Part of a series for the new Awl Music app.
The longish story shorter about how I came to lose cable around the time I entered high school is that I was screwing up. Not in any sort of way that would alter my permanent record, or was anything but suburban and toothless and play-acty. I was tanking my classes and baiting my teachers, refining my basketball skills—without much improving my NBA draft stock, in retrospect—to the exclusion of any other kind of self-improvement and shoplifting stupid eighth-grader things like baseball hats and basketball cards and used CD's. There was disapproval from across the dinner table, strange threats of Catholic school, and then finally there was the revocation of cable, and MTV with it. All those leering, doofy Warrant videos in their last few months of relevance—gone, taken from me for no reason other than a year of behavior that begged unconsciously for that, or any other, punishment. Anyway, at the time, it seemed like a very big deal.
But at the time, everything seemed like a very big deal, and my every raging moment was suffused with wild-eyed, too-intense adolescent need and overage. But I needed music videos, they were important. So I looked for them in the hinterland of non-network non-cable. I found "Video Music Box," which aired on WNYC, a New York public-access channel with enough reach to arrive, in oversaturated colors and washed with static and cheap graphics, in our suburban television. My desperate hunt for some music videos, any, started—as did everything I did at that age—with some incoherent defiance. The cheapjack 90s hip-hop videos I found there didn't change anything in me, although they did introduce me to some really good songs not getting radio play, but they were finally and mainly a source of comfort for me in a very uncomfortable time. Which is strange, maybe, because "soothing" is just not a very good description of the ultra-raggedy video for "Protect Ya Neck." But it wasn't the video that was comforting, really, so much as it was the realization that there was a bigger, better vein of strange stuff to discover than I was then capable of imagining.
I mean, not the video itself. The video itself is pretty terrible. It's deeply unimaginative in the finest here-are-some-dudes-rapping-in-a-shitty-stairwell rap video tradition, crudely homemade enough that a VHS time-stamp appears at the bottom of several shots, goofily marred by cheapo titles that introduce whichever member ("Ghost Face Killer"; "The Genius AKA The Jizah") is rapping at the moment and capped (spoiler alert?) by a very unconvincing hater-decapitation. The song, which was at the time pretty much the best and most exciting music I'd ever heard, hasn't necessarily aged all that well, either—the later, greater command and doomy sweep of RZA's production is buried in the muddy mix, if it's even there at all. This is easier to see, now, because I need "Protect Ya Neck" less.
But, at the time, I needed it a great deal. And it gave me a great deal—not just by offering an introduction to the power and possibility of this particular dirty strain of heavy, hard music, but by being a seemingly secret thing that was uniquely mine. As a typically paranoiac and self-consumed middle-school kid, I watched MTV defensively, to see the same things that everyone else saw, so that I would also have seen those things. Each stupid fluffy Bon Jovi video was, in a way, a relief—okay, good, saw that, moving on. "Protect Ya Neck" not only sounded like nothing I'd heard, but looked like something I was not supposed to see—a time-stamp? What, even, was this?—and which maybe only I was seeing. Here it was: a secret broadcast, something to study and keep, and something that looked and sounded as strange and determined as I felt, but which also looked and sounded unlike anything I would've even known was there to find.
David Roth writes "The Mercy Rule" column at Vice, co-writes the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix,, and is one of the founders of The Classical. He also has his own little website. And he tweets inanities!