Hampton University. Homecoming Week 2017. A four-part exploration of how it feels and what it means to come home to this place. Part One: A model alumnus goes back to school.
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When DJ Envy arrives at Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communication, he's rocking a blue pair of Pirates basketball shorts and matching blue and black Jordans. The university's colors haven't changed, but much else around him has. The Scripps Howard building, he says, wasn't even there when he attended the school - easy to remember, since Envy's old radio station was housed just across the street. But there isn't much time to dwell on the past - almost immediately after he enters the hall, people begin flocking. Some stare, seemingly going over in their heads as to whether it's really him, while less doubtful others jump in and request photos.
It's Homecoming Week, and the campus is buzzing and full of people: young and old, current students, alumni and unaffiliated guests. Everyone seems to be headed somewhere or coming back. Envy has been around the campus for a few days now, throwing events and making appearances. Today, he's scheduled to do an interview with a campus publication regarding his recent donations to their scholarship funds, but in between, it’s a time to reminisce.
As he moves from place to place, people are excited simply by his presence. They want to know: where did he live when he attended? What his experience was like in comparison to theirs? One member of the crowd takes the opportunity to shoot his shot. He asks Envy if he can rap for him as he heads out; Envy obliges, and he launches into a verse right there in the hallway. He’s met with words of encouragement and an email address to send more music. In the Student Center, young people swarm, but the energy in this particular building isn’t unfamiliar to Envy, who used to DJ parties there as a student -- before they remodeled and it still reminded him of A Different World.
“I’m from New York. My roommate was from Mississippi and Louisiana, so when I got here, he brought me all that Louisiana and Mississippi music... now when I do all these clubs and these parties, I’m able to satisfy everything.”
Born Raashaun Casey, he was already DJ Envy by the time he arrived at Hampton as a freshman in 1995. Growing up in Queens, he admired the work and success of DJ Clue who lived across the street and started making his own mixtapes. Though he was committed to giving a career in entertainment a fair shot, he went to school prepared to play the long game, choosing business management and marketing as his major.
“My plan was Wall Street -- get a job and invest in some stocks or something. That was the plan, but I was also going to give the music thing a try,” he says. “I was going to go hard in the music and see what happens. I never had to look back, thank God. It really just took off.”
Standing in front of James Hall, his freshman dorm, it feels like he hasn’t skipped a beat. Older folks stop their cars to show love; students coming in and out ask his advice and wisdom. He can remember when it was him trying to figure it all out, sneaking in and out after curfew to play parties and toting his crates up and down the steps with the help of a few faithful friends. Hampton, though far from his homebase in New York City, seemed just as equipped to offer the support he needed. The prestigious university attracts students from all over the diaspora, and for a budding DJ, the exposure to different regional cultures and music early on was invaluable.
“I’m from New York. My roommate was from Mississippi and Louisiana, so when I got here, he brought me all that Louisiana and Mississippi music. My other roommate was from Jersey, so he brought me that Jersey bounce music. I had another dude that I was cool with that was from Detroit. He brought me the “what up doe” lingo and the music from there,” he says. “Now when I do all these clubs and these parties, I’m able to satisfy everything. It helped me with building my craft and made me a better DJ than I was.”
Timing and versatility is everything for a DJ. Parties rely on their knowing when to drop “Bodak Yellow” -- not too early, not too late -- or when to break out the oldies but goodies. For Envy, getting a Virginia spot turned up in the late ‘90s meant spinning Cash Money records, but also Jay Z, Wyclef Jean and Nas. But the song that springs to his mind when asked which track got crowds the most hype? Master P’s “Bout It, Bout It.” Rap was still fighting its way into the mainstream at the time, and it was an exciting time to be DJing, especially in Virginia. Legendary producers Teddy Riley and Timbaland were working around the area, Allen Iverson could be seen around the campus apartments, and a celebrity appearance or two wasn’t unheard of. Envy remembers a particularly exciting night at the now defunct "Ebony Showcase" club, where The Notorious B.I.G. after performing at Hampton’s Convocation Center, was hosting the afterparty. Fellow Hamptonian DJ Precise was on the ones and twos.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs are known for moments like this. Especially around homecoming. Partying has always been a priority, but it isn’t the point -- even for someone like Envy who was getting paid to do it. There’s a sense of self and legacy that is earned in the years between start and finish. It’s an experience unlike anywhere else: intimate, personal and, for some, an accomplishment to be shared. As a first-generation college graduate, homecoming and the celebrations that come with it mean that much more.
“My mother is from Virginia, and an HBCU is somewhere she’d always wanted to go. She’d heard about them and could never afford it, but she’d been instilling that in my mind since I was very young,” Envy remembers. “Even through [television shows like] A Different World and The Cosby Show, it was HBCU, HBCU, HBCU.” And after checking out the Morgan State, Howard University and Virginia State campuses, he landed on Hampton. “I was like this is it. This is where I want to go. It feels comfortable.”
“We live in a nice area, and [my daughters] don’t go to an all-Black or predominately Black school, and sometimes they have to deal with certain racism. Here, I don’t deal with that. Here, I deal with - am I a good student? Or no? That’s what’s fair.”
That comfort is one of the primary reasons students are drawn to these hallowed grounds. It’s sometimes the only chance people will get to be surrounded by faces that reflect their own, to not, for once, feel like the outcast. It’s a feeling Envy got to experience, and it’s one he hopes his children -- specifically his daughter as she nears college age -- will get to experience for themselves as well.
“I think the whole thing is just pride and never forgetting where you came from. You want to feel comfortable on a campus because you’re a just good student and not how you look. I deal with it with my kids now. We live in a nice area, and they don’t go to an all-Black or predominately Black school, and sometimes they have to deal with certain racism,” he says. “Here, I don’t deal with that. Here, I deal with: am I a good student? Or no? That’s what’s fair. That’s why I always encourage that. I want my daughter to go to an HBCU. I want her to get the feeling of everyone looking like her and learning off each other and building those relationships.”
It’s so much easier to point out the importance of HBCUs once students become alumni and have to return to the real world. Envy says he rushed through college in his enthusiasm to get out and be able to pursue his dreams full time, but returning for homecoming is an opportunity to take it all in and reflect. He can interact with a new generation, inspire them to greatness and give back to the community that gave so much to him. It’s like the best kind of family reunion, if the family was made up of several thousand people. It reminds those who come back to bear witness that as much as things change, some things will always remain the same. Some places will always feel like home, no matter how much time and distance is traveled.
“Homecoming is the feeling when you’re like, 'Wow. This is my school. I graduated from here. I paid my dues. I paid my tuition.' That’s the best thing about it,” Envy says. “For me, there’s no other place like it. There’s no place like Hampton University. I’ve been to a lot of colleges. I’ve DJed for damn near every school, but when I come here, there’s no better feeling.”