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'New Yorker' culture critic says music and mixtapes helped make sense of himself

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I've been away from the show for the last few weeks dealing with a family medical emergency. Although I'm back today, I'll be gone again for at least another week. I'm grateful to everyone on the show for keeping things going, especially the extraordinary Dave Davies, who's been hosting the show while I'm away. I miss the FRESH AIR team, and I miss doing interviews. I look forward to returning for real soon. Here's the interview I recorded last Thursday.

When you were a teenager trying to figure out your own identity and how you want to signal to others who you are, one way to define yourself is by the music you listen to or films, TV shows, video games, videos that you love. Sometimes the more esoteric, the better because it shows off your ability to discover these things before anyone else and shows your discerning taste. My guest Hua Hsua went through that period but remained passionate about pop culture. He's a culture critic at The New Yorker, where he's been a staff writer since 2017. His new memoir reflects on his teenage and college years and his complicated search for identity as the son of immigrants from Taiwan. He writes, we can never write in a way that assumed anyone knew where we were coming from. There was nothing interesting about our context, neither Black nor white, just boring to everyone on the outside. Where do you even begin explaining yourself?

His close friend Ken was Japanese American and came from a more assimilated family who had been here for generations. Hua Hsu's identity and his understanding of his past, present and future came to a turning point after Ken, his close friend, was carjacked and shot to death. It was the first time a close friend had died and the only time anyone Hsu knew died so violently and suddenly. That was in 1998, and Hsu's been reflecting on it ever since. This memoir is the result of how, over the years, he continued to write and reflect on the meaning of that friendship and the struggle to find meaning after the murder. The memoir is called "Stay True."

Hua Hsu, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your memoir, and I'm so glad we have this chance to talk.

HUA HSU: Thanks so much for having me. It's really - it's a real delight to be here.

GROSS: You're so obsessed with music and have been since you were a teenager.

HSU: Yeah.

GROSS: Your father loved music, classical music when he was living in Taiwan. In the U.S., he discovered Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Aretha, Guns N' Roses, Hendrix, Ray Charles, Neil Young. And as an act of rebellion, you didn't listen to music.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: He was listening to music. You'd be listening to baseball games on the radio. I find that so amusing, you know, that someone who's been so obsessed with music for so many years, like, initially rejected it as being, like, uncool.

HSU: You know, I'm a parent now, and I really think that children - you know, you're supposed to not think that what your parents are into is, like, cool or relevant to you and - or at least at certain ages. And so I think when I was younger and my dad would always be dragging me to the record store, he would be watching MTV, he would be taping his favorite videos onto VHS tapes. I just thought, like, this is what adults did. I was just more into the things that I felt like I had discovered for myself. So for whatever reason, I was just listening to a lot of daytime talk shows and baseball games. And I just thought music was the least cool thing you could be into. But then when I got to middle school, I realized that he'd really prepared me for, you know, some of the esoteric knowledge that becomes your currency when you're a teenager.

GROSS: You fell in love with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when you were 13, and you became addicted to the feeling that you happened on a secret before everyone else. What was so addicting about that for you?

HSU: You know, it's very funny for me to reflect on it now because, you know, millions - hundreds of millions of people like Nirvana and also have had a very similar experience where, you know, they become fascinated with what this band represents and sort of the rebellion that they seem to suggest. I think for me in that moment, you know, I was getting into music. I'd learned so much from studying my parents and sort of how they engage with music, how they appreciate it. You know, I was copying the things that people at my high school were into. So to hear something first and to deem it great and for no one else to know it - at least for a few minutes, because, like, very soon afterwards, Nirvana became, like, the biggest band in the country - I was just addicted to having this tiny kernel of knowledge, like, a few minutes before everyone else. And it really guided me through my teenage years.

GROSS: What happened when you realized that Nirvana had become, like, really popular? Did you have to renounce them after that because it was no longer, like, your special discovery?

HSU: Yeah. And it's - again, I feel like this was an incredibly generic experience in retrospect, shared by tens of millions of people. But, you know, I was so invested in them. And all of a sudden when too many other kids in middle school were showing up with Nirvana T-shirts, I thought, you know, I got to move on to something more esoteric than this. I got to discover something new for myself. So I didn't really renounce them. But, you know, I just sort of eased off and tried to basically find other bands that sounded exactly like Nirvana to claim as my own.

GROSS: There's a paragraph I want to read - want you to read from your book. And it's actually, like, the opening paragraph that gives a sense of the place of music in your life when you were that age - well, when you were a little bit older and could drive.

HSU: (Reading) Back then, there was no such thing as spending too much time in the car. We would have driven anywhere so long as we were together. I always offered my Volvo. First, it seemed like the cool, generous thing to do. Second, it ensured that everyone had to listen to my music. Nobody could cook, yet we were always piling into my station wagon for aspirational trips to the grocery store on College Avenue, the one that took about six songs to get to. We crossed the Bay Bridge simply to get ice cream, justifying a whole new mixtape. There was a 24-hour Kmart down 880 that we discovered one night on the way back from giving someone a lift to the airport - the ultimate gesture of friendship. A half-hour drive just to buy notepads or underwear in the dead of night, and it was absolutely worth it. Occasionally, a stray, scratchy pop tune would catch someone's attention. What's this? I'd heard these songs hundreds of times before, but to listen to them with other people is what I'd been waiting for.

GROSS: Mixtapes - does that seem like ancient history to you now?

HSU: It does, although I have been making new mixtapes to sort of give away to people at my readings. So I have - I'm actually sitting next to a stack of 60-minute cassette tapes that I had to buy off eBay. You know, writing about this time in my life when I was just - when there was nothing better to do on a Friday night than to make a zine or make a mixtape or just kind of do things not according to someone else's deadline, it sort of reminded me how much I love doing that. And so after finishing the book, I have been making zines and making mixtapes and other things that seem completely out of step with contemporary life.

GROSS: When your father moved back to Taiwan, when you were still a teenager, you would communicate with him by fax.

HSU: Yeah.

GROSS: And when Kurt Cobain died by suicide, that was a very important, significant moment for you. I mean, you really loved their music. That was the first music you kind of claimed as, like, your own as an independent listener, you know, separate from your father. And you were faxing back and forth with your father about the meaning of Kurt Cobain's death. And I thought he actually had some really interesting things to say about that. Do you want to talk about what he said?

HSU: Of course. I mean, it was a moment for me when I realized kind of the power of writing in a way because I was trying on a lot of ideas. You know, I think when Kurt Cobain took his own life, there were all sorts of newspaper op-eds about kind of the dystopian culture and angst and ennui and sort of the - the sort of feeling of Generation X, which is not a generation that I identified with.

But, you know, I was really fascinated with these broader contexts. And so I would write to my father about, you know, like, what I thought his life and death signified. And while I myself didn't feel, like, depressed per se by Kurt Cobain's suicide, my father sort of read deeply into the - into these essays I was writing him. And he was a little concerned. And he was very much interested in sort of, like, well, you know, you have to have passion. You have to have belief. But you also have to, you know, just figure out how to live.

GROSS: And he wrote about trying to find meaning in life, but accepting the reality. I thought that was very interesting and maybe very helpful at the time.

HSU: Yeah. And, you know, when we - I was a teenager - the main purpose of the fax was for him to help me with my math homework 'cause I was hopeless at math, and he's very good at math. And so we would - he would fax me answers to my math homework. But every now and then, we would sort of go on these tangents and talk about kind of what was going on America, what was going on in Taiwan. And as a 13-, 14-year-old, I completely just skimmed those parts of his faxes. Like, I was just there for the homework answers, basically.

And so it's been incredible to sort of look back and realize that there were these themes to his writing or that there were these things that he was always trying to get me to think about. And one of them is exactly what you just said, this idea that, you know, we grow up. We live within these certain conditions. You have to deal with them. But you also have to find your own meaning. You know, how do we sort of have a heart and not be robotic? But how do we also kind of accept some of the circumstances that we have to endure? That's something I think he was trying to figure out for himself, but something he also wanted to, you know, alert me to as I was getting older.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is called "Stay True." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTI SMITH SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir, "Stay True," is about his teenage and college years, how he defined himself by the music he loved, and how the murder of his close friend changed his life. It's also about being the son of immigrants from Taiwan.

So I want to talk about your friend Ken, a close friend from your college years who was murdered. And I want to start with your friendship.

HSU: Sure.

GROSS: You write about him with a kind of passion that is often reserved for writing about lovers, you know, this, like, incredible bond that you felt and, you know, how you traveled through the world together in a lot of ways. I don't mean geographically around the world, but, you know, through the world of your lives. And I'm wondering if a lot of that feeling of connection and closeness and necessity was in retrospect or if you felt all that at the time.

HSU: That's a great question. I think being young, you're just sort of drawn to intensity. You know, you think that this is either the best night of your life or the worst night of your life. You think you couldn't possibly be happier or sadder. And I think there were a lot of moments in my friendship with Ken that definitely felt that way, just that there was nowhere in the world I would have wanted to be other than this balcony smoking these cigarettes, having this conversation. And so it is a friendship that felt very special in the moment.

But I think, you know, what necessitates one narrativizing one's own life - it's the end of something. You know, it's a moment, like the moment that took Ken from us, that sort of forced me to actually reflect on things rather than continue looking forward. And when you're young, you're just always looking for the next thrill. You're always looking for the next adventure. You want to know what's going to happen next weekend. You're not necessarily thinking about, you know, the road you've traveled thus far. And so some of it is - some of it was felt in the moment, but much of it is very retrospective. And it's something that has taken me quite a while to find language for.

GROSS: Ken and you were pretty different. He came from a - you know, a Japanese American family that had been here for generations. He felt - you know, he was very assimilated. Your parents were immigrants from Taiwan. He dressed more formally than you did; he wore collared shirts. And his tastes in music were, you know, much more mainstream than yours. So what are some of the bands that he liked that you thought, like, these are not good bands? And...

HSU: (Laughter).

GROSS: How were you able to, like, judge people according to their tastes, which you did, and yet still feel this really strong connection to Ken?

HSU: Yeah, and I think a lot of it was just my own projection upon him. Like, I think he was a far more complicated person than I initially wrote off. But I definitely wrote him off when I first met him because he dressed like a normal person whereas I dressed with - I sort of only wore vintage clothes, and I was just into being as different as possible. He was into a lot of music that I felt to be too mainstream although it probably sounded exactly like the music I liked. But I was very much just moralistic about my tastes and other people's tastes. But, you know, we became friends, really, because he one day asked me to help him shop for clothes. And I assumed that he meant it because he liked the way I dressed. But in reality, he needed to dress as spectacularly garishly as possible for a party at his frat house.

But, you know, over the course of doing that, you know, we - I sort of began to appreciate his sense of humor and his - you know, his sense of confidence and curiosity in ways that I had totally dismissed when we first met in the dorms. And, you know, over time, I did come to like some of the things he liked. Although, I never would have admitted it to him at the time.

GROSS: Did he introduce you to any music that you had scorned...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Rejected, and realized, oh, it's really not so bad - it's good?

HSU: Yeah. You know, I - it's pretty ridiculous. But he was very into Pearl Jam, which was a band that I had dismissed out of hand for kind of, like, really dumb reasons. But, yeah - no, there were a lot of things that he liked that I now listen to a lot because he was just into - he was just a very optimistic person. And so he liked a lot of really optimistic, like, '70s power ballads. And they were songs that didn't necessarily capture how I felt when I was 19. But they sort of suggest how I want to feel now and how I want to think about him.

GROSS: Would you describe the night that he was murdered after leaving his own housewarming party, which was at a bar or restaurant in Berkeley? It was his party. This was in July of 1998. What are your memories of that night and of him that night?

HSU: For many years, I was very hung up on that night, not just because it was the night he was killed, but because I had left mid-conversation, you know? A lot of our friendship was based on these really long talks we would have either driving around Berkeley or smoking cigarettes on someone's balcony. We were very different people. And it was in these conversations that I think we became - like, we sort of began reckoning with one another in these very deep and intimate ways. So that night, you know, I was - I had plans to go to, like, a rave, like, a warehouse party later that night. And so I told him I would stop by early.

I was, like, in a new relationship. I was just kind of on top of the world. And I was just very much just constantly looking forward. I was, like, looking forward to later that night. I was looking forward to, you know, hanging out with my girlfriend. And I wasn't as present in our final conversation as I wanted to be in retrospect. You know, I think one thing that I understood at the time and I've understood more as I've gotten older is that he was just a very kind of kind and open-hearted person. And he was sort of the kind of friend who would look out for everyone. And so the day after his housewarming party, he wanted to take this other guy out for his birthday because that guy didn't have any plans. He didn't want this friend to spend his birthday alone.

He encouraged me to come with him. I was like, I don't want to do that. And so when we left, I was sort of like, yeah, call me tomorrow. But if you don't, that's fine, too, because, like, there's no way I want to go out with this stranger for his birthday. And so, you know, when I went to the party, I sort of kept turning that conversation over in my head a little bit but, you know, assuming that I would just talk to him in a couple of days or something like that. So I think my memories of that night are very much focused on this feeling of kind of something not being resolved, something - sort of leaving someone in a lurch, maybe. And I remember driving by later that night, probably around the time or just after he'd been abducted, and seeing the lights on in his apartment and, you know, thinking maybe we should stop by, but then also wanting to, you know, get back to my girlfriend's place. And so it's a night that I've thought about a lot. Yeah.

GROSS: You can't - I don't think, anyways, that you can live every minute of your daily life as if it's the last time you're going to see somebody. I mean, that puts so much weight...

HSU: Yeah.

GROSS: ...On every moment.

HSU: Yeah. And, you know, even talking about it now, it feels a little - it feels just so - I think, for a while, I did feel that way, that, you know, I think - and I've talked to other people who lost friends when they were younger, where you just sort of always assume the worst, you know? You just always assume that if someone didn't call, something terrible had happened. Your mind would just sort of go to the worst possible scenario. And, you know, it - I think, in retrospect, it was just - the idea of not being able to kind of move forward became just definitive of my reality.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is called "Stay True." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

NIRVANA: (Singing) Load up on guns. Bring your friends. It's fun to lose and to pretend. She's over-bored and self-assured. Oh, no. I know a dirty word. Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hello, hello, hello, how low. Hello, hello, hello. With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us...

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN'S "WIGWAM")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir, "Stay True," is about his teenage and college years when he was searching for his own identity. He's the son of immigrants from Taiwan. In his teens, he defined himself by the music he loved, his mixtapes, and the zine in which he wrote about music. In college, his close friend Ken was murdered after being carjacked, and that changed the course of Hua Hsu's his life. When we left off, we were talking about the night of the murder.

So when you first found out that when he left his own party late at night that he was carjacked, put into the trunk of his own car, then taken out of the car and shot, how much of that were you told when you were told that he was killed?

HSU: I don't think we knew any of that. And so the police told his family and told a couple of us that he had been killed. They wouldn't reveal any other details at that time. But within a couple days, I think the story was pieced together, like, fairly quickly, and we found out. And it was - it really compounded the shock that it had been such a sort of gruesome incident.

GROSS: You accidentally discovered, I think, years later what happened, like, the details of what happened that night.

HSU: Yeah.

GROSS: You were looking at a website for people who wanted their DUIs expunged. It's not like you were looking for, like, who killed your friend Ken, but you realized that this story was his story. And so what did you learn about exactly what happened that night?

HSU: It's weird to put it this way, but I - you know, so I was just searching the internet randomly late one night, and I came across a document, a legal document, that essentially gave the perspective of the perpetrators. And I had never - you know, I was obsessive about a lot of things, but I was not at all obsessive about them or their motives or what had happened to them after the arraignment. And reading that document, I realized that there was another perspective, which was their perspective. Nothing that they could say could possibly rationalize or explain why they had done it. And, you know, they themselves couldn't explain how the situation had escalated to such a way where they felt a need to actually, like, kill this 20-year-old college student who they were driving around in his own car.

But it was very - it was truly bizarre to read their perspective and for him to be this almost secondary character in their story because they were talking about all the things they were doing and all the things they were thinking about. And he was just sort of - he just sort of happened to be part of their story. And I think it was just strange to think about it that way because I had become, at that point, so fixated on my own version of events and my own version of our friendship. I think it had sort of made it hard for me to understand other versions of him that existed for his friend - his other friends or his family or people he had touched.

GROSS: In that document, it said that your friend Ken begged for his life.

HSU: Yeah.

GROSS: You must be imagining what that scene was like.

HSU: Yeah, I - that's something I didn't know until I read the document. And that was - it was really painful to read and to - you know, there are just so many details in that account - him asking for his shoes 'cause they took his shoes, him saying that he was cold. And I think because I had been so obsessive about things and sort of fixated on writing about the past and fixated on, you know, these objects, you know, things that he left behind, things that were in my apartment, you know, I realized that there are limits to what you could possibly know and limits to what these details could - what kind of story you could actually tell from them.

GROSS: You know, you and your friends debated whether Ken's murder was a hate crime against specifically an Asian American or whether he just happened to be the person who they chose to rob in part because he was a college student. So you were on the side of, like, this was just, like, a random choice. It wasn't - he wasn't targeted because he was Asian American. Why did you take that side?

HSU: You know, I've thought about this a lot, especially in recent years, as kind of the category of hate crime seems to have broadened quite a bit. I think at the time, you know, there was this moment when I was editing the campus Asian American newspaper, and we were having this debate. Like, should we cover this? Should we cover this as a hate crime? Nobody knew that I was friends with Ken. It was just a story that they had read about and wanted to look into. And I was very adamant that it wasn't.

And thinking back, I think my - I think the reason I was so stubborn about it was because I had a very specific narrative in my mind, which was kind of my version of him and my version of the events and my proximity to it. And I felt a little proprietary over it. I think that was a tendency that sort of built over time, that I felt some degree of, like, no, like, I understand this story. But I completely understand why other people might have seen it that way, and maybe that would have been an interesting thing to look into. The perpetrators themselves said that his identity played no role in it, that they just saw him as a student like any other students. But I don't know. It's sort of hard to say whether - it's impossible to say how it would have played out were he different.

I think another reason I was convinced that it wasn't was because there had been these other kind of high-profile hate crimes against Asian Americans in the late '90s - the killing of Kuanchung Kao in Rohnert Park by the police. And these were cases where, you know, the perpetrators - in this case, the local police - had sort of accused this man of acting in a, quote, "martial arts manner," and they were acquitted of it being a hate crime. And so I thought, like, well, if that's not a hate crime, then how could we possibly prove that this is?

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. My guest is Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir is called "Stay True." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Hua Hsu, a culture critic for The New Yorker. His new memoir, "Stay True," is about his teenage and college years, how he defined himself by the music he loved, and how the murder of his close friend changed his life. It's also about being the son of immigrants from Taiwan.

Were there songs that you played over and over again after your friend Ken was killed?

HSU: There were. And there were a lot of songs that I stopped playing altogether as well because they felt too triggering in a way. Like, prior to his death in 1998, I was just listening to a lot of indie pop music that was like sort of quiet and sensitive. And a lot of that just felt not how I was feeling anymore after his death. And so I actually just kind of wholesale stopped listening to most of my music. And I just started listening to other forms of music that didn't have those kinds of like emotional marks on them.

But one song that I do remember listening to obsessively a lot with him and with our other friends was "God Only Knows" by the Beach Boys. And after his passing, I would listen to it and kind of reverently, you know, like once or twice a year. But it was it was very difficult to listen to because I could always hear kind of like how I had heard it in the past and what it represented in the past as well. And it no longer felt good to listen to things built around like harmony or built around melody, because these were sensations that just didn't really vibe with how I was feeling at the time.

GROSS: So how did "God Only Knows," which is such a great track, how did that compare pre-Ken's death to post-Ken's death and your reaction to it?

HSU: Well, one of the things that some of my friends - Ken, Shawn, Ben - and I would do on Friday nights is we would often just drive to this donut shop. And we would listen to this song. And, you know, it's a - the harmonies on it are so perfect and gorgeous. And they make you feel as though there's like beauty in the natural world, that, like, people's voices coming together can accomplish this perfection. Of course, like, we were terrible singers. And so it was like we're committing violence to the song by singing along to it while going to the donut shop. But it was just very difficult to disentangle the song itself from these memories of singing along to it.

And I think in those moments, but sort of like in retrospect as well, I've always seen a song as like a community, you know. And a song is a - is proof that people can do something together, that they can accomplish something together that they can't do alone, whether it's people singing together, playing instruments together. And I think for me, just - there's a kind of melancholy. It's a beautiful song, but, like, lyrically, it's very melancholy. And that just felt a little too heavy for me afterwards because it's also just the melody, the sort of harmonies felt wrong to me.

GROSS: And now?

HSU: Now, I love the song again. And I think part of it is kind of having figured out a way to move forward for myself. For me, music was a way of learning like how to be, how to have emotions, basically. You know, like, you learn how to be happy. You learn how to fall in love. You learn about heartache through music before you actually experience some of these things, you know, at their greatest intensities. And I think there are so many songs about, like, romantic love that I would listen to and think, well, I don't love Ken in this way, but this is sort of like an intensity of feeling that feels familiar to me. And so I think a lot of those songs that were actually about, like, romantic love or, like, romantic heartache took on a different meaning for me afterwards because there aren't as many songs that are just about friendship. You know, there are songs that enact friendship, but there aren't songs that are just like about being friends.

GROSS: I've been thinking about this a lot, about how so many pop songs, especially from the past, are just about falling in love or about, you know, somebody leaving you and you're heartbroken. I think that changed, you know, after Dylan and certainly after rap. But yeah, it's - I mean, in some of those pop songs, both the American popular songbook and, you know, rock pop, soul pop. I mean, they're beautiful songs. They're great songs. But lyrically, they're all finding different ways to say basically the same thing. And sometimes it actually gets frustrating because there's so many other things to sing about.

HSU: (Laughter).

GROSS: You know what I mean?

HSU: I totally agree with you.

GROSS: But I think that's changed a lot between, like, singer-songwriters and, you know, Dylan and hip-hop, like I was saying.

HSU: Yeah. I mean, I think, like, after Ken's death, I sort of only listened to hip-hop because it was something I liked, but it had no real emotional content for me. Like, it wasn't something that was going to, like, kind of, like, constantly remind me of the past. And I think hip-hop is like the great music of friendship, because so much of it is about people dreaming of conquering the world together, dreaming of getting rich together. And, you know, like, how much practice does it take for two people to be able to, like, finish each other's bars? Like, how much practice does it take for people to like, kind of, like, perfect the kinds of songs that are like - where it's a deejay and a rapper? I mean, it's just a music that I think is very open to the possibilities of friendship, even though it's not often perceived that way. And that's why, you know, after his passing has really fixated on Puff Daddy - like Diddy, "I'll Be Missing You," because that's a song about someone missing their friend. Like, so many of Tupac's songs are about just, like, trying to talk to a friend. And it's - so it's a form of music that really enacts those bonds, but also celebrates them in ways that I felt were, like, super necessary to who I was becoming at that time.

GROSS: Is there a song you'd like to end with that has a lot of meaning for you surrounding what we've been talking about - about Ken and related things?

HSU: You know, there's a song that sort of accompanied my friends and I through college, and that was - it's Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's song "Tha Crossroads." And, you know, it was a song that came out, I think, when we were first years at Berkeley. And its themes are very abstract - like, it's very much about kind of mourning the loss of loved ones, whether it's, like, an uncle or a friend and hoping that you'll see them again someday at the crossroads, however you want to interpret that.

And I remember being a freshman moving out of the dorms and singing it on - someone had a camcorder - and just kind of making fun of how over-the-top and dramatic the song was, of course not knowing that in a few years the song would feel, like, so necessary to us and still, like, quite triggering to many of us. Like, if it comes on to this day, you know, it's hard not to pause and think that there's like a - it's a sign from from another plane. But yeah, it's just - it's a song that I think took on a really new meaning for all of us once we experienced something comparable to what they were rapping about.

GROSS: Hua Hsu, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. I'm really glad you wrote your memoir.

HSU: Thanks so much. This was really special for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THA CROSSROADS")

BONE THUGS-N-HARMONY: Bone, bone, bone, bone, bone, bone, bone, bone, bone. Now tell me what you going to do when there ain't nowhere to run, when judgment comes for you, when judgment comes for you? And what you going to do when there ain't nowhere to hide, when judgment comes for you? 'Cause it's going to come for you.

Let's all bring it in for Wally, Eazy, C's Uncle Charlie, little Boo, God's got him, and I'm going to miss everybody. I only roll with bone, my gang look to where they lay when playing with destiny, play's too deep for me to say. Little Layzie came to me, told me if he should decease, well, then, please bury me by my Gran Gran, and when you can, come follow me.

God bless you, working on a plan to heaven. Follow the Lord all 24/7 days. God is who we praise even though the devil's all up in my face. But he keeping me safe and in my place. Say grace for the case to race with a chance to face the judge. And I'm guessing my soul won't budge. Grudge because there's no mercy for thugs. Oh, what can I do, it's all about our family and how we roll. Can I get a witness? Let it unfold. We living our lives to eternal our soul, ay oh, ay oh.

Pray, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday. And we pray, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray. Still we laced, now follow me roll stroll. Whether is tell of his heaven, come, let's go take a visit of people that's long gone - Darris, Wally, Eazy, Terry, Boo. It's steadily creeping up on the family, exactly how many days we got lasting. While you laughing, we're passing, passing away. So y'all go rest y'all souls, 'cause I know I'ma (ph) meet you up at the crossroads. Y'all know y'all forever got love from them bone thugs, baby.

Now Eazy's long gone - really wish he would come home. But when it's time to die, got to go bye bye. All a thug could do is cry, cry. Why they kill my dog? And man, I miss my Uncle Charles, y'all. And he shouldn't be gone, in front of his home. What they did to Boo was wrong, oh, so wrong, oh, so wrong. Got to hold on, got to stay strong. When the day comes, better believe bone got a shoulder you can lean on.

Hey, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, and we pray, everyday, everyday, everyday, everyday.

GROSS: Hua Hsu is a culture critic at The New Yorker and an associate professor of English at Vassar College. If you want to find out more about his work or his book, here's how to spell his name. His first name is H-U-A - second name, H-S-U. His new memoir is called "Stay True." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the new season of "Documentary Now!," the series that parodies real documentaries. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCHO VALDES' "OCHUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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