It was me, Big Dummy, and Ruckus sitting in the parking lot outside of a Filippie’s Pizza Grotto. The warm, airless San Diego night was stifling, even in our fresh wifebeaters. We were in the Navy, but it was still a few months before 9/11 so we were like whatever.
We kept running the palms of our hands over our military-grade haircuts. A fresh buzz always felt good. So, with notebooks in our laps and thumbs clicking mechanical pencils, we wrote raps. There was no discernable music playing on the radio--nothing turned up, anyway--and no bass CD full of hip hop beats; we just wrote to the rhythm in our heads. Once in awhile, one of us would look up from his notebook and say something like, “Check this part out.” And he’d rap a few bars, and we’d nod approvingly, because none of us had written rhymes seriously before this, and this wasn’t a writer’s workshop where we all secretly hated each other’s work. No, we were just trying to give each other room to improve and an occasional head nod to nudge us forward.
We weren’t writing anything personal in our raps, but the writing of raps was personal. It was something we all thought we should be doing. This work felt important. Maybe not as important as the blue dungarees and black chevrons we wore on our sleeves during the day, but in the evening, we used rhyming to balance our lives. It was something to tip the scales back in our favor. Something to wrest a little control from Uncle “I Want You” Sam. We had plenty of pride in the US Armed Forces, don’t get me wrong. We were proud of our commander-in-chief, proud of our uniforms, proud of our haze-gray guided-missile cruiser docked at Pier 3. We took pride in all those things. We just needed something to wipe out the residual taste in our mouths from boot camp; something to remind us that we were people with extra-military drives, with lives above and beyond the call of duty. We wanted to be Sailors, but that’s not all we wanted to be.
We were 20, 21 at the time, so we had no worldly wisdom to impart on our would-be listeners. We knew nothing outside of high school life and ship passageways, or perhaps, as was true in my case, how to fail out of community college.
“Yo, check this part out,” I said. Ruckus and Big Dummy looked up from their rhyme books and listened. I spit, “It’s DEFCON 1 from rap’s SEALTeam 6, our Tomahawk launch splits your mohawk wigs; shot Tom Cruise missiles from our Top Gun clips; your famous last words will be, ‘You sunk my battleship.’ ”
They nodded. I needed to keep working on my skills. Relying too heavily on military metaphors runs you out of rhymes quickly, especially when you took those metaphors and overbaked them as much as I did. But their nods helped. They were encouraging.
Those two kept their raps clean. I didn’t mind keeping things on a positive tip either. If you didn’t grow up in Section 8 housing (I didn’t), and if you never got jumped into a gang (nope), and you weren’t a white boy writing Christian rap (I was brown and between religions), then battle raps were reasonably safe territory. It was either that or lamenting the perpetually materialistic, misogynistic status quo in rap music--but I was no hero: that didn’t feel like my fight. I was a saxophone-playing D&D nerd simply trying to be a pseudo tough guy in the military.
“We need to be making beats, too, dog,” I said. “Here we are, trying to rap and we ain’t got no beats. I barely know how to flow with this, son.”
“You right,” Big Dummy said. The buzz of the orange street lamps got loud.
Ruckus finally pulled a hoodie up over his head and asked, “What you got in mind?”
The next day I picked up something called the MTV Music Generator. I took the elevator up to the fifth floor of the Naval Base barracks, walked down the hotel-like hallways, and slid my cardkey through the cardkey slot. Beep click. I plopped down onto the twin bed--which was much nicer than the shoulder-width “rack” we buckled ourselves into on board ship--and I tore away at the MTV Music Generator’s plastic wrap. I dropped it into my PlayStation 1 and didn’t get to sleep until 2 AM. The next night I was up until 3 AM. Six o’clock reveille was getting harder and harder to pull off. My eyes felt salty in the mornings. My chief got in my face during the day. “Petty Officer Kalista, you are not living up to the standards of the United States Navy.” "Sorry, Chief. I'll do better." I was even too tired to join the guys down in Tijuana, Mexico, that weekend. That was a first.
During the day, all I started seeing in my head were the Mario Bros.-like blocks of the MTV Music Generator’s pre-made riffs and sound samples. Tack tack tack, I pictured lining up the beats and melodies on the TV screen. Top to bottom, left to right. Drop in a green square for a high hat sound. Drop in a teal square for a bass drum kick. Black square: piano loop. Tack tack tack. Lining up several of these tracks would concoct something like a song. They were primitive and repetitive and lazy by studio standards, but they were a start.
It became infectious. I started beatboxing in the chow line. I assembled hooks in my head while maintaining service records in the Ship’s Office. I composed rhymes, two lines at a time, while standing security watch on the quarterdeck. All of these things happened outside of the MTV Music Generator, but having beats to come home to in the barracks opened doors for me. My notebook filled up quickly with bars full of rhymes. It filled up just as quickly with line-outs and eraser burns, too, but that was part of the process.
I lost track of Ruckus in the coming weeks, but Big Dummy visited most evenings. There were late nights of nothing but composing instrumentals, he and I just passing the controller back and forth, hours at a time, each of us loading up and tweaking our own music, or starting with a fresh slate, laying down new tracks.
Big Dummy’s drums were erratic. He doped himself up on insane rhythms, always taking a frontal-assault approach to percussion. It made sense for his persona. His nickname, Big Dummy, was self-given as well as ironic. Big Dummy’s mind never dipped below a million miles per hour, never stopped spinning. And he never settled on one nickname anyways. He was like a member of the Wu-Tang Clan, having five or six different names to satisfy all of his inner rap characters.
My instrumentals were rooted in stringed orchestras, simple snares, and solid bass hits. I relished in the G-Funk tradition coming out of mid ‘90s Los Angeles gangsta rap. In my instrumentals, I melded a backseat layer of Dr. Dre and Warren G, and fronted it with samples plucked from contemporary movie soundtrack composers like Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, my number one movie of all time). I also stole from the usual suspects in classical music, but you can only hear Gershwin’s piano just so many times in that old United Airlines commercial before that’s all
you can hear, rendering that classical sample useless.
Little did the MTV Music Generator know: it was saving my life. It was one of the few but meaningful factors at that time that kept me engaged--it cold turkeyed me off negative elements clawing their way into my lifestyle. Finally, I wasn’t going down to Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana anymore. I was skipping the crowded, anonymous dance floors. Skipping the five-dollar drinks in strip clubs. Skipping the coke-snorting girlfriend I’d picked up somewhere along the line. That music generator put a plug in my downward spiral.
There was always, however, a disconnect between the rapping and the music. I put beats together that I never rapped to. I wrote raps I’d never make beats for. I’m not sure it was ever my intention to complete a single, let alone craft an album. Never occurred to me to schedule booth time to finalize any tracks. I hadn't defined any goals. Or, more precisely, my brain’s only goal was to disconnect me from hopping on that San Diego trolley and riding it down to Mexico from Monday through Sunday to look for love in all the wrong places.
It was me and Big Dummy, writing raps, making beats, doing everything we could to get ourselves into a mind state that was like whatever. The point was to disconnect, and the MTV Music Generator unplugged us.