. Finally, the Monday before I was to leave SLHS, when I asked, he said, “Man, I don’t know if I can get it back to you. My cousin took it and I don’t know what he did with it.”
On my last day of school at SLHS, we had a substitute teacher in science class. Charlie walked up to the sub, who was a rather small man, and said, “It’s D’s last day here, so were just going to go in the back of the lab and talk.” And back we went. Midway through class, when the teaching assistant came around to collect the attendance slips, our TA (who being short and dark had always attracted my attention, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her, no matter how much Mr. Smooth Terrell badgered me about it) gave a small envelope to the substitute.
“Um, is there a Charles Terrell?” the sub asked.
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“Here, this is for you.”
Charlie walked up and grabbed the envelope. He ripped it open, and pulled out a note. Then he handed the envelope to me. I looked inside and there was my Paid in Full tape. “I called my mom this morning and she brought it down. I couldn’t let you move back to Kansas without taking your tape with you.” We slapped hands and gave each other what was probably my first bro hug.
For both sentimental reasons and the fact it’s a phenomenal album, I still have that tape. I bought the 10th anniversary, remastered CD three years ago, but couldn’t bring myself to throw the tape out. It was a reminder of my exploration to discover new music, my efforts to meet people in a strange environment, and of a friend I lost touch with when I moved away.