I’m pretty lucky in that I was born into a good record collection. The first record I distinctly remember listening to was Springsteen’s Nebraska, on a drive through Eastern Washington with my dad. We listened to that album on repeat for the entirety of the drive, which was six hours each way. I remember being petrified of that shout he makes towards the end of “State Trooper.” It still startles me from time to time.
So, growing up, I heard a lot of Springsteen and Dylan, Waits and Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Stones, stuff like that. The first record I bought with my own money was Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet.
I was ten years old. As suburban white kid street cred goes, that was undoubtedly my apex and the decline then has been precipitous. As a lyricist, Chuck D was light years away from what I had grown accustomed to; these were not songs about desolate highways, unrequited loves, or stream-of-consciousness dreamscapes. They were to-the-point, incendiary, and angry. That appealed to me.
In 1990, Hip Hop was still a “new” genre, and its reach into suburban America was nowhere near what it would be just two years later, when Dr. Dre released The Chronic and every teenage kid in America started understood that “bow wow wow yippee yo yippee yay” meant Snoop Doggy Dogg was in the motherfuckin’ house, but for some reason, my little circle of attitudey cul de sac buddies loved PE, and Run DMC, and Too $hort. I suppose to a large degree it was exploration and a twisted form of escapism; a glimpse into a world that was intimidating – even terrifying – to us, but alluring because we had never and would never experience firsthand the things that filled Chuck D with such righteous and justifiable vitriol. We were tourists in that world, safe to return at any time to our parents’ living rooms and the comfort of “Ice Ice Baby” or, if our friends’ older siblings were around, “Shout at the Devil.”
When Nirvana and Nevermind saturated the airwaves just a year-and-a-half after the release of Fear of a Black Planet, bored, angsty middle class suburban white kids had their own rallying call. Here we are now, entertain us. As important as Nirvana was and still is to me, contrast that mantra with “our freedom of speech is freedom or death” (“Fight the Power”) and those cultural dividing lines become even clearer. Here we were, in staunch rebellion of our own boredom, arguing over which of our favorite bands had “sold out,” while Chuck D was saying, “motherfuck [Elvis] and John Wayne.” It was naive then – and it is naive now – to think that simply listening to a cassette was some grand gesture of solidarity but it was almost certainly the first step in my becoming acutely aware that, despite what we were told in school about the heroic successes of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, racism and injustice were institutionalized in America; inherent in our culture and complacently ignored by so many who claimed tolerance and liberalism. I remember very clearly the smug pride I felt in buying Fear of a Black Planet, and I remember the embarrassment I felt in thinking that lifted me above everyone else I knew, as some sort of bright beacon of tolerance. I still love that record a lot, I still listen to it often, and whenever I do I try to consider whether I’m doing enough to reverse the American trajectory, or whether I’m sitting back wallowing in pride over the fact that I “get it.” Here’s hoping it’s always the former, and never again the latter.
Kasey Anderson is a songwriter from Portland, Oregon whose fourth album, Heart of a Dog, was released February 15, 2011. Kasey and his band, The Honkies, are currently at work with Kurt Bloch on the follow-up to Heart of a Dog, Let the Bloody Moon Rise. Follow him on Twitter.