To: Me, From: September 11
As arbitrary as anniversaries are and have become in this content demanding era, music celebrated two very important dates with the 15th anniversary of Jay Z’s “The Blueprint” and the 25th of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on yet another important date in World History. The three events converged in my life in ways that were not apparent until years later, as goes history, our grasp of it specifically.
“Izzo” became my anthem for the last leg of 2001, the beginning of my 6th grade year. From its release I was indulged by the song, likely due to its Jackson 5 sample. Whenever played, I turned it up as much as my mom would permit and though first engaged by the instrumental, I soon found myself trying to pick up on who the Cold Crush was and what that meant to my soon to be favorite rapper Jay Z. Though, I wasn’t 100% sure what Hov was getting at, I felt the scrutiny gaining on him. Yet to hear Dopeman at that point and learn of his of drug trial, it seemed Jay was fed up with something. Unable to build on my understanding of the artist of whom I only knew “Can I Get A..” and “Hard Knock Life”, I stuck to what I could understand, making his “you could’ve been anywhere in the world” intro a mantra of mine and banging my head to the beat harder, still.
For my birthday that year, my Dad (RIP) gave me a Philips CD player with :40 of ESP and a pack of burned albums: 8701 and The Blueprint are the two that come to mind a decade and a half later. Usher would come to influence me tremendously but what I picked up from The Blueprint has come to make up a large part of who I am, especially considering who I looked to as a role model when my father passed away almost three years after such an important gifting that year. I dug into the albums and in time, Jay Z became my favorite rapper, likely thanks to Jus Blaze and Kanye West who glued my hands to my CD player, ears to my headphones. “U Don’t Know” became my favorite song. Rap solidified itself as my genre. I listened to “U Don’t Know” 50 times daily getting lost virtually every time, as I was yet to learn what a slalom was and what it had to with cocaine. Metaphors were another device of which I was unaware. Still I was learning about myself and my upbringing through the music, though it’s still becoming clear as I write this piece thinking of how close and yet distant from that which Hov had experienced. Hearing stories of family members getting gaffled and jailed was as common as hearing a Jay Z song on the radio but my naiveté kept me somewhat isolated.
It was the way the implications of 9/11 were obscurely clear to me but simultaneously unpredictable almost instantly after the attacks; I was there immersed in it all but unsure of what it all meant. I watched the second plane crash into the tower, completely oblivious to what was happening. That day my Dad told me that the World Trade Centers had been attacked once before and my Hip-Hop IQ highered a point, as I understood why some might have seen Biggie and his “blow up like the World Trade” lyrics as prophetic after a “Juicy” listen. I came away from that day ignorant, still, listening to “Izzo”, unaware of the impact Hov and the album would have on me in the future.
Months later, I was relocated, now living with Mom, my CD player and The Blueprint.
“Girls, Girls, Girls” had became a hit and an older friend of mine, who got me to write my first rhymes, was an even bigger Jay Z fan than I. He explained to me the genius behind many of Jay’s lyrics, most notably the bonus tracks that I’d have never discovered if not for him. Specifically Jay’s mastery in “Girls” Pt. 2 was a lifelong lesson in listening to lyrics.
She, call me professor, say daddy come and test her
So she could fail on purpose and repeat the semester
I’m like, at this rate ma you never graduate
She said, I ain’t no fool I’ll make it up in summer school
Here I was 11 years old trying to skateboard and get cornrows. Puberty was yet to hit and when it did, it hard, as it tends to do.
I’m pretty sure I’d heard Nirvana’s “Feels Like Teen Spirit” my entire life but only snippets or corny ass remixes that butchered the song’s intentions.I heard one version in a church! It turns out that exactly 10 years before my life was changed with the release of the Blueprint, Nirvana released one of the most important tracks of the 20th century. One day, high, after one my earliest smoke sessions, I decided to skip my daily browsing of AllHipHop.com and head straight to LimeWire with something different in mind. Figuring, I’d heard enough Rap in my life and dying to be enlightened, more so than the weed could offer, I took my first self-directed plunge into Rock.
Growing up, I’d taken intermittent forays into the genre while riding around with my Dad bumping Van Halen and The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” most memorably but most time was spent with newsradio humming about as we sagged through the city. But as I sat at my Compaq in the living room in front of my computer, I went all in on Rock N Roll. AC/DC and Metallica were my first searches. “Back in Black” was the shit! Then I stumbled upon “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath, incorrectly labeled as an AC/DC cut. I was on the Black Sabbath train heavy, too. I realized I’d gone too far back and moved closer into the contemporary now downloading The Ramones on DSL, whom I fell in love with before getting to Nirvana. I had no basis for the searches I was making, just inputting the bands I’d heard of my whole life and the patches I’d seen on the Rock kids jackets and backpacks. Of course, LimeWire returned “Smells Like Teen Spirit” first.
Unlike that confusion experienced with Jay, whose experience is arguably closer resembled to mine than Dave Grohl’s, that shit made all the sense in the world. Although released a little less than a year after my birth, my teenage introduction to the song couldn’t have been more timely. The music explained how I felt when I got to school late only to be turned away at the classroom to spend an hour in cafeteria as the result of a nonsensical truancy determent program. It was the music that explained me yelling my first curses in front of my mom before slamming a storming out of the house in a teenage rage. Those first snare hits on the song?! That was my impulsiveness. The time I grumbled “I fuckin’ hate that bitch” in reference to the dean of students while she stood right behind was this song! The following suspension? This song, as well. Here I was having my feelings refracted back upon me for the first time. None of the homies could’ve empathized with me the way did Kurt. I embraced the feeling as much as I ever had a Jay Z song and soon I was driving around with Nirvana’s greatest hits in the deck with crippin’ ass homies in the backseat flabbergasted at what I played while I smoked blunts. “What the fuck this nigga Nick listening to?!” was the sentiment.
As with “Izzo” I had another anthem and even today not much comes close to matching what Nirvana meant at that point in my life. The countercultural moods of the two songs converged on me in a way that has forever shaped who I am. September 11, 2001 is in that same boat. The implications, the lessons and the now historical importance of these three events rounded out my formative years, adding perspective to the lens through which I see the world. Internationally, here at home in my neighborhoods and internally as a being whose emotions are often only tapped into and synched in song form, September 11 has become a day of identity and understanding worthy of such a reflection and necessary recalibration of my outlook. Today, I am grateful for that.