The typical way rap music is digested in 2005 involves a small chaste white mechanism, engraved with an Apple logo, connected to the listener via inconspicuous earplugs, muting its noise from any surrounding individuals, purchased by a customer who naively paid somewhere between $.99 and $4.95 for a radio-clean, single-serving song.
Back in the day, that song would have been recorded off the radio, or recorded from the artist's live or studio performance, played on a box (known invariably as the "speakerbox," "boombox" or "radiobox"), perched on the shoulder of an individual, at max volume so that the song would promiscuously touch any and every individual within a block's radius, whether they liked it or not.
The transition from speakerbox to iPod, from taking ownership of the collective public urban space to becoming confined to a private, narrower corporate-owned space, and from providing a soundtrack for the streets to being licensed a song only for one's own head has in many ways both castrated and way too comfortably accommodated hip-hop culture.
But there it sits in the middle of Omar Abdul Lawrence's floor: A black Sony boombox, complete with tapedeck and speakers that jut toward the sky, as opposed to the traditional speaker position aimed at the horizon. DJ O-Ab, as we refer to him, still uses it today -- both as carryaround and sometimes in his miniature Nissan, which employs only a CD player as its soundsystem.
Much of what O-Ab has recorded is neither on disc nor audio file, but rather on cassette. Ten years of his life is distributed among bags and crates and stacks of Maxells, Fujis and TDKs; 90-minute, 60-minute and even 15-minute four-track tapes; Type IIs and IIIs, high-fi, Dolby, and "anti-resonance." They're stocked heavily throughout O-Ab's North Shore three-floors-high-and-rising house like food in ya moms' fridge. He literally can't live without his radio.
"Forgive my crib, it's looking a li'l like New Orleans right now," he says, his face seemingly unashamed of the understatement.
There is no shuffling or dragging your feet in O-Ab's crib; you're in a perpetual mode of stepping over shit as you trudge through piles of old tennis shoes and boots.
If you make it to the third level of O-Ab's unit -- the chillout listening area -- you find the tapes and sneakers, and also stacks of 12-inch: Mingus, James Brown ... Joe Walsh (But Seriously Folks). A few books lay around on the floor, taking a break from never posing on the bookshelves that never existed in these accommodations. The biggest book: The Best Broadway Songs Ever.
O-Ab throws on a tape. It's from, he says, "'93-'94," when he was transitioning from his personal "Math Team" music-production era to the legendary "Double O" sessions, where he was teamed with producer Oyo -- a guy who in some corners of this city exists only in myth.
A bass groove begins immediately assuming a Ron Carter sample. It's actually O-Ab live on the upright, until a sick pit-pa-pit-pattern comes in, followed by O-Ab's vocals as he freestyles effortlessly over the track: "I never use the style as a crutch / because the content of the rhymes is enough."
The glass patio door is slid half-open with a fan propped up, almost touching the screen door in front of it. As the fan's blades rotate on high, all the smoke and the noise in the room is dispensed to the streets, and the trees and the space outside. A group of guys and gals walking through Allegheny Square, perhaps from the community college just around the bend, look up as they pass O-Ab's place. One of them pulls out his earplugs from the white pod to hear what's going on.