Isamu Jordan taught us about connections: Shawn Vestal
Here is how you enter the Wu-Tang.
At least, it’s how I did.
You find yourself in your middle 30s. You have always been a rock ’n’ roll nerd, a liner-note memorizer, but the hip-hop revolution has mostly passed you by, until around the turn of the century when rather suddenly, you – a white, pickup-driving Idaho native – find yourself captivated by rap.
You work at a newspaper. You know the young music writer at the paper, Som Jordan, though not particularly well. But you already see that he’s one of those people whose personality – big, bright, generous, funny – draws people with the force of a neutron star.
Happy. That’s what you would say about Som. What a happy guy. The happiness you sense in him flows to you. It’s his superpower.
Som, younger than you by a decade, takes you under his wing. He takes you to school. He decides – not patronizingly, not amused at your gray-haired incongruity, but as one enthusiast to another – to instruct you in the art of hip-hop, Wu-Tang branch.
It’s a big branch. The Wu-Tang Clan is the sprawling hip-hop collective that blasted out of Staten Island in the early 1990s. It’s made up of nine MCs who wove a unique mythology, built on kung-fu movies, inner-city life and heavily coded slang. It’s gangster rap, if you want to call it that, and it deals with crime, poverty and drug-dealing – but it is also a rich and varied portrait of communities and lives. It is sometimes harsh, sometimes lyrical and always sonically fascinating, and the storytelling is brutal and arresting.
You start with “Enter the 36 Chambers,” the Clan’s debut. Som tells you the story – the origin myth – of the group. He tells you the way that eight MCs came together and that the ninth, Masta Killa, earned his spot with the astonishing final verse in “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’.”
Som walks you through the lyrics of that verse. Makes you listen.
He begins delivering CDs to your desk on a regular basis. He takes you through the Wu-Tang rappers one by one. He starts with GZA, a CD hand-labeled “Genius Mix.” Later, you will put this on your iPod as “Som’s Genius Mix.” Next comes the GZA’s first solo album. Then comes a mixtape of the Ghostface Killah, then Method Man, then RZA, then …
Each time, Som wants to know which songs are your favorite, which verses are your favorite. You talk about the music as you go. Som emphasizes all the sampling and cross-referencing, the borrowing that is the heart of hip-hop. He points out how one musical sample in one song is a repurposed sample from a different song, slowed way down, and how that sample originally had another source. You find it hard to keep up, honestly, as in the best, most challenging classes, but it’s fascinating. You begin to fit this into a larger vision of art and culture and human connection: layers built upon layers built upon layers.
You begin to see this layering everywhere. You think about what Cormac McCarthy said: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” You think that’s not an ugly fact at all. You consider the ways that Plutarch fed Shakespeare, and Shakespeare fed Kurosawa, and Kurosawa fed Clint Eastwood, and Clint Eastwood fed the Beastie Boys.
You think about connection.
You think Som is a maestro of connection.
Som continues writing about music – but he does more. He is a force, a presence in the music scene. Organizer, DJ, supporter. And he is a rapper himself. Sometimes, he shares his verses with you.
They’re good, you think.
He should do more of it, you think.
When Som loses his job 2008 in a wave of layoffs at the newspaper, it feels doubly bad. It is not personal, you tell yourself, but it feels that way. Because Som started at the paper as a high school student, because he is so deeply beloved, because he is truly the son of the newsroom, one whom many there have seen grow from a boy into a man – because of all of that, it feels like betrayal.
He begins to fight new struggles. He begins doing different things to make ends meet, teaching, DJing, scrambling. He also begins growing explosively as an artist. He forms a local hip-hop orchestra, Flying Spiders, a sprawling collective of musicians. The band blends rap, rock, jazz, classical – it describes itself this way: “Flying Spiders live at the intersection of galaxies.”
The band begins to record. Som shares verses and demos with you.
They’re better than good, you think.
Some of them are great.
You see Flying Spiders here and there – not as much as you’d like. You catch them on a TV commercial for a local credit union. You follow on social media as they perform around the region; you pick up their recordings as they come out. You notice that you are no longer thinking of Som’s rapping in terms of potential.
You’re thinking: Look at him now.
You have gone from co-worker to friend to fan. You love that Som is making art about Spokane. You love the expanding sense that Spokane is a place where young, creative people are focusing their energy more and more – instead of pining weakly for hipster outposts to the west.
You realize how much one person can contribute to that energy.
You think Som’s Spokane-centric raps are brilliant. One of them, “Break Ya Spine,” is a hip-hop history of Spokane; he name-checks the whole damn town. You notice his lyrics are often piercing and dark – he goes by “DJ Darkside Som,” after all – but they are also sizzlingly smart on race, economics, identity, responsibility.
One of your favorites is “Spokane’s Finest (Premix),” with its refrain: “If no one is telling the truth, well, I will.” The first few times you hear the song, you can’t quite place the tune the band is playing, based around a lovely bit of violin phrasing played by Rajah Bose. You ask Som why it rings a bell, and he tells you: It’s the same tune that Wu-Tang used on the 1997 track, “Reunited.” A song you recognize from one of those CDs Som burned and put in your hands.
You feel proud of Som. Happy for Som.
You mistakenly feel this must mean Som is happy and proud of himself. You assume, knowing how much he is loved, that he feels loved.
On Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, a friend at work comes to your desk and asks what the hell is happening on Som’s Facebook page, and you look and it seems like some kind of ugly joke: a long string of RIPs and expressions of grief, a litany of mourning. It crushes any ability you have to hope it’s a mistake, to hope that there is some other explanation other than the one hammering you in the middle of your chest.
There is nothing in the days to come that feels good except this: The waves of love flowing under the grief, from so many people – a portrait of the connections Som nourished in his 37 years.
You listen to his music again. Watch the videos, blurry-eyed.
You find yourself scrolling through your iPod on a long drive, and you come across the various chambers of the Wu-Tang Clan, which now occupy a massive place in your library. And there they are, all of the mixes Som made, back when he was taking you to school.
You get to Som’s Genius Mix.
You stop there. Push play.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.