From Hip-Hop to Piano Lessons

As an immigrant kid from Vietnam, I learned English through hip hop. Because my English was limited, I paid attention to the way rappers enunciate their words and the way they put together their bars. 2pac was one of my favorite rappers. Once I got past his cussing, dissing, and gang-banging, I found the raw emotions in his lyrics, in which he spoke eloquently about police brutality, domestic violence, and personal expression. I listened to rap because I didn’t want to read.

My son, Đán, is not a reader; therefore, I wanted to see if hip hop could help improve his language arts. Before letting him expose to rap, however, I had to explain to him that he has to get past the explicit content. He cannot repeat cuss words, which he already knew. We often listened together in the car during our ski trips. He liked good beats; therefore, I let him listen to Kanye. We pumped 808 & Heartbreak at max volume. The productions on the album were top-notch and the lyrics were clean. On “Welcome to Heartbreak,” Kanye spat with AutoTune:

My friend showed me pictures of his kids
And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs
He said his daughter got a brand new report card
And all I got was a brand new sports car

I broke down the rhymes and the wordplays in those four bars. I also pointed out that “Coldest Winter” was a beautiful tribute to Kanye’s mother. After we listened to 808 & Heartbreak for a while, I had an internal debate if I should let Đán listen to Yeezus, which is Kanye’s strongest album. The productions were hard and the rhymes were harder. “New Slaves” is one of Đán favorite tracks, in which Kanye spilled a handful of references on racism, but the refrain caught Đán’s attention. When Kanye repeated, “You see it’s leaders and it’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” Đán asked me, “What does he mean by swallower?” Kanye spoke his mind and he might offend people, but he rather be a jerk than to swallow his words. Obviously, I didn’t tell him about the other reference. The only track that he couldn’t listen to on Yeezus is “I’m in It.” It was way too inappropriate for him.

Next up was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The productions on this album were fantastic. We always enjoyed the instrumental interlude to “All of the Lights.” Of course, his favorite track is “Monster,” in which Nicki Minaj contributed a monstrous verse. Đán asked me if I knew the word “sarcophagus,” and I did not know. He told me it’s a stone coffin. See, I also learned from my son.

In January, as we prepared to hit the road for our ski trip, I wanted to introduce Đán (and also Đạo) to something else other than Kanye. I remember Clispe’s classic Hell Hath No Fury. Again if we can get past the drug-dealing storytelling, we can enjoy the intricate rhyme patterns Malice and Push T had crafted: “I philosophize about Glocks and keys / Niggas call me Young Black Socrates.” What made me choose this album, however, was the productions supplied by The Neptunes. Just as I expected, Đán was drawn to the simple, crisp, and dark productions cooked up by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. After we listened to the entire album the first time, Đán told me he wanted to be a producer. I explained to him that in order to be a great producer, he had to know music. The best producers, such as Kanye, Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and even Hoàng Touliver, know how to play keyboard. Learning piano is the foundation to beat-making.

Without telling me, Đán asked his mom to sign him up for private piano lessons. He started five weeks ago and had his first informal recital yesterday. He picked up fast and played well. I didn’t expect him to get into learning the piano, but he seems to have the chops for it. I hope he will keep his dream alive.