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Are You Ready For Rapping?

Ronnie Ron is a real
Smart smarty
Yesterday he gave

A death preview party
But I didn’t wanna go
Coulda got upset

So I cut
Cut
Cut him off
like a tee vee set

Are you “ready for this?” inquire the Funky Four Plus One in “That’s the Joint:” Are you ready for rapping? Many people are, heralding this counter­-polyrhythmic poetic litany as an art form, the “new wave” in black music. Others see it as an ugly fad, disgusting nigger music coming from those wretched “boxes,” aggravated aural assault/vandalism. It’s like the graffiti dilemma — is it art, or is it a nuisance? I think it’s an art form, but maybe I’m biased, because I come from the land of DJ Hollywood (the undisputed champeen of all rappers), Eddie Cheeba (“The Peoples Choice / the award winning voice / Eddie / Cheeba / Cheeba / Chee­-Chee-Chee-Cheeba”), and of course, Kurtis Blow (he’s on the go), to name a few. To paraphrase Kurtis Blowski, “A place called Harlem is my home.”

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Are you ready for this? Well I just can’t miss, a with a beat like this. The beat­ — the beatbeat — the fonky beat is the key to rapping. And that’s what turns a lot of white and black listeners off. The beat is a product of the street and all of its raw, primal, and instinctive energy. These transcontinental urban griots echo the de­spair, pain, and anger of the South Bronx and Harlem (the world’s two major rap centers), which a lot of the cool-jerk white liberals and b.s. black bourgeoisie don’t want to hear. Rapping reminds them that everything is not cool and correct on the home front, like punk rock in England and reggae in the Caribbean. In fact, the “toasting” records of the West Indies are reminiscent of American rap.

The James Brown D.T.P.R.s (dance/trance psychorhythms) of rapping were a welcome change, a disco deterrent from the psychoid Giorgio Moroder os­cillator/squelch wavelengths and the mechanized hustle, the ’70s version of Or­wellian Dancestand. This musical re­vitalization grew from the basements and parks and spread to rec centers and ballrooms, including the Renaissance at 118th Street and Seventh Avenue, the meeting place of the Harlem Renaissance several decades earlier. At the “Renny” (closed down because of gunpoint rob­beries by gangs known as stick-up kids and rampant angel dust usage), you could hear kids, some as young a 11 and 12, “mixing” (playing two records simultaneously, or in sequence, while miscegenating similar rhythm tracks from each record), or rapping over certain D.T.P.R. sections of “Good Times,” or spinning (a mixing technique of repeating a certain word or phrase on a particular record by retarding the movement of the turntable manually) Captain Sky’s soop-soop “Super Sporm.” Some of those pre-teenage deejays got so innovative on “Sporm” that they would create rhythms out of the scratchy noise of the vinyl near the label of the record. In essence, they made the turntable “talk.”

What a lot of the rap dissidents don’t realize is how difficult it is to rap to the beat. Even though Blondie’s “Rapture” is a hit, Debbie Harry’s execution is awkward: her syncopations off and her cadence out of time. Rapping requires the kind of adroit skill you see when little black girls perform the “Double Dutch” maneuver in jump-rope. The bass, percussion, and drums act as rotating rope rhythms while the rapper waits for the right time to jump, to move in and out of the groove on time and on the measure. If call and response aren’t exact the rap is a failure, so the groove has to be repetitive, precise steady, as on MFSB’s “Love Is the Message”, or the standard, Chic’s “Good Times.” On “Good Times” Bernard’s bass provides an anchor, a rock against which the emcee (who usually takes on the duty or rapping while the deejay “spins” the records, the most noted exception being D.J. Hollywood, the Il Padrone of rappers, who did both, expounded on themes of monetary security (“makin’ cold curren­cy”), sexual endurance (“I’ll lay ya right back on a steady pace”), and egotism (“the best emcee’s at the top of the pile”).

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Rap records have flooded the market ever since the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” D.J. Hollywood had “Shock Shock the House” on Epic, but it was a letdown to his thousands of fans, including myself. Hollywood seems to be laying low for the time being, but when and if he does make a comeback, everyone will have to take notice. ”The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow­zoski (a word/name nonsense game up­town), an eloquent, absurdist double-en­tendre rap dealing with bad luck, made him an international star. I didn’t like it when it first came out (preferred “Rappin’ Blow”), but the B. F. Skinner-type oper­ant rotation of the major radio stations had me programmed to intone: “And-­these-are-the-breaks.” The Sugarhill Gang’s latest offering, “8th Wonder” is interesting, with Big Bank Hank (a DJ Hollywood Memorex) and Wonder Mike cooling out in the background to let Mas­ter Gee “go off” with a fast and aggressive rap.

These rappers do the job, but they’re just specks in the powerful cyclone created by the two best crews in the world: the Funky-Four Plus One and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. After debuting with “Rock the House,” on Enjoy, the Funky Four came up with a minor master­piece called “That’s the Joint.” The bassline is heavy, accented from time to time with submachinegun riffs, while the five emcees’ rubbery polyrhythmic tradeoffs at the break help funk up the atmosphere. Sharock, the lone (1) female of the group, phrases with almost clinical authority, especially on “I got money/and-I-can-jerk.” Kevvy Kev is the apex, as he incants a mesmerizing rap about various emcees, basketball-dribbling phonetics and syllable fractions in his easy slur while the other emcees counterpoint against the double-time cadence of “Rock the house/rock rock the house.”

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But the most creative crew of all is Flash and the Furious Five, because they rap in unison, flawlessly. “Freedom,” on Sugarhill, is a monster jam highlighted by clockwork call-and-response and Cow­boy’s rap at the finale over finger snaps ­— that’s right, no music, just finger snaps. But their first release, “Superrappin,” also on Enjoy, is the classic rap record. They manipulate space and time to create symmetrical vocal patterns that envelope the groove; at one point they rap so fast that it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. All the emcees — Mr. Ness, Raheem, Kid Creole, Flash (even better­-known as a mixer than a rapper), and Cowboy, who rides the groove like his self­-styled “buckaroo of the bugaloo” — have great moments, but it’s Melly Mel who turns the record inside out. His speedy rap near the climax describes the vicious life cycle of a street hood. The story isn’t just exciting, it’s ingenious; his capsulized account of a brutal fate recalls what Jean Toomer did in Cane, condensing a life into a paragraph. This high-powered literary device is what will make “Superrappin” last. It should also be an example to rap­pers who limit themselves thematically to money, sex, and narcissism, because the audience will tire of the repetition. What rap records need to do if they are to have any longevity is to expand in content end direction. Rapping can be used to entertain and educate — “edu-tainment,” as the late Eddie Jefferson said. It could also be used to Reveal, like this:

The GRANDMASTER
Is cuttin faster
Listen to his spinnin sound
As the circle goes round n round
And His line goes on n on

Leadin to the break a dawn
Two figures that become as one
Known as “The Shape of Things to Come”
And you know that, Right?

(All quotes from “Real Rap,” by Barry B­elski and the Omniscient One)

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Rakim and Eric B: Hyper as a Heart Attack

It is my contention that William Griffin, better known as Eric B.’s rapper, Rakim, a 19-year-old resi­dent of Wyandanch, Long Island, with an interest in Islam, is the deffest rapper around. But before prais­ing Rakim a digression is in order. Too many people who profess to like rap don’t distinguish among its many historic and stylistic differences. Only by placing Ra­kim in context do you appreciate his mastery. Here it is:

The Old School: Either contemporaries of, or originally inspired by, the first hip hopper, D.J. Hollywood, they include Eddie Cheeba, Love Bug Star-ski, Grand­master Caz, and Kurtis Blow. This gener­ation popularized the party clichés­ — “Throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care” and “Somebody/Everybody/Anybody scream!” With the exception of Blow none of these pioneers made the transi­tion to record, because so much of their style was based on interplay with a live audience. A lot of old-school technique came from glib radio jocks (particularly the early ’70s WWRL crew of Gerry Bled­soe, Gary Byrd, and Hank “The Dixie Drifter” Spann). The only survivor who still has juice is WBLS’s Mr. Magic, whose Rap Attack is a B-boy version of r&b radio.

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The Rockers: This approach is defined by bombastic Hollis crew members Run of Run-D.M.C. and L .L. Cool J. Like most good middle-class music makers, these guys traffic in overblown rebellion for the legions who buy attitude as much as mu­sic. Run and L. L. are loud, nervous, kinetic; both sound freshest over minimal­ist rhythms occasionally spiked with guitars. Larger than life, almost cartoons really, they are rappers as arena rock stars.

Velvet Voices: If they were singers, Heavy Dee, Public Enemy’s Chucky D, Who­dini’s Ecstacy, Kool Moe D, Melle Mel, and D.M.C. would be labeled baritones or low tenors. They are authority figures who lecture (Chucky D, Melle Mel), in­struct (D.M.C., Kool Moe D), and seduce (Ecstacy). The heightened masculinity of their timbres can make a limp rhyme hard. The most underrated is Ecstacy, who has the widest emotional range in this crew, and the most promising is Heavy Dee, whose “Mr. Big Stuff” made fat-rap fly again.

Clown Princes: Given the right rhyme any rapper can be funny, but Slick Rick, Dana Dane, and Beastie Boys King Adrock and Mike D. specialize in yucks. Slick and Dane started in the Kangol Crew, an unrecorded rap quartet in which they perfected upper-class British ac­cents, slurred pronunciation, and female impersonations of “The Show” (Slick) and “Nightmares” (Dane) done over tracks rife with references to TV themes and nursery rhymes. They’re amusing in a Redd Foxx-like way, though charges of sexism are well-founded. Same thing can be said of MCA and Adrock, though the laughter usually tempers the cringing. Adrock’s mousey voice is the illest instru­ment in rap.

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The Showmen: Biz Markie, with his dance, skull, throat-beatboxability, and goofy glow, must be seen to be appreciat­ed; his Apollo performance of his new single, “Pickin’ Boogers,” was a nose­opener. The wholesome Doug E. Fresh is still more human beatbox than rapper, yet when you combine his rhymes, sound F/X, harmonica, dancing, and Cheshire cat smile, it’s clear Fresh is one of the music’s most versatile live performers. No question, Doug E. Fresh is the Sam­my Davis Jr. of hip hop. Give him anoth­er great record, and he’ll house all these m.f.’s

Cutting Edges: Rather than loud and boastful, these voices are cool, conversa­tional, and threatening. The overrated Schoolly D, the quick-witted King Sun (“Hey Love”), and the vet Spoonie Gee (“Godfather,” a rare comeback) all have casually incisive deliveries. But the real edge, the master rapper of 1987 (damn near ’86), is Rakim, a man qualified to narrate the cassette versions of Donald Goines’s Daddy Cool, Chester Himes’s Real Kool Killers, and the collected works of Iceberg Slim.

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Rakim’s intonation itself conjures wintry images of cold-blooded kill­ers, chilly ghetto streets, and steelly eyed hustlers. There’s a knowing re­straint in his voice that injects danger into even harmless phrases. Eric B. and Rakim’s debut single last summer, “Eric B. Is President”/”My Melody,” on Har­lem-based Zakia records, was as stunning a first statement as Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.’s.” The groove of “President” was gritty wop fodder while Rakim’s rap (including the sandpa­pery comment “You thought I was a doughnut/You tried to glaze me”) pre­sented his credentials. Better still was “My Melody,” in which, riding over a sleazy rhythm Rakim devastated the mike with a boast equal parts vinegar, bullshit, and Islamic allusions.

I take seven MCs, put them in a line
Add seven more brothers who think they can rhyme
It’ll take seven more before I go for mine
Twenty-one MCs ate up at the same time

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On the strength of that 12-inch Rakim was a challenger for the rap king title. Now Paid in Full (4th & B’Way), Rakim and Eric B.’s first album, certifies that Rakim (“Taking no prisoners/Taking no shorts”) uses his deadpan tone and quiet fire to dis the old school, cut the clowns, make the velvets sound velour, and cold rock the rockers. Throughout Paid in Full there are moments when Rakim’s voice and words, complemented by Eric B.’s dictionary of James Brown beats, make mesmerizing hip hop. For example, the opening of “I Know You Got Soul” is an apology, challenge, critique, and invi­tation: “I shouldna left you/Without a strong rhyme to step to/Think of how many weak shows you slept through/ Time’s up! I’m sorry I kept you.”

Paid in Full contains no rock ‘n’ roll or overt comedy cuts. On “I Ain’t No Joke” Rakim slides between long sentences (“I hold the microphone like a grudge”) and terse rhymes (“You’re right to exagger­ate/Dream and imaginate”), a strategy that speeds up and slows down his synco­pation, much like a saxophonist working through a long solo. On “Move the Crowd” the choppy snare drum and funky horn sample inspire Rakim to use short phrases that suggest a rhythm gui­tar. Over the “Don’t Look Any Further” bassline Eric B., establishing once and for all that he’s a DJ and not an MC, intro­duces himself on mike before leaving Ra­kim to talk about money or, as he puts it, wonder “How I can get some dead presi­dents.” Unlike most current rap albums, where all five rap styles appear, Rakim undermines all the distinctions with a sinister vitality. It’s such a strong person­ality that over the course of, say, three albums he may find himself becoming a parody. But for now when he asks, “Who can keep the average dancer hyper as a heart attack?” you know the answer. ■

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Keep Dope Alive: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”

Blunt Posse: Why the Hip Hop Nation Is Getting High on “The Chronic”
June 22, 1993

Something has happened. The spliff, the holy weed of devout Jamaican Rastas, has mesmerized a generation of Black Ameri­can wannabe “rude bwoys” who are now talking about naturalness, even going back to God when they “take a likkle whiff ’pon di sinsemilla.” No more “suckin’ on the glass dick” — Crack “slangin’,” ya duds, is wick-wicky-wickable wack.

The hip hop nation is getting high on “the Chronic.” I see them everywhere, with their bald heads and edge-of-the-ass baggies, slitting the sides of cheap Phillies Blunt cigars­ — gutting and stuffing the cavity with sticky California skunk grass, Indica, Afghan, even Africa’s exotic Durban Poison weed.

“Blunts have made it fashionable to smoke pot again,” says Ilchuk, 32, a cross­bred Latino and first generation B-boy who grew up on da Loisaida. “Just about no­body in hip hop circles smokes crack or cocaine anymore. In the last two years, I’ve seen ganja make a big difference in terms of less kids smoking crack, angel dust, and all the other dangerous drugs.” Since he over­came a serious crack addiction six years ago, pot has been his only high. “The spiri­tual side of ganja was definitely brought to me by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. I learned the hard way that not all drugs are spiritual.”

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Used to be that Black American kids would see me (a Trinidadian) on the streets, check out my dreadlocks, laugh, and say, “Hey Rastaman, teach me to build a spliff?” Now they’re puffing on their own macho blunts, blowing smoke rings through Flavor Flav gold teeth.

I am surprised, though I shouldn’t be. After all, what did homies do in the mid ’70s, after Kool Herc and other Jamaican DJs in the South Bronx taught them the art of toasting, rhyming over a rhythm track? Brothers took it, reinterpreted it, and rein­vented it to a beat, rhythm, and style of their own bigger-than-life reality. They cre­ated hip hop, a music that is loud, impos­ing, impossible to ignore.

Though they borrowed the technique of the Jamaican DJs, few of the rappers and little of their audience took up the spiritual­ity. But by the early ’80s B-boys began heeding the message of marijuana carried in reggae music. In September 1980, Mar­ley initiated the bond at Madison Square Garden, headlining with the Commodores and Kurtis Blow, then the big hip hop star. It was Marley’s last New York perfor­mance, and he stole the show — introducing his music and his ganja to inner-city Black America.

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There began a vigorous intermarriage of the ghetto musics of Kingston and the South Bronx, a phenomenon best epito­mized by Shinehead, Yellowman, and now Shabba Ranks and Mad Cobra. In 1985, Run DMC’s “Together Forever” declared: “Cool chief rocker/don’t drink no vodka/I keep a bag of cheeba in my locker.” Now rap groups like Cypress Hill are in the news for sporting hemp clothing as part of their call for the legalization of marijuana.

It’s easy to forget that Pot Prohibition and its black market, has lasted 50 years — much longer than the other Prohibition­ — and that previously the forbidden plant had been a normal cash crop, with many uses. “Ganja is from the earth, it’s natural, God made it. I can’t question it the way I question all these other man-made highs,” says Ilchuk. Reggae turned B-boys on to the natural high. Now they’ve pumped up the volume and taken it to another level — ­blunts, the Chronic.

But what else is to be expected of the B-­boy, ambitious, restless, eager to be recog­nized, screaming, “I am! I am!”?

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He licks and rolls a bigger, more formidable-looking bazooka than anything Marley, Tosh, or any rude bwoy ever devised. Ras­tamen have always built their joints like ice cream cones: Women stay in the other room while their lions gather to pass spliffs or cutchie pipes, and reason.

Now see the B-boys building their blunts, bigger and longer, and brown too, like a big Black dick. That’s macho, that’s rebellious, that says fuck you in a big way.

Watching them pass blunts around to each other, enjoying the same potent, male bonding Rastas share when they drum round a fire at a Nyabinghi ritual, I’m hav­ing flashbacks. I’m sitting with Bob Marley on a bed in his Essex House suite. He grins, passes me the fat end of a big spliff, and says, “Di herb mek I see with a clear inner eye.” I remember Peter Tosh, after his ar­rest for smoking a spliff on a Kingston-Kennedy flight, standing in a Queens court­room, bellowing, “I am the Prime Minister of Marijuana, brought here by Jimmy Car­ter to legalize the herb!”

“The turn to blunts was definitely influ­enced by rasta and reggae,” says Hershey, a 24-year-old nonsmoking B-boy from a Trinidadian family, who’s an A&R man for Freeze Records. “If it’s keeping kids away from harder drugs, it’s definitely a positive thing.” The next record his company will put out? A tune called “Who’s at the Door, the Buddha Man,” by Sham and the Profes­sor.

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I’m standing in front of Jah Life’s record shop on bustling Utica Avenue, in East Flatbush. Jah is a big Rastaman, his dread­locks stuffed into a big round wool cap like a soccer ball concealed on top of his head. He’s a venerated reggae producer with a 20-year track record of developing artists like Sister Carol, Barrington Levi, and Mikey Jarrell. I look him in the eye and throw him the hard ball: Do you agree that rasta and reggae music are responsible for the popu­lar resurgence of marijuana as the drug of choice for urban America?

I could have said “partly responsible,” but I wanted him to hear it the way he is bound to hear it, when pop culture’s cur­rent romance with rude bwoys and spliffs, B-boys and blunts — marijuana, sinsemilla, hemp, cannabis, ganja, kaya, weed, cheeba, Chronic — runs its course, or is extinguished; when the time comes, as it always does, to hang the prophets.

Like me, Life is street-bred, ghetto, a survivor. He senses danger and is on his guard. He recoils and looks away. When again he meets my eye, the atmosphere has changed between us. His is a calm and studied stare.

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I half expect him to say, Who the fuck are you, asking me some shit like that? The CIA? The FBI? Are you trying to stab me in my back, brotherrr?

But instead, he studiously says, “Me no really feel Marley and reggae have so much to do with it, cause nuff youth who never even heard of Bob Marley are now smoking blunts. Me have fi say television, news, and the movies contribute even more than Mar­ley and reggae music.”

Yes, there have been high-volume warn­ings about drugs over the past decade­ — warnings that double as advertisements. Nancy Reagan’s JUST SAY NO!!! The co­caine death of Len Bias. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s proclamations against cigarette smoking. Reverend Calvin Butts painting over cigarette ads. Heavy D, Pub­lic Enemy, and other rappers railing against malt liquors and other mind-altering ghetto intoxicants. B-boys, their minds blown from crack and angel dust, running crazed and naked through the ghetto. Such apoca­lyptic admonitions and examples did help drag B-boys away from cigarettes, malt li­quor, angel dust, freebasing, crack, cocaine, methamphetamines. Was there nothing left but those primitive earth men and their natural high?

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Still, people with dreadlocks want none of the praise and none of the blame. Life hesitates, then admits that he smokes, though much less frequently than he used to.

“All smoking, including ganja, ‘the holy herb,’ can be bad for the body,” the Dread explains. “It is better to boil it and drink it as tea. Don’t keep a blunt on you all the time, draw it and draw it until you lose the feeling, the enjoyment of it. Whatever you do, don’t abuse it.”

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1980-1989: The Awakening of Kool Moe Dee

A Brother Doin’ 90 Into the ’90s

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

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

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

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

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

And he just talked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT…

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos

The Complete History of Post-Soul Culture: Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos
March 17, 1992

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN WHEN mobile DJs began rocking Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express in 1977 or when WBLS’s slogan shifted from “the total black experience in sound” to “the total experience in sound” to “the world’s best-looking sound.” Or when dressing down to dress up be­came the new Saturday-night aesthetic of high school teens. Another clue was when Richard Pry­or’s blues-based life experience humor gave way to Eddie Murphy’s telegenic, pop-culture-oriented joking. Neither you nor I knows exactly when it happened. But we know what happened. Over the last 20 or so years, the tenor of African American culture has changed. I came up on the we-shall-overcome tradition of noble struggle, soul and gospel music, positive images. and the conven­tional wisdom that civil rights would translate into racial salvation. Today I live in a time of goin’-for-mine materialism, secular beat con­sciousness, and a more diverse, fragmented, even postmodern black community. The change was subtle, yet inexorable. 

At Billboard magazine in 1982, I pushed to update the title of the “Soul” chart. Prince wasn’t soul, nor was Kurtis Blow or Run-D.M.C. The direction of black music, one of the truest reflec­tors of our culture, had changed profoundly, as it always does. After much discussion the chart was renamed “Black,” which outraged many white re­tailers and black musicmakers. Too ethnic. Too limiting. Too damn black. Where “soul” was once universally accepted, the new era had yielded no new all-purpose catchphrase for the black mood — ­we couldn’t very well call it the funk-disco-hip hop-soul-crossover chart. This diversity said a lot about the new African American mentality deseg­regation has spawned. In October 1990 Billboard’s chart was recast as “Rhythm & Blues,” a suppos­edly nonracial compromise that was actually an anachronistic evasion, the kind of back-to-the-­futurism that signals a whole population over­whelmed by the complexity of the present. 

As a musical genre, a definition of Afri­can American culture, and the code word for our national identity, soul has pretty much been dead since Nixon’s reelection in 1972. But what’s replaced it? Arguing in these pages in 1986, Greg Tate tried to establish a “new black aesthetic” as a defin­ing concept. He had a point, though I’d argue there was more than one aesthetic at work. For better and worse, the spawn of the post-soul era display multiple personalities. 

Group self-definition is always tricky. It’s too easy to turn people into caricatures or distort the complexity of individual experi­ences. Still, it’s clear to me that four new African American character types have been crucial in shaping this country over the last 20 years — types that began germi­nating in the ’70s and blossomed in the ’80s. There is the Buppie, ambitious and acquisitive, determined to savor the fruits of integration by any means necessary; the B-boy, molded by hip hop aesthetics and the tragedies of underclass life; the Black American Princess or Prince a/k/a/ Bap, who, whether by family heritage or person­al will, enjoys an expectation of main­stream success and acceptance that borders on arrogance; and the Boho, a thoughtful, self-conscious figure like A Different World’s Cree Summer or Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, whose range of interest and taste challenges both black and white stereotypes of African American behavior. 

The B-boy has rightfully been the most celebrated and condemned of these figures, since he combines the explosive elements of poverty, street knowledge, and unfocused political anger. B-boy style has flowed far from its ghetto base and affected language, clothes, music, and damn near everything else. In fact, these other post-soulers often respond consciously to his challenge. But they ain’t no joke either. The four types first came together in She’s Gotta Have It, a film that managed to accommodate B-boy Mars Blackmon, Boho Nola Darling, Bap Greer Childs, and embryonic Buppie Jamie Overstreet. 

The post-soul era hasn’t just been about style or aesthetics, but cash money too. Economics is very much a part of my framework. There is a bigger spread be­tween black rich and poor than at any point in this nation’s history. The debate over the role of capital in our race’s advancement has taken a new twist, with neocons in media if not grassroots ascendancy. Eco­nomic clout has granted many black cultur­al figures an unprecedented level of finan­cial control over their art. Once Berry Gordy was the patron saint of black capital­ism, but Godfather Bill Cosby, singer/con­glomerate Michael Jackson, TV host/pro­ducer Oprah Winfrey, and a legion of others enjoy total product control — though, significantly, not distribution control — over their hunk of culture. That’s an unde­niable result of genuine integration. There is wide disagreement, however, whether this black media elite has really uplifted the race or is just another example of American capitalism’s savvy taste in window dressing. 

Which brings us back to our search for the source of this transition — for the single event that first engaged all these aesthetic, class, and economic issues. After consider­able equivocation, I’ve decided that my starting point is a renegade work that, like many pivotal expressions throughout histo­ry, has only been encountered by a small percentage of the folks it affected. It was the creation of a man who’d lived as a Boho, a Buppie, and a B-boy, with a little Bap arrogance on the side. Twenty years after its release, this work’s children stroll our streets alienated from if not ignorant of the old soul verities. 

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SWEET STUFF 

When Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweet­back’s Baaadassss Song came out in 1971, nothing like it had appeared on an Ameri­can movie screen before. The depiction of a Watts-based male hustler’s act of rebellion against brutal police and subsequent flight to freedom “was an important moment in the evolution of black cinema which in­volved redefinition and initial statement of a willingness to act against one’s fate in America,” according to veteran black film­maker St. Clair Bourne. Film historian Gladstone Yearwood has written that Sweetback “stands as a milestone in con­temporary black cinema because of its popular impact, its example of economic inde­pendence, its fine use of cinematic language and its creative incorporation of the Afro­-American expressive tradition.” Risking his directing fee from the politically correct civil rights–era comedy Watermelon Man and $50,000 borrowed from that remark­ably openminded capitalist Bill Cosby, Van Peebles made a film that both chal­lenged the industry and foreshadowed the ongoing conflicts between street culture and mainstream taste. After a Boston theater cut out nine minutes of the film and the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an X rating, Van Peebles made like a lawyer for 2 Live Crew: “Should the rest of the community submit to your censor­ship that is its business, but White stan­dards shall no longer be imposed on the Black community.”

Sweetback initially opened in only two theaters — one in Atlanta, one a Detroit venue that specialized in zombie triple fea­tures — and never received national distri­bution worthy of its controversy. Yet Sweetback’s ghettocentric style, outsider perspective, and financially independent spirit still reverberate in two crucial Afri­can American artistic movements — hip hop and black film. Sweetback defied the posi­tive-image canon of Sidney Poitier, dealing openly with black sexuality, government-sanctioned brutality, and the arbitrary violence of inner city life. Its refusal to com­promise still sparks black artists from Ice Cube to Matty Rich. 

At a 1980 colloquy on the film, Van Peebles explained his narrative strategy. “The reality is that our people have been brainwashed with the ‘hip’ music, the beau­tiful color, and the dancing images flicker­ing across the screen. This is what they know as cinema. And that’s where we must begin. We obviously cannot dwell there; but it’s a point of departure.… That’s what revolution is! It isn’t everybody standing up here on an intellectual high. And it is not meeting people and starting from where they are not. It is starting from where they can see.”

With a change here and there, Van Pee­bles’s rap could be the spiel of a hardcore hip hopper in The Source talking about his rhymes and videos, though what the rap generation owes Sweetback has been ab­sorbed secondhand through the blaxploitation films that Sweetback spawned. Those films, which took Van Peebles’s aggressive hero and made him/her either a cop or a traditional gangster, live more on home video than in dim memory for the hip hop generation. Superfly and The Mack, crimi­nal-minded chronicles of a cocaine dealer and a pimp respectively, inform the imag­ery and music of Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A, the Geto Boys, Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and hundreds of lesser rappers. Blaxploitation set standards for ghettocentricity the rap generation matches and single-mindedly exceeds, reaching levels of profanity, sexism, and violence that these ’70 flicks only suggested. 

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What’s more, their funk-soul-disco soundtracks were composed by some of the most visionary minds of post-soul black pop. From veteran soul performers like Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and Marvin Gaye to more broad-based producer-instru­mentalists like Willie Hutch, Norman Whitfield, and Maurice White to Miles Da­vis and his student Herbie Hancock, these composers created a motherlode of riffs, sounds, and vocal harmonics that today underpin thousands of sample-heavy hip hop recordings. The new level of ambition that seized black pop between 1971 and 1974 was in large part inspired by the ac­cess of so many producers and artists to film. While as a genre blaxploitation may strike us now as narrow and negative, the music created to support these films wasn’t. Black pop’s longer tracks, more complete horns, strings, and percussion refinements in synthesizer technology and jazz-inflect­ed vocal harmonics all got their start in Hollywood. So Sweetback trickled down to the current generation. 

For black filmmakers, Sweetback is a vi­tal memory of what could be, and its bas­tard child blaxploitation is a bitter remind­er of what to avoid. No one had plotted a feature film with an uncompromised black viewpoint and put it into theaters without mainstream Hollywood involvement since the days of Oscar Micheaux, and Van Pee­bles’s achievement wouldn’t be duplicated with similar impact for 15 years. But for independent filmmakers as diverse as Halie Gerima, Charles Lane, Julie Dash, and Warrington Hudlin, blaxploitation was what kept African Americans from focusing on the variety of black perspectives they were exposing at film festivals, art houses, and, following the formation of the Black Filmmakers Foundation in 1978, discos, and galleries, and parks. This community of politically committed and historically aware filmmakers was eclipsed in the black community by blaxploitation even after the blaxploitation era ended. 

Unlike the black theater, dance, and liter­ary worlds, all sustained by a committed interracial following and regularly covered in the black and white press, black indepen­dent filmmaking received little recognition until 1986. Hollywood’s dominance over African American viewers seemed unshak­able. After blaxploitation dried up, Richard Pryor and then Eddie Murphy were the only African Americans with star status, while no directors, writers, or producers entered Hollywood’s closed circle. During the current explosion, black filmmakers have embraced Van Peebles’s legacy and disavowed blaxploitation. Van Peebles, who’s finally gotten his props as a pioneer, represents what a lot of these filmmakers say their work is — rebellious, sociologically important, entrenched in the black psyche. Yet the content and/or marketing of many of the films shared more with the low­brow, commercially calculated productions of blaxploitation than with the renegade artiness of Sweetback. By denying this, the new directors imply that to acknowledge any connection with blaxploitation is to celebrate everything about it — to ghettoize your work, and to recall with fear and loathing how quickly and easily the earlier black film boom was deflated. 

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The great thing about rap for its early audience was that it created homegrown heroes with larger-than-life personas. Shaft, Truck Turner, and Nigger Charlie were disposable Hollywood fictions. Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kurtis Blow were stars for the ghetto and of the ghetto. Similarly, the circumscribed world of independent film has its own heroes, such as MacArthur fellow Charles Burnett, whose Killer of Sheep, one of the select films stored in the National Archive, is regarded by many as the black masterpiece of the ’70s. But in the current commercial climate, most black directors, like the early rappers, can’t be sure whether this is their 15 minutes of fame or the beginning of a career. With the taste of hype lingering on their tongues, it’ll be hard for them to swallow when the film colony decides, maybe in a fiscal quarter or two, that Hispanic films are the next big thing. 

Though the saga of post-soul culture hinges on the way two fringe movements, hip hop and black film, came up from the under, other equally important strains re­flected the unending debate over authenticity, co-optation, and redefinition that desegregation’s new opportunities and contradictions intensified. Are blacks selling out our culture to corporate America? Is our media elite using its new clout to pro­mote the best aspects of the race or just pandering to black folks’ worst instincts? What do they owe their core audience? Aside from dollars, what is gained by reaching a white audience? Looking over the last 20 years, it’s apparent that when confronted by crossover, assimilation, and white standards of success, most African Americans have said, “Well, I guess they’re all right by me.” Even our most nationalist pop culturalists, people like Chuck D and Spike Lee, work within the established sys­tems of capitalization and distribution. Both, for example, maintain total creative control over their work, but the only reve­nue stream that flows directly into their accounts is merchandising money.

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So despite the rise of Afrocentric con­sciousness, I find that many young-gifted-and-black post-soulers practice integration without anxiety. Buppies, Baps, and Bohos have come of age since the end of the struggle against blatant segregation. Through busing or family migration, many attended predominantly white schools and took their access to mainstream opportuni­ties for granted. That’s not to say they’re Uncle Toms or even that they’re out of touch with the masses of unassimilated African Americans, but both dangers lurk. Their experience, especially if it was not formed by ghetto life or some romantic ghettocentric identification, makes race consciousness less central to their being. The Cosby Show, along with figures such as Bryant Gumbel, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, and Gov­ernor Doug Wilder epitomize this view. Bill Cosby’s landmark sitcom embraced the middle-class achiever culture closest to the traditional civil rights agenda. Cosby’s Dr. Cliff Huxtable and his lovely lawyer wife, Clair, represented the upside of crossover, with Lisa Bonet’s Denise giving voice to the relatively color-blind children of this race­-neutral environment. The boho vibe Bonet suggested was made explicit in the music, speech, and dress of her husband Lenny Kravitz, Tracy Chapman, Cree Summer, and the Black Rock Coalition. Looking back to the dawn of the ’80s, Prince can now be seen as the “new breed leader” he always postured as, a figure emerging from the frozen North to announce that multi­culturalism was coming, that explicit sexu­ality was no big thing, and that black-is-­beautiful was just nostalgia. Along with his doppelgänger Michael Jackson, Prince suc­cessfully blurred ethnicity, escaping from standard definitions of blackness (and black male sexuality too) as he reaped both healthy artistic tension and megabucks. 

Most of us aren’t simply B-Boys, Bup­pies, Baps, or Bohos. We are some combus­tible compound — I used to describe myself as a B-boy intellectual. But in the two de­cades since Van Peebles’s film, all of us have seen African American culture evolve (or, as some old jacks argue, devolve) from gospel-and-blues rooted with a distinctly country-accented optimism to assimilated­-yet-segregated citified consciousness fla­vored with nihilism, Afro-centricism, and consumerism. The soul world lingers on, but for the current generation it seems as anachronistic as the idea of a National As­sociation for the Advancement of Colored People and as technologically primitive as a crackly old Motown 45. Our aesthetic metamorphosis is not always a bad thing­ — Dr. J begets Air Jordan, Zora Neale Hur­ston begets Alice Walker. But it’s not al­ways good either — PCP begets freebase begets crack. Mostly, it just is, and there ain’t no stoppin’ it now.