A place for an immigrant Caribbean kid like me to find his awkward groove within a New York ecosystem of colorful chaos.
Or the journey might lead to a party deep in the Vanderveer projects in East Flatbush, where one was certainly not supposed to go. No matter. It’s a dark, sweaty apartment, and we’re doing the Wop, a classic ’80s hip-hop dance, as if our lives depend on it. The song du jour was “The Bridge” by M. C. Shan. He was from Queens, but we didn’t care.
The journey could even have meant a tentative trip beyond the confines of the borough. Because, for a certain vintage of New Yorker, leaving Brooklyn was like traveling to China. Queens had the cutest girls around so that was worth the expedition to Jamaica Avenue. Manhattan was intimidating. The Bronx was Pluto, and nobody knew where Staten Island was.
My daughter would chuckle or pat my hand in sorrow hearing this. This parochialism is such a foreign concept compared to the Brooklyn life she leads today. And yet, that’s hardly the biggest difference between Dad’s old summers and hers.
Summer of ’87 meant great hip-hop: Boogie Down Productions, LL Cool J, Public Enemy. But none meant as much to me as Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full.”
Rakim first invaded my consciousness on a weekend night on East 42nd Street between Church and Snyder in Flatbush. I’m on a stoop with my crew, radio tuned to Kool DJ Red Alert’s legendary show. Here we are making way too much noise, like teenagers of all stripes do, when Red Alert plays “Eric B. Is President,” the world’s introduction to Rakim. We fall silent.
Who is that and since when are you allowed to rhyme that way?
When his full album dropped that July, I greeted it in a basement with more crew. This was a ritual. Our silent hip-hop communion. We listened in head-lowered concentration. And I remember my pal Derek, no slouch of an M.C. himself back then, rewinding “As the Rhyme Goes On” so he could digest every iota of the genius’s work.
Rakim’s flow. The chilling dexterity of his voice. The rhyme patterns and obvious intelligence. There was a vastness to Rakim. You wanted to be that guy. To be that smart, that precise, that cool. To matter enough to shift rap’s lyrical bedrock.
It’s difficult for me to imagine anything playing now, on the radio, on Spotify, on some app I’ve yet to discover, that might have that kind of lasting, searing impact on my daughter.
Summer of ’87 also meant cultural clash, when the grime of the crack era commingled with the glory of hip-hop’s golden age. When a kitted-out Maxima was both the height of a young drug dealer’s auto ambition and a moving pulpit blasting the mix show sermons of Red Alert and Marley Marl.
Sometimes the clash came in black and white. This was a New York still haunted by Howard Beach the past December. Still shaken by the memory of a mob of white youths chasing Michael Griffith, a young black Trinidadian immigrant, onto a highway where he was struck and killed.
Yet, the concept of “mob of white youths” was alien to me. We didn’t go where they lived. In those days white New Yorkers meant teachers, cops, M.T.A. workers and the people who got on the No. 2 train at Grand Army Plaza.
It was, and is, a stubborn constant to life here, to life in so many big progressive cities. The city’s teeming with diversity, yet we walk about in bubbles of segregation, whether those bubbles are individual-size or large enough to encompass a school or neighborhood.
My friends and I would push against those bubbles in clumsy, teenage ways. Swaggering through the subway with a crew. Throwing doors open, laughing and talking loudly, taking pleasure in the disapproval and apprehension of white folks and older blacks, too.
Deep inside, beyond the bravado, you felt like an idiot. Still, it didn’t compare to the taste of power. No matter how illusory.
I remind myself of this when the kids on the train these days yell “Showtime!” and I turn instant curmudgeon. But when I’m done grumbling, I can see the connective tissue between these exuberant kids, the teenage me and my daughter. We were, and remain, young people carving out life in this city, a life set to our particular summer soundtrack.
My daughter’s teenage years are distinct from my own. As they should be. Perhaps she won’t know a Rakim. But a crew of 30 will never accost her on a hot Church Avenue night, and she will certainly not stand behind one of those infernal fryers at Taco Bell.
The similarities resonate more. Because I recognize the summer joys I’ve seen her express. The time she taught me how to Milly Rock, one of a dizzying number of current hip-hop dances. Or the times we’ve sat in Battery Park, staring at the Hudson, wolfing down ice cream in a race to catch it before it dribbles down our shirt.
The city changes. The city’s timeless. The city yearns for summer, in all its sweltering, dog-day afternoon glory. Yearns for its rituals.
I had a follow-up chat with my daughter. I was stocked with platitudes about stiff upper lips and hanging in there. Armed with my teenage reminiscences of a Brooklyn summer that was scary, thrilling and illuminating. Before I could say anything, I practically heard the shrug over the line:
“Think I want to stay, Daddy.”
And with that, all is well in this world of summer.