I would bounce from room to room in the military school dorm I called home. Recording the tracks I was currently in love with to my ever evolving mixtape.
A scuffed and well worn TDK 90 minute cassette. It was still an analog world. Only 10 years or so before CD burners and MP3 players, but if 90s tech was any guide, they were forever away.
If you found a track that you wanted to “rip” you would need only find someone who had a boombox that recorded from CD or from cassette to cassette. Slip your cassette in, two finger punch the PLAY REC buttons simultaneously and press play on the source side.
My mixtape was in a constant state of flux as I added and recorded over older tracks. Listening to my mixtape, you would come across extended silence or tiny snippets of recorded over songs long abandoned for something new.
For instance, Snoop Doggy Dog’s “Gin n Juice” was recorded directly from John Garabedian’s, Open House Party radio show over top of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna’ Do.” So the normal “…this is LA” intro from Crow would lead into Garabedian’s Snoop intro then the familiar “Rolling down the street smokin’ endo sippin’ on gin and juuuuuice.”
95 South’s “Whoot There It Is” was replaced by Onyx’s “Throw Ya’ Gunz” but a snippet from the past wound up sticking around. So right before Onyx implored everyone to throw their guns in the air you would hear “excuse me sonny do you know where I can find some booty?!”
And sometimes I would wind up with a track from an artist I wanted a completely different song from. I wanted JJ Fad’s “Supersonic” but couldn’t find anyone that had that album, so I settled for a track from their second album “Not Just a Fad” instead. The same was true with Del the Funky Homosapien, I wanted “Mistadobalina” but wound up with one featuring Dinosaur Jr from the Judgement Night soundtrack. That track, “Missing Link” really grew on me and made up my mind that I needed to find the Judgement Night soundtrack. Speaking of which, it is easily one of the most underrated hip-hop soundtracks ever; it’s a gem.
Okay, I should go backward, a bit. There weren’t many extraordinary things about being sent to a military school, what with all the marching and shining of things. Being exposed to all types of music was one of the few pluses.
I wasn’t a good student in my early years and was a pretty all-around crummy kid. Nothing illegal…well, I broke into a house once. Broke in is a bit harsh, I knew where the key was (us latch key kids compared notes on where our parents had hidden the key). But I didn’t take anything. Nothing substantial, anyway.
I was 9 or so, and I knew my neighbors were out for dinner, and they had the Royal Crown Cola. I loved Cola and it was a rarity in our house. Cola was something I only ever really got elsewhere on sleepover nights or at Showbiz Pizza. An accomplice and I snuck in to the neighbor’s house and grabbed a couple RCs from their fridge. Oh and we used their bathroom. That was it.
The kid with me gave this massive smile in front of the open refrigerator and was like “we’re robbers, man.”
But to this day no one knows about this, it wasn’t why I was shipped off to “reform school” as I’ve heard it called. That was on account of sitting in the back of every classroom staring out the nearest window. I even did poorly in art classes.
Anyway, so I was sent to a military boarding school; Bummer. And there was a ton not to like about being in military school, what with the marching, inspections, shining brass, shining shoes, physical training, Hurricane Hugo. There was the time I had been locked into a footlocker; once my underwear was hung up on a coat hook with me still wearing the underwear. There were blanket parties, which weren’t parties at all. You would have a sizeable wool blanket thrown over your head while you were beaten from all sides with socks laden with soap or padlocks.
Worst of all, there were no girls.
And my God was there a few fistfights. It seemed like once a week at times, and I was involved in a couple.
There were plenty of benefits though, not the least of which passing middle and high school on time and then going about my life. The few friends I made were great ones.
And then there was the diverse mish-mosh of musical exposure. The early 1990s was just before rampant file-sharing and mass-media. Up until school the only music I was exposed to would be played on WBBQ in Augusta, GA while waiting for snow closings on the rare day it snowed. As far as hip-hop was concerned, I knew of the Rappin’ Duke and Run DMC. I was pretty sure the Beastie Boys were a rock group.
Being in a tiny microcosm music melting-pot, you would be introduced to sound as it came blasting from speakers in rooms up and down the hallway. Having the loudest speakers was a big deal, especially a few years later when folks discovered DJ Magic Mike. If you had a subwoofer that could keep up with “Lower the Dynamite” then your room would become a popular hangout.
Your speakers would compete for an audience of underclassman forced to vacuum the massive hallways, or those wandering to the communal bathrooms.
Early on it was a ton of Grateful Dead and NWA. Much later, I remember being transfixed by Scarface’s track “White sheet,” and as I had no idea who Scarface was. I would be forced to borrow music until I found the right one. That was how I was introduced to, among others, Redman’s dare iz a darkside, which, great album.
Music was never really my thing before military school, mostly because it wasn’t pushed onto us kids by my parents. My mother had one Sting album, …Nothing Like the Sun that she listened to exclusively every day, forever.
My father had hordes of vinyl that we weren’t allowed to touch. He once caught me scratching his Doors, Strange Days album on his turntable (as I had seen done on MTV occasionally) and that was pretty much it for me even staring at his records the wrong way. Sometimes he would dust off his Roy Orbinson, 5th Dimension, The Association, The Turtles, or Don McLean.
So, I was music-illiterate. If you asked me then which artists I preferred I would probably say something like Phil Collins, Madonna, Bon Jovi. When I was sent to school I brought three tapes with me, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, some random Mike and the Mechanics album, and a classical cassette (which I loved for the John Williams “Olympic Fanfare”) that came with my mother’s new Ford Probe that was basically to test out on the new car’s stereo on the way home from the dealership.
My new military school roommate looked through my cassettes and tossed them aside, “are you gay?” It was the 90s in South Carolina when your music choices could elicit basically two types of questions. One questioning your sexuality and one questioning your religious affiliations.
All my roommate owned was a bunch of wailing metal guitar stuff, “are you into the devil or something?” was a question I heard an upperclassman ask him later on.
My roommate was a doofus; I learned that after weeks living with him. It had nothing to do with his music. I dug the Dr. Feelgood album he brought back from one of his school furloughs. He didn’t like me, and the feeling was mutual. Oh, and he didn’t shower very often.
So, Bon Jovie, Mike and the Mechanics, and a Ford classical music sampler were where I started, but as time went on, I started gravitating toward “rap music.” I had another roommate later that year who was a straight-up racist; slurs passed from his lips way too easily, it was gross… and he loved the groups 2 Live Crew, NWA, and Public Enemy. It was a contradiction I experienced then and later in life that I have never fully wrapped my head around.
The Eazy-Duz-It album was intoxicating.
Eazy E’s music didn’t speak to any of my experiences having grown up cloistered in Southern Suburbia… But my God did I love Eazy. The hair on the back of my neck stood up on first listen. Tracks like “Nobody move,” “Boyz-n-the-Hood (Remix)” didn’t square with my sheltered upbringing.
My parents never gave a shit about what I listened to or watched on TV so they wouldn’t have cared if someone had shoved the cassettes in their faces, “do you know what your son is listening to?!” Nevertheless, feelings persisted that listening to the album—I was breaking the rules. This album wasn’t created for me and listening felt like sneaking into another world. It was exhilarating.
Soon after an upperclassman forced me to buy his Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique that he had accidentally ordered from BMG. The rock-n-roll group? “Sure kid, where’s your money.” The album made the whole transaction a friendly mugging in that I got something out of it that I didn’t want at the time. He was going to take the $5 whether I wanted the album or not, he said as much.
$5 and it wound up being the best-forced purchase ever. The album was witty and felt mildly dangerous. “Egg Man” and “Sounds of Science” were sidesplitting. “Car Thief” quickly became the track I listened to almost exclusively, from the hypnotic open to the deft swearing, and an undercurrent of sadness and longing I could use when I needed catharsis.
Over time my taste refined in rap and rock. I was introduced to the band Anthrax which prompted similar musical exhilaration I had experienced with Eazy E, and then there were introductions to Led Zeppelin, De La Soul, the Cars, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Black Sheep, and Rakim and Eric B.
Then in the 10th grade, I was walking down the hall of our dorm and heard screaming. It was De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, and I was about to be hooked. It became the first album I could listen to cover to cover without fast-forwarding. I borrowed the album, and the kid eventually left school, so it became mine. From beginning to end it’s an opus, with standout tracks “Patti Dooke,” “Ego Trippin (part Two),” “I Am I Be,” “In the Woods,” and especially “Breakadawn.” I’ve bought the album several times over the years on account that the cassettes or CDs kept getting lost or stolen, which was fitting as to how I came into possession of it in the first place.
It was also around this time that I was exposed to Pete Rock and CL Smooth, Alkaholiks, Onyx… And the Dre/ Snoop track on the Deep Cover soundtrack was the coolest thing I had ever heard, never minding the controversial lyrics of “187 on an undercover cop.” So, I picked up the Chronic album. I was still team Eazy, but the Chronic was just too good.
By the time I was a junior, and I started working summers on Martha’s Vineyard, I had begun neglecting my mixes. Mostly on account that I could afford new albums from my eight whole dollars an hour, washing cars and cleaning up messes at Old Colony Motors in Edgartown. I picked up Soundgarden, Weezer, Gravediggaz, Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Ice Cube, NAS, the New Jersey Drive soundtrack and more.
After work, I would eat a Hungry-man or Steak-umm sandwich then write comic book scripts deep into the morning hours listening to Illmatic, the Above the Rim soundtrack or Big Blunts, a reggae compilation album celebrating marijuana. Marijuana was something I also had zero experience with, but the album was great and “Under Mi Sleng Teng” was my joint.
As far as the actual substance, music was my drug.
I never once went to the beach that summer (even though it was within walking distance). I didn’t eat a clam, let alone a lobster, I was anti-social spending all of my summer writing stories, playing “The World is Yours” over and over and over on a yellow Sony Walkman Sports. By the time I got back to school for my senior year, I had dozens of cassettes to show off.
The Gravediggaz ended up being a melancholy favorite as Summer died into Fall and it was highly sought after by classmates. No less than 3 of my schoolmates begged me to trade it for some other busters on cassette. “You would like this one much better it has the ‘this one goes out to my homies’ song on it.” Yeah, no thanks.
My roommate schooled me on why it was so in demand, “You realize that’s the RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, right?” He was a member of the Gravediggaz.
I had no idea who the Wu-Tang was other than I had wound up with their remix of an SWV favorite, “Anything” on my military school mixtape. I didn’t realize at the time the significance of the Wu-Tang Clan; it was to be a future obsession.
Actually “obsession” seems mild for the level of devotion to the Wu I had by the following summer. I had bought every Wu-Tang related cassette I could find.
But it was the purple-colored cassette that really fueled my summer of 95, I was in love with a girl who felt nothing for me and “Rainy Dayz” became my anthem. I played that purple cassette into the ground. It was a great time for my Yellow Sony Walkman Sports and my headphones.
The military school mix followed me to college, riding it out on the bench in a desk drawer filled with other misfit cassettes (Skee Lo Single, donkie butt, etc). Eventually it went into a box in my parents’ basement swimming in graded college papers and half-filled notebooks; neglected for decades as I went on with my life.
What do you do with an artifact that means so much to you, but nothing and less to the rest of the world?
I guess you write about it and then put it back in a box.