Column, The Movie Diary

Rap it up

By Dom Cioffi

It was as urban ghetto as our little Vermont town was ever going to get.

It was the early 1980s and we had just been declared legal to drive (which consequently gave us the freedom to roam). Sure, we’d hit the gorge or the movie theater on occasion, but most of the time we simply gravitated to the one spot that felt most alluring to us: the outdoor basketball courts at the local playground.

Yes, the courts were on the sketchier side of town; yes, they were home to late night keg parties on the weekends; yes, the seedier element tended to loiter there; yes, there was lots of trash and low rent graffiti.

But when we were there, we owned it. Not to mention that the courts were smoothly paved and the nets were made of chains.

To us, it felt like Shangri La. This was our Green Mountain Harlem and we embraced it.

The group I ran with wasn’t interested in hanging at the arcade or the mall or loitering at the municipal pool. We were ballers and would stop at nothing to find a game.

We’d spend all day playing pick-up, stopping only for occasional jaunts to the corner market for food and beverages. The fact that we were covered in sweat and completely disheveled from bodying up to nine other players for hours on end didn’t seem to bother anyone (especially the crowd of girls who were always milling around trying to get noticed).

I look back on those summers at the playground with great adoration. I even have a photo or two that will conjure up the feelings associated with that time. However, nothing comes close to tickling those memories as much as the music associated with this time.

I’ve gone through several music phases in my life: there was the disco phase, the new wave phase, the reggae phase, even the classical phase. But nothing defined those summers on the basketball court more than rap music.

Now, I’m not talking about the stuff that passes for rap today (i.e., MCs ripping through words a mile a minute and repeating clearly dated rhymes). I’m also not talking about the gangsta rap that evolved on the West Coast. I’m not even talking about the watered down, Vanilla Ice, mass-market garbage.

I’m talking about the pure stuff; the stuff that was one degree separated from the street corner, the stuff that was organic before profiteers got involved.

This was the very early ‘80s, when rap was just climbing off the streets, when motivated people began to see the potential, the art, and the appeal of the hip-hop sound.

At the time, a few friends who had been to the city had returned with LPs from burgeoning rap artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugarhill Gang, and Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force.

For some reason these beats gelled beautifully with the game of basketball.

Played on massive boom boxes that required eight to ten “D” sized batteries (we’d take turns shelling out the money to power these oversized jukeboxes), these songs and their thumping bass lines felt like our lifeblood.

Of course we all had our favorites, but no single rap song captivated our attention more than “The Message” from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. When it came over the boom box speakers, everyone joined in: “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”

To this day, I can still recite every word to that song – and it runs over seven minutes long!

My son has heard me rap this tune endless times while we’re in the car and on every occasion he stares at me with immense curiosity, almost as if to say, “How the hell are you doing that?”

Of course, I also have to act out the different phrases with hand movements and facial gestures, like I’m literally on the streets running from the law while trying to make a fast buck.

Occasionally he’ll ask me what certain words mean and I have to decide on the fly whether he’s old enough to be introduced to these “topics.”

Since I seem so enamored with this rap song, my son has determined that I must be ok with all rap songs and therefore has decided that he wants to know more about Eminem.

Uh oh, Pandora’s Box is officially open.

Knowing what I know about Eminem (who I can absolutely appreciated for his unique rhyming patterns), I made the bold move to download some Will Smith raps instead. I’d rather have my son “getting jiggy wit it” before he decides to start packing heat when he goes out after school.

This week’s feature happens to star that one-time rap artist. “Focus” features Smith as a highly accomplished con man who’s looking for the ultimate score. Unfortunately a beautiful woman (why is it always a beautiful woman?) stands between him and the focus he needs to accomplish the task.

I got the feeling midway through this film that Will Smith was tired of blockbusters and that he just wanted a solid payday that didn’t involve a lot of green screening or stunt work.

Check this one out if you don’t mind being constantly conned by a storyline – which is exactly what this film does in order to keep your attention.

An off-key “C” for “Focus.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

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