As Made Famous By

On the cab ride home from the always-excellent Modra řeka restaurant, where they serve the best specialties from the former Yugoslavia, our cab driver was listening to what my friends and I thought was especially awful music. We were talking to each other in English, and the cab driver only spoke Czech.

“Who is this?” we asked each other.

“This is Mr. President,” the cab driver said, proudly handing me the CD. “It’s from a CD that somebody gave to me.”

The CD was a Polish compilation of what are essentially cover versions. Not a single song on the CD was original. All had in fine print “as made famous by…” It was worse than a K-Tel compilation because at least there they promised “20 Original Hits! 20 Original Stars!”

The driver proudly pointed out the contents of the CD. “See? Madonna, and Robbie Williams!” he said.

My colleagues thought it was hilarious, but as is frequently the case with pop music, the taxi driver thought we were really into it. And I didn’t have the heart to explain to him what the phrase “as made famous by” meant. So for the rest of the ride from Vinohrady to Prague 6 we were subjected to cover versions of awful Bravo magazine German techno-pop.

I’d say it was at least the fourth circle of hell. I will say this, though. My DJ training has taught me never to completely insult someone because of their taste in music.

This is a skill that’s gotten me out of a lot of sticky situations in the past. For example, there was a time when I was in Albania and hanging out with some of my students – I was teaching computer-based layout and design at the university for a couple of months – when they heard that I was a DJ back in Prague. “So you know Vanilla Ice?” they asked. “He’s the BEST NUMBER ONE AMERICAN MC!” one said.

Now before you go off thinking that my brothers the Albanians are completely out of whack, this is in 1994, mind you. They had their pop from lots of sources, mostly the Voice of America.

I tried to explain about all kinds of different hip-hop, mostly stuff that I was interested in. Native Tongues, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, stuff like that. But they were incredulous. “How can you be interested in hip-hop? You speak Oxford English!” one said.

He had a point there. Except my Oxford English sounds as if it were spoken by Keanu Reeves.

“So how can you come here and tell me what is real on the American streets?” they said.

And what could I say? My credibility was challenged, but I wasn’t about to launch into a freestyle or anything.

So I let it slide into the syrupy-thick Tirana night.

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