Friday, 8 February 2008

King Yellowman

When I moved to Naples at the age of fifteen, my intake of American pop culture was virtually severed at the carotid artery. Every once in a while something would trickle through but, for the most part, my perception of what was legitimately cool and cutting-edge trailed off somewhere around Sam Kinison. I know.

At the time, I felt like my human rights were being sadistically violated, but you make do. And, for the most part, I’ve found that my complete and utter lack of cultural reference points between 1990-1997 seems to disturb others more than it does me. I've made it this far without collapsing under the weight of cruel deprivation brought on by never owning a Pearl Jam album, so I doubt it had any lasting ill effects. I'd even go so far as to say that can only thank my lucky stars, musically speaking, because Italian pop was strictly of the Eros Ramazzotti School of Metaphysical Crap, but there were two pretty good vinyl stores in downtown Naples—this was a couple of years before CDs really took off, and southern Italy seemed to have mysteriously bypassed the whole cassette revolution completely—and I spent many, many productive hours clopping through the cobbelstones, sniffing around for something new.

My strategy for finding a record to buy consisted of flipping through the stacks until something stood out, either because the band name was so stupid (The Dentists—Heads and How To Read Them), the album cover was cool (Death In June—The World That Summer) or it just sounded titillatingly evil (Bad Religion—Suffer). This method was pretty hit or miss, as one can imagine, but when it worked, it worked like crazy and oh, how my mind dipped and swayed! By far the most awesome of these sound-unheard purchases was Yellowman & Fathead—Bad Boy Skanking. Everything about the album--the title, the cover photo, the names of the songs--radiated awesome. There was NO WAY this wasn't going to be good. I remember sitting on the train as Mergellina and Montesanto whizzed past, gazing happily at my 11,000-lire purchase and dying to just get home so I could listen to it.

Having just digitally re-visited the album fifteen years later, I'm struck by the debt to late '70's, early '80's Jamaican dance-hall music. Yellowman's first major, 1982 release sounds like it could have come out last week and won a Grammy. Innocent, simple, uncomplicated. What a lot of hip-hop would be if it learned to let go and stop being so self-conscious. But twenty-odd years before hip-hop charged its way to the foreground and started making wealthy, Western youth overcompensate for their lack of street cred, Yellowman was turning his own gravely disadvantaged youth and outcast status into a profound artistic statement. I didn't know any of that at the time, though. I just remember sitting in front of my parents' rickety turntable, transfixed, amazed, delighted, head-bobbing myself into whiplash, wondering where Yellowman had been all my life, and how ignorant I really was about heaven and all of its treasures.

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