The Etymology of Being Hip, Pt. I

Bobby Mack is back.

In the late 1980’s I had a good friend named Vince. We met playing baseball. Vince was adopted, like me, and he lived with his parents in the attic of their once-grand home on Raymond Avenue in St. Louis. The house was a few blocks north of Delmar Boulevard, just west of Kingshighway. It resided in the old Seventh District, in St. Louis police parlance. The Seventh was pretty rough in the crack days, and it’s still the same today. The area looks very much the same. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; where I grew up looks the same as it did 30 years ago. However, it’s in much better condition.

Vince was a good athlete who played shortstop. He was tall and rangy. He was light-skinned. His parents were dark. Before I met him, his teammates called him “Chicken Man”. (I don’t know why). He was gregarious and smooth. A talker. A playa. He was very hip.

I was hip, too, but Vince represented a “complete, ideal” version of myself, or so I thought when I was 23. He was me, but extra. I kind of idolized him. It developed that we clashed over some of his attitudes on matters that were important to me.

When we weren’t playing baseball, Vince and I would party and make music in his room. He had an Alesis four-track recorder and a drum machine. This was 1987. We came up with beats and raps.

When you’re young, to be hip is to know about the latest popular music. I was already far ahead in that department by 1987, but Vince knew some things I didn’t through talking to people in the City. Compact discs were coming in, but players were still expensive then and we liked records, anyway. The thing to do in those days if you were hip and liked music was to spring the latest hot record on one of your friends.

The Deele was an R&B group in the 1980’s that had a #1 black hit with “Two Occasions”. The group, founded by L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, released the album in 1987 but the single came out in 1988.

Babyface was very prolific at the time, and kind of under the radar released a solo album in late 1986 called “Lovers”. The first song on Side 2 was “Mary Mack”. Vince discovered this track and presented it to me in early 1987. The record was state-of-the-art dance funk. It’s how we started every visit at his house. Put on “Mary Mack”.

In those days we described it as “fresh”, or “slammin'”. There was a whole theory developed about “slam” in recording music. Later, it would be called “dope”, or “bangin'”. The hip keep coming up with new ways to describe black popular music.

Vince came to accept that I was hip. I had proved myself. Hence, “Bobby Mack”–he liked me so much, and we both liked “Mary Mack” so much, that he dubbed me “Bobby Mack”. It sounded good and I rolled with it.

We even created our own baseball-related lingo for weed. There were three levels of weed based on its strength. There was “Practice”, which was the worst; it had very little THC. Then there was “Scrimmage”, which was better; it had more of the psychoactive ingredient. Finally, there was “Gametime”–the best smoke we could acquire. Because we didn’t like practice, but we loved games! It was our shorthand. “What do you got?” “Scrimmage.” “Be right there.”

In baseball terms, Vince and I were already too old by 1987 to be considered prospects by the pros. Vince was “raw”, as they said, his skills were not honed, but he had what they called “tools”: he had a very strong arm, a good but inconsistent glove, and a quick bat; he had true hand speed and some power. He was not fast, and he didn’t hit for the average one would expect of him, with the aforementioned quick bat and above average hand-eye coordination.

Somebody knew about Vince, though, and in the spring of 1988, the St. Louis Cardinals asked him to attend spring training as a non-roster invitee, or NRI. Every season, major league teams invite a few players who are unsigned so they can take what usually amounts to one last look at a guy. Vince washed out quickly, but he came back with some cool stories.

I envied Vince his success with women. He had a black girl and a white girl going at the same time. I, of course, was involuntarily celibate, (lol), while he had multiple foxes! You’re not completely hip when you’re young if you can’t get a girl! That’s what I thought. Here Vince had his hands full with good-looking women, and I had to hear about it all the time.

We did what we called “cappin'”, or “jonin'”, back then. It’s called “the dozens”, or whatever it’s called today. You criticize each other for fun, in the most creative, stylish way you can. Supposedly, it brings you closer. One Saturday night, Vince and a guy named Chuck got under my skin so bad that I stormed out practically crying. I felt silly as soon as I reached my car, but I left.

Later, the “cappin’ sessions” would include Jackie, Vince’s black girlfriend. Jackie had all the right curves. Ridiculously voluptuous and buxom. She was dark, which was unusual for Vince. She had big eyes and classic features. Jackie was also whip smart; nothing got past her. She was super cool, and she was just my type.

I hung around on the periphery because Vince and I were together so much between the baseball, the partying, and the music-making and -listening. Further, I was interested in seeing how this two-girlfriend situation was going to work out. The truth was that I resented Vince for cheating on Jackie; for not seeing her as the prize she was.

Jackie and I hit it off. There was chemistry there. Vince knew that; he knew it because of what both of us were telling him about each other. So, if Jackie became too uncomfortable during a “cappin’ session”, her ultimate dig at Vince would be to turn to him in front of me and say, “I can just get with Bob. I like Bob. He’s cool.” I would turn beet red. Vince would grind his teeth. That’s when the “cappin’ sessions” always ended. He wasn’t having it.

Jackie found out about the white girl and presented Vince with an ultimatum: Marry me, or it’s over. That’s what he did. He married her, and my dream died. That’s how intense those days were on Raymond Avenue in the late 1980’s. I’ll get to my point in Part II.

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