I've been thinking about the word "nigga" a lot lately.
Seems it's popping out of everybody's mouth these days, whether it's high school wiggers or commercial rappers. The way I understand it, there's two ways to see it: It's either taking the power out of a derogatory term, much like gays did with the word "queer" back in the '80s, or it's the perpetuation of the ugliest embarrassment in American history: institutionalized racism.
I was raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and I didn't witness racism against black folks -- the only racism I grew up around was against Eskimos. But I spent a couple surreal years in small-town Texas and Arkansas once I was out of high school, and saw firsthand what racial epithets mean when they're at their worst. So I'm not sure how I feel about "nigga" being a part of the common hip-hop vernacular these days.
Recently I got a CD called Stand and Deliver by a duo of local rappers -- J-Luv (Javon Adams) and Blaze Rock (Marlos Hill) -- who call themselves Western Block. It has a track on it called "Words Are Weapons," which addresses the two African-Americans' personal experiences with modern-day racism.
"I tried to argue, it's the South, that's how they do/But to my dismay it was in California too," J-Luv raps on the track, recalling his childhood. In the song, he recounts a story about being 6 years old, on the playground, and being told, "Shut up, nigger!"
"Maybe his vocal inflection or the hate that was in his eyes told me whatever 'nigger' meant, it was something to be despised," he raps.
"I didn't know what it meant, I just knew the way he used it that it had to be something bad," J-Luv tells me recently over a beer, with the din of Sunday NFL games in the background as I talk with him and Blaze Rock about their Western Block project.
"I don't use it anymore," J-Luv says. "Used to be, I used it in my everyday language when I was living in San Jose. One day somebody I worked with used it talking to me, using it liberally. I started thinking that I didn't want somebody to use it so freely around me who wasn't African-American. But then I started thinking that the reason they use it so much is because they hear me use it, they think it's okay. So from that point, I stopped using it."
"I was raised not to use that word," Blaze Rock tells me. "I take a lighter stance on it, but for some reason, it still feels the same way. I use it sometimes as an emphasis thing in some situations. It's like when you curse for a reason as opposed to just using profanity. The song came from life experiences that we both had -- it's perspectives on racism and how certain words change everything."
Though "Words Are Weapons" is a powerful song, the majority of Stand and Deliver, Western Block's first album, doesn't linger on heavy issues. It takes its cues from hip-hop's teenage years -- it's not radio pop tracks or indie/backpacker rhyming; it can be hard spitting, like on "Razor Blades," or party-rocking, like on the track "Everybody Up."
The duo cut the record using a variety of local producers to make their beats, so no two tracks sound alike, though the album retains a coherence throughout, thanks to the chemical balance between J-Luv's deep gravelly growl and Blaze Rock's often sneering rhymes. The two are both vocalists in the full band project Cross Platform (which, as the name implies, blends genres), but their chemistry really jelled with the Western Block endeavor, which they started last year.
"We didn't know how our working styles would mesh, but it couldn't have gone better," J-Luv tells me. "Midway through, we decided it wouldn't be a one-off sort of thing -- we're going to keep this going."
Western Block doesn't have a lot of live shows under its belt, though Cross Platform sets often incorporate a couple of the duo's songs, but that's changing now with a series of in-store appearances at Zia Record Exchange locations and a push to get the Western Block name out there.
J-Luv and Blaze Rock, who also work on solo projects, are pushing to get their music out despite the fact their raps don't fit easily in any of hip-hop's subgenres. It's a topic they hit up on the track "Against All Odds." "It's about the struggle," J-Luv says. "Against all odds, we're going to move these units and do what we have to do to be successful. The amount of time you have in the music industry -- whether it's on an independent level or a major level -- it's not going to last forever. It's about trying to take advantage of every opportunity."
I don't encounter enough local artists -- in hip-hop or otherwise -- who balance their entertainment skills with the ability to broach issues like racism or politics without preaching, but Western Block is an exception. As Blaze Rock tells me, "We're trying to infuse some content with the braggadocio, with the opinionated stuff, with the love. I like to call it blue-collar hip-hop."
Get the Music Newsletter