Big Daddy Kane

As we age, we no longer follow the concert calendar as closely. We sometimes rely on the next generation for information. That’s why I appreciated this text from the daughter of my friend, mentor, and traveling companion, Willie Hooks.

Michelle learned of my fanhood a few years ago over dinner in L.A. one night when Willie and I had Lakers tickets. She was dubious until I threw down the first part of “Who Am I?” from Kane’s 1990 album, “Taste of Chocolate.”

I’d rehearsed that verse for a spoken-word event at my son’s elementary school about 15 years ago. That first minute of the track captures 400 years of Black history like nothing else I’ve ever read or heard. It became my go-to out of all the verbally magical, socially conscious raps Kane rocked on his first five albums.

On another of our Lakers trips, Willie enjoyed “Wake Me When I’m Free,” the immersive Tupac exhibit I’d dragged him to, so he was willing to take a chance on Big Daddy Kane. As an elder, Willie opted for the early show this past Saturday night with his date, Angela, and me and my wife, Val.

From our dinner table, Yoshi’s staff ushered us into the music venue, seating only about 400 souls, many wearing derbies, form fitting dresses, or Wakanda t-shirts. Soon after we settled in at table 46, about 30 feet from the stage, the lights fell.

When they rose again, Big Daddy Kane stood front and center of a band rolling 12 deep on the crowded stage. We had wondered how Kane could replicate the mix of samples and live instrumentation to make the sounds we knew, thinking he might just rap over old recordings.

But no, he introduced Tim on keys, Vanessa Ferguson on vocals, never mentioned the percussionist, welcomed Achilles on guitar, a bassist hiding somewhere on the back line, Big Sexy on drums, a turntablist, and four horns out front. In no time, Big Daddy Kane — age 54, wearing pants of leather or pleather and what Val called a dad-bod t-shirt — “set it off.”

From the jump, Kane delivered high-energy entertainment, releasing irresistible toe-tapping, leg-pumping, rap-along adrenaline. He sounded exactly as he did 35 years ago: fast, furious, lyrical, literary, in rhythm, in rhyme, right on time. The cleverest-ever writer I know.

The set did not include “Who Am I?” understandable, because the third verse — by Gamilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X — could not be replicated on stage. Kane also left out “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” despite the pleas from the boisterous crew at the table behind ours.

Kane couldn’t have played all the cuts the crowd wanted or he’d still be up there now. But he did give into one old head during frequent banter and crowd interactions. That brother in the audience just started rapping the lyrics to “The Day Your Mine” during some relative quiet, and Kane engaged, asking why that particular, romantic tune, and then, before the old head could offer TMI, Kane said, “Never mind, I know why” and completed the first verse, ending with “Sweetheart, you’re my aphrodisiac.”

Other off-stage antics included visits to tables during “Smooth Operator” to chat with fans and let them try their hands at a scatting hook over the bass line. One visit with a wheelchair-bound fan had Kane adjusting the man’s beanie and encouraging him to “gangster that shit up.” At another stop, Kane eased onto a lady’s lap for some sweet talk, which he cleared with her massive male companion by making sure, “We good, right? Yo big ass, ain’t gonna start nothin’?”

Back on-stage, band member introductions and solos went well beyond standard. Ferguson led for a couple numbers while Kane recharged his batteries backstage (presumably “chillin’ like a villain” as he claims in his song “Raw”). Big Sexy’s drum solo stood out. But the best was Kane as conductor of the horn section, holding up fingers to set the number of horn hits he wanted, and that section delivering as impeccably as the J.B.’s ever did.

More high points:

“Raw” was so frantic, I lost control of my phone, symptomatic of our generation.

Kane’s speed-up and slow-down act left us room to breathe. As always, he provoked thought, too. Invoking a song title, Kane exhorted us — whether doctor, lawyer, or burger flipper — to adopt his ethic and make sure that in whatever our craft, there “Ain’t No Half- Steppin’.”

Then, as you can see below, he set the example.

After this show, possibly my favorite stage performance ever, we all left feeling younger than when we arrived.

About Last Night

Ambrose was awesome. The show was on my radar for a while, but the decision to go was pretty spontaneous. I told my wife I was tempted by the show, and she said go.

It was fun driving like a Chicagoan through the streets of San Francisco. Surprisingly easy street parking right next to Grace Cathedral on California and Jones.

What a massive structure! The line snaked around the staircase and landing and moved inside quicklyer than I expected. I sat in a folding chair fairly near the front of the general admission section.

Ambrose started at 7:35 after a brief introduction. He started slowly as though testing acoustics. Somewhere I read of a seven-second echo, so he would have to play much differently than in a studio or even most normal live club gigs.

The notes were not halting but haunting, faintly filling the cavernous space. Green, red, blue, purplish light backlit him and threw huge shadows of Ambrose on the nave walls halfway between him and me. Like a giant Ambrose ducking, twisting and writhing in time with the tiny Ambrose up on stage.

He stretched notes like taffy. He tried his wide range, not just from high to low but to all sides including inside, as you could hear his breath, plus big elephant blasts and quiet cat meows. The third number, he hit his stride. Now he played the shorter notes tumbling after each other like creek rapids.

He grew comfortable with how his virtuosity could sound in the strange venue. The crowd stayed quiet and respectful until he lowered the trumpet from his lips and the applause rose.

I kept my eyes closed almost the whole time. He was too far away for me to discern his facial expression or breath or fingering technique anyway but eyes closed mostly to heighten the meditative effect of solo trumpet in such a space, the freedom for the mind to wander while nothing in particular commanded its attention other than the realization that the mind was free to wander.

I stretched and rolled my neck. Mind, body and soul so open I heard for the next eighty minutes every busker on every street under the L tracks, every crying baby, a safari, pleas. At the end of the last number before the encore I heard myself gasp.

Inside the Making of “The Man Behind the Mask”

(New book available here, as seen on American Ninja Warrior, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center in its fight against child abuse.)

When the July 18 episode of American Ninja Warrior featured The Man Behind the Mask – a book I crafted in collaboration with Flip Rodriguez and Noah Kaufman – I felt like I’d “beat that wall” and hit the buzzer. Pardon my slip into Ninja-speak here. It’s what I had to do to land the book gig in the first place.

Skeptical of a reality-TV sport, I initially resisted an introduction to these Ninjas. I soon knew they spoke my language, and I soon started speaking theirs. Therein lies the first of several lessons I learned en route to the making of The Man Behind the Mask, shared here to help other entrepreneurs, especially in the creative fields.

That first lesson: Listen.

Listen
Amy Manson, a colleague when I led marketing communications at Positive Coaching Alliance, asked me to explore partnership with a group called Wolfpack Ninjas. She offered to connect me with the group’s leader, Noah Kaufman, the physician who starred on American Ninja Warrior as “The Ninjadoc.”

Accustomed to partnership with Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and teams from the major pro sports leagues, hearing a name that sounded more like a WWE character stopped me cold. As the saying goes, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

I relented when Amy explained that the Wolfpack Ninjas were “making the world healthier one kid at a time,” and Noah practically had me at hello. Within minutes we found that we hailed from neighboring suburbs outside of Chicago and that his group and ours both focused on youth-friendly principles of sports and educational psychology.

Noah said he could demonstrate this via video he would send me. Most such promises from other partnership prospects over the years were never kept. But when Noah’s video arrived the next day, I was glad I listened to Amy and glad I listened to Noah.

His well-produced minute-long cellphone video featured him speaking in voice-over shots of his son repeatedly failing to scale a Warped Wall until he finally succeeded. Noah’s video nailed our PCA principles. When I asked how he’d done such a good job so quickly, Noah said, without irony, “I’m a Ninja.”

Throughout that partnership, we discovered similar values and skill sets, often finding the other answering emails at 2 a.m. While co-promoting and attending Wolfpack Ninjas events, I connected with many of Noah’s team of about 30 Ninjas. But that phase of our work abruptly ended when PCA laid me off in August 2017, leading to the next lesson in the making of The Man Behind the Mask.

Say Yes
Phoning Noah to explain my departure, he thanked me and said, “This layoff must be sad for you, so I don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but would you consider contracting with us?” I answered, “Thanks. It is sad for me, and I also don’t want to seem overly opportunistic, but honestly, that’s part of why I’m calling. So, yes.”

Over the next two-plus years, our group worked hard, traveled together, stayed up late, and sweated out mission-critical assignments, quite literally, in the case of a playground build with KABOOM! on a 95-degree day in San Antonio. We forged the sort of bonds that uniquely arise from those circumstances.

The rewards of friendship, achievement, and adopting the mindset of these world-class athletes made me happy I’d said, “Yes,” especially because our San Antonio team included Flip Rodriguez, who is The Man Behind the Mask. One other reward was learning more lessons.

Sometimes Work for Free
The pandemic halted our live events. Noah’s financial backers ended our contract. With their blessing I contacted the Ninjas individually and landed a couple sweat-equity-only gigs.

Though I never saw cent one, I enjoyed the work and continued growing, which reinforced the lesson to “Say Yes.” I have no doubt that is why Noah contacted me late in 2021 with an offer of paid work on The Man Behind the Mask, a process that taught me one more lesson.

Play to Your Strengths, and Help Your Collaborators Do the Same
Noah Kaufman knows business. He runs it for our collaboration. Flip and I stay out of the way.

Another of Noah’s strengths is that he knew Flip well enough to help him open up in the eight hours of conversation they recorded for the core of the book. Flip’s story is so agonizing that he sometimes had to stop talking, and Noah, The Ninjadoc, masterfully supported and encouraged Flip as he would any trauma patient in the ER.

Flip’s strength is his honesty and courage. It’s not fearlessness. It’s his ability to overcome fear. That he endured his trauma is evidence. That he purposefully re-lived his trauma in the telling of his story shows the strength of his conviction to “get comfortable being uncomfortable” and the depth of his commitment.

Me, I know words. I edited theirs into a coherent narrative, wrote the book’s afterword, and this marketing copy for our Amazon page: “Read the real and raw story of Flip Rodriguez, the ‘Man Behind the Mask.’ In this inspirational story, the American Ninja Warrior star explains how he overcame years of sexual abuse during his childhood and lifted himself from the depths of despair to unimaginable heights.”

Coronavirus Diary: Back to School

My friend and collaborator Gino DeGrandis — photographer for our mutual client, Fit Kids — snapped this photo of the near-unprecedented thunderstorms that rolled through the San Francisco Bay Area on August 16. One of Gino’s photographic specialties is stormchasing all over the world. He’s seen a few, some too close for comfort.

This one was not so threatening in and of itself, but its 10,800 lightning strikes sparked hundreds of fires in the Bay Area, plus a phenomenon new to me called a “fire tornado.” The three major “fire complexes” — named the LNU, the SCU, and the CZU — have burnt a half-million acres. The CZU, in my county of San Mateo, is 0% contained and threatens more than 24,000 structures.

For now, I am safe other than inhaling the occasional floating ash while running or bicycling, which I must, even more than usual, to stay centered during the Coronavirus crisis, let alone this latest shit-rain. An August thunderstorm, a delightful staple of my Midwestern days, but never experienced during my quarter-century in the Bay Area, contained next to none of the actual rain our region needs to prevent fires.

What to do? Keep working. After all, it’s back-to-school season.

When Gino emailed me his photo, he mentioned that he missed Fit Kids. Pre-pandemic, he shot many of the non-profit’s free after-school fitness trainings for under-served elementary school students. Of course, COVID canceled those for the foreseeable future, and as Fit Kids continues its pivot to distance learning via Home Workout videos, we shoot more footage of scenes like these.

In addition to Fit Kids work, I am re-configuring my Creative Writing curriculum for Citizen Schools to meet their Distance Learning needs and just wrote a back-to-school perspective for St. Thomas Academy: Why Troubled Times May Make this the Best School Year Ever.

My new one-on-one writing instruction clients in Chicago get the Zoom treatment, as do students in the two classes I am teaching for The Writing Salon this month. One of those launched on August 16, about four hours after our thunderstorms passed. After the class, one of my Chicago clients emailed apologies for canceling her August 10 session due to losing power when near unprecedented 100-mile-per-hour gusts tore through the city.

I replied: “Thanks, and no worries. We all do the best we can. Ironically, we lost power out here on Friday when PG&E implemented rolling blackouts because of our ‘heat wave’ and then about 3am today we had a thunderstorm, with lightning strikes that ignited some blazes. At the start of my Writing Salon class today, I had to say, ‘Just log back in to Zoom if we get disconnected due to blackout, fire tornado or plague.’ “

Next in Series–Coronavirus Diary: No New Normal

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Busy Week

When the Coronavirus crisis closed classrooms, it seemed my work for Citizen Schools would end abruptly. But the organization asked all of us volunteer Citizen Teachers to create a three-minute video about our career paths and another, shorter video wishing students well and sharing some brief guidance.

To my surprise, Citizen Schools featured my videos in their national e-newsletter!

As the above video mentions, this week also marked the introduction of my new novella, Az Der Papa. Here is the second video from the Citizen Schools newsletter.

This week, I also led a three-hour online Writing Salon course for a group of design professionals, plus my new online writing program for Citizen Schools. It’s a thrill to re-connect with students and colleagues, but “distance learning” feels so distant from what we experienced when I introduced this class in February with words that seem even truer today:

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Next in series: Coronavirus Diary: The Last Dance

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction.

Coronavirus Diary: Streaming Consciousness Bay Path Bike Ride

Press play on Spotify.
Start Strava.

Push off the asphalt.
Pedal true north.

Slalom through Covid warning signs.
“Social distance,
Breathe at your own peril,
Etc.”

Skirt the shore fishermen,
Chattering Tagalog through their masks.
Warm up into the wind,
Face frozen,
But heart warming.

When the breeze allows, go fast.
When it doesn’t, go hard.

Weave through the oblivious.
Kids know no risk
Because the world revolves around them,
And parents blessed with precious child time still screen-stare,
At the center of their universe.

A family frolics on the beach,
Where windsurfers used to launch.
The golf course is closed.

The tide is out.
The stench blows in.

The sky howls.
Cold eyes drip hot tears.

Next post in series: Coronavirus Diary: Korean Baseball

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

My Adidas arrived by FedEx on Tuesday, just as the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order took effect. Ordinarily, I would have been watching the “First Four” games of March Madness, but the tournament was canceled, supplanted by serious madness and sadness.

The new Dame 6’s — left out front without a doorbell ring, reducing risk of infection — would replace my Dame 2’s, whose four years of mileage and worn tread worsened the chronic, morbid soreness in my knees, anles and feet. Of course, this is nothing to complain about in the age of Coronavirus, but it signaled to me that, as Cardi says, “Shit is getting real!”

Every March that I can remember, the NCAA Basketball Tournament has inspired me to ball as much as possible, and that heats up even more with the start of the NBA playoffs. Whether imagining myself as Norm Van Lier, Butch Lee, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, or now, Damian Lillard, the fantasy fuels me.

This March, the confluence of tourney time, my friend Willie’s invitation to join his gym’s over-55 run, and Dame’s dope drop delivered cosmic reassurance that these new shoes would carry me into the next, and probably last, phase of my basketball life. But the night of March 11, it became apparent that televised basketball was ending. Two days later, Friday the 13th, Willie’s run ran its last even before the shelter-in-place order.

In troubled times, since childhood, I turn to family and friends, basketball, and writing. Without basketball, as long as friends and family stay fine, more time and energy will go toward writing. It’s the best way for me to process the Coronavirus crisis and maybe the only way I can contribute to anyone else’s comfort.

That’s what I’ll do here most days – writing about sports or even more important personal and professional topics – at least until the return of Dame Time.

Next post in this series:

Coronavirus Diary: Weekend One

Speaking of Donald Trump

At the start of a Citizen Schools semester, we Citizen Teachers pitch the students on the Apprenticeship we will lead. Above is my pitch for my Poetry Apprenticeship.

Speaking of Donald Trump

Have you heard the new word
From absurd orange bird?

The cock of the walk
Who can squawk
But can’t talk

Who frowns
On the brown
Holds them down
What a clown

Whose wall-building bombast
Blasts outcasts
He thinks he outclasses
But can’t outlast

Vile defiler,
The liar, denier
Of climate fire
Heats our air
Doesn’t care
It’s not fair

We can’t bear
But we swear
We will tear
Your orange hair
If you dare to declare
You are heir to the rare

You are square
So prepare
And beware our despair
When it’s time to compare
We’re the real billionaires

Stretch

A gentle touch to correct my warrior pose let me know Claire Ngoon knew what she was doing. She did not push me into position. She guided me to feel what was right for myself.

The best coaches and teachers, like Claire, help their students reach their own conclusions, so the lessons are more likely to stick. Discussing that topic after our first group class, I was sold on private lessons.

Plus, the price was right. Claire would teach me an hour per week in exchange for my marketing advice and writing coaching.

The first private lesson was laughable, due to my basketball-ravaged ankles and arthritic knees. Although I had taken a few dozen Bikram and hot vinyasa flow classes at other studios over the years, I could not enter some of the poses Claire led, even one as simple as kneeling and then sitting on my heels with my feet extended behind me.

She deemed that pose important given my intention that yoga help me run hills more efficiently, which would decrease pain and increase the physical, mental and emotional benefits of both the running and the yoga. We spent much of the first class slowly flexing my ankles to point my toes into resistance bands.

Claire remarked on how little love and attention people give their feet, considering how much support their feet give them. That’s when I discovered she occasionally spoke in metaphor, which bode well for her marketing and writing.

Beyond that footwork, our first few lessons included more typical poses such as lizard, pigeon, and downward facing dog. At the start of each lesson, Claire instructed me to “let go of anything that will not be of use in your practice,” which is great advice for any endeavor. When necessary, she reminded me more specifically to engage only the muscles needed to maintain the pose.

She suggested using blankets and blocks to ease pressure on my joints and aid in certain stretches. I resisted at first, pridefully preferring to fight through pain. Then I reached my own metaphorical conclusion that, like medicine, I could use a block as a “crutch” that would let me stretch to the point where the block was no longer necessary for me to stretch even farther.

The more I stretched, the more I could stretch. Then, the training wheels could come off. Meanwhile, there was no shame in using the available technology.

Listening closely for metaphors of value far beyond the yoga mat kept me attuned to Claire’s voice. That way, after release from the final agonizing-but-so-worth-it lizard pose, when she led me into relaxation for the last quarter of each class, it seemed hypnotic. I lay on bolsters to open my chest, breathed as Claire suggested, and followed her advice to thank my body for its work and “simply be.”

And, “when it is time,” she would say, “I will bring you back.” She had to, because during those end-of-class moments, I was gone.

Every week, she asked me if anything had changed. I mentioned a pins-and-needles type of tingling in my left heel and the fear that my achilles would soon snap. Claire prescribed a daily dose of Himalaya salt dissolved in water. In a week the condition cleared completely.

Because that prescription worked, it was easy to follow her others, such as “intentional” stretching before and after runs and using resistance bands and foot massage at other idle times. Practicing at home like that, I also returned to the mindful state I experienced in the studio.

Even when travel canceled our sessions for weeks at a time, upon return Claire still could point out improvements. In our most recent session, I knelt and sat on my heels with my feet extended behind me. It hurt a little, but I maintained the pose for nearly a minute. Her excitement at such a small feat seemed inordinate, but great coaches and teachers know that celebrating incremental advances leads to exponential growth.

Interspersed with yoga classes, Claire received the promised writing coaching, advice on marketing tactics, and introductions to build clientele. I critiqued entries in her video series, which expounds and expands on yoga, including a recent video that is much more in keeping with advice I give most of my clients: to use some form of brand journalism to tell your story.

The story in that video covered Claire’s experience of letting a client discover she was fighting herself. Soon after watching it, I went for a run, and afterward, while stretching in a seated spinal twist, I suddenly noticed my straight leg was needlessly clenched.

Claire’s video echoed. I relaxed the leg, and my spinal stretch deepened. It became clear that Claire had used my brand journalism advice to produce a video that helped me follow her yoga advice. It proved a point from one of our sessions: that our barter agreement allowed for greater experimentation in our crafts than we would dare deliver to cash-paying clients.

Metaphorically, we both helped each other stretch.