(read time 7m22s)
I found Trish and settled in the seat to her right. She scored us an ideal location, perfect line of sight to the podium, a couple rows back. The aisle was two seats away, good. There’s the door. Got my noise cancellers around my neck, check. I’m fully prepped to endure crowd anxiety for this momentous occasion: an evening with my teacher, Chuck D of Public Enemy. I open my Darth Vader notebook and prepare to shorthand whatever lessons I can gather today.
I noted my inflammed joints and stiff hip from a week of unusually low temperatures, and imagined what it’d be like now to kick up into a one-handed handstand from a flattened cardboard box. My seven year old hands clapping along to the beat, sidestepping to the tempo, watching my brother attempt to breakdance. As I entered into the obligatory, “Go ‘head, go ‘head…” with the other block rockers, I thought, yo that kid is WACK! Hours spent in my room, duplicating what I observed on the cardboard then snapping it tight. My brother wouldn’t let me join his crew, but I figured, one day I’ll have my own, so I better be ready.
A group of three slide from the left into the row in front of us, and I see the muscular man in a blue t-shirt intends to take the seat in front of me. As I scrutinize his eyes and nose, I feel certain I know him. Personally? Historically..? Been a lot of places/seen a lot of faces… My mental Rolodex is spinning wild. He sits down, and I’m relieved his sculpted shoulder doesn’t impede my view of the podium.
We’ve just finished playing Masters of the Universe and my brother has a swell idea: let’s be DJ s! He orders me, as is his right as the elder, to pick some vinyl records from our parents’ collection. Tina Turner’s Break Every Rule? no… Michael Jackson’s Thriller? no… Commodores..? Hmm. Nah. So I grab Kenny Rogers’ 1983 Greatest Hits. That one’s mom’s. She won’t miss it.
I watch my brother and his friends pull the vinyl back and forth, three fingertips along the grooves, making the now iconic rip rip rawr a la Jam Master Jay of Run DMC. We giggled once the record was left to play, only to interrupt his vocals:
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille/ rip rip a fine time/ rip a fine time/ rip rip
We didn’t know scratching the record might actually cause scratches to the record, and once mommy told daddy, our DJ days were squashed!
A thought fills my head: what if you get a chance to speak to him? Mr. D..? Mr. Chuck? Can’t just call him Chuck, he’s not your friend. Consummate confusion of mine; how to formally address an emcee. Madame Lyte? Mr. Cool J? I never could come up with a cool MC name. Heck, I wasn’t even a good emcee to begin. Middle school lunch room, two rows decide to enter into freestyle rapping. Me, the closet poet and at the time, theater kid, went up against my best friend. Oh I got her, I was sure, she don’t know about rap! So I busted out something so generic: My name is Vonnie, and I’m here to say… surprised that wasn’t followed by a round of boos. She stands up, smug faced, and I immediately realize I have failed. I still hear the smackdown clear in my ears: C to da A to da R-OL-I-N-E/Sweet/Ahh!/Like caramel candy…
Grimace. Melt. Never battle rhymed again.
The poetic political enemy takes to the podium and I grin big, taking in the fitted cap, the wide stance, then eagerly press pen to paper. Chuck’s voice has a signature resonance, and everytime I hear it, I’m called to listen; I the faithful, he the muezzin. Listening to Public Enemy, these “radicals” telling you to question authority and call out injustices, conflicted with daddy’s job, and the environment we lived in. As hip hop flourished into a global movement, hitting the Armed Forces Network radio airwaves and featured on MTV Europe, daddy was adamant in keeping those sounds and influences out of the home. Disobedience meant repercussions:
Playing Salt ‘N’ Pepa too loud from my little red boom box smack!
Dad home early from work, caught wearing sneakers with no shoelaces twack!
To no affect, of course. I’m still pissing people off with my principles to this day.
— Von Simeon (@VonSimeon) February 27, 2015
My teachers – musicians, storytellers, poetic prophets – provided examples of how to protect my mind, gave me fodder for philosophy, reminded me bruises may break my skin but never my soul. It dawned on me as Chuck D reminded the collegians how valuable intelligence is, Hip Hop saved me from abandoning my wits. The movement, not just the music, fortified in me that my art is just as powerful a weapon as a machine gun, that I could equally call for change or kill a man simply by placing the right set of words together. My teacher lamented that we remain a society too caught up in SocMed to truly understand our reality for what it is: too much individualism, too little discourse, too few moments when information technology doesn’t intercede in decision making. Oh my gosh, I realize, I attack those very issues every day, on this blog, in my prose, and in my freestyle poems. Good job MC Von, you paid attention.
As he entered into the original days of hip hop and the struggle for equal air play, Chuck pointed out, “The Cold Crush Brothers were selling out shows, never blew up, never got their fair share of airplay…” Ah yes, nodding in my seat, I remember the Cold Crush crew, and then Chuck D extends his right arm my direction and says, “Charlie Chase is sitting right there, he can tell you…”
Rolodex stops at Cold Crush Brothers. The DJ. DJ Chase. DJ CHASE IS SITTING RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME.
“Don’t. Explode,” My inner sargent-at-arms instructs. I shudder with pure excitement, then chuckle a bit. My big bro can suck it!!
I wanted to pull DJ Chase towards me and exult, “You know, I used to DJ my friends’ house parties? I love music! I love youuu!”
Phone is ringin/oh my god Get it together..
I still dance but I’m afraid if I start popping I won’t be able to push my bones back into their joints! I may not have vinyl to scratch, but I’ve got eclectic playlists out the wazoo, and I share what’s new to me every week on Turn It Up Tuesday. While my spoken word sucks, my written word is vicious, and now, available in book form.
Knowing there are few moments in life when you can credit people who’ve positively influenced you, after the presentation I quickly, timidly tapped Charlie Chase on his shoulder. He was slow to turn then presented a warm smile once he saw me. I fought the tremors to tell him, “I just wanted to shake your hand and let you know because of you I wanted to be a DJ.” He was kind enough to shake my hand tightly, then asked, “What’s your name?”
What’s my muthafuckin’ naame..?
“My name is Von Simeon. I’m a local artist. Thank you for your time.” Zoom! Towards the door.
“You handled that very well,” Trish complimented. I could feel the tremors building up. There’s no way I can approach Chuck D in this state, so I’ll just follow him on Twitter, @MrChuckD.
Oh. So it is the full emcee name after Mister or Madam. Good to know.