No matter what part of town you're driving in, you will hear the same thing at every stoplight: the flesh-trembling drone of a nearby bass system. Whether it's Highland Park or South Dallas, Eminem or OutKast, rap music blasts out of cars everywhere. Rap's current mass appeal--not only the sound, but the look on display at any nearby mall--makes the opinions of a certain demographic very valuable. Urban style is where it's at in the '04.
By these standards, the kids in my eighth-grade class are cutting-edge. All have grown up and gone to school in a section of Oak Cliff where elementary and middle schools are equally split between Hispanic and African-American populations (and that's it). Most families live below the poverty line.
Violence and crime are not strangers here. Kids regularly go in and out of juvenile detention. These particular students lost a former classmate just a month ago to a drive-by that took place across the street from their school, at lunchtime. Things like that don't happen all the time, but they happen often enough, and close enough, that everyone feels the effect.
School ended on the day we got together to talk about music, and it took a bit of wrangling to get the five 14- to 15-year-olds to sit down with their lame teacher. Lame former teacher. With that in mind, I presented the kids with a selection of today's hits.
"This Love," Maroon 5
Maroon 5 looks to be an easily forgettable pop group, this year's Marcy Playground. No doubt this song is playing at a Gap near you. Cueing up the music, however, I notice my street-savvy group is not immune to its sneaky pop hooks. Some heads start bobbing, and one girl begins to get her groove on--as much as the song allows.
"Oh, this is that song I was telling you about," says Sylvia. "I've heard this!" Turns out she's the only one who listens to Mix 100.3; everyone else prefers The Beat or K104. "I'm eclectic," she says.
Another girl, Lekira, says the video is always playing on MTV while she's getting ready for school. While she and another student quietly sing along, the rest sit, bored.
"Toxic," Britney Spears
The synth strings of Britney Spears start, and I look anxiously at their faces. A couple of lip curls, some quizzical stares.
"Oh, this is Britney Spears," someone notes.
"I love that beat," says Rhonda. "Couldn't dance to it, though."
I point out that this is considered dance music.
"You might could dance retarded to it," says Sylvia.
Sedarius cuts in impatiently. "When are we getting to the up-to-date music?"
"Cuttin," Mike Jones featuring Magnificent
This one's going to go over big. Mike Jones is an up-and-coming rapper who hails from the screwed-and-chopped capital of Houston. "Screwed and Chopped" is a brand of Southern rap, made famous by the late DJ Screw, that features slowed-down beats and chopped-up vocals. The kids love it.
"At a party, this would get it crunk," says Nancy.
They throw around the word "crunk" like some people use "cool." I know the term is also used for the Atlanta style of rap made by the likes of Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz, but I want to pinpoint what the kids think the word means.
"Crunk means something that gets you hype," Rhonda says. "It makes you want to move. Makes you feel..."
"Makes you feel all good and stuff," Sylvia finishes. Simple enough.
Nancy has the final word on Mike Jones: "It's tight," she says. Everybody nods.
"Light and Day," The Polyphonic Spree
I prep the kids for Dallas' favorite sons by telling them this is a local band that has become popular across the world. The song is hardly under way before Nancy cuts in.
"Aw, naw," she says, shaking her head. "Take that off."
I tell them they've probably heard this song on TV commercials or maybe in a recent Jim Carrey movie.
"Dumb and Dumber?" asks Sedarius. "That's something they'd make you sing in an elementary school choir."
I ask who they think would like this.
"Some lame white boys," Rhonda says.
"That's one of them hippie songs," says Sylvia.
Sophisticated, no. Brutally honest, yes.
I decide to give them a break. This track by hip-hop wunderkind J-Kwon, which is nothing more than an ode to getting drunk and partying over a slow, sultry beat, promises to be the hip-pop hit of the summer, this year's "Right Thurr." The song goes, "Everybody in this bitch getting tipsy." Unless it's on the radio, in which case the song substitutes "Everybody in da club."
Sylvia immediately says they like this one because "it's something you can relate to."
I ask them which version they prefer.
"It's more crunk with the cussin'," Lekira states for the group.
Sedarius elaborates. "'This bitch' could be anywhere, not just in the club."
Good point. Neither J-Kwon nor his audience are old enough to actually get into clubs. I point out that the lyrics are not very deep and ask if this bothers them.
"Nah," Rhonda says, "it's funny. You know, 'cause he's like our age group."
Sylvia again claims they can relate to it. This is obviously key for them.
"Paul Revere," The Asylum Street Spankers
Now, I absolutely expect them to reject this Austin band's antique acoustic stylings. I anticipate whines about banjos and twangy guitars. But what I'm hoping for is perhaps a pleasant surprise when they hear a new twist on an old rap favorite, the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere." I preface the track by explaining this is a cover of a song they know and that I want them to tell me as soon as they recognize it.
We're dangerously far into the song before Sedarius offers, tentatively, "Is it something from Happy Days?"
"Naw," Lekira argues, "it's from Grease. It's Elvis."
That's not completely absurd. This version does have a rockabilly, boogie-ish beat. But inside, I cringe. I tell them the original is a rap song. With looks of pure surprise, they lean in closer.
Sedarius blurts out with pride, "Run-DMC!"
I tell him no, but this group was big at the same time as Run-DMC.
Furrowed brows. I offer more hints, saying this was by the first big white rap act.
"Ice T," Nancy says, and the others nod.
"Ice T isn't white," I tell her.
"No, he's white. I know that."
I wonder if she's thinking of Vanilla Ice but let it go.
Finally, I stop the song and play them the original. They giggle as they realize how the version we just heard morphs so neatly back into rap. Sylvia says she recognizes the beat from a video game. Still no takers on the artist, though. I give up and tell them it's the Beastie Boys.
"You guys don't know the Beastie Boys?"
Sedarius speaks up for the group. "We're young, miss. We were barely born when Run-DMC came out."
"Stuck in Thee Garage," The Dirtbombs
On the heels of the Beastie Boys debacle I present them with "Stuck in Thee Garage" by garage rockers the Dirtbombs. I know how they feel about rock and roll. I know they hate guitars. But I can't wait to unleash the fact that Mick Collins, quite possibly modern rock's savior, is a "brother."
"That's too annoying," says Nancy. "It makes your head hurt."
Now there's irony for you: teenagers repeating an older generation's opinion of rock and roll.
"The singer and guitarist is black," I tell them.
"He's not black," Sedarius counters.
"What made him do this?" Lekira asks, pained.
I offer that he's breaking some ground, countering the stereotype that black artists do only rap or R&B.
"Well, he should give it up," Sedarius says, unimpressed.
"He's making us look bad," Lekira agrees. So much for diversity.
I've pretty much resigned myself to closed minds for today, so I leave our encounter on a pleasant note. This song brings smiles and seat-dancing all around.
"The way he talks about her reminds you of how we do [each other] in school," Sylvia says.
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I ask if the sudden mainstream acceptance of OutKast strikes them as "bootleg" (see: lame, bad), and Sedarius shakes his head. "Everybody likes to listen to OutKast. White folks, black folks, Hispanic folks. That's something good."
Still, no love for Mick Collins? Damn.
Let's summarize what we learned today, class. Crunk is where it's at. If it doesn't have a beat and you can't dance to it, it's outta there like a hippie sing-a-long. It saddens me to know that these kids don't know the origins of their favorite music. But I have hope. Someday they'll come around to rock and, maybe, learn that rap was once revolutionary. I let my flock loose to the heat of their last summer before high school--a summer that found me mesmerized by Paul's Boutique. Today, I leave with my interview tape in hand--and crank up the Beasties for the ride home.