A GUEST SERIES
6 – The Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar (2015, Interscope Records)
Released as a single in February 2015 (Reached Number 83)
Before TSOBO stopped we were running down a list of the 200 Best Songs of the Decade (the 2010s that is) and this track was the track that Badger and I ranked at Number 2 – the Number 1 track will follow at Number 3 – but please feel free to place your bets as to what you think it might be. This is an extraordinary track., It’s a racially charged, fierce, and angry riposte to hatred, set largely around the time of the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager gunned down by a police officer in Florida.
Kendrick Lamar was, the only American rapper who could have made this record. It’s the greatest hip hop record of the last twenty years, easily, and Kendrick Lamar is, right now, the best rapper in the world. Oh and in 2014, I very nearly met his mother. Sort of.
In 2014 I was in Los Angeles, on a whistle-stop visit to see a friend of mine who had just retired from the Los Angeles Police Department (District 17 – Devonshire – which is why I knew him). His name is Jason and he literally knows everyone in Los Angeles. He had worked for LAPD all his life, he worked on the OJ Simpson case, he worked on the Rodney King case, and he counted various celebrities as close personal friends. Largely because in 2005 his patrol patch was Mulholland Drive in Beverley Hills.
We are sat in the bar of a restaurant (Johnny, JC – It was South End) in Venice Beach and Jason has just asked me what I want to do for the rest of the afternoon. I look at him and tell him that I’m unsure. I’m quite happy strolling along the beach – I quite fancy popping up to Santa Monica and perhaps having a cup of tea in the roof top bar at the Huntley. He looks at me, shakes his head. “You are so English” he says. “Let me show you the real Los Angeles” .
We drive. Or rather he does. Our arms hanging out of the window, radio on, sun streaming into the car. In my mind we look like Crockett and Tubbs from Miami Vice, only in LA obviously and with better haircuts.
Our first stop is a place called MacArthur Park. Although Jason, knows all these places by their district names – This is Rampage apparently. MacArthur Park is, apparently the place to go in Los Angeles if you need to get a fake passport. It’s a beautiful spot. Jason tells me that in 2007 (six weeks before I met him in fact) that there was a riot where we stood. “A riot”, he said with a sad look in his eye, “caused by a couple of racist dumbass cops” On the way back he tells me that May 1st 2007 was the only time in thirty years that he thought he’d made the wrong career choice. As a black guy, he took a hell of a lot of shit, for doing the job he does, from both sides of the divide.
Our next stop is Compton. Gang Central if you believe the hype. Jason was born in Compton. He shows me the house where he was born. “Four rooms”, he says. “I shared a bed with my brother until I was six”. He tells me that this still feels like home, despite the fact that he now has a massive house on the edge of the desert in Palmdale.
He points at another house across the street, “you see that lady in the window, the one with the hat on” I nod. “Kendrick Lamar’s mother” he says. “That’s his grandmas house.”. What. Oh. My. Jason looks at me and winks, “He’s almost as popular around here as I am” he says with a laugh.
Being in Compton feels weird, I feel totally safe, but I can’t help but gawp at the shoes slung over the telephone wires, a sign of a gang murder nearby. I’m a tourist in a place where I shouldn’t really be a tourist. He parks his car, gives a nearby lad $5 and tells him that there is $10 more if he looks after it for an hour and we walk off. For what it’s worth, Compton is nice. I recommend it. We stop at a corner store and Jason looks at me.
“Could you go in there and get me a Lotto ticket”, he asks me. “I’ve just gotta make a phone call” He opens the door to the store and literally pushes me in. I stupidly don’t turn right around.
Inside there are four guys, three are wearing hoods and bandanas that are the same colour (Green). The three green guys sit on stools by the counter, and behind the counter is the biggest guy I have ever seen in my life. He looks like a bigger, angrier, stronger version of Mike Tyson. They all stop what they are doing and look at me. The stupid English guy in gang central.
I wander up to the counter and go all Hugh Grant on them. “I say, chaps, do you, erm, gosh, have Lotto here” is what I probably said. The big guy stands up and makes himself ever taller, its then I see the baseball bat behind the counter. He does this lip sucking thing and the three other lads all stand up as well.
“You the Feds?” he asks me. I look around for Jason. “Do I look like the Feds?” I stutter. “Yep” all four of them say at the same time. I’m sure the baseball bat has just moved. One of the guys takes a step closer. “Where you from?” he asks me, it felt intimidating at the time. I like to think that I played it cool though.
“England” I say followed by. “Long way from home…I’m just visiting…” . My voice was getting squeakier by the second. Then the door opens and Jason walks in and immediately the big guy shouts out something and walks over to Jason and embraces him. “He’s with me…” he says and I’m fairly sure that my bowel breathed a sigh of relief. They all start laughing at me. Jason hugs me and says sorry and then tells me to meet his brother Don. Don grabs me and tells me that this was all planned. Jason phoned him when I went to the bathroom at lunch.
I eventually see the funny side and as it happens this turns out to be one of the best days of my life.
Here’s two more of my favourite hip hop tracks from the last decade. One from LA and one from the East Coast just for balance. The first one’s for you Jason. You wait until you come to big bad Devon. I’m going to take you to the Big Sheep and run off and leave you.
Norf Norf – Vince Staples (2015, Def Jam Records, Did Not Chart)
Rockabye Baby – Joey Bada$$ (2017, Cinematic Records, Did Not Chart)
JC adds……the timing of this post is totally coincidental. It landed in my inbox more than three weeks ago and has long been scheduled for today as part of the rundown.
The reference to South End, the restaurant in Venice Beach, along with the namechecks given to myself and Jonny, are related to the fact that, until COVID-19 changed everything, the Villains were scheduled to spend a week in LA as the guests of Jonny and his wife, a trip that would also take in my birthday. SWC had booked a table at South End for us to celebrate that occasion.
Maybe next year…..