Late nights and basement parties

The New York Times ran a nice profile of Sean Paul that took me straight back to 2002.

The article was fascinating. While Sean Paul’s music made up a decent chunk of the soundtrack of my college days, I wasn’t so familiar with his career. I didn’t realize he was so prolific, or that early classics like Get Busy were based on an Indian beat called the Diwali riddim.

I found myself watching a bunch of early-oughts music videos, thanks to YouTube’s rabbit-hole suggestions, and it stirred up a whole brew of complicated feelings.

What is that saying about nostalgia? The pain you don’t want to stop?

In the music video for Get Busy, Sean Paul arrives at a friend’s house and DJs a basement party. The scene looks both familiar and alien to me.

The basement looks a lot like the one in the house I grew up in. The grownups, sitting at the kitchen table, talking about the economy or real estate or whatever the adults talk about. The Dad, fussing about the noise in his button-up shirt and chinos, reminds me of the parents in my neighborhood.

But the people at the party don’t look like we did. They’re young like we were, but they’re a lot better dressed and a lot more beautiful. They dance with the kind of transcendent grace and confidence that few of us experience without the help of, say, peyote. They look both liquid and jittery, sexy and athletic, sophisticated and a little dangerous.

But the feeling the video conveys is something I know. I remember a few late weekend nights in college, out with friends in Baltimore, somewhere south of 2am, not exactly sober and not tired yet. We’d be at a show or a club or a bar, or just walking the streets. Those few nights I felt a sense of connection and adventure and serendipity that made our particular moment, however fleeting, seem eternal. I felt graceful and confident, myself.

The people in that video look like I felt those nights. Sean Paul made music that spoke about something I (we all?) hoped to find.

I grew up in a small town in Virginia where, on most days, you could only hear two kinds of music. Country and classic rock. A few other things crept in. Rap, dance, and goth music were there, but they seemed to linger at the fringes, met with side-eye and uncomprehending sniffs.

I went off to college in Baltimore and then I got Ernest as my roommate. A DC kid with a mom from Puerto Rico and a dad from Japan, he was accustomed to a much bigger world than mine. He was kind enough to gently guide me into unfamiliar waters.

His laptop speakers were never silent and his taste in music was (and still is) omnivorous. He loved to play Caribbean dancehall bangers like Sean Paul’s, but then he’d switch to Dizzy Gillespie. Green Day. Japanese pop. Brit-pop and New Wave. Destiny’s Child. Manu Chao. The Clash. Nelly Furtado and Timbaland. Tupac and Biggie; then he’d teleport to the west coast and hang out with Snoop Dogg awhile.

It wasn’t just that he had a deep iTunes library, it was that all of this was as normal and familiar to him as Tom Petty and Garth Brooks (burned relentlessly into my brain by Valley radio) were to me. Ernest could meet artists like Sean Paul right where they were and appreciate what they were doing. We’d be hanging out: I’d be leaning against the doorframe of his room, he’d be sprawled (comfortably, somehow) across two chairs and his bed. He’d hum along with each track, sometimes pausing, eyes narrowing a little, to add: ‘This beat is just so good.’

Ernest inhabited a world I wanted to understand, to be a part of. But, at the time, it felt like it existed behind a wall of frosted glass. I came from a place where much of the music from outside the narrow borders of country and classic rock — often made by people of color — was seen as alien and suspicious. I was beginning a slow process of recalibrating the way I saw (and heard) the world. The work of a lifetime, in many ways.

Watching videos this morning, I felt that old swirl of wonder and anxiety and yearning. Sean Paul danced and rapped and sang with an effortless cool I will never have. I saw myself, sitting there at the kitchen table, and felt a little ridiculous. A suburban dad, eating Cheerios on a random Wednesday, watching glamorous kids percolating in grainy videos from 2003. My daughter came into the kitchen to pour herself a bowl of cereal, and I got embarrassed and almost closed my browser tab.

But then it hit me: I want my daughter to see this. I want her to know about it. I want my house to sound like this. In that way, maybe, I can pass on a little of what Ernest gave me: a view of a bigger world.