Interview Charlie Braxton
Born and raised in Mississippi, Charlie Braxton has been one of the first writers to cover the Dirty South emergence in hip-hop. Before the upcoming release of Gangsta Gumbo, a southern anthology written with french journalist Jean-Pierre Labarthe, this francophile American told us his story. And his concerns with modern-day rap.
Abcdr Du Son: You grew up and you live in Mississippi. What is the story of your family?
Charlie Braxton: I was born in 1961 in McComb, Mississippi, one of the hot spots of the Civil Rights in the sixties. My family was heavily involved in it and I actually grew up in segregation. To understand Mississippi in the sixties, you have to understand the tracks and highways that divided blacks and whites. I lived in an area called Bear Town. It was and it is still extremely poor. We didn't have running water but across the Highway 24, where the rich people lived, they got everything they needed to the excess. That sort of shaped my outlook on life and race relations. Music played a major part on it, too. I lived next door to a juke joint so I heard a lot of blues and R&B. I actually went to school with Vasti Jackson who is a third generation blues musician. Across Highway 24 there was a drive-in, like those you see in American Graffiti, where white kids would gather, play the juke box and dance. I would hear classic rock like Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendricks, The Who… And next door, I would hear Tyrone Davis, BB King, Albert King… It was a very strong education in music. It laid the foundation for me to understand the music of my generation, which hip-hop is.
A: Was there also a strong musical background in your family too?
C: My mother and my father divorced when I was three. I lived with my grandmother who was into gospel music, while my mother was into secular music. Throughout the week, we would hear Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. The only time we could play secular music at the house was when my grandmother went to church on Sundays. That's when I would hear Albert King, Diana Washington, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, Barry White... She played those records almost religiously. Even though we were going through the most difficult times, there was always optimism and a social commentary in black music. The history of black artists has always been about justice and resisting oppression. That's something that I have always picked up, even in my writing as a journalist and as a poet.
A: You grew up during the end of segregation. Can we talk about an ending or did things remain the same at the time?
C: The laws changed but the feelings of people didn't change, that took a while. I didn't go really to school in an integrated environment until the mid-seventies. You had kids whose parents had risen under the segregationist mentality. And now, they were going to school with black kids. Some of them were cool, some of them were not so cool. It was a struggle but I really believe what really changed things was music. The fact that Jean-Pierre and I formed a friendship over our love of southern music, the fact that you and I are talking today, it's due to music! I want to further that understanding with humanity. Music has always played an important part in getting people to understand different cultures. Music is a universal language, no matter what part of the world you go to. If you play a good record, everybody understands instantly. I remember when I first heard MC Solaar: he was rapping so fast, I could only pick up a couple of words. But I knew that he was rhyming on beat, he had a cold flow and the music was dope. Solaar was the man. Big up to him!
A: At what time did hip-hop appear on your radar?
C: I'll never forget it: 1979. I was in Jackson State University , on my freshman year, first semester. I would listen to funk, jazz and R&B. My roommate, Roosevelt "Pee Wee" Clark, was from the South Bronx . He walked in my room. I was playing the Bar-Kays "Move your boogie body", he had a tape of the Cold Crush Brothers on a cassette. His box was bigger so his music drowned mine out! I was like " What are you listening to? " and he said " This is hip-hop. " He had a great deal of knowledge about the Cold Crush Brothers, the Fearless Four, Treacherous Three… He taught me about those things. I was fascinated. I remember the first time I heard rap music on the radio. It was "Rappers delight" on WJMI, around early February. We had just come back from holiday. The first time I heard it, I was like " Wow, that's the Chic record. " And then I heard " hip, hop, the hibbit, the hop… " Pee Wee was asleep, I woke him up: " Yo man, they're playing rap on the radio! " He got up, like, " You kidding, get outta here. " No listen! We turned it up and the first thing he said was " What is this crew I never heard of? " At the time, there was this controversy because the Sugarhill Gang wasn't from the Bronx . To me, it didn't matter. For most of people out of New York , "Rappers Delight" was their first introduction to rap music, the first window to hip-hop. That was a pivotal moment in my life.
A: How did your parents react to you becoming involved in hip-hop. Was there a conflict of generation at the time?
C: My mother thought that I had lost my mind [laughs]. You gotta understand: to my mother and to the older generation, rap was noise. My mother told me "Look, you grew up listening to blues, jazz and R&B, and you gonna devote your career to this?" When she comes to visit me, I don't play rap music around. She's offended by the language. And I respect her because she's my elder. That was a huge conflict, but she wasn't too happy with me being a writer, period. I don't know in France, but in America, writers don't make a lot of money. This, plus the fact that I'm physically handicapped. My disease is called Cerebral Palsy, I have to walk on crutches. My mother's concern was how I would take care of myself.