Arizona, I Still Love H.E.R. (And You Too)

As a child hip-hop made me read books

And hip-hop made me wanna be a crook

And hip-hop gave me the way and something to say

And all I took in return is a second look

- Atmosphere

Party for the Fight to Write


I love rap music. I love the beat, the bass, the melody, and most definitely when DJ’s scratch the perfect sample. But more than all that - I love lyrics. Rap lyrics invoke so many different feelings and thoughts through images of love, hate, poverty, economic freedom, and many other opposite thoughts, feelings, and pictures. Rap music took me to neighborhoods and ways of life I had no idea even existed. Rap lyrics, like KRS-One said, are the ghettos CNN. Even before I’d ever seen the boroughs beyond the skyscrapers of New York City, I knew about the plight of the people who lived in places where “people piss[ed] on the sidewalks like they just don’t care.”


Rap lyrics were my teachers. I found in them analogies, metaphors, and word play that made me want to better understand the definition of words. When Sole clowned El-P (though we know who got the last laugh there), I looked up the word intrepid. I wasn’t mad at El-P because Sole said he “rip[ped] all the pages” out of dictionary looking for “big” words to rhyme. He basically performed the same trick Malcolm X did to better communicate with an intelligent society. El-P (and Malcolm X, of course) made me want to learn how to better explain myself and the world around me.


I learned about things I probably shouldn’t have at a young age. The first rap album I owned was Scarface’s first album - Mr. Scarface Is Back. I returned home and showed my Dad the jewel case holding a cover that showcased a bunch of dudes holding guns. He sat me down and we discussed explicit language (no stranger to that), violence (living in South Phoenix - no shocks there), and sex (for the first time). It should’ve made for a more uncomfortable discussion. It didn’t because I was too excited with the fact I was going to be able to keep it unlike the first album that ever felt like mine. See the first album I "possessed," (because my older brother couldn’t take it with him “upstate) was Too Short’s Life is Too Short. I was able to listen to it front to back a few times before my 5-year-old brother caught on to what I was trying to do inconspicuously in my darkened room. Extorted into letting him listen, we sat together in the dark and learned every lyric despite our lack of understanding about what each word meant. At that time, I just knew the force and delivery of each word made me feel like Short Dog was saying something important, poignant, and dangerous. My brother, on the other hand, needed to understand the meaning of those words I was content with simply listening to. So one day at the dinner table he asked my pops what a blowjob was. My father destroyed that tape that night. The impact was felt though. Those words were important, poignant, and dangerous. I needed to hear more rap lyrics. After that every rap song and rap lyrics made a hug impact.


So I started writing lyrics down. I “wonder[ed] damn” how did Rakim and other rappers put together those sentences and rhymes. So I played, stopped, and rewound tapes until I had written every lyric and understood every bar. I felt cool being able to recite my favorite lyrics to my friends. But I felt even fresher because I knew them by heart. They were my true love.

Older and going to shows I took to professing my love of lyrics when an M.C. rocked dope rhymes. I yelled out, “lyrics, I love you,” because I truly did. I even became jealous years later of my former student’s dad (a fellow hip hop afficionado) who named his daughter, Lyric. Girlfriends and later my wife became upset with me when listening to music because I would stop the song and ask if they heard and understood what had just been spit. It broke up the continuity of the song and was a distraction, they said. To me though, that lyric could make the whole song. I would forever want more of that song, and maybe not so much the entire song, but that one line. Sometimes I listened, for example, simply because a lyric makes me laugh. Case in point is Riff Raff, who by no means was my or maybe even anybody’s "Rookie of the Year." But his lyrics on that joint, as always, were ridiculously funny. I appreciated the fact that he dropped a line about the Phoenix Suns and Dan Majerle. Although I doubt Dan Majerle would ever ride a strawberry Harley.[1]


I felt lyrics importance and meaning the year 2pac and Biggie died. I chuckled when Dogg Pound stomped New York City and sarcastically exclaimed New York was the big city of dreams. Mobb Deep’s rebuttal was especially hard hitting. Their lyics clowned Pac for getting shot and screaming “louder than an opera.” Those lyrics and many others started and fed a rivalry of coasts. Because I took sides based on the coast's music I liked more, it hurt me when Big died. His life, testified to in some of the best lyrics ever, was the dream. My life would be a success when I lived like the lyrics in Juicy.


Good thing I had other rappers to remind me that everything wasn’t what it seemed. Jeru tha Damaja told me I was “playin myself” trying to be a big willie. The Roots reaffirmed that the “principles of true hip hop had been forsaken.” I believed real rap lyrics would return to the radio in 1997 when Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz dropped from Uptown but upon one listen to that record I decided I was sorely mistaken. I vowed never to listen the radio even again.


As I grew older I appreciated a more enlightened intelligent lyric and thought-provoking concept and again I fell in love. I sought music from the “underground.” I learned rappers came from everywhere. I could bump Living Legends from California, Oldominion from the northwest, Illogic from the midwest, Goodie Mob from the south, Sage Francis from Rhode Island, and even Canadian rappers like Buck 65. The lyrics I loved became more serious and more grown up. But I loved them nonetheless. Now I admit I love all different kinds of rap songs with a variety of lyrics. Beyond the blind adoration of my youth I can again listen to all types of lyrics and have a sense of who I am and appreciate rappers for who they are, not who I aspire to be. I love the honesty, the ridiculousness, the embellishing, the passion, and the things I still learn. I love lyrics because they’ve helped me live a full life. Now instead of taking a second look, I’d like to give back to the Arizona Hip Hop community and do what I can to promote and share with people the lyrics representing my hood.


For too long, I ignored the Arizona Hip Hop community. It's time to give back.



[1] An interesting side note about Riff Raff and lyrics is found at Rapgenuis.com, which is a site I personally love. (Another side note - Although I use to always visit ohhla.com, I now always frequent Rap Genuis.) If you go to Rapgenuis.com, Riff Raff explains his lyrics, which may come as a surprise becuase I'm pretty sure he was just rhyming random words - which is totally fine by me. The fact that a rapper like Riff Raff can "explain" his lyrics illustrates one of the reasons why lyrics are so important – they represent someone’s life (even if it is someone who has numerous logos tattooed on their body), they represent a human's thoughts and beliefs for us all to consume.


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