My Summer of Hip Hop

The other day, I saw a B-reg Golf with a hole in the middle of the radiator grille where its badge should be. Most people, if they noticed this at all, might think, ‘What a tatty old car,’ but it meant something to me. I know why that hole was there . . .

1987 saw our Summer of Hip Hop. Several of us in the gang of kids who hung around the park were under the thrall of Licensed To Ill, and, as the school holidays stretched before us, we decided we’d reinvent ourselves as ‘B-Boys’. The fact that we were doing our GCSEs, lived in the north east of England, and had only recently learned the term ‘B-Boys’ from a box-out in Smash Hits didn’t strike us as a barrier.

First, we had to look the part. Kangol hats hadn’t made it to Burtons yet, and even if they had, I’m not sure my paper-round wages would have stretched that far . . . But luckily, the ultimate accessory for the hip hop gentleman that season was completely free: a Volkswagen badge, worn on a simple chain around the neck. All you had to do was rip one off the front of a car!

Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to rip the badge off the front of a car, but it’s surprisingly difficult. You’d think it would just be stuck on like a fridge magnet or something, but no, it’s actually welded into the grille. Stupid ‘reliable’ Volkswagens. Also, we were basically pretty good kids, not really comfortable with vandalism. We’d have to try something else.

Jamie Bradley, quite audaciously, attempted the direct approach. “Excuse me,” he’d say to anyone he saw getting out of a Volkswagen, “can I have the badge off the front of your car?” They’d normally just say, “No”, of course; occasionally they’d ask “Why?” first. The answer – “To look like Mike D – you know, out of the Beastie Boys” – seldom impressed.

Plan C. We went to the junkyard to see if we could find any old VWs to de-badge. All we found were some sun-faded pages from an old jazz mag (which, to be honest, was some compensation); then an Alsatian chased us half the way home.

But then – a new hope! So worried were Volkswagen at the epidemic of badge-stealing sweeping the nation (apparently) that they took out adverts in the national press offering VW badges for nothing! You just had to fill out the form and write in.

While we waited 28 days for delivery, we moved on to the next element of hip hop expression: graffiti art. Such was the force of the disaffected creativity within us that we felt we needed the whole world as a canvas for our thoughts: the side of a church, the wall of Safeways, the bus to Ferryhill Colliery – all would carry our message from the streets! Except that, as I said, we were basically pretty good kids, so . . . we went to the council and asked if there was a designated wall we could use for our ‘art’ (I think we’d seen a similar scheme on Why Don’t You..?).

The lady on reception was very nice, and said the councillors would discuss it at the next meeting, which was in six weeks. Six weeks! We’d be back at school by then. We may have been good kids, but this needless delay, imposed by The Man, pushed us too far. We went to Halfords and bought as much spray paint as we could afford: two cans of spray paint, in fact. Just enough to spray the word ‘SIN’ in red with a silver outline on the wall under the railway bridge (where we found some more tattered jazz mags – bonus). Not sure why we painted the word ‘SIN’ – it was just meant to be a test, but we used up all the paint. Still, I did quite a neat silver starburst on top of the ‘I’, which made it look a bit like the word was made of metal – like in the future. We quickly branched out into the cheaper, but more adventurous medium of coloured chalk – to this day, I don’t think chalk has been used to deface the side of a New York D-Train. I wonder why?

Of course, we wouldn’t have been proper B-Boys if we hadn’t have tried our hands (well, mouths) at rapping. The ‘studio’ was my house, partly because I had the rarest rap record of all of us (a London Posse 12″, which included Sipho the Human Beatbox humming the theme from Dallas while doing the drumbeat with his mouth at the same time), partly because I had access to the best stereo. It may have been my dad’s, and made largely of wood, but it was almost as versatile in turntable speed as a proper Technics deck, what with it’s 78 and even 16 rpm settings; it also had a nice big space next to the radio in which to keep your Reader’s Digest classical collection box sets.

So, we rapped along with the instrumental B-side on a Mantronix single (49p from Woolworths) as backing, Jamie Bradley (DJ Jammie B) doing a bit of chunka-chunka-chunka scratching, the whole thing captured on a C16 computer cassette and, thankfully, completely obliterated from my memory. Even at the time, I think we all knew it was a bit embarrassing: we all had broad Geordie accents – in several cases, our voices were breaking – and all we could think to rap about was how Miranda Prendergast, a girl in the lower-sixth, was ‘fly’. None of us were very eager to keep the tape; I think I recorded over it with the Spectrum version of Cobra. Nowadays, of course, we’d have a deal with V/Vm.

The summer wore on, it got a bit rainy, and things seemed a bit less hip hop. I had to try and get into Simple Minds because, weirdly, it seemed to be what the trendier kids liked. The final straw came when we finally got our free VW badges in the post – they turned out to be plastic, and about an inch across. I half-heartedly wore mine on a key ring for a bit, but when I got back to school, Pepe key rings were all the rage – they came in many colours, and had two different components, so you could swap bits with friends for a stylish two-tone effect. We never looked back.