RIP, Don Cornelius

For my two young daughters, rap is one of those things that has probably always existed, like water and color television and the internet. But I wanted to take a few moments here to describe my personal experiences with rap, and to tie them in with today’s shocking news about Don Cornelius.

The first time I ever heard “rap” in any form was on Blondie’s song “Rapture.” I remember Debbie Harry doing something that wasn’t quite singing, and was more uptempo than anything I had heard ever before. It seemed to take a lot of vocal dexterity to tell about the Man from Mars who shot you dead and then ate your head. The play on words in the title was also lost on me, since I was just a dopey kid at the time. But it left an impression on me, that was for sure.

What really got me into rap music was watching Run-DMC perform “Rock Box” on Soul Train back in 1984. It was literally the Saturday after my 16th birthday, in the very short window before I started working and driving and thinking about life beyond my parents’ house. I was far from the person I would become in just a few years, and light years away from what I am today.

I was changing the channels, probably looking for a ball game to watch, when I saw these guys dressed in black and wearing hats. They had a loud, rock-driven beat behind them, and their verbal interplay was beyond all description. I sat transfixed for a minute or two, and when they had finished, I thought to myself that it was totally unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was a moment that, almost thirty years later, I still can’t think of any  parallel to.

When Dan Cornelius came over to interview them after the song, I realized that I had been watching Soul Train. I knew what the show was, but didn’t really make it a point to watch it, either. But at that moment, something I had seen on Soul Train blew me away like nothing else has, before or since.

I wish I could find an online video of the performance itself. The song was called “Rock Box,” and had they picked another song on the album to perform on the air, I may not have watched it so intently. I even think that “Hard Times” and “It’s Like That”  from their first album may be better songs than “Rock Box.” But for a kid who was listening to Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne and Def Leppard (and, I hasten to add, wasn’t smoking pot), the rock beat was necessary to get my attention and reel me in. And that’s just what happened.

Two years later, I was in college and playing their debut album and the King of Rock  for my dormmates, who were getting into them because of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way” remake. It was one of those rare times in life that I felt like I was ahead of the musical curve.

The news that Don Cornelius died, and apparently by his own hand, was very shocking to me. Even if I never watched Soul Train again–and I honestly can’t remember if I did so or not–the fact that he helped to break Run-DMC to a larger audience means a lot to me.

How many other acts did he give exposure to, and how many lives were impacted as a result? We’ll never know the full answer to that, but it had to be very significant, as the show ran for more than thirty seasons on the air. Whatever caused Don Cornelius to take his own life isn’t my business, but I hope that he knew all the good that he and his show did over the years.

From one Chicagoan to another, thanks.

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