I joined my college radio station because I loved music, and all my friends were doing it. Not sure which was the top priority.
Initially, for my late, late night show, I brought a box of CDs — all my favorites. Along with my roommate/co-DJ, we had a hodge-podge of ska, Celtic, hardcore and what was then called progressive music. It kept us on our toes, but for most folks was probably more than they bargained for at 2am.
After a couple of semesters we stayed roommates, but parted ways as DJs. I realized that my own music collection was not advancing very quickly. So I went to the stacks at the station to see what I could find.
Sadly, there wasn’t much. There had been a spree of totally brazen theft on the part of a few DJs, who saw the envelopes from SubPop and Grand Royale Records as their own personal stash. The CD rack had some saccharine one-hit wonders (Tiffany?), as well as a hefty collection of rap (clearly not what the DJ thieves were into).
Then I went to the vinyl. This was the early 90’s, and vinyl hadn’t yet made a comeback. So most of what was there was from the 70s, and most of that was disco and funk.
And so, with a few of my own albums, I created a new playlist. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was also getting schooled.
In between the Earth, Wind, and Fire and Donna Summer LPs, I was playing A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy CDs. I started to catch the samples from Apocalypse ’91, and find their roots in Parliament and James Brown. I lucked upon a “James Brown’s Funky People Vol. 2” cassette at a truckstop and felt like I found the Holy Grail.*
Playing the same stuff each week, I started really listening to the lyrics. And I began gaining appreciation for some very different life perspectives. I had taken a pretty excellent American History class, and learned all about the civil rights movement (thank you, Mr. Brown!). But knowing about racism and inequality is different from feeling it. And as a white woman, I couldn’t experience it, but I could feel the frustration, the anger, and the amazing never-say-die attitude coming out of the lyrics and the beats.
One of my best examples of awareness-raising back then was “911 Is a Joke.” As a middle class white kid, I never had any reason to think that 911 would not mean an ambulance coming right to your door. The idea that some people would not get help when they followed the rules and asked for it really stuck with me.**
While I studied art history and creative writing, while I made sculptures and shot videos, I kept up my radio show. I was getting more of an education about the world through music than I was in my classes. And when I moved to Baltimore after college, I felt more at home when I heard the beats coming from the apartment next door.
EDIT: I put together a little Spotify playlist of some of the influential songs from that period:
*Writing this I discovered the site Who Sampled – that would have saved me a lot of searching in the 90’s, but it was probably more fun 🙂
**Now, more than 20 years later, I know how naive that sounds. In fact, only a few years after that big epiphany, I lived in Baltimore in a neighborhood where 911 was pretty darned slow. The one time I called it to report a burglary (in process!) the police didn’t arrive for over 90 minutes. And, that was 20 years ago – 911 calls mean a whole other type of danger to people of color now.