The Other Place

the work of Kenji Jasper

Ars Gracia Artis (aka Asphalt Interlude)

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.

The Finnish-Chinese Girl Who’s Calling It Quits

I have a tendency to stumble across things.  Sometimes they’re bouncing through my head.  Other times they’re out in the world at large both online and off.  As my second language is movies, any conversation with me will feature references to at least a half dozen films, and Jennifer Tilly has always been one of my pocket fave actresses.  But I dug her most in The Getaway and The Wachowski Brothers Bound.   Tilly has backed away from acting for the most decade or so to focus on playing professional poker. But now she’s thinking about getting out.  She wrote this dope piece for Bluff Magazine that I stumbled across.  And it struck me particularly because I’m thinking about quitting my day job.

As money from writing is absolutely unreliable in a world where the status and tweet reign supreme, I had to find other ways to make dough.  But this particular job forces me to live a nocturnal life that I used to indulge in for kicks.  It’s like I’m going to bed when I should be getting up for yoga. Plus it puts me in contact with all kinds of unpleasant entities, and more importantly, unpleasant truths.  But as I’ve never been a quitter (at least not really) this is a serious conundrum for me, one which I can’t solve in a single blog post.   Nor will I be able to resolve it anytime soon. So I’ll keep deliberating day by day until I come to some conclusion, hoping to find clarity in this Groundhog Day of repetition that somehow manages to pay my bills.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Confidence (A Snapshot)

Riding the train today I sat next to a slender dark-skinned Dominican girl of 20 who asked me for directions in Spanish, hoping I knew the language, which I grasped enough of to be of help.  It was a strange moment for me, as a good 15 years earlier I’d run into a similar young lady of a similar age, but in a completely different city.  I was new to Brooklyn then and hadn’t met too many Afro-Latinas in a city full of southern folks.  My game back then was nervous, sloppy, passive-aggressive, and she could smell it the way felines sense my fear.  Bottom line: I got nowhere.

While that first sista had been as warm as a stone in ice water, this one told me about the frustrations of wearing a weave in America when her hair was very nappy and how no one seems to believe that she wasn’t from another country.  She told me my Spanish was good and thanked me for the help.  Now I was just being polite.  Then I was dripping with #thirst.  Now the best thing I could give that little girl was directions, because I knew what a woman was and what I expected of one, and she wasn’t gonna get there until I was damn near 50.

That girl back then was the inspiration for Carolina Martinez, the soulmate of one Dakota Grand, my alter ego and hero of my second novel.  My conversation with this one was a nice little snapshot of how much I’ve grown, or how good it feels to be a man who knows what he wants, only seeking fruit that has matured on the vine and not merely hoping gorge on what I could get between my teeth.   The flick above is a fave of mine that most have forgotten.  But like these moments described, when I saw it I didn’t fully understand the art of the hustle.  Now I do.

While I dig almost all of Chris Rock’s work this is the kind of polished trailer that reinforces my belief in African American-targeted productions. I don’t know what the movie’s about but it looks funny and it looks original and the cast all looks like they’re at they’re best. And Rosario, my fave hot nerdy girl’s in it. So there! You better go too.

Greatest Misses: Pharoahe Monch’s “Still Standing” feat. Jill Scott

I was living in a nightmare when Pharoahe Monch around he time dropped his W.A.R. album in 2010.  Everything had gone wrong and I was walking alone towards and uncertain future.  I needed this record then, but I also wasn’t ready to hear it.  When it came to me today through a cosmic crossroads of social media links, I now know that it wouldn’t have carried the same weight with me back then.  I walked past Pharaohe on the way to one of my first official hip hop journalism gigs back in ’91.  He was one of my favorite interview subjects 8 years later when I was planting roots at Blaze Online.  And he remembered me from that same interview when I ran into him in Union Square just before I left NYC for LA a good seven years later. His lyrics represent the kind of artistry I aim for: always vivid, frightening complex and ferociously raw.  This one’s been on repeat all night.  I think I’ll crank it up again tomorrow too.  I think I’m ready to listen to hip-hop again, which a good thing 😉

Fury: The Fog of War

First of all for a 2.5 hour movie I thought I was only there for 90 minutes.  Was it an extremely violent 90 minutes? Yup.  Did I feel like I was on the inside of an American tank during the last days of World War II and under skies that were never blue? Yup.  I don’t know what people were looking for from Fury.  Many don’t seem satisfied.  But to me it’s all about the rules of the game of war and what it does to your head.  Writer/Director David Ayer leaves the LA streets where he made crime classics like Training Day and End of Watch for a Germany I would never want to visit but my ancestors.  When you’re fighting a war you can’t be who you were at home.  In fact you’ll never be that person again.  For the right fight I’ll lay my life down to hold a crossroads.  A true soldier can never walk away.

The Drop: A Lesson in Gravity

As a crime flick junkie I couldn’t resist a chance to catch another of James Gandolfini’s last performances in The Drop, directed by Michael Roskam and written by crime master Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, The Wire).  Not unlike his performance in Killing Me Softly with Brad Pitt, Gandofini plays the “reverse” Tony Soprano, a local hood who lost it all and is looking to steal a piece back by any means necessary.  But The Drop is definitely Hardy’s movie.  Not only did I dig his Brooklyn accent (he’s Brit), but in a character piece about restraint and predictability it was the strength of both his performance and LeHane’s script that got me through a second act that has a few drags.  I caught it the last day in my local theater but you should definitely rent it or check it out on demand.

Slapboxing with Yeezus

Going past the local playground today I saw some dude who was supposed to be a boxing trainer doing the mitts with some guy that was supposed to be a boxer.  No speed.  No power.  I hadn’t seen a precision session that weak since the Fresh Prince tried to take on Tyson.  For some reason it reminded me that the decade of my 30s seems to have also been the decade of the loudmouth.  Whether it’s Kanye West in a cleavage top trying to get paraplegics to stand or the fact that more Black people know who Wendy Williams is than they do James Baldwin and even when you look at current fashion trends today’s world is all about being loud, even if you’re also wrong. Most of these dudes wouldn’t have made it in the old neighborhood without keeping their shades drawn.  Just a thought.

Geoffrey Holder: Another Classic Transcends

I was saddened to hear about the passing of actor and choreographer Geoffrey Holder.   I wasn’t versed in his entire resume but I first peeped him in the film adaptation of Annie that dropped in ’82, his bellowing laugh in that long series of 7-UP commercials, and later in his unforgettable turn alongside Eddie Murphy in The Hudlin Brothers’ Boomerang.   As one of the only Black kids in the summer program that took us to see Annie it was Holder’s character that got and best held my attention. For me this was where it all started.  But with all art and artists it never really ends.  May his transition be a smooth one.

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