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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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COPS ‘N’ ROCKERS

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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RETURN TO SENDERS

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

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Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

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None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

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I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

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But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

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But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

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Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Detroit What?

Growing up outside of Detroit in the ’80s, we suburban post-punk rap-o-philes wondered how a city that was 80 percent black and hella-urban with its crack epidemic and larger-than-life dealers (the Chambers Brothers, White Boy Rick) and gangs (Errol Flynns, Pony Down) had yet to produce a single rap act of note. Not that drugs and gangs begat hip-hop, of course, but to our cracker asses, Detroit seemed to have all the other trappings of urban culture, so where the fuck were the rappers? After a few Fresh Fests in our Germs T-shirts and a wilding-style beatdown at an NWA concert (wearing the Keith Haring “Free South Africa” T-shirt didn’t help), it was when Run-DMC played Joe Louis Arena to a city full of homeboys who had copped their Adidas-and-fedoras look that we had our answer: Detroit had a hip-hop culture alright, but it was more of a national market than a local hotbed.

Detroit MCs have long gestated in the shadow of this market, developing their own sound in spite of it. For rappers like Esham, that meant building an underground empire with shock-value proto-horrorcore rap throughout the ’90s, beginning with his first tape, Boomin’ Words From Hell, recorded at Hell’s Door Studio (his bedroom) when he was still a teenager.

While Esham concentrated on paying bills, D-12 concentrated on honing skills, collectively retreating into Native Tongues-ish crews in their own little world, freestyle-battling each other at designer Maurice Malone’s late, great Hip-Hop Shop. There, Eminem met D-12 founders MC Bizarre, his hypeman Bugz, and Proof (then rapping with a warm Q-Tip-like burr in Five Elements), as well as Da Brigade members Kuniva and Kon Artis, the latter of whom produced Em’s 1996 Nas-sounding debut, Infinite. Swifty McVay came on board only after Bugz was killed in 1999 in an incident so incongruously tragic and flat-blackly comic, it probably explains the Detroit laugh-to-keep-from-crying aesthetic more than anything: After Bugz squirted a girl with a water pistol one innocently rowdy spring day on Belle Isle, an angry boyfriend came back with a real gun.

On Devil’s Night, the six and their alter egos (see The Crow) try to make some sense of a city where squirt guns turn to real guns on tracks like “Shit Can Happen,” “Pistol Pistol,” and “That’s How,” mean-mugging their way through jeep beats as paranoid and empty as downtown Detroit after 5 p.m. These tracks introduce the non-Eminem MCs as competent roughnecks—Swift as the tooth-and-spit drawler, Kuniva as Tupac-at-an-open-mic, Kon Artis as the smartass, Proof as the malty-gravel-voiced ballast, and Bizarre as, just, well, bizarre—and it’s when Em and crew are goofing on each other that they’re at their collective best. On “Purple Pills,” they’re funning and punning over a bounce riff, but the track’s stoner-hop bluesiness—harmonica solo and all—makes it such a great lazy-summer anthem that even if they don’t bother to come up with a last line for its chorus, nobody seems to mind.

The only one who’s more fly-in-the-ointment than fly here is Bizarre. The Teton to Em’s Hank Williams, Bizarre encouraged Em to give up the Nas and slow his rhyming down. On his own 1997 Attack of the Weirdoes EP, Bizarre was a two-ton frontman, swaying over his beats like a crazy drunken uncle. But on Devil’s Night, he’s just an ol’ dirty bastard, muttering, “It’s Friday night, I’m at a rave again/Picking up transvestites on my Harley Davidson.” In the otherwise excellent “Fight Music,” he spends his verse deadpanning about why he’s so numb: “My grandmother sucked my dick and I didn’t come.” Great.

Devil’s Night is Eminem spotlighting his D-town homies, but it’s also clearly a way for him to have his cake and tell it to fuck you, too. The sarcastic “Ain’t Nuttin’ but Music,” right down to its jaunty little Dr. Dre-produced backing track and singsong chorus, inverts “The Real Slim Shady” the way Nirvana’s “Rape Me” flipped “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—not just as a song, but as a piece of pop culture. The other MCs fall in, defusing his Eminem-ness even as they throw gasoline on it. As Bizarre raps, “Eminem doesn’t like ‘N Sync but I do/Fuck him and fuck the Backstreet Boys too.” Em gets to be the popstar rapper back with his boys at the Hip-Hop Shop playing the dozens, and they all get to make the first rap record by a bunch of relative no-names from Detroit, fart jokes and all, that enters Billboard at No. 1.

D-12 may be Detroit’s dead-serious lyrical jokers, but Esham is still its Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. On Tongues, he serves up a Slayer-esque vision of Detroit as a Brueghel mural of queasy synths and broken-bottle beats, narrated by his own quantity-over-quality trove of drawling rhymes. Eminem acknowledged his debt to him on 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, by admitting he was a cross between Ozzy and Esham—ironic, since Esham has his own Ozzy vibe going on here. He belts out his choruses (“Walkin on da Flatline”) and crashes them with metal guitar, like Kid Rock at an award-show all-star jam.

But for all his ambition to make his rap more than just something to bump in your ride, Esham spends too much time one-sidedly sparring with Eminem. In the first half of “All Night Everyday,” he calls Eminem “Emily” and threatens to kill his daughter, which sounds pretty forced considering that the second half of the song, inexplicably, finds porn star Heather Hunter getting ready to have anal sex. It’s only on “Chemical Imbalance,” with its oozing live bass riff and stream-of-consciousness dis (where he reminds “Eminem of D’Angelo Bailey/Hailie’s in a coma/I smell the aroma of a dead body”), that Esham’s vision of Detroit’s nothing-to-lose rap as next-level headphone rock meshes with his need to beef in the interest of moving some units. Then again, if you don’t have Eminem putting you on, it can’t hurt to drop his name.



D-12 and Esham play Randalls Island as part of the “Vans Warped Tour” August 4.