Last week on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon Anna G. and I dropped by the vegetarian cafe down the street from our office. As we were entering somebody brushed passed us on our way out.
“Wasn’t that the girl from The Wackness? Anna asked, watching as the figure retreated down Horatio Street.
I replied, “Oh you mean the girl from Juno? “Olivia Something?”
In mentioning The Wackness, Anna had invoked the name of a film that until that point I refused to admit that I had seen to anyone other than a friend and my own boyfriend because it was, well, pretty wack.
When I first saw the trailer, I rolled my eyes. “Really? Ben Kingsley as stoner-psychiatrist? Who makes out with an Olsen twin? Garbage.” And it went out of my head again until perusing magazines during an early summer pedicure, I stumbled upon an interview with Jonathan Levine,the guy who wrote and directed the movie.
Levine talked about wanting to make a movie that would describe what it was like to be finished with high school, and have nothing to do in the New York City summer but smoke weed, listen to music and chill. This was at a time when Hip Hop first broke out into the mainstream and the music was pouring through New York City and seeping into the surrounding suburbs including the town 10 miles from Manhattan where I grew up. Despite the stupid trailer I felt like I kind of understood the experience he was trying to capture, so I dragged my best friend to the movies, plying her with weed.
I was too white, suburban and far too young in the 80′s to have absorbed much of early Hip Hop and its origins–I learned about DJ Kool Herc, Public Enemy and Heavy D long after the fact. The Word Up magazine posters of Lil Kim and Biggie that my bus driver had plastered over the interior of the school bus were from a world that I most definitely was not a part of. I can’t talk about what the early days of Hip Hop in New York were like, or how it came up out of the Bronx and later Brooklyn to change everything about music, I can only talk about how it came to me.
I was 14 in the summer of 1994 and unlike my friends who were mourning the death of Kurt Cobain I had no real connection to the grunge era. I liked a couple songs, but at the time it didn’t really speak to me and I rarely chose to listen to it on my own. It was mostly the early diva-house, and R&B/dance songs of the early 90s that I loved and listened to on Hot 97 and 103.5. Cece Peniston, Chantay Savage and other super-gay dance hits were my after-school jams.
That summer my best friend and I spent a lot of time sneaking into her seventeen year-old sister’s bedroom while she was out. Her window opened out on to a flat part of the roof just big enough to sit both of us, and after trying on her sister’s clothes and looking through her diary my friend would put her CDs on and we’d climb out on to the roof. Her house was on a hill and the roof had a clear view over the Palisades and across the river to the tips of the buildings in the Manhattan skyline. It was there at dusk one night in the summer that I first heard A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders album. I wish I had words that would communicate what those sounds did and how they felt at that time but I truly can’t, other than to say it was the music I had been waiting for.
Since then I grew to love the “think-rap” of Tribe, the Pharcyde, KRS-One De La Soul and their ilk, and also found ways to connect with Biggie, Wu-Tang, NWA and even some of the more overproduced dance stuff that seems to be all that remains commercially, of Hip Hop. Still though, the music I respond to is the D.A.I.S.Y Age stuff, and even today I will hear newish Hip Hop tracks that are of a piece with that moment when I heard the first few notes of Award Tour on that roof in Tenafly, New Jersey. For that reason alone I saw The Wackness, hoping that somebody who had felt something similar had made a movie about what it was like to listen to that music as it was at that time, before T.I. and Beyonce rapped about rollover minutes and Snoop Dogg had a reality show about being a dad.
My expectations were low, but the quality of the film was even lower. The Wackness was disappointing for a million reasons, not the least of whichwas the casting of Method Man as a Jamaican drug kingpin who, during one scenes speaks to another character while his own verse in “The What” plays in the background like some kind of self-referential meta nightmare. To me the movie felt like a missed opportunity to tell the story of a kid who was unsure of who he was and wear he was going, and the way that Hip Hop somehow created that space.
I can’t leave this with no song, so I’ll just leave you with this one. Quite possibly the best use of extended metaphor in a piece of contemporary music; if you’ve never heard it, or heard it a million times it’s worth a listen today. DONT watch the video. Just listen.