“What’s the best hiphop album ever made?” ~ G.F., Hartford
Why you gotta go there, huh? Why you gonna make traipse through my iTunes and listen to all the rap stuff I got in there, just to answer your ridiculous question? (I’m being willfully full of it right now, obviously.) And do you mean “my favorite” or “the best”? Oh heck, they’re one and the same anyway…Can I name three? The best hiphop albums ever made are: De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead, Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell and, depending on the day, Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, L.L. Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out, or Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. These choices partly come because of my age—over 21…by, um, a lot—but also because I probably have very formal tastes in things like this and I don’t believe a great rap album has been released after 2000.
Why isn’t there a B.I.G record on the list? I don’t exactly know other than I rarely play B.I.G’s whole albums anymore like I used to, unless it’s his Greatest Hits, because I like to hear the hits, and because I think “Niggas Bleed” is, like L.L.’s “Fast Peg” one of the best written pieces of Black Noir in the past 20 years. My reasons? De La’s record predicted a group’s demise but only ironically made them seem more alive (and smarter and saner and more special as writers and thinkers than anyone else on the scene and “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” still, to this day, chills me to the bone); Run-D.M.C.’s record because it is the single best evocation of b-boy glamour-meets-grit and never takes itself seriously while breaking all kinds of new cultural ground (and because “Peter Piper” can still rock a party); Ice Cube’s record because it’s one of the most incredible sounding albums ever, sonically and lyrically dazzling due to the beautiful tension of the Bomb Squad’s techno-scratch futurism blending with Cube’s gangsta-as-everyman realism; L.L.’s because it was a comeback that dared to be sexy and self-centered and superstar-y when many artists would have slunk away after the way Todd had been received with his last record (and because “Jingling Baby” is the kind of brilliant, stupid-good, politically incorrect single that only rap knows how to do with any real imagination); and PE’s record because, well, when black America needed a CNN, Chuck, Flava and the Bomb Squad ripped straight outta the Long Island and gave it to them. (Honorable mentions: All For One, Brand Nubian; Paid in Full, Eric B. and Rakim; and Mecca and the Soul Brother, Pete Rock & CL Smooth; Debaters, haters, and 5-mic raters are welcome to offer their own opinions—cause I know you will!
“I’m a journalist. I used to love it but need a change. Thinking of going back to school for my Phd, like you did. Any advice? Why did you go back to school? Have you chosen your dissertation topic yet?” ~ E.H., Florida
I went back to school, first to finish my BA, then to get a PhD because like you, I needed a change. I was exhausted by journalism, tired of magazines (writing for them, not reading them haha!), and knew that I wanted to spend more time writing books and other non-fiction that didn’t require me jumping on planes and waiting around for celebs to grant me an audience. My last book tour took me to a few colleges and I loved the feeling of being back on a college campus, talking to young peeps, discussing writing. Decided I really wanted to teach. Applied to grad schools, luckily got in, and here I am, about to start my third semester of course work. It hasn’t been easy but it’s been fun, and invigorating, and a challenge, which I always need and really enjoy. As for my dissertation? If I were going to start today, it’d be The Melodrama of Masculinity/The Masculinity of Melodrama, and it would investigate sentimental narratives of male identity formation through usages of rap music, soap opera and Hollywood cinema. But that could change tomorrow; it changes as I read more stuff. Which I’ve found out is often how the academic life works. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. Keeps one quite busy. As for advice? Figure out what makes you a great applicant. I suspect you will be up against a few ex-journos looking for a change, especially with how rickety the print media world feels these days. But do that, and really look closely at schools, see what fits best with what you want to study and how you want to study it, and see what place seems like the best fit for you. Take those God-awful GREs. Apply widely. Hope for the best—though I think that if you position yourself right, create an application that truly gets to the heart of who you are and why you should be there, you’ll have a good chance of getting into somewhere good—for you and for them. Good luck!
“Did that Teddy Ruxpin doll really scare you?” ~ D.D., Chicago
I’m guessing you’re referring to my appearance on VH1’s “I Love the 80s” a few years ago? The answer is yes—scariest toy ever made. Dolls are not supposed to be that active; animatronic bears have their place: in Disney Land attractions and bad kiddie movies.