Rap and angels together forever


I don’t know how we talked our moms into letting us go. My best friend, Angelo, and I found our way to the Run DMC/Beastie Boys Together Forever show at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.  An advertisement on Lady B’s Power 99 FM late-night hip-hop show mentioned a corner grocery store in Atlantic City selling tickets. Forty-eight hours later, we were in the 12th row.

We nervously sat in our seats waiting for the show to start, trying to keep our eyes off the blonde in tight leopard-skin pants dancing a few rows ahead of us.

“Hey, my man,” said a sharp-dressed guy, tapping Angelo on the arm. “I’m sorry, but, yo, would you mind if we borrowed your program? I’m sorry, man. My lady really wants to look at it.”

She waved from five seats away. He returned the program a minute later, giving Angelo and me fist bumps.

“Yo, thanks man,” he said smiling. “Gotta keep the lady happy, know what I mean?”

We did not know what he meant. We were only 14. We nodded anyway, appreciating his kindness.

Reports of violence and racism, and a general loathing of the music from the older generation, had put hip-hop on trial in the newspapers, on the streets and around the kitchen tables of America. The only hip-hop shows Angelo and I had been to were Marty and the Mix breakdancing contests at The Med down the shore in our hometown of Somers Point. We had never been to a show like this. There had never been a show like this, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys joining forces to step across racial divides and kick open the doors to a new day. Everyone on the floor of The Spectrum was enthusiastic and friendly.

We didn’t expect to see anyone we knew, so I was thrilled to see my freshman basketball coach walk by. He also DJ’d a hip-hop show on Stockton State College radio that was pretty good. Our basketball team was terrible. I stood up, yelling against LL Cool J’s “Rock The Bells” blasting through the house speakers.

“Hey, Cameron,” I said, hardly able to hear myself. “Cameron! What’s up?”  

It felt like the whole arena was watching me. Cameron turned slowly and looked down at me with bloodshot eyes.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he said.

The lights dimmed, everyone stood on their seats and the Beastie Boys appeared in a fracas.

“Rhymin’ and stealin’ in a drunken state

And I’ll be rockin’ my rhymes all the way to hell’s gate.”

The woman in leopard skin had been recruited to dance in one of the cages on stage alongside three other ladies. The Beasties drank themselves drunk and spilled a few kegs’ worth of Budweiser while rocking every track from their “Licensed to Ill” album, in good humor and good fun. “Licensed To Ill” was just starting to crack the mainstream, but Lady B had been playing the Beasties’ B-sides for years. The crowd loved them.

The Beasties’ Adam Yauch spent four songs in a row reciting his rhymes while sitting to the side of the stage nursing a 2-liter plastic bottle filled with beer. Was he drunk? Tired? Questioning what he and his talented prankster friends had created? He jumped up to join the other two for the raucous “Fight For Your Right To Party.” Angelo and I hollered the ending refrain of “paaaaaarrrrtttyyyyy” as part of the loudest and most joyful noise I had ever heard as The Beastie Boys stumbled off the stage. We turned to the huge crowd behind us. People of all colors. I had never seen such unity. Everyone likes to party.

Soon, Jam Master Jay rose out of the stage scratching, “Run, R-Run,” while Run and DMC strutted back and forth in white shell-top shoes, black jeans, black fedora hats and black leather coats. Two microphones. Two turntables. Run DMC was determined to prove hip-hop was the freshest and dopest thing in the world and they made believers out of Angelo, myself and 10,000 others that summer night in Philadelphia.

“The media has been saying there is fighting at all our shows,” said Run, stepping over the monitors and to the front of the stage to speak to the people. “I don’t see any fighting up in here. All I see is black people and white people side by side and from up here, it looks amazing, y’all. We’re happy to be here with The Beastie Boys, but I want y’all to know one thing. This is my house. And when I say, ‘Who’s house?’ y’all say, ‘Run’s House.’”

Outside the Spectrum, we nimbly cut through the melee of fans, hustlers, bootleggers, troublemakers and mounted police while looking for my mom’s Chevy Malibu stationwagon. The environment outside The Spectrum was downright hostile compared to the camaraderie inside. Mom was relieved when Angelo and I filed into the backseat.

Mom navigated through the streets of South Philly and onto the familiar Walt Whitman Bridge, over the Delaware River towards New Jersey, while Angelo and I talked excitedly. We had just started making our own homemade basement version of hip-hop with cheap Casio SK1 keyboards and a boombox cassette deck. We were inspired by the show and had a million ideas.

“Hey, quick. Turn on the light,” Angelo said. “Something is on my neck! It’s one of those things you’re not supposed to kill.”

The backseat was so dark that all I could see was the Philadelphia skyline behind Angelo as he leaned his head into the window and away from what was on his shoulder..

“I can feel his sticky claws on my neck,” Angelo said. “Where did it come from? We’re in the middle of the city.”

“Do you know what that is?” asked Mom, flipping on the interior lights and glancing in the rearview mirror.

“It’s a praying mantis,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a praying mantis,” Mom said. “But I would call that an angel.”