It’s maths class and in walks Dean. He sits next to me and pulls a cassette player out of his bag.
“Walker, listen to this.”
He presses the play button. It’s scratchy and there’s a slight echo, but what I hear is a girl rapping breathlessly over a super-raw beat. My eyes get wider - I’ve never heard anything like this before. “Who is that?”
Before Dean can answer, our teacher, Mr Marsh, walks in. He’s a small, squinty, stub of a man in a track suit. He normally teaches P.E., but occasionally subs for other teachers when they’re sick. A couple weeks ago he caught me whispering to some friends while we were supposed to be sitting quietly, waiting our turn to run around the track outside. None of us saw him coming. I suddenly found myself being lifted violently to my feet by my hair. “I said be bloody quiet, Walker! Get back to the gym and get dressed and wait for me there!” His voice was nasal and sharp and broke mid-scream like a cartoon villain. At some point in the past Mr Marsh acquired the nickname “Dooley”, and it somehow perfectly matches every facet of his diminutive frame and character. He has no love for me, and the feeling is aggressively mutual.
“Put that away Dean,” Dooley shrills.
After class Dean and I re-group in the hall. “Can I hear it again?” The song is incomplete, and only lasts a couple minutes beginning to end, but it’s just as incredible to my ears now as it was the first time.
Dean can tell I’m impressed. “Her name’s Roxanne Shanté. Best thing you'll hear in Bournemouth.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Recorded it off the radio in London.”
“Can I make a tape of it?”
Dean smirks and puts his hand on my shoulder. “For you mate… two pounds.”
I don’t skip a beat. “Yeah, fine. But I haven’t got it now. I'll bring it tomorrow, promise.”
Dean sighs. “Alright. But just one copy, yeah?” As if he could ever know how many copies I’d make. But I swear anyway.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to get your hands on new hip hop as an eleven year old in England in 1984. Most people have heard at least a couple songs by now - White Lines by Grandmaster Flash, or maybe Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren - but only the slickest few know there’s a whole untapped underground of rap sneaking its way out of the States, probably via the luggage of traveling music lovers and DJs, eventually making its way onto obscure late-night radio stations in Manchester or Bristol or London, to be recorded at last by bleary-eyed teens on crappy Sanyo tape decks in the smallest hours of the morning. And now, impossibly, I’ve managed to get my hands on a whole new song of my own.
I take my prize and stash it in my jacket pocket where it sits comfortingly against my breast the day long. After school I can’t get home fast enough. I fly up the stairs, scandalously foregoing the usual post-school routine of tea and biscuits, and settle in for a good listen.
The song is ‘Roxanne’s Revenge’, and it’s a singular, magical thing. To say there’s nothing at all like this in the charts right now is an understatement: it’s a completely new sound - a new art form, at least to my ears. But it’s aggressive and hard, and even has swearing. My parents definitely won’t approve. I make my recording quietly and head back downstairs to start my homework.
Dean’s a few minutes late to class the next day and does his best to creep in quietly, but Dooley’s on him immediately: “Dean. Sit.” He scowls and turns back to the blackboard.
Dean sits down and looks over at me with his eyebrows raised. No words are necessary: he wants his stuff. I reach into my pocket and fish out two pound coins and hand them to him. I go for my bag next to retrieve his tape, and as I pull it out Dooley turns around: “Walker! What have you got there?”
I freeze for a moment, then slowly hold up the tape.
“Bring it here.”
I get up and walk to the front of the class and hand it to him. He snatches it from my hand. “You can have it back in a week. Sit down.”
As I head back to my desk Dean is looking decidedly put out. He finds a moment when Dooley’s preoccupied with another student and leans over to me and whispers, “Bloody hell, Walker, you better get that tape back.”
I assure him I will.
A week passes and I get to class as early as I can. Dooley is alone in the room, making notes in his planner. I approach slowly.
Dooley looks up sharply. “Walker. What is it?”
“You took my tape, sir. A week ago. And you said I could have it back.”
Before he can answer there’s a knock at the classroom door - another teacher pokes his head in. “Mr. Marsh, can I have a word?”
Dooley stands and heads toward the door before stopping and turning to me: “Your tape’s in the top drawer on the right.” He curls his lip at me in a sneer and heads out to the hall. I leap toward the desk and open the drawer and see the tape and take it. I’m about to head to my seat when I notice the attendance book beneath his planner. I look toward the door and can still hear him talking in the hall. I seize my moment and whip open the book to a random empty spread, grab Dooley’s pen, and write “TWAT” in large capital letters across the page.
I’m honestly horrified with myself and possibly about to be sick, but I gather myself quickly and sit down in my chair. Five or ten minutes pass and the whole class is seated and ready to take attendance. Dooley reads out the names slowly and finally gets to mine: “Mister Walker.”
“Present,” I reply.