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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Sunday Jukebox: Gangsta's Paradise by Coolio featuring L.V.

Nineteen ninety-five was a year that could be considered a monumental one in my life and times thus far.  A lot happened that year, and on some aspects, it was a year of highs and lows.

High.  I graduated elementary school, winning the grade eight faculty award for English.

Low.  Both my mother and sister had to have surgery.  Two days before my 14th birthday.  Not exactly the happiest birthday I can ever remember.

High.  Going on my very first ever overnight trip.  The grade seven and eight class went to Toronto, Ontario where we played at Canada's Wonderland, saw a musical, and ended up at a science museum.  Lots of fun...wish I could do it again at age 30!

Low.  Having my very first date...and never seeing her again after that.

(And, you thought that stuff only happened in the movies, eh?)

My retrospective of 1995 has been filled with ups and downs, this is true.  There was one other major significance of that particular year that I am still debating about whether it was a high or a low.  For years, I just assumed that the whole experience was all one gigantic rock bottom period (and in a way, it still is).  But then again, I look back on how it all began, and I just don't think my first year was as bad as the others, and I think maybe it was the high point in a period of blueness.

September 5, 1995.  The day I entered high school.

And as it so happened, I have a story that goes behind today's Sunday jukebox entry related to my high school experience.

I guess you could say that it was a really low point in a class that usually brought me highs.

Although I only dabbled in the art known as music from grades six to nine, the four years I spent in music class were some of my fondest memories.  When I was eleven, all of us sixth graders at my elementary school were given the option to play a musical instrument.  I settled on the baritone, since it was really the only instrument I could play.  For four years, I played the baritone at music festivals, school concerts, and various band practices.  If not for the fact that my high school schedule caused conflicting, I probably would have stayed in music class, but alas, it was not meant to be after ninth grade.

Through the instruction of Mr. Tripp (my band teacher from 1992-1995) and Mrs. Quick (1995-1996), I grew to have a new appreciation for music.  I never really bothered with music much when I was a kid (I didn't even have a radio in my room until I was thirteen), but taking music classes opened up a world that I never really knew existed, and I guess I have both of them to thank for that.

Now, once I entered grade nine, I found that music class was a bit different in ninth grade than it was in sixth or seventh.  In elementary school, we just had to learn how to play instruments and read sheet music.  In grade nine, we actually had to write and perform our own compositions, which was a challenge.  Fortunately, if you had the right group of people working with you, it seemed to work out splendidly, and as long as all of the people were on the same page, it seemed to work out well.

Unfortunately, I was one of those people who almost always seemed to get stuck with group partnerships that crashed and burned from day one.

Sometimes, it wasn't the person, but the combo of instruments.  I remember working on a duet with a girl named Sarah who I thought was a sweetheart and who always treated me with respect...but I have to question the logic of pairing a baritone with an alto sax.  I worried that I would drown her out, and I think I might have done so a couple of occasions.  Nevertheless, Mrs. Quick gave us both a great mark, so I think it worked, even though I didn't know for sure if it would.

Most often than not, I was stuck with a group who didn't want to put forth any effort, or who couldn't agree on an idea no matter what.  And the project almost always was a failure.  Back in those days, I wouldn't quite say that assertiveness was in my vocabulary at the time.  Honestly, I wish it were, because then maybe some of my music assignments could have been salvaged.

Such as one class project that was a train wreck from the very beginning.

The assignment was one that was given to us about three weeks into the course.  Mrs. Quick wanted us to mime a scene based on a piece of music that was recorded over the last twenty years (so, from 1975-1995).  Problem number one was that I wasn't actually picked to be in a group.  I was assigned to a group.  And the group I was assigned to was a group where none of us had anything in common, and where nobody could agree on a song to perform.

Mrs. Quick had a small selection of cassette tapes that we could select songs from, but most of the choices were songs recorded during the disco era.  And if there was one thing that we at least agreed on, it was that even in 1995, disco was considered dead.

To add insult to injury, the day before the project was due, all of us were at a stalemate as to what song to choose.  At the very last moment, one of the group decided on a song that was quickly rising up on various Top 40 charts at the time, and we ultimately chose the song below as the soundtrack of the project from hell.

ARTIST: Coolio (featuring L.V.)
SONG: Gangsta's Paradise
ALBUM:  Dangerous Minds Official Soundtrack
RELEASED:  August 9, 1995

Here's a bit of a confession.  Although Coolio had been around for at least a couple of years, and had a couple of hits, I had never heard of him before this song.  No offense to Coolio and other entertainers like him, but rap music was never really my thing.  I might have liked it in the days when Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer were big, but that was a loooooooong time ago.  Although, some of Eminem's stuff is okay.

Anyway, this was the song that we as a group basically agreed on for no other reason than the fact that we needed a song to use, and we had zero time to plan.

When it came time for us to present our song, all three of us basically had no storyboard concept and no idea as to what we were doing.  It was basically us trying to mimic the improv artists on 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?'

And I'm pretty sure that had we done that performance on that show, we would have gotten it cancelled.

Boy, did our project suck.  For one, all three of us misinterpreted the song's meaning, so all three of us were doing our own thing.  One guy was standing around making weird faces while the other one ran around the room hiding behind furniture pretending not to get shot.  I was suffering from something called stage fright, and since everyone else was basically doing whatever the wanted, I couldn't follow, and I ended up throwing Monopoly money to the classroom filled with kids who had the weirdest look on their faces.

By the time the whole fiasco ended, I think we got sympathy applause from the teacher, and maybe two kids out of politeness or pity.  The rest of the class...well...crickets chirping.  That's all I can say.

In the end, we were all to blame for the D+ we all got as a grade.  None of us could work together and build towards a common goal, and as a result, our teacher was right to give us a bad mark.  At least sixteen years later, I can own up to it.  I don't know about the other two, but I guess it didn't matter, since I never really talked to them again after that.  Maybe they blamed me for the screw-up, I don't know.  It doesn't matter upon retrospect, really.

Of course, anyone who has heard the song may recall that it featured prominently in the movie Dangerous Minds, which was about a teacher (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) who was assigned to teach in a school filled with troubled kids who were into the gang lifestyle, and whose lives were filled with drugs, crime, and violence.  Looking back on it, we could have done a lot with that movie synopsis, only the problem was that none of us had seen the movie.  For one, by the time that school was in session, the movie had stopped playing in theatres, but yet it was too soon for it to be released on VHS.

(Yes, boys and girls, there was life before DVD and Blu-Ray.)

I think our biggest problem was that we took the lyrics to the song a little too seriously, focusing too much on the money and power, and too little on what the song really was all about, which was that living a life as a 'gangsta' really wasn't all that it was cracked up to be.

Though, looking at this song through older eyes, I think I could easily put this song to use in a different way.  For Gangsta's Paradise can loosely be somewhat autobiographical.

No, I've never joined a gang.  No, I've never done any drugs.  Truth be told, I've never even so much as held a gun, let alone pulled a trigger on it (unless Super Soaker water guns count).

But the more I think of it, the more I realize that high school for me was kind of like a suburban white crust version of a Gangsta's Paradise.

Let me explain.

Going from eighth grade to ninth grade was a real culture shock in a variety of ways.  You went from a school that had a graduating class of sixty-two, to a school where your class was almost three times that number.  That's a pretty significant thing.

The school I went to was one of those schools where...I don't know exactly what the most politically correct or diplomatic way of saying this is, so I'm just going to come out and say it.

I was the token poor kid in a school of rich, spoiled, entitled brats.  If you didn't fit in with them, you just simply didn't fit in at all.

Certainly, I had acquaintances in high school, but the majority of close friends that I had I didn't form until the year I graduated.  Most of the people I went to elementary school with went to the rival school, so I didn't really have many connection there.  But quite a few of the kids in my high school class didn't really acknowledge my presence, and some even made judgment calls about me without even getting to know me.  It sucked, but there was very little that I could do.  I had come into high school with mediocre expectations at best, and I wasn't expecting to become everyone's best friend.  I just wish that some of them could have not been so judgmental.

But even beyond that, it kind of shocked me that so many of the students of the high school I attended were dabbling in self-destructive behaviour.

I mean, my school was in the middle of a residential neighbourhood with a hospital and park surrounding it.  In short, you'd think that the last place bad things could happen would be at my high school.  Especially since a good three-quarters of the student body were from well off families and who seemed to have it all.

But if one were to peel away the endless layers of Guess jeans, leather jackets, and hundred dollar sneakers, they'd find a group of people so desperate to belong to something that they end up selling themselves short to get the acceptance they crave.

I saw it a lot at my school.  I can't even begin to tell you how many of the supposed cool kids got high in Victoria Park every lunch hour.  Or how many skipped classes to get drunk.  More than I could count on one hand and one foot, at least, if not more. 

But it didn't matter to them about getting a good education as a school that prided itself on its academic excellence.  They wanted to fit in with the 'cool crowd' at any cost.  It's just a shame that by them being in the cool crowd, that it made them look even less cool to those who actually did go to school for the reason it was intended.

But hey, as the song lyrics go, they were educated fools with money on their mind.  I honestly think that some of the people used the money that they had on their mind to buy the drugs and alcohol that got them through another high school day.  It was almost a pity to see.

Even worse were those antagonists in the school who purposely made it their mission to terrorize other students who weren't in their group, or who might have had different values than others.

In fact, I'll probably get massively flamed by some of the people I went to high school with if ever they put two and two together, but at this stage in life, I could care less if I ever saw those people again.  But I honestly thought that most of the people I went to high school with acted in such a way that if I were to run into them on the street, I'd still be completely turned off.

Quite a few of them acted like arrogant jerks for no reason than to flaunt their importance in the school.  As if being the king and queen of the second floor hallway was something to be proud of.  They took great pleasure in bullying people, physically and emotionally harassing other students.  All in a school where the authority figures mostly did nothing but look the other way.  Pretending that such horrible things could never happen at a prestigious high school like the one I attended.

But it did.  And I was witness to a lot of it. 

Mainly because I was the target of such abuse, but I wasn't the only one.  Far from it.  I know quite a few people who were terrorized and bullied by students who felt a sense of entitlement.  We had a group of tenth graders who basically kept all the other students away from the benches outside of the school cafeteria for months before a group of students forced the principal to do something about it.  That's what those of us outside of the main cliques of the school had to deal with every day.  Having to actually take the long way to classes or having to change lockers because you invaded the turf of a group who felt you unworthy.

They acted like gangsters.  Gangsters in designer clothing, mind you, but thugs who felt the need to have as much power as they could get no matter who they walked all over to get it.  And they mostly got away with it due to a lack of concern and communication made by those in charge of the school.

It was absolutely shameful and disgusting. 

They were so blinded by the so-called joy of hurting others around them that they weren't seeing just how much they were hurting themselves.

Tell me, why were they so blind to see that the ones they hurt were us and themselves?

I guess that's why I feel like my school was sort of like one of those 'Gangsta's Paradises' that Coolio sang about all those years ago.  It wasn't quite as dangerous as the school featured in 'Dangerous Minds', but high school was a pretty scary place to go to if you weren't a part of the in-crowd.  Although knowing what I know now about the so called in-crowds, I was more than happy to have been an outcast instead of a complete jackass of a person.

In the end, I managed to survive my own version of the 'Gangsta's Paradise', and for me that is one of the biggest highs that I could ever take from my high school years.  I'm sure that I'm not the only one who can make that claim either.

For it doesn't matter whether it is an inner city school in a poverty-stricken county, or a rich, luxurious private school filled with the best that money can buy.  Any place can have the tendency to become a Gangsta's Paradise.

It's up to all of us to make sure that doesn't happen.

One last thing to end this note on a high...shortly after Gangsta's Paradise was released, Weird Al parodied this song.  You can find it below!

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