Picture the scene: I'm sitting in a crowded Red Lobster lobby on a Saturday afternoon in late October. A gentleman sitting on a bench near me mouths something barely audible over the crowd noise while Sunz of Man's "Wicked Wayz" pours into my ears from the Apple iPod I got for my birthday several weeks ago. As I remove one of my earphones he asks me for the score.
Score? Oh, there must have been some really intense game going on where the fate of the free world was at stake. I smiled and explained that I was merely listening to music.
Music? He gave me the blank stare. I politely smiled and put my earphones back in my ears.
Music is a funny thing. It either exists at the periphery of your lifestyle, or it becomes a part of it. The fact that music falls into the latter category for me explains why I enjoy listening to my iPod so much.
I have to admit that the first time I heard about the must-have item of the year was in one of those Hip Hop magazine "things I can't live without" lists where celebrities describe the various gadgets they carry from city to city (usually phones, PDAs and digital music players). Ever the iconoclast, my initial thoughts were, "If it's good for them (the MTV Music Awards-types), then I definitely don't want it." I was perfectly content with my reliable (albeit bulky) personal CD player.
Well, I was wrong.
At slightly larger than a pack of smokes, the iPod (and it's significantly smaller cousin the iPod Mini) are the ultimate tools for basement deejays and music buffs striving for the perfectly sequenced mix tape. Unlike burning a single compilation CD of favorites (the best of A Tribe Called Quest, for example), the iPod (and the free iTunes software that ships with it) allows me to transfer all of my ATCQ CDs (as well as any other songs where they guest-appear) and then drag-and-drop only my absolute favorite tracks from their albums into a separate custom playlist folder. I can sort by song title, album, genre or any other category that helps me organize my collection.
In other words, it didn't take me long to figure out how to create a "Hip Hop Revolution" playlist where Tupac Shakur's spoken word intro from The Rose That Grew From Concrete is followed by tracks from Wale Oyejide, Soulstice, Brand Nubian and Public Enemy. So far, my "Hip Hop Classics" list contains only The Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill (who can forget "Paul Revere"s hypnotic, reverse rhythm track?), but Boogie Down Productions, Eric B and Rakim, Slick Rick and Run DMC aren't far behind. And I can't forget the "Best of the 36 Chambers" list I've started building. ODB would have been proud.
Without a doubt, digital music players enable users to actively define and develop their own musical construct. My iPod will propel me even further from the stronghold of the radio deejay's unimaginative, corporate playlist into a world where I have complete and instant control over my life's soundtrack. If my math is accurate (and I were to somehow reach the iPods's 10,000 song limit), I would theoretically have enough music to drive from Cincinnati to L.A. and back about nine times without having to listen to a single song twice. Meanwhile, the local FM urban-formatted station is playing Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" once an hour.
It's difficult to speak about digital music players without considering the impact that downloading music has on the overall industry. Though I personally prefer to purchase or borrow used CDs and transfer my music directly from my laptop (I'm terribly afraid of computer viruses) many digital music enthusiasts choose to download singles or albums from the Internet either legally (for about 99 cents per song) or not-so-legally from Web sites and message boards where fans and enthusiasts post their own playlists. Think of it as Hip Hop HAM radio. Political Hip Hop artist/activist Chuck D. -- a known advocate of the digital music revolution and the force behind rapstation.com -- has often spoken about the fact that "underground" artists, producers and turntablists now have a distribution outlet through the Internet. At its best, this backdoor system enables small-budget artists to "hack" into the nearly impenetrable Matrix that the music industry has become, while curious listeners can simply surf the Net to find exclusive, unreleased music at a much lower cost than retail stores can offer.
For me, it's all about control. There's nothing more powerful than having 10,000 songs in the palm of your hand. Radio deejays -- watch your backs, for the sleek shall inherit the earth.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.