Blazing Hip-Hop and R&B

By DAVE TOMPKINS  |  April 20, 2011

The masters — along with Bam's vocoder — were allegedly destroyed by a fire in Jazzy Jay's Bronx studio. I wonder how it all went down. With our fire, there was little time for panic. The smoke poured through the vents and we solemnly carried our laptops out the door like lunch trays. We watched the flames tease the night sky, listening for the whinny-pitched screams of our belongings. I remember thinking, "Well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won three NBA championships after a fire melted down his jazz collection." And Q-Tip, he dated Janet Jackson and started wearing nice suits after losing his records to a fire. And Teddy Riley reformed Blackstreet. And Lee Scratch Perry's myth only blossomed after he torched his own studio in Kingston, Jamaica. So the future must hold great things — more than a Red Cross voucher for 50 dollars, good at the only Sears in Bed-Stuy. More than the same corny "roof is on fire" joke. More than an evening watching LL Cool J and Joan Jett play a parking lot at a T.K. Tripps in Charlotte, me on the front row with LL's grandma, shielding her from the crush of happy-hour drunks. More than the anxiety, because now vinyl crackles with a bad memory, the surface noise of soot, not romanced condition.

I now keep a "fire crate" near the door, a bag of records to go tripping down the stairs with me in case of emergency. I've taken similar precautions in the past, but every 20 bucks set aside for the apocalypse became "found money" for more records. Since the fire, I've been known to throw myself at my IKEA bookcase in my sleep to make sure the Computer People Communicators 12-inch is still shelved, only to realize it's been waiting by the door.

I've always maintained that a fire crate says more about one's survival instincts than a "desert-island playlist." (The playlist is just songs in your head, abandoning the object record on a dwindling ship.) With the fire crate, you're not on the beach, you're on the run. It's a different species of escapism, a panicked neurosis — and neurotics generally have good taste in music. It's can't live without versus living with the guilt of your Stetsasonic album being transmattered and curling up into a dead spider's ashtray — sorry Daddy-O. You can spend a castaway's eternity building a fire crate in your brain, but the plan itself is out the door. The moment is singed. Who will be left behind?

Reprinted from The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, by permission from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Dave Tompkins's first book How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder, from World War II to Hip Hop (2010) is out on Stop Smiling Books/Melville House. He is from North Carolina.

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