From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Big Daddy Kane: The AfraKane King

On Big Daddy Kane’s record cover, three Nubian hand­ maidens in a regal, Greco-Ro­man fantasy tend to the every wish of the Cameoed King. Long Live the Kane (Cold Chillin’) one whispers as she leans over his shoulder, proffering a goblet of Calvin Cooler. Pause, then flip over this bad, blood-filled, basement-party album. Centuries later, Kane plays a game of Trouble in a Brooklyn living room with Mad Money Murf, while the same unnamed virgin looks on. DJ Mister Cee rests, dreaming of another master plan or mix. Dancer/rapper/barber Scoob Lover, dancer Scrap Lover, and a teddy bear chill.

A historically-hushed rift is implied by these two images. Between ancient Afra­kan vivacity—ripped off and up by un­educated Greeks and post-their-Renais­sance Europeans—and modern-day African-American samo-samo lies a chasm of truth, one that opens long ago near the Grand Lodge in Luxor, Egypt. As George G. M. James reveals in Stolen Legacy, as Martin Bernal expounds in Black Athena, and as Kane alludes in the exultant “Word to the Mother (Land),” Luxor is where Socrates saw the words “Man Know Thyself,” then bit ’em, sure that they’d work great as a slogan back home. He was right.

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The rift widens. Much gold around a king’s neck might hint at Luxor’s heyday, at Kane’s revision of the Staple Singers’ warm, wet, free-at-last Utopia (also called “I’ll Take You There”), or of the great Kankan Musa. Tells historian Maulana Karenga, this Malian mansa, or emperor, left on a yearlong pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, taking along 60,000 baggage men, royal secretaries, soldiers, and Black ur­ban professionals. Passing through Cairo with these, 80 to 100 camel loads of gold dust, and a generous attitude, he gave away so much gold that its Egyptian price was depressed for the next 12 years.

Yup. Kane’s fat gold ropes might re­mind you of Mansa Musa from Mali. Then again, they might just remind you that DeBeers/Botha break Black backs with demonic regularity in South African mines. Today, the hoops and dookies are cold sold for a king’s ransom, not given away, in stores with door buzzers and inch-thick glass. So, Big Daddy—where you at? Past, present, or Black to the future? Are you the ruler of old on the album’s front, your toplofty tone most domi­nant in “Long Live the Kane,” or an around-the-­way on the back, endear­ingly dope in “On the Bugged Tip,” lovestruck and longing on “The Day You’re Mine”?

What he is is a point-­blank African-American, complete with the requi­site wish list. Kane supports Minister Farrakhan and the fact of Afrakan historical primacy, though crit­ics still fiending for Public Enemy’s warm jockstraps, Rakim’s glowing brilliance, or acid house probably haven’t noticed. Kane plays the riffs and rifts well (Afra­kan or American? Gold trunk jewelry or Black rule in South Africa? Light skin or dark? B’klyn or anybody else?) over an original music made from scraps of origi­nal music. Five-Percenter self-sufficiency gets with Roy Rogers, Gucci, and Kel­logg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, and it all comes to a head. In 1988 Blackland, drug dealers are arbiters of taste, and We, descendants of Afrakan kmgs and queens (but lacking diplomatic immunity), are target practice for the 5-O. For Kane, as for James Brown, Hendrix, Coltrane, Beethoven (Black, caucasianized for the record), and other new music makers, here the future of music (dope) meets Black life’s particularly present-day dick­-downs (dog food).

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“I wanna get into my thing!” Kane quoted one June night at the Apollo. “Can I get into my thing? MOVIN’? GROOVIN’?” Then, as Scoob ‘n’ Scrap twisted, shook, and folded their unfailing­ly limbered physiques, the Microphone Lord dropped a brand new bomb and “Set It Off,” popping pailfuls of pentametrical poetry, knotting together metrical foots trochaic and trisyllabic. The crowd searched hard for their minds, hyped by this smooth ‘n’ sweaty show­man’s versificatory variations. If Rakim flows, Chuck D jump-cuts, and KRS ONE conversates, then Kane blurs. He’ll race, as he does on the upcoming, rabid “Wrath of Kane,” or he’ll rhyme like he wrote the lyrics out on a chalkboard, smeared the words with an eraser, then said that. His tone is teeth-sucking, like a brother sounds when he’s about to wax the behind of some recalcitrant bass­kicker. “You don’t want none o’ this!” Kane insists on “Set It Off,” right before one of his velvet-gloved beat-downs—hyperbolic, discombobulating, gentlemanly assaults so swift you don’t realize you’ve been insulted ’til much later (“Get you a nurse … too late! Get you a hearse!”). Nobody’s spared, with “Raw,” muscular rhetoric front to back. “Shut the fuck up,” Kane snorts mock-pissedly on “Mis­ter Cee’s Master Plan” when his DJ gets mike-happy. From “Half-Steppin'”: “I grab the mike and make MCs evapor­ate/The party people say, ‘Damn, that rapper’s great!'” Spoken wistfully over producer Marley Marl’s odd, dreamy, butt-swingin’ groove, the boast comes off as a most sublime mastery of understatement.

Big Daddy Kane, the man who would be king, is, in a way, hip-hop’s most nor­mal, gimmickless artist. That is, if L.L. Cool J was state-of-the-art in 1987, Kane’s the same in ’88. Not to say at all that L. is outta here, y’all, but yo: If he ever takes off the Kangol, there best be a Hi-Lo below.

P.S. Editor Marty Gottlieb & Co. say: “Doesn’t being thanked on the back of Kane’s album affect your critical credibil­ity, Harry?” I’m not a critic. I’m a brother who speaks the people’s truths on their terms, and I’m thanked for that. My credibility? Most intact. ❖

Big Daddy Kane will be at the Apollo November 18.


Black Metropolis: Strangers in Paradise

Of Homeboys, Homelands, and the Island

I guess it made odd sense that my talk with Hank didn’t occur while we walked about the side streets of Freeport (where I live), or Roo­sevelt (where he lives), or Hemp­stead (a focal point for both of our towns), reminiscing about our lives in these places. It occurred inside of his brother Keith’s (a/k/a Wizard K-Jee) new Datsun 200ZX, on the Southern State Parkway jetting east, going to reg­ister for the New Music Seminar. K-Jee had been driving for the last sever­al hours, as both had just gotten back from the Annual Greek Picnic in Phila, and K’s usually Newport-kicked voice was hoarser than a dog. “I was scream­in’,” he admitted. “Screamin’ and getting my dick sucked.” “Man,” Hank added, “I feel like I’ve been living in this car.” While few Manhattan Islanders use cars to get around, life on the L.I. would be close to Twilight Zonian without them. To this day, Long Island keeps its beach­front mystique mostly intact, and the myths of its car culture are numerous. So it seemed strangely correct that denizens of the land away-from-it-all would set up discussion about the away-from-it-all while going away from away-from-it-all back to it-all. Ya dig?

Of Hank Shocklee: He’s a bespectacled brother of intense intensity in his late twenties, long of limb and levity, and like the album he coproduced for Public Ene­my, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, given to subtle wordplay and noisy pontification. I can remember infinite twenty-to-three-­in-the-morning mornings where, along with Chuck D, Mr. Bill, K-Jee, and M.C. Flavor-Flave, he would elaborate on mi­nute points of hip-hop music theory, such as the emotional resonance of bass-line tonalities, or how to tell which bonus beat records the other hip-hop record produc­ers were using. Then, with an easy fade, he’d delve into an “I Looked Inside Your Mother’s Pussy and Saw …” snapping contest with Flavor; two grown men rev­eling in the formal elegance of Black swing-&-slide-side culture. Then, as they continued the discourse, we would leave their rented studio in Hempstead and go to the 7-Eleven in Uniondale, where Hank would bait “Jim,” the East Indian store­keeper, on the prices of his goods, Flavor would continue to be loud, Bill would move silently through the aisles and get exactly what he wanted, and Chuck would slowly and deliberately unroll one dirty, rolled-up, ain’t-never-seen-the-in­side-of-a-Gucci-wallet dollar bill, take out some change, and buy a macaroni-in-a-­can-something-or-other and call it din­ner. Those were indeed the best of times.

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A recent reviewer of P.E.’s album said that the crew “speaks for an embattled black underclass.” This assessment is white liberal myth-math. The fact is that Hank Shocklee, the members of Public Enemy, and I are all products of Long Island’s Black middle class, the brothers and sisters of the two boojie mannequins gracing the cover of the August Ebony, the beneficiaries of super-oxygenated lei­sure time. When I first told my friend that the Voice wanted a look at L.I. life through his eyes, he said, “Great! I’ll take ’em to Wyandanch!”, a middle-class, pre­dominantly Black town in Suffolk Coun­ty. Then, dropping into a gun-in-your­-face crouch, he mouthed, “We’re the ones that escaped from New York!” His jab was aimed at one, the failure of white Long Island to make any social or emo­tional space for the Black side of the family and two, the resulting resonance of the gangster-ethic fantasy, as it creeps into Black suburban life. The so-called gangster response in Black L.I. life is partly an updated version of what whities used to call cowboys-and-Indians, dis ful­fillment, a stylee balance of the need to dominate and the need to pay back. As I told a friend, every one of those hundreds of bullets that killed hundreds of Detroit youths was meant for a white person. As with most middle-class life, there is a dichotomy present here that escapes lib­eral platitudes, rhetoric, or Voice section concepts.

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Speeding (67 m.p.h.) down the Grand Central: “You don’t even really under­stand living in Long Island until you grow up. Living in Long Island is like …” Hank searched for a word.

Paradise,” said K-Jee, his rubbed-raw vocal timbre giving an appropriately dreamy quality to his utterance.

“Yeah, yeah. It’s like a fantasy. You’re talking about moving from Harlem into a place where you have your own house that you can own. That’s like, a monu­mental achievement for a people, espe­cially back in the ’60s. If you moved to Queens, you were considered middle-­class. If you moved to Long Island, they’re thinking that, well, you must be rich. That’s why I had to go back to saying that you don’t really understand Long Island until you grow up, because you’ll find out that you’re not rich, you’re not middle-class, you’re working-class.”

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Along with the reality of new, unfound wealth comes the knowledge that L.I.’s integrationist scheme is also carefully packaged. “You’ll find out later on that there were traps, or … I shouldn’t say ‘traps’ … there were things written or set up for you to move into certain areas of Long Island. They’ll set up low-income housing just so Black people can live in a cluster. And if they can get them in a cluster, and subsidize their living expenses, they can keep them together, in a controlled environment. Black home­lands. That goes on all over Long Island. Massapequa Park, for example, is a square mile, and it’s actually just a hous­ing complex. But it’s called Massapequa Park because it’s low-income; low-income is a nice way of saying that they’re all Blacks. Garden City Park, same thing. These things are subsidized by the rich white communites.

“The integration results in, ‘Yes, Black people can spend their money at the same stores that the white people spend their money at. Black people can have a home just like their white counterparts, and feel like they’ve made advancement.’ But the underlying factor is that the whites are just creating ghettoes all over again. They actually want to keep things separate, or there wouldn’t be a Massape­qua Park. There wouldn’t be a Roosevelt, which is a mile long. Which can easily be called Freeport, or Uniondale, or Bal­dwin. It’s not, because the whites wouldn’t go for that. ‘Um, that’s too close. That means you can attend our schools. That means you can now walk in my town, and I cannot harass you, be­cause you live in the same township.’ If I say, ‘Harold you live in Roosevelt,’ and Roosevelt is on one side of the street, and I see you walking in Baldwin, which is on the other side of the street, I can now harass you. ‘What are you doing in Bal­dwin, when most of your people live in Roosevelt?‘ It’s just another way of segregating. But then again, they’re not going to do it overtly, like they did in the South. They’re not gonna say, ‘Well, yes, Black people can only be such-and-such,’ because Black people will revolt against that.”

Other Blacks who’ve settled in Long Island — after our more incendiary broth­ers and sisters made their points in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Harlem — ­might agree. Mrs. Mildred Clayton is a native of Hawkinsville, Georgia, who moved to the Village of Westbury in 1969. As interpreter for the African-American Museum in Hempstead, she’s a person professionally concerned with Black life on Long Island, especially in terms of the sometimes-strange pieces that make up the puzzle called its history. Like how Freeport got its name (it was a duty free p.o.e. for slaves and other cargo; same thing in Texas, Maine, and the Baha­mas), or what percentage of New York’s supposedly-slave-free population were slaves on 18th-century Long Island (15 per cent, higher than the average for any Southern state during the pre-Revolu­tionary period).

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Like the rest of the Black population in Westbury, Mrs. Clayton lives in a neigh­borhood called New Cassel. “But,” speak­ing of her neighbors, “they always say, ‘Westbury,’ she says, adding a laugh. “Since the ‘white flight,’ if you will, you have a lot of African-Americans living in the village part of Westbury. So the re­maining whites sort of migrated to Old Westbury. I think there may be three African-Americans living in Old West­bury. Like you say, Massapequa, Massa­pequa Park; you have Garden City, and you have Garden City Park. And I do know that the majority of the African­-American population in that town lives in Garden City Park.”

In the morass of racism and living, though, the really unbelievable often pops up, and shows the demarcation between Black and wack to be more than meta­phorical. In April, as part of a series on Long Beach’s increasing gentrification, Newsday ran an article titled, “Putting Blacks Behind ‘The Wall’.” It told of North Park, the oldest Black neighbor­hood in Rick Rubin’s hometown, and through text, diagram, and photographs, gave the old news: how Blacks had been isolated from the rest of Long Beach by zoning policies, traffic guidelines, and a wall. The wall is the back of the block­-long Long Beach Plaza Shopping Center, and it effectively divides Long Beach into two towns: one Black, one the other thing. On the white hand side: the shop­ping center, new storefronts, new resi­dential development. On the Black side: old frame houses. Blacks do not even have direct access to the shopping center from their side. Instead of window dis­plays or store entrances, they see locked metal doors, a wide alley, and garbage bins. And a very white, two-story high, concrete wall.

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“Racism had or has nothing to do with it,” said City Manager Edwin Eaton of the gentrification. “It’s very funny, people tend to forget that when they lived in those rundown buildings it was because the city did not go after them.” Gee, Ed, thanks for letting them stay until you saw a way to make more money out of the space they took up. The problem that he and a lot of white folk have has to do with their second-hand definitions of rac­ism. Racism is not an attitude; racism is not a belief. Racism is numbers. Racism is a result. Racism is what happens. For example, whether or not Mr. Eaton planned to move the sambos and reach out so the gentry could inherit the beach is irrelevant. What has actually hap­pened? The result is racist. Or, digressing only slightly, guys, whether or not Ward ‘n Koch planned for the N.Y.C. Schutz­staffel to kill 250-plus Blacks and Latinos without convicting the cops for murder is not important. Stephen Sullivan gets a good night’s sleep every night; Eleanor Bumpurs just sleeps.

Ironically enough for me, though, the same issue of Newsday reported that a federal jury had found Garden City police not guilty of following a racially discrimi­natory policy in its handling of Blacks, despite the under-oath testimony of Lieutenant Charles Ryan that possession of Black skin would be reason enough to question a person in the area under “certain circumstances.”

Circumstances like walking. Mrs. Clayton told me about what happened to her brothers. Think First Blood: “I have a brother who, in 1977 or ’78, was just walking through the town of Garden City. I guess it was after 11 o’clock — and he just had to go through there, walking to wherever it was he was going. He said a police car came up to him, and they asked him why he was walking through there, and he told them where he was going. So they escorted him out. They gave him a free ride to the edge of Garden City. They gave him a lift. That was the first time. I have another brother who lives in Ohio and, in 1979 or ’80, he came to visit my sister and me. He was coming through Garden City at about two or three in the morning, and they detained him overnight. I had to go pick him up the next morning. They just let him go. No charge, nothing — just that he could go. They didn’t give any explanation as to why they had detained him or what. It did happen.”

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Bizarre as these particular examples of civic courtesy may be, they aren’t new, and if you’re Black, you don’t escape it. Money, it has been said, cannot buy one love, and sometimes the trappings of upward mobility lend themselves to particu­larly sour situation comedies. Bury The Cosby Show. Dr. Jesse Pone Jr., David Dinkins’s former college classmate, has lived on Long Island since 1955, and is presently one of those three African­-Americans living in Old Westbury. “I think we may be up to eight now,” he says. Like his neighbors, but unlike Hank, Mrs. Clayton, or me, he’s part of Long Island’s upper class, albeit the Black one composed of small groupings of determined professionals and the like. Dr. Pone has a big, big house with a swimming pool, with a tennis court, with one of those lawns you break out a John Deere for. He’s got a really long driveway, and owns or has owned a Lincoln, Cadil­lac, and a Rolls-Royce. He has also been stopped in all of them by police. Once, in his spanking-new Caddy, he found him­self at a Carvel, surrounded by three members of the Oceanside Five-O and their wheels. Another time, while driving the Lincoln in what was then his home town of Westbury, he was asked to pull over and produce his license-and-registration. He did, but not before noticing one of the cops had his hand on a gun in an open holster.

“As far as Garden City is concerned, that’s an area that you just don’t travel through,” says Pone. “You avoid. You cir­cumvent, which is a statement of fact. I will go down Franklin Avenue; I will go down Seventh Avenue; I will go down Cathedral Avenue. But in terms of those other streets and stuff, fine! I go through those streets on business days. Otherwise, you will end up getting pulled over, and you don’t know what the disposition of the person’s going to end up being. I think that one of the things that hap­pened to me — and it may sound funny — ­was that even though this guy had me in discomfiture, he was not the ass that so many of the police officers are.”

Which is debatable, because what hap­pened was this: About four or five years ago in Old Westbury, the good doctor got out of his ’69 Firebird and heard this sound: “STOP WHERE YOU ARE! PUT YOUR HANDS ON TOP OF THE CAR! WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” He started to look around, then heard this sound: “DON’T TURN AROUND! PUT YOU HANDS OF TOP OF THE CAR!” He did, while turning to see from where this voice was coming. What he saw was a police car with Nassau County insignia, a policeman standing in a no-miss crouch, and the working end of a .38.

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The doctor replied as calmly as was possible under the circumstances: “I pay the mortgage here.”

No joke. They were 150 feet into his driveway.

“Well, show me some identification.”

“Then,” said the doctor, “I did the Richard Pryor thing: ‘I Don’t Have It In My Pocket. It’s In The Glove Compartment Of My Car. Will You Kindly Take A Look To Make Sure That You Don’t See Anything That You Can Mistake As Be­ing A Shining Object, Or As Me Reaching For Something.’ We went through that dance.”

Eventually, the question was popped: “Why did you stop me?”

“Well, I saw you coming through West­bury and you were taking some shortcuts driving all through the neighborhood and things there and I didn’t know what you were in the process of doing or where you were going and you just looked suspicious and I just followed the car and when you pulled in here I had to know what you were doing here. We’re having so much trouble in the neighborhod, and I just couldn’t identify you as coming into this particular situation here. [Of course, Pone did not recall hearing of any distur­bances, and at the time, he had been living at that address for about a decade.] Anyway, probably, this won’t happen again.” And he left.

“I came on in the house and I said, ‘Well, fine, at least maybe he was protect­ing my property in term’s of who’s suspi­cious and stuff by coming around here,’ and I thought I was fairly cool, until I woke up about three o’clock in the morn­ing in a cold sweat.”

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“When they ask me why did I move to Old Westbury,” Pone adds, “I say, ‘Because I couldn’t afford Muttontown or Upper Brookville.’ O.K.? Now, if I’d had a hundred million dollars, I wouldn’t have bought this house. But I’d have bought one of those up the way there.

“I want to make one thing clear: that even though I had that unfortunate incident, and that there have been others, by and large, the overwhelming amount of my experience has been positive. If a person can afford not to live in traditionally Black areas, there is no reason why they should not purchase a home and live wherever they choose to. Anybody that’s able to move and to buy are entitled to anything that they wish, and they should do it, ’cause they need to show them that we will. We need to do that.

“Roosevelt is one square mile, but it has two of the nicest parks in Long Is­land, Roosevelt and Centennial Park,” Hank said to me on the phone. “Why?” It’s a few days after our first conversa­tion, on one of those Freeport nights that I’ve learned to love — slightly misty, cool, dark, a wind blowing up from the ocean. “I mean, have you ever been to parks in Nassau County? Roosevelt has the nicest parks in Nassau County. Very beautiful! Spacious! Lots of basketball courts!” An edge crept into his voice. “What are they trying to say? You go into East Meadow, you’ll find Eisenhower Park. You go into Levittown, you won’t even find a park. You’ll find a lot of schools, though. You go into Huntington, you’ll find a lot of schools. What are they saying? Are they saying they want our education to be in the parks? That they want us to play ball? That they want to keep us pacified, happy? It goes back to the white ‘Knee­-grow’ joke — If you wanna stop five Black guys from raping a white girl, throw ’em a basketball.”

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Hank’s leaving for California the next day. Up to that point, we’d been talking about P.E. and the refraction of suburban angst, WLIR’s chicken white-man musi­cal parochialism, and Metro 700 (its un­official farm club, and just as stink). Mostly, though, we’re going over the time about three years ago that the posse (he, Bill, Chuck, I) and others were standing outside of White Castle’s in West Hemp­stead, and a cop from nearby Warden City came by and asked for some I.D.

“Why did that cop come over to us that night?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. We were too close to West Hempstead.”

“At White Castle’s? There are always a lot of Black people there.”

“Yeah, but we were outside for a while, it was a lot of us together, and anytime there’s a lot of Black people together at one o’clock in the morning, they wanna find out why.”

“Black people not going anywhere, but just standing?”

“Right. White people can do it all day long, and a cop’ll ride by and say, ‘How ya doin’,’ and ‘Everything’s O.K.,’ and ‘Ev­erything’s cool,’ but when Black people get together, they must be trying to incite a riot. Cops are community servants in white communities, and in Black commu­nities they’re like deterrents. Crowd control.”

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“How did that make you feel that night, when that occurred?”

“I felt … I dunno … I felt … I felt like they wanted me to feel. Like tearin’ up shit. So they can have a reason to say, ‘See. Can’t let ’em get together.’ ” Again, Hank’s voice became just a touch more agitated. “I was very pissed off. ‘Cause, here we are, everybody’s college-educated, and they’re treatin’ us like we had rec­ords. Like we bad a history of starting trouble. And like I said, these people are probably not ‘racist,’ but in order for us to prove that we’re not the stereotype that they think we are, we gotta prove to them five times that we’re not. When we deal with a white person, we gotta deal with the fact that we gotta prove some­thing to them. We always gotta show them that we are not what they think we are.”

“There are some Black people who’d say, ‘I’m not interested in proving any­thing to a white person.’ Are you com­fortable ‘proving,’ or what’s your attitude in general?”

“Well, my attitude is, I play them how they play themselves in a particular situ­ation. I don’t deal with white people on a whole; I deal with a situation. I know that the stereotype is always there. I’m not here to prove them wrong or anything. I’m just there for them to respect me and what I do. I don’t want them to like me, or anything. I just want them to respect me.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


1980-1989: The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee

A Brother Doin’ 90 Into the ’90s

“I joke with my friends a lot and say I’m responsible for 50 per cent of the rap style that goes on now,” says Harlem-­native Mohandas Dewese.

Idle boast? Mohandas, a/k/a Kool Moe Dee, has the longest continuous ca­reer in hip-hop, has released hit records every year of the decade, and puts out platinum albums today — something no other artist in the genre can claim. His work stretches back before records to hip­-hop’s era of live NY clubs, where he made a name for his use of polysyllabic, esoter­ic, yet soulfully enunciated English. It’s been 10 years since the release of “The New Rap Language,” his recording debut on the B-side of Spoonie Gee’s “Love Rap.” Featuring the Treacherous Three — Kool Moe Dee, Special K., L.A. Sunshine — “The New Rap Language” was just that — a futuristic record that shoved the lyrical and percussive possibil­ities of hip-hop right up your auditory canal

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Years later, after Go See the Doctor, around How Ya Like Me Now, before Knowledge Is King and his work on Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block, I real­ized that people over the age of thirty-so­methin’ were giving hip-hop an ear. Kool Moe Dee was the reason most often for­warded. “He’s so articulate,” these Es­sence women would gush.

Well, rappers make their livings being articulate, and there’s no one better to articulate the ’80s from an Afrikan, youthful, working hip-hop perspective than Kool Moe Dee. During our conversa­tion, he gave his opinions on a variety of topics: Reagan (“He had a big hate-ap­peal in the Black community”), animal rights (“I have an army of leather… pro­bably 30, 35 suits. It’s definitely begun to mess with me on a value level”), crime (“Engineered, manipulated, and guaran­teed to be here; capitalism is the seed to feed the greed”), Japan (“They have nev­er lost a creative edge”) and AIDS (“Controlled and created… a genocide type of thing”).

I asked why more Afrikan people weren’t forwarding these issues. “You’re talking about African-Americans, right? I think most are concerned with getting themselves in economic power, and everything else is basically secondary.”

And he just talked.

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THE WORST TREND of the ’80s was when, maybe around ’85, drug dealers became idols again. I don’t know how it happened, but I definitely felt the vibe where the drug dealer was seen as in. It got to a point where everybody was into having new cars, new kits, things like that.

In the ’70s, there was a big boom, and it didn’t ever really, really die out, but it was not so popular around ’79, ’80, ’81.

And that was the worst trend, because I started to see a whole lot of deaths and shootings and things like that, just on a local, close level. Not the kind you just read about. The kind you hear about from your friend who knew such-and-such, or such-and-such that you knew.

What made this happen? It’s the alter ego of rap. Run-D.M.C.’s explosion in ’85 and ’86, plus the fact that they were wearing gold chains and things, that ev­erybody knew about how much money they were makin’, and that the public followed them.

I mean, I would remember hearing drug dealers say, “Psh. I make more money than them rappin’ m.f.’s.” So, it was almost like a competition type of vibe. And then to be in concert and say to the crowd, “How many homeboys got money in their pockets?” “Ah! Yeah, yeah! I got some money!” It’s that type of focus-on-the-money type of thing.

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THE GREATEST NEED for Black people in the next decade is focus. We need to have an agenda on a big level, where everybody knows where they wanna go, and it’s a matter of getting there, as opposed to just being scattered and thinking about what’s going on. Everybody needs to defi­nitely get focused on what it is that he or she wants to be doing, and just apply yourself that way, and work together.

If you know that your brother just bought a clothes store somewhere, even if it’s clothes that you don’t like, you make suggestions. He should then hire people that are in tune with what the kids are doing. So it’s that type of hand-in-hand thing: Giving each other the dollars so it’s a round-robin kind of self-sufficiency.

Look at Black radio, for example. On one hand you have a lot of radio stations that are supporting Black artists. Then on the other hand, you have another 50 per cent of them that are basically Uncle Tom–type of things that won’t play a rap record unless it breaks on a pop station first. There’s a lot of that going on, where we have to feel the politics from our own people, because of their lack of respect. So why be a Black station if you’re going to wait for the Pop to do something with your own people?

Controlling the youth and uplifting the youth is the key to uplifting the race, because the youth controls the system. They are the thought that’s coming. Let them know that, “No, you don’t only have to focus on being a singer or a basketball player. You have a bigger role in this society.” Let them know that there’s more money behind the scenes. You’re not gonna hear a Black guy say, “I wanna grow up and own the Nets.” He wants to grow up and play for the Nets.

I know brothers that coach Riverside Church, and they’re Black coaches and good. They don’t even think, “Why don’t I go to a Big 10 college and apply for the job?” Get the youth thinking on those levels. Broaden their minds to a point where they’re thinking from a 360° level.

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THE GREATEST NEED for white people in the next decade is to be more open to the flaws of the system. A lot of white people are, I would say, blindly racist. They don’t know that they’re acting on racism. The system works against Blacks, and it just happens to work for them, they don’t see the flaws.

They’ve never felt the pressure of going to college, getting a degree, and then coming out and still not being able to get a job. I’m talking about on a mass level. They honestly feel this is the way it is: You go to school you get your degree you come out you have a job — and that’s not necessarily the case. A white person might meet an employer, and just not know that this employer is a bigot, and the reason you’re getting this job as op­posed to the Black man is because you’re white. Once you see the relevance of the flaws, then you can relate to a lot of the problems, and a lot of the tension.

WHAT AFFECTED me personally the most in the ’80s were the learning experiences that I’ve gone through with females. My outlook on women is more focused. It’s not cynical or demeaning, and it’s not like a lot of guys feel: “everything is doomed to fail,” “a woman’ll be a wom­an.” I basically learned to take relation­ships in stride, and realized that pain is a part of life. The threat of pain also has implications for the promise of joy.

I’m making a record for Black History Month called “African Queen.” I think the Black woman, in general, doesn’t re­alize her potential power, and how much influence she has over the Black man. The sooner they come to the realization of their royalty, the better off for the race in general. The stronger the Black wom­an makes herself, the stronger that makes the Black man. If it gets to a point where you know a Black woman definite­ly will not deal with a drug dealer because of what he stands for, you will see dra­matic changes.

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If Woman gets deep, as deep as they can, and use their power, and sexuality­ — you can use your sexuality in a way with­out cheapening yourself as a woman — ­they can capitalize on the weaker man’s lust for them and get into certain posi­tions. Just like, for example, a Black woman can catch a Yellow Cab down­town before a Black man can. It’s a lot of advantages they have that they need to apply, because together they are more powerful than anything. So women have to basically find themselves, realize their power, not settle for less, and demand more from their men.

Black men have to start respecting Black women for what they are. Stop looking at them as objects for releases of tension, and basically just realize that you are also souls of kings, and you are not supposed to be living the way you are. If you’re dealing with the system like that, you have to find a way to deal with it and use it to your advantage.

If you feel you’re worth a million dol­lars, but the employer only gives you $10,000, you as a Black man, take that $10,000 and turn it into the million that you’re worth. Let’s take our position that we have attained, and turn it into the position that we want. If Arsenio wants to take it to the level and own the station, then focus on that. Work at it. Get your agenda, and figure out a way to get around what you have to do.

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THE ARSENIO HALL Show was a perfect forum for more exposure and a perfect chance to expose both of my sides. The fact that I can perform a record shows that I can entertain pretty well, and then to sit on the couch and speak shows that I can articulate and give rap another look, as opposed to the stereotype that they’re used to seeing or perceiving. Which, like I said, there’s nothing really wrong with. But I’m glad to have the opportunity to supply an alternative for all of those brothers and sisters that have pride and want some type of representa­tion on an intellectual level.

THE TAWANA BRAWLEY case affected me deeply. Number one, I believe, definitely, that she was raped. A lot of people let the media dictate the way they think, and a lot of people can’t read between the lines. People don’t remember that, once they’d painted the picture that she was lying, made her the defendant, and started cross-examining her, they put every Black person that didn’t believe it on TV. You had never seen more Blacks on the news. Every single time I turned the TV on, you saw another Black saying, “Well, if she’s telling the truth, why don’t she just tell who did it and get it over with?”

She was not gonna accomplish any­thing. So her power move was not to say anything at all, and basically reverse it to where it had to be public. But I personal­ly feel that because of the people in­volved, there had to be a cover-up, because once you have high-visibility people in the community involved in a case like that, that creates more racial tension, and you have a situation where it’s al­most civil war. And then to go back and admit that they were wrong shows you that you can’t have faith in your judicial system any more. So it’s almost like they can’t let her win, no matter what.

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They give information like, “We found carpet fibers on her, and feces on her glove.” Who’s to say she didn’t get raped and taken to her house? Take it to the next level. Who’s to say? What about the fact that the doctor’s report has been lost, that documented she couldn’t re­spond to the most powerful stimuli? What about the fact that that doctor is no longer at that hospital, and nobody knows where he is? What about all of these elements that lead you to suspi­cion? Nobody takes a chance to even think about all o’ that. How fake can you be? How much fakin’ is that? You can’t fake a coma.

I don’t think it’s gonna be put to rest, although they will put it off as long as they can, and keep it out of the media as much as they can. But you know, things are still going on. What they’re also try­ing to do now is discredit her lawyers, so that they have no validity. Whoever comes in and replaces them… who knows? He might be some type of sellout. I think they should just keep going with the case and go ahead with their plan. They’re trying to put her back as the plaintiff, trying to take it to the next level, and go through the appellate court.

NOW WITH Yusuf Hawkins… it’s to the point now where I’m hearing Blacks on the street level say, if they continue to kill Blacks in situations like that, then they’re gonna start randomly doing it to whites. Once you have that happen, you have anarchy. Then nobody’s safe.

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HARLEM IS VERY important to me. That’s where I was born, raised, and it has a lot of history in it. In the ’70s, the Loews closed down, and the West End turned into a supermarket, and then a church, or something like that. The Apol­lo closed. And everything just started happening in terms of just letting Harlem deteriorate.

Now, it seems like there’s an interest in rebuilding. The Loews is back open, and the Apollo is back open, and there’s a Black store on that street… I forgot the name of it… right next to the Apollo. (Note: It’s a clothing store called Heaven on Earth, and it is!) There are at least talks of making moves, of buying more businesses in Harlem. The effort is not full-scale yet, but it’s just a matter of getting more of the right, key people­ — with enough dollars to buy it back — to start buying it back. That mentality will definitely be there going into the ’90s.

A lot of people don’t understand how we wound up there, and why they’re try­ing to take it back. They put us in that area and it backfired: they realized it’s easy to get to anywhere in the city from Harlem; it’s much better than driving a car in from Long Island, which was the ideal thing to do. When the mass produc­tion of cars got overwhelming and traffic backed up, Blacks had access to trains that get you downtown in 20 minutes. So it’s like, “Let’s get this place back! This is an ideal place to live, ya know?”

So, a lot of people just don’t under­stand how we got into this situation, and why it deteriorated. Or, should I say, how it was left to be deteriorated.

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GOING INTO THE ’80s, I was a little disil­lusioned. I was ignorant to the politics of the system, in terms of the musical realm. I still knew that I definitely want­ed to go to college. I knew that I wanted rap to be more than what it was, and I had faith in it. So, I was more of an idealistic type of person.

Going into the ’90s, I’m much more focused, much more aware, definitely more in tune, and extremely racially con­scious, in terms of the business. I under­stand the politics of life in general much more. I’m awake. I’ve been combusted. ■


Moscow on the Hudson: The Decline and Fall of the New York Empire
By Nicholas Von Hoffman


Hip-Hop Nation: Power to the People

Hip-Hop Radio: Power to the People
January 19, 1988

It’s appropriate that the first, the only, place I heard the Audio Two’s last record, “I Like Cher­ries,” was on The D.N.A.-Hank Love Ra­dio Show (WNWK, 105.9, Sunday, 2 to 4 a.m.). As the self-proclaimed “Under­ground of Hip-Hop,” D.N.A.-Love is in­deed a minority in a minority, playing many cuts, artists, and labels that the Magics and Red Alerts won’t even unbox. So, while Magic pompously fronts him­self as “the Donald Trump of hip-hop,” and J. R. Vance wastes talk-time engag­ing Red Alert in the corniest chitchat this side of Diff’rent Strokes, I even tape the commercials read by DJ Hank Love. (The Billy Jean’s Hair Salon ad is an existentialist must-hear.)

Sure, D.N.A. plays a lot of wack rec­ords, but that’s a hazard of democracy. (Mitch-Ski and Shan ain’t exactly the Kings of Rock, by the way.) D.N.A.-Love listeners hear their own music — the “Star for a Night” feature, 4-X, allows them to visit the Manhattan studio and hear their tapes as part of their own verbal environ. The audience knows by fact, not by de­fault, that they’re definitely down with the program. “The people who listen to our show, they want to be recognized as listeners,” D.N.A. says. “We talk with our listeners; we don’t talk to them. It’s like a family operation. ‘Yo, what up, D.N.A. I’d like to give a shot-out to my homeboy Bob-Ski up in…’ ” Thusly, this is the only N.Y. radio show where B-boys take over the station in a substantive sense, and in which the act of first playing an Audio Two, Ultra Magnetic M.C.’s, Ma­jestic Productions, Ultimate Choice, or Super Lover Cee, becomes a vital com­munity service.

Although the exact size of the audience is not clear (the 27-year-old entrepreneur boasts “two million listeners in four states”), its brief history is more so. D.N.A. took over the WNWK (formerly WHBI) slot in 1985 right after Mr. Magic was called back by PT-109’d WBLS, which had stopped playing hip-hop for personal reasons.

D.N.A., a former Jackson 5 fan turned music student turned Rush Productions promo man, had long realized that the best way to get inside the biz was from backstage. His backstage pass was getting a sponsor to pay for two-hour time blocks and reselling minute-sized slices to adver­tisers. It worked, and his continued suc­cess with the show has allowed him to develop related projects, such as estab­lishing something wrongly too rare in the music business: a Black-owned company (D.N.A. International, Inc.) producing, packaging, and promoting hip-hop.

Now inside, he hasn’t exactly been wel­comed with open arms. D.N.A. is gay, and some of the difficulty he meets on a professional level, just trying to get his crews airplay at various spots on the dial, for example, comes from prejudice. While not denying this, he sees other reasons for the chilly reception as well.

“We’re envied by everybody. One, be­cause we come in there as businessmen, knowing what we want and knowing what we wanna do. We don’t come in there as guys just playing music.” Later he ad­mits, “People just don’t like me. But that’s besides the point. They didn’t like Christ either, so what can you say?”

No delusions of grandeur here; just someone who’s nonsense-tired. Hardly a proselyte, but not one to hold back. “I wish we could get together and organize and take control of this music, because now, it’s like we’re just a bunch o’ Black folks running around, with no organiza­tion, no goals, you know what I’m sayin’? There’s nothing organized.”

“I’m not on an ego trip. Believe me, I am more than honored that people listen to me. They are the stars. They are the Donald Trumps, they are the Godfathers, they are the Official Voice, not me. They put us there, they keep us there, without their support we wouldn’t be there. That’s why I always say on the radio they are the world’s greatest listeners: they stay up ’til two o’clock in the morning. They’ve been with us for almost three years, supporting us. I don’t need no title like ‘Godfather,’ or… uh… uh… ‘Pre­mier,’ or ‘Emperor.’ It’s not all about me. Without them, we ain’t jack-doo-doo. And that’s a quote.”

But then, perhaps thinking he had spo­ken just a little too soon, D.N.A. turned to his coproducer. “Well, how do you feel, Hank? Should we call you, ‘Prime Minis­ter Hank Love’?”

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Oh, Yeah, Those ‘Other’ Hip-Hop Shows

Yeah, it’s a ghetto, boo-yee. But we call it home (or at least we do until after the revolv-olution).

MR. MAGIC’S RAP ATTACK (WBLS, 107.5, Friday & Saturday, 9 p.m. to 12.)
Pluses: Marley Marl, the man most likely to exceed, and to eventually write a jazz opera for turntables. Marley Marl’s well-earned status as a disc driver is assured, and we’ve known his mixes were edgy for years. Other pluses: the show’s nice, half-hour bites (just right for tap­ing), clear signal, Magic’s knowledge of the music and his attitude.
Negatives: Magic‘s attitude (his on-air dissing of Hurby et alli makes him sound like a jealous wish-I-wuz), regular “World Premieres” that aren’t, and, though “Fly” Tyrone Williams is no longer in the booth, Magic still pushes up, up, and away too much Pop Art-Prism-Cold Chillin’ product. (That year-end top 20 was a joke, ha-ha.)

CHUCK CHILLOUT & RED ALERT (WRKS, 98.7, Friday & Saturday, 9 p.m. to 12.)
Magic’s competition. I don’t listen to Chuck, as it comes on during Sabbath, so I’m talking about Red here.
Pluses: Clear signal, more variety in cuts than you­-know, the show’s closing music and pro­mos (“Who’s Jimmy? VIOLATORS!” Dooooope!), sometimes commercial-free for hour-long stretches.
Negatives: Zero shout-outs, worst on-­air conversation in N.Y. hip-hop (too bad; word-for-word, Red’s a more interesting talker than you-know), and unex­citing mixes. (Marley wins as a record player; however, for the record, Red’s a better record producer.)

THE AWESOME 2 (WNWK, Sunday, 4 to 5 a.m.)
America’s chillest air personalities, with the best opening music of any of these shows, comes on right after D.N.A., and they’re close in the Raw Feeling De­partment, but, being chill, they’re some­times a little cold on-air. Pluses: Toddy­Tod (subtly dope), frank, on-air shout-outs and interviews, the lack of gee-whiz. (They’re chill, remember?)
Negatives: Four in the a.m.!

THE POST-PUNK PROGRESSIVE POP PARTY (WRHU, 88.5, Sunday, 12 to 2 a.m.)
Only a white man could come up with a title like that, namely one Jeff Foss, who realized the strength of hip-hop’s position as New Music, even while nearby, more-powerful WLIR was still pushing A Flock of Bird-Dookey as the sound for the lunar colonies.
Pluses: No commercials (just Foss’s drolly read UPI wire copy on the hour), plays old stuff, tells name of artist, cut and record company (unlike Magic), and doesn’t talk over records. Foss also has obviously tak­en the “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Gordon Sumner” approach, surround­ing himself with the necessary Negroes to give his show real flat-tire-on-a-tar-roof­ rainy-night credibility. His on-air DJ, “Machete Master” Johnny Juice (of Kings of Pressure, hip-hop’s most physi­cally rhythmic DJ), and Juice’s “Love Mixes” (Force M.D.’s “Love Is a House” over the Super Lover Cee beat, 4-X) hype like a pipe.
Negative: Foss’s voice hurts — it’s hip­-hop meets Don Pardo meets the Ginsu Knife. Same thing for P-Fine’s vocals (WNYU, 89.1, ‘Tuesday, 9 to 10:30 p.m.). I honestly didn’t listen to Dré too much in his last days, and I still don’t listen to P or Vandy C (WNYE, 91.5, Saturday, 6 to 7 p.m.) too much, either. Sorry, folks. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. Daytime radio on KISS and ’BLS, that is. ■

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SERIOUS-LEE-FINE: Three the Hard Way

Run-D.M.C., L.L. Cool J, and Doug E. Fresh were all initially dismissed by most of the much record labels to which they sent tapes. This was because the people who make the money from this music’s success, for the most part, can’t dance, and don’t know the music, stretching over race, class, and age lines to grab a buck. Knowhumsayin’?

Serious-Lee-Fine is a crew from Chill City, Long Island, a/k/a Uniondale. Rush Productions manages them and Jam Master Jay is working with them in the studio even though they don’t have a record deal. I’ve been listening to their demo tape for the past seven months and, at this rate, I should tire of it sometime around the spring of 1994. The six-armed, six-legged, three-penised monster consists of vo­calists Serious C (lead rapper, architect, and bass drum), Choice Rapper Lee-Ski (mid­dleman, transmission, and planar saw), and K-Fine (afterburner, fragments, and Klaxon), with DJ Choice Master Chip C pumpin’ up the volume over his subliminal slicing. De­spite the cutesy name, the crew’s style is strictly seek-and-de­stroy; hyperassault on cuts with such titles as “Sweat,” “Bass Goes Bang,” and “The Mon­ster Shit.” Their sce­narios usually go sum’n like this: lead rapper Serious C starts the set with punchy assonances and alliterations, blowing subject matter all out of proportion. Then Lee-Ski’s convinced vocal grinds it right back down to size with a rap as exact as the jaws in a trap. Finally, Lee tosses it off to K-Fine, he takes it out of here, and the fun really begins: syntax gets slandered, rhythms get run over, 16-year-olds change their career plans, and the moisture count rises:

The tune is in boom, it’s widely projected
A dictation of orchestration will premier wax-wreckin’
My sister bought a copy, yes, some people still igg it
Don’t play it off, boss; but of course you dig it
Dakim, check the level, geese it up one unit
On beat I think it is; if it ain’t, Chip tune it!
Bites, termites, bloods have been spilt
They’re not fluent; careers are ruined in the house that I’ve built
For subtracting from the wack calculates as a minus
Because K is the finest rapping rhyming ruling royal highness
Leaving phrases I shall insert

Exhilarating dominating pulsating expert…

Forget what you just read. It’s irrelevant. K-Fine is one of those vocalists that, to scratch the adage, could make Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate sound hype. He describes his move as “a marriage of reality, fascination, and imagination, to bring forth my style of ill hip-hop — creating the most illest lyrics known to man.” You can call him the Dennis Hopper of Hip-Hop. I dunno, but K always sounds like he’s about to hyperventilate to me, so hard he pushes the euphoria.

Why does Serious-Lee-Fine continue to do some sort of weird holding pattern over Def Jam, New York, while lesser suckers on other labels make Swatch commercials or black-and-white fashion videos? Some might say samo-samo (see beginning of this piece). Some might say rapper glut at Rush. Some might say V action for Run. (Might be a meal hard to swallow when much hyper lyrics prevail.) We’ll see. I say let Toddy Riley (Kool Moe Dee, Classical Two) finish some of the brothers’ cuts (just to avoid clone-itis), give them to a record company with the juice, gusto, and attitude to move this project correct, then press the dope up. Stand back. Watch SLF rock the earth’s surface.
— Harry Allen


Hiphop Nation: America Raps Back

Nationwide: America Raps Back
January 19, 1988

Record Industry types used to ask me, “How long will this rap thing last?” They don’t any longer. Not when three different hip hop tours played to near-capacity crowds at sports arenas and concert halls across America last summer. Not when they can look at Billboard’s black album chart last No­vember and see that eight of the top 30 albums are by rappers, including three of the top 10. Not when their kids ignore Marlon Jackson, the Bar-Kays, and Sha­lamar for the simple pleasures of U.T.F.O. and Kool Moe Dee.

Rap, and its hip hop musical underpinning, is now the national youth music of black America and the dominant dance music of urban America, with the possi­ble exceptions of Washington, D.C., spawning ground of the hip hop influ­enced go-go scene, and Chicago, with its retro-disco house music. Rap’s gone na­tional and is in the process of going re­gional. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s actually easily explained. Rap spread out from New York to attract a loyal, national audience. New York rapped and America listened. Now Amer­ica is rhyming back.

Over the last year and a half labels like Miami’s Luke Skywalker, Houston’s Rap­-A-Lot, and Boston’s Beautiful Sounds have emerged, independent record com­panies nurtured by local rap scenes and often fighting losing battles for radio play in their areas. While creatively these cit­ies have yet to spawn Def Jam/Rush level stars, these fruitful hip hop markets will inevitably produce talent with national appeal. Dallas and Houston, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Miami, and even Los Angeles can, according to Def Jam promotion vice-president Bill Stephney, “outsell New York on certain records.”

While judging last summer’s raucous hip hop competition at the New Music Seminar, it was clear that there was more to rap than Uptown. Three of the four finalists in the scratching DJ throwdown were from outside New York: Philadel­phia’s Cash Money who, with MC Mar­velous, cuts for Sleeping Bag; Los Ange­les’s Joe Cooley, who works with rapper Rodney O; and Miami’s Mr. Mix, of the notorious 2 Live Crew. Though none of the out-of-town rappers made the finals, several were among the most memorable, including Detroit’s Robert S., who’s re­corded two poorly promoted 12-inches on Epic; Philadelphia’s well-regarded M. C. Breeze; and Cleveland’s Bango the B-Bov Outlaw, who’ll be heard on the sound­track to Dennis Hopper’s Los Angeles gang melodrama, Colors, in late February.

The reasons for rap’s growth are easy to trace. First, there’s the music; direct, raw, easy to emulate. Equally important have been New York rap tours, and not just the big arena extravaganzas of recent years. When Kurtis Blow and Grandmas­ter Flash hit the road in the early ’80s, they helped create a new chitlin’ circuit of teen appeal clubs and auditoriums. Be­cause it was so inexpensive to book rap acts — Blow traveled with just a DJ and a road manager — dates were possible not only in small venues but, in towns like Gary, Indiana, and Lake Charles, Louisi­ana, a rapper could play multiple dates in one night. So the generation of rappers and scratchers now emerging first tasted hip hop up close and personal.

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In each city where rap’s appeal has expanded there have been key figures who’ve fought authori­ties, peer pressure, and local inferiority complexes. In Cleveland WZAK program director (and sometime rapper) Lynn Tolliver has been on point since the early ’80s by fearlessly programming rap at all hours, where many other PDs try to limit it to late hours. In Philadelphia (first at WHAT and now at WUSL) DJ Lady B has been “the Godmomma” to the most impressive community of rap talent beside the Apple. Because Lady B has al­ways played homegrown talent beside New York honchos, Philadelphians be­came aware of local groups and pur­chased their homies’ records. Because of Lady B’s advocacy Jive Records has in­vested heavily in Philadelphia hip hop in the past year, signing Schoolly D, Steady B., and Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince. In Miami a homeboy using the handle Luke Skywalker founded Luke Skywalker Rec­ords, which is anchored by the ultra­raunchy 2 Live Crew. Their ribald 2 Live Crew Is What We Are was so lyrically foul several localities sought to ban it (and even got a record store clerk arrest­ed down South for selling it), yet it was the first non-New York area rap album to sell over 500,000 units. (I don’t count Whodini’s three made-in-London albums since they all involved New York talent.)

Of all the local hip hop catalysts, I’ve found two — Houston’s Steve Fournier and Los Angeles’s Jorge Hinojosa — the most interesting because of their ambi­tion, energy, and location. Fournier is a stocky, bearded white Texas DJ who five years ago fell in love with rap. He landed a gig at a big barn of a dance hall called Rhinestone’s and, because of his “110 per cent rap” policy, the place became the Gilley’s of hip hop. Recently Fournier moved to a new barn, Spud’s of Houston, where he still plays to crowds as large as 2000 seven days a week. There’s very little rap played on Houston radio, so Fournier’s club play constitutes the medi­um of most exposure for rap, not just in Houston, but in the Southwest.

But Fournier wants more. Like many of the non-New York rap entrepreneurs he seeks the respect of New York and acknowledgment of his area’s importance to rap’s future. As a result Fournier has founded the Rap Commission, a national record pool based in Houston with offi­cers in New York and Los Angeles. Four­nier, of course, heads it and acts as a conduit for rap records to reach the DJs and club jocks scattered around the coun­try. The Rap Commission would then have the most comprehensive list to date of labels, club jocks, and radio outlets for hip hop. The idea that such an institution would be run by a white man in Texas makes many brothers here in the Apple bristle, as if Fournier’s efforts were an affront to the black roots of rap. Four­nier feels that’s simply New York chau­vinism. “Texas is centrally located in one of the biggest hip hop markets,” he says. “There are tons of local groups here and I think acts like the Ghetto Boys, Jazzy Red, or R.P. Cola are competitive with New York and Philly but don’t have the national exposure. Hey, New York is still where it was born, but the rest of the country has something to contribute.”

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Not surprisingly, one of Fournier’s chief supporters is another non-New Yorker, young half-Bolivian hustler Jorge Hinojosa. Often described to his chagrin as “a West Coast Russell Simmons,” Hinojosa has an enthusiasm and quick wit reminiscent of Rush Pro­ductions’s founder. Hinojosa manages the city’s best known rapper, Ice-T (whose Rhyme Pays on Sire has sold over 300,000), signed an L.A. rap compilation album called Rhyme Syndicate to Warner Bros. (out in March; it includes a 20-page comic book highlighting L.A. hip hop), and is the top rap promotion man there. (He broke Salt ’n Pepa’s “I’ll Take Your Man” in L.A. and worked the early Man­tronik records for Sleeping Bag.)

“I never wanted to be a manager,” he says, “but when I worked at Island rec­ords Ice-T and his producer Afrika Islam couldn’t get signed there. I begged Island to sign him. When they didn’t I quit my job to work with him.” In the early 1980s New Yorkers considered Los Angeles “too soft” to be a factor in hip hop, and those horrible Cannon break-dance flicks (Breakin’ and Electric Boogaloo) seemed to confirm Southern California’s cotton candy approach to street music. But the tone and, as a result, the image of that city’s street culture has changed pro­foundly. The tension between lower class black, Latino, and Asian youth in LaLa­Land has created a mean streets lifestyle that embraces rap’s hard edge, sometimes explosively, as in the notorious gang riot during a Long Beach rap show in 1986.

Hinojosa, aided by the heavy rap pro­gramming philosophy of KDAY’s Greg Mack, has capitalized on the growing awareness that East Los Angeles has its own street culture, one understandable on the East Coast. That the West Coast based Warner Bros. signed Rhyme Syndi­cate (and recently negotiated a distribu­tion deal with New York-based Cold Chillin’ Records) is, to some degree, a byproduct of Hinojosa meetings with El Lay’s once suspicious record executives.

Hinojosa, Ice-T, who was born in New­ark but raised in Los Angeles, and former Soul Sonic Force member Afrika Islam formed a team, one that anticipates the future of hip hop. Hinojosa, a resident of the San Fernando Valley, is an upper-­middle-class kid with business savvy; Ice-­T is street, but L.A. street, with long red hair and raps that refer to West Coast scenes; and Afrika Islam, who was once a Bronx fixture but now living and spin­ning in Los Angeles, and brings New York expertise to Ice-T’s music. As a unit they illustrate the local flair, old school style, and ambivalence that mark this phase of non-New York hip hop.

I say ambivalence because Ice-T re­corded his album in New York, subcon­sciously confirming the idea that quality rap can only be recorded here or with New York involvement. Moreover, too many non-New York rappers “bite” the styles of Run, the Fat Boys, Slick Rick, L.L. Cool J, etc., failing to localize the music. Case in point: Boston Goes Def! on Beautiful Records. It contains 15 cuts from different rappers, yet there are only two specific references to Boston. A shame, since the beats, samples, and verbal dexterity of the rappers, overall, was as good as anything you’ll hear on Magic or Red Alert’s shows this weekend. Of the Philly crew Schoolly D is the most bellig­erently local. On occasion he writes quite powerfully about the violent world of his Philadelphia (e.g., “P.S.K.”), detailing a landscape specific and personal. More­over, he is contemptuous of New York’s superstar rappers, rarely performing here or even traveling north for business meetings with Jive. If Schoolly D can consistently funnel that anger into good music — which, alas, he hasn’t — then he could set the tone for a new non-New York hip hop. To date the most effective non-New York rap record is that contro­versial 2 Live Crew album. To my ears it was crude on all; levels; the raps were witless (“Throw the ‘ D’ ”), the elocution sloppy, and the recording quality awful. Yet its fast tempos (surely influenced by Miami’s enduring disco romance), in-yo-­face words, and down-home flavor made it, for a time last spring, the South’s hottest rap record. And, maybe, that’s the point. The rap that’ll surely flow from down South, the Midwest, and the West Coast will not, and should not, feel be­holden to what came before. Just as hip hop spit in the face of disco (and funk too), non-New York hip hop will have to use its own accent, its own version of B boy wisdom, if it’s to mean anything. After all, New York is already paid in full.

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From its “Atomic Dog”-struck opening strains to the chorus that chimes in, “You are what you are,” to the little sister with the Big Lie — “Crack is the word” — “Cracked Out” (Strong City) runs amok like a record possessed, reaching a level of self-contradiction and paranoia analogous to that of the substance-abuser. Masters of Ceremony’s production style might best be described as Desperately Seeking Confusion, with a mélange of voices, rhythms, and forces trying to get their two cents in before the record ends. (Turn up the base!) Vocalists Bill “Grand Poobah Maxwell” Dixon and Todd “Dr. Who” Dixon saunter in with the most unaffected banter ever heard on a hip-hop record, and proceed to act as witting foils in superdetailed tales from the curbside. It’s dirty and dope.

So what was the next move to break open? Producer Jazzy Jay did the all-too-rare by creating a remake where the hype level is even stoopider than on the original (“Cracked”Out [Remix]”), and, thusly, declared himself an old-school force to be reckoned with still. Best part of the cut: the siren that plays over and over but fails to resolve itself. This is truly hell; the sound of self-torture made evident.
—Harry Allen

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SHARP HK-9000: Box Most Likely to Accidentally Start a Nuclear War

Am I lying? Even the name sounds like some kind of supercomputer. HAL’s little cuz, no doubt. SPECIFICATIONS, y’all. Price: $299.95. Length: 33 inches. Width: 9 inches. Height: One foot. Weight: 32.5 pounds, without batteries. And that’s until you decide you wanna rock “Two, Three, Break” on the Queensbound Goetz Local, or bust your own funky fresh ditty on the built-in PA system. Put in 10 D cells, call your homey, ask him to grab a 9, one end, and walk.

Yeah, I know. Technosonic. Junk. A lot of plastic, a lot of empty space inside, and a motion-sensitive burglar alarm. Gimme a break. Yo, if I keep selling enough of these articles, I’m gettin’ myself hooked-up correct. See you the Day After.
—Harry Allen


Hiphop Nation: Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free

Roxanne Shanté, Pussy Ain’t Free
January 19, 1988

Remember the Roxanne wars of ’85? U.T.F.O. cut “Rox­anne Roxanne,” cold-dissing yet another “stuck-up, devious, and sinister” home­ girl. Along comes 15-year-old Roxanne Shanté from the Queens Bridge projects, Long Island City, the unauthorized rap­per behind “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Shanté (real first name: Lolita) tells the U.T.F.O. crew to “suck my bush.” Requests for “Roxanns’e Revenge” pour into black­-music stations it before Pop Art Records even presses it. U.T.F.O., after threatening to sue, answer with “The Real Rox­anne,” sung by the Roxanne of their choosing. Shanté takes it to the stage, namely the Roxy-Red Parrot scene in New York, and wins the battle with fierce freestyling. In ’86 she drops out of sight.

After having a kid (Kareem), Shante surfaced last summer when producer Marley Marl convinced her to record “Have Nice Day” (Cold Chillin’). Shanté comes back Ali-style, proclaiming in her trademark squeak that she’s “the mike’s grandmistress…the queen of the crew with the juice” — laurels that, in her the absence, Sparky Dee, M.C. Lyte, Salt ’n Pepa, and others so young, the title in ques­tion should be princess; if there’s a queen in the house it’s Millie Jackson.)

Certainly, in Salt ’n Pepa, Shanté has stiff competition. Shanté herself calls Salt “shocking,” which I took to mean stupid-fresh. Shanté’s three singles (the third, “Payback,” was cut in ’85 and re­leased only recently by Pop Art) deliver their share of quick-draws — “A lot of to MCs most today of rap those to MCs/So please/But when I gave it comes birth around to the month of May /Send me your royalty check for Mother’s Day.” But it’s live on the mike where Shanté has most female rappers beat; given an inch, she’ll read any man in the audience faster than a snap queen can raise his right arm. When we met she obliged me with samples of her freestyle “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” I remembered to close my mouth about three minutes later, no joke.

On the subject of male rappers and their female problem, Shanté had no use for any oppressed-other politics. She ac­cepts what rap boys have to say about girls, for the most part, with a shrug and a smile. Yet “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money” isn’t about accep­tance. It’s much closer to Janet Jackson’s idea of control, and seems to me to be more sound advice to Shanté’s primary audience than”Papa Don’t Preach.” Just who owns the means of reproduction? I’d like to hear someone answer Shanté on that.

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Lisa Jones: Tell me about your live show.

Roxanne Shanté: They turn off the lights. My MC says, “Are you ready for Then Roxanne Shanté? Well here’s the queen.” Then I go (from offstage): “We came here tonight to get started, to cold act ill or get retarded.” The we play Public Enemy and I go out there. I say, “Tell them who I am?” My DJ cuts in Heavy D and the Boys’ “The Overweight Lovers in the House.” I say, “Wait, who am I?” The DJ repeats Heavy D. Then he cuts in “Pay­back.” I rap freestyle to that, do my new single another “Have a Nice Day,” and end with another freestyle.

How does the freestyle go?

Usually I start with, “The Pussy Ain’t Free, You Gotta Give Up Money.” And more stuff about guys. My language is very vulgar, and that’s bad because I have little kids who come see me and they go home quoting me. I had somebody’s mother call me up. Her kid is four and she took her to see me at a stadium in New Jersey. For the past two weeks this kid’s been going around the house saying, “The pussy ain’t free, you got to give up money.” Some people tell me, “Listen, don’t you think you oughta cut it down?” If I did cut it down, what would I do — “One-two, one-two, what we would gonna I ­do?” My audience is used to hearing me say things like, “See that guy right there? He makes me sick. Always  wanting the [pause] but [pause].” You can imagine what goes in there. [Whispering] “Always wanting the pussy, but ain’t got no dick.”

You can say that in this paper.

Really? I must sound like I’m terribly nasty. I’m not.

If you use that language, there must be a reason for it.

Some people say I use it just to be known, ’cause I had to work so much out harder there than and men say, did.  L.L. [Cool J] can go out there and say “Rock the bells,” and  the crowd yells.

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And when you use that language… 

They love it. If they didn’t love it, I wouldn’t use it. When I pick a guy out of the crowd and start dogging him ’cause he said something smart, the crowd goes wild.

You bring him up on stage?

No, he stays right there in the crowd, behind the guards, ’cause he might get mad and try to punch me. If he yells something like, “Yo, fuck her,” I’ll be like, “What? Fuck your mother,” and such and such. I’m a little nicer now. I don’t get that many hecklers ’cause don’t nobody wanna get cursed out and be embarrassed the next day in school. “Ahh, I seen it Roxanne curse you  out.” Some guys like it ’cause them popular the next day. They be like, “Talk about me, talk about me!”

You get out there and you really dog ’em, but these guys get off on it. 

Guys guys like me, it’s the girls who don’t. The guys be looking forward to getting the drawers. [Sexy male voice] “Yo baby, you need such and such.” They be giving me all that cooneckedyneckedy talk. They be looking forward to gettin’ some so they can say, “I got Roxanne!” Now, girls, they roll their eyes, act like they don’t like me. Some girls I meet are nice, they’ll say, “Yeah, I like your records.” And then some will be like, “I coulda done better.” Well, bitch, if ya coulda done better, why am I up here and you’re down there? If you came to heckle, why you waste your 15 country dollars to come see me if all you gonna do is stand there and stick your lips out? Me and girls never got along. Never, ever, ever got along.

Is that why you started rappin’, be­cause you hung out with guys?

I hung with guys. Never with girls. Like I said, they cause problems. I’d say guys encouraged me to rhyme. Guys like Ha­kim, M.C. Shan, and them. You know, beating on tables and stuff like that. They inspired me a lot.

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When “Roxanne’s Revenge” came out, you were 15, right?

Fourteen. Tasting success. I would go to the park with my friend Sherron and the fellows wouldn’t want to give me the mike. How dare they? When I got it, I’d start with, “You right there in your mock neck and Lees/Scratching your ass like you got fleas.” The crowd would go crazy cause I was so little, with a high-pitched voice.

You told me you don’t like “Dumb Girls” [Run-D.M.C.], but “Dear Yvette” [L.L. Cool J] you like. Don’t they both dog women?

To me, ”Dumb Girls” had no meaning, What’s the sense in making a record called ”Dumb Girls”? Girls aren’t dumb. If you think about it, a dumb girl can get more out of a guy than a really smart girl can. ‘Cause the dumb girl could be play­ing dumb. It was a stupid dumb record. I started to make a record called “Dumb Guys,” but I didn’t want to do anymore answer records.

I didn’t find anything wrong with “Dear Yvette.” L.L. was talking about one girl. Her name was Yvette. And I know a lot of girls like Yvette. He wasn’t downing her, he was trying to get her to better herself. So he wrote her a letter, telling her what she should do, get a GED, and stuff like that.

I listen to songs by male rap artists and it seems like all the women are either hos, bitches, stealing their seeds, ripping off their gold chains and Ballys, or like Dana Dane, running off with all their Gucci stuff. 

See, there’s no such thing as a a “in-between girl.” Even the homeliest girl wants. She wants more to make herself look better. She wants gold earrings, chains, et cetera. Guys pamper girls and make them want these things, anyway. And what makes a girl a ho? Because she won’t give you none? I walk down the street and guys say, [homeboy voice] “Yo baby, yo baby, I’m talking to you, yo Trooper.” (I wear a Troop jacket.) And when I don’t speak, they say, “Yo, fuck you ’cause you ain’t fly anyway.” I’m the type to stop and turn around and say, “Then why the fuck was you chasing me?” And then he says “Yo, baby you don’t have to go out like that.”

Guys dis girls for the stupidest reasons. They want the kind of girl they can just slap up. No nigger slap me, I haven’t been slapped yet. Let somebody slap me.… Wait a minute, I have. So, I lied.

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One hand, you ‘re saying you don’t mind the records male artists are making about women…

Rap is about using fighting words, in­stead of fighting. Instead of saying “Let’s fight,” people say, “Let’s battle.” I bet you rap has saved a lot of lives. Even though there were shootouts afterwards!

Half of it is about people getting so dressed up for rap shows. Not suits and stuff, but in stuff that cost more than suits: leather and Gucci suits and sneak­ers, Fila suits and sneakers. We’re talking expensive shit here. So if somebody steps on homeboy’s sneakers, of course he’s gonna break and wanna fight. Especially if the other guy got on Pro-Keds, flair-leg jeans, and a mock neck. There used to be this guy going around called the Slasher. He’d slash leather jackets at parties and concerts. Do you know how ugly a leather looks after it’s been cut?

You said that guys dis girls unneces­sarily, but you also said sometimes girls deserve it.

Maybe L.L. did have a cousin named Yvette. Yvette, that’s your problem. May­be there are dumb girls out there, okay, that’s their problem. I have had records made about me that have gotten deep­down dark and dirty. I’ve been called “project ho,” from niggers who never got a bit o’ pussy. Why I’m a ho, cause you didn’t get none? Or did you ask and I told you no? And then things like, “Roxanne Shanté is only good for steady fuckin’.” How long he been knowing me? ‘Turns out he never even met me. I could’ve bugged out, ran up to him and killed him, he wouldn’t have known what I looked like.

As long as you’re able to defend your­self with words, you don’t care what they say?

Exactly. But sometimes I feel hurt about records made about me, especially those that came out when I wasn’t even making records. Regardless of how hard I play on the outside, I’m still a woman. I’m still sensitive. I don’t like to see dogs get hit by cars, I don’t like to see children get beatings.

What do you think of the other women rappers?

There’s enough room for everybody. I’m not against no female rappers, just as long as they don’t get in my way.

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What about a battle between female rappers?

That would have to be a Don King promotion, because it would be a strict fight afterwards! That’s something you’d want to put on before a Tyson fight! Put everybody in the ring, let all the mikes come down, and let everybody go for theirs! I can’t rate myself. I might not be the last one standing, ’cause girls can get down and start writing, and I’m the kind of person to do mine off the top of my head. I’d be so nervous, I’d be downright vulgar. I’d say the kind of stuff that makes people’s mothers climb into the ring.

It’s a good idea. No one could possibly predict the outcome. They could have me, Sparky Dee, Salt ‘n Pepa, M.C. Lyte, and any female  who think she can cope. That would be def.

What would you say to Salt-n-Pepa in the ring?

I’d be like, “Your mike sounds wack, check one/Your mike sounds wack, check two.” I’d think of some crazy shit if it got down to that. I would. I’d be like, “You think you can fuck with me? C’mon, there’s no reasoning, knock out the box, you’re nothing but seasoning.”

Why would a showdown between the women be so crazy?

Let me tell you. If men go crazy over mud wrestling, they ought to come see some female MCs get crazy. I used to battle girls at my shows all the time, and they’d cry. And I’d have to explain to them that it was all in fun. “No, fuck you,” they’d say, and then we’d start fighting. Women just fight, they go crazy. They be having fights that guys don’t wanna break up ’cause they think some­body’s clothes gonna come off. I think girl rappers are more fierce than guys.

Who’s the fiercest after you?

Salt. I think it’s Salt. She’s good. Shocking. They have a nice show, they ­dance. I don’t do that. I walk out there, get a seat. I look like a female Bill Cosby, I have my legs crossed and I just talk.

What do you wear when you go on?

Anything I have on. I don’t get dressed up ’cause I find it fake. A hip-hopper is a regular street person, so I wear my regu­lar clothes. If I was doing a show tonight;, I wouldn’t wear this hat, but I’d wear these jeans, these sneakers, this shirt, and put curls in my hair. Throw on a Gucci hat or something. I’m not a dressy person. That’s why when I go out, people see me and say, “That ain’t her, look what she got on.” ■

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M.C.LYTE: Lyte as a Rock

On the phone with M.C. Lyte, com­poser of the epic poem “I Cram To Understand U (Sam)” (First Priority Music) hip-hop’s self-described “ultimate MC,” and certainly, as long as we’re a society into demarcations along the lines of gender, its best female vocalist. (She’s its best female lyricist, too, but in this genre, that’s redundant.) How would you describe your style, this so-called “Lyte Touch?” I ask. She pauses to think as labelmate Milk Dee bumrushes the conference call. “Hard…her calling card…”

She replies. “I guess you would say it’s sort like a female hard-rock. I bet you nine times out of ten, most girls, their voices are at the same level, has the same weight, that mine does. They just wanna play that ‘pret­ty female’ role” — she does a syr­upy, daisy-picking voice — “you know, doing all that fancy sty­lin’, when they could really be smackin’ people with their rhymes.”

Ouch. Bel’ voice is kinda low for a 17-year-old. What is does she think of it? “There’s nothin’ I can do about it,” she says, laughing. “I get ranked on from head to toe. I was even at one point called ‘Teddy Pendergrass,’ so you know how that goes.”

Hard…” Milk says again.

I use to be in love with this guy name Sam
I don’t know why ’cause he had the head like that of a clam
But you couldn’t tell me nuttin’ ’cause Sam was number one
‘Cause to me oh my gosh he was one-in-a-million
I should o’ knew the consequences right from the start
That he’d used me for my money and then break my heart
But like a fool in love, I fell for ‘is game a-but
I got mine so I show no shame
In Empire, winked his eye, and then he kept walkin’
All o’ those who live in Brooklyn know just what I’m talkin’
The roller disco, where we all used to go
A-just to have some fun, back in 1981
You know the place-Empire Boulevard is where I first saw the nigger and? he tried to play hard but
I knew the deal ’cause I knew his brother Jerry
And Sam he just broke up with girlfriend ‘Jerry so
Jerry introduced Sam and I that night
He said, “Hello, my name is Sam” I said
“Hl my name is Lyte”
We yipped and we yapped and we chit and we chat about
This and that from sneakers to hat
He said, “Look I’m in the mood for love
Simply because you’re near meeee!”
Let’s go
‘lb my house, lay back and get nice, watch television
A Riunite on ice
I said-a, “Slow down know you wanna shake me down
But I’m not one o’ the girls to go rippin’ around.…”

“Ultimate is a level,” she says, “and a certain amount of MCs can get to this level. I’m not sayin’ that I’m the only female MC that can do this, But I am at the ultimate level.

“You’ve only heard a piece, awright? When you hear the super dope def stuff that I have, you will say that Lyte is on the ultimate level.”
—Harry Allen

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L.S. FRESH: Dick Got Stuck

On line at a supermarket in San Francisco’s Hispanic Mission district, two 12-year-old girls chanted: “l met a guy, his name was Tussy/Took him to my house and he ate my pussy.” The song will be performed soon in supermarkets throughout the country. ”I met a girl, her name was Stacey/I took her home, she sat on my facey.” Copyright 1987 by Fra — naw, you can have it free, it’s a gift.

Those of you who don’t get to supermarkets much can experience similar pizzazz listening to L.S. Fresh sing “You Can’t Get No Pussy” (12-inch single, Revenge, PO Box 312, Bellflower, CA, 90706), a rap back at 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy.” L.S. Fresh says, “Don’t call us bitches, don’t call us ’hos/ Cuz when it comes to that only your mother knows” — in your teeth, boys.

Most important; this is music. 2 Live Crew’s cock rap was no sexier than a pneumatic drill. L, S. Fresh sounds attractive. Not the high-glitz “sensuality” that pervades Urban Desultory Radio; rather, a languorous, out-of-tune dead­pan. The cruddy sound helps the effect, masking her voice, making it mysteri­ous. I like c:ruddiness; this is low tech done right. The beatbox plays bass drum, snare on the backbeat, synthesized bass: rhythm stripped to its skeleton; you can play it with two hands on a subway seat. Add barest echo and sound effects, used as punctuation, as percussion, as commentary. The arranger is someone named Mouz. L.S. Fresh says, “Your dick got stuck”; in the background a siren goes off. She smells the guy’s crotch; the odor makes her sneeze. Back in the mix the room explodes, ka-boom! —Frank Kogan

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DOUG E. FRESH: Bigger Than Live

Hip-hop vocalist/instrumentalist stands silhouetted, armed with a mike, a year-old album, a loose upper lip, and the blunt force of African-American musical superiority. Proceeds to emotionally dismember neighborhood youth at random. At the end of his rampage, thou­sands lie about, weak, gasping for air, dying. To be rocked one more time.

The show? Krush Groove Jason’s Nightmare on Beat Street. Or Doug E. Fresh, the brother who grabbed hip-hop and swung it. Despite former partner M.C. “Slick” Ricky D’s casual departure from the Get Fresh Crew, and an apparent increase in audience tolerance for brusque, onstage stomping fronting as performance, Doug Excitement continues on his own merry way, choosing rather to (1) structurally slam dance his own music in hip-hop’s best live show, (2) worry about being a good Israelite, and (3) work on his new album, The World’s Greatest Entertainer. That is to say, the only yelling over beats you’ll hear at a Fresh show comes from the crowd, which, I guess, is why they call it a Fresh show.
—Harry Allen



The first thing I heard upon cracking open De La Soul’s fifth studio release, Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump, was a perfectly bored- sounding individual stating that “THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF HARRY ALLEN, THE VOICE.” The three-second voice stamp, looped to recur about once a minute for the length of the CD, was custom-made for my advance copy of the album, as one was for every disc that Tommy Boy sent out to critics. Their target is the latest form of biting to afflict the music industry: consumers—or industry insiders—taking CDs, ripping MP3 files, and uploading them onto the Internet, where, with an application like Napster or any of its diverse knockoffs, people anywhere can locate and download them. Had I decided to join as an active member of this digital music lover’s club, every file I sent into the matrix would be traceable back to, “HARRY ALLEN, THE VOICE.” How embarrassing.

Of course, with the appropriate waveform editing software, one could straightforwardly delete every one of those tags, effectively undoing Tommy Boy’s prophylactic tactic. That would be très De La Soul. At any number of inflection points during their career, they’ve seemed to be working at erasing somebody else’s crude splotch on their vision. Like trying to change their now classic 3 Feet High and Rising album cover, which they originally hated (and from which they subsequently recoiled: AOI is the first album since that debut on which the crew’s faces clearly appear). Then offing themselves on De La Soul Is Dead, after the D.A.I.S.Y. Age unexpectedly ran as rampant as kudzu. Then struggling on Stakes Is High to wipe hip-hop’s frantic gangsterism off the map, only to, on this album, face off against an even more grotesque monster: the culture’s intransigent hypercommercialism.

On AOI‘s first single, “Oooh.,” featuring the pit-bull-voiced Redman, that scourge is perhaps most poignantly signified by the “shiny suit” rap albums a burglar, hitting Dave’s crib on Christmas Eve, tastefully leaves behind. In the track’s Wizard of Oz/The Wiz-inspired video, Redman plays the great and powerful Oz, while Dorothy is played by Busta Rhymes’s Flipmode chanteuse, Rah Digga. Bolstered by these gritty antimaterialists, the trio—as Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion—go on doing what great artists are never afraid of doing: looking ridiculous. At the same time they gleefully appropriate American culture’s fondest cinematic treatise on lost causes, wish fulfillment, and the incapacitating power of narcotics. Whereas on numerous other hip-hop albums, drugs provide stylish recreation and/or buckets of cash, on AOI‘s running “Ghostweed” skit, committed users acquire the ultimate power in an overmonetized, degraded hip-hop milieu: the ability to sound exactly like the rapper they emulate. (Cameos by Pharoahe Monch, the Roots’ Black Thought, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife aid this illusion.) Who cares that when using the product “brought to you by Wack-to-Mack, Inc. . . . brain damage may occur”? Aren’t you already brain damaged if you’re an M.C. who wants to sound just like someone else? (Xzibit A: the trashing many have dealt Sean “Puffy” Combs for sponsoring the talented rapper Shyne, based less on Shyne’s alleged criminal exploits than on a vocal similarity to Biggie that is positively . . . is there an adjectival form of the word “séance”?)

Part of what has always most captivated me about De La Soul is the naive, windup quality of their records. While hip-hop is obviously more recombinant than most musics, De La Soul’s has been more recombinant than most hip-hop. They never seem afraid to put any utterance or sound into their records. A large part of the credit for or curse of this goes to former producer Prince Paul, who, having spun away from the De La camp like a pi-meson, continues his sonic follies with projects like Handsome Boy Modeling School.

Of course, today, publishing greed and a failure of imagination on the part of rights agencies have rendered records like De La’s entrée commercially unworkable; sample clearances alone make albums like 3 Feet relics of a more expectant time. Yet Paul’s influence still imbues the crew, even on sparse tracks like “View,” where piano chords disappear and reappear like poltergeists over a martial drumbeat, while Posdnous—one of the genre’s greatest unremarked vocalist-lyricists—and Dave’s semantic arrangements tacitly defy the 16-bars chorus-hook conventions they have long resisted. In kind, the crew have just about stopped simplifying their obscure texts and twin language to accommodate the inattentive masses, as they did on Stakes Is High. Check “Declaration,” which echoes 1993’s wildly underrated Buhloone Mind State‘s “I Am I Be” in style and syntax. Yet in some ways, AOI may be their most “radio-friendly” release even as they chomp against the system.

On “All Good?” the inimitable Chaka Khan wails the chorus—”It ain’t all good, and that’s the truth”—while Pos and Dave weave a “hip-hop as femme fatale” narrative, in the manner of Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” over a burbling bass and clucking guitar. While, in this marketplace, Chaka’s ruby-red kiss is no assurance of either airplay or sales—that would call for a Macy Gray featurette, correct?—it certainly can’t hurt. Same with “With Me,” which appropriates Marvin Gaye’s “After the Dance,” and the sultry, womblike “Copa (Cabanga).” Meanwhile, “Squat!” ‘s exceptionally spirited appearance by the Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Ad Rock, who actually sound like rappers for once, will attract some new fans. Even with the now obligatory Busta Rhymes cameo, it’s clear that their guests—Chief Rocker Busy Bee, Freddie Foxxx, Xzibit, J-Ro, and the magnificent Tash from Tha Alkoholiks—were chosen because De La are fans, not because having [blank] spit on your track will get you X number of adds. And throughout, the beats are varied and melodic.

Yet here is the obstacle. In the computer sciences to which De La’s album title alludes, artificial intelligence, or A.I., is that quality by which we render machines “smart”—capable of autonomous decision-making that gets work done and takes the load off people. De La Soul argues the artists’ common cry: that art, and intelligence, cannot be quantized, reduced to a formula, “formula” being the efficiency that, ultimately, every commercial process seeks, and from which hip-hop increasingly suffers. However, the puzzle wrapped in an enigma is that often, to get such a message understood by large numbers of people, one must express it in terms that calculatingly speak to the common denominator. In other words, one must come up with a formula. Hence, De La may have made their most formulaic album to date in order to speak against the formularization of hip-hop. What most comes through on AOI is the feeling of an album more muted than their sonically exuberant past—”Ring Ring Ring,” “Pease Porridge”—would have predicted, more musically “r&b” than one might expect given their often pointed lyrics, which constitute a kind of hard center within the music’s sweet, chewy coating. It’s as if they’re trying to fight commerciality by being “commercial”—a very curious, if not altogether unprecedented, dynamic indeed.