Rebel Without a Pause: A playlist from Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Beautiful Struggle

For the young daydreamer Ta-Nehisi Coates, now hailed as the "James Joyce of the hip-hop generation," the sounds of hip-hop were seductive diversions from his father's strict programme of study. But in the summer of 1988, Ta-Nehisi's Consciousness bloomed to KRS-One and Public Enemy. Hip-hop, for young Ta-Na, boosted the words of his father, a Vietnam vet who rolled with the Black Panthers, an old-school disciplinarian and believer in free love, an autodidact who launched a publishing company in his basement dedicated to telling the true history of African civilization.

To mark the publication of The Beautiful Strugglean extraordinary coming-of-age story by the author of the NYT bestseller Between the World and Me, we present a playlist of the music from the book, annotated with extracts. Set in Baltimore during the 1980s, hip-hop is the main soundtrack to Coates' youth in a city on the verge of chaos where a boy needed to learn The Knowledge fast.

"Armed with an array of sonics, Chuck D came forward and revealed a new level of Knowledge. His style was baffling. I caught disjointed phrases and images, times and places that did not cohere—“goddamn Grammys,” a “government of suckers,” “they see me, fear me.” By the tenth session, the sonic blur sharpened into a recovered collective memory. The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all—even me—so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. Dad tried to explain the Fall, but he was an elder and full with his own agenda. Chuck was one of us, and once we got it, we understood that he spoke beautifully in the lingua franca of our time. He took us back to ’66, showed us Hoover and his array of phone taps, the grafted devils with their drugs and guns like pox blankets for Indians. We fell, blinded, corrupted, consumed by Reaganomics, base heads, and black on black. But now was the hour of ’88. Now was the time to reverse our debased years, to take over, grab our guns again, and be men.

Now the word turned Conscious, De La refused to scowl and Stetsasonic shouted across the Atlantic gap. First, Chuck, then KRS, and then everywhere you looked MCs were reaching for Garvey’s tricolor, shouting across the land, self-destruction was at an end, that the logic of white people’s ice had failed us, that the day of awareness was now." — The Beautiful Struggle, 1988

- The Beautiful Struggle playlist is also available on Spotify

Read an extract from The Beautiful Struggle“He was a slave still, and all around him black people heaved under the invisible yoke” 

The Annotated Beautiful Struggle playlist 

Children's Story
 by Slick Rick (1988)

'Chapter 1: There lived a little boy who was misled...'

Sucker MCs
 by Run DMC (1983)

'A young man’s worth was the width of his blond cable-link chain. The space between two, three, then four finger rings marked footmen from cavalry, cavalry from the great gentry of this darker age. In all our dreams we cruised the avenue in black Cherokee Jeeps, then parked at the corner of Hot and Live, our system flogging eardrums, pumping “Latoya” and “Sucker MCs.” Even I shared those dreams, and I was only ten.'

 by Just Ice (1986)

'While I was hobbled by preteen status and basic nature, Big Bill was enthralled by the lights. This was the summer of ’86.'

I Can't Live Without My Radio by LL Cool J (1985)

'I would stand in my bedroom, throwing up my hands, reciting the words of Todd Smith—“Walkin’ down the street, to the hardcore beat/While my JVC vibrates the concrete.”'

Smooth Operator 
by Big Daddy Kane (1989)

'Big Bill was now a permanent fixture at Tioga, having been remanded from the good graces of his mother. His time was running out. He was entering tenth grade. He was tall and smooth as Kane touching “All Night Long.”'

Looking For the Perfect Beat by Afrika Bambaata (1983)

'Afrika Bambaataa owned the night. Bill would pop a tape into the second deck of his boom box. He’d tagged his moniker—M.C. Destiny—to both speakers with white out.'

I Ain't No Joke
 by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)

'Chapter 2: Even if it's jazz or the quiet storm...'

Straight Out the Jungle by Jungle Brothers (1988)

'Chapter 3: Africa's in the house get petrified...'

Stax Records Playlist
 by Various (1957-1975)

'[Dad] was the only brother in his unit. It was like anything else—some of the white boys were human, but others ran cock block between Dad and the Vietnamese girls. When he busted out his battery-powered record player and threw on the latest Stax, they’d howl and laugh.' 

Masters of War
 by Bob Dylan (1963)

'While on leave he concocted payback, bought an armful of Dylan records, knowing only that Dylan sounded hillbilly.'

If It Isn't Love
 by New Edition (1988)

'These were the years where I knew six brothers and sisters were a gorgeous gift. Me and Menelik were the only permanent residents of Barrington Road. But then on weekends—or when Patsy, Selah, or Linda just got sick— any combination of kids could appear, and with them another world. My sister Kris brought boxes of dubbed tapes, put me on to New Edition and later Big Daddy Kane.'

Danse Macabre
 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1875)

'All my classmates were gifted and talented. But twice a day, Ms. Rhone pulled five or six and took us to a room with a fountain, brown tables, and walls painted sea blue. We tended a hermit crab and came to understand that all animals, even us, have a habitat. All our homework was weird and open-ended. We made dioramas that moved and told stories, and concocted creatures of papier-mâché.

We fielded a team for the Olympics of the Mind. When we practiced, Ms. Rhone played Danse Macabre, and the strings jabbed like many shards of ice.'

Boyz 'N' Tha Hood
 by Eazy E (1987)

'More potent than minor acts of rebellion was the new slang Bill brought to bear on our oppressed situation. This was before Eazy-E brunched with Bush, and in radio there was still money to be had in boasting, “No rap.” Up North, the new sound was the regional anthem and broadcast to whole communities. But where I was from, the word didn’t come around on radio until all the streetlights were lit.'

Black is Black by Jungle Brothers ft. Q-Tip (1988)

'In Baltimore the feeling was cultish, and taken in only by a few. The music of the city was the erotic throb of house. I followed Bill, but—even at that young age— believed that the times demanded something that spoke to our chaotic, disfigured, and gorgeous world. Bill’s hands were Promethean. He would walk into our small bedroom, toss off his Alabama Starter jacket, throw a tape in the deck, and pump up the volume. Then he’d nod his head to the beat, rhyming along, pointing and waving his hands for emphasis on favorite lines and quips. This was the first music I’d ever known. I’d heard Luther and Deniece Williams, and like all my brethren, I hummed along. But it was nothing that I could own. What I loved about the New York noise was that, like our lives, none of it made sense. Viola loops got the best of me, garbled voice samples flying in from impossible angles, and then where there should have been a bridge, melody, a jangling hook, there were only drums—kicking, booming, angry 808 drums. 

Here I am, standing before my small black stereo. Jungle Brothers is spinning on the turntable. Q-Tip pierces the fog with a nativist sword. I am on my third listen and still I do not understand.

They fought back with civil rights / That scarred the soul, it took the sight.'

I Know You Got Soul
 by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)

'Chapter 4: To teach those who can't say my name'

Don't Believe The Hype
 by Public Enemy (1988)

'That was the summer of 1988—the first great season of my generation. The Grand Incredible was dead, KRS converted to Consciousness and assumed the sentinel pose of Malik Shabazz. All the world’s boom boxes were transformed into pulpits for Public Enemy. Before now, the music was escapist and fun—some beats and the dozens, fat chains and gilded belt buckles. But Chuck D pulled us back into the real. He premiered in the colors of Al Davis, did not dance; and when he grabbed the mic, it transformed into the lost rifle of Robert Charles. 

Here in Baltimore, brothers would put on the Enemy and recoil. We had never heard anything so grating— drums crashed into whistles, sirens blared off beat. But the cacophony was addictive and everywhere. In the alley behind Liberty, “Don’t Believe the Hype” was the loop.'

Cold Lampin with Flavor
 by Public Enemy (1988)

'On weekends, amid modules, the Player’s Handbook, and dice, Malik would play “Cold Lamping” and quote Flavor Flav.' 

She Watch Channel Zero?!
 by Public Enemy (1988)

'Dad heard “She Watch Channel Zero?!” and pointed at Ma—That’s how I feel about them damn romance novels. She reads. She reads. She reads. I was a reluctant convert but captured by the many layers, the hints at revelation, and a sound that I did not so much enjoy as I felt compelled to understand. Every track was a disheveled history of music. And armed with an array of sonics, Chuck D came forward and revealed a new level of Knowledge.'

Rebel Without A Pause
 by Public Enemy (1988)

'A feeling for why any kid would grab a black beret, guns, and law books was only partially there. I was slowly coming to a dawning, and then one afternoon Sekyiwa and me sat on my bedroom floor pumping “Rebel Without a Pause”— “Hard—my calling card / Recorded and ordered—supporter of Chesimard.” 

The next day I went to my father for the story. The story was all of two sentences, and then Dad reaching up to his bookshelf for the Knowledge of Self. On the cover, her face was off center. She wore an Afro and glanced over her shoulder. On the cover was her name—Assata Shakur. I’d started down this path a few months earlier, burrowing through African Glory, a book my father republished. But now I truly became a seeker. This was not my father’s story and then it was; for there, inside the tale of one Panther, was the story of them all.'

Lost In Emotion
 by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (1987)

'I will avoid the cartoons—the hard rocks loved Billy Ocean, Luther was classic, and, indeed, I did sit in my seventh period music class eyeing Arletta Holly and humming “Lost in Emotion.” But you must remember the era. Niggers were on MTV in lipstick and curls, extolling their exotic quadroons, big-upping Fred Astaire, and speaking like the rest of us didn’t exist. I’m talking S-curls and sequins, Lionel Richie dancing on the ceiling. I’m talking the corporate pop of Whitney, and Richard Pryor turning into the toy. Was like Parliament had never happened, like James Brown had never hit. All our champions were disconnected and dishonored, handing out Image Awards, while we bled in the streets.'

Lyrics Of Fury
 by Eric B & Rakim (1988)

'I was twelve, but when I heard “Lyrics of Fury”—“A horn if you want the style I possess / I bless the child, the earth, the gods, and bomb the rest”—I put away childish things, went to the notebook, and caged myself between the blue lines. In the evenings, that summer, I would close the door, lay across the bed, and put pen to pad.

At first I felt the words of others pulsing through me—my reforming brother, the esoteric allusions of The God, the philosophy of KRS-One—and in truth, in many years of trying, I never completely touched my own. My hand was awkward; and when I rhymed, the couplets would not adhere, punch lines crashed into bars, metaphors were extended until they derailed off beat. I was unfit, but still I had at it for days, months, and ultimately years. And the more ink I dribbled onto the page, the more I felt the blessing of the Jedi order of MCs. I wrote every day that summer, rhymed over B-side instrumentals, until my pen was a Staff of the Dreaded Streets (plus five chance to banish fools on sight) and my flow, though flicted and disjointed, a Horn of Ghetto Blasting. The words were all braggadocios, but when done with the recital, even though I was alone, I felt bigger.'

The Symphony
 by Marley Marl Feat. Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap & Big Daddy Kane (1988)

'I had spent so much time in my room that by now I had the lyrics, pacing, and breath control down. I could untangle the meaning and many syllables of “The Symphony” or deliver the sick monotone of “I’m Housing.” This came to be known, among the boys my age, as a talent and they would gather around and request various renditions. Then we’d spend the next few hours debating Kane versus The God.'

I'm Housing
 by EPMD (1988)

D.A.I.S.Y. Age
 by De La Soul (1989)

'Chapter 5: This is the Daisy Age'

Back To Life
 by Soul II Soul (1989) 

'I had spent that summer in early college prep out at the nearby campus for the University of Maryland, yet another of the programs my parents were always putting us in, hoping that whatever messages we missed from them might connect from another angle. For a month, I lived in a dorm with kids cropped from all over the city. We bunked together in suites, and during the day took lectures in the sciences and field trips to various points of interest in the city. We ate in the school cafeteria. Our downtime was spent swimming, hanging out in the dorm lobby, watching cable videos, or sitting outside our rooms bumping “Back to Life” on our boom boxes.'  

Strictly Snappin' Necks
 by EPMD (1989)

'Poly changed with the culture and demography of Baltimore. It was now our time. The pall was slowly coming off, and we were recovering from crack, though still caught in the aftershocks. I worried less about getting jumped. Weathermen talked more sun. Reports of school shootings were replaced with black is back. Chuck D still preached: Elvis was exposed. Our heroes did not appear on stamps. At night, I pumped “Strictly Snapping Necks” and brought forth lyrics. My daydreams were all on stage. It was black and silent, until I raised my ax and touched the mic with literature and fables.'

Djembe Solo
 by Bassidi Koné (2015)

'Hip-hop gave me a common language, but that August, on liberated land, I found that there were other ways of speaking, a mother tongue that, no matter age, no matter interest, lived in us all.

The djembe is a drum, carved from wood. Its bottom is a wide outlet. If you trace its outline upward, you find the drum narrows until about halfway through its length. From there, it gradually blooms outward until, at its crown, it is as much as three times the size of its bottom. This crown is covered with the shaved skin of a goat. Rope running along the drum’s side is tightened to effect a sharper sound. The drum is played with bare hands. Its sound varies from a piercing slap to a deep tonal moan and a barely inaudible bass. A djembe drummer is usually accompanied by a djun-djun player, the djun-djun being a giant bass drum played with a stick.'

Buggin' Out
 by Tribe Called Quest (1991)

'Chapter 6: Float like gravity, never had a cavity' 

Around the Way Girl by LL Cool J (1990)

'Chapter 7: Bamboo earrings. At least two pair'

Old Marcus Garvey
 by Burning Spear (1975)

'That winter, I applied to four schools—all in the area, in hopes of never saying good-bye to my drummers. The shortest application was for Howard—a gamble, a pebble slung into the dark. Then I returned to the last leisurely half of senior year. That was the year, the only year of my childhood, that I took off from hip-hop. The older gods were falling off. EPMD were breaking. Chuck and Flav had taken us as far as they could, and already the new voices were being hijacked by the death cults. Brothers who last week were shouting out Malcolm were flipped into studio gangsters, killing every nigger in sight. I felt some part of that need to stand on the corner of the world and grab your nuts. But I was at the gates of manhood, and they could not fade me. They were hard where it mattered least—attacking whole genders, claiming to run the street, and then fleeing in the wake of the Beast.

By then, Big Bill had brought home other gifts—Bob, Steel Pulse, and Burning Spear. He would gather his friends at our home, my parents gone for the week, and blaze out back, banging Babylon by Bus. They were all nouveau Conscious, had dropped their slave names for handles taken from Zulu and Swahili. Bob Marley had been dead for a decade, and yet he emerged to us as the great bard of our people. Later I found the frat boys had ruined him, like they do everything they touch. But back then, he was prophetic.  

They Reminisce Over You
 by Pete Rock & CL Smooth (1992)

'Chapter 8 - Use your condom, take sips of the brew' 

- The Beautiful Struggle playlist is also available on Spotify

Read an extract from The Beautiful Struggle“He was a slave still, and all around him black people heaved under the invisible yoke”