A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Two things about me: I’m one of three brothers, and I love hip-hop. So Aesop Rock’s Blood Sandwich, from this year’s Impossible Kid album, was always going to become an instant classic. It’s two stories, one about a younger and one about an older brother, both drawn from a fondly recalled Long Island childhood in the late eighties and early nineties. Hip-hop and coming of age stories? If there was a Venn diagram for stuff that fascinates me, this little beauty would fall squarely in the centre.
Let me talk you through it.
Brother 1, Graham – an eight-year old aspiring baseball player – takes centre stage for the first verse. “Little brother, little league, ’87, he was eight; rookie-season for the skinny slugger…” explains Aes. The game, though, is disrupted by the appearance of a gopher. Aes describes the chaos that ensues (“Granny yelling ‘Go Cubs!’, Graham yelling ‘Gopher!’”) and the differing responses of the people involved. Parents “thought it adorable”, and “the players followed suit”.
The coach, however, is a different matter. I love the description of this guy. We all know the type; PE teacher, ex-state level player, all testosterone and misplaced competitive ire, his team of eight-year old sissies distracted by a rodent. While everyone else laughs, he’s “seeing red.” Aes presents the ensuing conflict as a sort of pseudo-comical list; “the following is a transcript of man versus vermin – here we go: Man stands out by a hole. Pest pops up to patrol. Man plays live whack-a-mole in a scene that will try every child as adult.” The description of the coach throwing the dead creature over the fence describes him brilliantly as a “pall-bearer with a ball-mit.”
Brother 2 enters stage left for the second verse. This is Chris, the adolescent, ambitious older kid; “not a part of the machine,” Aes observes in a parallel section that mimics the structure and pattern of the opening verse; “big brother, big idea, ’90, sixteen.” Chris is pithily described via his clothes, hair, choice of sneakers, musical taste. It’s tremendously done. There may be references here to bands you don’t know – I don’t follow every reference, I have to say – but Chris, a huge fan of industrial metal band Ministry, is captured beautifully; “Neubaten tee, plaid flannel-laden adolescent art-kid, Tony Hawk hair, Skinny Puppy denim and a record player vomiting Alien Sex Fiend; Peel Sessions in a Christian home…” I was at university in 1990 and I too devoured John Peel’s sessions and would have worn Chris’s “mismatched Converse” if I’d ever had the dough to buy two pairs.
When Ministry come to play the Ritz, convincing mum to let them go to the concert is a tricky one. Media coverage of the band tends towards conservative sensationalism and she’s convinced the singer and founder member, Al Jourgensen, is a cult-leader. “It’s real youth in the palm of your hand,” Aes observes, “when your mom thinks Satan is involved in a band.” Chris pushes ahead with plans to attend, despite his mum’s misgivings; “cop tickets, ah, the plot thickens. Countdown to ultimate concert experience…” but there’s trouble ahead. “Ma’s still wary,” says Aes, transcribing snippets of her dialogue; ‘And why are they called Ministry? Are they a cult?’” Disastrously for Chris, his mother’s further investigations confirm her suspicions. She “bought a mag with an Al Jourgensen interview, read a couple sentences, glanced at a pic or two; that’s all. No fair trial. Simply, ‘You will not be going to the show and that’s final.’” Poor Chris. When he bellows at his mum, “This is something I’m willing to die for!” I can’t help but remember the tortured fury of my younger self when freedoms that seemed to be granted to others – all my friends, natch – were denied to me.
Blood Sandwich comes in a less than four-and-a-half minutes long. Just a piece of disposable pop-culture fluff. But the two stories told side by side in it display an enviable control of language and command of character and storytelling. It’s superb stuff, imo, and the more I listen (I’m on my thirtieth rotation, I guess) the cleverer it gets. It’s not surprise to me that a recent academic study concluded Aesop Rock has the ‘biggest vocabulary in hip-hop.’
Hey – here’s an idea! Follow this link for an audio of the song with the lyrics, and join the appreciation club…
Martin Griffin writes sci-fi and fantasy adventures for young readers. His debut novel, THE POISON BOY, won The Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition in 2012 and somehow managed to get shortlisted for Staffordshire Young Teen Fiction Award, the North East Book Award, the Leeds Book Award, the Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year, the Kent Themed Book Award and the Branford Boase Award, without winning any of them. A teacher at the time, he wrote using the name Fletcher Moss to keep it secret from his students. He returns to his real name for his second novel, LIFERS, a super-dark contemporary prison-break adventure, his first novel for teen readers. Martin lives in Manchester with his wife and child.