Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Smell of Thirteen

Hospitals always had that smell. Couldn't really place it. Sterile, yeah, but it scared me to death. I smelled it that morning as soon as I stepped into the lobby of North Central.

The ride in the gypsy cab to the hospital up on Gun Hill was uneventful, except for my aunt's nervous laughter at all my jokes. I swore I was gonna let Moms have it to no end. Imagine, a woman as strong as she was, laid up in a hospital bed.

But the second those automatic doors shushed open, I ran out of wisecracks. It wasn't so much that my comedic repertoire wasnt as vast at thirteen as it might have been were I a few years older, although that did have something to do with it. Nope, what shut me up was that smell. Like it wiped away everything, leaving me naked, but not squeeky clean, all my sins exposed, ready for my turn on Judgment Day.

Try though I might have to get the smell out of my head while I asked the receptionist for directions to my mom's room, it stuck. I thought more of alcohol wipes than of the look on her face when she asked us to wait there while she went off to consult with who ever it was she needed to consult with before showing us the way. When she returned, she asked us to follow her, and whisked us around a corner and down a corridor, into a waiting room of sorts.

The scent wasn't so bad in there. Or maybe I don't remember it anymore, like I don't remember that receptionist's face. I do remember the young doctor who walked in the room after we were there for maybe 5 minutes or so. He introduced himself to my aunt and proceeded to rap away. She looked at me in panic, so I tapped him on the shoulder and explained to him that because my aunt had only been in the country for three months or so, she didn't speak much English beyond "jess" and "pleece", so he'd have to rap with me.

Young Dr. Ross or whatever was on his nametag asked me how old I was. When I told him I was thirteen, he asked if there was anybody older he could speak with. "Nope. Just me, doc." I had a tendency to talk to grown-ups like I was the cool, disaffected protagonist in an early 80s comedy. Always in control. Kinda like Bill Murray in Stripes or Tim Matheson in Animal House. I had all the answers, baby.

The doc looked around, maybe checking to see if I was lying. Or maybe as if by doing so, he'd see an older person he could speak with who he might've overlooked before.

"Listen, doc," said Otter, main man at Delta House and sometimes just a thirteen-year old Spanish kid from the Bronx, "she's my moms. You can tell me the deal, and I'll pass it along, dig? Its cool."

He shook his head, breathed heavily. The way I remember it now -- better yet, the way I interpret it these days, he probably couldn't believe that he was about to have this kind of conversation with a thirteen-year-old. "Okay, kid," he began, "I have some very bad news for you."

Another breath. Another grave shake of his head. "Your mother was in a very bad car accident," he said.

I smiled. Cool as the Fonz, that was me. See, I'm the one who spoke to the cop who'd called the house with that same news a little less than an hour before. I forgot his name a long time ago, but I remember the phone call:

"Are you related to Altagracia Fernandez?"

"Yes, sir. I'm her son."

"How old are you, son?"


A long, slow breath.

"Hello...? Officer...?"

"Your mother was in a car accident, son. She's at North Central Bronx Hospital on Gun Hill Road."

Now, I was the one breathing heavy.

"You there, kid?"


"North Central on Gun Hill, okay?"



A quick cab ride up the Concourse later, past the state-of-the-art sliding doors and into the sterilized atmosphere of North Central, into that... smell, and the proto-George Clooney was giving me the same news.

Me, I was ice, baby. In control. In fact, I quickly calculated that, hey, if that was the bad news, then anything after that was rice and beans. Routine. Broken leg or something I could crack jokes about.

"Aaaand?" I prompted.

"Okay, kid," he said. These days, I'd swear he wanted to add "you asked for it," but that's just me feeling sorry for myself. I mean, even a resident fresh out of med school had to know that he was about to change someone's life forever.

"A very, very bad accident. We did everything we possibly could. Everything. But it was just too much, and by the time we got to her, it was already too late."


Not that I didn't hear him. I did. But I didn't think I did. So I had to double check.

"You lost me, doc. What does that mean, 'too late?'"

He looked around again, probably hoping my father or brother or somebody, anybody older than thirteen would walk through the door and spare him this assignment. But nobody came.

And all of a sudden, it hit me: that scent, again.

"Your mother is dead, kid. I'm sorry."


I hate hospital smells.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Falling Apples

Happy Birthday to my Pops. Turns sixty-seven today. Told me that according to some symbolism or other (Tarot cards? I couldn't really understand what he said), the number 67 means "stabbing."

Sixty seven.

I remember calling him when I turned twenty-eight, so many moons ago. Tough guy that he was (and still is) he just sighed and remarked that I had finally reached the age he was when I was born. Gave one of his Cuban expressions, cracked a joke. But something about me turning twenty eight made him sigh a lot longer and louder than I had ever heard.

Maybe in that one quick exchange he reflected on his own life, his own accomplishments --or the lack thereof. Never thought to ask Pops about his dreams. Don't even know if he ever really had any. Can't remember him ever working towards any goal past the rent money.

What I do remember is him packing his bags one day, and Moms poppin' shit even after we could see his car pull down the block and around the corner from all the way up on our fourth floor window.

His only attempt at a family after that was with a Cuban lady in Miami, but my sis and I deaded that shit right after Moms died and the lady wouldn't stop running her mouth, opinionating on Moms' comings and goings. Or so we thought. For all I know, he might've wanted to break camp long before that, but didn't know how to.

Good thing he didn't have any children with her. No kids to remember him packing his bags. Nope. That one fell to me and Sis.

And so he went, the eternal blue-collar bachelor dude, putting in his hours at the gig, having more than a few Millers with his expatriated homies at the local watering spot after work, flirting with this waitress or that laundromat attendant. Day in, day out. Nigga even scooped up a lady who pushed her own hotdog cart once.

When 'Welo died, and 'Wela was left alone to fend against the wolves, Pops had to slow his roll somewhat. And now 'Wela has Alzheimer's, and seems to believe she's back in Cuba, circa 1940-something, and she can't be left alone. His roll has come to a complete stop.

And Pops, for reasons that I'm only now beginning to really understand, has to spend his birthday watching TV and making sure 'Wela doesn't wander off or otherwise hurt herself, instead of surrounded by his children and their children. His family.

Me, I believe Pops just never had it in him. Just wasn't his thing. Hard enough when you're reluctant.

Helluva thing, to be the constant gardener. You've got to have it in you. And me, I'm only now beginning to understand that sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I can not get the falling apples in my backyard to land far enough away from that tree.

Happy Birthday to my Pops.

Lies and the Humans Who Tell Them, Part I

time and time again, you'll hear tell of the woman's superiority in crafting lies. men, as the pseudo-metaphor goes, are dogs, therefore, they don't bury their bones too deep in the backyard, oft times digging them up and bringing all types of drama into their lives. the XX-chromosomes, however, are more associated with cats, slinking about in silence, doing whatever it is they do, while the hapless dog is none the wiser.

i don't know, though. pet comparisons aside, what experience has taught me is that both genders are capable of creating fiction the likes of which no Fitzgerald or Hemingway could have imagined. the difference isn't so much between which of the two is more adept at story-telling, but which of the two has the greater need to believe those lies.

and, to para-quote another of the great dreamweavers, therein lies the rub.

from before their chests sprout the first bump along the way to becoming breasts, long before they ever have to keep their eyes on a calendar, little girls are taught that men lie; all of them, be they Little Leaguers or their beer-imbibed pre-cursors in the stands.

"that's just how they are," seems to be the explanation.

as such, by the time they realize --consciously or otherwise-- that tens of thousands of years' worth of men have fought, killed and died for the moist, velvety skin between their legs, young women resign themselves to spending the rest of their lives being lied to.

and with good reason.*

because both genders have socialized themselves and each other into accepting this to-and-fro as the "natural" order of things, a bastardized symbiosis has emerged in which women, conditioned to believe that it's in a man's genetic code to be untruthful, have played the roles of dutiful wife, wifey and girlfriend** on autopilot; while men, who've been the primary beneficiaries of the exchange, have done the same.

need proof? ask around and you'll find how rare is the one cat out of a crew of homies who does not cheat. odds are the attitudes of his compatriots toward his lack of play swing wildly between either end of the pendulum, from the adversarial "that bitch got him whipped" to the admirational "damn, i wish i could do some shit like that."

what most men are not taught***, however, is that their chromosomic counterparts have been playing the same game, only they don't celebrate touchdowns in the end zone; they do so when all the fans have gone home, and the locker rooms are empty of reporters.

the aforementioned rub? well, because men, in general, have become so accustomed to the eons-old arrangement, they simply can not fathom that their beloveds, with their virgin eyes and angelic smiles, the godly mothers of their children or the keepers of their beating hearts, would ever look them in the face, and lie.

it crosses our minds, to be sure. but in our eternal quest to become "better," we ignore instinct and rely on intellect, which tells us we're projecting. we're somehow ascribing our own shortcomings to find fault where it doesn't exist, just to relieve our guilt.

dime-store psychology goes a long way, no doubt. especially when self-diagnosing. but like lawyers who represent themselves and have fools for clients, physicians, even emotional ones, should not be so inclined to heal themselves. especially when they ignore their spirit, screaming at the top of their ethereal lungs that although the numbers seem right, something just ain't adding up.

kinda like swimming with dolphins. they're beautiful to look at, we've told ourselves that they're "smarter" than we are, and we want to believe so, so badly that we can somehow keep up.

my mother, rest her traitorous soul, said there'd be days like this. "don't ever, EVER give us the opportunity to break your heart. we lie. and we will not hesitate to do either."

but i knew it all. and in my need to believe, mom-dukes' admonition and my instincts got the curb.

and i got...

well, when all was said and done, i got smarter, finally.



*because that is the status quo, if you will, i have no need to elaborate here. if you're reading this, and you honestly can't or won't agree, i suggest you remove the focus off your own life and watch the world as if you weren't the star of today's feature. trust me; it works.

**interestingly enough, the one role in which honesty --in all its raw, brutal power-- plays the motivator is the role which most women do their best to not play for too long. when it matters, it's that of homie/lover/friend; when it doesn't, it's the jump-off.

***the irony is that despite the ever-growing single-parent [usually female-dominated] family, one positive is that young men learn about women from women. and whether directly or indirectly, they are taught that the only absolute about truth is that it is relative.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Daydream Believer

I guess the best way to put it would be to say that my mind is trying to kill me.

Thought that'd get your attention.

I miss my children.

Just looking at their pics, as I'm doing right now, hurts.

And as much as I don't want to "make that call," for reasons that might be obvious to anyone who knows how painful those calls can be, I sometimes just want to hear their voices.

The baby never wastes her opportunity to run down her latest grievance, as if Daddy's close enough to help make things better.

"I've got a boo-boo!" becomes an emergency if I don't give her the response she wants to hear.

And my lil' man, well, true to his oft-stated desire to be "an actor," getting on the phone with me is his chance to clown around, make funny voices and generally act up.

I barked at him last night, like the selfish piece of shit I can be sometimes. No excuse, but I know why I did it. I felt like a crumb, even as I snapped. I was just in one of my moods (they tend to be "the norm" these days) and I only wanted to have a conversation with him.

But that's what he wanted to do too, in his own, eight-year old way. Only I'm too caught up in my own tiny, insignificant world that I only realized that after I got off the phone.

Dumbest smart nigga I know, that's me.

Sometimes, I convince myself that they're busy, doing their respective things (the baby running around, acting grown or buggin' her brother for attention; and lil' man playing a video game or buggin' his mom for attention too).

I tell myself that they're aiight. And that if they wanted to speak with me, they'd ask their mother to call me.


So I satisfy myself with a quick look at their pics. My favorite one was taken last summer. Lil man has his hands around his baby sis, and they're both smiling. Kinda like they're telling me not to worry, that everything's gonna be aiight.

All signs point to this "new life" that I keep harping about, this rebirth, this bullshit that I've been telling any and everyone who'll listen, being real. Y'know? That circumstances being what they are, I'm now in the ideal position to make "my dreams come true."

But my mind, she won't let me rest, man. Because as much as those dreams center around writing and producing and telling stories, they've always included family.

I used to believe those daydreams.

Tough-guy wisdom, especially the kind cultivated in the Bronx, says to man-up, choke in that pain, and say, "fuck it." Who needs family? Who needs anyone? All other people do is cause me pain, anyway.



I miss my babies, man.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I'm early...

'Bout a week or so.
Just wanted to say, "Happy Birthday."
Wait. I remember your English... :)

So... mejor dicho: "Feliz Cumpleaños."
Estamos sanos. Y si no, estaremos.

Nos criaste bien.

Te quiero.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Karma, Chameleon!

A coupla weeks ago, during a break in the action around here, I browsed through my modest lil’ flick roster and popped in Carlito’s Way.

Despite the sappy love story (hard core Boricua cat from El Barrio gets wide open on some white stripper chick? Gimme a breeeeeeak…), most connoisseurs of top-choice cinema will agree that the flick belongs in any self-respecting movie head’s library, and that Pacino, though not a Puerto Rock, did his thing kinda nicely (even with the chopped up Spanish).

Like any flick with exponential repeat value, Carlito’s Way offers something new at every viewing:

First time I caught it was in a TV room while wearing Dickies with numbers on ‘em. The message I and most of my fellow audience members got from it back then was that falling in love with a stripper will fuck ya mind up but good, leaving you susceptible to all types of mishaps.

Caught it again some time later within a cipher of disgruntled street vets down on their economic luck, and the message became “Man, shit ain’t the same no mo’. These youngbucks done fucked the game all up…”

Another peep and I found myself reminiscing about the time my pops owned a social club/pool hall underneath our building on Hoe Avenue (which got me to thinking that maybe the ol’ man had a little bit more hustle goin’ on than his carpentry gig).

And now this latest screening left me thinking about the scene where Carlito and his lawyer Kleinfeld (played by Sean Penn, who shoulda got the Oscar for that shit!) have just returned from their fateful boat ride on the East River…

Kleinfeld, the attorney with the Ivy League plaques on his wall, has decided to go mano-a-mano with some family-type guys with last names that end in vowels. Only problem, with that particular breed of human, it’s more like, cañon-a-coete.

So Carlito, the war-weary O.G., advises: “You ain’t a lawyer no more, Dave; you a ‘gangsta’ now. You on the other side. Whole new ball game. You can’t learn about it in school. And you can’t get a late start.”

Kinda the same with hip-hop, no? Bottom line is, you gotta live this shit to be this shit. Coppin’ and listening to every CD in the history of Rap is a good start, but that alone won’t do it. Runnin’ to Macy’s for the latest in “urban wear” will help you dress the part, but that alone won’t do it. That’s too easy. And—at the risk of sounding like one of those disgruntled vets mentioned above—paying dues still counts.

Not to say that late-comers aren’t welcome; just give respect where it’s been earned. For too many, hip-hop is an Akademiks shirt or a Nelly album or a fresh pair of Tims. A product. A costume they can rock at will.

Thus, it’s maaad easy to disguise themselves as someone they’re not. “Industry” folk do it all the time. From dick-riding A&Rs, who seem more concerned with catching residue pussy from their signees, to cock-blockin’ publicists, who’re just happy to be SpongeBobbin' at all the parties.

Rappers? They do it all the time. Label execs do it even more. Same with magazine people (with exceptions; they know who they are). As for MTVBETVH1, shit, TV and Hollywood made it a science before any of our parents were a tickle in our grandparents’ nether-parts.

But like the weeds that push through cracks in the sidewalk, the truth always finds a way. Certain heads will stand out. And though most people think they do, the ones who really do don’t even realize it. And if they do, you’d never hear it from them.

--Save your questions, and jot this down instead: If you have to ask, well, 1+1 is always 2, young Stan--

So, yeah, Carlito had his Kleinfeld, and we’ve got a couple million cardboard cut-outs running amok, shootin’ their mouths off a lot more than they’ve ever shot anything else. Fortunately, we learned from Carlito’s Way. And next time Kleinfeld wants to write checks he ain’t built to cash, we’re lettin’ Benny Blanco be the collections man.

In a minute…

**originally published (minus a nip here, a tuck there) a long-ass time ago, while on the plantation, far, far away… and trust me when I say to those of you who’ve followed the saga all these years, the crystal-ball ironies of this mini-diatribe are not lost on me.**

Friday, November 04, 2005

Feliz Cumpleaños

"Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed with the things you didn't do than with the things you did.

So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.




-- Mark Twain

Vamos A Rapiar

Latinos and Hip-Hop Music

Rafy Miyares, a young man born of Dominican parents, stands on the corner of 180 Street and Broadway in the Washington Heights section of New York City, a neighborhood known as much for its epidemic amount of illegal drug activity as it is for being the major enclave of the Dominican community in America. Although the colors and brand names may differ from the next individual, his uniform of Polo Sport, Mecca jeans, Avirex leather jacket and Tims betrays him as one of the many hip-hop heads in the New York metro.

Lightweight headphones perched lightly on his ears, he’s nodding his head and swaying his torso in time to the latest from Busta Rhymes. His eyes dart across the street as he spots one of his boys: “¡Tigere, ven aca!”

The two engage in rapid-fire conversation, effortlessly switching back and forth from English to Spanish, finally ending the exchange with a hearty pound and the requisite, “One, m’nigga…”

“Anyway,” says Rafy, turning his attention back to the subject at hand, “it don’t matter to me if Busta’s Black, yo. Why should it? If the nigga’s nice, he’s nice.”

When asked why he refers to himself and Busta with a word that many Blacks have deemed off-limits to non-Blacks, he replies, “Aw, man, look at me. I ain’t exactly white, y’know? I know my history, kid. Besides, I got mad friends that are morenos [Spanish word meaning “Black people” which comes from moros, the Spaniards’ word for the Moors, a North African Muslim people who invaded and occupied Spain for over 700 years]. They know the deal, B. I ain’t tryin’ to shit on ’em. That word just means ‘a dude’ to me.”

Three thousand miles away on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in East Los Angeles, a region of L.A. county recognized for its overwhelmingly Mexican population, Jesus Gutierrez leans on the shiny front fender of his metallic-blue ’64 Impala, sporting the East Los customary pressed Dickies, Black Flys, freshly shaved bald-head and monochromatic tattoos for days.

Careful to lower the volume whenever the ever-present LAPD cruiser strolls by, Jesus blows the smoke from his cigarette while seemingly meditating to the eerie horns and uptempo rhythms of “Stone Garden” from Psycho Realm. The occasional other cholo who happens by is greeted with a casual, “Orale, homes,” and a laid back nod of the head.

“Fuck yeah,” he answers to a previously asked question, “it definitely matters that Psycho Realm is Mexican, ese. They’re representin’ la Raza. I ain’t got anything against the negros, dude, but it’s cool to see my own people up there.”

Rafy and Jesus are not unlike countless Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, Columbian or any other Latino kids who populate the hip-hop nation. But although hip-hop is lauded as—and expected to be—the great unifier of the disenfranchised masses of Urban American Youth, it is a culture which mostly everyone—from the media to academia to some of the very heads who claim to live it—defines as “Black.”

For Latinos, that persistent labeling shouldn’t register anything more severe than a slight annoyance. After all, a quick perusal of a history book or two will show that along with inheriting a religion and an entire language from the Spaniards, Latinos have inherited quite a bit from their African antecedents, as well. If the one-drop rule means anything, Black is Black.

But when “Black” is used more as a definition of culture than as a definition of outward appearance, defining hip-hop culture as “Black” leaves the impression that any other cultural group who participates must somehow negate its own identity and assume the identity of the dominant group. That simple annoyance becomes a big pain-in-the-ass. And when Latino hip-hop kids are asked by non-hip-hop Latinos to explain why they’ve “sold out,” the negative feelings grow exponentially.

“I still remember when Luis, my best friend, who’s Puerto Rican, once said to me, ‘Why you always listenin’ to that gorilla shit?’ because I was always into hip-hop. Damn. I ain’t understand that shit, B. I mean, I expected that kind of shit from my older brothers, who were not only on some anti-Black shit, but on some anti-Puerto Rican shit, too. But from a Puerto Rock?!”

In that quick breath of a statement, Rafy touched upon touchy subjects that have plagued the Latino and Black communities of New York for some time.

In simplest terms, the Blacks—already feeling the ever-tightening choke-hold of America’s policy towards its darker denizens for three hundred years plus—didn’t exactly appreciate the Puerto Ricans coming over in droves during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, and snatching up some of the few jobs available to non-whites.

Worse, some of these mira-mira muthafuckas are so light-skinned, they even think they white!
The Puerto Ricans—already aggravated beyond recompense because of Uncle Sam’s insistence upon controlling the fate of their homeland and its precarious economy—didn’t appreciate having to uproot their lives, and leave their beloved Borinquen for the colder, literally and figuratively, climes of New York.
Worse, the morenos say we’re dark-skinned whites and (of all the fuckin’ nerve!) the whites call us ‘niggers with straight hair!’
And the Dominicans—already fleeing a thirty-year dictatorship and the subsequent corrupt governments that followed its demise, not to mention an all-out invasion by US troops in 1965 and a rapidly widening gap between extremely rich and desperately poor—didn’t appreciate having to put up with any uppity attitude from a bunch of wannabe-American Boris who couldn’t even keep their own country for more than seven days in 1898 when they won their independence from Spain and lost it to the Americans within a week.
Worse, people confuse us with the maldito prietos, like we look like them or something!

Such attitudes, while not necessarily representative of the majority, reflect the ongoing struggle to maintain a sense of self in a country which demands that its newcomers—both the voluntary and involuntary kinds—jump into the great melting pot, while asking them to discard most of the flavor they’ll be bringing to the stew.

By the time Kool Herc and company were doing their thing in the Bronx, those feelings definitely still existed, but after years of having shared the same stifling air-space, Blacks and Latinos in New York were co-existing with relative peace. And because of their linguistic, religious, and cultural similarities, Latinos in the area—who were primarily from the Caribbean—were doing the same amongst themselves.

On October 12, 1492, an Italian explorer and his three-galleon entourage, traveling under the auspices of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela of Spain, stumbled upon the Bahamian island of Guanahaní after wandering around in the Atlantic Ocean for several months in search of a westerly route from Europe to Asia. Incorrectly assuming he’d succeeded in his mission by landing in India, Cristobal Colón—or “Christopher Columbus,” as the English would later call him—dubbed the curious natives “Indios” and immediately claimed the island for the Spanish crown, christening it “San Salvador.”

The indigenous folk, an openly friendly lot whose ancestors had crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia into North America some 10,000 or so years prior, had no way of knowing Colón’s intentions when they greeted him and his equally pale-skinned cohorts with as much hospitality as they did awe. These natives—Arawak by name, although Colón’s mistaken identification persists to this day—offered all types of assistance to the newcomers, including directions to Cubanacán, a larger mass of land about a hundred miles to the south.

Colón, still believing his calculations to be correct and that he was in Asia, set sail a few days later and upon landing at the larger island, sent a delegation ashore to demand gold from the Emperor of China. Needless to say, he never found the Emperor, or any other Chinese for that matter, but instead encountered three other groups of Arawak: the Siboney, the Mayari and the Taino.

Not long after arriving on Cubanacán (or “Cuba,” for short), Colón and his men sailed eastward until they landed on yet another island, this one also claimed in the name of Spain and her Catholic monarchs. Christening it “La Hispaniola,” Colón decided to return to Spain and tell the King and Queen of his amazing “discovery,” leaving 39 of his men behind while he sailed back to Europe.

Hip-hop’s earliest history records a number of Latinos who, along with the likes of Bambaataa, Flash, Coke La Rock and other pioneers, were right up in the parks DJing, MCing, breaking and bombin’. By no means predominating, but far from occupying token positions, brothers like Disco Wiz, DJ Charlie Chase, Ruby Dee, Whipper Whip, O.C. and Devastating Tito, among others, were indicators of a Latino presence in hip-hop music. In the early ’80s, a group named Mean Machine even paid homage to its Latino roots by recording their self-titled single, the first rap song recorded entirely in Spanish.

As hip-hop, primarily Rap music, gained in recognition and began its spread across the country, the mainstream media began their usual practice of affixing their own neat labels to phenomena they couldn’t—or didn’t care to—understand. Before long, Latinos were rarely mentioned in discussions of hip-hop, unless of course, for the patronizing acknowledgements of their contributions to breaking and graffiti writing.

And as often happens when outsiders with above average power and influence stake a claim in an indigenous culture, history was re-written to the point where even the subjects of that history forgot reality and accepted the infiltrators’ versions of truth. Latinos were relegated to the ranks of consumers, not creators, of the artform, and even that title was later stripped away when mountain-climbing guitar players at record companies decided that Latinos do not buy or even listen to hip-hop.

Worse still, younger Black kids who didn’t realize they were witnessing false hip-hop history in the making, looked upon any Latino kids who just happened to be lyrically or turntablistically adept as bizarre anomalies, wandering ronin of some sort who were not accepted by their own and therefore sought to find a home in hip-hop.

Big Pun, an artist on Loud Records who has become one of the most anticipated MCs after appearances with Fat Joe, the Beatnuts and his own promotional singles, “You Ain’t A Killa” and “I’m Not A Playa,” recalls the times when his worth as an artist was based not on its own merits, but on the fact that he’s Puerto Rican.

“In the beginning it was like that,” he says. “People would say, ‘he’s nice… For a Puerto Rican.’ After I went through [Fat Joe’s single] ‘Firewater’ and ‘You Ain’t A Killa,’ people were like, ‘Oh, he’s niiice.’”

Fat Joe, of Puerto Rican/Cuban lineage, adds that even when the general consensus towards his own ability to rock mics was positive, record label heads told him that he’d be too difficult to market.

“When I first came out, I felt like being Latino was an obstacle,” he admits, “even though I looked upon me being Latino as an advantage because we’re bilingual, meaning we have two audiences checking for us: the hip-hop niggas and the Spanish niggas who wanna represent for the patria. But the label niggas—even those who were Black—was like, ‘Yo, you dope, money, and I know your crew is hot, but you’re Puerto Rican. And Puerto Ricans ain’t for hip-hop. It’s a Black thing.’ That shit was fuckin’ my head up.”

With parents, older relatives and even contemporaries who never became involved with hip-hop castigating them for listening to “that jungle music” (never mind that Salsa, Merengue, and damn near all other forms of Latino music and rhythms have their origins in Africa), Latino heads now also had to prove themselves to their long-time comrades, the same Black kids with who they fought the same daily wars against the many ills of a second-class existence, side by side in the same ghetto trenches.

By the time Colón returned to Hispaniola—present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic—almost a year later, all 39 of his men had been killed for looting the native settlements and raping the women. The Spaniards, as those 39 sailors had proved to be their idea all along, put their campaign of total subjugation and domination in full effect across the islands. And although the Arawak tribes—particularly the proud Carib, a fierce, cannibalistic group—fought bravely, they were no match for the Spaniards’ advanced weapons and war-making technology.

In their unquenchable thirst for gold and silver, the Spaniards eventually overran virtually all of the Caribbean, down into South America, up into the lower parts of North America and across to Mexico and Central America, finally running out of land at the Pacific Ocean.

In time, because of the inhumane work conditions and their lack of immunity against diseases brought to their lands by the Spanish, the Arawak began dying off at a genocidal rate. The Spaniards, having already been importing African slaves to work in Europe, began replacing the natives with the Africans, and before long, despite “official” attitudes against it, miscegenation occurred, resulting in a conglomeration of appearances, practices and philosophies.

Thus began the cataclysmic relationship among the Spanish, the Africans and the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. It is this relationship between the conquerors, the conquered and the forcefully imported labor that has produced the entirely new, distinct, hybrid cultures, nationalities and ethnicities that collectively make up the Latino people.

Already feeling the sting from accusations that they had somehow abandoned their native cultures, Latinos equated the Blacks’ excluding them from the hip-hop fold with betrayal. Indeed, quite a few Latinos, particularly those from the East Coast, abandoned Rap music altogether for the uptempo dance grooves of club music—or “freestyle,” as it was more popularly known.

Ironically, most freestyle songs used the Planet Rock drum pattern as their basis. And almost as a reminder that the Latino/Black relationship was a stronger bond than previously suspected, some even dubbed the sound “Latin Hip-Hop.”

Those Latinos who remained faithful to the beats and rhymes made do with what was available for aural consumption. Rap was rap, after all, and whether or not an artist was Latino didn’t matter to them. Perhaps because of a greater awareness of the inherent multi-culturalism of the US, but more than likely because the masses simply could not front on the distinct flavors that Latinos added to the hip-hop barbecue, the tide slowly ebbed and more Latino rappers appeared in the wake.

This time, however, it wasn’t the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York who would storm the beachhead. Instead, two artists from Los Angeles, Mellow Man Ace, a Cuban rapper who dropped a club-friendly, yet blazing single named “Mentirosa” and Frost, a Mexican brother who released the anthemic “La Raza” in honor of Mexicans in L.A. and Latinos everywhere, forced people to notice that Latinos were most definitely a part of hip-hop.

A major turning point came in 1991, when a three-man group, also from L.A., made their cannabis-scented debut into the hip-hop consciousness. When word spread beyond their hometown that two of the members were Latino—one a Cuban and the other Mexican—Latinos across the atlas lost their minds. Better still, Black kids—and white kids, for that matter—did too, and Cypress Hill racked up platinum sales for both albums that followed their self-titled first.

Centuries after Hernando Cortés, and 550 other Spaniards landed at the Gulf of Mexico in 1519 and eventually wrestled Tenochtitlan (present day Mexico City) from the Aztecs, Mexicans living in what later became the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California suddenly found themselves foreigners in a land they had been occupying for generations.

The United States, in accordance with the Manifest Destiny-fever that was sweeping the ever-growing countryside, flexed its imperial might and wrestled the above mentioned territories from Mexico. Virtually overnight, what used to be routine travel from one village to another became a trek across an international border, replete with anti-Mexican sentiment on the northern side of the dividing line.

Beginning in 1910, the tension was augmented when the Mexican Revolution caused thousands of political refugees to flee their war-torn country and seek subsistence in the US. In Los Angeles particularly, the urban economy thrived because of this incoming wave of cheap, unskilled laborers, and by 1925, L.A. had the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico City.

As could be expected, this new group faced ill feelings and discrimination not only from the white Americans (more commonly known as “Anglos”), but from those Mexican-Americans who’d made their homes in the States before they even were states. Slowly but surely, however, this last group would eventually predominate, and in present day Los Angeles, despite the subtle and not-so-subtle governmental attempts to supress it, one can’t ignore the overwhelming influence of La Raza.

“Out here,” says Julio G, the Mexican/Puerto Rican DJ on L.A.’s 92.3 The Beat, “Mexicans go through our own struggle. We’re right next to Mexico. We’ve got problems with the government, the police. We’ve got the gangs… People want to scream out.”

Offering his opinion of why more militant Latino rappers have come from the West Coast than the East, he doesn’t downplay the existence of similar problems that Latinos in other parts of the country are faced with. And as usually happens whenever different groups in the “minority” don’t recognize the value in combining forces, relations between Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles are always tense.

“East Los doesn’t really mix with the Blacks,” he says. “A lot of that mentality comes from jail, where it’s automatically segregated, and I don’t want to say that it’s only East L.A. that thinks like that because people think like that all over. But in South Central, it’s different. It’s like a middle ground. You’ve got your Blacks and Latinos in the same community. I’m not trying to make it sound like there’s a race war going on. There’s not. But out here, Mexicans don’t get confused with Blacks. Out there [New York], Puerto Ricans and Blacks are kind of the same mix.”

Widely respected by listeners of both Aztec and African descent, Julio has the ears of the streets tuned in to his #1 rated show every night from 6 to 10, faithfully. And he uses that power to ease some of the tension by bringing about more awareness and understanding between Blacks and Latinos about their respective cultures.

“As a Latino, I want to grow,” he declares. “And I want my people to grow with me. I work at a Black radio station, but since I came in, I’ve done my own shit. I’ll speak Spanish on the air, but I’ve had Tony Muhammad, the Nation of Islam’s Los Angeles minister on the show. I’ve had Rakim on the show talking about the Five Percent. I want to learn about other cultures, so everybody can grow with me.”

When the major media announced last November that the Latino population in the United States now constitutes the largest “minority” in the country, they did so twelve years ahead of schedule. Earlier predictions, based on immigration and childbirth rates, targeted 2010 as the year when the descendants of the African-Arawak-Aztec-Carib-Inca-Maya-Mayari-Pueblo-Siboney-Spaniard-Taino-Yaqui mixture would represent the second largest group in America.

That fact alone is enough proof that the Latino influence on all aspects of cultura Americana—including the one which began when some Black and Latino kids in the Bronx took all their angst and flipped it into new styles of music, dance, art, fashion and writing—will continue to grow and reflect our population numbers. In so doing, Latinos in the US add a little more sabor to an already flavorful pot, thereby re-creating ourselves and our hybrid culture.

Nowadays, one doesn’t need to search too hard to find Latinos—and Latino-isms—in hip-hop. Not only have artists like Fat Joe, Cypress Hill, The Beatnuts and Big Pun gained accolades for their work, but Black artists are finally doing more to acknowledge the Latino presence, as well. From Raekwon’s prolific crime tales chock full o’ Columbians and Dominicans to Puffy’s recent “Señorita” to the Coco Brovas’ “Spanish Harlem,” more and more non-Latinos are giving props to their Spanish-speaking brethren.

Interestingly enough, what may have once been considered a hindrance to a promising career in Rap music is now a boon. Artists like Noreaga, AZ, and Royal Flush—a Puerto Rican, a Dominican and a Cuban who were not readily recognized as Latino—re-affirm their roots proudly, joining others like A.L.T., Power Rule, Funkdoobiest, A Lighter Shade of Brown and Hurricane G, among many others, in the ranks of Latino MCs.

But it doesn’t end there. The top-rated hip-hop radio shows in the two largest markets in the country, New York and Los Angeles, feature DJs Angie Martinez, a Butta Pecan Rican, and Julio G, respectively. The man largely responsible for the successes of Lil’ Kim and Junior M.A.F.I.A. is Lance “Un” Rivera, owner of Undeas and Untertainment Records and a Puerto Rock to the fullest. In all aspects of hip-hop music, whether it be as fans, performers, artists, executives or personalities, Latinos are making their presence felt.

“Number one,” says Tony Touch, a Puerto Rican mix-tape DJ widely known for the Spanish idioms and slang that pepper his tapes, when asked why there’s a re-emergence of all things Latino within Rap, “we’re some fly people, yo. Latinos just got flavor, duke, all around the globe. From our music, to our food, to our women, we just got mad soul in us. And number two is because we’ve always been here, bro. They can’t front on us.”

Nor can anyone front on five hundred years of different peoples clashing, co-existing, co-operating and finally combining. History has taught us that a positive end sometimes outweighs a negative means. Remember, lo que no mata, engorda*.

This is by no means an attempt to absolve the Spanish of their crimes against the indigenous Americans and the Africans, but if not for that fateful day in October of 1492, we would never have gotten to hear Wyclef’s rendition of “Guantanamera” while eating fajitas at a barbecue and sippin’ on a Rum and Coke.

*What doesn’t kill you, will make you fat.

Special thanks to Ivan “DJ Doc” Rodriguez, Gabriel Alvarez and Rigo Morales, for their valuable help and insight.

**originally published many, many moons ago (February 1998), while toiling away on the plantation.**

Sunday, August 28, 2005


Have you seen this kid?

(There's no flick, so bear with me...)

Anyway, he was last spotted in a fourth grade classroom, kickin’ it with his homies. Geeked with enthusiasm, he spoke of his intended lot in life with wide-eyed imagination. And because them cancerous lil’ microbes of doubt that grown folks are so fond of spreadin’ had yet to be planted in his mind, his list of career choices was damn near limitless.

Runnin’ the gamut from artist to ballplayer to chemist to detective, lil’ dude’s hat rack was filled with more lids than there are bricks in a prison wall. And he still had room to spare. Not logical, you say, but shorty knew back then what 85% of alleged adults have obviously forgotten: The World is Yours…

Forget Scarface, grasshopper; good ol’ Tony only skimmed the surface. This is bigger than any kingpin fantasy, bigger than any platinum-VISAs or weekends-in-St.-Barts type wishes. Naaah, lil’ man was on to something with all that daydreamin’. And what made it all so dope was that he wasn’t alone. Not by far.

Man, to hear all them lil’ kids goin’ on about bein’ the first Latino President, or bein’ the first woman on Mars, fuck the moon. Oh, and don’t let ’em get to tellin’ you their predictions—for themselves, their families, friends, the world, you name it—for the year 2000.

Music, y’all. Gospel out the mouths of babes.

“Wow! 2000! I’ll be [thirty-something] years-old and I’ll be married to [somebody in the class, or better yet, somebody famous!] and I’ll have two kids—a boy and a girl—and I’ll have my own house and I’ma buy a house for my mother and one for my big sister and by then cars are gonna fly so we all gonna have flyin’ cars and I’ma be a [doctor, lawyer, baker, fireman, astronaut, basketball star, singer, actress, baseball player, hairdresser, construction worker, race-car driver…] …”

But something went wrong. Somewhere along the way, their imagined nations started gettin’ smaller and smaller. By the time they hit high school, a good number of ’em couldn’t see themselves outside The Bronx anymore. And only two or three of ’em who stuck through to the 12th grade could see the world beyond the block.

Lil’ shorty with the bucktoothed smile wasn’t one of ’em.

See, by then he ain’t have no time to be bullshittin’ with silly-ass dreams and whatnot. Not him. He was too busy bein’ an adult. And like he had learned from the more “mature” people around him, bein’ grown is as real as shit gets. Ain’t no grown-ups got time for dreamin’.


Besides, he knew a lot of people over 21, and not one of ’em was a doctor or a lawyer, let alone a fuckin’ astronaut.

Coupla years into the 20s, and lil’ man finally disappeared.


Never to be seen again.

But there is hope.

Some say he was seen hangin’ around with the cats who brought Station Zero to MTV some years ago. Others say he’s been puttin’ pen to paper, crafting stories based on his own experience, as well as on those around him. Others have placed him hard at work, daydreaming.

If you do happen to see him, tell him that it’s aiight to come back now. Tell him we were dead wrong, that ain’t nothin’ wrong with dreams—especially the ones that all those grown-ups said are the most out of reach.

And remember: He’s not alone. Like you read above, lil’ shorty’s just one out of millions.

Dig around a little bit. There's a lot of lil' kids gone missing. Here's how you can help.

Do something you haven’t done in eons, like catch a flick by yourself or take a walk through the ‘hood and just watch people.

Jump on a train or bus and see your hometown—for the first time.

Cop an ice cream cone and go stretch out on a park bench for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Start a journal and just black out with it. Write down anything you want.

Ask the kind of “why not?” questions you haven’t asked since you were eight or nine.


With a little bit of effort, you’ll fuck around and run into some lil’ kid you haven’t seen in a while.

**originally published (minus slices and dices dictated by time and space) a long-ass time ago, at a plantation, far, far away…**

King, Pinned

You remember the scene:

The soothing Miami-sunset-and-silhouetted-palm-tree wallpaper counterbalances the pressure-cooked atmosphere and the equally tense interaction between two men. Cocaine kingpin Frank Lopez berates his lieutenant, Tony Montana, for negotiating a new distribution deal without his approval. And in a role so convincing that it earned him “honorary member” status amongst Latinos (as well as a barrage of criticism from the Cuban community) a tanned and heavily accented Pacino reassures his boss that he can cover any incidental dips in revenue by going “on the street… Make a coupla moves. A mil here, a mil there…”

The cavalier attitude with which Pacino—Montana, really, for those of you who can’t seem to separate reality from fiction—delivered that declaration has not only helped elevate Scarface and the character of Antonio “Tony” Montana to icon level, but has also become the philosophy of many a kingpin-lite.

Never mind that our favorite Marielito’s stellar career in the coca trade was abruptly and permanently interrupted when a close-range shotgun blast blew an ugly hole in the back of his thousand-dollar suit.

And never mind that the overwhelming majority of people involved in drug trafficking don’t have stellar careers, let alone can afford such GQ trappings and Robb Report digs as our boy Tony. The subsequent veneration of Brian DePalma’s cult classic has transformed the fictional achievements of Mr. Montana and his colorful entourage (who can forget Chi-Chi?) into actual goals for narco-neophytes everywhere.

As scores of Montana 2.0's chant their adopted “world is mine” mantras in a mad scramble to amass the ducats, they visualize nirvana as none other than their patron saint’s peak economic position. After all, Antonio was living well.

Alas, the truth hits harder than a federal judge. Like the very substances from which these clandestine pharmacists hope to carve their respective slices of the American Pie, the realities of the drug game are seldom pure and uncut. Granted, the enormous earning potential does exist, and you can become extremely wealthy—theoretically. But for every Tony Montana and Alejandro Sosa (the Bolivian gentleman in the flick who owned a cocaine-processing factory, no less), there are thousands upon thousands of knuckleheads on street corners across America barely hustling enough for sneakers and blunts.

Not at all the champagne lifestyle you may have envisioned, is it? Well, before your MTV-tainted imagination weaves any more wild fantasies involving yacht cruises on Biscayne Bay with a six-pack of sun bunnies wearing nothing but Coppertone, we’ve decided to inject a little knowledge into your veins. Call this Intro to Game Economics 101.

Let’s begin by establishing a basic understanding of economics.

In simplest terms, economics is best defined as the science that deals with the production, distribution and consumption of commodities. A commodity is any product that is grown or manufactured, like poppy plants in Asia or dime-bags in the South Bronx. Classical economic theory says that the price of a commodity is determined by supply and demand; as supply increases, price drops, and vice versa. Modern economic theory dictates that many other factors, including marketing, government regulations and monopolizing, also influence price. As you’ll soon see, when applied to the business of get-high, Modern economic theory carries a lot more weight than its Classical counterpart.

Next, let’s examine the various commodities available for our hypothetical entry into the world of Tony Montana and his like-minded ilk.

At one end of the spectrum sit opium and its direct and indirect derivatives like morphine and the All-Pro of the illegal drug big-leagues, heroin, a.k.a. “heron," a.k.a. "D,” a.k.a. “diesel,” a.k.a. “boy,” a.k.a… Well, you know what we mean.

At the other end we have the assorted pills, acid tabs and other such goodies more closely associated with club-hoppin’ kids hell-bent on rebelling against Mommy, Daddy and everybody born before 1980.

In between, we have the three staple substances—coke, crack, and weed—found in barrios across the U.S. (Though the first two are pre- and post- versions of the same thing, decidedly different circumstances exist between how they’re marketed, distributed, and even perceived, particularly by federal, state and local agencies).

Some of you more worldly types will probably come up with a few more choices of your own, but you get the idea.

Now that we’ve identified our goods, let’s take a look at our markets. Unlike most other commodites, whose trading environments may fluctuate with a relatively high frequency, controlled substances—as the government likes to call them—almost always find themselves in a seller’s market. Suppliers sleep soundly knowing that multitudes of buyers abound.

“But wait a sec,” you say. “If that’s the case, doesn’t that mean that once I jump in the pit, I’ll come away with a nice-sized bag of chips, too?”

Not so fast, we say. True, the proliferation of illegal substances in the ’hood has resulted in the emergence of what often appears a bustling open market, where buyers and sellers haggle over price while competition is encouraged. But a quick look at the pyramid flow of a distribution network reveals just who’s filling up the most bags with the most chips.

With cocaine, for example, the flow begins at a processing plant somewhere in South America. Remember the aforementioned Alejandro Sosa? Great, we’ll use him in our model.

As you may assume, good ol’ Señor Sosa does not waste time nickel-and-diming a paltry, one-shot, ten kilo shipment to the States. Instead, his people—we’ll call them a marketing research team—will identify potential customers in major distribution hubs throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and subsequently negotiate and arrange for the sale and delivery of somewhere between 200 to 250 keys a month to each of those customers.

One of those enterprising types—what the hell, we’ll use Tony himself—agrees to buy those 200 bricks (pies, birds, thangs, cakes, et cetera) from Sosa, and will in turn sell them to... oh, say five or ten of his own customers.

Marisela, one of Tony’s customers (the drug biz wholeheartedly complies with equal opportunity laws, and so will we), will most probably “step on” or add cut to her stock in order to increase her twenty bricks by five or so.

Along come Darryl, Domingo and Diana to replenish their respective supplies. Any one of these three might be proprietors of a spot or two on your block, or may turn around and hit off other smaller, local punto owners.

By the time Hammerhead Joe gets his little bundle of twenty-dollar bags to hawk, Sosa’s fine product has been stepped on so many times it’s got bunions. Not to mention that simple multiplication will show that Joe’s $500 take from the sales of his 20s (a bundle=100 bags) is a crumb at the bottom of Sosa’s multi-layered cake.

And lest you forget our earlier endorsement of modern economic theory, consider factors like government regulations and monopolizing. Because cocaine and its compatriots are illegal, government regulations are pretty simple: Just Say No.

Uncle Sam having said that, no other laws exist in order to maintain some semblance of order in the buying and selling—wholesale and retail—of narcotics. This lack of regulations, if you will, leaves the door wide open for all kinds of unfair business practices to come in and make themselves comfortable. Enter that most-feared and loathed entity of honest, hardworking consumers everywhere: the monopoly.

“But I ain’t only see Hammerhead Joe out there pitchin’! Rotten Mouth Mikey and Dookey Stain was out there, too! How’s that a monopoly?”

Slow down, junior. That healthy competition may get a little hectic yet. Hammerhead Joe starts offering 2-for-35 deals in order to outsell Dookey Stain, resulting in customers flocking by the truckloads. All that price-cutting is too much for Rotten Mouth, who can’t afford to lower his prices—he’s got kids to feed, after all. Well, a couple of hammers to Joe’s head puts a quick stop to that madness. We’ll even give you ten-to-one odds that all three of those cats were all working for Darryll. If not, then they all got their work from him… or Domingo… or Diana. Point being: After following the pyramid all the way up to its top, you’ll see Señor Sosa, sitting sky-high on his stacks of surreal sums, smiling.

As you can see, the economics of the game are not at all what popular culture will have you believe. Let some of today’s rappers tell it, Scarface is a true story, and the idea of going on the street to get “a mil here, a mil there” is seen as not only realistic, but easy. Theoretically, yes, you too can one day live the same lavish lifestyle of Tony Montana, “the world is mine” fountain and all. Theoretically, you can suck an elephant through a straw, too.

But hey, who are we to tell you what career path to take, right? Do you, homeboy. Sheeeee-it, you might be that one shining star that rises above the Hammerhead Joes of the world. Who knows? With a little determination, you might even knock Sosa off his perch.

But be advised, like Tony learned almost immediately after a disagreement with his benefactor, all it takes to end a stellar career in this business is someone blowing a hole in your Sean John Purple Label—especially while you’re wearing it.

Class dismissed.

**originally published in UrbanLatino magazine (minus a nip here, a tuck there) waaay back in the old millenium**

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Don't Worry. Be Happy.

“Laugh.” Somebody told me that recently. General consensus of fam—blood and bred alike—had it that I was takin’ shit too hard as of late. Too wound up. Too serious. But I can’t front; sometimes shit gets to me. Seemingly insignificant shit, like seeing the front steps of my building littered with blunt-guts, empty beer bottles and Lo Mein cartons.

Like having yet another taxi driver still jet by me when I try and flag him down, Danny Glover’s efforts notwithstanding.

Like reading about yet another taxi driver who got his face blown off by a “male, Black or Hispanic, 5’6” to 5’10”.”

Like seeing how outsiders and infiltrators bleed the shit out of hip-hop, and then try and regurgitate it to those who don’t know better.

Like hearing rap cats on the radio straight runnin’ off at the mouth, but having to take the moral high ground “b’cuz I should know better.”

Like watching the 2000 presidential election vote-count dip and dive by a margin of as little as 200 votes—and personally knowing at least two hundred mu’fuckas who didn’t exercise their right to choose.

Like knowing about half that number who couldn’t exercise their right b’cuz of their status as ex-cons.

Like not having the right b’cuz of my own status as a “resident alien,” who happens to know more about this country’s political structure than a lot of so-called citizens.

Like never getting a call back when I left my full (very Spanish) name on somebody’s voice-mail while on my year-long apartment-hunt.

Like always getting a call back when I don’t.

Like witnessing the increasingly growing glorification of doin’ a stretch.

Like hearing a whole lotta shout-outs to “all the soldiers on lockdown,” and knowing that everybody on lockdown ain’t a fuckin’ soldier.

Like reading indirect disses from annoying punks in wannabe magazines and havin’ to hold back from dusting their fuckin’ jackets because they’ll more than likely run straight to the precinct.

Like seriously disliking those mu’fuckas at the precinct, but knowing that were they to close up shop, the neighborhood savages would run buck-fuckin’-crazier than they do already.

Like bein’ subject to a “stop and search” whenever one of them boys from the precinct feels like I fit a certain profile, while feeling like the cats who mercked Big, Pac and even a few friends of mine got away with it.

Like hearing the same anti-rap rhetoric—over and over and over—about our music contributing to “the destruction of the youth.”

Like hearing the same pro-rap rhetoric—again and again and again—about our music being melancholy and violent b’cuz “that’s all we know.”

Like tossin’ a coupla quarters at the squeegee cat on the corner of Fordham and the Deegan, and wondering how psychologically fucked up he must be to have put himself in that situation.

Like handin’ a dollar to the same squeegee cat on the same corner, and wondering what the fuck is wrong with society that we would let somebody get themselves in that situation.

Like hearing intelligent hoods say they have no choice.

Like knowing that “Brad” or “Heather” will always have a choice.

Like people with dough telling me “money ain’t everything.”

Like people without it telling me the same stupid shit.

Like seeing maaad baby-daddies get shitted on in Family Court.

Like seeing maaad baby-muthas get shitted on by baby-daddies.

Like seeing maaad babies get shitted on by all of the above.

Like—aaah, fuck it; fill in the blank…

So, no, I don’t always wanna laugh. Or smile. Or even get the fuck outta bed. But I do. I got to. I’m sayin’, somebody’s got to.

See, if I can make it a point to get on up out the bed and do something—anything—even something as seemingly insignificant as sweeping my front steps every morning, and then the cat next door swept his, and homegirl two doors down swept hers, before long, we’d all live on the cleanest block in town.

Now that’d be some shit to smile about.

**originally published (minus modifications and updated info) a long-ass time ago, at a plantation, far, far away...**

The Ex-Con

“When you’re locked up, and you’re not in New York, and you’re seein’ shit on TV, CNN, HBO, and everything is filmed in New York, downtown, y’know? You reminisce.”

Elloheim Tucker wipes his sweaty brow with an axle grease-stained forearm, squinting his eyes at the late afternoon sunlight. He absentmindedly reaches in the shirt pocket of his mechanic’s uniform, perhaps searching for a misplaced memory or two. But no; for experiences like the ones he’s describing, he won’t have to dig too deeply into his subconscious.

He laughs when he remembers the awe of finally returning home after having spent five years in prison. The overwhelming combination of relief, apprehension and pure joy that comes with sudden freedom clearly evident in his eyes, he tells his story with the self-deprecating humor of one who has been “through some shit,” and can now afford a chuckle or two.

“So, here it is I’m back in New York; I ain’t been in New York for five years, and when I touch down, I’m right in the heart of it. I’m walkin’ around the Empire State Building, Macy’s, lookin’ up and takin’ in the sights with the rest of the mu’fuckin’ tourists. I felt like a foreigner.”

During the time when the average American teenager was spending his or her post-graduation summer pondering the seemingly endless possibilities, Elloheim thought about gettin’ money. Fast money. Rubber-band stacks in a shoe box money.

That wasn’t always the plan, however. And he did have a plan, but as so often happens when one is faced with more choices than can be found at a local Baskin-Robbins, he changed his mind.

“My high school—Park West High School in Manhattan—gave a course, basically, on fixing elevators,” he recalls. “I studied that shit for four years. The school had the hook-ups with the elevator mechanics’ union, so I thought I could get a job after high school. After I graduated, shit got real crazy. The elevator union went on strike, and I got tired of goin’ through the bullshit. So, I just got my hustle on.”

Unfortunately for him, the Feds knocked his hustle after only nine months. And with the (then-new) federal drug laws being what they were, 18-year old first-time offender Elloheim Tucker was hit with a 60-month sentence, the first year and a half of which he spent concocting even more C.R.E.A.M. schemes. That is, until a conversation with an older inmate who was doing time for tax evasion caused him to re-evaluate his choices for generating income.

“I met this old guy named Mr. Hunt, who turned me on to gettin’ money the legal way, like with stocks and real estate. He would tell me that nothing was impossible, that I could achieve anything I wanted to. I just had to go for it. That right there changed my whole outlook on life.”

Another change of plans, but this time, he wasn’t after the ends so much as he was after the means. He decided to pursue a life-long dream that nobody, absolutely nobody knew about. Not his mother, not his girl, not his closest friends—nobody would have imagined that Elloheim Tucker, young Black male from Harlem, USA, had always wanted to be an actor.

“Peer pressure’s a mu’fucka,” he declares. “Not sayin’ I was a follower, but I had different groups of friends that I would only do certain things with. Like, for example, I hustled, but if I wanted to play ball, I wouldn’t play ball with the cats I hustled with because that wasn’t their thing. I had another group of friends who I’d play ball with. So, with all of that, I never had anybody that I could tell about me wanting to be an actor. Nobody ever thought about some kid from Harlem, growing up to be the next Denzel or some shit like that. I thought I’d probably get laughed at or something.”

But one of the flyer aspects of growing older is the maturity that enables one to ignore critics, naysayers and pessimists, and upon his release, Elloheim—five years older, wiser, and more cognizant of the need to set goals—set about pursuing his dream.

“I had a little bullshit job sellin’ toys and books ’n shit door-to-door so I could satisfy the requirements for the halfway-house, but then this union shit came through. Since I knew all this elevator shit from high school, I figured I’d do this to pay the bills. After that, I checked out this one acting school, and I liked what they were about, so I just took it from there.”

And like a satisfied Baskin-Robbins customer who—after tireless deliberation—has settled upon his final choice, he won’t be changing his mind for quite some time. Elloheim Tucker the ex-convict/elevator mechanic/actor has found his perfect flavor.

“Right now, I’m a nobody,” he says. His fingernails dirty from earning the day’s wages, he carefully ties the laces on his Tims. “Yeah, I was an extra in Howard Stern’s Private Parts, and HBO’s Subway Stories, but I’m trying to get to the point where casting directors know me. For now, I make sure that my home is tight, na’msayin’? I live with my girl, Tyshawn, who’s behind me one hundred percent. And we got a one-year old, Lil’ Heim, my little dawg. I need to make sure they never want for nothing.”

**originally published a long-ass time ago, at a plantation, far, far away...**

The Death and Life of Hip-Hop Music

The organ moans a mournful tune, muted so as not to compete with the preacher just now taking his place at the podium. Behind the preacher, the diamond-encrusted handles of a metal casket gleam amidst the greens, reds and purples of flower arrangements and wreaths, “We’ll Always Miss You,” “Rest In Peace” and “Our Bad” among the many messages.

Somewhere outside, a church bell tolls its own sad beat.

The preacher, chewing on a toothpick, removes his fedora to wipe his brow all the way up into his long-since receded hairline. He flicks the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, then clears his throat.

“Dearly beloved,” he begins, “we are gathered here today to honor and remember our loved one, now on the way to the sweet forever, senselessly cut down after only thirty short, short years of a many-times blessed and yet equally cursed life.”

“Preach!” pipes out one mourner.

“Talk about it!” chimes another.

The preacher clears his throat. Before he can speak, another voice, this one harder, deeper, more melodic, and not afraid like the others, barks from the rear of the room: “Fuck is all this shit?!”

A small commotion breaks out in the back. The preacher cranes his neck to get a better look at the source of such disrespect --and can’t believe his eyes. One by one, then by twos and threes, the mourners look behind them to see what’s what. And what they see makes some of them cry out. A couple of the women --and one man-- faint.

A group of about fifteen men and women of varying sizes, shapes and colors storm down the aisle and up to the podium. One of them, a big, dark-skinned, heavy-set young man with a lazy eye and an asthmatic’s wheeze, holds his hand out to the preacher, and motions toward the microphone. “Come up off that shit, Preach...”

The preacher, still in shock, nods his head, moves out of the way of the small army now posted up in front of the casket. Another young man, just as heavy as the first, but shorter, and wearing a plate-sized diamond medallion designed to look like the Puerto Rican flag, politely nudges the preacher out of the way.

The first heavy-set young man grabs the mic, taps the head with his palm a couple of times then passes it to a bald, bare-chested young man with “Thug Life” tattooed across his torso.

The tattooed man brings the mic up to his mouth, gripping it like he’s holding on to life itself. He stares out at the audience of mourners, making sure to look each one of them directly in the face: “Don’t believe the hype. Reports of Hip-Hop’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Still with us? We knew you would be. And that ain’t cockiness; it’s confidence in our fellow heads. We figured that headline above would get your attention. The first time we read where some rapper or other made such a “declaration” (in an all-out campaign of self-importance, more than likely), we damn near tossed our collective cookies.

Man, oh, man, are the haters hootin’ and hollerin’, hyped on all the hoopla. Dancing in the streets (to Britney, Justin and Cristina, no less). Celebrating a world without rap. What more confirmation or coroner’s report do they need? If rappers are saying hip-hop is dead…

Well, we say ain’t much worse than an ungrateful child, especially one who’s too blind, too high or just too stupid to recognize his place at the dinner table. Especially after having gotten nice and plump at said dinner table, year in, year out.

Lucky for us, and for you too, not everybody got the BlackBerry kite regarding funeral services and where to send flowers.
After all, “they” might’ve chirped, why bother? Hip-hop is soooo over right now.

But in all fairness to those medical examiners out there who’ve taken it upon themselves to either endorse or give serious thought to hip-hop’s so-called demise, we will concede that until very recently, vital signs had been at a low not seen since the drought of ’85, when the wackness reached a toxicity that almost wiped us out. (Ask your grandparents: if not for timely injections from Run-DMC, Dougie Fresh and Slick Rick, you might all have grown up nodding your heads to the Rappin’ Duke).

Let’s face it, with all due respect, Lil’ Jon’s aural fuck-fests are like office-party quickies: you know you shouldn’t, but what the hell, they're fun, nobody gets hurt, and they don’t mean shit anyways. 50 and Company’s odes to the good life are but the latest in a very, very, very long line of hymns dedicated to good ol’ fashioned sex, money and murder, despite how bangin’ they may be. Buttery, crisp Ritz crackers, fresh out the box, but crackers, nonetheless.

Sometimes you want a full meal, dig me?

These forensic pathologists, usually pretty sharp of eye and ear, are not wrong in believing that hip-hop had gotten sorta/kinda stale lately. More like it was on life-support and not actually living. But we offer caution to said MEs, if only because we know all too well the dangers of declaring anything officially dead just because we can’t feel the pulse. Somebody bought all those Chingy records, even if it wasn’t us.

Still, there’s something to be said for the glory days, when we didn’t have to qualify hip-hop music with culture because they were one and the same. When hip-hop gear meant any item of clothing we could find (at secret stash-spots, of course) to match our kicks, before it became way too easy to stroll into the mall for a Hip-Hop Starter-Kit, enabling anyone with a couple hunnid to infiltrate right on in.

But we digress.

For now, we ask that you put your fears to rest. Fall back and let the Chicken Littles do their dance. Like us, you know the epic history of this thing called Rap, from before its Bronx beginnings to its Bayou bounce. You know that no Hip-Hop Police, no Grammy Award, no radio pay-for-play lockdown and no amount of MTV pasteurization process will ever cancel its ticket (any of you really surprised by M-2’s beats-and-rhyme heavy line-up?).

Hip-hop dead? Not hardly. So say we, so says the world. So when the trend-jumpers (read: dick-riders), so-called rappers included, claim to hear that bell ringing a sad song, tell them don’t ask for whom it tolls; more than likely, it’s the alarm on their 15-minute clocks of fame, lettin’ them know to get that ass off the stage.

**originally published (minus modifications and updated info) in america magazine, a year and change ago...**

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Brain Runs...

the land down under.
dolphins get their ass kicked by riggins and the washington redskins.
discovering HBO. they all laughed.
dave and the white boy in the grove, acting stupid. mad fun, though.
annette was so cute, but i was not that miami nigga.
coral gables senior high.
that fuckin school bus.
slipping notes in that girl's locker. forget her name, but her black hair i remember well.
english teacher, mrs. miller. very cool. fun class. felt good. like i belonged.
also mr. rinaldi. italiano. say it like i'm acting in a play.
quit baseball.
fuckin' quitter.
so lonely.
always so lonely.
no friends for how long?
six fuckin' months. six of them shits with nobody to talk to.
rhymed at that xmas party. instantly pop.
this shit is like a fuckin movie: cut school and hit the beach.
nel. bust his ass, work and school.
art class. didn't learn shit, but had fun.
skate and oz. RIP elf. the crew.
video powerhouse. burger time champ. eury rocked galaga. had her name up a long time.
lisa. fuckin' bitch. me, the nice guy. too nice.
ivy. another bitch. me, still the nice guy.
wendy. you guessed it.
wow. miami wasn't good to me in the romance dept. :)
liz. emotional. you're a follower. cried when she said it.
randy betrayed me. don't matter now.
ronald. from LA. funny-ass cat. mad jokes. sporty shorty. what happened to him?
what happened to nelson? cool mu'fucka, never did me no wrong.
kv. juice. ad. the crew. kv fell asleep. again. duck sauce in his hair, shaved the moustache.
the nova. ten mufuckas in the nova. fucked up springs.
the van. jingle bells.
always broke.
broke in that house. took the blender, fuck it.
mask cars after school. what fun.
left on a friday, came back on sunday. no beef, just questions. some dad, but i wasn't complaining.
miami beach. 81 st. south beach was the pits.
skate parked cars at the carrillon (?)
tk, i'm turning into a tree. mo and george. manhattans. got in at 15. lil' nigga. couldn't pull the girls tho. :)
beethoven, the hick. crazy mu'fucka.
castle park.
the beat.
and then the summer ended...

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Nobody Cares

The old-heads on Sheridan Avenue said that all the time. Usually while cryin’ in their fifths of Night Train. Since they ranked about as low on the neighborhood totem pole as you could get before landing on top of the dope fiends, I never really paid attention.

As I got older, I began to hear other folks sayin’ it, too. Higher-ups, from the butcher who ran numbers out the back of his shop to the cats who somehow managed to pull up in gleaming Caddys and Ninety-Eights despite not knowing one word of English.

The landlord said it whenever he’d have to hear my mother’s complaints about broken elevators and tepid water during his monthly trek to our building. The cops said it that time they came and cracked heads out in front of Manolo’s bodega. My fifth grade teacher said it to another teacher once while talkin’ about the kids in her class.

And then one day, I heard my pops say it.


Here was a guy who worked, I mean, bust ass like a slave so moms could cook steak every now and then. Doin’ it since he was 12. Seven to 5, six days a week, not counting the side hustles. A cabinet here, some drywall there and hands like concrete blocks. You ever been smacked with a concrete block? He lived his whole life showing how much he cared.

He said it in response to one of my usual arguments against having to take the trash all the way down to the garbage cans in the alley. I’m sayin’, it was dark as hell down there, and the lights in the stairwell never worked. What with the damn dogs always waitin’ till I was almost down the steps to start barkin’ and scarin’ the shit outta me, and the older kids cursin’ me out for false-alarmin’ ’em into puttin’ out their funny-smelling cigarettes, the place was dangerous turf.

Wasn’t fair, I said, subjecting a little kid to that kind of treatment.

“Nobody cares,” he said.

“What if something happens to me? What if one of them dogs gets loose and comes after me? You see the teeth on them dogs?”

Same answer.

“What if one of them teenagers gets really mad at me for interrupting whatever it is they do down there? Or worse, makes me do it?”


And so it went, my argument out the window, and the trash to the alley. My father had a way of winning debates with few words—those hands spoke real loud when they needed to—but I never forgot what he said.

Not when the dogs made me jump out of my skin. Or when them teenagers chased me back up the stairs.

I didn't forget it when moms made us kids go with her that time she found pops at her friend’s apartment building on the other side of the Bronx at 2 o’clock in morning.

Or when pops started to come home from work, eat dinner without a word and go out again until we were all asleep.

And not when he used his concrete blocks to give me a hug before leaving home after he and moms argued for the last time.

Gotta give it to him, though. He talked tough, but he lived by those words. Workin’ day in, day out, and even after he left, he’d still come around, give us money, buy us stuff.

He cared. He always did. I could tell he hated to be away. But he’d never complain. Kinda like he knew better. Like bitchin’ about it wouldn’t buy any more steaks than an honest day’s hustle. And if sharp-dressin’ Cadillac cats and cops with attitude didn’t complain, he sure as hell wasn’t sittin’ low enough on the totem pole to start.

**originally published (minus modifications and updated info) a long-ass time ago, at a plantation, far, far away...**