Thoughts on Living

Los Angeles’ Metro Transit Authority, or Metro, recently released a report where they found that the average income of bus riders in the city of Los Angeles is about $15,000 a year, and those who use the Metro Rail system average about $22,000 a year. That’s indicative of the state of public transit riders in our city. The poor ride public transportation. The young, the old. The primarily brown.

I don’t mind riding public transportation in SoCal. It actually gave me a strong sense of identity. It was where I came to connect deeply with Hip-Hop music and culture.

School for urban youth, that code word for brown and black kids, is essentially how we’re introduced to public transit systems in the personal car-centric environment of Southern Cali. Waking up at 5am to get ready for school across town ain’t nothing new for most youth. Wake up at 5am to shower, get geared up, and then run out to catch the bus, which may take you to school in time to miss only the first 15 minutes of your first class. It’s an introduction to blue collar working life.

My high school days certainly fit that description. I rode the 320 line in Vista for a couple of years from home to school, catching it at 6:15am, more or less, and getting to school early enough to sit and draw before class would start. Those bus rides, though. That’s where the lyrics of Black Thought, Common, and Mos Def resonated most.

My first “underground” Hip-Hop album was Black Star by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The song “Respiration” was my jam. Still is, in fact. But the song conveyed everything I felt at the time. Quietly sitting on the bus, strapped into my over-ear headphones, I soaked in the imagery of city life. The descriptions of smoke and smog vapors tracing the skyline did it for me. I found myself thinking about the promises that poverty held for me and my family. Nothing more than Doritos sandwiches and fruit-punch-flavored Kool-Aid. The fruits of a $15 an hour job for my mom supporting a family of 4.

We had food to eat most nights. I’m sure that those public transit riders I share seats with now do too. Even if it’s the same soup with water added every other day to fill the pot like I did in my youth. Tortillas by the dozen help ease hunger pangs and cost only a dollar when you buy the Romero brand. $1.29 if you spring for the Guerrero tortillas.

$15,000 a year equals $7.21 an hour. For reference, the current minimum wage in the state of California is $9.25 an hour. When I was in high school, minimum wage was $5.75 an hour. I remember getting a “raise” at my job when minimum wage was raised to $6.25 an hour. It made little difference to my family’s living situation. But listening to Mos Def and Common rap about the nobility, the dignity we who lived in poverty had, made me feel a sense of hope.

I found mentors in Hip-Hop. Mentors who valued the work ethic of low-income neighborhoods. Mentors who saw beauty in “doing for self.” In many ways, it’s better to have little in life because we grow to value what we do have. We grow tighter as a family, as a community. Bus riders tend to help each other when one person acts out of line. A mentally-ill passenger gets violent, and fellow bus riders wil help the bus driver push that individual off at the next stop. An abusive boyfriend acts out on his girlfriend, and you better believe train riders will separate the two and possibly kick the guys ass. We’re family in that way. Then we’ll leave it to the security officers.

“Escúchela, la ciudad respirando” is what the intro to “Respiration” says. Listen to it, to the city, breathing. My romantic notion of city life from my youth is only reinforced when I ride the bus and train in L.A. now. I hear the city breathing when I’m on the train, making my way to work with at-risk youth as a mentor. I hear the city breathing when I listen to music, staring out the window of the bus. I hear the city breathing when I watch fellow riders board and exit the bus or train with the signs of hope for a promising new day.

Freddie’s Dead No More

Hip-Hop and Rap, Thoughts on Living

I’m experimenting with a new approach to my blog, and this is the first attempt at it. On Fridays, from here on out, I will be sharing with you my thoughts as they relate to my musical influences. I will be writing long form posts relating to my life, my art, and who knows what else. This will be a series of weekly musings on life. Enjoy.

My introduction to Curtis Mayfield happened through the hip-hop classic of a film, “Friday.” Everyone in the hood knows “Friday.” I mean, you can’t be from a hood in Southern California and not have been exposed to the classic film starring Ice Cube, post “Boyz in the Hood” and “Higher Learning,” and the hilarious Chris Tucker, pre “Rush Hour” and a whole range of other movies where he seemed to always play a thief who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

“Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, along with “Little Child Running Wild” were my first taste of the self-identified underground musician and songwriter. Now, keep in mind, the film “Friday” only had portions of both songs featured in the actual movie. It wasn’t until I bought the original movie soundtrack that I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Mayfield tell his stories of ghetto survival.

I remember buying that album. It happened at a Warehouse Music store in Encinitas, California during the year and a half period where I lived in this tiny surfer town with my mom, brother, and infant sister. We moved there after my parents divorced. Not really sure of the reasons why, but it seemed to have made sense to leave the house we owned in my hometown of Vista, CA, to live in a rented condo a few blocks away from my mom’s job as a mail carrier in Encinitas.

I approached the clerk at the Warehouse Music store several times before that particular day, buying CDs by Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, W.C., Mack 10. It was my West Coast Gangsta Rap period. I don’t really listen to those albums as much anymore. But the original soundtrack for “Friday,” that was a special case.

I actually approached the clerk that day with both versions of the soundtrack. The “original soundtrack” and the “original old-school soundtrack.” On the “original soundtrack,” I was looking forward to finally having the song “Friday” by Ice Cube along with a bunch of other Gangsta Rap songs that I honestly don’t recall recognizing, even then. The “original old-school soundtrack” was something different. I recognized a few songs, like, “I Just Wanna Get Next to You” by Rose Royce, “Lowrider” by WAR, and “Mary Jane” by Rick James. As a new fan of old-school funk and R&B, I had started actively seeking more music from the late-’60s and ’70s to fill out my music collection.

Of all the days, that was the day that I was carded while buying CDs. I don’t know what it was that prompted the clerk at Warehouse Music to card me, but my 15 year old ass could only provide a CA-issued ID that corroborated my under-agedness. Never before had that happened, but on this day, I was not sold any of the albums I carried to the front. No “Friday” soundtrack, no E-40’s “The Element of Surprise,” and no Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Doggfather.” The only album I was allowed to take out of the store was the “Friday: Original Old-School Soundtrack.”

I left Warehouse that afternoon feeling cheated. I was pissed off that I wasn’t allowed to do something that I had been doing for a while. Most adults saw me at age 15 and figured I was over 18. I remember being at one of my mom’s work parties that same summer and being offered a beer, right in front of my mom, which led to an awkward rejection and some laughing about how old I looked. My mom and I glanced at each other as the slushy ice dripped from the Budweiser can. In my mind, I knew I didn’t want the beer, but I suspected that my mom saw me as more than her son in that moment. I think my mom began to struggle with my getting older at that moment. The realization of my lost childhood started to emerge within her subconscious.

As I walked back home from the Warehouse Music, I remember popping in my new “Friday” soundtrack into my DiscMan. Annoyed that I couldn’t get some new hip-hop, I conformed to the fact that I at least had new music to listen to. “Mary Jane” played, followed by WAR, until “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield came on. The double wah-wah guitars playing in harmony with conga drums and a funky bass line. “Freddie’s Dead” proclaimed Curtis Mayfield as he told a story of a man who thought he could lead a good life in spite of his circumstances. I was hooked. Something moved inside of me. I played that shit on repeat.

I haven’t felt that way with music in a while. Now that I’ve acquired a full collection of Curtis Mayfield albums, I can’t help but feel a connection to his lyrics. I play his songs more often when I cruise in my 1969 Impala than any other artists’ music which I’ve collected over the years. There’s something about Curtis Mayfield that makes me think of revolution and social change. Social justice.

I forgot about Snoop’s album, and E-40’s album when I got home. I rocked to Rose Royce and Gladys Knight and the Pips, repeating back Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” and “Little Child Running Wild” every other song. That had to be my introduction to underground artists. That had to be my introduction to true soul music. That had to be the beginning of beginnings to my transformation from an angry Mexican kid with no direction other than gang culture, to an angry Mexican kid with an agenda of self-determination and empowerment.

Not long after I bought this version of the “Friday” soundtrack, I started to seek out different kinds of artists. The “Bulworth” soundtrack had to be one of those moments where I started to shift over to East Coast Rap. I think the first full length East Coast album I bought after that was Wu-Tang’s “Enter the 36 Chambers,” and that’s when it all started to go in the direction that it went. I’ve now amassed a music library that iTunes tells me is about 24 days worth, if listened to without stop. That’s a lot of music, with approximately 50% being Hip-Hop/Rap, 25% Ranchero/Banda, and the rest a mix of Blues, Jazz, R&B, Reggae, and Rock.

I can’t go a day without listening to music now. Even as I write this, Donny Hathaway croons in the background accompanied by his soulful piano keys. I can’t imagine a life without music. It’s too painful to imagine. But I know that there are a lot of stories that I associate with music, both good and bad, and that is why I feel so passionate about it. This is the beginning of my attempts to recollect how music has impacted my life. I’ll continue to write and share. I just hope that there continues to be a soundtrack in my life that helps me stay relevant in my life and actions. After all, Freddie really ain’t dead if we work hard to preserve his memory.

Jumped Off Into the Sea of Sand

Hip-Hop and Rap, Poetry, Unorthodox Poetry

(for Ms. Badu)

while sailing a boat
long since past the river
feet first
I submerged into thin granules
thickly compacted

ow, a piece of glass
cut me. Did you
get that, did you?

Slowly with quickness
the sand engulfed
my fallen body, racing to the bottom
little-sliding pre-fragments
of glass slip into place
waiting to cover me.

Why panic?
Panicking forces it down
your throat quicker.

The sand so soft.
A warm feeling.
Finally embraced forever.
The weight doesn’t bother me.
And the darkness is pleasing.

Welcome to the hole.

In a video, a beautiful black
woman walks wondering where
to go. On her head
she wears a cocoon made
of paper maché and spit wads
waiting to crack open, free ideas,
dreams along with nightmares.
She seeks healing.

Maybe when she returns
to her hole in the sand
I’ll meet her.

Give me time to wade
through waters that embrace me.

Above is the music video that inspired the preceding poem. Enjoy the soulful sounds of Ms. Erykah Badu.

Culture Cipher Born (A Rap Poem)

Hip-Hop and Rap, Poetry

Doc’s cloudy, milky eye
stares quizingly into the direction
of the Pacific Ocean’s infinity
as if seeking some truth
normally be hidden from the naked eye
but audible to an open ear
and apparent to his milky pupil.

Rap ciphers on the Oceanside beach
and breath, ready to knock out his teeth,
create his first line.

He tries to be an enigmatic figure
traveling measurably on basic beat patterns,
syncopated beatboxing hiccups
that Star Trak never measured
and B-boys rarely visit.

Some call it Realness.
But some underground emcees love to repeat
El-P and Company Flow axioms,
living in vagueness.
Doc lives in outer space terminology
and defecating linguistics.

“Spit travels from my mouth
into existence in a world
where the vapor
reaches distances
that I couldn’t go.
Watch it rise,
watch it fall,
watch it exist
in Cumulo Nimbus
or not at all
when black pigmentation
covers a blank space
concealing whackness,
and showing off my nutrition.

See this is reality
where we let it hang with
spit and abnormality-language.
Ain’t it strange?
We all act deranged
for the sake of our names
in bright lights

Pharoahe Monch Speaking on Process

Hip-Hop and Rap, Thoughts on Living

I love listening to other artists talk about how they go about creating art. In this case, we get to hear how one of the illest MCs in hip-hop, Pharoahe Monch, goes about finding inspiration for his lyrically masterful compositions.

My favorite little detail is the fact that Monch draws a sketch before getting started, and then uses the alphabet to help him find his rhymes.

As a writer and artist, my mind is just like…blown. So simple, so effective. Word.

Fact is, everyone has their own approach to writing and creating. I have a friend whose process involves crafting poetry from lines she’s saved over a course of months. She takes these bits of poetry and constructs a new stanza, allowing it to sit again for some time, and then revisiting that piece with an editor’s eye. I can’t work like that.

My process involves creating a fragment, a line, simple combination of words or strokes (in the case of drawing), and move on to what the page seems to pull out from me. It’s a subconscious thing. I create what in my eye demands to be on the page. Occasionally it’s not what I planned it to be. If I approach my writing with a preconceived notion of what I’m hoping to accomplish, the end result may be a permutation of it, but it will rarely be the original outcome I sought to express.

I’m getting better at planning and executing my ideas. It’s all in the practice. But to see how other artists, musicians, rappers, etc. go about creating is inspiring, and if anything, helps me feel like I need to elevate my game.

Step it up, yo. I gotta step it up.


Hip-Hop and Fatherless Families

Hip-Hop and Rap, Thoughts on Living

For those who don’t know, I’m a huge fan of Hip-Hop. I was essentially raised and mentored by my favorite rap artists when I was growing up, mostly because I, like most kids in the ’80s and ’90s, grew up in a broken home.

Those formative years between 12 and 18, when you’re still a child, not quite a man, are hard for a young non-white man. We deal with myriad things, like identity formation, ethnocentricity, racism, sexual curiosity, and frustration…

That’s not to say that we should all be pitied. We are survivors. At least those of us who channel our insecurities and anger into positive, or even semi-positive things are. We are survivors.

For me it was Hip-Hop, and yes, while it may be cliched to say: Hip-Hop indeed saved my life. The anxieties that most rap artists express in underground Hip-Hop are real for kids like me; kids who grow up to be men like me. And while I’ve been away from the game in recent years, the little bit I do catch here and there tends to make me sad.

I’ve asked myself a few times if Hip-Hop is, in fact, dying. There’s been controversy about that since the early 2000s. Nas even released an album called Hip-Hop is Dead, for all them young cats out there. (I wonder how many teens are even aware of Nas and his contributions to the culture.)

Not since I heard Lupe Fiasco’s track “He Say, She Say” off of his album Food and Liquor, have I heard a song about broken families that moved me. But today, I got put up on to Earl Sweatshirt and his song “Chum.” This track is on his latest album called Doris, and I gotta say, it’s a banga.

Big Ghost, one of my favorite reviewers (mostly cuz he’s funny), gave the overall album an average review of 3.5 Zeus Slaps, which is alright. It means it may be worth me messing with. But if “Chum” is any indication of talent and creative energy, then I’ve got to endorse Earl Sweatshirt.

Here’s the video for “Chum.” I’ma let y’all make your own choice, but in the meantime, I’m gonna give this kid my own Poet of Promise award.

–Luis Antonio Pichardo, aka Stimey Luv 1