In his unreleased song, “Wastin’ Time (No More),” the late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard laments all the hours and days and years he threw away on womanizing, drug abuse, and incarceration. In the hook he pledges to never again “taste the drugs,” to “climb real high” and “feel free,” and most importantly to no longer waste time. I imagine the song was written and recorded in the spirit of triumph, that Dirty meant every single word, and that when he finished his lyrics, producers, studio engineers, collaborators, family members, maybe even record execs, stood and applauded, clapped Dirty on the back, felt good, really really good about the song, not just its quality, but what it represented: this troubled man finally getting right and coming out the storm. Alas, it’s impossible for me to listen to “Wastin’ Time” and feel triumph, to not feel sadness. Not long after recording the song, Dirty succumbed to the drug addiction he vowed to put behind him, taking with him every song he dreamt of recording but still left unsung.
The specter of death haunts every wasted moment. From very young we realize that our time here is unpredictable and short, whether we never make it out of childhood or we live to become nonagenarians, we are blinks in God’s eye, fractions of fractions of seconds on the clock. Each of us horribly, horribly insignificant in the final estimation, but still the most significant thing going in our own minds. With our time so uncertain and fleeting, you’d think each of us would grip every moment and lovingly infuse it with significance, but we don’t, not always; instead, we stare into our smartphones like Narcissus into his own reflection. The moments dissipate and we dissipate, and we go on pretending the time wasted on bad habits, bad relationships, bad television, bad internet can ever return to us.
There’s a saying that goes, how you spend your time reveals what’s most important to you. In the early aughts I was in my early twenties; what was most important to me was figuring out the shape of a life that had become horribly disappointing. Giving lie to the saying, I spent most of my time surfing hip-hop websites, even though the music no longer mattered that much to me—at least not as much as it mattered when I was a teenager and cared about little more than girls and Wu-Tang. Still, at my newspaper job, I’d pass my daily seven point five hours (always more than that) toggling between various hip-hop websites, reading about obscure rappers I had barely heard a song from. And then I’d go home and spend hours looking for the updates I missed while I reluctantly reported and wrote my daily news story. When I woke in the morning, before I brushed my teeth or washed my face, I’d scour the websites to see what was posted while I slept. It was a strange addiction, I knew. A massive waste of time. If I kept my mind busy with distractions, I didn’t have to try and possibly fail to fix my life.
That’s the thing about being a writer, at least a fiction writer: you get to bend and shape reality. Not just on the page. I retconned my life when I sat down to write the story “Razor Bumps,” which appears in my collection, Insurrections. In the story, the narrator grows obsessed with L’Ouverture, a rapper whose music, he believes, has ruined his life. The narrator begins reading interviews with L’Ouverture, and the story alternates between the incidents of the narrator’s life and various interviews with L’Ouverture. The interview sections nearly wrote themselves without much effort from me. A sort of muscle memory took over from all those hours I’d wasted reading hip-hop websites. L’Ouverture’s words become a pastiche and a parody of every interview I’d read over the years. When the rapper expresses a mix of boldness and insecurity, it’s because of the palpable sadness I remembered expressed in interviews with the rapper Cormega, who saw his career derailed by a feud with a more famous rapper, his once mentor, Nas. When L’Ouverture feuds with the leader of his group, insulting him one moment and then expressing a deep reverence the next, it’s because countless members of the Wu-Tang Clan expressed these same conflicting emotions toward one another in interview after interview over the years. When the interviewer asks L’Ouverture, a self-proclaimed radical, if he’d ever call the police and he responds, Yeah I’d call a cop if I had to. Call him a motherfucking pig, it’s a direct quote from an interview with leftist rappers dead prez that I can no longer find, but which is burned into my brain.
If you can beat the reaper there need not be such a thing as a wasted moment when you’re a writer.
Rion Amilcar Scott’s short story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky, 2016) was awarded the 2017 PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.