Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tray's Personal Reflections on Guru

I wish I could make this piece more poignant than it's going to be, but oh well. So, the summer I failed out of Duke, I decided that I was going to work at a family friend's beachfront arcade down the shore, as we say in Philly when we're talking about the Jersey beach. Specifically, in the Victorian town of Cape May, the southernmost point on the Jersey coastline. This is one of the funnier streets in Cape May:

Victorian cookie-cutter low income housing.

And this is a pretty awesome picture of the arcade (h/t CozyBeach.com):

The idea was that I would live in a tiny room adjoining the garage of the arcade-owner's elderly mother, show up to work every day at 9, and give people prizes in return for the tickets they'd racked up playing skeeball. I guess I was supposed to spend my nights on the boardwalk romancing slutty freshmen at the local community college. To be honest I was actually pretty excited about this job, it seemed like the archetypical shitty job/summer at the shore experience I'd been missing out in this life. Honestly, still to this day I wish I was spending my summer picking fruit instead of working for a Court of Appeals judge. (Sorry, Joey, I'm the sharpest legal mind in the rap blogosphere. Even though I probably did just get my first A- ever in law school. I'm such an embarrassment to my race/mother.) Anyway, though apprehensively excited about the job, I was obviously fairly miserable at the time, having been depressed enough to fail out of college in spite of being, like, the brightest little Jewish boy on the planet. And in fact, as it turned out I didn't get to keep the job, because I was a slow prize-giver-outer and they needed to give the room to some mad genius at fixing arcade games. That guy was one of the strangest people I've ever met or ever will. All that by way of context.

Now back then I didn't have a car, so the plan was for me to take a train from Philly to some point in Jersey, and then, novelty of novelties for this pseudo-privileged, insanely suburban kid, take a bus from that point to Cape May. Many warnings were issued to me about the sorts of people I might sit with on this bus. I'd brought my CD player with me, and back in 2004, as those of you from Philly just may remember, 30th Street Station had an fye. Those were really the golden days of music sales, when rappers used to beef over how many platinum plaques they had and even train stations had CD stores. Stores that routinely made you pay 18.99 for an old album at that. So I picked The Ownerz and went on my merry way. It's hard for me to articulate the comfort that album was to me on the bus ride down to Cape May and later that night when I sat alone in my little room in this arcade-magnate grandma's garage, but at the time it meant quite a lot. The Ownerz is not a perfect album, the second half is largely rather bad and I hate 'Skillz,' but the first seven or so songs (which was all I could hear anyway with my broken CD player) compare favorably, if not to the heights of their own catalogue, to most any album of that decade. The whole thing is steeped in a sincerity, a warmth, a righteousness that's genuinely righteous and not overbearing on some Lupe shit, that the slacking on occasion in Premo's production is well beyond forgivable. A song like 'Rite Where U Stand' that's ostensibly a battle rap/about killing people is really about - as the sample in the beginning of the song goes, how do I explain this to you? - those moments in life of moral clarity where, like Hav says in 'Get Dealt With,' one sees who's who, who's real and who's not, but not in the cartoonish sense of 'Who's Real,' in a really real sense. Later that summer I started listening to Cam and would never again be the same as a rap listener, and I still believe that the Cams and Guccis of the world serve a purpose, but the moral sustenance that Guru and Premo brought to the table is definitely something on short supply in rappers of that ilk and in today's hip-hop. Though shit, it was on short supply even in Guru's heyday. At any rate, I'll always have a soft spot for The Ownerz and for Gang Starr because of what they meant to me that day in that long awful summer.


MF said...

I'd forgotten how much I like Put Up Or Shut Up off The Ownerz.

I always thought American shore-front arcades were these amazingly exotic and hedonistic places after watching The Lost Boys until i visited Coney Island and was greeted with the actuality that, yes, they are pretty hedonistic but in the most grim way possible.

tray said...

Put Up Or Shut Up's another terrific song, I'm a big fan of Deadly Habits, the intro where their weedcarriers fret over "everyone living in darkness, man" - yeah, underrated album. Um, the Cape May arcade is not a hedonistic place at all. There are, like, 50 bars in Cape May but nothing remotely hedonistic occurs in that town until 11:00. It's just little kids picking up seashells and riding on trolleys, basically. I used to be shocked when a car would drive through playing a rap song. And then also pretty shocked when I began to see two or three black vacationers there. It's kind of a destination for New Yorkers.