It was 1989. And it was our turn. Ten pre-teen boys stood in a circle near the open windows of Ms. Sylvia Turner’s choral classroom. My main man Marque Gibson was the beatbox, generating all the rhythm and tempo needed with nothing but lips, tongue and teeth.
Each boy took his turn standing at center, making his best effort at a completely-improvised or “freestyle” flow. The ones who wrote their rhymes down earned much less respect. It was all about riding Marque’s beat right there, in the moment. He had slow ones and fast ones, even an “easy listening” one. Each boy came and went, but it was my best friend ‘Bo who wore the crown.
‘Bo would come to center channeling a combo of 90s stars like Big Daddy Kane, Mike G from the Jungle Brothers, and local go-go music artists like The Northeast Groovers and The Backyard Band. ‘Bo was a monster on the microphone. Marque was a master of the beat. This should have been the beginning of a legacy.
‘Bo and Marque did two talent shows together. Then, as student government president, I had them booked for a pep rally before the annual citywide Math and English skills test. Marque’s human drum skills nearly blew the speakers while ‘Bo struggled to keep his lyrics clean. The crowd went wild, as rap had only taken the school stage a few times before, and with much less voracity. I told them that it was time to do an album.
Marque had a Casio SK-1 keyboard and a matching drum machine in his basement. We agreed to meet at his house on a Saturday. I remember watching Marque play around on the pads as we waited for ‘Bo to arrive. But he never did.
On the phone he said it had something to do with his mother not wanting to bring him to 640, the rugged part of town where Marque lived. But what I knew, deep down, was that it was stage fright. It wasn’t the recording ‘Bo was afraid of. It was the pressure of any future stardom. He would grab the mic one more time as a frontman for the school’s go-go music group. Then he saw Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and wanted to be a jazz man. Then Marque decided he only wanted to do music for the Lord, and quit hip-hop altogether for gospel.
Back then hip-hop had yet to become a full-fledged business. There were no celebrity stylists or cliched champagne waterfalls. Any rapper, even with only a minute or two in the spotlight, carried his own flag, representing his own individuality. But that was before corporate America got hold, before what you tweeted in a few seconds mattered more than the album content it took you six months to write, and before icons died in the name of blood money, ego and hurt feelings.
Thinking about those playground days makes me feel like an old man, even though I’m still in my 30s. I remember when you were lucky if new albums hit shelves more than twice a month. Now you’ve got that many uploaded every 15 minutes…and all the shelves are mostly virtual.
I don’t hate hip-hop in her middle age. After all she’s got kids to feed. But I do miss the years when she spread like a quiet disease. We were all willing to try because it was fresh and new, an unstoppable force riding the rails of a tower that was just beginning to overshadow its people.