(Music Subseries: 001)
I have to assume most members of Generation Y had a CD collection. Though it is common belief that everyone got rid of his or her catalogue long ago, mine has been lying dormant in milk crates and beer boxes for the past ten or so years. They’ve been awaiting a resurrection to occur in some uncertain version of the future.
Why were the best 2pac songs from Above the Rim not on the Above the Rim soundtrack? I don’t know but I hold fast to an EP with those tracks on it.
Gz up, Hoes Down.
Master P re-imagining Seals and Crofts.
Why do I own the Boys II Men Remix CD? Oh maybe because the remix of “Brokenhearted” is way better than Brandy’s album version, and it’s nowhere to be found on Spotify. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Now that I’ve purchased a standalone home, my basement holds the relics. The minions have come out of hiding – all 700 compact discs have been ushered forth for the renaissance along with my Sony carousel. In my own Field of Dreams, all I needed to do was build a shelf big enough for all of them…
In the 1990s as a teenage geek, finding new music required a massive effort. There was a gauntlet placed before me, and a challenge submitted. I dutifully accepted. MTV had its nuanced shows like Headbangers Ball and Yo! MTV Raps, but this type of programming was still dusted with corporate saccharine and at age fourteen, even if I didn’t necessarily have the wherewithal at the time, somewhere deep down I understood there was more. Make no mistake; I enjoyed sell-out hustler gangsta rap and melodic Seattle Sound. I’d sit there and watch the videos for “Gin & Juice”, and “Heart-Shaped Box” over and over ad nausueam. G-Funk and Grunge were part of my education. The trance-like stasis that MTV and commercial radio attempted to sedate me inside was never lost. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but in some limited capacity I knew what was going on and I enjoyed both for what they were, while also sifting through other outlets.
The beginning was “Weird Al” Yankovic in my Discman and Adam Curry’s Top 30 hit list on my transistor radio. I attribute the evolution to a combination of things. 106 Jams was a Chicago radio station I was able to tune in to if the waves decided to hit my small town at the right angle. If I held my boom box in a certain area of my bedroom after school it would randomly play songs that I would never hear anywhere else. If my timing was efficient, strike that – impeccable, with the antenna coated in tin foil, I was able pull the “record” trigger on my cassette deck like a gunslinger in a Compton alley and catch a rare west coast rap song beneath the light static fuzz. An alternate mix to this day I cannot find, where Mack 10 robs a McDonalds. Scarface with an Ice Cube cameo, “Hand of the Dead Body” the remix, and a collaborative track between the 90s Chi-town roster: Tung Twista, Do or Die, Crucial Conflict, and Psycho Drama. Even if there had been a Google at the time, there was no glass machine in my pocket to pull out and teleport information for reference. My only resource that I knew was to ask friends if they happened to hear it, and not many people I knew listened to 106 Jams in the whitebread town I ended up in.
My various cliques came together over the decade based on shared interests in differing musical genres. Namely gangsta rap at first during freshman year of highschool, but later evolving in to being a Pumpkinhead, and then straight edge hardcore, quickly followed by early 2000s emo. No subgenre nerdier than the rest. Word of mouth was a heavy influence. A friend or a dude I just met would be playing a mix CD bootleg thing he got from Chicago Records or some tiny basement show, and I’d hear a track from something that frizzled my brain. The five-second interaction was the tipping point in so many cases.
“Dude, what is this?”
“Its called Genius G-Z-A. It’s good as fuck.”
“It’s this b-side from Pinkerton and I can’t for the life of me understand why it wasn’t on the actual album.”
The hunt was always on. Word of mouth led me to random Chicago Heights barbershops in pursuit of mixtape CD-Rs featuring Eminem and 50 Cent beef tracks fired at Ja Rule. Word of mouth has led me to being laughed out of a southside record store for asking if they had the OG Psycho Drama EP. Word of mouth once led me to blindly purchasing a CD called The Juliana Theory.
I’d study album liner notes like normal teenagers studied basketball statistics. Various shout-outs to DJs, other artists, bands, and record labels that got thanked. These were followed up on. But without real access to the internet, and the internet at the time not really containing much, “following up” literally meant waiting until after the following school day to go to the mall, assuming I could get a ride, and perusing the CD racks. Typically most things I was looking for were not on them. The dollar bin was a total garbage bucket – the equivalent of watching VH1.
Another route was buying something based on the cover art alone. I learned quickly this method held maybe a 10% success rate. At 16 dollars a pop on a minimum wage scale I just couldn’t afford the gamble. (Well, until I taught myself how to open a CD package in a way where I could actually return it if it sucked.)
Used CD stores became my hideaway. Originally when my mom would shop at Kroger I would walk next door to Replay. Post-driver’s license I became acquainted with Record Bar, and any other pawnshop or weird ass thrift store I could vanish in to. Later I became a current visitor of the import and “rarities” sections at places like Threshold and Crow’s Nest and Record Swap, rummaging through shelves of EPs and singles and bootleg live Smashing Pumpkins albums, holding out hope for locating magical Gish b-sides like “Honeyspider” or alternate acoustic versions of “Mayonnaise”.
An odd economy resulted in used CDs from trading in a bunch of albums you paid a combined $100 for in turn for store credit of 26 bucks or $15 cash. Sometimes that cash was injected directly in to the gas tank of my parents’ Dodge Caravan so I could get to work at the balloon factory in the old insane asylum, Toys R Us, or Aurelio’s Pizza, (depending on the year), all just so I could afford more CDs.
My friend Popcorn and I would find some weird shit. When we were really young we were relegated to a “Christian music only” program due to our concerned republican parents and strict conservative church upbringing. We would go in the back of Lemstone, a Christian bookstore in the mall, to a little section on the shelf devoted to hip hop and metal. They had a cassette tape listening station where we could explore different things, just to see if they might pass in the real world as normal music.
Preachas in Disguise, End Time Warriors, Nuwine, MC Rubabdub, Dynamic Twins. We had a resource in Heaven’s Hip Hop magazine, CCM’s triumphant answer to The Source. All the beats sounded like a Sega Genesis, the cover art was definitely all created in Windows 3.0 Paintbrush, and all the lyrics were non-ironically just as violent as regular gangsta rap. They would spit bars about murdering demons with shotguns and shooting the Anti-Christ with an AK-47. They would still use the “n” word but they wouldn’t use regular cuss words. “What the heck…” and stuff. Something tells me they didn’t really understand what was going on. Neither did I but I felt forced to pretend I enjoyed this stuff at the time. Keep your five mics, gimmee that Gospel Gangsta sound.
If I could have made this up, I might be considered a comic genius by way of surrealistic mockumentary. There probably is something to say about this weird sub-sub-genre that is worth reflecting on but the truth is, there’s no audience. Well, besides Popcorn. I own the albums still as theorem-turned-proof on an isle of shunned artifacts that Wikipedia simply forgot.
In my room I compiled compilations, and “soundtracks” (which were also just compilations slapped together with songs that did not appear on actual films). Radiowaves & Gibberish, Vagrant: Another Year on the Streets, One Million Strong, Songs from the Penalty Box, The Emo Diaries. The soundtrack for Murder was the Case has a run-time triple that of the actual movie. Most compilations were steaming piles of buffalo plop, but every once in a while one would contain a few tracks that ended up opening a Pandora’s Box to an uncharted valley of new artists. The discs were always so cheap, or even free, so no matter how much time I weathered away skipping through; the idea always wet the appetite.
Technology progressed and two friends and I went three-ways on an external CD burner. This wasn’t a computer-type burner, but a black box unit that resembled a 90s stereo receiver. Due to the analogue nature of the burner, you’d have to record songs one at a time in real-time. I can’t reasonably feel embarrassed at this point, but we would hold burning parties. You can just conclude on your own just what those were.
The music industry put a stop to the production of the analogue burner, however, there wasn’t much time to mourn. It was quickly forgotten by the sudden appearance of Napster.
I once made acquaintance with some guy named Toby. Toby lived way out in the sticks in a town called Braceville. I liked Toby. Would Popcorn and I have purchased single CD-Rs from Super Kmart and driven all the way out to Braceville, many, many times, eating up our weekends if Toby wasn’t really in to bootlegging music? Who is to say? What I can say is that I spent hours at Toby’s watching horror films and playing video games while our track list of hip hop oddities slowly downloaded in the highest hopes that the tracks were A) intact, B) and not garble-y, and C) the right song.
“The Hood” by Menace Clan, a revamped version of “Hip Hop Ride” by Da Youngstas, and probably some unreleased Deathrow freestyle sessions.
The final time I drove out to Toby’s I knew I had crossed the line. I went alone and ended up getting sucked in to going to an auto show in Braidwood with his entire family. Say what you will about my methods of acquiring music that wasn’t legal in the first place, but I definitely put in the time regarding that relationship.
I left Toby’s that night, hopped in my Pathfinder and inserted by new CD-R. Keeping an eye out for deer, I cranked down my windows and cranked up the Craig Mack “Flava in ya Ear” remix, unaware of the cultural shift Napster was about to impede. Heading home, I drove off in to the wooded back Will County roads – no lighting but my head lamps and the cherry glow of my wood tipped Black n Mild.