Growing up in the Bronx, I had many escapes to help me cope with the troubling parts of life and complications of teenage years. Some of those escapes where as simple as hanging on the stoop with friends or as dangerous as riding in between trains cars in pitch black tunnels. But I wouldn’t be doing my childhood any justice if I left out my biggest crutch of all, and that of course is music, hip-hop to be exact.
From early on in life, I enjoyed nothing more than listening to the radio alone in my room and getting lost into my thoughts, but as I grew older I would take notice to the way music made me feel as a young man who was struggling with pre-teen angst and mental health issues. I used music as my own form of personal therapy to help me get through numerous obstacles in life; whether they were small or devastating. I took advantage of drowning my emotions into music--heartbreak over a crush, grief over a friend’s death and melancholy from depression.
Music has always kept me grounded and level headed during some of the hardest years of my youth, so I feel indebted to talk about my fascination and love with it.
Intro to the Mixes
My main source of music growing up was the radio; it was exciting and adventurous, especially when you heard that one song you’ve been waiting to hear for weeks. In New York City there were two local stations that played Hip-Hop; Hot 97.1 and Power 106.5. Both stations were great, but Hot 97.1 was my go-to, especially when I learned that I could create my own mix tape with a blank tape and my radio’s cassette deck.
I was lucky enough to have a radio with a cassette deck and a record button and knew the joys of creating your own mixtape. When it came to making your very own personalized mixtape, you had to be both patient and fast, because nothing was worse than pressing record, and that song that you had been waiting weeks to hear was actually at the end and not the beginning like you had hoped! In 1998 when Pras, (a member of the Fugees) released one of his most popular songs, Ghetto Superstar featuring Mya and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, I literally sat by my radio, waiting and waiting for the DJ to play it so I could forever capture it on tape. It wasn’t until one night, when I got up and left the room for a moment that the song finally came on. When I heard Mya sing the chorus from across my apartment, I darted back towards my room like a mad child, kicked the door open, pressed record and waited for the song to play out in its entirety, but of course it was just ending. It was pure disappointment.
I’ve always loved discovering new music and learning about new artists, and when it comes to certain songs and albums, I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard them.
In 1996 on a summer afternoon, I noticed a few of my friends and some other kids I didn’t know, all surrounding a boombox that was standing alone on the sidewalk; and it was on full blast. A friend of a friend, Adam, was playing a song I had never heard before and immediately upon hearing it, I was drawn in. Someone from the circle waved me closer so I could take part in the action. I asked Adam to start the song over because I had missed the opening; and he was kind enough to oblige me. He rewound the tape for just a few seconds and started it again. The song started playing instantly: “Strumming my pain with his fingers, Singing my life with his words, Killing me softly with his song.” It was beautiful to me—perfect even. I asked Adam who sang the song and he passed me the empty cassette case. It read, The Score by The Fugees and the singer was Lauryn Hill--the song was Killing me Softly. For the next hour Adam played the same song over and over again and we all sat there and just listened in an odd form of celebratory silence.
Summer of 1998 my brother gifted me tape that was unlike anything I had heard before. The album was by a new rapper from Yonkers NY called DMX. The album was called It's Dark and Hell is Hot and I couldn’t turn it off. One day my father asked me to accompany him while he ran errands around the Bronx, and because I didn’t have much of a choice, I went with him, but figured that I would kill time in his car with my new DMX album while he shopped. My father wasn’t exactly a fan of gangster rap, so I had to be careful. With each store he ran into, I inserted the tape into the cassette deck and took it back out as he exited the store. This was working perfectly until the last store that he went in to. When I tried to eject the tape, it got stuck and when my father got back in the car, he turned the radio on and switched it back to tape once he noticed there was a cassette inserted. When he pressed play my heart sank. The song that played was How's it Goin’ Down and after the first 38 seconds of the songs built in skit, he unstuck the tape from the deck, rolled down the window and threw it out of the car while driving up Van Cortland Park South. As my tape was being crushed by cars on what we called Snake Hill, I started to plot how I would buy the CD version and learn to hide it better; which I did, and it was great.
The 90’s gave me so many great memories when it came to my childhood and music; spending summer afternoons on the corner with friends and a boombox, playing DJ in my bedroom and bonding with my brother and a new cassette. Through music I also learned how to survive in a violent household, cope with trauma and how to discover myself when I barely had any time to be kid. There were many nights when I would lay in my bed for hours, quiet and still, getting lost into whatever sounds were coming out of my headphones, because it was better than listening to the screams of a family falling apart. But in just a short amount of time, the chaos that was my life would spiral out of control and I would need something much faster than my cassette player and tape rewinder to ease the pain and drown those screams.
And then there were CD’s
Only a few years after listening to the Fugees on 238th street and DMX in my father’s Lincoln Town Car, technology was rapidly improving, but I was still behind the times with my outdated Sony Walkman Cassette player. All my friends were now collecting CD’s, and tapes had become a thing of the past. I desperately wanted to keep up. CD’s were very expensive for someone like me who was too young to have a job, so I had to rely on chore money and hand-me-downs from my older brother. In 1999 my father, on a very rare occasion, my father took me to one of the last remaining Tower Records stores in NY and allowed me to pick out one new CD--it was a miracle, as this never happened before. I scanned through the hip-hop section searching for a new artist, and I stopped shuffling when I saw a CD cover that had three men dressed in tactical and militant gear and looked like they were ready for war. I carefully showed it to my father and told him that I had heard “positive” things about this group that I had actually never heard of before and that they weren’t violent. At that moment he either bought my lie or just gave up on parenting my taste in music. The group was Onyx and the album was Shut ‘em Down. They were not entirely positive.
With the prices of CD’s showing no signs of going down, I would eventually have to resort to alternate means of owning new music; and this is where CD Mixtapes came into my life. CD mixtapes are unofficial albums created by artists, usually released in between albums. They consist of new songs, remixes, or sometimes both. They’re mostly put together to hype up a forthcoming album and create a buzz. I like to believe they’re a nice gesture to hold fans over until the official album drops. Sometimes the hardest part of getting a mixtape was knowing when they were coming out--word of mouth from classmates, friends and radio DJs were all great sources for this buzzworthy news. They were also the perfect vessel for delivering new diss tracks towards a rival rapper. The bigger the buzz from a mixtape and the more hype and drama that it created, the more likely that fans would run to buy the actual album with the hopes of a brand new, even better diss track. The anticipation of a rebuttal song was always worth the months or longer that it would take for an album to come out.
Now, there was the CD mixtape, but there was also the bootleg CD; and when I was feeling particularly cheap which was often, the bootleg reigned supreme. A bootleg is far different than a mixtape and of course the real album. So, where mixtapes are intentionally released by the artists, bootlegs are not; instead being released by a third party. Bootlegs have caused much agony for musicians, spanning all genres and there’s a few different ways to how these knock off albums are made.
Bootleg ran about five dollars each which was nice if you didn’t want to take the gamble on an album that you weren’t entirely sure about. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and $20 wasn’t always available at one’s disposal, so having the option of a knock off CD was great. When it came to buying bootlegs, there was one catch. After you bought your bootleg, you ran the risk of inserting the disk into your CD player, pressing play and... nothing happens, silence, no music, no beats, no lyrics. A few times I bought a dud, a fake, a poorly ripped CD. This was sometimes the price that you would have to pay for taking the cheap and easy way out. I bought most of my bootlegs on Jerome Ave or Broadway in Kingsbridge, either in a bodega or a man on a sidewalk with a suitcase full of photocopied CD covers and no-refund policy. Sometimes these purveyors would swing through a McDonald’s or pizza shop of all places, usually being asked to leave immediately.
As much as I loved spending five dollars over twenty dollars, some albums I just had to suck it up and buy the real thing. On September 12th, 2001, one day after the United States was attacked and the World Trade Center fell in lower Manhattan, I found myself walking down Broadway and 231 street in the Bronx, headed to the local FYE music store to buy the newly released album from Jay-Z--The Blueprint. The Blueprint was Jay-Z’s sixth album and it was released one day before on the 11th, but my father didn’t want me to leave the house because of the attacks on the World Trade Center, so I had to wait one more full day to buy it, which back then felt like a lifetime. I bought the CD because I was a fan, but also to keep up on the wildly popular beef between Jay-Z and Queens rapper Nas. I felt guilty after I bought the CD, thinking that maybe it was a little disrespectful that only a few miles away from where I was in the Bronx, laid Ground Zero and the bodies yet to be discovered amongst the twisted metal. I was in my bedroom with the television on mute while the news played footage of the Twin Towers falling on a constant loop. I was horrified about what happened and the best way for me not to deal with the processing part of it all at that time, was to bury my head in the booklet that came with the Blueprint CD and study the linear notes, memorizing the lyrics as fast as I could. I first became a Jay-Z fan in 1999 when I heard the single, Hard Knock Life off his 1998 album, Vol.2...Hard Knock Life, and I was immediately obsessed.
In 2002 the album Juslisten by Musiq Soulchild helped me get through a bitter and awkward rejection from a neighborhood girl, Jessica. From the Juslisten album, I played the songs Newness, Time and Something on a constant loop from a radio that laid next to me head while I slept on the floor for months. In 2003 when my depression took a turn for the worse and I really felt alienated from friends and family, I listened to a debut album by New Jersey rapper, Joe Budden. He openly spoke about therapy, prescription pills and depression in his songs Calm Down and Walk with Me. Those songs would give me the strength and courage to talk to my friends about my struggles with mental health. And on the days when I felt that Hip-Hop was running dry, I was able to find peace of mind through other genres of music; Rock, R&B, Indie Folk and Classical.
With today’s ever-changing technology is improving at a lightspeed pace, it’s much easier for me to achieve instant gratification whether I’m looking for a certain song to clear my head or just to play an album while I cook dinner for my wife and me. The easiest and most convenient and inexpensive way to do this is through the mega-streaming site YouTube. A lot has changed in just a few years since I was running through my apartment with my finger stretched out towards the record button. But even as comforting as it may be to play any song I’m looking to hear at any given time with the press of a button, it will never match how rewarding it felt to save up a few bucks, ditch 10th grade homeroom and take a nice slow walk home from the CD spot with a new mixtape in my Sony portable CD player, walking as steady as I could so the songs didn’t skip. Sometimes I take the accessibility of music for granted and say things like, “There’s nothing to listen to” or “What am I supposed to do, I have no new music.” It’s moments like that when I must reflect and be grateful for what I have, because today, I can play Ghetto Superstar whenever and wherever I want, as many times as I want.