KRS-One / Boogie Down Production’s “My Philosophy” from 1988 – feel the love.

The themes, characters, and atmosphere of my first novel, Orphan Love, are informed by music, specifically the 1980s metal and punk of my youth. While Orphan Love is replete with direct references to bands and musicians (real and fictional), in my new book El Niño, there is only one musical allusion. Did you spot it? Anyway, it links in – like a runner passing a baton – to the book I am writing now, english.motion. This book is a journey into the underworld of English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) teaching and likewise a contemporary interpretation of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. There is a lot about hip-hop in english.motion, as the main character is obsessed with it. So part of my research involves going for long walks listening the music of this character: mostly recordings from the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and especially Illmatic by Nas are in constant rotation. This hip-hop kid writes his own rhymes so I am trying my hand at that too, which is really hard. You have to be very flexible mentally to bend the language, to get it to rhyme and stick together in ways it shouldn’t. Like my favorite novels, the best hip-hop lyrics unfold like intricate puzzles, full of twists and turns, continually yielding well-earned surprises.

Like this new character I am building, I remember hearing Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back when it first came out in 1988. It blew my thirteen-year-old mind. A “nice Jewish boy” in my class really loved Public Enemy too so when I took a Greyhound to Toronto to visit my dad I bought him (I shall call him Aaron) a PE t-shirt from one of those head shops on Yonge Street. Remember that there was no online shopping in those days so getting a band t-shirt was not always easy. Anyway, Aaron was a really little guy. He was probably less than 5 feet tall and, like, eighty pounds. The t-shirt had the PE logo of the Black Panther militant caught in crosshairs of a gun, and though I bought a size small, the shirt came down to Aaron’s knees. I remember him standing there in our portable classroom with his Public Enemy dress on. He smiled at me so big his retainer came loose. When I wrote about the Chávez character in El Niño first hearing hip-hop (which the kids in the book call “rap”) I thought back to Aaron and I really wondered where that shirt ended up. I imagined it in a pile in some thrift shop, where maybe a kid like Chávez would buy it, figure out what Public Enemy was all about and never be the same again.

Thanks to my big brother, I also had access to Boogie Down Production’s By All Means Necessary (1988) with the song “My Philosophy.” I know that part of why I liked PE and BDP (fronted by MC KRS-One) was because there was no sexist bullshit or any crap about romance in their music. Rather, it was straight-up politics; that’s also why I went in for Metallica, The Clash, and Dead Kennedys, some of the other music that changed my life when I was twelve or thirteen.

So here I am back to PE and KRS-One. Twenty-five years later. But somehow this music seems new and fresh to me. Maybe that is just a manifestation of the spirit of reinvention that characterizes hip-hop: it keeps taking on new meaning as it ages and changes, and of course hip-hop is always in conversation with itself, borrowing and sampling from those who came before (as well as from popular culture at large). In many ways that is the guiding metaphor of the book I am writing. My characters, like the hip-hop they love, are defined by the ability to reinvent themselves. Someone (I forget who, sorry) in the Ice T documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap puts it so beautifully: “Hip hop invented nothing. But it reinvented everything.”

There, again, is that mental flexibility that hip-hop teaches me: through simplicity and ingenuity to take what you have – a stack of old records, a dictionary, a collection of childhood feelings and experiences – and bend them together so they take on a whole new shape (while retaining some residual quality of the original).

I doubt Aaron still has that Public Enemy t-shirt. Likely he’s even forgotten about it. My job, however, is to keep holding on, to keep remembering, and to continue listening to the music that inspired me to think and write in the first place and, by so doing, to reinvent the world again and again and again.