Saturday, September 22, 2007


We've all heard and have been guilty of name-dropping -- you're about to witness a shameless torrent if you read further -- but are you aware of the more invasive name-chanting?
I'm reading The Men Behind Def Jam which details the history of the famed hip-hop record label and the early years of hip-hop. I was a hip-hop fan as much as I was a follower of punk, new wave and rockabilly over the years. I went through some phases of attempts at dressing the part, but mostly I followed the music. Like many whites into hip-hop I claim growing up in a black neighborhood. In my case it's true, though Northeast Portland doesn't earn near the same street cred as Bed-Stuy or Compton. I was almost always intent to assimilate into affluent white culture, so claiming the NEP was never something I was eager to do.
My first memory of hip-hop was in the Fall of 1979. I was playing Pop Warner football on my neighborhood team. I was one of four white kids on the team. The other white boys were Tank, House and Moxley. Tank and House were fat twelve year old rockers. Moxley was a smooth thirteen year old that spoke like a brother. He was dating one of our cheerleaders, who were all black girls. We got rides to games in the backs of parents' pickups. There were a couple of MCs on our team: Blake Barnes and Wayne "Bookie" Hodges. They led a lot of call and response stuff and mixed in a fair amount of R&B/Soul songs as we rode to and from games. I still remember Bookie singing, "My name is Wayne, they call me Bookie, my number's 85, I'm really live". At twelve and thirteen all of us were way beyond our years. Our star flanker Antonio Sherman had a kid. Everybody had been drunk and high more times than they could count. I was already a reformed pot smoker at twelve after two years of regular use. Many of us had juvenile records for vandalism/graffiti, breaking and entering, shoplifting, grand theft auto and selling drugs. Late in the year as we made our way to the city championships, Rapper's Delight came out. Blake could rap the whole thing within a week and most of us caught on soon after. The lyrics evoked a world that seemed so far away and yet so very close, especially the bits about going to each other's houses and seeing how poor we all were. We sang another popular song when we won the championship, Queen's "We are the Champions". Of course it sounds very cliche now, but at the time -- being twelve and screaming that song standing under the lights on the muddy field at Lents Park on a cold and rainy November night was one of the happiest moments of my life up until that time.
Many years and a quantum leap in terms of social status and geography later I found myself entrenched in Manhattan's downtown club scene. The main men behind Def Jam, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, as well as some of their former acts, like the Beastie Boys, and employees, such as Ricky Powell and Dante Ross, were friends or friends of friends. A man by the name of Lyor Cohen was and remains a big part of managing the label. After reading his name several times in the book, I remembered hearing his name chanted in the past. I suddenly heard a friend's voice repeating it in my head. This particular friend had been around forever, he was the kind of manic genius that moved in and out of a lot of famous people's lives but never quite made his own mark. As such, over the years he developed quite a celebrity habit. We would all be hanging out and a famous would come along. We called celebrities "famouses". Instantly he would change his tune and his tone and focus all of his charm on the famous in our midst. To his credit, he was very charming and he did have a connection to many accomplished and celebrated people. He had been very close friends with many of them over the years. So if Vincent Gallo came around, as he often did because we hung out during the day in front our friend Russell Steinberg's clothing store Wearmart on Elizabeth Street, he would start with the name chanting. "Vinny, Vinny, Vinny ..." Vincent Gallo, in addition to his accomplishments as actor, film director, Calvin Klein model, musician, motorcycle racer, photographer, guitar collector and bon vivant, was a B-boy back in the day with a street name of Prince Vince that claimed Money-makin Manhattan as his turf. Respect for Vinny in relation to hip-hop is paid in Jay-Z's video, I Got 99 Problems (and a bitch ain't one of them) as he appears walking the streets of Brooklyn with Rick Rubin.
Name-chanting is remarkable because it is usually done by someone that is normally as nonchalant as they come. Then all of a sudden they turn into Arnold Horshack, spitting a famous' first name with a fervor that links them to we mortals more than the famouses they desperately hope to summon a connection.
Hearing "Lyor, Lyor, Lyor" prompted other memories of name-chanting. One night I went to a party at Leonardo DiCaprio's apartment . There were at least ten guys that wouldn't normally give anybody the time of day chanting, "Leo, Leo, Leo" all night, including a guy on a cell phone down on the street who may not even of had Leo on the other end of the phone. Another memory is of spending a lot of time around a super model that one of my friends was dating, I don't really want to drop her name as it doesn't seem right somehow in her case, but whenever she was around, even at a dinner party in someone's apartment, there was a constant chorus of her name. She and I were talking at really crowded and noisy party one night. Even though she was looking me in the eye and we were leaning close it still seemed like I had to say her name three times to make sure she was listening. Maybe the conditioning was necessary on both sides.

Signore, Signore, Signore

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