The Whitest Boy Alive

I traded the Beatles and the Bee Gees for Slim Shady and Kanye. Not a big deal? It is when you're a suburban boy from Stafford.
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A disclaimer: The account below is entirely true. It isn’t any kind of love letter to hip-hop, but a fascination in how someone who never encountered it in their upbringing can embrace it so whole-heartedly and the fact that I’m not the only one, that hip-hop is now the biggest genre in the world. In writing it I’ll be mostly making myself sound supremely small-minded, out of touch and ignorant. Only most of this statement is accurate.

It all started with ‘Supreme Clientele’, a 10 year old landmark in ‘new’ hip-hop that I got around to about eight years late. But home alone one wet Saturday afternoon I found myself trekking through the raft of music websites I regularly use for procrastination and stumbled upon an article on ‘Supreme Clientele’. A few hours and the scraps of an iTunes gift voucher later, I’d played the thing twice and my own personal second coming to hip-hop had arrived. I’ve barely stopped since.

I’d listened to hip-hop before of course, for anyone of our generation it takes a special effort to avoid the genre, but I’d never been truly converted. From leaving uni in 2005 to the back end of 2007 the only hip-hop records I could confess to listening to regularly were by Kanye West and Jay Z and, to be honest I didn’t really consider these guys hip-hop anymore anyway. Kanye and Jay were by this point pop stars in everything but name and felt less impenetrable and, well, intimidating than the majority of records from a genre that had splintered so many ways I never knew where to start.

And yeah, I said intimidating. I’m 26 years old, spent most of my childhood in the relative suburbia of Stafford, and hip-hop never really had much of a bearing on my childhood. Nor in actual fact did any soul, motown, dance, anything that could be considered to have it’s roots in black music.

My house was full of records, teeming at times before my Dad reluctantly started selling off his vinyl, but the records that stuck with me from that time were by The Beatles, The Who and The Bee Gees (and yes, now I know the unlimited influence of ‘black music’ on those bands, you just don’t really look for it as a 9 year old), so as a teenager when I was formulating my own tastes I pretty much ignored hip-hop as a viable target for my pocket money.

"The only hip-hop records I could confess to listening to regularly were by Kanye West and Jay Z and, to be honest I didn’t really consider these guys hip-hop anymore."

Britpop swept me up and spat me out a few years later to records by Travis and the Stereophonics. I remember actively blowing what can only be termed as ‘raspberries’ at Radio 1 every time they insisted on playing ‘Get Ur Freak On’, and at an even younger age went into many a rage about Puffy’s Biggie tribute record (to be fair, whilst I appreciate the sentiment now far more than I ever thought I would, the song is still, well, shite). So yeah, hip-hop never really penetrated my suburban bubble.

Two things changed all this. Eminem and University. Dealing with the second one first, I wound up sharing a flat at uni with a guy who actively listened to rap in his spare time. Slowly, Tupac and De La Soul records entered my consciousness. And I didn’t hate them. We went to clubs where they played this stuff all night and it was exciting. I remember early nights in the Camel Club in my uni City of Liverpool, intoxicated by the way this music felt like it belonged to our generation and not the listening habits I’d inherited from my parents. I was even more intoxicated by the sound. There was so much going on in these records, and it seemed to often be done by so little.

The first thing that changed happened to me about 18 months before my Liverpool experience. And yeah, I think the fact he was white had a massive impact on it. This music that I’d never been able to get my head around suddenly had something recognisable about it. Doesn’t that sound horrible? Because it is, but I know I’m not the only one, and if the majority of the people that I grew up with say differently then they’re lying through their teeth. No doubt about it though, the Marshall Mathers explosion in the summer of 2000 made a whole genre seem less alien to me, even though in hindsight I had about as much in common with Eminem as I did with Martin Luther King.

Without making this a piece about race, and certainly without trying to make myself seem more liberal by resorting to the some-of-my-best-friends are black argument, I really don’t believe that the fact my friends and I didn’t listen to hip-hop when we were younger was an issue of colour, just musical upbringing. I was just as ignorant of dance music, something I’m still attempting to address.

My musical journey took me from my Dad’s 60s and 70s albums straight to the great heroes of the majority of white suburban kids of my age, Oasis. From the Gallaghers and their contemporaries I went back in time, through The Smiths and The Jam to punk, and eventually The Clash. I got that far back by the summer of 2000, and their appreciation of reggae coincided perfectly with Eminem searing his bleach-blonde way into the national consciousness.

"The Marshall Mathers explosion in the summer of 2000 made a whole genre seem less alien to me, even though I had about as much in common with Eminem as I did with Martin Luther King."

Suddenly, all the doors seemed to open at the same time. From there I took the logical steps, ‘2001’, then through ‘Renegade’ into ‘The Blueprint’. Before I had time (and the cash) to trace that line backwards though The Strokes turned up and I was back onto white men with guitars like nothing had ever happened.

Whilst University softened me up to hip-hop a little, I merely dipped in and out. I was curious about ‘Get Rich Or Die Trying’, loved ‘The Black Album’ and ‘Speakerboxx/The Love Below”. I’d worn out ‘The College Dropout’ and stopped making raspberry noises at the radio, but I never got that buzz back again. The whole genre just seemed so impenetrable to me and I was content just skimming the surface for the radio-friendly cuts. And then came ‘Supreme Clientele’.

I’d been digging around hip-hop for a little while before that Saturday afternoon though, the music websites I’d become a regular visitor to had made the stuff seem so interesting, so I’d investigated albums by Lil’ Wayne and Erykah Badu, and looked into tracks by Pharoahe Monch and Clipse and been fascinated by what I’d heard, but ‘Supreme Clientele’ was like Peter taking his finger out of the dam. The whole thing just engrossed me, the scope and vision, the sonic intensity and diversity of it, the stories, fuck, the stories told like Ghost was the greatest narrator ever.

And now I’m here. I’m not trying to be Avon or Stringer and I’m definitely not trying to be cool. I’m just obsessed with a genre that used to drive me to make farting noises at the radio. Devouring ‘Fishscale’ and ‘Tha Carter II’, damning my ignorance when I listen to something as beautiful as ‘Be’ or as intensely mind-fucking as ‘Madvillainy’. Looking further back to discover ‘A Tribe Called Quest’, loving the way a genre seems to keep eating itself, recycling it’s past to feed it’s future, engrossed by the stories told like expansive novels set to some of the greatest music never used on film.

Finally scratching the surface of self-referencing and in-jokes, revelling in the way a genre has made itself the biggest niche on earth, constantly pushing an envelope it created for itself. I’ll always hold a tinge of regret that I never got to this point ten years ago, but for now I’m more than content playing catch up.

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