Eric B. & Rakim: Titty Boom-A-Rooney

The levitation of our dreams confirms the gravity of our wakefulness.
Hollis Frampton, filmmaker and theorist

Demonic is the first word that the title track on Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader (Uni) brings to mind. Before the jam inspires dance, prance, or make-romance, it says call the exorcist. An appre­hension birthed of the fact that where most raps go off in your face, this mono­logue aims at your interior. The music on “Follow the Leader” is spooky, a science-­fiction score that sounds straight out of the Tangerine Dream songbook. Rakim’s on an elocutionary speed-trip, a black bullet train slitting through hyperspace. The rhymes are telemetric, tracking sucker-soft targets with a monomania more relentless than anybody’s Terminator. In rap’s ongoing war for poetic su­premacy, Rakim has metaphoric space he can call his own, though for others it’s a danger zone.

While Public Enemy shakes the shit out of white people, Rakim is the rapper who makes my blood run cold. Listen to “Microphone Fiend” and you say, Gött­dam this is the dope jam (mainly because the lyrics seem to mock PE’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”).

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Like Boogie Down Productions’ rapper KRS One and PE’s Chuck D, Rakim brings his own worldview into rap, his own philosophy. These brothers are hip-­hop’s major thinkers. Somebody once ex­plained the difference between the minds of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as Powell being more likely to drop a heavy insight on you about the state of the world and Monk being more likely to lay something deep on you about Monk. Chuck D’s forte is the overview, Rakim’s is the innerview. KRS One’s homilies are more down to earth, more streetwise, than either of them. He makes the most conversational records in the idiom. Think of him as hiphop’s Sonny Rollins to Chuck D’s insane Coltrane.

“If you’ve ever picked cotton,” says the Rev. Al Green, “you will appreciate a cool drink of water.” Rakim’s persona is that of a sagacious gangster, like Miles Da­vis’s. The rapper, too, works an aesthetic steeped in the sort of cool that can’t be bought off the rack, not even at Yoji Yamamoto prices. We’re talking about that school of self-confirmed bad-assed-ness, where you don’t need spectators to know you’re looking sugarshit sharp. Drop Miles or Rakim on the moon, they’d still be chilly-most. This is less about profiling cool than about putting that iconic presence to work (yes, in the diva sense of the word, chile.)

Rakim’s work on last year’s “I Know You Got Soul” comes closer than anything ever heard in rap for matching the incisiveness of a Miles statement. Seeing Miles at Pier 84 a few weeks back — best show I’ve heard since ’75 — made me real­ize once again where these hiphop/jazz comparisons fall to pieces: tonality. I’ve yet to hear a rapper with a sound like Miles, that sonorous simulation of sex when it’s too good, killer ecstasy slipping across pain’s Cambodian border.

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Still the Miles comparisons mount with Rakim. He’s the one rapper with a mystique as devastating as his rhymes. As with Miles again, what you hear in Rakim is black cultural difference exem­plified in ways so high-handed it makes negritude or nationalist countersupre­macy sound crude. “I Know You Got Soul” is race-championing by aristocratic example, not ideology. Rakim does his ennobling African ancestry proud through the finesse and poetry of his performance alone.

Picture a mike: the stage is empty
A beat like this might tempt me
To cold show my rings and my five gold chains
Grab the mike like I’m on Soul Train
But I wait, ’cause I master this
Let the others go first, so the brothers don’t miss
Eric B. break [brake?] the sticks

The LP those lines came from, Paid in Full, is a confirmed hiphop masterwork. Masterful because like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, it shows how color­-struck the hiphop palette has become. I tend to be big on records, like Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, where each composi­tion is a microcosm, painted with signa­ture strokes even when the artist is work­ing in revived forms. Paid in Full is avante-garde and formally prodigious in that way. But it’s an avante-gardism whose rhythms and textures speak from an intimacy with the communalism black pop conveyed in the ’70s.

Eric B.’s rare groove choices take me back to the proletarian house parties my grandmother, a hip barber, dragged me to in Ohio. These were folk for whom party­ing hardy was synonymous to partying with family. Eric B. once told Harry Al­len that he and Rakim make records that their parents can listen to and under­stand. I can hear that, especially on the new LP’s “Put Your Hands Together.” The mix-construction on Follow the Leader is different from that on Paid in Full. It’s harsher, more jagged, jarring and less sensually inviting. On Paid in Full, Eric B.’s mixes match Rakim’s rhymes for contemplated restraint, in­vention, and lyricism. There Eric B. rocked us with more orchestral detail than anybody outside of PE in late ’80s hiphop. He also brought understatement to hiphop drum programming — almost as if he’d taken to heart Lester Young’s soft-­shell admonition to drummers, “No bombs, just titty-boom.”

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This is just a hunch, but I think Eric B. and Rakim have been taking lessons in the art of noise from Public Enemy, like PE has been going to Eric B. & Rakim’s work, among others, to study up on melo­dy. I’ve heard complaints that there are no classics on Follow The Leader like “I Know You Got Soul” or “Move the Crowd.” But those who been bitchin’ just need to listen. I said it, I meant it, and I even represent it.

On that note: Inquiring minds want to know what I think of Chuck D (the Living Messiah) branding yo’ reporter The Village Voice‘s porch nigger and a sell-out in the current Spin — os­tensibly behind doing the right thing and busting PE’s monkey-asses on charges of homophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. What I think is grits ain’t groceries, and the Mona Lisa was a man. ❖


Wanted for Attitude: The FBI Hates This Band

The Right-Wing Attack on Rock

HOW’S THIS FOR GOVERNMENT intimidation? In early August, a letter arrived on the desk of Priority Records president Brian Turner. Written on Department of Justice stationery, it was just three paragraphs long:

A song recorded by the rap group N.W.A. on their album entitled “Straight Outta Compton” encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention. I understand your company recorded and distributed this album, and I am writing to share my thoughts and concerns with you.

Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.

Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.

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THE LETTER WAS SIGNED by Milt Ahlerich, an FBI assistant director, who describes himself as the bureau’s chief spokesman and who says he reports directly to Director William Sessions. Ahlerich says his letter represents the FBI’s “official position” on the record by N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitude), hip-hop’s most streetwise and politically complex group. But he also says he hasn’t heard the song. Neither he nor the bureau owns a copy. Ahlerich didn’t ask N.W.A. or Priority for the oft-unintelligible lyrics; he got them — or something purporting to be them — from unnamed “concerned officers.” Ahlerich says the FBI has never adopted an official position on a record, book, film, or other artwork in the four years he’s worked there nor, so far as be knows, in its entire history.

Ahlerich claims writing the letter was justified because N.W.A.’s song, “**** Tha Police,” allegedly advocates violence against the police, (The group sings “Fuck the police,” but the album just uses blanks.) “I read those lyrics and those lyrics spoke of violence and murder of police officers. That to me did not seem to be in the public domain at all,” he said, strenuously objecting to implications that the letter was censorious or intimidating,

Ahlerich isn’t the only cop incensed by “**** Tha Police.” An informal police net­work faxes messages to police stations nationwide, urging cops to help cancel concerts by N.W.A., a group based in Compton, California. Since late spring, their shows have been jeopardized or aborted in Detroit (where the group was briefly detained by cops), Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Milwaukee, and Ty­ler, Texas. N.W.A. played Cincinnati only after Bengal linebacker and City Council­man Reggie Williams and several of his teammates spoke up for them. During the summer’s tour, N.W.A. prudently chose not to perform “**** Tha Police” (its best song), and just singing a few lines of it at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena caused the Mo­tor City police to rush the stage. While the cops scuffled with the security staff, N.W.A. escaped to their hotel. Dozens of policemen were waiting for them there, and they detained the group for 15 min­utes, “We just wanted to show the kids,” an officer told The Hollywood Reporter, “that you can’t say ‘fuck the police’ in Detroit … ”

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In Toledo, N.W.A. performed only af­ter Reverend Floyd E. Rose complained publicly about police pressuring local black clergymen, “Rightly or wrongly, the perception in our community is that the ‘police think they have the authority to kill a minority,’ ” he wrote the police chief, quoting the song, “and that [police] think that every black teenager who is wearing a gold bracelet and driving a nice car is ‘selling narcotics.’ … I must say that while I do not like the music and abhor the vulgar language, I will not be used to stifle legitimate anger and understandable resentment.”

Anger and resentment are at the center of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, a two-million seller that slices current r&b fashion to ribbons, then goes on to pretty up the latest in gang-culture bad-mouth­ing. It rocks harder than any other album released this year; if the abusive, profane language didn’t keep N.W.A. off the ra­dio, the sheer assaultive sound probably would, N.W.A. is, above (or below) any­thing else, not nice. But the profanity exists not for shock effect or as a bohemi­an art stance, but as an organic expres­sion of south-central L.A.’s half-hidden gang world. The group wouldn’t be half so politically important, or half so exciting, if they were just rap’s answer to Andrew “Dice” Clay. Much if not most of what the group has to say — especially about women, but also about drugs, guns, and the sanctity of private property — will make any civilized soul squirm. They don’t just épater les bourgeois, they rub its face into its own merde. This is music to make the blood run cold, and if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.

As Reverend Rose and most everyone who has heard the song realizes, “**** ­Tha Police” isn’t about shooting cops. It’s about being bullied and tormented by them. A hip-hop barrage, the song tells of a young black man who loses his temper over brutal police sweeps based on appearance, not actions, like the ones fre­quently performed by the LAPD. In the end, the young man threatens to “smoke” the next flatfoot who fucks with him. The same point is made even more clearly in the “Straight Outta Compton” video, which presents docudrama footage of a gang sweep in which the L.A. police vio­lently round up street kids (played by N.W.A.) just for wearing dookie ropes and beepers. Finally, the kids retaliate — ­or to put it another way, defend them­selves. (Ahlerich isn’t so eager to mention that 339 Americans were gunned down by peace officers last year in “justifiable ho­micides.” Or as Brooklyn rapper KRS­-One puts it, “Who Protects Us From You?”) N.W.A.’s Ice Cube calls his songs “revenge fantasies.”

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

ADVOCACY? “The song does not consti­tute advocacy of violence as that has been interpreted by the courts,” says Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t come close.” As for saying “fuck the police,” attorney Charles Rembar, an obscenity expert, remarks, “It’s far more clearly protected than burning the flag.”

To Lynn, what is legally questionable is Ahlerich’s letter. He cites several court decisions that hold that government com­munications can have an unconstitution­al chilling effect “even if they don’t threaten direct action.” And Ahlerich says that his letter was not personal but an official FBI policy statement, albeit adopted “on my authority” without con­sulting his superior, Sessions.

Lynn says, “It would not violate the First Amendment for an individual working for the FBI to personally write such a letter. But it’s incredible for the FBI to send this kind of official letter to any person in the creative community.”

“Oh, I didn’t know they were buying our records, too!” Ice Cube told his publi­cist when she first told him of the Ahler­ich letter. “People overreact,” he told us. “Getting a letter from the FBI seemed kind of funny to me.” Does he feel threat­ened by what might come next? “No. Money conquers all. There’s a lot of peo­ple that’s making a lot of money off N.W.A. as far as record companies, dis­tributors, and concert promoters.” But by the end of the conversation, he was saying, slightly more seriously, “Maybe they’ll send the CIA after me, arrest me for treason.”

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INTERESTING AS IT is that Milt Ahlerich chose to have the FBI take an official position on a record nobody in the bureau has bothered to buy, it’s even more inter­esting that he can’t explain how word of that record’s existence reached him. Pressed he said only that he received a copy of the purported lyrics from “re­sponsible fellow officers.” He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name them.

Police officials in Toledo and Kansas City say officers in Cincinnati faxed them the information about N.W.A. and “**** Tha Police,” according to Gregory San­dow the Herald Examiner rock critic who tracked the informal anti-N.W.A. cop network. Cops began receiving the anti-N.W.A. warnings in late spring, about the same time an article about the group appeared in the June issue of Rev­erend James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family Citizen under the headline “Rap Group N.W.A. Says ‘Kill Police.’ ” Its readers are urged: “Alert local police to the dangers they may face in the wake of this record release.”

The article was written by Bob De­Moss, Focus on the Family’s “youth cul­ture specialist.” DeMoss formerly headed Pennsylvania-based Teen Vision, which produced Rising to the Challenge, the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s video. This video was recently withdrawn from circulation and re-edited after revelations that it ended with a phony endorsement attributed to Bruce Springsteen. The PMRC contends that they were not aware when the video was made that the Springsteen quote was false.

The Dobson/DeMoss/PMRC connec­tion is instructive and important because, while the Washington wives like to boast of their respectable affiliates (the PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the political board members), they don’t like to admit their role in stirring up the Christian right. In fact, the PMRC’s offi­cial position is that it has no relationship with any group except the PTA and the pediatricians. It does everything it can to deny other ties.

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Since October 1985, when the PMRC coerced the Senate Commerce Commit­tee, composed largely of PMRC’s direc­tors’ husbands, into holding antirock hearings, rock has been attacked from city halls, statehouses, fundamentalist pulpits, and the executive echelons of the FBI. The PMRC has become a key link connecting right-wing Christian groups like Reverend Dobson’s with such theo­retically respectable entities as the PTA, the pediatricians, and PMRC advisory board members like Atlanta mayor An­drew Young.

Tipper Gore has been every rocker’s favorite basher, but the most powerful of the PMRC’s founders is Susan Baker, whose husband, the secretary of State, is now four heart attacks away from the White House. Susan Baker, who incar­nates the stiff-necked, antisexual Born Again, sits on the Focus on the Family board of directors. (Several members of the board come from the investment and banking business that James Baker, as secretary of the Treasury, “regulated.” Secretary and Mrs. Baker refused to comment on their ties to Dobson and his organization.)

Although the PMRC’s ties to the Christian right are numerous, the most crucial of them is Focus on the Family and Dobson. The ACLU’s Lynn says that with the breakup of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Focus on the Family makes Dobson “the most powerful fundamentalist in the country.” Perhaps the flakiest of all the Meese Pornography commissioners, Dobson came to prominence as Ted Bundy’s final confessor, claiming that the mass murderer/con man’s crimes were the result of addiction to pornogra­phy. Dobson campaigns stridently against abortion, and his Citizen maga­zine is a forum for activists like abortion­-center terrorist Randall Terry and Nixon administration felon Charles Colson. His plan for American education calls for get­ting evolution out of the classroom and putting prayer back in. Susan Baker, as a director of this 500-employee, $57-mil­lion-a-year organization, presumably shares those goals. We know that Dobson shares her views on rock ‘n’ roll, because Citizen’s July 1988 issue ran an article on her complaint that record labels were dragging their feet on warning label compliance.

The rest of the PMRC’s ties with Dob­son aren’t so casual, either. In the June 1989 issue of Citizen, which contains DeMoss’s anti-N.W.A. article, PMRC exec­utive director Jennifer Norwood says. “We want music critics and organizations like Focus on the Family to disseminate this information to their constituencies. This is something that needs to be done.” Norwood insists that this call to Chris­tians to crusade against rock is the same as dispensing “consumer information” to moms and dads at the PTA.

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If Dobson is the most important of the PMRC’s Christian cronies, he’s far from the most dubious. None of the groups listed below is an official PMRC affiliate. But all of them use the quasigovernmen­tal clout and the credibility of the PMRC to legitimize their endeavors, and the PMRC shares many of their goals. Whether it also shares money, no one knows. The PMRC refuses to reveal the sources of its funding.

• The Back in Control Center, the Ful­lerton, California, “de-metaling/de-punk­ing” center, is endorsed by Tipper Gore in her book, Raising PG Kids in an X-­Rated Society. Its de-metaling handbook lists a variety of satanic/occult symbols, including the “six-pointed star represent­ing the Jewish Star of David.” Director Greg Bodenhamer, a former probation of­ficer, accused the rock group Kiss of us­ing the Jewish star to worship the devil; on more than one occasion, Bodenhamer has flashed a picture of Kiss members wearing such stars as “proof.”

Back in Control also produced Punk Rock & Heavy Metal: The Problem/One Solution, a 20-page training manual used by several California police departments. Printed over the name Sergeant M. Shel­ton, of the Union City PD’s now-defunct Youth Services Board, the manual likens rock ‘n’ roll to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and makes sure to point out that music can be used as a very effective medium of rebellion against the government. Besides the usual heavy metal targets, it also attacks “Huskerdo,” Rush, and Van Halen, and rock magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem. (Through the press office of her husband, Senator Albert Gore, Mrs. Gore said that Bodenhamer’s misrepresenta­tion of the Jewish star was a “mistake.”)

• Truth About Rock, the St. Paul, Minnesota, ministry of Dan and Steve Peters, pastors of Zion Church. The Peters brothers and their antirock writings have been repeatedly touted in PMRC litera­ture. The brothers specialize in record album burnings; they also condemn Tina Turner, among others, for non-Christian beliefs. (She’s a Buddhist.) The Peters also claim, “The Jewish star is the uni­versal symbol for Satan.” (Jennifer Nor­wood says the Peters brothers book Why Knock Rock? — recommended by the PMRC — doesn’t endorse record burn­ings. However, the book has a photo of the brothers at an LP bonfire.)

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• Missouri Project Rock, which was founded by Shirley Marvin, a lobbyist for Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Marvin cites an Eagle Forum meeting with Tip­per Gore as her inspiration, and an MPR brochure claims that it works in coopera­tion with the PMRC. A Memphis rock-­monitoring group called the Community Aware of Music and Entertainment Co­alition, praised in Gore’s Raising PG Kids, is also listed as an ally in MPR literature. (Norwood denies any PMRC ties with MPR and says she asked Marvin to delete its claim of one in the brochure.) MPR’s “musical director,” Reverend Shane Westhoelter, calls Catholics “cannibals, because they eat wafers which are the body of Christ.” Project Rock’s literature says that Bruce Springsteen has a satanic backwards message in “Dancing in the Dark,” and their infor­mation kit includes tapes from Victory Christian Church in St. Charles, Missou­ri, asserting that Hollywood promotes race-mixing, that the Holocaust never happened, and that Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf. The tapes also refer to “Martin Lucifer King.”

• The American Family Association, best known for Reverend Donald Wildmon’s campaigns against Madonna’s Pepsi com­mercial, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mighty Mouse’s sniffing of flower petals. Wildmon’s anti-Semitism finally led to disavowals by such erstwhile supporters as Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, and the leaders of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and the Mennonite Church.

Wildmon’s National Federation for De­cency magazine reprinted 14 pages of Raising PG Kids with permission, accord­ing to the book’s publisher. Mrs. Gore, through Norwood and her husband’s of­fice, claimed that she never learned of the reprint until we asked about it.

On September 14, Gore’s office said the Gores “have never and would never coop­erate with any effort in any way connect­ed to anti-Semitism … Mrs. Gore had no knowledge whatsoever and did not au­thorize in any way the excerpting of her book in the magazine of the National Federation for Decency. She does not know and has never met Donald Wild­mon.” Does this constitute a repudiation of Wildmon? Gore press officer Narla Romash said, “Yes.” Asked for a com­ment, a Wildmon official hung up.

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AS EVEN THE NEW YORK TIMES recog­nizes, bigotry is rock’s fastest-growing problem. Jennifer Norwood told us the PMRC has taken a firm stand on this topic, corresponding with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Tipper Gore made similar claims on Entertainment Tonight September 22. Norwood says that the PMRC has been vociferous in its condemnation of Guns N’ Roses’ racist, homophobic “One in a Million,” though only after the song became na­tionally notorious did the PMRC attack it (for instance, on the ET broadcast). The PMRC didn’t mention the tune in its summer 1989 newsletter, a peculiar omission in that GNR’s “I Used to Love Her” from the same album was included in a list of objectionable “Top 40 Lyrics.” That song was placed under the heading Murder. The only other headings are Vio­lence, Sadomasochistic and Sexually Explicit.

Meanwhile, the record industry silently but effectively participates in the repression. Contacted about the FBI letter threatening N.W.A., neither the Record­ing Industry Association of America, the record lobbying group that numbers N.W.A.’s Priority label among its mem­bers, nor the National Association of Record Merchandisers, the lobbying group for record sellers, had any com­ment. Nor did Russ Bach, president of CEMA, the Capitol/EMI-owned compa­ny that distributes Priority. Billboard, the industry’s leading trade publication, has rarely taken an editorial stand against censorship. On the odd occasion when it has published anticensorship guest editorials, it has immediately fol­lowed up with articles by the PMRC spreading the same old half-truths.

At the National Record Mart chain’s July convention, a not-so-silent Russ Bach said that he has recommended to the labels CEMA distributes — which in­clude not only Priority, but Southern California Civil Liberties Union chief Danny Goldberg’s Gold Castle and Frank Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin — that they should more carefully scrutinize and sticker their albums. “It’s obvious that there is a wave of conservatism in this country,” Bach said. “If anything, we should err toward the conservative.”

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With a few exceptions (Zappa, Don Henley), rock stars have been equally si­lent. Most prefer to treat censorship as an issue that affects only the music’s vul­gar fringe: rap and heavy metal. Many still believe that the notoriety of a stickered album is good for business.

The PMRC would like to wipe the smirk from their faces. Its recent quarter­ly newsletters carry Red Channels-style lists of “Releases Without Consumer In­formation” (that is, warning labels) and “Releases With Consumer Information.” Norwood says this is legitimate consumer information; she was unable to specify either where her group draws the line in deciding which unlabelled albums to re­port, or why it does not report on records that don’t need labels. The PMRC doesn’t just provide consumers with neu­tral information. On September 22 Nor­wood told radio station KSD-FM in St. Louis that the PMRC “endorses” the Rolling Stones tour.

Aside from proving that even pleading guilty-by-implication with a sticker won’t keep the censors off you, this particular package of “consumer information” has other revealing implications. On the most recent “Releases With Consumer Information” report, every stickered act is black — including N.W.A., Prince (hon­ored for Batman), and L.L. Cool J. According to Norwood, this indicates that rappers are among the most compliant rockers; in reality, it tells you who the record industry most easily pushes around.

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Harsher days are coming, even for art­-rockers, college radio favorites, and main­stream stars. On the “Without Consumer Information” chart are a number of rap and metal records, but also Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow and XTC’s Or­anges and Lemons. The spring edition of the PMRC blacklist includes Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, the Cure’s Standing on a Beach, the The’s Infected, Big Audio Dynamite’s No. 10 Upping Street, Simply Red’s Men and Women, and the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack.

Although the PMRC has failed to get the record companies to comply with its deepest stickering desires, it has had far less trouble with retailers, who are much more vulnerable to picketing and boy­cotts. The 130-store Hastings chain now is refusing to sell certain rap and heavy metal records to minors; Camelot Music told Billboard that it would pull records from stores rather than be picketed. The PMRC says it doesn’t want government legislation against rock, and no wonder — ­look how effectively the marketplace does the job. But as the FBI has shown, legis­lation isn’t the only way for the the gov­ernment to become involved.

The record industry is testing the civil liberties idea that, for every inch the cen­sors are given, they’ll demand a kilome­ter. The major labels and distributors’ November 1985 concession to the PMRC, which created the warning labels, is an implicit guilty plea that gave Susan Bak­er and Tipper Gore the credentials to write a Newsweek column conflating the tabloid connection between rap and the Central Park rape and the need to control what our children hear. (You can be sure that they won’t be contributing a piece on the connections between bel canto and Bensonhurst.)

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Not everyone is so cowardly. In Rapid City, South Dakota, the local PMRC af­filiate tried to get city officials to block a June 16 Metallica/Cult show. Opposed by citizens connected with Music in Action, the music industry’s anticensorship group (the authors of this piece are mem­bers), they lost. The concert produced the most integrated white/Indian audience ever seen in the Black Hills. In Kansas City, where N.W.A. played after the city’s acting mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, tried to stop the show (saying “Take your trash back to L.A.”), Ice Cube concluded the performance by saying, “We just showed your City Council that blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Orientals can get together for a concert without killing each other.”

Nevertheless, rock world opposition to the censors remains small and unfocused. The $6.2 billion record industry has no defense budget at all. The record business has nothing to say about the FBI’s abuse of artistic liberty — maybe because it pro­tects its investment with the FBI’s Special Task Force against record piracy. Li­beled by bullies, liars, reactionaries, and bigger weirdos than rock ever knew in its psychedelic heyday, corporate rock ‘n’ roll can’t even find the strength to whimper. ■

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Police pressure forced the cancellation of a June 17, 1987, Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys show at the Seattle Center Coliseum, beginning a new cycle of such abuses that trace back to the heyday of Alan Freed. Last May, Ouachita County, Arkansas, sheriff Jack Dews seized rap and heavy metal tapes from a Wal-Mart and from the Heart of the Blues record store in Camden, claiming the music was obscene under state law and couldn’t legally be sold to anyone under 17. In August, the 203,000-member Fraternal Order of Police declared a boycott of any musical group that advocates assaults on police officers, a significant stand since off-duty cops staff most security teams.

Billboard‘s September 9 front page detailed nationwide efforts to repress acts “that swear, engage in erotic posturing, and sing lyrics touting violence.” It reported curtailment or cancellation of shows by Skid Row, Too Short, GWAR, and N.W.A., as well as arrests of Bobby Brown in Columbus, and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Among other towns where local officials censor rock are Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Poughkeepsie and Syracuse, New York. GWAR manager Bill Levine says that in Toledo, “We couldn’t say fuck or shit, but it was OK if we cut the heads off people.” (The decapitation of mannequins and pseudo-dismemberment of each other is a focus of GWAR’s oeuvre.)

The New York area is not immune to governmental shenanigans against rock. Some months ago, Middlesex, New Jersey, district attorney Alan Rockoff formed JUST (Joint Unit To Stop Terrorism), alleging the task force is necessary to stop cemetery vandalism caused by kids listening to rock. “There’s a healthy way to be Big Brother,” says Rockoff, whose unit tracks heavy metal bands and their fans with a computer.

N.W.A has not yet played New York. According to Ice Cube, nobody’s made the multiplatinum hip-hoppers a worthwhile offer.

— D.M.

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In July, I obtained the suspiciously uniform batch of letters that Priority Records received protesting N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. To find out why the letters were so often alike, I called their authors, who came from all over the country. I checked more that 100 letters.

Most of the letters claimed that the authors would “never buy an album from your label again,” but my interviews with their writers indicated that none of them had ever bought any LP, cassette, or CD in the last 18 months excepts two who said they’d purchased a “Christian record.” (How can you boycott product you never buy?) None were aware of a wide range of rap acts, including Run-D.M.C.; several said they’d never heard of N.W.A. Those who were aware of the group said they’d learned about them from Reverend James Dobson’s Citizen magazine. Not one of these anti-N.W.A. letter-writers had listened to their record, although many were quick to respond to questions about the group by saying that “**** Tha Police,” as one put it, “calls on blacks to kill police officers.”

Only a single letter-writer acknowledged living in a household with anyone who buys “rock ‘n’ roll records.” And that respondent was the one who asked for advice on how to organize a rock-bashing group. She said she’d already started working on it.

— P.P.

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND


Yo Hermeneutics! Hiphopping Toward Poststructuralism

If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit.

— Afro-American folk wisdom

In a war against symbols which have been wrongly titled, only the letter can fight.

— Ramm-El-Zee

Word, word. Word up: Thelonious X. Thrashfunk sez, yo Greg, black people need our own Roland Barthes, man. Black deconstruction in Ameri­ca? I’m way ahead of the brother, or so I think when I tell him about my dream magazine: I Signify — The Journal of Afro-American Semiotics. We talking a black Barthesian variation on Jet, itself the forerunner of black poststructuralist activity, given its synchronic mythification and dia­chronic deconstruction (“Soul singer James Brown pulled up to court in Baltimore in a limousine and wearing a full-length fur coat, but convinced a federal magistrate he is too poor to pay creditors $170,000. Brown testi­fied that although he performs regularly, he has no money … U.S. Magistrate Frederick N. Smalkin agreed. ‘It appears Mr. Brown’s financial and legal advisors have surrounded him with a network of corporations and trusts that serves as a moat to defend him from the incursion of creditors,’ Smalkin said”), not to mention its contribution to the black tradition of the encyclopedic narrative (cf. Ellison, Reed, Delany, Clinton, and Ramm-El-Zee).

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Merely conceiving a poststructural­ist version of this deuteronomic tribal scroll is enough to make me feel like a one-man Harlem Renaissance — at least until Thelonious asks if I’m hip to Henry Louis Gates Jr., blood up at Yale (Cornell by the time you read this) who guest-edited two issues of Black American Literature Forum on the subject of semiotics and the signi­fyin’ monkey. Turns out I vaguely re­call hearing about an appearance the brother made at a Howard University Third World Writers’ Conference a few years back. Rumor has it Gates shook up the joint talking about the relationship of structuralism to Book­er T. Washington’s Up From Slavery: folk wanted to know what all this formalism had to do with the struggle. Now, unless I’m mistaken that was the same year Barbara Smith nearly got run outta town on a rail behind delivering a radical lesbian-feminist reading of Toni Morrison’s Sula (one sister proclaimed Smith had ruined a beautiful book by bringing her sexual per­version into it) and the same conference where Addison Gayle went off on Ishmael Reed for not being a social realist (Bo Schmo meets the Lour Garoo Kid live and in living color like a mother-fer-ya).

Reason I bring all this up is Gates has now published Black Literature and Liter­ary Theory, 14 ground-breaking essays by an assorted lot of literary academics­ — black, white, African, Afro-American, femi­nist, structuralist, poststructuralist. The contributor notes confirm that these furth­ermuckers here are off into some brand new funk. Jay Edwards, for example, is author of a forthcoming two-volume Vernacular Architecture of French Louisiana. Barbara Johnson, professor of romance languages and literatures at Harvard, has written Dé­figurations du Langage poétique, translat­ed Derrida’s Dissemination, and is working on a book about Zora Neale Hurston. An­thony Appiah, formerly of the University of Ghana and Clare College, Cambridge, now at Yale, is editing and analyzing 7000 Twi proverbs and doing a book on those aspects of philosophy of mind most relevant to the interpretation of language.

In his introductory essay, “Criticism in the Jungle,” Gates rhetorically asks, “Who would deny us our complexity?” and de­fends rigorous formal (as opposed to polemical) readings of black texts. Which isn’t to say his program lacks sociopolitical bag­gage: “The essays collected in Black Litera­ture and Literary Theory share a concern with the nature of the figure, with the dis­tinctively ‘black’ uses of our English and French language and literature … How ‘black’ is figuration? Given the obvious po­litical intent of so much of our literary tra­ditions, is it not somewhat wistful to be concerned with the intricacies of the figure? The Afro-American tradition has been figu­rative from its beginnings. How could it have survived otherwise? I need not here trace the elaborate modes of signification implicit in black mythic and religious tradi­tions, in ritual rhetorical structures such as ‘signifying’ and ‘the dozens.’ Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures … ‘Reading,’ in this sense, was not play; it was an essen­tial aspect of the ‘literacy’ training of a child. This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition.”

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And white folks thought black people only had the edge on them in primitivism; uh-huh, brothers and sisters got decon­struction racing through their veins too. Matter of fact, one of the hippest essays in the collection, James Snead’s “Repetition as a figure of black culture,” gives the granddaddy of dialectics (that’s Hegel, y’all) a run for his modernism, demolishing G.W.’s racist belief that European history is progressive and African history “primitive” by demonstrating that Western modern­ism’s debts to The Continent are conceptu­al as well as formal. Roll over Picasso, tell William Rubin the news. Whole lot of signi­fyin’ of that order goes down in this book; polysyllabic Western theories got to throw­down to the beat of polyphonous black aes­thetic discourse. Says Gates: “The chal­lenge of black literary criticism is to derive principles of literary criticism from the black tradition itself, as defined in the idi­om of critical theory but also in the idiom which constitutes the ‘language of black­ness,’ the signifyin(g) difference which makes the black tradition our very own. To borrow mindlessly, or to vulgarize, a critical theory from another tradition is to satisfy de Gaultier’s definition of ‘bovaryism’; but it is also to satisfy, in the black idiom, Ish­mael Reed’s definition of ‘The Talking An­droid.’ ” Gates’s notion of a black tradition built only on figurative language seems a bit text-bound and bookwormish to me, but this tropism can probably be read as a rhe­torical ploy in pursuit of academic equality for the study of Afro-American literature. While we all know who really bears the burden of proof of “civilization,” survival often bids us act otherwise.

Maybe the most admirable (and subver­sive) thing about the essays in BLALT is that they explain, question, argue down, re­vise, signify on the theories they consort with in the interest of integrating black cul­ture into the postmodern world. Could be black culture been there and gone, consid­ering the Art Ensemble of Chicago and es­pecially Miles Davis (his schizzy public statements on jazz seem to epitomize the canon-rearing and canon-razing that lie at the heart of the entire postmodern decon­struction project), but who would deny these professors their shot at contributing to the state of the race? Black culture doesn’t lack for modernist and postmoder­nist artists, just their critical equivalents. And now that, like Spielberg’s Poltergeist, they’re here, might as well face up to the fact that there’s no avoiding the recondite little suckers.

Although if, like every other liberal arts­-damaged bibliophile I know, you bring to the semiotics enterprise more than latent hostility, you may get into this book purely on account of the lucidity these interlocu­tors break the shit on down with. Take, for example, Anthony Appiah’s “Strictures on structures: the prospects for a structuralist poetics of African fiction,” which manages, against the odds, a droll exegesis of Saus­sure and Lévi-Strauss. Believe it or not, Appiah actually makes fun reading out of his deadpan definitions of Saussure’s langue and parole, not to mention Chomsky’s ideas about linguistic perfor­mance and competence: “… how is it that we are able to find in the inchoate mass of ordinary utterances which Saussare called parole, that abstract system of rules he called the langue? It is because the Chom­skyan notions of performance and compe­tence provide an answer to this question that they are often mentioned in the same breath as the langue/parole distinction. Chomsky’s claim is that speakers have an implicit grasp of the rules of the abstract system of langue, which grasp constitutes competence and guides their actual perfor­mance in parole. Differences between what the langue prescribes and the raw stuff of ordinary speech are to be explained in terms of the failure of psychological pro­cesses which actually apply the rules. Anal­ogously, we can claim that driving is gov­erned (in Britain) by the rule ‘Drive on the left in two way traffic,’ while allowing that some people drive on the right when they aren’t concentrating.”

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Appiah is damn near sidesplitting taking Lévi-Strauss and Saussure to task for claiming that a langue for decoding myth structure and literary structure exists in the collective unconscious: “I think that Lévi­-Strauss’s view is that the decoding does occur, but that it is unconscious: this is an interesting thought, for which, if I may speak for myself and the myths of Asante, there does not seem to be much evidence … For a breed so given to drawing on a linguistics whose privileged status seems to derive only from the scientism of our cul­ture and times, literary theorists seem pecu­liarly resistant to even the most modest form of empiricism. We can acknowledge that all theory is underdetermined by the evidence, that a flourishing undergrowth of theory can subsist on the most meagre evi­dential terrain and still require of ourselves that we root our theorizing in the dry earth of experience.”

Signifyin’ on the signifiers is a running theme of this collection, but those whose butts get signified on aren’t just Hegel and the formalist frogs. Barbara Johnson’s ”Metaphor and metonymy and voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God” makes strange bedfellows of black male activists and white feminists (both are culpable, Johnson believes, for denying black wom­en’s inner voices) in a remarkable essay that widens the significance of Jakobson’s fam­ous study on aphasia by appreciating Hur­ston’s synthesis of public and private voices in the rendering of Janie Starks. Ostensibly, Appiah’s essay is a debunking of the fore­most African structuralist Sunday O. Anonzie; Houston Baker’s “To Move Without moving: creativity and commerce in Ralph Ellison’s Trueblood episode” manages to be equally Oedipal albeit more genuflectively. Baker produces a dialectical parallel be­tween trickster Trueblood’s exploitation of American racial myth for personal gain and Ellison’s own careerist use of same: “… the ‘critical pronouncements’ in Ellison’s canon that imply his devaluing of Afro-American folklore hardly seem consistent with the meanings implicit in his Trueblood episode. Such utterances may be regarded, I believe, as public statements by Ellison ‘the merchant’ rather than as incisive, affective re­marks by Ralph Ellison the creative genius. Trueblood’s duality is, finally, also that of his creator. For Ellison knows that his work as an Afro-American artist derives from those ‘economics of slavery’ which provided conditions for Afro-American folklore … Joyce and Eliot taught Ellison that, if he was a skillful enough strategist and spokes­man, he could market his own folklore. What is bracketed, of course, are the eco­nomics that dictated that if Ellison wished to be an Afro-American artist he could only turn to Afro-American folklore as a tradi­tional, authenticating source for his art. Like his sharecropper, Ellison is wont to make ‘literary value’ out of socioeconomic necessity.”

In this assessment of Ellison, Baker could of course be remarking on the peculiar tau­tologies of slanguage and formal language black academics like him and Gates have to deploy to keep up a good front. I mean this is a slick game the bloods are running here; making with all the right poststructuralist references and verbiage to translate black folk’s linguistic thang into some doodah dem buckra can relate to while at the same time being true to black culture’s version of semiotics, namely signifyin’. Gates’s closing essay, “The blackness of blackness: a cri­tique of the sign and the Signifying Mon­key” is a masterpiece of such duplicity. Through an appreciation of Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo Gates manages to viciously signify on all of black and Western dis­course. (By the way, Henry, we got to figure out some other distinction besides this black and Western stuff, being as how blackness is a Western category in itself, and all that’s black ain’t purely African or non-Western even, semantic convenience notwithstanding. Robert Farris Thomp­son’s notion of a Black Atlantic tradition is one solution, but you know, you start bring­ing bodies of water into it and folk get to signifyin’ Negroes can’t swim. Anthony Braxton’s riff on the Trans-African tradi­tion is another possibility but that could get confused with the antiapartheid organiza­tion. Hmm, mebbe semantic convenience will have to stand.)

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Gates reads Reed’s satire on all Sacred Texts as a parody of received ideas about “blackness” in the Great Black Novels of the past. He traces the incestuous intertex­tuality of the black literary tradition, citing Hurston’s revisions of Toomer and DuBois; Ellison’s of Wright, Toomer, and DuBois; Reed’s of Hurston, Wright, and Ellison. Then he pronounces them all examples of black literary signifying. What Gates finds in Reed’s pastiche of definitively “black” texts (somewhat akin to writing the Great American Novel) is a highhanded version of that peculiar form of signification known to black folks as signifyin’ — which to us does not imply merely decoding the symbolism of a thing but calling it out of its name and talking bad about its mama. (One of Gates’s colleagues, Kimberly Benston, has coined a phrase for such literary versions of playin’ the dozens as Reed’s: tropes-a-dope.) In the final analysis what Gates’s essay seems out to provoke is an acknowledgment of black folks’ capacity to deconstruct and refashion Western culture in our own image. As proof, Gates draws on Ellison, Reed, and Richard Pryor and does some fine signifyin’ of his own, taking examples from the black tradi­tion to explicate Big Ideas — so what if he betrays a need to show off a little ed-ja-mi­ca-shun to cover his ass in the process. To wit: “Another kind of formal parody sug­gests a given structure precisely by failing to coincide with it — that is, suggests it by dissemblance. Repeating a form and then inverting it through a process of variation is central to jazz — a stellar example is John Coltrane’s rendition of ‘My Favorite Things,’ compared to Julie Andrews’s vapid version. Resemblance thus can be evoked cleverly by dissemblance. Aristophanes’ Frogs, which parodies the styles of both Aeschylus and Euripides … Lewis Carroll’s double parody in ‘Hiawatha’s Photograph­ing,’ which draws upon Longfellow’s rhythms to parody the convention of the family photograph, all come readily to mind.” (Yessuh, I just snaps my fingers and dere dey is.)

I’m not the only one who has a few bones to pick with Gates — as I found out when I read Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature. You wouldn’t know they had any differences at all from reading Black Literature and Literary Theory — where, excepting Appiah’s spat with Anonzie, the critics don’t signify on each other. Baker’s disagreements with Gates are certainly as substantial as the Africans’. Seems that back in 1979 Gates appeared in a tome titled Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruc­tion, which sought to dictate formalist ground rules for the teaching of Afro-Amer­ican writing. In his essay, Gates attacks the critics of the ’60s Black Aesthetic move­ment. (Baker was a constituent, alongside such good brothers as Stephen Henderson, Larry Neal, and Lorenzo Thomas, whose absence from discussion in BLALT almost gives you the feeling Gates thinks black literary criticism began with him and his crew. Shee, as a colleague reminded me, wouldn’t be no Afro-American studies at Yale or anywhere else if it hadn’t been for these Aesthetic types and the black student rebellions of the ’60s.) Gates thinks you shouldn’t read black texts with regard for such extraliterary concerns as race politics and culture; he argues instead for a semiotic reading of the literature, with texts seen as a closed system of signs and black folk culture, like the blues say, allotted value rela­tive to use by black writers. In rebuttal Baker writes, “When, therefore, Gates pro­poses metaphysical and behavioral models that suggest that literature, or even a single text exists as a structured ‘world’ (a system of signs’) that can be comprehended with­out reference to ‘social institutions,’ he is misguided in his claims, appearing only vaguely aware of recent developments in literary study, symbolic anthropology, linguistics, the psychology of perception, and other related areas of inquiry. He seems, in fact, to have adopted, without qualification, a theory of the literary signs … that pre­supposes a privileged status for the creative writer.” Baker records that by the time Gates wrote The Signifying Monkey: To­wards a Theory of Afro-American Litera­ture, he’d realized his debts to the Black Aestheticians for exploring the social and vernacular resources of black literary lan­guage but that the apolitical nature of his acknowledgments betrayed “overly profes­sional or careerist” anxieties.

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Only Lord knows Baker ought to be the last one to talk about overly professional anxiety, given his own relentless use of paragraph-length quotes from Foucault, Barthes, White (Hayden, not Bukka), and the like. Not to mention treacly passages that read like so: “Rather than a rigidly personalized form, the blues offer a phylo-­genetic recapitulation — a nonlinear, freely associative, nonsequential meditation — of species experience. What emerges is not a filled subject but an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole. The blues singer’s signatory coda is always atop­ic, placeless.” Besides the fact that this leaves me wondering what to do with blues verses about going to Kansas City and that Sweet Home Chicago, Baker seems to be underrating the contribution of the colorful personas (and nicknames) of the bluesmen — in pursuit, it appears, of an ontogenetic and hermeneutical langue for decoding black folks’ blues consciousness, but what the hey. Baker actually becomes worth his weight in jargon by emphasizing the impact of economics on the blues and black litera­ture. This emphasis in fact serves as the linchpin of Baker’s formalist critical inqui­ries and race-man politics. His study of Richard Wright is especially provocative. Not only does it rescue Wright from the social realist stigma put on him by heirs apparent Ellison and Baldwin, it locates in his language a liberating critique of bour­geois Western literary practices (akin to Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero project, ac­cording to Baker), which finds them impov­erished when confronted with expressing black oppression and desire.

Gates’s failure to select Baker’s Wright essay over the one on Ellison is lamentable; apparently the author of Shadow and Act is deemed more worthy of membership in the Gates canon than the author of Twelve Million Black Voices. In this lapse Gates nearly condones the inability of the white body politic to conceive of differences between black people. On the other hand Baker seems equally nearsighted when he cites the blues (and the Southern rural form at that) as the only definitive arena for conjugating black economics and aesthetics.

Perhaps the supreme irony of black American existence is how broadly black people debate the question of cultural iden­tity among themselves while getting brand­ed as a cultural monolith by those who would deny us the complexity and complex­ion of a community, let alone a nation: If Afro-Americans have never settled for the racist reductions imposed upon them­ — from chattel slaves to cinematic stereotype to sociological myth — it’s because the black collective conscious not only knew better but also knew more than enough ethnic di­versity to subsume these fictions. As Amiri Baraka writes in his autobiography, we might laugh at Amos and Andy without losing sight of the fact that that aberration on the screen was not us. The line between individual identity and ethnic identification explodes the black community into factions of opposing race phffosophers. Sadly enough, in these times, what sense of com­munity there is derives more from the col­lective sense of a racist societal surround than from the ethnic affirmations available through black cultural communion.

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Per Harold Cruse I believe there may be remedial and revolutionary implications to black cultural nationalism considered as a political strategy. These derive from black culture’s proven capacity to re-invert capi­talism’s cannibalization and commodifica­tion of revolutionary ideas. By necessity our radical aesthetic tendencies have evolved within a context where commercial exploi­tation and excommunication from the mainstream went hand in hand. Afro-Amer­ican music provides the paradigmatic model for this analysis: Consider that the four­-year period when George Clinton’s Parlia­ment-Funkadelic Thang accrued estimated profits of $40 million (roughly between 1975’s apocalyptic Up for the Down Stroke and 1979’s Gloryhallastoopid: Pin the Tole on the Funky, a synthesis of Genesis and the Big Bang Theory) was not only their most creatively fertile but one in which they could not get played on white radio. On black radio they functioned as active oppo­sition to a form of record industry sabotage dubbed “disco” — or as I like to pun it, dis­COINTELPRO, since it destroyed the self-­supporting black band movement which P­-Funk (jes) grew out of.

Obviously, the advent of hiphop can be said to have contributed even more radical acts of counterinsurgency, turning a com­munity of passive pop consumers into one of procreative pop producers. (Consider the way freewheeling deejays put their signa­ture to mixes composed from industrial ma­terials, approximating in music Duchamp’s notion of the readymade.) Hiphop’s seizure of the means of reproduction has now led us to a Human Beat Box, who replicates the automated banging of the drum machine with his hamboning mouth, converting a tool of disCOINTELPRO oppression into a new form of black vernacular expression. (It can be said that when the film Wildstyle leads us to believe Queen MC Lisa Lee of the Zulu Nation left the scene because of impregnation by rapper Lovebug Starski, reproductive rights of a whole other kind were brought into play — but these belong to another discussion.)

Gates’s and Baker’s advocacy of black signification echoes but does not exceed that of the Human Beat Box. Primarily be­cause their sense of critical play operates out of a more static sense of black expres­sion than the Fat Boys’ — not to mention graffiti and hiphop theoretician Ramm-El­-Zee, whose formulations on the juncture be­tween black and Western sign systems make the extrapolations of Baker and Gates seem elementary by comparison. Asked why he spelled Ikonoklast with a ‘k’ when he named his practice of armored graffiti writ­ing “Ikonoklast Panzerism” (after the tank), Zee said: “Because the letter ‘c’ in its formation is an incomplete cipher: 60 de­grees are missing. A ‘k’ is a formation based on the foki of it; a certain kind of science based on the knowledge of formation mechanics … ”

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In an Artforum feature, Zee added: “The infinity sign with the fusion symbol (x) in its middle has been wrongly titled Christian (+) and thus it has to be assassinated or the x has to be removed. The infinity sign is a mathematical, scientific, military symbol. It is the highest symbol that we have and you know there isn’t even a key on the typewriter for it. ‘Ikonoklast’ means symbol destroy­er, it’s a very, very high word militarily, because the two Ks are the only two letters that can assassinate the infinity sign, re­move the X … I’m going to finish the war. I’m going to assassinate the infinity sign. You have the gladiators, the freestyle danc­ers, warring on the ground, you have the graffiti writers warring in the air or in space. You have the translators, the DJs, the MCs. The DJs make the sounds of the pistons inside the graffiti element, or the tank. Their sound is the perfect tuning of the engines, the engines in the tank that go bambambam. That is beat culture.”

Since beat culture née hiphop derives from a more visceral rap-prochement with the tradition of black signification than that possessed by the brothers from the acade­my, it’s not surprising streetwise semioticians would offer more thought-provoking theories than those slaving away in Ebony Towers. David Toop’s new book The Rap Attack: African Jive t0 New York Hip­-Hop, works up a detailed history of the culture which produced the Fat Boys and Ramm-El-Zee, documenting rap’s origins in Gulla abusive poems, Yoruba song contests, and the vocal virtuosity of those West Afri­can verbal assassins known as griots — as well as in such Afro-American language rit­uals as the dozens:

“The dozens contests were generally be­tween boys and men from the ages of 16 to 26 — a semi-ritualized battle of words which batted insults back and forth between the players until one or the other found the going too heavy. The insults could be a direct personal attack but were more fre­quently aimed at the opponent’s family and in particular at his mother. According to linguist William Labov, who studied these verbal shoot-outs in Harlem in the 1960s … the dozens seem to be even more specialized, referring to rhymed couplets of the form: I don’t play the dozens, the doz­ens ain’t my game, but the way I fucked your mama is a god damn shame … The distance between talking rough with the dozens on the streets and moving it inside a roots club like Disco Fever with some beats for dancing is very small. It leads to the contradictions of Melle Mel, lyricist for the Furious Five, onstage in his ultra-macho metal warrior outfit trying to preach con­vincingly for an end to machismo and a beginning to peaceful co-existence.”

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From there Toop proceeds with a copious account of word-gaming in Afro-American music, citing Cab Calloway, “Bubbles” Whitman, Slim Gaillard, Eddie Jefferson, Babs Gonzalez, the black radio deejays of the ’50s and ’60s, Daddy O Daylie, Poppa Stoppa, and especially Douglas “Jocko” Henderson, the Ace from Space, whose in­fluence on Jamaican sound system pioneer Coxsone Dodd would make possible the work of Jamaican-born Bronx immigrant Kool DJ Herc, usually credited as the father of hiphop deejaying and rapping. In be­tween, Toop gives some play to black com­ics like Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley, and scores of black pop recordings with raps of one kind or another in them; from those of Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and James Brown, to others more obscure or forgotten, like Richard “Dimples” Field’s “She’s Got Papers on Me” and Barbara Mason’s re­sponse, “She’s Got the Papers but I’ve Got the Man.”

All of which effluvia only makes for in­triguing sidebars to Toop’s principal inter­est here, namely telling the tale of hiphop’s genesis in fertile uptown environs like the Audubon Ballroom and Broadway Interna­tional where Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, the Teller and Truman of hip­hop’s Manhattan Project (inasmuch as they engineered and advocated war and peace­time use of the fusion funkbomb Einstein Clinton’s theorems made possible) began bringing the black masses into the Informa­tion Age by performing feats of digital com­putation on the wheels of steel. Says deejay Flash: “Bob James was like 102 beats-per­minute and I would like go from 102 beats­-per-minute to 118, so from there it was like Bob James, James Brown, Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers to John Davis and the Monster Orchestra, ‘I Can’t Stop,’ and that’s like the ultimate you know … I would like break the shit down eighth, sixteenth notes. It amazed me sometimes.”

Unfortunately, at these urban Los Ala­mos affairs, pure research in pursuit of crit­ical mass-ass appeal could be overwhelmed by initiatives favoring mob rule. Toop re­cords Flash on how the Audubon became an inhospitable environment for black techno­logical innovation, once overtaken, like the Island of Dr. Moreau, by atavistic direct-­action ‘advocates: “… other b-boy groups were going in there and tearing the place up, breaking out the windows and then the news media and the cops started talking bad about it … We was doing it with just us and other DJ. Other groups that didn’t have the heart to go in by themselves were going in there with six or seven DJ groups. Seven or eight different sound systems — it was too confusing. This person was taking too long to turn on or this person’s system was fucking up and once you’ve got that big mass of people you have to keep them en­tertained. So after a while motherfuckers was getting shot and this and that, so by the time we went back after the third time our clientele was getting kind of scared so we gave it up.”

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Toop historicizes hiphop culture, con­stantly referring it back to its antecedents in the wider black tradition: “According to Afrika Bambaataa, Breaking started as a dance to James Brown’s ‘Get on the Good Foot.’ … The word break or breaking is a music and dance term (as well as a proverb) that goes back a long way. Some tunes like ‘Buck Dancers Lament’ from early this cen­tury featured a two-bar silence in every eight bars for the break — a quick showcase of improvised dance steps … Many of the dances used in current freestyle hark back to American dances from the past. In Mar­shall and Jean Stearns’s Jazz Dance, Pig­meat Markham recalls the dancing of Jim Green in A.G. Allen’s Mighty Minstrels tent show during the early 1920s: ‘Green had a specialty I’ll never forget. He’d dance awhile and then fall on the floor and spin around on his backside in time with the music.’ ” Elsewhere, on graffiti: “Herbert Kohl’s essay ‘Names, Graffiti and Culture’ is an analysis of both the reasons behind graffiti and the tags used by artists in place of their legal names. Kohl noted the changes taking place in graffiti as anti-pov­erty programmes in the late ’60s legitimised wall writing by bringing together the youth­ful black and Puerto Rican artists with so­cially motivated painters. This sanctioned outdoor art led to more elaborate forms growing out of basic chalk or Magic Marker scribbling.”

Because Gates’s and Baker’s works be­tray insufficient interest in these futuristic black contemporary variants on the blues and signifying tradition, there’s a sense of cultural closure to them voided by the vertiginously metamorphic nature of Afro­-American culture as recorded in Toop’s book. Leading one to concur, in the final analysis, with Afro-American folk wisdom that the half ain’t yet been told. ■

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Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr

Methuen, $29.95; $10.95 paper

By Houston A. Baker Jr.
University of Chicago Press, $19.95

THE RAP ATTACK: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop
By David Toop
South End Press, $8 paper

CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do

To The Beat Y’all

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.

“We’re not fighting. We’re dancing!” they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, “the Heli­copter,” “the Baby.”

An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. “Do a head spin,” he would command as he consulted a clip­board full of notes. “Do ‘the Baby.’ ” As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.

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Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. “This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than 10; he spins, stops real quick, spins … ”

“Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops.”

“There’s a 10-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days.” ‘

‘The best is Spy, Ronnie Ron, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil … ”

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78 — he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet,”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance: All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and end­lessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial specta­cle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favor­ite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibili­ty and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of op­posites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

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For current generation B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a com­petitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge be­tween melodies. For the B Boys, the his­tory of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx. maybe in Har­lem. It started with the Zulus. Or with· Charlie Rocle. Or with Joe, from. the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught:it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a ·style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring or onlookers drops to the floor, circles around. his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.

Fab Five Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper form Bedford Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. “Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky” — music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, pro­vides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.

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But breaking isn’t just an urgent re­sponse to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. “In the summer of ’78,” Tee remem­bers, “when you got mad at someone, in­stead of saying, ‘Hey man, you want to fight?’ you’d say, ‘Hey man, you want to rock?’ ” Inside the ritual frame, burgeon­ing adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.

Each segment in breaking is short — ­from 10 to 30 seconds — but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four of five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body’s weight and the head and torso revolve slowly — a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the “combination” can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze se­quences. The entry, the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer — although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasters crew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer’s originality shines forth, in configurations that are as in­tricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as pos­sible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like back flips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammellzee, a DJ who’s gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer’s re­sponsibility to create a new chapter in the story. “Like if you see a guy acting like he’s dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him.”

When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That’s one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to tell him he stinks. You put a hand to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that co.uches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the “up rock” prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.

Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public do­main. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and dif­ficulty are prized above all. “You try to put your head on your arin and your toenails on your ears,” says Ken of the Breakmas­ters. “Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk,” says Kip Dee of Rock Steady. “When you spin on your head.” ·”When you do ‘the Baby’ and you balance on one hand and move your legs in the air.” “When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out or the spin.”

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During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, who tend to out­grow it when they’re about 16. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady, claims the win which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident. “Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning,” says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But invent­ing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. “You got to sweat it out.” You don’t stop, even when you sleep. “I have breaking dreams,” sev­eral B Boys have told me. “I wake up and try to do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, “but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face.”

Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It’s not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. “They go crazy over it,” says Ken. “When you’re in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you.”

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Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. “The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never ·used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti — you make a new style. That’s what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What’s at stake is a guy’s honor and his.position in the street. Which is all you have. That’s what makes it so important, that’s what makes it feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it’s true that this stuff reflects life, it’s a fast life.” ■

On May 3 at 3 p.m., the Breakmasters and Rock Steady crews will break, to rapping by Fab Five Freddy Love and Rammellzee, at Common Ground, 29 Wooster Street at Grand. Their performance ofi Graffiti Rock was organized by sculptor­1 photographer Henry Chalfant. For reser­vations, call 431-5446.  

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Two Funky White Boys

Two Funky White Boys: Judging 3rd Bass by the Standards of the Street
January 9, 1990

WHEN I FIRST heard the opening bars of “Steppin’ to the A.M.” on Channel 31’s Video Music Box a few weeks ago, I thought soul brother numero uno had set up a studio in the joint, where his soul is currently on ice. The brazenly pumped-up bass in conjunction with poly­rhythmic traps and cymbals caught my ear, because I’ve been down with James Brown ever since I used to check him out for a dollar a dance at the Royal Palm Auditorium in Jacksonville, Florida, back in the mid-’50s. He was rag­gedy as a mango seed, dancing his ass off and laying down the laws of fundamental funk followed by every­body from Parliament to Prince to the hard-school rappers. I was chillin out at my writing table trying to make my game, so I spaced on the video for a while. But when I finally looked up to see what was happening, there were two funky white boys.

My first impulse was to brace myself for another white-folks parody à la Blondie’s “Rapture,” with its man from Mars eating cars, or the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right (To Party).” But these dudes were dead up in the groove. MC Serch, with “3rd Bass” carved in the back of his fresh fade haircut, quickly started step­ping while Prime Minister Pete Nice sat in a big wooden chair chillin, smoking a big cigar and looking gangsterish as a muthafucka with a fly white girl standing by his right side. They had a black DJ and several black danc­ers. Later, Serch told me they have already been given some fatherly advice by industry bigwigs: “Get rid of the blacks in the act.” Which he assured me they weren’t down with.

The black dancers set the standard for Serch’s perfor­mance, which was remarkable for a Euro-American (most are embarrassingly awkward on the floor). There was none of the mechanical, stiffly executed cho­reography of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Deney Terrio on Dance Fever, both of which were laugh­able to African Americans, the prime sources of Ameri­can dance crazes from the cakewalk and the turkey trot to the jitterbug and the twist to the Roger Rabbit and the cabbage patch. MC Serch’s dancing is improvised movement that proceeds from a basic step and goes with the flow, blending with the rhythm in a style character­istic of what Albert Murray calls the “blues idiom danc­er.” Watching MC Serch strut his stuff to the unfettered funk of the rhythm track on “Steppin’ to the A.M.” — he has some patented moves, too — I knew they were com­mitted to observing the performance values and cultural motifs of the genre. In the African-American communi­ty, it is a disgrace to be awkward on the dance floor. And the development of a personal style is fundamental to the art of social dancing.

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A week later I was down with an advance tape of 3rd Bass’s debut The Cactus Album, which proved equally fresh. Produced by Nice and Serch, in collaboration with host of others including Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, its pastiche ranges from Blood, Sweat & Tears and the Little Rascals theme to JFK’s inaugural address and Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First.” The producers demonstrate their mastery of sampling on “Sons of 3rd Bass,” superimposing the leisurely horn lines from BS & T’s “Spinning Wheel” over an uptempo hip-hop rhythm, fading them in and out at inter­vals that both complement and (especial­ly in the timing of the trombone glissan­do that punctuates the horn statement) mock the lyric. The piano part of “The Gas Face” — taken from Aretha’s “Think” and sounding like Bobby Timmons’s hard-bop classic “This Here” — fits as if it were written for the tune.

Over 20 tracks, Serch and Nice spin out a panoply of imaginatively crafted images and ideas — sometimes witty, sometimes didactic, sometimes irrever­ent, sometimes narcissistic, all poignantly expressed in the rhythm and rhyme of the streets. On occasion, their use of ex­tended metaphor and multileveled, eso­teric allusion recalls modern poetry. But what really kicks the verse and makes the record happen is the groove. I have my own fail-safe method of determining whether a rhythm is truly funky — if it compels me to tune up my conga drums and jam with the tracks. When I heard “Product of the Environment,” I just couldn’t help myself, because like Chuck Chillout told us, “The rhythm is the mas­ter, I am just a slave.”

There’s a three-pronged tradition among white musicians who’ve wanted to perform in the black idiom. Some sought to “improve” it: Paul Whiteman’s “sym­phonic jazz,” or Dave Brubeck’s “third stream.” Others were basically parodists, from white blackface minstrels through the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to the Beastie Boys. But others have immersed themselves in the culture, sincerely en­deavoring to observe the performance values promulgated by black musicians themselves; among the most musically successful of these acolytes are the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Benny Goodman, Eric Clapton, and now 3rd Bass.

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Unfortunately, however, it is the pa­rodic tradition in which African-Ameri­can usages are appropriated and distorted rather than honored and absorbed, that has done most to shape the public per­ception of black Americans. Many whites still believe that African-American cul­ture is not rich and complex enough nor black people sufficiently inventive to pro­duce artifacts worthy of emulation and celebration. This attitude lies at the root of the attraction-repulsion syndrome that gave rise to the most popular form of American entertainment for over half a century — minstrelsy, an arena where the Sambo image of Afro-American personal­ity held sway. As we are told in the intro­duction to Joseph Boskin’s Sambo: The Rise and Fall of an American Jester, “Why this came to pass is bound up with white perceptions of the black male as a laborer possessing a beguiling style. Whites were fascinated by black move­ment: the gait, music, language and espe­cially the laugh.” And Baskin himself tells us, “The American Sambo lacked certain qualities ascribed to the [Europe­an] Fool.… While both initiated and re­ceived laughter, the intent of their humor was quite distinct: the Jester was accord­ed the beauty of wisdom, Sambo accord­ed the follies of foolishness.”

The Sambo caricature existed before it was institutionalized in minstrelsy and has survived minstrelsy’s extinction. Manifested as Mammy, Uncle, Buck, High-Yaller Gal, Zip Coon, and Jim Dan­dy, he persists today in an iconography of racial stereotypes that color the way mil­lions of white folks view African Ameri­cans — Avery Brooks is Buck, Jesse Jack­son Jim Dandy, Oprah Winfrey Mammy. And it underlies the decision of white pop pundits and consumers to elevate Elvis Presley over Chuck Berry and the Beastie Boys over Run-D.M.C.

But MC Serch and Pete Nice want none of that. At 22, they’ve been involved in rap for half their lives, and they’ve made it clear, by word and deed, that they don’t want to be “perpetrators” — pampered white pretenders perpetrating a fraud. 3rd Bass want to jump out there with the real kids on the block and be judged by the standards set at the source, the hip street culture of urban black Americans. On the face of it they seem unlikely prospects for success. MC Serch, whose proper name is Michael Berrin, is the son of a former stockbroker and a trained opera singer. And Prime Minister Pete Nice, whose given name is Peter Nash, graduated magna cum laude in En­glish from Columbia in 1989, having turned down an appointment to the Unit­ed States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Yet, these two pilgrims from the white middle class have managed to traverse the great cultural divide. And they did it by immersing themselves in the def black urban milieu in which the rhythmic rhymes of rap were created.

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MC SERCH GREW UP in Far Rockaway. “I was living a double life. I’d go to shul, then I’d hang out with my boys in the projects ’cause that’s where the parties were. I’d hang out in 17th Street Houses, Red Fern, Edgemere, Hammel Houses. See, in my neighborhood, like there was a railroad track. To the left of the railroad track was the Jewish orthodox neighbor­hood where my parents lived and to the right of the track was where all the broth­ers were. There was a place called the Latin Lounge. And I used to try to slip in when I was 13 years old.” Serch spent so much time on the “wrong” side of the tracks that he was even cool with the Five Percenters, a mystical order founded by a former member of the Nation of Islam that retains some NOI theology. Based among black New York youth, it is a very in-group thing, as secretive as the Mafia. Whites very rarely gain the confidence of its members. But Serch says he got to know many of them well. “We used to hang out around the way. They never allowed me to attend the parliaments where they read from the books of life, so I could never knowledge them. But I was cool on a quiet tip around the way. I did pretty good for somebody who is sup­posed to be the devil.” Serch identifies with the Five Percenters to the extent that he sympathizes with some of their nationalist goals. But while hanging out gave him a feel for Afro-American street culture, it was in the lunch room at the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music and the Arts that he perfected his rap. “The lunchroom at Music and Art was famous, we all used to hang out there. The Kangol crew started there. Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Lance Omega, and other rappers started there.”

Pete’s father is a high school basketball coach in the city. Pete was often the ballboy for his father’s teams and grew up to become a varsity player at Columbia. He remembers his introduction to rap in the locker rooms where the black players blasted their boomboxes. But it was through the black friends he made while attending integrated schools and hanging out in the Brooklyn playgrounds, sharp­ening his basketball game, that Pete got the inside track on the rap scene. “I was like in an all-white grammar school in Floral Park in Queens, around Belmont Park. Then I went to junior high in South Floral Park, which was like a weird paradox because South Floral Park was all black. But it was an integrated school, half white and half black. I used to play ball and that’s where I started writing rhymes. Then I went to high school at Bishop Ford in Brooklyn, that’s where my father taught. There we had the same thing in the lunchrooms that Serch had at Music and Art, it was on the tip. That’s when I met this guy Jazzy who was in a group called Whistle. I learned from them and I learned more from play­ing ball in the parks.”

By the time Pete Nice arrived at Columbia in 1985, he was deep into the hip­-hop world. “Some of my best friends, like this kid Keeway and Buddha, they lived in East Flatbush and Bed Stuy and I used to go around and hang out in their neigh­borhoods all the time. I used to spend whole summers in Bed Stuy just rhyming with my man. A lotta people thought I was crazy going into Bed Stuy by myself all the time, even some black people. ‘Cause you don’t see white people hang­ing out, or even walking down the street on Decatur or, like, Kingston. I used to havta go through a lot of shit just being there. I had to battle other kids with my boys just to get respect. I got stuck up a couple of times too.”

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When Pete Nice went to Columbia he took the streets of Brooklyn with him, hosting the first and only rap show on WKCR in the summer of 1986. While he received a solid education (with a Euro­centric bias, of course), Columbia disap­pointed him. His show was yanked after one summer because “they said I was bringing too many black hoodlums to the campus. See, I was inviting rappers into the studio. I concentrated on what were then underground acts. I was one of the first DJs to play Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy.” Pete also found some of his fellow students a little strange. “A lotta the students at Columbia were kinda like whitebread, I just wasn’t down with them. They didn’t really know shit about New York City. These kids come from places like Kansas and their parents have money so they think they can come here and run shit. They had no respect for the people in the community.” When I asked him about dating on campus he just waved his hand and proclaimed, “Co­lumbia girls are wack.”

But Pete’s greatest disillusionment came in an encounter with one of his professors, a person Pete greatly ad­mired. He describes him as “a world­-renowned scholar who speaks eight languages and is such a genius that he can’t remember to do simple things like turn out the lights or take his key outta the door. A really incredible character. I de­veloped quite a rapport with him and when we decided to do this video ‘Gas Face,’ I wanted to get him to do the introduction and throw around a lot of literary terms relating to the gas face. I thought it would be something pretty positive. When I asked him at first he was down to do it, but when he found out we were shooting the video in Washing­ton Heights, in front of the Audubon Ballroom, all of a sudden he goes ‘Oooh, all the way up there, I don’t know if I can go up there. All the homeless are up there. That’s a black neighborhood, the hoodlums are up there.’ So I says, ‘Yo. what’s up? You only live in these books?’ You see, he taught the picaresque novel, the Spanish tradition of marginal charac­ters on the outskirts of the city. It was basically like a modern-day ghetto with picarones, thieves, tricksters, things I could relate to from living in the city. He always told us we should learn about ev­erything around us, but in the end he was intimidated by the whole scene and dissed us on the project. I just decided he was a fraud who lived vicariously through books, then retreated to his office and was unable to deal with the real world around him. I decided as much as you could learn from a school like Columbia, it still left something to be desired.”

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THIS OPEN, ECLECTIC attitude toward knowledge was essential to Pete and Serch’s quest to master the rap idiom. In fact, that’s how Serch got his street han­dle. “Since they couldn’t give me a righ­teous name, with me being white, my boys around the way, the Gods, started calling me Serch, for knowledge, trying to understand the culture.” It was a combi­nation of inquiring minds and humility in the face of black tradition that has en­abled 3rd Bass to achieve their mastery of rap.

Rap is a quintessentially black male art that goes back to the forms cited by Ber­nard Bell in his study of the Afro-Ameri­can novel: “Through the ritual of such verbal contests as toasts, sounding, signi­fying, and playing the dozens, young blacks in the cities, like their forefathers in rural towns, who had used storytelling or ‘lying,’ learn to sublimate their white-­provoked feelings of aggression to achieve mastery of words and their world.” Some of the rhymes me and my boys were kick­ing on street corners in the St. Augustine of the 1950s have much in common with the lyrics rappers are making grand theft dough for exciting on records now. Bite this, L.L. Cool J:

I was born in a barrel of butcher knives
And they were welded down with .45s
I’ll eat the meat and bury the bone
Then put a sapsucker outta his home
I’ll eat the bone and bury the meat
Then run his whole family out in the streets
Brahma bulls have charged me and never pierced my hide
Cobra snakes have bit me then crawled the fuck off and died
’cause I’m bad 

At last count I could recite 20 stanzas of that panegyric to machismo. We had rhymes for every kind of topic, from the Titanic to the signifying monkey. Some of them were just for fun and others conferred true wisdom. And if we’d set them to a dance beat we would have had something akin to rap. It is this vibrant oral heritage, not jazz’s instrumental tra­dition, from which rap flows. In Bell’s phrase, cultures like that of African Americans, in which speech competes with print, are “residually oral”: “basical­ly aural, functional, collective, and direct. Like oral cultures, they stress perfor­mances, mnemonics, and improvisational skills.” It was this heritage that enabled Jesse Jackson to reach such levels of campaign oratory that Richard Nixon could designate him “poetry” and Duka­kis a “word processor.”

Traditionally, the prime source of dynamic Afro-American verbal presenta­tions has been the church, inspiration for so much black literature. Describing the protagonist of her novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I have tried to represent a Negro preacher who is neither funny nor an imitation Puritan ram-rod in pants. Just the human being and poet that he must be to succeed in a Negro pulpit. I do not speak of those among us who have been tampered with and consequently have gone Presbyterian or Episcopal. I mean the common run of us who love magnificence, beauty, poetry and color so much that there can never be too much of it.” So it’s no accident that rap’s greatest appeal has been to urban youth who are alienated from the church.

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Nor is it coincidental that it arose when black pop was pervaded by the su­perficial escapism of the affluent adults who produced the music. Rap first re­sponded to Dr. Funkenstein’s call to res­cue dance music from the disco blahs, and then, beginning with Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” began to speak to the violence, crime, drugs, and poverty inner-city youth saw every day. It’s the verbal component of the “wildstyle” movement that also included graffiti and break-dancing, the ritualized challenge dance in which urban street warriors sub­stituted beauty for carnage, nonviolently exorcising macho aggressions exacerbat­ed by the material conditions under which they lived. Whatever one’s reserva­tions about its intellectual sophistication and poetic reach, it’s a refreshing tri­umph of the human spirit compared to the nihilistic metal and hard rock chosen by so many more affluent white kids.

When an artistic movement is a con­scious development in which creative agents deliberately set out to produce a new art, its reason for being and even locus of origin can be pinpointed. Rising out of Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Dada responded to the barbarism of World War I; created in Minton’s Playhouse in the early ’4os, bebop rebelled against the constrictions of dance band performance. But wildstyle, like the Ital­ian Renaissance, was an unconscious movement in which individual artists responded to the social, spiritual, political, and economic stimuli of the time, with no sense of themselves as a purposeful col­lectivity. Obviously, this comparison isn’t meant to comment on the relative merits of the two movements, only on certain parallels in developmental logic. Exposed to so many of the same stimuli as the wildstyle originators, MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice were subject to the same logic.

Despite persistent arguments to the contrary, all humanity is one species, and all people have the potential to play past difference in race, ethnicity, and class, grasping the universally human elements present in all legitimate cultural artifacts: folk art or fine art, high or low verse. The intoxicating power of black rhythm and rhyme held such fascination for Serch and Pete that they were willing to risk life and limb in order to study it at the source. They even signed with Russell Simmons’s black-owned Def Jam label, thus assuring that African Americans will profit from white performance of their music rather than the other way around. In response to those who would question his legitimacy, Serch asks, “What more does anyone want from me to prove I respect black culture?”

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ONE OF THE ENDURING mysteries about human character is what prompts some people to choose creative and perfor­mance art as a vocation. But, given the hazards of the game, one thing is obvious: they’ve got to do it or die. And it seems the more they get used to it, the more they want to do it. Saint Thomas Aqui­nas thought of ecstasy as a personal ex­perience with divine forces; and I believe that’s exactly what happens in the pas­sion of performance. (I know the first time I played congas with Mongo Santamaria’s band it was a helluva mindfuck.) It is a euphoric sensation and those who are capable of experiencing it will do al­most anything to let that feeling flow. True artists will willingly suffer physical and mental torture, study for years in poverty, and practice for thousands of hours in solitude to perfect their craft on the faith that one day there will be an audience. Sometimes performance artists are even willing to alter their cultural identity in order to master the nuances of a genre and gain access to the esoteric wisdom of a foreign idiom. That’s why Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Jap­anese maestro Seiji Ozawa, Afro-Ameri­cans like pianist André Watts, and Met diva Jessye Norman all walk, talk, think, and act as if they were Europeans. Their intellectual and spiritual investment in Western concert music was of such a magnitude that they became cultural mu­lattos. (Wynton Marsalis was saved by jazz.)

The commitment MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice have made to the modern African-American urban folk art of rap is on that same level of intensity. You can hear it in their rap. On The Cactus Album, “Product of the Environ­ment” tells us, “In the heart of the city you was born and bred/You grew up smart, or you wound up dead/Things moved fast but you knew the scoop/And your savior was a rhyme and a beat in a rap group/A modern day production of the city street/You said I didn’t have it that I couldn’t compete/But the sleeper did sleep, so the sleeper shoulda woke up/Now you’re in my sight, the budda-sense you smoke up/That’s the element you carry your rhymes on/But that style rhyme won’t let you live long/’Cause a strong song to you is what I sent/’Cause I’m a product of the environment.”

The voices in “Product of the Environ­ment” are both def and smart, wicked and wise. It is a voice that extols the virtue of rap as a genre, but repudiates the voices that often pollute its milieu­. Over the course of the album, they dis not just drugs, but also ostentatious material­ism and even (in a few subtle references) Professor Griff. Another verse recounts the risks they took to learn their art in the forum of the streets, the only acade­mies with a pedagogy sufficiently def to grant a degree in rap: “On the streets of Far Rockaway Queens/Sea Gurt Boule­vard, Beach 17/Red Fern Houses where no MC would ever go/Is where I did my very first show/Had the crowd and the rhymes goin’ I never fess/And my reward was almost a bullet in my chest/And on that stage is where I first learned/Stick out my chest or be a kid and get burned/You’re so foolish but I think you knew this/That on the microphone punk I can do this/And doin’ this is what life meant ’cause I’m a product of the environment.”

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IN THEIR HONEST to God love for Afri­can-American cultural style, Serch and Pete Nice conjure up the memory of the late jazz clarinetist and diarist, Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow. And, though they had never heard of Mezz before I told them about him, Pete and Serch are his spiri­tual descendants. A tough Chicago Jew who hung around with gangsters in his youth and knew Al Capone personally, Mezz first heard black music while doing time in a Pontiac, Michigan, prison in 1913: “During those months I got me a solid dose of the colored man’s gift for keeping the life and spirit in him while he tells of his troubles in music. I heard the blues for the first time, sung in slow mournful chants, morning, noon and night.… By the time I reached home, I knew that I was going to spend all of my time from then on sticking close to ne­groes. They were my kind of people. And I was going to learn their music and play it for the rest of my days. I was going to be a musician, a Negro musician, hipping the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.”

Mezz Mezzrow is remembered by many black musicians as a hip white dude who could play the clarinet with soul and always had the killer herb. At one point during the ’30s, musicians used to call any dynamite smoke, “the real mezz.” Rumor has it that he supplied a consis­tently high quality of cannabis sativa, that blessed sacrament that — by his own admission — was the soul food that in­spired many lyrical lines of sonic poetry from the bell of Pops Armstrong’s trumpet.

Obviously, if he had the thriller weed, Mezz was everybody’s main man. When I first met Pete and Serch they were film­ing the video for “The Gas Face” at a midtown studio. Daddy-O from Stetsa­sonic, Kid ’n’ Play, Oran “Juice” Jones, and Flavor-Flav from Public Enemy were all down. I studied the social interaction between 3rd Bass and this crew with the analytical perspective of a trained observ­er of human behavior and the jaundiced eye of a well-schooled skeptic on matters of race and culture.

It didn’t take long lo see that Pete and Serch were in their element. They were as comfortable in this crowd as sharks in the sea, for both are products of their environment. The vibe between all the rappers was warm and fraternal and, as might be expected, the atmosphere was electric with the fresh repartee of rappers sounding on each other, the sound of people who love the sound of spoken lan­guage. In response to those who oppose their right to rap, or question their deci­sion to be def, 3rd Bass offer these “Wordz of Wizdom” on the album. “Get­tin’ up is settin’ up just for a payday/The minister sinister ‘I ain’t no devil’/Not a snake slitherin’ scoundrel, Sam level this/Track to smack the smile off the doubt­ers/The brother another MC who’s about/Frontin like ya buntin deceiving the delinquent/Rap is on track bustin out a medium/For those oppose who manifest a dis/Yo Pete, tell ’em manifest this.”

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Shortly after the murder of Yusuf Haw­kins by the Bensonhurst barbarians, MC Serch and Prime Minister Pete Nice ap­peared at the Apollo Theater, that world famous incubator of soul. They dedicated their performance to the Hawkins family as a symbol of solidarity with the black community’s struggle against racism. When they got down with “Steppin’ to the A.M.,” the audience received them warmly. For 3rd Bass this was a great moment, a career high point. When Serch described the experience of performing on the Apollo stage before a black audience, it reminded me of Muslims I’d heard describing their pilgrimage to Mec­ca. This is the audience by which they choose to be judged. Unlike the Beastie Boys, whom Pete and Serch call “perpetrators — complete frauds,” 3rd Bass are not some poot-butt white plagiarizers. They are the real deal. Their importance as rap innovators remains to be seen, although the combination of Serch’s def street perspective and Pete Nice’s knowl­edge of the formal devices of poetic expression has groundbreaking potential. But they seem certain to become a cul­tural conduit, a pivotal group in the spread of the authentic black aesthetic among whites. Very soon, I predict these boys are going to be living large.


Rappin’ With Russell Simmons

Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

The offices of Rush Productions are two cramped little rooms on Broadway in the 20s, which on any given afternoon are filled by the loud voices of black men and women. They are mostly young, real street and real anxious. On this day in January a graffiti artist sits in one corner of the outer room with hopes of painting an album cover. Over on a beat-up couch is a girl in striped pants and Run-D.M.C. T-shirt waiting for her old man, one of the 22 street-oriented acts managed by Russell Simmons’s Rush Productions, to find out when his next gig is. Three young dudes dressed in the B-boy style­ — untied Adidas sneakers, jeans, sheepskin coats, and Gazelles — are leaning against a wall joking and eyeing the girl waiting on the rapper. The token white is Bill Adler, a former Daily News reporter who is the company’s full-time PR man. Behind him, shifting through papers and cradling a phone on her shoulder, is Heidi Smith, once Russell’s lone overworked office staffer and now one of several over­worked office staffers.

I stick my head in the other room, seeking Russell. Instead, sitting behind Russell’s desk and in front of the bright orange-and-red mural that says “RUSH” the size of a subway car graffiti, I find the king of rap himself, Kurtis Blow. I con­gratulate him on his recent marriage and the birth of his son, known affectionately around Rush as “Joe Blow.” I also praise his production of the Fat Boys’ album, which will soon go gold. I tell him that I’m writing a piece on Russell, he tells me that’s all right but I really should be do­ing his life story. I say I’ll think about it and ask where Russell is. I’m supposed to be accompanying Russell and Kurtis Blow’s producer, Robert “Rocky” Ford, to a meeting with Cannon Films about a rap movie. After urging me again to con­sider writing his life story, Kurtis tells me they are over at this putrid Chinese res­taurant that Russell loves because they make screwdrivers strong, the way he likes them. I run into them in the street. “Yo home piss,” says Russell. “You ready to serve these Israelis or what?” Rocky and I laugh and just look at him. This is the man The Wall Street Journal calls “the mogul of rap”?

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At 27, an age when most of his black business contemporaries have designer suit tags branded into their breastbones, Russell promotes street music and makes no apologies. The staccato, crashing drums, the gritty, uncompromised words about life in Kochtown, and the down-­playing of melody that mark the music of Blow, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Kool J, and the other acts he manages are his lifeblood. He loves all this loud, obnox­ious aural graffiti. As far as I can tell — ­and I’ve known Russell about six years worth of headaches, triumphs, and late­-night phone calls — he never intends to do anything else but make street records, chain smoke, talk fast, and uninhibit the inhibited.

Russell is hyped for the meeting. He’s puffing on a Kool, bouncing around in shiny black penny loafers, and rubbing his bald spot in comic gestures for me. Russell’s about five-10 and 165 pounds, with the complexion of a ripe squash and a generally sunny disposition. He’s the kind you can tell your worst jokes to and get a laugh. I wish I could do justice to the rapid-fire monologue he delivered in the cab up to Cannon’s East Side offices but without a tape recorder it’s hopeless. The gist of it was that we were about to see Russell act like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. That’s why he asked us along. We’re gonna be the reasonable Negroes and he’s gonna be the bad nig­ger, sort of a mercenary ’80s version of mau-mauing the flak catchers. Russell wants to make a point: he’s not some dancer shuffling for a (pardon the ex­pression) break. He wants respect and Cannon has already showed a lack of it. Cannon sent a writer uptown to hang out and get a feel for the scene. The writer listened to Russell’s ruminations on rap and shook his head affirmatively when Russell emphasized that he wanted no part of another Beat Street — all fake dia­logue, gospel singers at the Roxy, and other disagreeable Hollywoodisms. The writer, a white Californian who told Rus­sell he sees blacks about once every three months in his neighborhood, said, “Yeah,” “Uh huh,” and “I understand your concern.” And still wrote a jive treatment as much about a white girl trying to break into the music business as the uptown scene. In addition, Cannon, in a full-page Variety ad, announced that their rap movie would be shot in, of all places, Pittsburgh! Thickening the plot, a black production company from Los An­geles had approached Russell, guarantee­ing him considerable creative input and serious profit participation. “All the VCR money. You hear me Nelson,” he shouted in the cab. Unfortunately, the brothers had a shaky reputation and short bread. We knew Cannon wasn’t the classiest studio in the world — the bulk of its films were substandard 42nd Street fodder (one upcoming project is called Godzilla Vs. Cleveland). Cannon had, however, committed several million to the project and would undoubtedly make a profit­able, chintzy flick.

But Cannon’s minions had already lost Russell’s good will and in the meeting he truly Eddie Murphyed them. He talked loud and fast and was contemptuous of the film’s portly producer, a man who bragged “I dined with Hepburn last night” and then called Kurtis Blow Cur­tis Brown. Russell responded by emphasizing how important his acts were in the music business, and, basically, with just slightly more subtlety, that he really didn’t need them. “I’ve been working for 10 years to make this music mean something,” Russell said at one point. “You can come in with one film and ruin everything I’m trying to build.” To say the least, ye olde film producer was surprised at Russell’s impertinence. So was I. From my pragmatic post as “reasonable Negro” Russell was alienating folks who’d defi­nitely make a rap film, if not the one he wanted made, in exchange for a maybe situation. Russell calmed down after a while — even listened to them a little bit. However, the spirit of Murphy had seized Russell’s soul and, with a gleeful smile, he chortled later with Andre Harrell a/k/a Dr. Jeckyll about serving them at the meeting, then complained that Rocky and I had been too good at our assign­ment. We almost stopped him from hav­ing fun.

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The next day Russell signed a deal with the black production company and was rewarded with the wooing of Michael Schultz, the black director who handled Cooley High, one of Russell’s favorite films, to supervise the project. In turn he delivered Run-D.M.C., Blow, Whodini, and the Fat Boys, whom he doesn’t man­age. By denying all that top rap talent to Cannon he would certainly hurt their project and, as blaxploitation films used to advertise, “stick it to the man.”

Russell is a product of that generation of blacks who spent early ’70s Saturdays enthralled by the white-bashing activities of Shaft, Super Fly, Trouble Man, Cof­fey, etc. At times he seems to fantasize about being as cold-blooded promoting rap as they were kicking ass. And if you think about it, Eddie Murphy, another product of the blaxploitation generation (remember Murphy’s film critic Adbul Rahiem championing the virtues of Isaac Hayes’s Truck Turner?), is nothing but an intentionally funny version of those bad-ass heroes in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop.

Unfortunately, for Russell being bad ass isn’t enough anymore. Since that meeting rap has exploded yet again. Run-­D.M.C., the Fat Boys, and Whodini have all sold over 500,000 albums and Blow’s Ego Trip is in the ballpark. Their videos are on MTV. Russell’s acts are being swamped with endorsement and film offers. And, perhaps most profitably, the record industry itself is finally giving up the only kind of respect it can under­stand — money offers.

But therein lies the rub. You could call Russell a “mogul.” It is to some degree an apt description, since he certainly has a deep economic stake in rap’s present and future. But “mogul” also suggests some­one who dominates an industry, and Rus­sell, for all his influence, is at the mercy of many elements he does not control. Unlike the big tickets of pop culture­ — your George Lucas, Michael Jackson, Grant Tinker level mogul — Russell doesn’t have the financial clout or emo­tional distance to manipulate. You see, Russell really is his audience. He lives the B-boy life, and the values are found in his records. Unlike Afrika Bambaataa or Russell’s brother Joey, a/k/a Run of Run-­D.M.C., who are part of a vanguard of rap innovators, Russell is one of the few products of the rap generation to become an important businessman. He doesn’t battle other rappers or spinners for rec­ord sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival. Russell’s not going bald ’cause it’s been easy.

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At least the business side hasn’t. Life for Russell has never been that rough. His background belies the stereotype that rap music is the pure product of ghetto life. Both he and his brother grew up in the middle-class Queens neighbor­hood of Hollis, an area of home-owning, upwardly mobile dreams that has flourished since the 1950s on the premise that life in two-story dwellings with furnished basements was superior to that in the tenements and projects of Brooklyn and Harlem. The parents of Hollis (and St. Albans and Ozone Park and Jamaica) were products of the post–World War II striving for integration and beneficiaries of the opening of civil service jobs to minorities. Russell’s father, Daniel, su­pervises a Queens school district and teaches black history at night. His moth­er, Evelyn, works for the Parks Depart­ment. Back in 1976, when Russell en­rolled at City College’s Harlem campus, where he’d earn 112 credits toward a so­ciology degree, he seemed headed in the same direction.

What’s always been surprising — at least to me when I attended St. John’s University in the late ’70s — is how fascinated with street culture the children of Hollis were. I came from Brownsville, an area that could easily have been Melle Mel’s model for “The Message”; I knew “the ghetto” was nothing to romanticize. Yet here were kids like Russell who grew up in their own houses, with access to cars, furnished basements, both parents, and more cash than my friends ever knew, acting (or trying to) as cool as any street kid. Russell’s embrace of street life and, ultimately, his movement into it as a businessman occurred in the CCNY lounge. There he fell in with a group of aspiring party promoters, including a brash Music & Arts senior named Curtis Walker who used to sneak over to CCNY when he should have been in school. Calling themselves “The Force,” throughout 1976–77 they gave parties in Harlem at Small’s Paradise and the now defunct Charles Gallery. Walker, assum­ing the streetwise persona of Kurtis Blow, began rapping over records, influ­enced by the work of an older man, Pete “DJ” Jones, whose style was similar to that of boasting radio jocks like Frankie Crocker, and by D.J. Hollywood, a young rapper who gigged regularly at a Bronx club called 371 and encouraged call-and­-response interaction with partygoers. It is Hollywood who originated the “hip hop de hippy hop the body rock” that led to the rap-breaking-graffiti scene being labeled hip hop.

In New York in the mid-’70s, rappers and their deejays were the nightclub equivalent of synthesizers in the record­ing studios. While synthesizers began re­placing musicians in the studio, effective­ly cutting production costs, black discos with teen and young adult audiences used rap acts to replace bands. “They were a lot cheaper and they drew the same kinds of crowds,” says Russell. “Lots of times we’d give shows with rap­pers and get bigger crowds than if we had a guy with just records. The more expo­sure you got it seemed like the bigger your name got. The more fliers and stick­ers and posters that you could get your name on, the more popular you’d become as a rapper.” “There was so much compe­tition by then [1977] in rapping and dee-jaying uptown, Russell and I went out to Queens, the boondocks, and started pro­moting there,” remembers Kurtis Blow. Moving to Queens broadened rap’s base in the city, reaching teens like Russell, who were removed from ghetto life but not immune to the flamboyance and invention of its style.

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Still, rap and Russell didn’t hit their stride until he started promoting rap shows at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street in 1977. The Times Square location meant that the shows could attract black teens from the outer boroughs as well as Harlem. Coinciding with this move was the brief mating of Blow and Grandmaster Flash with Kurtis on the mike and Flash on the turntables. To promote this superstar hip hop duo 15,000 fliers were distributed and anoth­er couple of thousand stickers plastered in subways by Russell. “We had 2000 kids come see them that first night at the Diplomat,” Russell recalls. “You know, people were standing outside Xenon’s waiting to be picked to go in like Studio 54. And down the block you had B-boys coming down the street to go to the Dip­lomat two doors away.” The Diplomat’s shows truly helped widen rap’s audience, (people like Hollywood, Eddie Cheba, and the Furious Five all eventually ap­peared there). Yet there was danger sur­rounding these shows. “We went through a lot of security companies,” Russell says. “They worked one show and then the next security company would come. They’d work one show and that was it. It was like that rough. The Diplomat had bulletproof box offices. We stayed back there for most of the night. And Kurtis,” Russell starts to laugh, “would always come in the box office and stand around. When it was time to go on stage, he’d run up there and perform and come right back in.”

The insular, occasionally violent world of rap was changed forever in the sum­mer of 1979 when first the Fatback Band with “King Tim III” and, most profound­ly, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s De­light” hit the streets. The success of “Rapper’s Delight,” by three kids with only a tenuous connection to the original rap scene, shocked the established rap­pers. “There was a show in October or November in the Armory in Queens,” Blow remembers. “We had like 4000 kids. All the original rappers were there and ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was a big hit. Starski said on the mike, ‘Yeah, y’all know we started this shit. Don’t you worry we’re still gonna be on the moon.’ We all re­sented it. Everybody hated it. Now I see that they opened the doors for us and I’m grateful now. But at that time I was so furious.”

I first met Russell and Kurtis in the offices of Billboard in the summer of 1979. Billboard staffers Rocky Ford and J.B. Moore had brought them up to the ­office to talk about making a rap record. Rocky had written the first piece in the established media about rap, a funny lit­tle story in Billboard prior to “Rapper’s Delight,” and, with help from me, then a St. John’s University student working part-time at the Amsterdam News and free-lancing for Billboard, had been re­searching the rap scene. He and Moore had decided to work with Kurtis because compared to Grandmaster Flash, Starski, and the other original rappers he was the most clean-cut and articulate. And he had Russell, someone who knew the rap scene and was itching to learn the record business. Looking back on it now I know that Russell’s presence was as important as Kurtis’s talent in getting them to in­vest their then meager resources in a record about Santa Claus in Harlem. “Christmas Rappin’ ” would eventually sell nearly a million copies.

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Six years ago Russell was even more frantic than he is now, partly because he was doing a lot of drugs (he says solemnly that those days are over) and partly be­cause he was just one overactive, anxious young man. Every meeting with him was like being injected with a thousand cc’s of adrenaline. His energy fascinated me, though our friendship had its rough spots. One night he left me stranded in Long Island following a Kurtis Blow gig at some Hempstead dump. Another time he took me to the Disco Fever in the days before it became a musical tourist trap and left me in a room full of coked-up stickup kids and rappers.

What redeemed our friendship was that despite his occasional lapses, Russell was the only young guy on the rap scene who seemed to have any long-term goals. He was serious where his contemporaries just wanted to party. Everybody wanted to make records. But did everybody real­ize what promotion and marketing to the nonrap audience would entail? Did they realize that if rap was successful they’d be approached by record industry pros, people who didn’t give a fuck about any­thing except their ability to make a quick buck? Russell did. In fact, it used to drive him crazy. He’d call me or Rocky at any time of the day or night to complain about how someone was trying to serve him or his artists. In his early twenties Russell was trying to woo finicky reporters, get his money from small-time con­cert promoters, and make the major la­bels pay attention to him. His paperwork was sloppy. He slept in recording studios. He told his skeptical parents he’d made the right decision in leaving school. He was happiest when he talked about the music he wanted to make: Not the “pop-­rap” Ford & Moore were making for Kur­tis, but “beat” records that captured the feel of clubs like the Fever.

It wasn’t until Russell teamed with ex-­jazz bassist Larry Smith, creator of “The Breaks” ’s bass line and Ford’s childhood chum, that he had someone who could translate his beat fanaticism into music. Together they made two recordings that would change New York street music: Jimmy Spicer’s humorous, Jimmy Cas­tor-influenced rap “The Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action,” which fea­tured Allyson Williams’s sensual shout­ing. The key to both was the “bubba bubba tap” rhythm of drummer Trevor Gale, a chucky bass drum stomp that has become standard for rap music (e.g., “It’s Like That”).

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Another child of “Action” and “Bubble Bunch” is LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” the first record on Def Jam Records, an indie label started by the record’s pro­ducer, Rick Rubin, that Russell is now a partner in. The drum machine is slow and, as Russell says, “sleazy,” the cymbal is hot, and the other instruments serve to intensify the rhythm. It’s a record for dancers who know that the spaces be­tween the beats aren’t really spaces, but seconds of pleasure where your body­ — suspended in action, chilly in motion­ — awaits its guidance to slide over a few soul-satisfying inches. It is a statement of principle that says Russell and Rubin are going right for the core B-boy audience.

Def Jam is also very much a product of Russell’s economic frustrations. Execu­tives at the major companies have re­fused to believe in rap or the long-term creativity of its makers. When Blow signed with Mercury in 1979, I assumed every label would have at least one rap act within two years. Instead, rap acts have come and gone from the rosters of the corporate music machines because these organizations, very often advised by their black executives, have shown no interest in or outright contempt for the music.

Epic’s rap history is illustrative. Back in 1980 the company released a seven-­inch (seven-inch!) single on D.J. Holly­wood featuring a cooing girl chorus, then didn’t promote it. Hollywood is a legend in this city, yet rap’s pioneer was quickly forgotten at Black Rock. When Epic briefly distributed Aaron Fuchs’s Tuff City rap label in 1983, they had Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble,” a beat-box record by an ex-Kurtis Blow spinner and prolific hip hop songwriter-musician. It was an instant B-boy classic, as fresh as Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” Yet “One for the Treble” sold about 80,000 copies for Tuff City while “It’s Like That” did approximately 250,000 for Profile. The difference? Epic didn’t see the potential in the music and couldn’t be bothered with what it saw as an experiment: Subsequently Run-D.M.C.’s debut album sold over 500,000, a genuine RIAA gold record, because Profile president Cory Robbins and Russell worked the 12-inches “It’s Like That”/“Sucker M.C.’s,” “Hard Times”/“Jam Master Jay,” “Rock Box,” and “30 Days” with the zeal of a major label; promoted Run-D.M.C.’s black hats and leather to give them an iconic image (cf. Jackson’s glove and Cyndi Lauper’s hair); and reached out to the substantial hip white audience that —  very much like reggae’s white aficiona­dos — identify with its raw, outlaw atti­tude. Arista did (eventually) get behind the English label Jive and its efforts to win a U.S. audience for the rap duo Whodini. As a result, Whodini’s Larry Smith-produced Escape went gold. Representative of Jive’s commitment is that Whodini has had four videos in support of two albums while Blow, with five al­bums at PolyGram and a steady seller of 100,000 to 300,000 units, just got his first for his current single “Basketball.”

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Russell’s dream has been for all his acts to be signed to one label that he controlled. Under the aegis of Poly­Gram’s late black music vice-president, Bill Haywood, it almost happened. But after Haywood’s death in 1983, the re­maining executives, white and black, didn’t understand the music or the deal. Jimmy Spicer’s “Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action” were released on Mercury. The failure of both commercial­ly outside the New York area definitely hastened Russell’s hair loss. After those records, the arrangement died of corpo­rate malnutrition. As a result, Rush’s acts are now strung across the rosters of sev­eral, mostly independent, labels: Profile, Jive, Mercury, Disco Fever, Nia, and now Def Jam. As a result, most of the acts live from record to record. When Russell brags “None of our records have ever lost money,” he doesn’t mention just how essential that situation has been to his eco­nomic well-being.

Ex-indie Sugarhill Records, now dis­tributed by MCA, once dominated the rap market with an enviable in-house set­up: a two-story building in Englewood, New Jersey, contacts to record distribu­tors going over a decade (Sugarhill own­ers Joe and Sylvia Robinson once owned All-Platinum and control the Chess catalogue), and a brilliant house band that will one day be regarded as the Booker T. & the MG’s of the early ’80s. While Rus­sell was still building his roster of rappers Sugarhill Records, with the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee, and Sequence, de­fined the music’s cutting edge. The grooves were varied and, except for a streak of unabashed sexism, the raps were always clever. But the across-the­-board acceptance of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” in 1983 ended up hurting the label. In its wake Grandmaster Flash exited to Elek­tra Records after a lawsuit over money and creative control. So did many key musicians, such as “Message” co-writer Duke Bootee, who signed with PolyGram, and Reggie Griffin, who signed with Qwest Records and arranged Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.” Only the bril­liant Melle Mel, with his caustic, Biblical attacks on racism and corruption, and commanding delivery, remains a vital sales and creative force for Sugarhill.

Sugarhill’s loss was Russell’s gain as young rappers who might have gravitated to the Jersey label instead turned to Rush Productions. For a time it looked as if Afrika Bambaataa’s space-rap sound, through his liaison with Tom Silverman’s aggressive Tommy Boy label, would suc­ceed Sugarhill’s. But after “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” in­novative recordings co-produced by Ar­thur Baker and Jon Robie and heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Bambaataa’s been a commercial bust. His collabora­tions with Material, Johnny Rotten, and other “new music” types have given him a high media profile, but his terrible misuse of James Brown on “Unity” illustrat­ed why Bambaataa hasn’t tapped the hip hop soul in almost two years. As a result, the most significant rap hits of the past two years have been in some way con­nected to Rush Productions. He and Smith coproduced both Run-D.M.C. al­bums; Smith produced Whodini, and Blow the Fat Boys. The hottest rap 12-inch of 1985, UTFO’s “Roxanne, Rox­anne,” was produced by the Brooklyn band Full Force, who’ve written for and played on the last two Kurtis Blow al­bums and whose manager, Steven Salem, once shared office space with Rush.

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It’s an incestuous little world that Rus­sell works in, one he feels has values and attitudes that aren’t understood by out­siders. To him that’s the reason rap and New York street music in general hasn’t yet been embraced by the music industry mainstream. Significantly, Russell doesn’t call his music “rap” or “street” but “black teenage music.” He sees his records not as part of a genre but a state­ment from a new generation — a genera­tion, coincidentally, that puts great stock in machismo.

To Russell, for example, the reason there are so few female rappers “is that the most progressive forms of this music are too hard-edged for women. What do heavy metal and wrestling say about women? I ask that because rap has the same kind of audience and feeling to it. But you’ll never hear any of our artists rapping about getting over on a woman in a vulgar way. You can listen to all the records I’ve been involved in and not hear that stuff about busting out young girls in them. We already have this bad image with black program directors about the country, so I’m very careful about what I say. I’d do a record like ‘No Sell Out’ [a rap record on Tommy Boy using excerpts from Malcolm X speeches] if I could make it work. A good track could support any idea. But I’m not gonna lecture the audience. I’m not a teacher. I make music based on the ideas my artists give me. If Run wants to do ‘Hard Times’ or ‘It’s Like That’ I’m gonna help them make it work. The only thing I ask is that it have an edge. Teen­age music is rebellious.”

To his taste, most mainstream black pop is “too polished, too slick.” “I like real sounding music, real sounding in­struments — even our drum machines sound hard, and I like loud music. Music feels good loud” he says, explaining why on “Rock Box” and most of the King of Rock he employed black rock guitarist Eddie Martinez to such crunching effect. “I can’t help it if it’s called rock ’n’ roll. It’s still B-boy music. It still has breaks, it still has def beats. The difference be­tween white teenage music like Quiet Riot or AC/DC and black teenage music right now isn’t that big.”

Russell has been very open-minded about building bridges between the up­town scene and the more progressive white rock clubs. Before it was fashionable he was hanging out at Disco Fever and Danceteria, rapping with Melle Mel at 1 a.m. and Malcom McLaren at 4 a.m. So when he looks you in the eye and says excitedly “I want to produce Devo,” you don’t bust out laughing, but ask, quite respectfully, why? “I believe I could make Devo def. Hear me, I’d make Devo def. I love all those sounds they make. Don’t like the songs. But I could fix them and make them def.”

Looking ahead five years Russell hopes he’ll “be able to pay for this loft I want and have made four or five major stars. I’ll be involved in black teenage music if I still understand it. I might not be able to still make it. I at least hope I’ll under­stand what’s good about it enough to hire someone who does.” Russell stops, pauses a minute, then adds, “I want to make successful black heroes, like what I’ve tried to do with Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis. I didn’t say ‘positive’ because that’s a trap. It’s got to be real.”

“Russell Simmons is a bloodsucker,” a prominent record producer tells me in late February. “That’s the feedback I’m getting on him, man. They say he’s unor­ganized and that his artists would be bet­ter off somewhere else.” Then the pro­ducer laughs. “You know what that means, man. It’s character assassination. They are after him. He has a thing going. When it was on that street level, selling 12-inches on indie labels, they left him alone. But now rap is selling LPs; Run-­D.M.C. and Whodini have broken in the rock and black markets. The Fat Boys are a novelty act that works. So now the industry is coming after him just like they did to George Clinton, Gamble & Huff, and every black music entrepreneur. If his shit isn’t together they’ll take everything that isn’t nailed down.”

By March my friend has proved pro­phetic. Larry Smith, another Queens na­tive who has explored the darkest corners of the South Bronx with Russell, has signed his publishing to Jive’s Zomba Music, for a large advance. Unfortunate­ly, Russell has promised that publishing to another company as part of another deal, putting Russell in an embarrassing, potentially litigable position. Aggravating the tension is that Larry agreed to pro­duce the soundtrack for Cannon’s rap film. The two are still friends and outside the Beacon Theater where Run-D.M.C. recently headlined they could be seen embracing. For Larry they were good business moves, which didn’t prevent them from taking the smile off Russell’s face. They were a signal to him that his rap kingdom was hardly secure.

There were more lessons to come. While negotiating with a major record label for a production deal he made the tactical error of including a group in his proposal he has a business relationship with but no papers on. The company does some checking and the next thing Russell knows that group is cutting its own deal. In the world of rap ’n’ roll neither the record label nor the group were wrong. They were trying to do the best they could for themselves. Russell left a loophole, the kind he can’t afford anymore.

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Given his demeanor, Russell is taking all this with surprising calm. He under­stands his mistakes and is trying to tight­en his operation. In the last six months he’s added a number of administrative staffers and he’s seeking larger offices. Andre Harrell has quit his day job as a time salesman at WINS to become vice-president of Rush with an eye toward nailing down some of the endorsements the company is being offered. Russell may be a bit shaken by the wheeling and dealing swirling around him, but that only brings out the Eddie Murphy in him. I mention one of the people in the industry who questions Russell’s business acumen.

“That guy can only suck my dick when he sees me,” he tells me with a conspiratorial chuckle. “I’m invaluable to the suc­cess of his company. He never says that to my face. I’d serve him.” We laugh, and I tell him to save that crap for the next Run-D.M.C. album.

As Billboard’s black music editor, I in­teract daily with sleaze, stars, star­fuckers, and a few honest businessmen and musicians. All of them are out to make money. So is Russell. But in Russell there is a love of music, at least his particular brand of it, that is real. Like another middle-class hustler with good ears, Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons is trying to build something that will last. I’m not totally convinced it will happen. So much rests on the durability and con­tinued evolution of a decidedly radical musical style. One of Russell’s favorite sayings comes from Dr. Jeckyll: “Inside of every suppressed black man is an an­gry nigger.” I suspect that as long as Rus­sell believes that and promotes music that sounds like it, homeboy will be all right. Even if he is from Queens. ■


A Time Line to Post-Soul Black Culture


MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baad­asssss Song premieres in Detroit in March, signaling a new direction in African American film and culture. Directed guerrilla-style in Watts, it ridicules SIDNEY POITIER’s ultra-assimilated image, instigates Holly­wood’s blaxploitation era, and projects rebellious black heroism in visual terms that will echo in pop music iconography 20 years later. It will impact the black intelligentsia more di­rectly than the working-­class blacks who will frequent blaxploitation flicks.

MUHAMMAD ALI, back fighting after being stripped of his title for refusing to violate his vows as a Mus­lim minister and register for the draft, has his comeback derailed by defending champ JOE FRAZIER at Madison Square Garden. Despite this defeat, Ali’s re­ligious commitment and boastful, poetic arrogance bridge ’60s activism and ’80s style.

AL GREEN’s “Tired of Be­ing Alone” is the first hit for the last of the great soul singers. The central fixation of Green’s music — physical lust versus spiritual love­ — is a tension that new styles will abandon. 

SLY & THE FAMILY STONE’s dark, murky, bitter There’s a Riot Goin’ On presages minimalist hardcore rap both lyrically and sonically.

Shaft, directed by GOR­DON PARKS SR., is the first Hollywood blaxploitation film, complete with fly threads, ISAAC HAYES’s Os­car-winning score, and a cameo by blaxploitation regular ANTONIO FARGAS

Two new magazines ad­dress two complementary post-civil rights constituen­cies: BLACK ENTERPRISE, the bible of the burgeoning new class of white-collar blacks, and ESSENCE, which targets collegiate black women. Both docu­ment more subtle issues than the soul-era periodi­cals Ebony and Jet.

A feature-length docu­mentary, Soul to Soul, con­trasts footage of IKE & TINA TURNER in West Africa with scenes of African per­formers in the U.S.

THE REVEREND JESSE JACKSON forms People United to Save Humanity in Chicago. PUSH will con­front economic and educa­tional issues and serve as Jackson’s platform.

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Bubble-lettered GRAFFITI pieces by Phase 2 (Lonny Wood) are displayed at United Graffiti Artists’ Rozar Gallery Show. Soon Twyla Tharp will use a graf­fiti backdrop for a Jaffrey Ballet premiere of her Deuce Coupe.

Trouble Man, starring ROBERT HOOKS, has a doowop-jazz title song and an excellent score by MARVIN GAYE

Washington, D.C., securi­ty guard FRANK WILLIS re­ports a robbery-in-progress at the Watergate Hotel that will bring down the Nixon administration.

THE TEMPTATIONS’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” goes to No. 1. This Norman Whitfield production is a prime example of the cinematic funk that per­vaded black pop during the blaxploitation era. 

ISHMAEL REED’s Mumbo Jumbo, an innovative novel with 104 bibliographical ci­tations, scores of photos and illustrations, and a plot about Third World art be­ing “liberated” from West­ern museums, uses jump cuts and soundbites as if Reed were a film director or hip hop DJ. 

Superfly’s depiction of a glamorous cocaine dealer so concerns civil rights leaders that the NAACP distributes leaflets asking the produc­ers to reshoot the ending so that the dealer dies. RON O’NEAL’s charismatic Priest is a rebel with a capi­talistic cause surviving in a world of sneaky partners, corrupt cops, Mafia thugs, and cartoonish nationalists (a staple of blaxploitation). GORDON PARKS JR. utilizes cutting-edge fashion and CURTIS MAYFIELD’s hit­-filled score to reach the wide black audience Sweetback never attracted. Su­perfly’s seminal blaxploita­tion will spawn two sequels, one scripted by ALEX HALEY. In defense of the film O’Neal says, “The heroin pusher is the scourge of the black community. But we’re talking about coke, which is basically a white drug. Since coke is not physically addictive, people do not steal and rob to get it. There are no coke junkies.” 

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THE INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND releases the pioneer­ing hip hop record “Apache,” which will be popularized along with the same band’s “Bongo Rock” by a Bronx mobile DJ named Kool Herc. 

HUSTLER’S CONVENTION by Lightnin’ Rod (a/k/a the Last Poets) is a moralistic blaxploitation film on re­cord that’s performed in the urban storytelling tradition hip hop will overturn. 

The Mack, one of blax­ploitation’s most popular films, features costar RICH­ARD PRYOR at the height of his wicked comic brilliance and WILLIE HUTCH’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” later a Public Enemy title.

ENTER THE DRAGON, Bruce Lee’s first big-budget film, costars black martial artist Jim Kelly, indicating the importance of black ticket buyers to the makers of kung fu flicks and their prospective impact on com­bative young urban males. 

Black Caesar stars FRED WILLIAMSON and is backed by a slamming JAMES BROWN score. Its title char­acter, a Harlem drug chief­tain, recalls the real-life Nicky Barnes. 

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The Census Bureau re­ports that INTERRACIAL MARRIAGES rose 63 per cent during the 1960s. Although marriages between white men and black wom­en declined from 25,913 to 23,566, the number of unions between black men and white women grew from 25,496 to 41,223. 

NEW YORK YOUTH GANG activity reaches a high of 315 gangs and over 19,000 members. The Black Spades of the South Bronx are the biggest. One prominent member goes by the street name Afrika Bambaataa.

PAM GRIER begins her reign as black America’s first female action hero. In Coffy she’s a nurse who hides razor blades in her Afro and takes on drug dealers. She goes on to star in Sheba Baby, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster.

With its extravagant cos­tumes and overwrought performing style, LABELLE is a turning point in blending the soul-gospel tradition with a flamboyant black gay style. Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash develop a strong feminist and gay male cult.

The Harder They Come, starring reggae star JIMMY CLIFF, turns into a mid­night hit that helps popular­ize Jamaican dance music in the U.S., while showing the effects of American western movies in the Third World. In the next decade the sound systems and criminal posses it depicts will be transplanted to the mainland. With its blend of advocacy, rebellion, and music, this film will stand as both the best rock movie and the best blaxploitation movie of the decade. 

A bounty of African American mayors: THOMAS BRADLEY in Los Angeles, MAYNARD JACKSON in At­lanta, COLEMAN YOUNG in Detroit.

At icebound Shea Stadi­um, O.J. SIMPSON not only breaks JIM BROWN’s rushing record, but becomes the first running back in NFL history to gain over 2000 yards on the ground in one season. The contrast between the two men is significant: Brown is a nationalistic black capital­ist sympathetic to the dying black militant movement, Simpson a staunch integra­tionist whose apolitical avoidance of controversy will set a standard for post­-’60s black sports stars. 

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RICHARD PRYOR’s That Nigger’s Crazy LP, a semi­nal piece of Africamericana, brings the N-word aboveground. 

MUHAMMAD ALI regains the heavyweight title by us­ing “rope-a-dope” to KO GEORGE FOREMAN in Zaire. Ali and his Flavor Flav, Drew Bundini Brown, dub the fight “the rumble in the jungle.”

The Joint Center for Po­litical Studies reports that 2991 blacks hold elective office in 45 states and the District of Columbia, com­pared to 1185 in 1969. Prominent among them are Newark mayor KEN GIBSON and Brooklyn’s feisty Congresswoman SHIRLEY CHISHOLM


DJ KOOL HERC hosts shows at Hevalo, a club lo­cated at 180th and Jerome, where he specializes in the short “break” sections of records. The dancers who follow him will come to be called “B-boys” or “break boys.” He also plays parks with a sound system he la­bels “The Herculords.”

GRANDMASTER FLASH, a/k/a Joseph Sadler, builds a rep as a DJ by playing at a park at 169th Street and Boston Road. Grand Wiz­ard Theodore travels from the Bronx down to Times Square’s Downstairs Re­cords to buy records for Flash. Among the jams he selects are “white boy re­cords” such as Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” 

MUHAMMAD ALI avenges his earlier loss to Frazier in a titanic fight he titles the “thrilla in Manila.”

ARTHUR ASHE wins at Wimbledon, crowning his pioneering career as tennis’s first black male star. Like SIDNEY POITIER, Ashe em­bodies white (and black) fantasies of the perfectly as­similated African Ameri­can, though in reality he’s politically active. His smooth upward mobility is a prototype for Baps and Buppies to come. 

Cooley High, directed by MICHAEL SHULTZ and writ­ten by ERIC MONTE (who created TV’s Good Times), is a sleeper hit that provides warm, humane portraits of young men growing up in the Chicago projects and exploits the nostalgia value of old Motown.

From the gay club under­ground a/k/a discos comes a long-playing orgy called “Love to Love You Baby” by a black singer named DONNA SUMMER. Sum­mer’s success helps call at­tention to the increasing public influence of homo­sexual taste on the music mainstream. Paradise Ga­rage DJ LARRY LEVAN is a crucial disco figure.

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Rocky, with its prominent black characters and action format, shows Hollywood how to tap into the black action market. Leads like FRED WILLIAMSON and JIM BROWN give way to second bananas CARL WEATHERS and MR. T of the Rocky films. 

A year before Star Wars, producer-conceptualist GEORGE CLINTON is already in space as the sci-fi motif of Parliament’s Mothership Connection frames extrater­restrial funk of the highest order. Spearheaded by key­boardist BERNIE WORRELL and bassist BOOTSY COL­LINS, Clinton and the P-Funk mob carry the banner for a raw black music aesthetic.

Sparkle is noteworthy for CURTIS MAYFIELD’s neo­soul, a plot that echoes the Supremes’ real-life soap op­era before Dreamgirls, and a superb young cast that in­cludes Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, and Dorian Harewood.

NTOZAKE SHANGE’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf fuses a rich poetic language with feminist politics, part of the wave of African American literature by women that brings long-seething tensions between black men and women to the fore. It remains a staple of black college theater to this day. 

STEVIE WONDER releases Songs in the Key of Life, a sprawling double album packed with great songs. At a time when most black pop is either sappy crossover or disco drivel, Wonder’s gift for melody earns him the “genius” designation.

JULIUS “DR. J” ERVING joins the mainstream when the National Basketball As­sociation absorbs four American Basketball Asso­ciation franchises. Dr. J and other brothers liberated from obscurity — David Thompson, George McGin­nins, George Gervin­ — spark a revolution in style that eventually changes the NBA and elevates black schoolyard style to an art form. Soon the slam dunk will be as much part of our sporting culture as the grand slam. 

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA DJs his first party at the Bronx River Community Center, supported by the Zulus, a new-style gang more into music and dance than crime.

NICKY BARNES, a/k/a “Mr. Untouchable,” leader of Harlem’s largest heroin ring, hands out turkeys on the corner of 126th Street and St. Nicholas for Christ­mas, a scene that will appear 15 years later in New Jack City

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Roots, a miniseries based on ALEX HALEY’s book about tracing his family tree to Africa, airs for eight con­secutive nights on ABC, earning the highest ratings of any network program in history and generating a long-term interest in Africa among American blacks.

Yale student WARRING­TON HUDLIN makes Street Corner Stories, a film about working-class black men who hang out mornings at a New Haven diner that be­comes a festival favorite in America and Europe.

CHARLES BURNETT has a similar success with the landmark black indepen­dent film Killer of Sheep, a neorealistic tale of an impo­tent slaughterhouse worker in Watts.

KRAFTWERK’s trance dance, “Trans-Europe Ex­press,” is a left-field black hit that influences many young DJs. 

Queens party promoter RUSSELL SIMMONS, 19, sees his first rapper, Eddie Cheeba, rhyming over the beat from Parliament’s “Flashlight” at Charles’s Gallery on 125th Street. 

A year after his turkey tri­umph, NICKY BARNES is convicted of narcotics traf­ficking and gun possession, ending the reign of one of the biggest old-school dope kingpins and setting the stage for younger gangsters and synthetic drugs.

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The Black Filmmaker Foundation is founded by a collective of businessmen and filmmakers including WARRINGTON HUDLIN

DISCO FEVER, the first home of hip hop, opens in the South Bronx, a long throw home from Yankee Stadium.

Proto-B-boy LEON SPINKS beats MUHAMMAD ALI in a New Orleans shocker. Spinks ushers in a new generation of black athletes who battle drug abuse and the media. 

A typical uptown “Super Disco” is presented at the Audubon Ballroom. GRANDMASTER FLASH, THE FURIOUS FOUR (Melle Mel, Keith Keith, Kid Creole, Mr. Ness), and LOVEBUG STARSKI are on the bill. 

For several months this year the VILLAGE PEOPLE, a collection of gay male stereotypes fronted by soul-styled black vocalist Victor Willis, are the country’s hottest group. Many straight folks don’t get the joke. For many black gays, the Village People are a welcome affirmation of their existence in a culture that wants to ignore them. 

Where the Village People are pop-corny, SYLVES­TER’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” is the kind of gay gospel dance music that will later inspire house.

The Supreme Court rules AFFIRMATIVE ACTION can result in reverse discrimina­tion. The civil rights move­ment is over and conserva­tive backlash has begun.

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MICHAEL SCHULTZ is the first African American di­rector to land a Hollywood film without a racial theme: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an ill-conceived Beatles homage starring the Bee Gees and Peter Framp­ton that damages the ca­reers of all involved. 

MICHELE WALLACE’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman is published to amazing hype (she makes the cover of Ms.) and scathing criticism. For all its faults, the book is crucial for its criticism of the civil rights movement, which opens the discourse on male-female relations in the African American left and giving black feminism greater media visibility.

Former community activ­ist MARION BARRY is elect­ed mayor of Washington.

A study finds that 45 per cent of all NEW YORK CITY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS use “some psychoactive drug.”

Model-turned-disco diva GRACE JONES celebrates the bisexual and campy black gay aesthetic New Year’s Eve at Studio 54.

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Reviving interest in ZORA NEALE HURSTON, the Har­lem Renaissance writer who has become the patron saint of black feminists, grows with the publication of I Love Myself When I Am Laughing, essays edited by ALICE WALKER with an in­troduction by literary schol­ar MARY HELEN WASHINGTON

A Howard Smith Scenes column on the FABULOUS FIVE, a graffiti group led by Brooklynite Frederick Brathwaite (later known as Freddy Love and then Fab Five Freddie), leads to a show of the group’s work in Rome.

THE FATBACK BAND’s “King Tim III (The Person­ality Jock)” is the first rap record. But Tim, who spiels in the older black radio style, is not part of the Bronx hip hop crowd. He’s hired when the Fatback Band see DJ Hollywood hosting shows at the Apollo and, instead of making a deal with the original old-school rapper, try to do it on their own — a major goof.

CHIC’s “Good Times” joins MFSB’s “Love Is the Message” as one of the mobile DJs’ favorite grooves. Unlike many early hip hop favorites, these songs were black radio hits that DJs and rappers adapted to their purposes.

SYLVIA ROBINSON, own­er of the troubled All Plati­num Records, attends a show at Harlem World dis­co on 116th Street, across from the mosque founded by Malcolm X. Robinson hears DJs rapping over re­cords and sees the reaction. She organizes the SUGAR­HILL GANG, who have the first rap hit with “Rapper’s Delight” on her brand-new Sugarhill label. Again these are not real rappers — one member is a bouncer at Disco Fever — but they at least bite rhymes from real rappers. “Rapper’s Delight” uses the music from “Good Times”; Chic requests and is granted writing credit on later pressings. 

EARVIN “MAGIC” JOHNSON leads his Michigan State team past his great ri­val Larry Bird of Indiana State in the NCAA final. Johnson’s blend of height and playmaking ability changes basketball. 

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Billboard does a story on “DISCO RAPPERS” — “a spinner who talks in a lyri­cal, rapid fire, streetwise di­alogue over the pulsating rhythm track, began in the black discos of New York.” The article notes that “Rap­per’s Delight” is No. 41 on the disco chart and “King Tim III” is No. 42, and that Spoonie Gee has “Spoonin’ Rap” in stores. The story is picked up by the U.K.’s New Musical Express, which notes that the “dee­jay who raps does not ap­pear to be a million miles removed from the ancient Jamaican art of toasting.” 

RICHARD PRYOR’s Live in Concert opens. Pryor’s genius as mime, storyteller, and observer of human life has never been better documented. 

THE BLACK FILMMAKER FOUNDATION presents films by independent black film­makers around New York in parks, museums, and nightclubs. 

CHARLES LANE’s A Place in Time, a silent comedy shot in black and white, is shown at Othello’s disco on Eighth Avenue. 

The QUINCY JONES–produced Off the Wall elevates MICHAEL JACKSON to adult stardom, its 7 million sales the most ever by a black male. People begin remark­ing on how Jackson’s face is changing. 

DARRYL DAWKINS breaks two backboards within a month, hastening the intro­duction of flexible rims.

Billboard reporter ROB­ERT FORD JR. and ad execu­tive J.B. MOORE write and produce KURTIS BLOW’s “Christmas Rappin’,” which gets picked up by Mercury. The first rap artist on a major label is managed by CCNY schoolmate RUS­SELL SIMMONS

As the decade ends PCP, a/k/a angel dust, is the street drug of choice.

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In January members of the HIGH TIMES CREW are arrested at a Washington Heights subway for “fight­ing” — that is, breaking. They are photographed by Martha Cooper for the New York Post, the first known photos of break dancing. 

MOLEFI KETE ASANTE publishes Afrocentricity with Chicago’s African World Press. Over the next decade this brief overview will spearhead the challenge to a Eurocentric history. 

Trumpeter WYNTON and saxophonist BRANFORD MARSALIS play with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Wynton’s chops, sense of history, mastery of the clas­sical canon, and well-tai­lored suits will make him jazz’s first truly “cool” fig­ure in a generation. 

NELSON GEORGE’s “A Consumer Guide to Rap Records” is rejected by The New York Times’s Arts & Leisure section because “it’s just too far off the beaten track” and “just seems too specialized.” 

MAGIC JOHNSON leads the Lakers to the NBA title with an amazing sixth-game win over DR. J’s 76ers. Magic plays center for an injured Kareem and is named the series’s most valuable player. 

Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack airs on WBHI from 2 to 5 a.m. Saturday nights. At several stations over the next decade, MR. MAGIC will play a crucial role in creating the hardcore rap audience. 

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RICHARD PRYOR critical­ly burns over half his body while freebasing cocaine.

SUGAR RAY LEONARD loses to and then defeats Roberto Duran, who surrenders with the famous last words “no más.” 

WLIB switches from an all-music format to a news­talk format.

KURTIS BLOW releases his gold single “The Breaks.” Futura 2000 bombs a subway car in tribute.

RICHARD PRYOR and Gene Wilder star in the Sid­ney Poitier–directed STIR CRAZY, which earns $101 million. 

PRINCE establishes his off-center sexuality, multi-racial identity, and eclectic musicianship with Dirty Mind. He also wears black panties on stage. 

Richard Goldstein’s lengthy Voice cover story on GRAFFITI notes: “Graffi­ti’s sensibility has a musical equivalent in ‘rap’ re­cords — another rigid, inde­cipherable form that can sustain great complexity.” The piece also discusses two then unknown artists, Keith Haring and Samo a/k/a Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Voice centerfold features six whole-car designs photo­graphed by Henry Chalfant.

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The Rock Steady Crew dancers perform at the home of the downtown avant-garde, the KITCHEN. Graffiti artists, rappers, breakers, and even roller skaters perform at the ROXY ROLLER RINK. ABC’s 20/20 does one of the first nation­al reports on this new rap phenomenon.

Six-month-old PROFILE RECORDS spends $750 to make Dr. Jeckyll (Andre Harrell) & Mr. Hyde’s (Alonzo Brown) “Genius Rap,” which moves 150,000 12-inches.

Young EDDIE MURPHY revitalizes Saturday Night Live with a slew of crazy characterizations including black pimp Velvet Jones, children’s show host Mr. Robinson, and exercise guru Little Richard Simmons. 

■ “The Adventures of GRANDMASTER FLASH on the Wheels of Steel” is the first record to capture the mixing and scratching tech­niques of hip hop parties.

Dreamgirls, MICHAEL BENNETT’s homage to Mo­town, opens on Broadway to rave reviews and spawns JENNIFER HOLLIDAY’s No. I single “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a phlegmy retrosoul success in an era of self-conscious black pop crossover.

FRANKIE SMITH’s gruff “Double Dutch Bus” goes gold, feeding the idea that rap records are a silly fad.

CHARLES FULLER’s Pulit­zer prize–winning A Sol­dier’s Story opens at the Negro Ensemble Company. This mystery of murder and intraracial strife fea­tures a brilliant cast that in­cludes ADOLPH CAESAR, CHARLES BROWN, and the then little-known DENZEL WASHINGTON.

■ Blacks constitute 11.2 PER CENT of those EM­PLOYED and 22.3 PER CENT of those UNEMPLOYED according to the National Ur­ban League’s “State of Black America” annual report.

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■ The Saturday morning cartoon characters the SMURFS inspire a dance and numerous records, each with a different spelling to avoid lawsuits.

■ Capping a long campaign led by STEVIE WONDER, DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING’s birthday finally be­comes a national holiday.

■ Junior’s “Mama Used to Say” is the first in a decade-­long stream of BLACK BRITISH SOUL RECORDS to break through on black American radio.

■ British promoter COOL LADY BLUE’s weekly hip hop event at Negril brings uptown kids downtown and rap music to white hipsters.

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA & SOUL SONIC FORCE’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat” comes out on Tom­my Boy.

HERBIE HANCOCK’s “Rockit” features the scratching of old-school DJ Grandmixer DST. It is one of the first collaborations between an established musician and a hip hop spinner.

■ Under the banner of GRANDMASTER FLASH & THE FURIOUS FIVE, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee cut “The Message,” the first commercially successful po­litical rap single.

ALICE WALKER’s The Color Purple is published to critical acclaim. Many black men hate it, but QUINCY JONES vows to turn it into a film.

[related_posts post_id_1=”385989″ /]

BELL HOOKS’s Ain’t I a Woman — which analyzes African American women in the context of male sexism, white female racism, and the interaction of all women — introduces a sig­nificant new voice in femi­nist thought.

LOUIS GOSSETT JR. wins the supporting actor Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman.

■ In the concert film Rich­ard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, the comic graphically describes the attraction of FREEBASING.

RICHARD PRYOR re­nounces the use of the word “nigger” in Ebony.

BILL STEPHNEY, Hank and Keith Boxley (a/k/a SHOCKLEE), William Dray­ton (a/k/a FLAVOR FLAV), Andre Brown (a/k/a DOC­TOR DRE), and Chuck Ri­denhour (a/k/a CHUCK D) begin hanging out at Adel­phi University’s WBAU, playing hip hop records and making their own.

GEORGE CLINTON’s dance jam “Atomic Dog” is the last hit by the P-Funk lead­er. Its success with young audiences foreshadows the vitality of P-Funk’s music throughout the rest of the decade for the hip hop generation.

■ North Carolina wins the NCAA title against George­town with a jumper in the final seconds by freshman MICHAEL JORDAN.

■ Oakland A’s outfielder RICKEY HENDERSON steals 120 bases.

MICHAEL JACKSON’s Thriller reaches record stores in time for one of several Christmas pushes and goes on to sell more than 40 million worldwide. With his ongoing plastic surgery, androgyny, and prodigious performing tal­ent, Jackson embodies the compromises, contradictions, and triumphs of the black crossover mentality.

TROUBLE FUNK’s “Drop the Bomb” brings Washing­ton, D.C., go-go beats to rap.

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RICHARD PRYOR is bud­geted $40 million by Co­lumbia Pictures president Guy McElwaine to fund Indigo Films. Pryor’s compa­ny — to be run by his buddy, Jim Brown — will specialize in black films. Some of that money goes toward a three­-picture deal with ROBERT TOWNSEND — one of his proposed projects is similar to Hollywood Shuffle; some goes toward a script about Charlie Parker that will, years later, be made by Clint Eastwood; and GEORGE JACKSON puts in time there as a vice-presi­dent of production. But no films are made under the Indigo deal, though Pryor produced the autobiograph­ical Jo Jo Dancer and his third concert film, Richard Pryor Here and Now, during the production company’s brief history.

■ Representative HAROLD WASHINGTON is elected mayor of Chicago after a racially charged campaign. The crusade-like mobiliza­tion of the city’s blacks makes Washington one of the few big-city black may­ors with a clear racial mandate.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT moves beyond his roots in graffiti to national promi­nence with a show at Los Angeles’s Larry Gagosian Gallery.

■ Harvard undergrad REG­GIE HUDLIN directs a short about a son who sneaks out against his father’s wishes called House Party.

JESSE JACKSON goes to Syria to free American hos­tages and becomes a hero.

■ Youth muggings at DIANA ROSS’s free Central Park concert make headlines and are blamed for a midtown crime spree.

LORENZO CHARLES wins the NCAA for North Caro­lina State with the dunk, a shot once banned from col­lege basketball.

■ Led by DR. J and MOSES MALONE, Philadelphia wins the NBA title in four games.

EUZHAN PALCY debuts with the female coming-of­-age film Sugar Cane Alley.

SPIKE LEE directs a “White Lines” video on spec for Grandmaster Flash with LARRY FISHBURNE in the lead. Sugarhill turns it down.

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FLASHDANCE introduces the feature film as full-­length music video and has­tens the burnout of breaking.

EDDIE MURPHY’s comedy helps Trading Places make $90 million.

■ Al Pacino’s Tony Mon­tana, the violent Cuban protagonist of Brian DePal­ma’s SCARFACE, written by Oliver Stone, emerges as the patron saint of coke dealers.

■ Black scholar HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. discovers the 1859 manuscript Our Nig, by Harriet Wilson, which he documents as the first novel written by a black woman in the U.S. Aside from spurring black women writers, this literary archaeology catapults Gates to a prominence that will make him one of America’s best-known scholars.

CHARLIE AHEARN’s Wild Style, the first realistic depiction of the emerging B-boy culture, is released. The independent film in­cludes appearances by old-­school rapper Busy Bee and artist/scenemaker Fab Five Freddie.

STYLE WARS, a docu­mentary on breaking and graffiti, airs on PBS.

■ Ex-bodyguard and Rocky opponent MR. T has his season of fame on NBC’s The A Team. Some believe his gold fetish sparks the rope-chain craze.

JESSE JACKSON announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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■ The February 13 Wash­ington Post reports that in a private conversation with black reporter Milton Coleman, JESSE JACKSON called New York “Hymietown” and Jews “Hymies.” For 13 days Jackson denies the comments; then he apolo­gizes. The Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan calls Cole­man a “traitor” and a “Judas,” issuing what some in­terpret as a threat against the reporter’s life. This incident has two impor­tant repercussions: it weak­ens Jackson’s support among many whites and strengthens the Nation’s among blacks alienated from the American system, particularly the hip hop generation.

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN publishes Brothers and Keepers, an eloquent depic­tion of assimilated and un­derclass African America in which one brother becomes a college professor while the other goes to jail for murder.

■ Attending the Grammys with teen model Brooke Shields and kiddie star Em­manuel Lewis of TV’s Web­ster, MICHAEL JACKSON wins eight awards for Thriller.

■ Despite police reports that BREAK DANCING has decreased gang violence, the San Bernardino City Council votes to impose a fine for public dancing be­cause it interferes with mall shopping.

UTFO’s “Roxanne, Rox­anne,” produced by FULL FORCE, ignites a battle royal over this young woman’s virtue. First 14-year-old ROXANNE SHANTE disses back with “Roxanne’s Re­venge.” Full Force recruits its own pinup girl, who re­plies with “The Real Rox­anne.” The Roxanne series is an example of the verbal battles that proliferate in hip hop and a harbinger of the female bashing to come. 

MARVIN GAYE’s father shoots him dead.

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Georgetown beats Ha­keem Olajuwon and Hous­ton for the NCAA title to cap a season in which Georgetown emerges as black America’s team. Led by black coach JOHN THOMPSON, Georgetown plays a combative style epitomized by center PAT­RICK EWING, target of racist insults around the country, and relentless skinhead power forward MICHAEL GRAHAM. In a historic NCAA semifinal versus Kentucky, the Hoyas force the Wildcats to shoot 9.1 per cent in the second half. “Starter” athletic wear bearing the Hoyas’ pit bull–­like logo becomes an inte­gral part of urban style.

JESSE JACKSON, who had already bowed out of the race for president, delivers an inspiring speech that is the highlight of the Demo­cratic convention. It soon becomes available on home video.

Wearing a trendsetting hi­-top fade, CARL LEWIS wins four gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympics.

CHAKA KHAN’s “I Feel for You” samples Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips—Pt. 2” and is sprinkled with a MELLE MEL rap. The promo clip is adapted from a Norma Kamali fashion video and showcases break­ers SHABBA-DOO and BOO­GALOO SHRIMP.

 PRINCE’s masterful Purple Rain soundtrack ele­vates him into a pop icon and sets up the hit movie, which exploits his sexuality and blurred racial identity. The Time’s MORRIS DAY and JEROME BENTON seem primed to be the ’80s Ab­bott and Costello, but by the time the movie opens, Day has split Prince’s camp. So have two other original Time members, bassist TERRY LEWIS and keyboardist JIMMY “JAM” HARRIS, who begin produc­ing full-time.

[related_posts post_id_1=”371070″ /]

 GRANDMASTER FLASH & THE FURIOUS FIVE split with Melle Mel and then Sugarhill to sign with Elektra.

 Rappers RUN-D.M.C., KURTIS BLOW, WHODINI, THE FAT BOYS, and NEW­CLEUS, and break crews the MAGNIFICENT FORCE, UP­TOWN EXPRESS, and DY­NAMIC BREAKERS, bring in $3.5 million in 27 dates on the Swatch Watch–spon­sored Fresh Fest tour, which spreads hip hop across America. Run, Who­dini, and the Fat Boys all garner gold records. Run D.M.C.’s onstage ingestion of Olde English Malt Li­quor makes it the official B­-boy brew.

 The Los Angeles R&B station KDAY converts to the country’s first rap-only format.

In a year prominent Afri­can Americans picket the South African embassy to jump-start the U.S. anti-apartheid movement, Angli­can bishop DESMOND TUTU wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

 Syracuse University stu­dent VANESSA WILLIAMS is the first black Miss Ameri­ca. Three months later, when nude photos of her are published in Penthouse, she’s stripped of her title, which goes to another black woman, runner-up SU­ZETTE CHARLES of New Jersey.

 Beat Street dancer/actor ROBERT TAYLOR makes the cover of Newsweek.

■ One hundred BREAK DANCERS perform at the Olympic Games closing ceremony.

The Cosby Show brings a proudly bourgeois black family to American house­holds. Cosby, one of TV’s leading pitchmen for sever­al years prior to the show, creates a vision of black life that annoys many and charms millions and goes on to reach the No. 1 spot. LISA BONET‘s character, Denise, becomes the nation’s first black boho pin­up girl.

SADE’s “Hang On to Your Love,” a huge U.K. hit,. introduces the integrat­ed Brit-soul band here and makes its Nigerian-British lead singer a multiculti fashion trendsetter.

CHARLES BARKLEY brings buck-wild style to the Philadelphia 76ers and eventually assumes the team’s leadership mantle from Erving. Where Dr. J embodied a jazzy elegance, Barkley represents B-boy bodaciousness.

AUGUST WILSON’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom opens at the Cort Theater with ex-con CHARLES DUT­TON a featured player.

The Wall Street Journal hails RUSSELL SIMMONS, 26, as “the mogul of rap.”

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■ The best balladeer of his generation, LUTHER VAN­DROSS, releases his most accomplished album, The Night I Fell in Love.

WHITNEY HOUSTON’s de­but album, Whitney, syn­thesizes the pop-soul tradi­tion of Dionne Warwick and the MOR shlock of pre­vious Arista hitmakers Bar­ry Manilow and Air Supply.

RUN-D.M.C.’s King of Rock cover features the band’s signature black fedo­ras, which become one of pop culture’s most distinc­tive trademarks. Sixteen­-year-old L.L. COOL J writes the lyric to “Can You Rock It Like This.”

WILLIAM “REFRIGERA­TOR” PERRY, a 310-pound Chicago Bears tackle, scores a touchdown as a running back on Monday Night Football, which transforms him into a hulking, grinning endorsement machine.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT and Andy Warhol collabo­rate on a gallery show that mates new street and old Pop hype, elevating Bas­quiat’s public profile and trivializing his work.

THE FAT BOYS jiggle through a Swatch Watch spot.

■ The UZI submachine gun emerges as the dealer’s weapon of choice.

■ Boogie Down Produc­tions, the brainchild of ex-­homeless teen KRIS PARKER (KRS-One) and homeless shelter counselor SCOTT LAROCK, release the original hardcore classic Criminal Minded.

■ Harlem resident and Phil­lips Exeter student ED­MUND PERRY is shot dead by undercover officer Lee Van Houten. Police allege Edmund and his brother Jo­nah assaulted the cop. On January 22, 1986, Jonah is cleared of all charges.

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Krush Groove stars RUN-D.M.C., THE FAT BOYS, KURTIS BLOW, and RICK RUBIN in a scenario based on RUSSELL SIMMONS’s career. The feature has a black director, MICHAEL SCHULTZ, a black cinematographer, ERNEST DICKERSON, and a black producer, DOUG McHENRY. On October 25 Krush Groove, budgeted at $5 million by Warners, opens at 515 theaters and leads all releases by grossing over $3 million nationally in its first week, though there are several incidents of violence at New York–area theaters, where it makes $1 million anyway. Its combination of opening-week success and opening-week violence will be seen again.

■ Philadelphia representative WILLIAM H. GRAY III becomes chair of the House budget committee.

FISHBONE, a gaggle of mostly bused-in San Fernando Valley musicians, disdain the clichés of contemporary r&b for a bawdy mix of ska, punk, reggae, and funk that reflects the rising boho sensibility.

DWIGHT “DOC” GOODEN, barely 20, wins 24 games for the New York Mets.

LOUIS FARRAKHAN addresses 25,000 at Madison Square Garden.

The Color Purple, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring WHOOPI GOLDBERG and OPRAH WINFREY, and produced by QUINCY JONES, makes $94 million. Whoopi’s career will be a long succession of bad scripts, while Oprah, whose syndicated talk show is already challenging Phil Donahue, will establish herself as a multimedia force, starring in the film adaptation of Native Son and turning GLORIA NAYLOR’s feminist fiction, The Women of Brewster Place, into an ABC miniseries. No woman will capitalize on the African American vogue of the late ’80s better than Oprah and none worse than Whoopi.

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■ The mass marketing of freebase cocaine, a/k/a CRACK, will change first the American drug business and ultimately American life. After its introduction, black youth culture becomes increasingly nihilistic and materialistic. Probably the decade’s most important social event.

■ A 26-piece BLACK ROCK COALITION big band plays the Kitchen.

ANITA BAKER’s Rapture displays her voice in all its husky, jazzy vitality, defying the standard dance-oriented formulas for female vocalists.

THE LATIN QUARTER, midtown’s only hip hop club, is the site of funky music and many a chain-snatching.

JANET JACKSON’s Control, one of several expertly crafted albums written and produced by JIMMY JAM and TERRY LEWIS, establishes her as brother Michael’s female counterpart. The video for “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is choreographed by Paula Abdul and helps popularize the snake dance.

PEPPER JOHNSON does the wop dance on the field after his Giants win the Super Bowl.

■ Uptown Records, owned by ANDRE “DR. JECKYLL” HARRELL, develops an r&b-styled rap epitomized by HEAVY D. & THE BOYZ. The first two videos on this MCA-distributed label are directed and produced by WARRINGTON and REGGIE HUDLIN.

[related_posts post_id_1=”670235″ /]

EDDIE MURPHY mentions the “Black Pack” at a press conference for The Golden Child, listing its other mem­bers as ARSENIO HALL, ROBERT TOWNSEND, KEENEN WAYANS, and comic/writer PAUL MOONEY.

RUN-D.M.C. and Aeros­mith record “Walk This Way,” a breakthrough re­cord and video that confirms Run-D.M.C.’s trail­blazing status.

■ Perhaps the best rap tour ever begins with four plati­num-level acts — RUN-­D.M.C., WHODINI, L.L. COOL J, THE BEASTIE BOYS. The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill goes on to sell 4 million copies in the U.S. for Def Jam, a stan­dard unsurpassed in rap un­til 1990.

MICHAEL JORDAN scores 63 points in a nationally televised playoff game against defending champion Boston Celtics.

LEN BIAS, 22, is killed by freebase days after being named the Boston Celtics’ No. 1 draft choice.

■ The Black Filmmaker Foundation hosts the New York premiere of SPIKE LEE’s She’s Gotta Have It.

■ Paul Simon’s GRACE­LAND, a controversial and innovative use of South Af­rican music, is released six months after the historic compilation of South Afri­can pop, THE INDESTRUCTI­BLE BEAT OF SOWETO.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN is hit by a car on the Shore Park­way after being chased by a gang of white youths in Howard Beach, Queens. This racist outrage intro­duces several figures to the 6 o’clock news — the Reverend AL SHARPTON and at­torneys C. VERNON MASON and ALTON MADDOX.

■ A Long Beach, California, rap concert headlined by Run-D.M.C. is halted by a brutal riot as black and La­tino gangs bumrush the show. This incident incites “RAP CAUSES VIOLENCE” rhetoric and is the first na­tional inkling that Southern California’s gang problem is out of control.

SCOTT LAROCK is shot dead outside Highbridge Gardens Homes in the South Bronx.

D.J. JAZZY JEFF & THE FRESH PRINCE’s”Parents Just Don’t Understand” is a huge crossover pop hit. The duo is booed when they per­form the song at the Apollo, signifying rap’s hard-soft split.

The Cosby Show’s MAL­COLM JAMAL-WARNER hosts a Saturday Night Live with his special guests, Spike Lee and Run-D.M.C.

■ In November, LARRY DA­VIS, accused executioner of drug dealers and would-be rapper, shoots six cops and escapes. While he’s on the run, copies of his demo cir­culate around the rap busi­ness, but when he’s caught in the South Bronx a month later, no record deal is forthcoming.

MIKE TYSON knocks out Trevor Berbick in the sec­ond round to take the WBC title.

GREG TATE’s “New Black Aesthetic” essay appears in The Village Voice.

X, an opera composed by ANTHONY DAVIS with a li­bretto by THULANI DAVIS, debuts at the New York City Opera, an important moment in the mythologiz­ing of Malcolm’s legacy.

GEORGE WOLFE’s play The Colored Museum, a hu­morous critique of black cultural truisms that reflects a new mood of self-exami­nation in the black intelli­gentsia, opens at the Public Theater to rave reviews.

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■ Black quarterback DOUG WILLIAMS leads the Wash­ington Redskins to triumph in the Super Bowl.

■ Def Jam’s Less Than Zero soundtrack contains L.L. COOL J’s “Going Back to Cali,” which seriously damages his hardcore rep, and PUBLIC ENEMY’s “Bring the Noise,” which opens with MALCOLM X’s voice saying, “Too black, too strong.”

■ Wappingers Falls teen TAWANA BRAWLEY’s sordid tale of being raped by six white men is seized upon by the MASON-MADDOX­-SHARPTON team to attack the state’s criminal justice system. Huge holes appear in Tawana’s account, but the trio refuses to address the details and she never tells her story under exami­nation. The case profoundly weakens Sharpton and com­pany’s impact with moder­ate blacks, but they continue to build their grassroots following.

JEEPS with booming sys­tems become a new urban status symbol.

AUGUST WILSON’s Pulit­zer prize–winning Fences opens at the 46th Street Theater with JAMES EARL JONES in the lead.

TONI MORRISON publish­es Beloved to tremendous acclaim and takes her place as the nation’s preeminent African American novelist. This position was formerly occupied by men: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin.

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ROBERT TOWNSEND’s Hollywood Shuffle, a satire on Hollywood’s mistreat­ment of blacks, continues the momentum Spike Lee began.

TERENCE TRENT D’ARBY, an American expatriate liv­ing in England, gets super­star hype from Columbia after major success in the U.K.

Black Athena, by white Oxford don MARTIN BER­NAL, argues that Egypt rather than Greece was the cra­dle of Western civilization, and documents the obfusca­tion of the Afro-Asiatic roots of world culture by white historians. Black scholars around the world have made this case for years, but Bernal’s pedigree suddenly gives the argu­ment credibility in Europe­an academic circles.

■ “I Cram to Understand U (Sam),” by 16-year-old MC LYTE, is one of rap’s first female hardcore records.

BIG DADDY KANE’s “Raw” and his hi-top fade are state-of-the-art hip hop style. Cold Chillin’ Records joins Warner Bros., bring­ing uptown legends Kane, BIZ MARKIE, and MARLEY MARL into the Burbank fold, another sign of hip hop’s embrace by the once­-hostile record industry.

■ Amid rumors of drug abuse, BOBBY BROWN splits from New Edition and is replaced by JOHNNY GILL.


MIKE TYSON wins a 12-round decision over James “Bonecrusher” Smith in Las Vegas to capture the WBA. A few days later, Ty­son invites actress ROBIN GIVENS to dinner in Los Angeles and she comes, along with her mother, Ruth Roper.

■ A harbinger of the in­creasing quality of non­–New York hip hop: three of the four finalists in the New Music Seminar’s DJ COM­PETITION are from outside the Apple — Philadelphia’s Cash Money, Los Angeles’s Joe Cooley, and Mr. Mix of Miami’s 2 Live Crew.

■ On the cover of Boogie Down Productions’s By All Means Necessary, KRS-­ONE poses with an Uzi, an homage to a famous photo of MALCOLM X with a rifle taken after the firebombing of his Queens home. On the album KRS-One talks about “jimmy caps,” an en­dorsement of condoms as a tool for AIDS-related safe sex. The Fab Five Freddie–directed video for BDP’s “My Philosophy” uses im­ages of Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X as symbols of empowerment.

MAGIC JOHNSON’s Lakers best Larry Bird’s Celtics for the NBA title.

T-SHIRTS with the slo­gans “Black by Popular De­mand” and “It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand” spread across the nation from predominantly black colleges.

BLAXPLOITATION FILMS like The Mack and Superfly reach a new generation as VCRs become more com­mon in black households.

ICE-T’s debut album, Rhyme Pays, gives nation­wide exposure to L.A. ‘s gangsta rap — a style influenced by gang culture and the sensationalistic books of ICEBERG SLIM and DONALD GOINES.

■ Kids on subways are seen reading copies of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X, Elijah Muhammad’s MESSAGE TO THE BLACK MAN, and the rap magazine WORD UP!

■ Dodgers executive AL CAMPANIS is fired for tell­ing Nightline that blacks “may not have some of the necessities” to manage ma­jor league teams.

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GEORGE JACKSON and DOUG McHENRY produce Disorderlies, a horrid film matching the Fat Boys and Ralph Bellamy.

NEW YORK NIGHTLIFE shifts as the Bronx’s Disco Fever closes, Union Square opens for the hardcore, and Nell’s becomes an in spot for black hipsters.

■ The robotic half-human hero of ROBOCOP provides a new street name for vi­cious police.

MIKE TYSON defeats Tony Tucker in a 12-round decision to win the IBF championship, uniting all three belts and becoming the first undisputed heavy­weight champ since LARRY HOLMES.

■ Built around actor/copro­ducer TIM REID and utiliz­ing the skills of black writ­ers and directors, the CBS sitcom Frank’s Place is widely hailed for its humor­ous yet realistic depiction of black Southerners.

■ PBS’s six-part civil rights movement documentary EYES ON THE PRIZE intro­duces a new generation to historic figures of the civil rights movement, including MALCOLM X and the BLACK PANTHERS.

GARY BYRD, a proponent of Afrocentricity, makes his afternoon talk show on WLIB a forum for Tawana Brawley’s advisers, reveal­ing the gulf between African American and European American reality.

■ The gleeful misogyny of EDDIE MURPHY’s concert film Raw (with an opening skit written by Keenen Ivo­ry Wayans, photography by Ernest Dickerson, and di­rection by Robert Town­send) helps take rap’s anti-woman invective to a new level.

BARRY MICHAEL COOPER coins the phrase “New Jack City” to describe the vio­lent teen culture of Detroit in a Voice cover story.

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■ The slammin’ blend of rap rhythms and r&b har­monies Barry Cooper has already labeled “new jack swing” is instigated by TED­DY RILEY, who produces and/or arranges hits for Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, Al B. Sure, Heavy D., Kool Moe Dee, and his own band Guy. Riley’s sound breathes new life into r&b, influencing its two top production teams, Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis and L.A. & Babyface, and dominating playlists at black radio sta­tions reluctant to play rap.

■ Singing B-boy BOBBY BROWN’s “My Prerogative” establishes him as new jack swing’s breakout star and propels his Don’t Be Cruel to sales of 5 million copies.

MICHAEL JORDAN wins the NBA all-star game MVP trophy before a hometown crowd. Amid the Nike com­mercials featuring Jordan and Spike Lee and the game itself, the CBS broadcast sprinkles shots of MIKE TY­SON and ROBIN GIVENS huddled at courtside. That evening they get married in a local church.

■ Patrolman EDWARD BYRNE is shot dead in Queens by drug dealers. HOWARD “PAPPY” MASON, a large new jack drug dealer, is convicted of or­dering the murder.

TRACY CHAPMAN’s self-­titled album follows the hit single “Fast Car.”

LIVING COLOUR, led by Black Rock Coalition co­-founder Vernon Reid, de­buts on Epic with Vivid. After much touring and groundwork, “Cult of Per­sonality” becomes an MTV staple.

■ Dennis Hopper’s cop movie Colors unintentional­ly spreads L.A.’s gang cul­ture across the country. ICE-T adds credibility with the chilling title track and DAMON WAYANS’s loopy gang-banger provides hu­mor by dry humping a stuffed rabbit during a robbery.

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RUN-D.M.C. star in the Rick Rubin–directed Tougher Than Leather, a movie so stupid it alienates hip hop fans and, effective­ly, ends the band’s reign.

■ Teenager JOHN SINGLE­TON meets SPIKE LEE in Los Angeles after a screen­ing of Lee’s new School Daze.

EDDIE MURPHY tells the Oscar audience that black people are underrepresent­ed in the film industry.

JESSE JACKSON wins the Michigan caucus, but the excitement level of this mainstream campaign is more subdued.

KEENEN WAYANS’s blax­ploitation parody, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka establishes his raw comic style and features memorable turns by Damon Wayans, Chris Rock, Ann Marie Johnson, Jim Brown, Isaac Hayes, and blaxploita­tion’s own Antonio Fargas.

■ Alan Parker’s MISSISSIP­PI BURNING rewrites the civil rights movement.

MAGIC JOHNSON’s Lakers are the first NBA champs to repeat since 1969, making courtside seats at the Fo­rum, coach Pat Riley’s GQ look, and “Showtime!” part of our national lore.

PUBLIC ENEMY’s master­piece It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back appears on Def Jam. Rick Rubin exits Def Jam and starts Def American Re­cords in Los Angeles, taking Andrew Dice Clay with him.

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■ The Seoul Olympics are dominated by FLORENCE “FLO JO” JOYNER’s finger­nails (displayed while she wins the 100- and 200-me­ter dash) and JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE’s determi­nation (seen in her long jump and heptathlon tri­umphs). Ben Johnson bests Carl Lewis in the 100 and is then disqualified for steroid use.

DANNY GLOVER and Mel Gibson costar in Lethal Weapon, which earns $65 million.

Yo, MTV Raps!, hosted by FAB FIVE FREDDIE, airs Saturdays and garners the highest ratings in the net­work’s history.

■ On the cover of ERIC B. & RAKIM’s Follow the Lead­er, the duo sport Dapper Dan–designed Louis Vuitton outfits and more gold than Fort Knox.

■ In August MIKE TYSON breaks his right hand on Mitch “Blood” Green’s face outside Dapper Dan’s, where the champ is stop­ping off to pick up a cus­tom-made “Don’t Believe the Hype” jacket. When not busy in the street, Tyson knocks out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds.

■ At the Dope Jam concert at the Nassau Coliseum, a young man is stabbed to death over a gold chain. In the wake of this tragedy, and the media’s attacks on hip hop, a group of per­formers and industry figures organized by Jive vice­ president Ann Carli and journalist Nelson George work on an anti-black-on­-black violence record. The group calls itself the STOP THE VIOLENCE Movement after a song written by KRS-One.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT dies of a heroin overdose.

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MIKE TYSON, ROBIN GIVENS, and RUTH ROPER appear on 20/20 with Barbara Walters with the champ looking drugged as Givens calls their marriage “torture.” Later it is revealed that Tyson was prescribed Thorazine and lithium pri­or to the taping.

■ Producer/director DEBBIE ALLEN takes over Cosby Show spinoff A Different World, pumping new rele­vance into this look at black college life by highlighting three crucial characters: JASMINE GUY’s Whitley, the ultimate Bap; KADEEM HARDISON’s Dwayne Wayne, a humorous blend of Bap, Boho, and B-boy; and CREE SUMMER’s Fred­die, Bonet’s heir apparent as America’s favorite Boho.

■ Los Angeles musician and Lisa Bonet’s husband LENNY KRAVITZ is signed by Virgin. His retro nuevo rock and hippie costumes find a cult audience, mak­ing him and Bonet the first couple of boho African America.

ROBIN GIVENS in Los An­geles and MIKE TYSON in New Jersey file divorce pa­pers. She claims Tyson beat her; he claims she tricked him into marriage with a false claim of pregnancy. Givens becomes a target of rap ridicule as the ultimate gold digger.

■ With George Bush’s elec­tion GENERAL COLIN POW­ELL is named head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Be­cause he’s so good at run­ning press conferences about invasions of Third World countries, he’s men­tioned as a potential vice­-presidential candidate.

JESSE JACKSON and oth­er prominent blacks call for the word black to be re­placed by African American in an effort to reinforce identification with the Motherland.

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■ On Martin Luther King Day, the STOP THE VIO­LENCE Movement releases “Self-Destruction,” which will go on to sell over 500,000 copies and raise $600,000 for the National Urban League. On the same day, for the fourth time in a decade, there’s a black riot in Miami triggered by the shooting of a black suspect by a white or Hispanic officer.

■ Sixty per cent of BLACK STUDENTS IN HIGHER EDU­CATION are women, the highest female-to-male ratio of any racial group.

N.W.A’s gangsta master­piece Straight Outta Comp­ton, along with a slew of other records by Compton-based acts, turns this ob­scure city into the nation’s newest symbol of urban decay.

ONE-THIRD OF BLACKS live in households with in­comes below the poverty level and 45 per cent of all black children live in poverty-level homes.

THE NEW YORK TIMES does a long front-page story on the increasing interest in Afrocentric education in the black community.

Yo, MTV Raps!, now also a weekly show hosted by DOCTOR DRE and ED LOV­ER, pulls in huge ratings and spreads hip hop culture.

■ The Love Ball brings VO­GUING aboveground at an AIDS benefit.

SOUL II SOUL’s “Keep on Movin’ ” and NENEH CHERRY’s “Buffalo Stance” intensify the trans-Atlantic impact of U.K. black music.

RONALD BROWN is voted chair of the Democratic Party.

EIGHT HARLEM TEENS are charged with raping a white jogger in Central Park.

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Do the Right Thing pre­mieres at Cannes to the praise and outrage of Amer­ican critics. It will eventually earn $27 million, make many top 10 lists, win an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, and elevate SPIKE LEE to the top rank of world filmmaking. Sever­al journalists, including New York’s David Denby and Joe Klein, Newsweek’s Jack Kroll, and the Voice’s Stanley Crouch, predict the film will cause violence.

ARSENIO HALL begins his rule of late night cool by bringing urban slang (“Let’s get busy!”), an eager smile, and cutting-edge musical guests to mall America.

YUSUF HAWKINS, a 16-year-old black shopping for a used car in Bensonhurst, is shot dead after being chased by a crowd of Italian American youths.

■ Priority Records receives an FBI letter criticizing N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police.” As they tour during the summer and fall, they are dogged by a police fax campaign urging local de­partments to get the show canceled.

BILLBOARD reports grow­ing efforts to repress musi­cal acts that “swear, engage in erotic posturing and sing lyrics touting violence.”

TERRY MCMILLAN’s love story of a middle-class teacher and a working-class construction worker, Disap­pearing Acts, becomes a Buppie favorite.

■ 20th Century-Fox agrees to release EUZHAN PALCY’s anti-apartheid A Dry White Season, starring Marlon Brando and Donald Sutherland.

■ The tastelessly funny, ra­cially edgy comedy of KEENEN IVORY WAYANS’s In Living Color debuts on Fox. Brother DAMON emerges as the show’s star and ROSIE PEREZ brings new jack dance to regularly scheduled TV. The black rock band Living Colour sues Wayans for copyright infringement.

■ In a close election, DAVID DINKINS is elected mayor of New York.

■ The Los Angeles Raiders’ ART SHELL becomes the first black head coach of the postwar era.

I DREAM A WORLD, an al­bum of photos and mini­bios of African American women, is a publishing sur­prise with six-figure sales, mostly to black middle­-class families.

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■ Designer PATRICK KEL­LY, a shrewd self-promoter who uses overall jeans, big round buttons, and toy black babies to market his flamboyant fashions, dies of AIDS.

■ One in four BLACK MEN IN THEIR TWENTIES are ei­ther behind bars, on proba­tion, or on parole. The 610,000 black men between ages 20 and 29 who are in­volved with the criminal justice system outnumber the 436,000 blacks of the same age enrolled in higher education.

■ D.C. mayor MARION BARRY is caught smoking crack with model Rasheeda Moore in an FBI sting at the Vista International Ho­tel. The FBI videotape airs regularly on national TV.

REGGIE HUDLIN’s House Party, starring the rap duo Kid ’n Play and comic Rob­in Harris, earns $26 million and makes the director and brother-producer WARRINGTON hot properties.

■ Waterbury, Connecticut’s GARY FRANKS is the first black Republican elected to Congress in 50 years.

M.C. HAMMER’s scintil­lating performance of “U Can’t Touch This” on Arsenio helps mushroom the record’s sales and con­firms rap’s new visual orientation.

CARTER G. WOODSON’s 1933 classic, The Miseduca­tion of the Negro, is reprint­ed by the Africa World Press, influencing the likes of KRS-One.

NELSON MANDELA visits America, provoking a brief outpouring of brotherhood and African American pride. In celebration of his Harlem speech, “Black Bart Simpson Meets Mandela” T-shirts are sold on 125th Street.

ICE CUBE splits with N.W.A and records Amer­ikkka’s Most Wanted in New York with the Bomb Squad.

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SHELBY STEELE’s The Content of Our Character wins a National Book Crit­ics Circle award. While his neocon ideas about racial harmony struck many as naive, Steele’s emphasis on black responsibility and self-determination seems like common sense across the political spectrum.

BIG DADDY KANE steals JIM BROWN’s woman in a video. Off-camera, the ex­-football and blaxploitation star mentors Kane and many gang-bangers in Los Angeles.

USA Today reports on the rising crossover appeal of black fashion — twisted braids, dreadlocks, hi-top fades, L.A. Raiders gear, banana headbands, African beads, baggy clothes — ­which it calls AFROCEN­-CHIC.

■ Rapper WILL SMITH stars in NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. QUINCY JONES is the executive producer.

■ The Oscar-winning Driv­ing Miss Daisy makes over $100 million, spotlighting MORGAN FREEMAN’s mag­nificent acting, but disturb­ing blacks with its Reaganite feel-goodism.

VANILLA ICE’s “Ice Ice Baby” makes a decent dancer and wack rapper hip hop’s Fabian.

SPIKE LEE edits the Octo­ber Spin, interviewing ED­DIE MURPHY and AL SHARPTON and assigning AUGUST WILSON an inci­sive essay on African Amer­ican aesthetics.

ST. IDES MALT LIQUOR, which has almost twice the alcohol content of the aver­age beer, uses rap to market its brew, including a TV spot with Ice Cube.

CHARLES BURNETT’s To Sleep With Anger stars exec­utive producer DANNY GLOVER. Glover’s presence gets the director his first commercial feature oppor­tunity, but doesn’t guaran­tee blacks’ attendance. De­spite glowing reviews Burnett claims his tale of black Los Angelenos haunt­ed by deep South supersti­tions is mismarketed.

■ Hip hop media assassin HARRY ALLEN appears on Family Feud wearing a white kufi. His family, the McGregors, lose to a white midwestern clan.

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■ Michael Bivins, a minor member of New Edition, in­troduces his post-new jack swing philosophy in BELL BIV DEVOE, a group he forms with two other New Edition members, which he says is “Smoothed out on the r&b tip with a pop feel appeal to it.” BBD also popularize Timberland gear hip among nonhikers. Two other Bivins-managed groups, ANOTHER BAD CREATION and BOYZ II MEN, go platinum. Boyz II Men’s album is called Cooleyhighharmony.

COOLEY HIGH is released on videocassette.

DR. DRE of N.W.A beats DEE BARNES of Fox-TV’s Pump It Up in a Los Ange­les nightclub before hundreds of witnesses. Dre blamed her when an N.W.A interview was followed by an Ice Cube rebuttal. Barnes sues for millions as N.W.A gloats about the beating in interviews.

Family Matters’s STEVE URKEL becomes the first hip black nerd in history.

CORNEL WEST’s The American Evasion of Philos­ophy: A Genealogy of Prag­matism focuses attention on the eloquent ideas of this Princeton philosopher.

New Jack City, directed by MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’s son, MARIO, produced by George Jackson and Doug McHenry, and scripted by Barry Michael Cooper, opens to shootings at sever­al theaters nationally and a riot at an overbooked Westwood venue. It makes $48 million, boosting the careers of Ice-T, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, and ev­eryone else involved. Blax­ploitation smartly updated for the ’90s, it starts this year of black film on an op­timistic note.

ROBERT TOWNSEND’s The Five Heartbeats ends the optimism as the actor/director’s tribute to ’60s r&b vocal groups suffers from poor marketing, weak reviews, and the indifference of young blacks. The dichotomy between New Jack City’s youth appeal and The Five Heartbeats’s failure bodes poorly for adult-themed black films.

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BILL DUKE’s A Rage in Harlem adapts Chester Himes’s cartoony novel of ’50s Harlem with verve as ROBIN GIVENS shocks her critics with her steamy, as­sured performance.

JENNIE LIVINGSTON’s Paris Is Burning documents the wellspring of vivacious style that is black transves­tite life.

■ A four-CD JAMES BROWN package with extensive liner notes and discog­raphy gives the Godfather his props.

■ Nineteen-year-old MATTY RICH releases a hardcore rap 12-inch disguised as a movie called Straight Out of Brooklyn. Though he criti­cizes Spike Lee, Rich acts in a Spikean manner by dis­sin’ his elders and opening his own Brooklyn store.

FAB FIVE FREDDIE, a downtown scene icon, ap­pears in a Colt 45 ad with blaxploitation sex symbol BILLY DEE WILLIAMS.

SPIKE LEE’s Jungle Fever, a tale of dysfunctional fam­ilies, is cannily packaged as an interracial love story. Sam Jackson’s crackhead son and Ossie Davis’s blindly religious preacher father embody the genera­tional conflict rife among African Americans. This generation gap is further il­lustrated when Amiri Bar­aka leads protests against Lee’s film of Malcolm X’s life in a nasty scene of artis­tic agitators from the ’60s and ’80s trading low blows.

■ L.A.’s KDAY is sold and its rap format discontinued.

JOHN SINGLETON’s Boyz N the Hood opens to more violence than New Jack City and almost unanimous critical acclaim. The film overcomes its nasty opening weekend to gross $55 million and turns Ice Cube into a household name. At 23, Singleton, like Rich, is part of the hip hop generation and his film balances tradi­tional Hollywood storytell­ing with a raw, male-domi­nant viewpoint. Larry Fishburne’s strong, righ­teous father is an Afrocen­tric fantasy of child rearing.

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N.W.A’s Niggaz4Life goes to No. 1 on the Billboard chart after two weeks.

MICHAEL JORDAN leads the Chicago Bulls to the NBA title over the Lakers. And, maybe more culturally important, splits Coke for Gatorade.

MAYOR DINKINS is jeered by angry youths in the after­math of the Crown Heights riot while rappers X-Clan lead protests against the police.

■ Disney uses anachronis­tic, GRAFFITI-STYLE bubble letters for the logo of the Charles Lane–directed flop True Identity.

■ Virginia’s black governor, DOUG WILDER, announces his candidacy for the Dem­ocratic presidential nomi­nation. Unlike Jesse Jack­son, this mainstreamer plans a conventional cam­paign with neoliberal themes of tight budgets and efficient management.

Newsweek’s cover story on Afrocentrism asks, “Was Cleopatra Black?” Eleven years after DR. ASANTE coined the word, the battle over multiculturalism in general and Africa’s contri­bution to world culture in particular is the nation’s hottest educational issue.

■ Neocon CLARENCE THO­MAS, nominated to succeed civil rights warrior Thur­good Marshall, is confirmed as the second black to serve on the Supreme Court by the smallest margin in his­tory after he’s almost de­railed by law professor ANITA HILL’s charges of sexual harassment. Never has America seen so many real-life Buppies on TV. Unfortunately, they’re all Republicans.

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PUBLIC ENEMY’s blacker­-than-thou posture seems to attract, not alienate, young white listeners as the rappers tour with their thrash-metal allies Anthrax.

■ Dancehall toaster SHABBA RANKS has the number-­one black album in the country, a first for a Jamaican artist. The upsurge in grassroots popularity of Ja­maican-style rapping sym­bolizes the long-overdue breakdown of tensions be­tween African Americans and West Indians.

■ G. Heileman is forced to withdraw its POWERMASTER malt liquor, which was to contain 31 per cent more alcohol than Colt 45, in the wake of intense criticism from the black community and health activists. Like Uptown cigarettes before it, PowerMaster is stopped be­fore it can be marketed to the black consumers target­ed by its manufacturer.

MAGIC JOHNSON’s an­nouncement that he’s HIV-positive awakens millions of sports-loving heterosex­uals to the reality of AIDS.

■ Black Filmmaker Foundation cofounder Warring­ton Hudlin begins produc­ing EDDIE MURPHY’s Boomerang. With brother Reggie directing, this mar­riage of the first family of black independent film and Hollywood’s biggest box-of­fice black star is as poten­tially important as Lee’s Malcolm X. While Lee documents crucial history, the Hudlin-Murphy match will test whether black indie filmmakers can graduate to big-budget, mass-market moviemaking while retain­ing their identity.

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