In the early 80s my dad played drums in a number of reggae bands, eventually founding Neon Prophet, the longest-continuously performing band in my hometown of Tucson, AZ (38 years and running!).
My parents did their best to ensure my siblings and I were exposed to and understood good music. In elementary school, we each had to pick an instrument to play. I chose the alto sax and my sister became a talented classical guitarist until middle school when we both began spending more time playing soccer. Whether it was Saturday morning cleaning music (Aretha Franklin), my dad playing Jimi Hendrix albums so loud the police were called to celebrate his favorite musician’s birthday, or my dad’s bands practicing at our house, I spent my childhood literally surrounded by my parent’s musical preferences — mostly jazz, rock, reggae, funk, soul, and R&B. Hell, they even named me after one of their favorite singers, Al Jarreau.
But like many adolescents, as I began to choose my own music, I rebelled against my parents’ preferences. I started off listening to CDs my older brother (Wu-Tang Clan, Pantera, Smashing Pumpkins) and sister (Jodeci, Red Hot Chili Peppers, SWV) had bought. Then in middle school, thanks to friends, I got into punk/ska music (my first concert was Less Than Jake) and began buying albums of artists I heard on the radio (I’ve listened to Poe’s 1995 album Hello more than I’d care to admit).
In middle school, I began DJing and found myself drawn to hip-hop. I borrowed my dad’s Sugar Hill Gang album that featured the original hip-hop song, Rapper’s Delight, and saved enough money to buy the Wild Style soundtrack on vinyl. The problem was that, at the time (mid-to-late 90s), most of the hip-hop and rap music I was exposed to on the radio or through friends was west coast rap like Tupac’s Me All Eyez on Me and Snoop Dogg’s The Doggyfather. I just didn’t enjoy it.
Eventually, when I was about 13/14, I found my musical home thanks to one of Tucson’s community radio stations. I wasn’t old enough to go out on the weekends so would often stay up late listening to an “underground” hip-hop show where I first heard Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and I was blown away. I rediscovered A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm which I was too young to appreciate the first time I heard it years earlier. Later, I would be introduced to what are still two of my favorite albums of all time: Outkast’s ATLiens and Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. These albums contained elements of the soul, funk, R&B, and jazz genres my parents raised me on but they felt like they were made for me.
At the end of 2021, I was feeling worn down. Raising a young kid, working a demanding job, and trying to establish friendships in a relatively new city during an ongoing pandemic were draining my emotional and mental reserves. I was struggling with anxiety and having trouble sleeping as a result. More acutely, at the end of August, I had gotten news that a childhood friend of mine was killed, and was still processing my grief. I was in desperate need of some joy and serendipity. It was around this time that I rediscovered Bandcamp.
I’ve long found Bandcamp to be one of the most delightful corners of the internet. Last year, it became the main way I discovered new music. If you go to Bandcamp’s homepage, the first thing you’ll see is a stream of albums being sold around the world. At the bottom of the page is a feature that allows you to filter albums by format, genre, popularity, and release date. There’s also Bandcamp Daily, which features articles curating the best and most interesting music on the site. There are articles like The Best Electronic Music on Bandcamp: November 2022 and The Many Chapters of Chapter Music, which profiles an Australian indie pop label founded in the early 90s. Their curation is simply top-knotch.
Next, I discovered The Hip-Hop Show on Bandcamp Radio and it felt like coming home. I heard artists like Mick Jenkins, R.A.P. Ferreira, and JID for the first time—artists I may have never heard of on my own. It was like I was suddenly 13 years old again, back in my childhood bedroom, listening to community radio late on a Saturday night, and frantically scribbling artist names down on a sheet of paper so I could find more of their music later.
Music has always been a big part of my life. It connects me to people and important times in my past. At that particular moment, when my world felt very small due to pandemic restrictions, anxiety, and loss, I was put back in touch with a time in my life when my world was expanding. And for that, I am extremely grateful that Bandcamp exists and continues to be one of the most delightful corners of the internet.
Last year, my wife got me Questlove’s latest book, Music is History, as a birthday gift. I’ve been a fan of The Roots since I heard Things Fall Apart in high school but really fell in love with Questlove’s band when they released The Tipping Point in 2004. Questlove has an idiosyncratic and encyclopedic knowledge of music, including when he first heard a song, who the sound engineers on that song were, and how that song influenced and was influenced by songs that came before and after it. If you’re looking for some musical serendipity, I highly recommend reading Music is History, specifically the playlists he includes after each chapter. If you’re short on time, check out the Fresh Air interview he did last year while promoting the book.