The rumble from a Jolly-Rancher-blue Charger traveled its way along the asphalt of 79th Street and up the base of my spine from a block away. When the driver pulled up to the red light, I saw it was my friend, Herb, who had apparently gotten himself a new car. If it weren’t for the electric paint job and his HEMI engine, I — and probably every cop car in the neighborhood — might not have noticed him. Then again, Herb was not known for his subtlety.
“Hey, Captain! Need a ride?” he called out.
“Yes, sir!” I said.
I made my way to the passenger side and climbed into his monster of a car. Everything was leather except the windows. I tucked my bag between my feet and buckled up just as the light turned green. He pressed the gas and the engine roared triumphantly like the T-Rex at the end of Jurassic Park, only triumphantlier. The noise made conversation difficult, but I’m no quitter.
“How can you hear ambulance sirens in this thing?” I asked.
“Nah, man. They let me test it out for a week to see if I want to lease. Nice, right?”
Much of what Herb said was eaten by the Tyrannosaurus but I got the gist of it, plus I can read lips, some. He couldn’t hear a word I yelled.
“I knew that was you at the bus stop. Always bobbing your head like you’re rockin’ out at a concert. Just like at school.”
Herb reached over and pressed one of the black and creamy leather buttons on the stereo. Lights flashed, a screen flipped out of nowhere that read, Hello, Herbee Luvbugz, and then music began pouring from speakers all over the interior of the car. My seat had sub-woofers, and they were playing “Bombs Over Baghdad”. That’s when we became adolescents.
When I hear music, I move. Period. If it’s loud enough, it doesn’t even have to be music I like. So much of rap’s Casio, minimalist production from the early 2000’s I find atrocious, but if it’s cranked up, I gets ta movin’ — sometimes much to my chagrin. I’ve always been this way. Whether it comes from a DJ in a nightclub or a department store’s muzak or my own “Random Dope” playlist; just about any music will get my shoulders rolling, a la Michael Jackson versus his claymation bunny self. Often music is my fortress of solitude, so I’ll put in my earbuds and tuck myself into a corner of R&B, jazz, or hip hop to pop and lock my way through the jostling world around me.
The head-nod effect, as I like to call it, is quite contagious. Stand in line at the post office (maybe not the DMV) rocking your head back and forth to the heavy bass of a 90’s Timbaland production or one of those victorious-sounding Just Blaze beats and see if you don’t see smiles creep across the faces of the people behind you. Once, I witnessed responses from people on the bus, earphone cords hanging from their heads, who saw me moving my fingers like I was standing behind invisible turn tables. The way I ficky ficky‘ed those 1’s and 2’s made the folks within eye-shot a little less self-conscious. By the time I reached the second hook in the song, at least three others were bobbing to their own bass lines. When someone around you seems to have no inhibitions about how they look chair-dancing on public transpo, you can feel your own guard start to slowly erode. You find yourself moving to a rhythm borne from something deeper; something that the music merely rests upon.
Herb was harkening back to a time when our posse kicked it in the laundry room ’til the wee hours, listening to underground hip hop. All of us were dining service employees who worked in our dorm’s cafeteria for lunch and/or dinner. One night I ran into the rest of the crew when I went to wash my pajama pants and work uniforms, which were just camp-counselor-grade polo shirts, and after that, the hangouts became ritual. Clothing theft and stupid washing machine pranks (drop a couple of jumbo Crayolas in there and see what happens) were prevalent in our tower of undergraduate miscreants, so we would hang out in that muggy basement to keep a close eye through the wash, rinse, and dry cycles. But after a while, our meetings became less about cleaning hopelessly itchy shirts and all about fellowship.
Our little clique vastly expanded my musical horizons. Herb brought his mini boombox down and we each brought CDs of who we thought was dope from our neck of the woods. I still listen to the music they prescribed all those years ago. It was this passing around of music that solidified the group, especially me and Herb’s relationship. It reminded me of ancestors who sat around telling stories, passing down knowledge, culture, and history. Coming through the speakers were the tinny voices of the rappers — the griots engaging listeners with their words and passion. The rhythmic sound of the washing and drying machine cylinders tumbling surrounded us — tom toms keeping the pace of the tales told. Our individual histories were being shared through music. Urban folktales. Herb put me on to one dude, Wallabee Chukk, who was from the southern parts of Illinois. His cadence was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I learned a lot about music from both Herb and Wallabee. What I remember most, was his style, but I’ll save the “At the Lyric Tree with Aesop” stories for another time.
Because I’ve fallen out of the habit of seeking out new tunes to listen to and learn from, I’m left with only my current playlists and the popular music of today. In other words, 60 or so gigs of music plus the 20 or so songs in radio rotation at any one time. Technology has made it easier to share music, but its also significantly less personal. The energy and excitement of being in line with my friends waiting on a midnight release at the record store, then running home to listen to a new single or album for the first time is incomparable. But now, at least for me, because everything is a media file download away, the allure has waned considerably. The closest to the share circle experience these days is the random, annoying teenager forcing me and the entire train car to listen to his favorite trap music through the speakers of his phone. So I guess I stand corrected. There is an instance in which music does not make me shimmy against my will. Again, it boils down to fellowship. At the club, everyone present has signed up to be at the musical mercy of the DJ for the night. Rolling to work in a street dinosaur, dancing along to our own, personal Outkast earthquake, we were traveling through time. On the Red Line train with that teenager, it’s an imposition. It isn’t an agreed upon exchange of stories and experiences and preferences; it feels more like a rebellious kid daring the people in his proximity to challenge his self-proclaimed authority. A stand-off that, unless I become confrontational, I’m a part of until I reach my 79th street stop.
I doubt I’ll ever tire of the nostalgia that accompanies my music. Every song brings the time, the people, and the emotion with it to the present for three to four minutes until the track changes; the next quantum leap. Herb must have felt the same way, despite how much his boombox may have changed. So even though my friend’s relentless sound system made Big Boi and Andre 3000 sound as if I were listening to them from the bottom of a pool, I kept nodding my head and couldn’t help but feel that my shirt was becoming a bit itchy.