First there was this, the video of DMX, a man who built a career being scarier than nuclear war, charming everyone's pants off with a Christmas carol about a reindeer with a nose that is both excellent (Kids: “Yay! Red nose! You're adorable, Rudolph!”) and terrible (Doctors: “Oh no. Red nose. You're going to die, Rudolph.”).
Then I was reminded me of this: In 1998, for reasons that are too dense and knotted to unravel, my grandmother, MY ANGEL OF A GRANDMOTHER, bought me DMX's It's Dark And Hell Is Hot for Christmas. There are a bunch of reasons why I thought it was peculiar then, and why I still think it was peculiar today:
For one thing because she was my grandmother and not my drug dealer, obvs. (That's probably a lazy joke more than a good one. I mean, drug dealers don't give out too many gifts, probably, at least not to their customers. Or, I guess unless you consider the time an acquaintance of mine contracted hepatitis from hers a gift, in which case your house probably has shitty Christmases.)
For another thing, as far as I could tell, she disregarded nearly everything about rap music. It was partly because her age, sure, but it was also in part because of the Spanish blood she had in her EVERYTHING. I remember playing Questionmark Asylum's brilliantly lackadaisical 1995 single “Hey Look Away” for her once. Her immediate response was something akin to: “Wha–I don't know. I wasn't listening to that. Open this jar for me.”
But there was always one reason that was more perplexing than the others, and one I still think is perplexing today.
The DMX album had come out several months prior, which I remember because I spent the entire summer playing the “Ruff Ryders Anthem” over and over again, like every other human with ears. (Quick aside: There was also what I'd argue is maybe the greatest rap love song ever written on there –“How's It Going Down” — and I pretend rapped it to just about every person with boobs who bothered to look at me that summer.) I played it enough to where even my grandmother recognized what I was playing. I mean, there was no reason for her to assume that I didn't already own the album (which I did). And I know she knew DMX was responsible for the song because I spent, like, two weeks trying to get everyone I knew to call me “DMS.” (You know, for Shea.)
So when I opened it, when I saw X glaring at me through the torn wrapping paper, my brain melted. I told her thank you and I hugged her and I kissed her and yeah. It might've been nothing, but it definitely wasn't nothing. And the more I thought about it, the more I considered the notion that something more substantial was in place, that things were maybe going to change irrevocably.
Was she sideways insulting me? That didn't seem like it was it. She'd never had a problem poking me directly. Was she saying I should listen TO MORE DMX? Did she actually like rap, and this was how she chose to open that conversation? Were we going to be spending nights sitting in her entirely-too-cold bedroom discussing whether or not DMX's grunts and growls were predicates unto themselves, parts of speech as important to understanding his psyche as the real, actual verbs and nouns he used?
Was she a music nerd who wanted to geek out over producers P.K. and Dame Grease, who built the album's perfect atmospherics almost alone (the only three songs from there that didn't involve at least one of them: “Intro,” “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Crime Story,” attributed to Irv Gotti and Lil' Rob, Swizz Beatz, and Irv Gotti and Lil' Rob respectively)?
Did she spend all of that time watching soap operas just so she could draw hyper-witty parallels between the characters on the shows and members of the Wu-Tang Clan? Were we going to rank all of the west coast rappers and rate them based on how many jars they'd open for her (my grandma was a mostly private and I don't know a whole ton about her beyond the basics, but I do know this: if she let you open a jar for her, that meant she didn't hate you)?
whatWhatWHAT was it?
I never asked her directly. What I did was go to the mall that following weekend and use a few of my Christmas dollars to buy a copy of Master P's wonderfully Southern rap-enriched tape, Ice Cream Man. Then I wrapped it up and gave it to her when I saw her later that evening.
She smiled when I told her I had a gift for her. I handed it to her and she wordlessly tried to figure out what it was. (I'm nearly certain that, for the entirety of her life up until that very moment, nobody had ever given her a gift with those dimensions.)
She opened it, and then she looked it. And then she looked at me and then she looked at it again.
The universe shifted.
And then she handed it back to me and went to finish cooking dinner. She didn't say one single word. I asked, “You don't like it, grandma?” And she ignored me. And that was that.
We never talked about it again.