Enjoy pop culture references while you're still young enough to understand them.
Over the past year and a bit I’ve noticed something (which is good, as noticing nothing over the course of a full calendar year would be quite disturbing): In the trendier new restaurants in Hong Kong – with their sleek interiors, modern fusion dishes, and drink menus designed to look like everything from school notebooks to scribbles on napkins – I’ve noticed that the soundtrack has become 1990s rap.
Jay-Z (pre-2000), Nas, even the obscure likes of Brand Nubian and Wu-Tang circa 36 Chambers are all playing while guys in suits and ties eat fusion tapas discussing the market’s up’s and down’s. I’m listening to the music of teenage angst and rebellion while sitting at a table covered in a white table cloth and being asked if I would like more pepper with my caprese salad.
All right, when I say the music of teenage angst and rebellion, I mean my teenage angst and rebellion, which coincides with the 1990s.
In the years of my somewhat limited teenage rebellion (I didn’t rebel at all except settling for a C grade in calculus because it was too freaking hard), hip-hop was huge.
A Tribe Called Quest, Souls of Mischief, Ice Cube (when he was singing Burn, Hollywood, Burn before he decided Hollywood paid better than rapping), Public Enemy, Black Sheep, The Pharcyde were the soundtrack of my adolescent awkwardness.
These are also the groups my parents and other adults wrote off as a fad. Rap wasn’t real music, I was told, it was having it’s moment in the sun and would go the way of other musical fads that the existing status quo had written off. Fad music like jazz and rock and roll – which have done everything but disappear.
Actually, the story of rap’s acceptance into the mainstream is much like the story of rock and roll.
Originally reviled by adults (mainly parents worrying that the music would lead their children to lives of crime and excessive mating) rock and roll was said to have suggestive, vulgar lyrics that would drive youngsters to juvenile delinquency.
Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, are revered for their music now but when they first appeared on the scene, they were viewed as threats.
A quick Internet search uncovered one poster reminiscing about the Beatles being called perverts by local preachers because they had long hair. Now saying you appreciate the music of the Beatles is synonymous with upping your perceived musical taste. Saying you like the Beatles means no one questions that statement.
And just like rock and roll, rap continues to move into the mainstream, as the generation it nurtured grows up and does increasingly and shockingly adult things like writing books, directing films, and opening restaurants.
When the film Office Space by Mike Judge was released in 1999 and the main characters took the much maligned office printer into a field and beat it to a pile of broken parts while Still by the Geto Boys played, I felt validated.
Here was a comedy that leaned heavily on gangsta rap as a soundtrack, but most of the main characters were white, middle class office drones. Granted, the use of ultra-violent gangsta rap contrasted nicely with the conservative, stuck-in- the-status-quo characters and was used to great comedic effect, but this was the first time I remember hearing rap in a movie that wasn’t centred on hip hop culture or the impoverished American inner-city experience. Rap was being used because it was the best music the director knew of to help tell his story.
A recent article by Owen Laukkanen, author of Kill Fee, says that he grew up on gangsta rap that he calls “gritty, three minute crime sagas”. He goes on to say that the artists themselves were “dark, funny, inventive with language – just the kind of role models an aspiring crime writer needed”.
As the generation that grew up on rap continues to build and create, there have been more movies that lean on rap in their soundtracks, more literary works that are inspired by and reference rap. And every time I catch one of these references, it makes me smile.
I suppose this happens to every generation as they grow up, and I should enjoy it while I can because it is very likely in another decade or two all the cool restaurants will be playing dub step while a waiter grinds pepper on my seared tuna salad – and I won’t get it.