mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
More than sports, perhaps, music served as the bridge between my brothers and me. They are eleven and seven years older than me, respectively. The years between us sometimes creates a space that can’t be measured quantitatively and seems impossible to traverse, to narrow, and even possibly close. I perceive their ages—the fact that they are older than me—as though they are marathon runners briskly jogging ahead of me. When I think of them, I think of life as a race, and ever since I was a child I wanted nothing more than to be closer to my brothers. But we do what we can with what we have. So we turn to music.
Those years between us did afford me certain advantages; I heard hip-hop at an early age, as my brothers, nearing or just entering their teenage years, immersed themselves into the new sound of the 1980s. It’s the music I remember when I think of those distant, pre-school years. If nothing else, it meant I had a common language—a native tongue, if you will—with my older brothers, quickly becoming men, launch soon approaching. I guess I wanted to know them as they were learning themselves.
Often, this would play out in the form of long conversations—debates, maybe—about this album or that song. I wasn’t a fan of “Bonita Applebum” by A Tribe Called Quest when it was released in 1990. This would’ve made me around nine years old, defending my stance on the song in question against two people ages twenty and sixteen. They thought “Bonita Applebum” was dope and I don’t remember why; I disagreed, and thought the song wack, and I don’t remember why. To date, we have never seen eye to eye on early Tribe, but soon mended fences upon the release of their album Midnight Marauders.
I mention all of this for a number of reasons. For one, it explains why I rarely, if ever, argue with or debate someone about a song or an artist. At least with me and my brothers, it was fine if you thought something was wack. Maybe you would be viewed as “corny” for a little while, but we rarely took things so seriously. Music, much more than religion, for me, is communal space, sacred ground, one location neutral to all divisions. It’s the one piece of naïveté I willingly afford myself; I know it’s silly, but I like to think there is one safe space—one—on Earth.
Another reason, perhaps, is to reveal the deep importance of music in my life. It is as much a source of inspiration and technique to my writing as literature itself. And like literature, music requires active participation. A never-ending search for the next new sound, the next amazing voice, the next otherworldly emcee. And like literature, music is about excavation, a return to one’s collection to revisit sounds that can trigger old memories, old emotions, old bones dusted off and made visible once again.
I’m still stuck on the notion of ownership, because what is a collection if I don’t own it? What is ownership in the face of burgeoning streaming libraries? Why should one care about a collection—owning and maintaining one—when, one day maybe, the world’s entire music library, in some shape or form, is accessible for $9.99/month? All of this makes me question the need for my music collection—the digital file library I’ve started, kept, and have added to since around 2002.
With some exceptions—a deleted folder here, a corrupt file there—I haven’t repurchased any part of my collection. Many of the files were ripped from CDs. I think about why I continue to keep it around as I switch computers and phones. Perhaps it’s because I grew up with a family—those brothers again, namely—who collected vinyl and cassette tapes and compact discs, presumably like many other families, and kept them. Sometimes there were whole pieces of living room furniture for records, then later slim shelves for tapes and CDs: this is where the music resided. I still have this mentality, even if the music now resides on multiple hard drives, and in the cloud (the cloud, of course, being multiple hard drives).
I do stream music—at the moment, I pay for Spotify Premium, but I’m checking out Apple Music on my iPhone—and I’ve stumbled into a truce with the whole idea of music on-demand, paid for on a monthly basis. Music streaming means I have access to a discovery tool that eliminates the risk of trying new music, which is primarily a monetary one. I’d much rather pay $9.99/month to hear an artist than buy their album, even if it’s the same price.
The convenience of music streaming means I don’t have to buy songs and/or full-length albums anymore. I pay for Spotify Premium not only to get rid of the ads (I do hate ads), but also so I can download music to my phone for offline playing, a necessity for someone with an hour-long commute on the subway. But I still maintain a music collection, which has become less of a total mosaic of my musical tastes, and more of a curated exhibit of the music I love, music I hope you would love if I shared it with you. I still buy albums, making me a veritable relic, but I only buy what I love.
And as much we perhaps deride—rightfully so—the current use of the word “curate” and its many iterations, there’s something to be said about collecting music as one would document and collect journals. The quickest way for me to remember a part of my life is to play music from the time in question, much like one who opens a notebook last written in five or ten years ago. Maybe music, as a form of time traveling, affords some room for fiction, or crossed wires within the hippocampus (which is the secret to great memoirs), as opposed to the cold documented actions of a particular day. I think of August 2012—one month after I relocated to Brooklyn—and I remember Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which stayed on repeat for the remainder of that summer. It was only three years ago, but it feels two lifetimes ago, making Ocean’s album a conduit between then and now, those old versions of me with different goals and troubles.
With over 20 GB of music to date—a lot of music for some, only a fraction of the libraries belonging to others—I sometimes forget what’s in my collection. I went to stream Bitches Brew by Miles Davis via Spotify, only to realize later that I own not only the official album, but also the digital files from the four-disc boxed set I used to have. This means that I’m often surprised by what appears on my phone when I’m scanning my selection: no idea where that Zero 7 album came from, but I do remember the first time I heard Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind for the first time (Spring of 2000—I bought it as a vinyl at an old record store somewhere in Prince George’s County, Maryland).
Music often acts as a trigger for memories I might otherwise have forgotten long ago. It’s a bridge to myself, my past lives. My brothers and I, meanwhile, have more distance to close than ever before. Now they have children, my nephews, and have their own middle-age lives while I’m building momentum here in my early 30s. I could text them, or write this column and email it to them, but I suppose nothing will supplant the face-to-face conversations we once had. But we do what we can with what we have. If I’m carrying around 20 GB of music, I can at least send them some files, maybe re-open the bridge that way.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.