As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. As we jump back to 2006, Martin Douglas shares his reflections on Ghostface Killah's "Whip You With a Strap." Listen to or read his essay below.
Back in the day, punishment came with great ceremony. If you lived in the South like I did, in the 80s like I did, with your grandmother like I did, you probably have clear memories of what happened when you misbehaved. You remember the death march across the backyard to the bald tree where you had to pick your own switch. (For the uninitiated, a switch is a very skinny branch. Getting hit in the legs with a switch stings way worse than a series of hand smacks to the backside.)
You got the belt if you really crossed the line. For a series of weeks, I would lie about there being children’s church during our weekly 11 AM service and my younger cousin and I would break crayons and throw them at each other from opposite sides of the empty room downstairs. When my uncle caught us, he brought us up to the parking lot while the pastor was still deep in his sermon, took off his belt, and spent the next few minutes whipping me in the legs with it through my JCPenney suit pants.
I knew kids in the neighborhood who were so disobedient, they received their corporeal punishment with the extension cord. These concepts were supported with an unspoken lesson we were meant to learn as young Black people in America: “This is nothing compared to the spanking the cops will give you if they catch you breaking the law.”
The free-associative brilliance of Ghostface Killah’s 2000 best-of-genre classic Supreme Clientele eventually led to the rich narratives on 2006’s Fishscale. In the tradition of working with genre-defining producers, Ghost went from rhyming over tracks crafted by the RZA to receiving beats from MF DOOM and J Dilla. On what would ultimately become Dilla’s parting gift to the world, the works on Donuts — arguably the greatest album of the 21st Century, without question the finest instrumental album of any era or genre — reflect a vast array of emotions; joy, pain, triumph, celebration, heart-eyes-emoji amorousness, acceptance.
Though there are two Donuts productions on Fishscale, the most mournful composition on Dilla’s opus — led by an utterly melancholy vocal sample and augmented by distant sirens before they became a rap cliché — had a very clear utility earmarked in its title: “One for Ghost.” The first time I heard the track, it instantly took me back to quiet periods sitting on the deck after getting a whoopin’, allowing my hurt feelings and embarrassment and physical pain to settle down.
Ghostface knew the task at hand when writing the words for “Whip You With a Strap,” an evocative song bursting with humor and insight in equal measure. Its first verse is a literary-grade masterclass in autobiographical storytelling: Baby Ghost wanders into a house party his mom is hosting; the sounds of the Stylistics pumps through the speakers while he catches a contact high. His mom catches him and demands he return to his room, causing him to flip out and hurl expletives around. Ghost ends the verse sobbing — it should be expressly noted no rapper in history is better at simulating a good cry than Ghostface Killah (see also: Wu-Tang Clan’s “I Can’t Go to Sleep”) — with stinging welts all over his body.
Look, I know the difference between being raised by a hard hand and the traumatic effects of abuse. I harbor no judgments against people who still drape their kids over their knee and whip their ass, just as I harbor no judgments against people who refuse to physically punish their kids. It’s a generational thing; it is how I and many of the people I grew up with learned that there are consequences to our actions. “Whip You With a Strap” is a vivid memoir of a time and place where the stakes of being well-behaved or else were much higher.
On what would have been Kurt Cobain's 51st birthday, Martin Douglas reflects on a pivotal moment in his tumultuous young life, watching Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance re-aired shortly after Cobain's suicide.