Our writer reflects on "Just a Friendly Game of Baseball" from Breaking Atoms, and on hip-hop's role in voicing the discontent of marginalized people with the institutions that opress them.
“A Friendly Game of Baseball” appeared on the 1991 album Breaking Atoms, as well as the Boyz N the Hood soundtrack of the same year. In 1991, three years before my debut into a Black existence - some say a curse, I maintain a blessing - my parents sat in front of their television sets to watch the bludgeoning of Rodney King before a worldwide audience. The evening news and the daily papers were the frames dominating our nation; feeding the grim of the world from the newsroom straight to the idiot box. In their 20s, my Black mother and my Black father were well-acquainted with the seats in the ballpark Large Professor speaks of; that darker skin is a lifetime season ticket, paired with a prayer to never be called from the dugout.
One false move, one bad swing, one pop fly and the darkie disappears.
That Black father went on to become a police officer in our nation’s capital, his Black son becoming an MC acquainting himself with the game of baseball through his own exposure to the evening news: Trayvon, Mike, Sandra, Renisha, continue. “Fuck the police” parlance never fit too snug on my bones when I paused to consider the pig’s blood I bathed in every night in my silent suburbia. I couldn’t recall Flash’s Message, the sirens KRS heard, and my Maryland was a far cry from the Compton where them Niggaz Wit’ Attitudes clapped back against the pigs. But no matter the count of two-car garages and reverse mortgages, a dugout hides beneath the concrete. It’s the game that goes on forever; the game my Black cop father chose to officiate, knowing even his number could be next.
As hip-hop approaches 40 years of existence, the lineage of the protest anthem remains a prominent theme across regional contexts and sonic conversations, functioning as an expression of rage against the systemic brutality inflicted on black and brown bodies. With an inherent understanding of the seemingly-almighty power granted to law enforcement officials - which they disproportionately utilize to target and terrorize low-income communities of color - the theme of revenge, or contemplating revenge, persists across space and time. If you check the MCs in your city right now, you’ll uncover slang and signage of how this impacts the communities in your backyard: the acronym for your police department, the street names of where you’re never told to visit, and a ledger of names of the slain in remembrance of and resistance for those claimed by police violence.
Hip-hop’s protest songs - and their lens of police brutality - are flexible and reflective. Some elect to further humanize targeted individuals through storytelling while others are unconcerned with appealing to the gaze of their oppressors. This can range from a simple “fuck the police!” as an act of resistance, to a detailed fantasy where an MC seeks blood to avenge the forced martyrdom of a loved one. On “A Friendly Game of Baseball,” Large Professor envisions an us-or-them encounter with the very cops that play this deadly game with people of his skin while acknowledging how his victims hold no responsibility in their wrongdoing for the very same act. The acknowledgment of said condition calls back to his own as a Black man: if he were to exact his pound of flesh, he knows precisely the ending he’d meet.
Where Large Pro was a survivor of Reagan, Nixon, the Crack Era, I’ve risen from the next wave of Black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ liberation. I’m from a time when Kendrick became Compton’s prodigal son, when YG & Nipsey Hussle carried the torch for their hoods, and when J. Cole dropped his freedom cry in real-time as we watched Ferguson burn. The mythical baseball game extended from a primetime thrill to instantaneous horror; bodies living, dying, and mobilizing from our pockets. Yet in an information age that publishes death on-demand, the digital echo chamber continues to shame artists of color for utilizing their artistic liberties to process their oppression.
While no one’s running 2Pac CDs over in the street, or protesting NWA nationwide, we live in the same universe where our neighbors meme the corpses of their neighbors, firmly burying every straw-man into the cement to justify state-sanctioned executions. Yet a lyric where someone doesn’t fuck with a cop can garner more negative feedback than a person losing their life under insidious circumstances. The Civil Rights dissonance from our classroom VHS sets has long disappeared; the millennials are making the same shit as their OGs, and nothing looks different no matter the medium you document the chaos from. The state still manipulates this power to clutch us by throats, filling hashtags in by the millisecond.
As this world continues to burn, and the chants of neglected beings ring out through time, an endgame is difficult to envision as we’re due for a U.S. regime change with no signs of healing this nation’s genocidal wounds that continue to whittle us down to nothing. If the message of Large Professor, or Grandmaster Flash, or Pac or B.I.G. carries into our present, can we reach the tomorrow where fantasizing over revenge and praying for change will no longer be necessary? It’s a question that’s stood the test of time for many generations; as my peers are charged with continuing the journey to ending the madness, the artists from my time will respond as we’ve done with a flair unseen to our predecessors. They’ll push the lineage forward, meeting injustice with jubilee and conviction, asking every question they must until the ugly of this world is forced to expose itself and answer for what it’s done. Whether tucked beneath the 808 or the drum break, as long as there’s a war to be won, there’ll surely be a cry to rally behind as we round third base to steal home.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.