There is no getting around it: the world is on fire. My hope tank is so low that my emotional investment in the future has likely permanently settled at levels where it doesn’t even matter who is in charge anymore. Even if our president wasn’t a troll doll brought to life by Republican voodoo hexes I would still feel like I’m living in the movie Geostorm, a horrendous disaster film that couldn’t possibly be saved even with a killer cast (Ed Harris! Andy Garcia! Richard Schiff! Er, Gerard Butler…). Streets are flowing with lava, tap water is killing us, disaster relief is virtually non-existent, and Kanye West is loose. I’ve listened to more blues music in the last year than I have in every year since I was born combined. If you believe in end times, these are the times to be eyeing the shoreline for seven-headed beasts.
I don’t make a habit of watching reaction videos because my response to things is typically entertaining enough, or so I’ve been informed. Me watching any news station for more than sixty seconds is akin to awakening some hilarious version of The Hulk that, instead of becoming stronger and more green as he angers, just becomes funnier and turns a smooth Indian mocha in the cheek. Mind you, I’m not laughing; I’m being laughed at. So I had some trepidation at clicking on a link of an 18 year old going by the name “Kvng Guap” responding to a Eric B. and Rakim rap video from 1987. If it were not posted by a musician whose opinion I highly respect I would have skipped it altogether.
Do I even have to tell you what I expected? Very likely the same thing you would expect if someone sent the same link without comment: four minutes of dismissive cracks from a blueblood millennial, taking shots at the high top fades, gold chains, and fat laces of my ancestors. On the surface, Kvng Guap is a person I see every day, a youth who has the attention span of a fingersnap, who not only has no sense of history in any subject area but no inclination to develop such a thing. I expected to laugh once or twice at a clever insult or even a knowing embarrassment – a twisted “Come on, son” look thrown at me through the screen from a shirtless cherub admonishing my entire generation for being so corny – but to ultimately be able to jump back on my high horse and ride off unaffected. I thought, if nothing else I’ll have an opportunity to listen to “I Ain’t No Joke” for the 10,312th time in my life between this kid’s snaps.
To his credit, he gets past the introduction ramble in under sixty seconds, burning through his shout-outs to subscribers and bragging on his growing numbers in a drawl that endears me to him as a southern born fellow, assuming that’s true. He makes it clear early on that, like his other videos, he knows nothing about the artists or songs he’s watching, which is the main ingredient of the reaction video game: the less you know about what you’re engaging, the funnier your reaction is likely to be. People are watching these videos to be entertained (even at their own expense), not educated.
Except for Kvng Guap.
Guap immediately makes clear the difference between his experiment and others: he is not watching the video to revel in his ignorance, but to abolish it. In this moment, he guesses at the year the song was made based on the instrumentation of the music, the fashion sense in the video, and the lyrical style of the emcee. He muses that “I Ain’t No Joke” (an Eric B. and Rakim classic, though that’s true for most of their songs) must have been an ‘80s track, but then amends it when he gets a good listen at Rakim’s flow, suggesting the song came out in the ‘90s instead. It is an easy error to make if you’ve only started listening to golden era hip hop sans guide and you hear Rakim after some of the other rappers from the 80s. Rakim came out the gate a god, has always sounded as if he were accessing words and ideas no other rapper was able to glean. And in 2018, when the preponderance of mainstream hip hop is glistening mumble rap, Rakim still sounds like he’s calling down new commandments from Mount Sinai. After a few more comments I catch on to what’s really happening: Kvng Guap is actually trying to learn about hip hop, on his own, no prep, no safety net, and in front of the world.
Guap listens to the music earnestly, bobbing his head when the beat sinks with him, intensely listening to the words and not just the flow. He attempts to unpack some sense of the era in which the song was created, not just sold. He tries to contextualize the subject matter of the emcee (which he cares about way more than producer credits or the beats overall), and he makes no secret of when he’s feeling it. He ranks them in an activity hierarchy: songs that bang, shit that rides, jams to blaze to, and so on. After some of his guesses I sorely want to throw a copy of Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists through the screen to tighten up his determinations, but I am too floored by the fact that an 18 year old aspiring bling artist cares enough about the culture of hip hop to go back, not one decade, not two, but three to see what all the fuss was about. In this one statement:
“Y’all got to keep me up on this shit. Y’all keep me up on a lot of the shit I don’t know about. Which is all this shit, so.”
…I have become invested. I want to go into the comments of his video and start laying out what he doesn’t know but find I have come to the party late, to the tune of several hundred previous comments.
Kvng Guap was already making reaction videos, but only recently started doing old rap songs, mainly from what he considers the ancient and classic era of the 90s. For instance, he had heard of Wu-Tang but never listened to their music, and he speaks about them the way one speaks about the music of their parents. When you consider that he’s talking about the cats that are probably still looking for their killer tapes, it’s both hilarious and sad. He’s basically the avatar for a generation that everybody over thirty constantly laments over, suggesting his kind will end the world if they don’t develop a proper appreciation for Knight Rider and Michael Jordan. As far as most people my age are concerned, most people Guap’s age are beyond reach, and offer no cause for hope.
It is a pure joy to see him reacting to the same hooks, flows, and images in songs that we did when we were his age. He is totally taken with the genius of the music like we were: we bob our heads to the same beats, we are ugly-face amazed at the same lyrical twists, we guffaw at the same hard lines. Guap is responding to everything that my peers and I reacted to back in 1987, fist to mouth, “dammmmn”-ing, jumping in our seats. Oldheads bemoan the music and opinions of younger generations, which is not new, but without excuse in this day and age. Guap – and we should assume at least thousands of similarly aged followers he has accumulated – would have loved the music that we did, the same way we did. They just never sat down to listen to it, nor did anybody take the time to sit them down and hit play. There is a heartbreaking comment he makes in another video where he mentions that he took the charge of educating himself on the history because no one showed him the way. He took it upon himself to learn. The instigation of his journey into the past is a point almost impossible to overstate: his desire to know is not just about the culture of hip hop, but about what he doesn’t know as a person. One gets the sense that if it weren’t ancient hip hop that had piqued his interest it would have been something else, and he would be dissecting it with the same pure, almost monastic attempt to rectify any glaring absence in his intellect; anything that would diffuse his ability to appreciate the world around him and his place in it. In this way, Guap is everything we claim to want a generation to be: thirsty for knowledge, self-developing, not beholden to trends, able to decipher what he absorbs and make critical assessments to its quality and relevance. In the process, he engages tens of thousands of strangers to participate in the excising of his unknowing by informing him of other paths he should go down, and filling the holes in his stats. Guap not only directly contributes to preserving the culture of hip hop, but suggests a way for people of his generation to better engage the things the people of my generation intellectually shadowbox with them to know. We challenge his generation to learn something we never intend to teach, and then wonder why no one cares about our past. We are culture bullies. Fortunately, Guap is no intellectual punk. What you don’t show him he gets for himself, at least in hip hop. I can’t speak to the young man’s life outside of YouTube. This isn’t about Guap as a person; this is about what his journey represents.
Guap is young and has his whole life ahead of him to decide who and what he wishes to become. At eighteen he has already learned the most important thing in life, something it takes people twice his age years to absorb: you can get whatever you want in this life if you never stop wanting to learn. He need look no further than his already notable success to see the benefits of that value: before he started doing hip hop reactions, his videos were getting a couple hundred views, maybe a thousand. Now he acquires an easy 500-1000 subscribers per week. For the past five months he has been posting an average of 1-2 quality, fun, hope-inducing reaction videos per day.
Kvng Guap will not be doing throwback reactions forever. He’s got plans to do other things with the platform, some straight blogging, some prank videos. He wants to spread his wings (always intended to, in fact) and not be known for one thing. I admire that, though I won’t lie: I’m here for the throwbacks. That said, I’m willing to see what else he does. What will someone who hustles hard for knowledge come up with? How will the work ethic he’s applied to throwback reaction videos translate to other expressions? What if he starts reacting to books or news stories, and conversely takes his audience along with him for the ride? It takes a lot for him to not only admit what he doesn’t know, but be willing to sit down and shed his ignorance in real time as the world watches. The typical way to do this kind of thing would be for him to make jokes out of everything and cheat-learn on the side, but he doesn’t do that. He allows us to watch him learn. He doesn’t know how powerful an image that throws, how just watching a young cat watch old videos can mean so much more, and possibly change the parts of the world who might also take on the passion of his learning. A part of me never wants him to get that, to keep him honest, and to keep what little hope I have left pure.
And really, there’s nothing like watching someone see the “Cool J cookies” line from “I’m Bad” for the first time. My man, we all had the same reaction, made the same face. In a way, we time traveled through the art and committed the same action. Don’t tell me this generation is dead when an 18 year old can transfer hope through space and time with a video he made in his bedroom while traveling space and time for new old music. What is dead is my generation’s willingness to sit down and experience a thing with someone who does not know a thing without shame or ego. It costs nothing, and the reward pays out in both directions: Kvng Guap gets my music, as well as the passion and ideas that come with it, and I get to hope. In a world that feels like it is drinking tea in a café that’s on fire every day, Kvng Guap shows us there are always rewards in staying thirsty for knowledge, especially in times when hope seems an irresponsible thing.
My 4 Recommended Kvng Guap Videos, and 4 More I Hope He Gets To
– LL Cool J – “I’m Bad”
(For reasons stated above. Pure joy.)
– Big Daddy Kane – “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”
(Halfway through Gvap stops and keeps things real.)
– Nas – “I Gave You Power”
(Nas is a challenge for him, so he embraces the chance to dissect what’s happening lyrically when there is no visual to consider. If you remember the first time you heard this song, yes, he has the same reaction.)
– Tim Dog – “Fuck Compton”
(Gvap loves beef paired with strong lyrics and Tim Dog was over the top on this one on both counts. When this came out we had ALL the same reactions.)
– Public Enemy – “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”
– Ice T – “6 in the Morning”
– Missy Elliott – “Pass That Dutch”
– Boogie Down Productions – “Duck Down”