This morning, I was showering, getting ready for work, and doing so by listening to Nelly’s “classic” album Country Grammar. Inevitably, his hit single “Ride With Me,” to which I used to know all the words, came on. I say used to, not due to a traditional factor like it had just been awhile; no, I no longer remember the lyrics because I remember different words to this particular song. In middle school, when the song was at its peak popularity, my friend Russ and I were fucking around at my house in the vicinity of my family’s red riding lawn mower, and because we’re geniuses, we thought it would be hilarious to rewrite the lyrics to the entire song, Weird-Al-Yankovic-style, by substituting in lines about riding lawn mowers. We were right – it was hilarious – and a few years later, after we recorded our own version of the song, Mow It Down would have a firm place in history; we’ve been cuttin grass, first class, mowin’ next to Vanna White ever since.
I don’t share this anecdote because I want the world to share in my adulation for the song – you’d need an inaccessible combination of nostalgia and inane humor – but instead, because it got me thinking about my old, mostly high-school, days of recording rap. Really, and more specifically, the upstate-New York hip-hop sensation, Demon Snow Squad.
I was not only obsessed with listening to all sorts of rap in high school (i.e. not just Eminem), but also with recording my own. Some time in Junior year, two of my friends, KeNN and Duck, decided to put out their own content under the name Demon Snow Squad, and I was immediately intrigued. Later, when we spontaneously decided to record a 7-rapper collaboration with ten of us (you gotta have an entourage!) cramped in my mom’s little office, I knew I had to get in. Shortly after they released their “nickel-selling” album (20+ copies!), The ilLP, another friend Shorty B and I joined the group, and we dove head first into putting out a second studio album. Glorious times.
It sounds goofy, but we put in legit effort to what is actually an onerous process. Writing lyrics is tough. Recording them is arguably even tougher, when you’re working with free Audacity software and shitty microphone equipment. We weren’t exactly “one-take” artists, and we would clown around constantly, so it would take us hours to get down a single song. When you combine that with a busy high school schedule of sports, homework, and nights where we actually had stuff going on, putting together a double-digit-track album, complete with wildly amateur audio production and jewel case design, was quite the undertaking.
It paid off, though, and the next album, The Negatives, was a (relatively) tremendous success, selling over 70 copies. At this point, we were pretty obsessed. Not only did we come out a year later with a third album,Verbal Architects, but we made custom DSS hoodies and sneakers; I bought a Detroit Tigers hat because it had the same Old English “D” on the front that we used in our lettering; I even wrote my college common-app essay about our album release day. KeNN and I rapped on stage at a packed bar with another friend’s band. The Squad was official.
Again, I’m not sharing these details with narcissistic intent, but instead to talk about the experience I had going back and listening to our albums this morning. I’ve finally reached the age in my life where I’m able to profoundly feel how the vibes of life evolve over time – that’s just not something you have enough perspective for in your college years – and getting to listen to my friends’ and my high school lives manifest themselves in our lyrics was a fucking trip down memory lane.
We certainly dropped the majority of our rhymes about generic rap motifs like slaying tracks, guns, women, etc. But every once in awhile, things would pop up that are wholly indicative of specific, niche interests we had at the time. Certain lines cite “pocket kings,” or “three stacks of high society,” which are clear references to our love of the movie Rounders, and poker in general. The song those lines are from, Favorite Things, is chock-full of these things.
KeNN rhymes, “Swarm of white kids, like that Vinnie Paz track/ Our stocks on the rise, like the fuckin’ NASDAQ/;” Vinnize Paz is a member of the hip-hop duo Jedi Mind Tricks, a group we used to listen to on rotation. Hell, we named our third album Verbal Architects, a thinly veiled allusion to a Ghostface Killah song (“this is architect music/verbal street opera/”).
Plus, of course, you have your blatant references to events and people from our high school: “I drop rhymes like Chris Rahn drops fly balls.”
It’s pretty amazing to go back and listen to these references, because I’d never reference most of them now, either because I’m not into those things, or because I’ve forgotten about them entirely. I never play Texas Hold-Em anymore. I haven’t listened to Jedi Mind Tricks since Freshman year of college. I’d totally forgotten about Chris Rahn’s shortcomings as an outfielder.
In high school, you chalk up all your life changes and lost memories to your very recent departure from childhood. In some ways, but fewer than you think at the time, you’re an adult, and you assume that because you’ve exited puberty, your interests will stay the same, and your inside-jokes will be maintained forever. Some will, of course, but not nearly as many as you expect. It’s interesting to reflect on just how much has changed since ten years ago.
It’s pretty incredible that we live in an age when, as long as you don’t lose the files, you can go back and listen to songs, or for most of you, look at photos and videos of the past; if this were fifty years ago, that would not be the case. Sure, catching up with your old friends will always lead to remembering things you’d forgotten, but our memories need some help with the smaller things – those minute, random details that make life what it is.
It’s also terrifyingly embarrassing, though, because as I listen to the product we stood strongly behind in high school, I can’t deny that it’s largely awful. We actually did put out some pretty good music, and I would argue to this day that our Greatest Hits album (which would include some “unreleased” songs) would actually be pretty good, but that was at best 25% of our material. The rest of it is pretty cringe-worthy.
It’s forgivable. We were young, under-resourced, and inexperienced. I can live with myself. But it made me think about how much terrible content there is in the world; not just DSS, but the rest of the art out there.
It’s always frustrating when one of your favorites puts out an awful movie, book, or album. I personally always wonder, why? What were they thinking? Can’t they recognize that this thing sucks? As I go back and listen to DSS, I realize the answer is no.
When you work on something for a long time, putting in a ton of time and effort, it’s almost impossible to walk away. You start with an idea, you wrestle with it for awhile, and then you’re left with whatever comes out. You tried hard, and since we’re all egotistic, you assume it must be good. But you’re not only too close to it to give it an unbiased assessment, you’re also “pot committed,” as they say in the poker world. You’ve spent too much on it to go back.
Think about it like writing a paper in college. You have some initial spark of creativity as to how to address the prompt, and then you take action on that spark. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it’s tough, but either way, you finish with 9 pages, use the period trick to bump it up to 10, and then you’re handing it in, no matter what. You just spent 8 hours toiling over that essay! You’d never consider throwing it in the trash and starting over completely with a new approach just because you might suspect, deep down, that it’s not A material. In the real world, when there’s actual money and obligations on the line, it’s even more understandable.
The scary thing is, just realizing this effect doesn’t stop it from happening. I hated my Blogcat about 395, and yet I published it anyway. For all I know, this one sucks too, yet I’m still putting it out there for public consumption.
For Demon Snow Squad, I think it was probably a bit of both, but no matter the quality of some of the music we released, I couldn’t be happier that it exists. At the time, we had some epic experiences that are still profound memories. Now, it’s a great flashback to some great times, interests, and attitudes in my life that, while no longer exactly the same, still echo a part of my history.
As D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire says to his book club in prison, “The past is always with us.” What he meant to say was, Squad for Life.