Rag On My Head

“You’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.”–Biggie Smalls

One of the grace notes of having kids is that they will inevitably listen to different music than you do. As a kid, I hated the stuff my father listened to; mostly big band music circa WWII like Glenn Miller or the jump and swing music of that era–stuff I later came to find interesting. Where my father and I found common ground was in Louie Armstrong and the music of New Orleans. It is a little like that with my kids.

My son, Max, used to get 50 bones a week to load my iPod. I’d write down all of the music I wanted and then he’d add all of the things he was listening to. He likes Kanye and Jay Z, lots of rap and jazz and soul mashups of every sort and he has a way of putting lists of like-spirited sounds together.  In short, he earned his dough. I liked what he listened to, with a few exceptions, and he liked some of the stuff I listened to. It is one of the things he and I can easily talk about and enjoy together. In fact, both of my kids (my daughter also has great taste in music) are forever hitting me up for scratch to see shows.We live in the middle of the greatest music scene in America.  For my son, the Metro all-ages shows were nirvana. Max loved ska as a 7th and 8th grader and these shows I never had to worry about.  They were very well-policed. The security at Metro was present, gentle and very aware. Metro’s owner, Joe Shanahan, has been doing this for a long time and his people and his policies are first rate. I never worried about my kids going to a show at Metro.

Some of the other venues scare me to death, as well as the culture surrounding some of the music. I know most of it is just selling wolf-tickets: who is the baddest, who has the most bitches, who drinks the most Hennessy…la, la,la,la  and la.

My own preferred music when I was 18 was loaded with this ridiculous posturing as well, at one time. Despite all of the drug-slinging and misogyny in Biggie Smalls music, I came to like it because there was also a limber and reflexive lyricist at work there and a vulnerability that shone through the bravado and braggadocio. There was also a a bristling, propulsive intelligence in his rhymes and arrangements, as well as an old soul’s deep blues lurking about as well.

For about the past year, my son and his pal Ashkon, who works for me, had been playing this mix tape of a young rapper named Rodney Kyles,Jr. A song on this mix tape had been rattling around in my head for months, Rag On My Head.

It is at once hypnotic, droning and mesmerizing; an incantation to a better world, yet at the same time, a world-weary affirmation that young Mr. Kyles knows exactly how the world sees him. In Obama’s “post-racial” America, Rodney Kyles knew that to be young and male and black in America…to be at the opposite end of economic advantage…is to be in exile. His raps were less angry and more cynically resigned to this idea– unlike a lot of rap.

Rodney Kyles Jr. was not the least bit naive about what this supposed “post racial” culture had left him and his crew. If this seems like a cynical or hopeless statement– look at the stats for young black males  in America, particularly the ones that tell us more young black men go to prison than they do college.

These are ugly, sobering truths and “In Rod We Lust‘, Kyles’ first and last, musical will and testament, his rhymes are shot through with these icy truths. There is something edifying about one who sees the world for what it is.  A young man able to shut out the giddy noise and the feel-good bromides about “post racial” America and realize there is still much inequality and inequity, and that he is an inhabitant of a world and city still encoded by class and skin color.

I wish I could ask Rodney Kyles Jr. about this. I can’t. In September of last year, he was stabbed to death in Lincoln Park.  He and another man bumped each other on a sidewalk on the 1100 west block of Wrightwood after a party. Words were exchanged and the other man; described as white, blonde hair, six-feet three inches, pulled a knife and stabbed Rodney Kyles twice. This happened in front of several witnesses. Nobody has ever been arrested for this.

It is easy to become cynical about crime in Chicago. Emanuel, for all of his puffery, has done nothing to curb violent crime, nor has his new police chief, Gerry McCarthy.  These guys love their “stats.” Almost every homicide of a young, black male gets thrown into the “gang violence” bin. Well, here is a newsflash–Rodney Kyles Jr. was NOT part of a gang.  As synonymous as “rapper” may be with “gang-banger” to the police, Rodney Kyles was a college student; a kid who hung out with skateboarders and artists, rather than bangers.
Eye-witnesses to Kyles’ killing told other kids–including mine–that the police were in no great hurry to summon an ambulance that evening. One wonders if this would have been their attitude had Kyles been a white youth bleeding to death in Lincoln Park.

I know of him because he was a friend of my children. They tell me he was a charismatic, if troubled, guy who was the leader of an assemblage of aspiring rappers and skate artists and filmmakers, that went by the moniker of “Scoom Squad.” At the time, Kyles was a student at Roosevelt University studying philosophy and history.  In the mix tape he left on the internet, it’s obvious Rodney and the “Scoom Squad” had a taste for rebellion and they also had some deep questions about America, the world, and their place in it. Like with Biggie, there is a gritty intelligence and wit at work in Rodney Kyles’ songs. As far as I know, he’d never performed any of these songs.  He was at the beginning and from what he left behind, I feel like he’d have gotten somewhere. I leave it to you — here is the link:


These are a collection of unpolished gems, that are as filmic as a Melvin Van Peebles film or an Iceberg Slim novel. Kyles’ ability to build atmospheric layers, with nothing but voices, is uncanny and dramatic; and at times, as howlingly funny as they are pitch dark.  There was a musically and socially, percussive mind at work here and when one hears this collection of jams, one cannot help but mourn the songs this young man will never write.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. it’s so difficult, sometimes, to be outside the norm. i weep for Rodney’s parents who loved their electic son and assuredly encouraged his diversity only to see it dashed. may his words live on for those who love him….

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