There was a time when most people didn’t know what music was and most of us didn’t know what rap was.
It’s weird how so many of our contemporaries never stopped learning about the music and its history. How did you feel when you read that “It’s a New Day, Black Men and the Law” was the first rap song?
People always say that it’s the first rap song, but it was actually the first rap song written by a black guy.
That’s funny. When did we start hearing the word “rap”? As a matter of fact, the first record we purchased was “Who Put the Rapper Down” by Public Enemy.
In what way were you familiar with hip-hop when it emerged in the 1960s and 1970s?
I was very aware of it as a young person of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s. I was a little too young to have seen that, but I think it’s obvious to anybody that a lot of African Americans were just out of the ghetto and didn’t have the means and opportunity for that. As I got a little older, I started seeing a lot of it in the way we were being treated in schools, in terms of teachers, in terms of the way we were being treated by the rest of society—the whole society. People were treating us really badly, and we were really treated bad and it was in the streets. There were some songs that I wrote in the early 1980s, and they were basically saying, “What are you doing? Are you still going around in that crazy environment that you used to be in?” The record that came out for it was “The Nitty Gritty of Life,” and that was the first record that really kicked me out of the ghetto and into the whole world. It was like, “I want to be a kid again.” I’m not even the only rapper that did that, in fact. I can remember hearing the first record from J.J. Cale. We were still in the neighborhood, and they recorded it, and it was a great record.
When you see these hip-hop albums come out and they’re so far ahead of their time, how do you feel about that? Is it gratifying?
Well, as far as what it’s doing now—and we’re seeing what it’s doing in this country, too—it’s really great. If they don’t listen to us, that would be
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