By SUMO [KIDZ SAN LORENZO]
In 1988, while I was in full puberty and attending eighth grade at a school near the Termini train station in Rome, rap entered its adult phase and began transitioning from a niche genre to pop music’s common denominator, making its way into the charts and therefore affecting the musical tastes of white kids all over the world. I, like everyone at that age, wandered in search of my musical path, fascinated by many, different things, some even very ugly. The playlists of the time were recorded tapes that rolled in the Walkman, where “Gimme Five” by Jovanotti and LL Cool J’s “My Rhyme Is not Done” – the only rap pieces on the Juke Box of the Umbrian village where I spent the summer – coexisted without shame.
The media were not social, the term “network” was only synonymous with TV channel and MTV was visible only on the satellite. The lack of reference points and material, together with the almost total inability of the media to narrate that phenomenon did nothing but increase the desire to know more and establish a direct contact, for once. In May, my sister came back elated from the Michael Jackson concert at the Flaminio stadium. My chance would present itself shortly thereafter.
In fact, a few weeks earlier, along the bus route that took me to school, had appeared the posters of a concert at the Teatro Tendastrisce, whose lineup included Public Enemy, Run DMC, you know, the best of the American rap, and Derek B, a rather popular rapper from London in those days. In the weeks leading up to the event, I was experiencing every very rare broadcast of the clips of “Run’s House” and “Night Of The Living Baseheads” on Video Music as a plunge to the heart, anticipating what would be my first rap concert, and indeed my first concert at all.
Many concerts later, I’m not sure whether it’s because of the often-bad acoustics of small clubs or for the Hip Hop’s specificity that even when live it relies on reproduced music, the expression formed by the words “concert” and “rap” has started to sound like an oxymoron. Two terms that clash if put next to each other, and that refer to occasions similar to family dinners rather than a pleasant event: you go because you love it, even though you know that it will be a pain, but we were at the end of the 1980s, I was thirteen, and all that glittered was gold.
I didn’t know where to buy tickets, so I went to the newsstand near my house, which is still there, as dark and crammed as back then. Marco, the owner’s son, tells me about the Orbis store in Via Cavour. In the first months of eighth grade, getting hold of that ticket automatically made me a full-grown man in the eyes of my classmates. Everything was ready; my mother had even explained to me which bus was going to via Colombo.
The big day arrives. I wake up with a few lines of fever – and now? My mom obviously isn’t worried and sees no reasons to keep me home, she’s German. My father, Sicilian and hypochondriac, would be of the opposite opinion if he knew of my plans, but in cases like these having separated parents is a great fortune. So, I head to the event undisturbed, arriving several hours in advance, anxious not to find a spot, a most unfounded fear when it comes to rap music in Italy. Instead, I remember an oceanic crowd, an enormous space, probably only a suggestion, like when you return to the places of your childhood and everything seems smaller than we remembered, but the feeling of belonging to a collective phenomenon was comforting. We felt inside an urban muster summoned by way of word-of-mouth, like in the opening scene of The Warriors, each with his own unkempt uniform.
I’m exactly where I wanted to be, in front of the stage, central, glued to the barrier that divides the audience from the stage and creates a passage for security, photographers, and some journalists. A few minutes before the start of the concert I am dazzled by a camera headlight, by which there is TV host Red Ronnie*, who’s interviewing the entire front row. My role would have been to play the part of the “young fan of this new music”, hadn’t a little shyness and a bit of the terror caused by the image of my father seeing me on television while he thinks I’m at home with a fever brought me to cover my face with one hand, as if I were combing my hair. The clumsy move diverts the attention of the journalist to a guy next to me, a little older, who does not miss the opportunity and, hugging a friend, shouts at the camera “We are all here sweating for Run Dmc …Hey, men do stink anyways!!”. I immediately regret it and envy his ease.
The concert begins. Derek B performs first, the give and go of “Who’s number one! Bullet from a gun!” warms up the audience, “Bad Young Brother” while it did not stand out for originality, it was still a good record that followed the trend of the moment, much 808 and a few samples. It’s the Americans’ turn, and it gets real: “Sucker Mc’s”, “It’s Like That”, “Peter Piper”, “My Adidas”, “Run’s House”, the catalog of the Hollis trio, Queens is already a legend, Jam Master Jay’s scratches and the way the two MC complete each other’s sentences bewitch the crowd – I do not understand anything, but listening to it live is something else.
Run Dmc had made the generation of Flash, Bambaataa, and Cold Crush Brothers obsolete – all very much into showing off studs, mohawks, post-apocalyptic stage outfits or Rick James-style stiletto high heels -, simply by introducing the everyday style of New York’s b-boys to the world: golden chains, untied Adidas, Kangol and Cazal pieces, acetate tracksuits … We had icons right in front of our eyes. While the Queens trio was at the height of a glorious career that was however about to end, Public Enemy represented the next step in an ideal evolution of rap: after style and bravado, this genre had acquired a quite angry political conscience.
In rap, often referred to as spoken music, understanding what is being said obviously helps. However, it was not necessary to know English or to have read about black radicalism to perceive the uniqueness of Public Enemy. “Rebel Without a Pause” and the Bomb Squad’s sound wall made of sirens, instrumentals and dissonances mixed together, was enough to project anyone in the midst of any revolt of the ‘60s or to predict those of ‘92. An atmosphere of pressing uprising, aggravated by media that do not tell the truth and a society without justice, based on fear, consumption and coercion. The ability of the Long Island crew to “hold” the stage was already self-evident, which is obvious if you are attending a rock or funk concert, where bands cosist of several elements that engage the viewer on different levels, but less so in rap music, where everything revolves around only two figures, the DJ and the MC. Public Enemy filled that structural void with a precise design. Everybody had a role, an alter ego and a function: the hype man, the security/personal army, the spokesperson, the rebel.
That evening of thirty years ago certainly infused life into something that we had only read or seen approximately up to that point: it was a lens that defined the margins of what Hip Hop was, a sort of imprinting, I had found mom and I would have looked for her in every single thing from then on. If it is true that Hip Hop was not originally a music conceived for us, nor addressed to us, and by that I mean white kids, it is plausible at the same time that the illusion of glimpsing at the African American reality, with which we had absolutely nothing to do, may have contributed to the reasons for its success.
Sometime after that historic October evening, one fine day on the 71 bus from San Lorenzo to Piazza San Silvestro, I would meet a boy my age who looked like he was straight out of Beat Street: we would scrutinize each other, he analyzed my absurd hairdo and I his thick laces, too perfect not to hide a trick (a cardboard support placed between the tongue and the laces). Later, Napal and I would discover that we had the same passions, but above all the same opponents. We were the weirdos of our neighborhood and by being chased over and over again, we ended up sympathizing with each other.
Thanks to that friendship I started making graffiti – we were not yet so sophisticated as to call it writing – and met and occasionally frequented Massimo Colonna Crash Kid, the “French” Eric, Cesar, and Ben, writers Maelo, Clown, and Cool Art. On some occasions I would even find myself on Massimo’s scooter, tossed between San Lorenzo, Piazza Barberini, Babilonia, and the gallery that ironically carried his name, years before his birth, Galleria Colonna today Galleria Alberto Sordi (!). In short, there was a Roman scene and Massimo between Kangol, Bubblegoose, Puma States and Beltbuckle appeared in my eyes like a demigod, as a defender of those like me who were getting beaten up for wearing basketball shoes. A few years later, in assonance with Massimo’s name (which I notice only now), Kidz San Lorenzo were born: a bunch of rascals with an obsession for the neighborhood, completely copied from America and transplanted here with an ironic twist. We would plaster the streets with tags and throw ups to the point of messing up children’s imagination: one day, on the neighborhood newspaper, a child drew his friends playing football, and in the background a wall on which dominated the inscription “Kidz”. In short, just as popular as “Forza Roma”.
Compared to the end of the 1980s, Hip Hop today is a global reality, around which pop music has completely reorganized and redefined itself using techniques and approaches that pioneers have often forged because they lacked great means and alternatives. A culture that has become an industry, going from the street to the masses, flourished over time even more rapidly and broadly thanks to the internet. Things were a bit different at the time of Crash Kid: in Rome then he was the network, and as such he had attracted and made people and energy converge there, accelerating the spread of culture not only in his city, but in Italy and Europe as demonstrated by the jams and crews he left behind between one head spin and another.
Crash Kid indeed was the internet before the internet: he represented not only himself as a breaker and writer, but a whole network of knowledge, connections, friendships spread all over the world. “You need to go to New York? No problem. Write this name down: Richie Colon, you know him as Crazy Legs “. The spirit of sharing that has always characterized Massimo was not entrusted however to the indolent clicking of a mouse, it involved the physical involvement of people, of many people from different parts of the world, a demanding daily interaction motivated by pure enthusiasm. In addition to the talent, evident to anyone who saw him dancing, it was this humanity that made the Roman breaker all the more special, considering the lack of information and materials available at the time. As in my case, it was not necessary to be his best friend to draw on that wealth of knowledge, photos, graffiti fanzine, videocassette, audiocassette; it was enough to find yourself crossing, even casually, his intense and short path.
Thirty years have passed since that concert and a few less from Massimo’s passing. The Roman scene has sturdily continued with its historical elements such as Colle Der Fomento and Cor Veleno, Ice One, Style, Stand and all the experience of Rome Zoo, showing along the way the rare ability to appreciate certain foreign canons without trying to reproduce them in a completely different context. It is an Italian condition but even more so all-Roman to admire without idolize, reserving the opportunity to desecrate, to observe with suspicion, while being jealous of your own uniqueness. And isn’t this the original spirit of Hip Hop, in which every element (the turntable, the mixer, the drum machine, the spray can and even the designer clothes) is used with a purpose or in a different context from that for which it was created? We mangled the refrain of “The Freaks Come Out At Night” in “Te fischiano le Nike” with the same disillusionment with which Nando Meliconi reclaims his Roman-ness by “demolishing” his macaroni and willingly leaving mustard and yogurt to the mouse. I know for a fact that Massimo was at that concert thirty years ago, maybe we even passed each other, maybe it was even that bold guy who was able to seize the moment.