By Nikesh Shukla.
‘Vhy do you vaste money on CD and book? Ve liwe in England, they hawe radio and they hawe library, both free. You spend £7 on album and £5 on book. You listen to album till tape breaks and you read book only vonce. Vaste of money.’
My mum was berating me while I prepared Dad’s sandwiches for work.
‘That’s what CDs are for, Mum. They never wear out.’
‘Vhy must you alvays argue? Ve brought you up here for good schools. Don’t forget you are not English. You don’t talk to me like I am English mother of yours.’
‘Whatever,’ I muttered under my breath.
Mum would monitor on a weekly basis how many tapes appeared on my shelf, trotting this speech out whenever she noticed a significant increase.
Dad, meanwhile, had loads of cassette tapes, stacks of them, all piled up next to his drinks cabinet, which consisted of a bottle of Safeway’s-own brand vodka, a bottle of Safeway’s-own brand whiskey and a bottle of nice whiskey, which went untouched unless guests were over. His tapes were a source of pride, despite being mostly unlistened to. They were nearly all once-blank C-90 and C-60 tapes, filled with songs recorded from the radio, topped and tailed by DJ announcements, or copies of albums friends and family had bought that he insisted they bring over whenever they visited so he could copy them. Once arrangements for a visit had been made by my mum, she’d pass the phone to Dad who’d run through latest releases and acquisitions of new Bollywood soundtracks and 80s disco compilations with his equivalent male on the other end, and they’d decide which ones to tape for each other. It was like when we’d collect and swap football stickers for our Panini albums, but more labour-intensive in terms of getting three or four albums copied in the time it took to visit or be visited, half an ear on another conversation about cricket and half an ear on the tape player for whether it was time to tape the next side or not.
Dad’s biggest pet peeve was receiving dubbed tapes from friends who’d recorded side A on one side and side B on the other, often leaving 10–20 minutes of blank tape at the end. What a waste of audio real estate.
My parents didn’t discourage me from listening to music. They were happy for me to listen to whatever I wanted if it was Michael Jackson or the Beatles or, most preferably, bhangra, until hip-hop ruined my life and my innocence in their eyes. They just insisted on being frugal in the music’s procurement. In a funny way, they were the first generation of audio pirates.
Dad’s reaction to my tape collection was different to Mum’s.
‘Why have you started dressing like unstylish black man?’ he’d say. ‘This baggy jean is terrible contribution to fashion. Now jazz. . . they had style.’
Dad did not own any jazz.
While Mum, on opening my bedroom door while I was in the middle of rapping along to ‘Pain’ by Tupac, ‘Did someone just say motherfucker?’
The word ‘motherfucker’ does not feature in that song.
Even my uncle had attempted to influence my musical choices. On hearing me sneaking his copy of Absolutely Madness upstairs so I could listen to ‘Baggy Trousers’, he knocked on my door and handed me a C-60 labelled ‘The Specials’. He said, ‘If you like Madness, listen to this. Listen to “Ghost Town”, it’ll change your life.’
It didn’t. I was nine.
My uncle left his tapes when he moved out of Dad’s house and the remnants included a lot of soul and funk, like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, whose samples I recognised from what I was listening to. Being a rap purist, celebrating the originators, I procured all his tapes to sit nicely next to my C-60 versions of De La Soul, Ice Cube, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and that annually-re-dubbed-on-to-a-fresh-tape copy of ‘Rap Trax!’ — a relic to Neel’s listening past. (Neel had by then moved on to The Beatles and novelty comedy songs.)
I left behind my uncle’s punk and rock stuff, embarrassed that my dad’s brother listened to white man music. I was so insensitive I’d wholeheartedly taken myself to be politically black and oppressed. He had stuff by the Clash, the Ramones, the Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, the Specials — all bands that I love now — but I decided they had no relevance to my life because I assumed them soulless. I stuck to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield and rescued them from being pushed to the back of my dad’s tape shelves, unloved and dusty.
Mum, obviously scorned by the growing number of tapes on my shelf, scoffed, not realising they were immigrants from the oppressive unlistened-to regime downstairs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nikesh Shukla is a London-based author, filmmaker and poet. His writing has appeared in Pen Pusher Magazine, Litro and Bad Idea, and featured on BBC2, BBC Radio 1 and 4, BBC Asian Network and Resonance FM. He has performed at the Royal Festival Hall, Book Club Boutique, Soho Theatre, The Big Chill, Rise Festival and Glastonbury. He is currently working on a sitcom for Channel 4. Coconut Unlimited is his first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 29th, 2010.