Dave Madden

Funky city-glowing epidermisiii on me,
but not only skin-deep is my fly stylee.iv
You see, I'm down with brothersv and their craft.
Ain't no pointy white hoodvi that be covering up my napsvii
'cause I'm the funky Desdemonaviii of rap.
                                                                                                                                  Learning from the Digs,ix the slick insects,x       
I hear what they be speaking 'bout the Crooklyn projects.xi
I synthesize their juice with the Bronchiatic Souls.xii
Space and timexiii 'fro picksxiv meet with Wichita goals.xv
So don't you try to stick me with your white labelsxvi
'cause there ain't no iced vanillaxvii on these turntables.
Them's I got two and a microxviii like Beck.
Das bin ich sehr fröhlich in der Eck'.xix Besteck!xx

Yeah them beats is so fine.xxii
I'm a whitey, but yo, I rhyme.xxiii
The color of my skin ain't no crime.xxiv
Blacks and whites they out be having a good time.xxv



i This is an essay about hating yourself, and how hating yourself might be part of the human condition. It's not about rap; I'd have too little to say. Though rap's birth corresponds with my own it was never a form I fully understood, the extent of my lifetime-bought records from the rap bin comprising just three De La Souls, two Digable Planetses, and one Handsome Boy Modeling School. Also a breakdancing how-to cassette tape with rap music cut into it, plucked mostly at random from the Penguin Feather in Herndon, Virginia, one Sunday afternoon in 1986. <

ii I wrote this rap in Pittsburgh during my freshman year of '96-'97. On leaving my home state for a college in a city where I knew nobody I had a short set of goals. One: Befriend People Cooler than Me. Two: Stop Masturbating. Three: Get a Girlfriend and Have Sex with Her. Some mornings I'd wake to my farmboy roommate crying to his mother over the phone about the city. He quit college after three weeks, leaving me with a single-occupancy double room and Goal Two quickly unmet. The plan for Goal One involved listening to music with my door open. Before college I'd loved violin-heavy bands, accordion-heavy bands, and given my goals for freshman year I knew not to let this kind of music leak out into the hallway, fearful it'd in its strangeness scare off the bigger boys in unscrupulous outfits who filled the rooms around me. With no friends in town I leaned on friends I'd made in EFNet's #rem IRC chatroom, waiting to be invited to IRL parties. In time it worked. The wrestlers down the hall took me on as a kind of charity case, and one Friday night I walked in a group to a house in Pittsburgh's South Oakland neighborhood where at the door some kind of resident gatekeeper was quizzing other clusters of freshmen on requisite tastes. "Trent Reznor or G-Love?" he asked me and some strange girls I hadn't arrived with. "Oh, G-Love," I replied, incredulous. "You're in," he said and within minutes I was packed in the basement drinking Milwaukee's Best Ice from a plastic cup. At the time I saw it as a victory. When not out at house parties or chatting online, I'd fill a marble composition book with slam poems about mystified male-female passion. This rap is one such poem. By the end of freshman year Goal Three remained unmet. <

iii Every day in those years I'd send an email or two to a girl named Lucy, my high-school friend's friend. Lucy lived in Portland, Oregon. Our mutual friend thought we'd have a lot in common. And we did. For beach week after graduation I flew to Portland and hung out chastely with Lucy and her friends. At one point she referred to her pale skin as having "a healthy city glow." Living as I did in Herndon at the time, I donned anything evincing a life in the city as a kind of showy sash. <

iv Your guess is as good as mine here. What was it I was hoping to display? This rap is less about being a good person than it is about being a person worthy of attention. But then and now, that's what I think I've really wanted: to be a good person. Here I'm writing about a time in my life when being a Good Person meant being a Cool Person. Why was it such a challenge? And that to this day it remains such a challenge—what does that indicate? For whom is being a good person so difficult other than the perennially bad person? I think of it like this: I've always wanted to have a good memory, but I've never been able to, and thus I understand I have a bad memory. Desire doesn't trump performance in this regard or the other. In an addition dating to 1997, the OED puts fly as chiefly Black English: "attractive, good-looking; hence, excellent." <

v We don't get to choose what we forget. That sixteen years later I can recall these words as clearly as I can the order of the alphabet is difficult to pass off as anything other than self-deprecative self-aggrandizement. But it is a shame I feel. In transcribing these lyrics from memory, I've opted for standard written English wherever rhythm hasn't dictated something else because it feels harsher to. It's more thorns on the lash. In the marble composition notebook, however, this word was most likely handwritten as "brothas". Possibly even "bruthas". <

vi It does not logically follow that a white boy writing a rap about why he is able to write a rap is a boy with Klannish sympathies, and yet here I am arguing against unspoken (but, it's telling, presumed) racist accusations. It's easy to make light of this. It's harder to get at what it means. I had only black classmates growing up, not black friends. In the spring of my freshman year the Ku Klux Klan marched through downtown Pittsburgh, and I took a poetry workshop taught by a senior black woman on faculty. Later I met my first black friend, who became Pitt's homecoming queen. In graduate school I had a black officemate. These were all women. I saw them as capital-B Black women—I was cool with their race but also enamored with it. All up on its novelty. Black men were untouchably Black and different and therein lay their power. <

vii In the eighth grade my friend Mark and I stopped washing our hair so as to grow dreadlocks. We favored the short, thin kind that sprouted like dirty moptongues from the crown, a style that had been made famous three years earlier on the release of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, featuring the trio sporting such dreads on the cover. Neither Mark nor I had bought this record by eighth grade. Our model for dreadlocks was James Atkin, singer of British alternative dance band EMF. Atkin, of course, is a white guy. But then again, so were we. I lasted all of one shampooless week. Mark went so far as to buy moustache wax, but together our hairs remained napless. <

viii A surprising reference. For starters, I never read Othello. But also at 18 I was a hard-working but sloppy janitor of my self-presumed heterosexuality, leaving all sorts of messy tells in my wake. One stranger came by that fall to scope me out as a potential roommate and his girlfriend took notice of the Dali prints I'd hung on the wall. "Better these than naked girls, right?" she said. By the next week I'd hung pics of women I felt myself to be attracted to: Claire Danes and Janeane Garofalo. It was perhaps too skinny a finger in the dike. The marble composition notebook's slam poems worked similar tasks, their central concern being the wooing of women, and in there I imagine I tried to write myself toward what I saw as a more righteous way of life. (Don't I still do this, and will I always?) It's hard to believe I wouldn't have edited out this drag bit, this casting of myself not as the black male hero but rather the white girl devoted thereto. Now I'm able to see it as apt. It wasn't until the summer of '99 that I met college Goal Two. Well, half-met. <

ix i.e. Digable Planets, a Brooklyn-based hip-hop trio most know as the one-hit wonder behind 1993's "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)". Charmed by this song, but mostly under the influence of my hip-hop-liking friend Clay, I bought their Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and the 1994 follow-up Blowout Comb. These records got heavy rotation through the open doorway of Pitt's Tower A's room 305. <

x Part of Digable Planets' self-written mythos. They were insects: Doodlebug, Butterfly, and Ladybug Mecca. There was, possibly, also, a Silkworm? <

xi Up to this point I'd seen New York City all of once, on a weekend trip with my oldest sister taken the previous spring. Our plan had been for me to tour NYU's campus as a prospective student, though by the time we arrived it was with wistful regret, as while they'd granted me early admission they'd given too little scholarship money for our family to be able to pay four years' tuition. I signed with a school in a different city, but over spring break Shani and I took our planned trip to New York and stayed in a too-intimate hotel room on 42nd street. Craning my neck out the narrowly opened window I could see the boogie-woogie lights of Times Square curl around the buildings on the end of our block. Friday night we dined at the All Star Café. On Saturday we met my friend Annie who lived in Queens. I knew Annie from the #rem chat room. She met us in Central Park, where I wasn't about to leave New York City without seeing John Lennon's grave and the Alice in Wonderland statue. There's a photo somewhere of me next to Alice on her mushroom. Standing nearly six feet tall at 120 pounds, I'm wearing a XXL Abercrombie and Fitch shirt in red plaid—my favorite shirt at the time. It ought to go without saying I saw neither Brooklyn on that trip nor Spike Lee's Crooklyn ever. <

xii i.e. Soul Coughing, a Nineties alt-rock quartet that combined jazz with jungle under slam-poetry-inspired lyrics. As an uncool person in Herndon, Soul Coughing's music affirmed something for me about life in the city. There, the women to woo were dark artists with wild streaks. Romance happened in alleyways while queued up for rock shows, or in dank bars clouded by cigarettes. Whatever it was it happened at night. Always at night. A man could fall in love every time he crossed the street. Wasn't I ready for it? Wasn't I ready to couple with a girl in a fashion that made for tortured performance poetry?

One tear begins from the sea of the eye.
This single transparent pearl
is released, and quickly curls
down the valley of her nose.
It goes
without sob, sans whimper. The only sound:
her faint exhale as tear winds 'round
the lush hill of her cheek.
I'm weak
as tear hits lip,
and on the tip
of my tongue I can taste the salt of her sorrow.
The River Ganges of her tears floods out tomorrow.
I'm healed by the many waters you cry.

If you want to make friends in college, I heard often from guidance counselors and chatroom friends, just be yourself. But what if you hate yourself? What good could it do to unleash that person on strangers? I was given friends eventually, always through others' introductions, and one summer I asked a few if what sometimes got said about high school—that it was the best time of one's life—had been true for them. Two agreed that it was. "It's never going to be that fun and easy," Casey said. Forever I've thought that my past self was an asshole, living a life I'd be ashamed by and would readily disavow. This was a way to believe that I was always getting better as a person, that whenever the prime of my life was going to be it hadn't happened yet and so: success. But what I've realized recently is frightful: what if this means that I've never once been a good person, never once lived an honorable life, and that I use retrospective self-scorn to forgive myself for never working at being a man people could respect, much less admire? My friend's past was a thing she could look back on fondly. What must it have been like? <

xiii See note ix supra <

xiv The cover to Digable Planets' 1994 Blowout Comb featured an afro pick with a hole at its handle's center, just near the teeth, where what was originally a thin plastic peace sign had been erased in printing. In The Pride of Herndon marching band my freshman year of high school our halftime show was titled The Symphonic Lloyd Webber. The show opened with music from Cats, with each instrument group clustered in shapes across the football field. The clarinets were a bowtie. We were originally going to be a peace sign, but this idea got canned. Too political. <

xv Soul Coughing had a song titled "True Dreams of Wichita" which I found beautiful in its stillness and its sadness but baffling in its message. "You can stand on the arms of the Williamsburg Bridge crying, ‘Hey man, well this is Babylon.' And you can fire out on a bus to the outside world. Down to Louisiana, you can take her with you." Even less than being able to imagine a life in the city could I imagine ever needing to leave it. <

xvi Not a reference to Dewar's, though sometime my sophomore year in college I went with female friends to C.J. Barney's, the closest frat bar to campus, and forked over ten bucks (on a no-cover night) to the bouncer they knew to look the other way when I flashed him my underage ID. It was my first time in a bar, and I ordered what I had been planning to order since rereading The Catcher in the Rye: a scotch and soda. It was Holden Caulfield's favorite drink, and watered down in a plastic cup it immediately became my professed favorite as well. <

xvii In 1997 no one had heard of Eminem. Or at least I hadn't. <

xviii A reference to Beck's "Where It's At"'s refrain: two turntables and a microphone. In the pantheon of safe and accessible rap influences of the mid-Nineties, Odelay fits around the margins. It wasn't a record I owned, however, until late in the spring of 1997, when my extended borrowing of it from Brad—the amiable wrestler who invited me to that first party—turned into a present from same. In 1996 at the University of Pittsburgh it was somewhat of a novelty to have a computer with printer in one's dorm room. Brad and the other boys on the floor wrote their papers in spiral notebooks before finding a computer lab to type them out in. For money and gifts, but mostly for the chance of being in everyone's good favor, I typed up their handwritten papers, improving the grammar and sometimes the ideas as I saw fit. Eventually, Brad fell behind in payments and agreed to give me the acoustic guitar he never played. <

xix "That's me quite happy in the corner." Modified lyrics from "Losing My Religion" translated to German. See supra text accompanying notes ii and xi. <

xx "Silverware!"a <

a I remain proud of this rhyme.

xxi There was a second stanza of the chorus. "Living in my world" is all that's not been lost to memory. Is that a world I'd ever want to revisit? I imagine it as a warm, lonely place—like Arizona, but with even more unjustifiable self-regard. A land of rehearsed conversations taped for later broadcasting, where the only available mirrors sit at the bridge of people's noses. After college I remained in Pittsburgh for three years. My friend Jenn and I organized a reading at an art gallery in Garfield where people read bad writings from their youth. The idea was to release it into the air as a kind of disavowal. I read "Tornado", a short story written as an assignment in Earth Science about natural disasters. The narrator gets locked in his basement, and after breaking the lock he finds his town's been destroyed. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go, read one line. I wanted to be sedated. It got a ton of laffs, and the next morning I took the folder of every single thing I'd written in high school, and I took the marble composition notebook from college, and I threw it all in the garbage. The odd thing is that I remember doing this while sober, at a time when I'd begun drinking regularly alone and the people I spent time with had suddenly known me for too long. I was rarely happy or good. I'd leave Pittsburgh within fifteen months. <

xxii I got a 670 on the verbal portion of my SATs. In seventh grade I started wearing dressier clothes to school. Rayon, neck chains, tucked-in shirts, etc. One morning during class I left the bathroom and found myself walking in front of Alex Kumah and Ray Rafaty—boys of color who would become stars on the high school football team. "Pull your pants up any higher?" Ray said behind me. I was wearing my red-white-black mock turtleneck tucked in to tight black pants. I could hear Alex crack up, the kind of laughter that made it hard for him to walk. It was another forty yards before I could slip back into the classroom, the two of them a pair of howling peacocks. I never wore those pants again. <

xxiii Or, I did once. One night, my first black friend drove me and my roommates to the mall, probably. Maybe a restaurant. It's unimportant which hip-hop track was playing on her stereo, what's important is that everyone took her turn freestyle rapping along. They were all generous in their bad ability. Safula, she's cooluh, and she's ... um ... gonna rule ya! It was one of two kinds of stupid. We were a group full of horsey laughter, much too much tooth and gum. My turn in the mix came last. Go, Day-ive! Without a blink I started performing this rap I wrote. Funky city-glowin' epidermis on me! The windows were open, the night warm and a little wet, and with the heavy oomph of the stereo my rap's words' sounds dissipated in the city air. These girls heard that I was rapping but not what I was rapping, and this gave me a courage to keep going, to continue with my smart rap, arms bent up and gesticulating like a man trapped armpit-deep in his own filth, rapping not freestyle silliness but words I had written years ago, in a marble composition notebook, and reread so many times that I was able to rap from memory. I'm down with bruthas and their craft! It was the other kind of stupid. <

xxiv One day in class I wanted to get my students thinking about their times and how they were or were not a product of them. How would they characterize their generation? Their generation was the digital generation, they offered. I put it on the board, along with other words. Instant gratification. Short attention spans. Political apathy. It was a long and thin room, and they sat around a long and thin table surrounded by windows, and I leaned up against the wall by the blackboard. "Is that it?" I asked. "This is all stuff I've heard before. Usually from older people in the press trying to pin your generation down. Do you think any of it applies to you?" They did think it applied to them. "But it's so negative." Maybe not every day, one student offered, but on the whole my students understood themselves to be part of a self-centered generation addicted to digital media. They wore the label like the South wears its history of enslavement. I thought aloud about what this meant for the future, this dark self-understanding. Except with a gun to my head I'd never allow Boomers' generalizations on my generation to be applied to me as a person. No matter how seemingly accurate. This class had five black students in it—my highest number ever—and I recall it filling me with a kind of anxious excitement. Well into my thirties, I still need to impress black people with how "down" I am with their being black, and I've taken enough graduate courses to know this as a form of racism and a form of solipsism. A good person sees beyond race. A good person sees other people. In no imaginable venue can I see the color of my skin being a crime, yet here I was defending the indubitable. I was a meager boy who wanted to be better. I had been unpopular, with so many insecurities, and between me and my little notebook I thought I could rewrite my shitbag self as a person far more noble and accomplished than I actually was. I could even don myths of blackness, and wait for a new kind of light to fall upon me. What happened was that nobody took any notice. Even when making conscious choices to do so, when seeing the world from the eyes of a good person and the eyes of a bad one, I was never able to match word with deed. And so I've kept writing. <

xxv And what must that have been like? <




A standup comic once told me that years ago he bombed worse than any comic could ever bomb in the history of comic bombing, and that he treats it like the greatest gift he was given, because now he knows no set will ever be that bad. Stephen Colbert reportedly trained himself not to feel embarrassment. Me, I'm not there yet, but here I'm working on it.