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Marvin Gaye: The Power and the Glory

March 1983 — In the motel’s living room two women in their late 30s, wearing much too much makeup, and clothes too tight covering too much flesh, hovered over a hot plate, concerned that everything would taste right “for him.” In the bedroom, behind closed doors, dressed in a robe and stocking cap, his face covered with a facial mask, Marvin Gaye accompanied by three biceped roadies (bodyguards?) watched a fight on Wide World of Sports. Marvin and I sat next to each other in tacky motel chairs, his attention wandering from our conversation to the fight.

I anticipated an upbeat conversation full of the self-righteous I-told-you-so fervor so many performers, back from commercial death, inflict upon interviewers and the public. After all, Gaye was in the midst of one of the most thrilling comebacks in pop music history. “Sexual Healing,” some freedom from the IRS, CBS’s mammoth music machine in high gear for him, and adoration from two generations of fans, were all part of a wave of prosperity. Even his stage act, in the past marked by a palpable diffidence, had been spellbinding. The night before, at San Mateo’s Circle Star Theater, he had been brilliant, performing all the good stuff, and even reviving Mary Wells’s “Two Lovers,” one of Smokey’s best early songs, about a total schizophrenic, a man who was both lovingly faithful and totally amoral.

Gaye’s voice was soft, relaxed, and strangely monotonous (he spoke with almost no inflection). His precise elocution was reminiscent of your stereotypical English gentleman, but he spoke of a world far removed from delicacy and style. These were words of isolation, alienation, and downright confusion. His reviewed acclaim had in no way silenced the demons that made his last Motown album In Our Lifetime (despite its premature release by Motown) an explicit battle between the devil and the Lord for his heart, soul, and future.

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I said to him, “The times seem to call for the kind of social commentary you provided on ‘What’s Going On.'”

“It seems to me I have to do some soul searching to see what I want to say,” he said. “You can say something. Or you can say something profound. It calls for fasting, feeling, praying, lots of prayer, and maybe we can come up with a more spiritual social statement, to give people more food for thought.”

“I take it this process hasn’t been going on within you in quite some time.”

“I have been apathetic, because I know the end is near. Sometimes I feel like going off and taking a vacation and enjoying the last 10 or 15 years and forgetting about my message, which I feel is in a form of being a true messenger of God.”

“What about doing like Al Green and turn your back on the whole thing?”

“That’s his role. My role is not necessarily his. That doesn’t make me a devil. It’s just that my role is different, you see. If he wants to turn to God and become without sin and have his reputation become that, then that is what it should be. I am not concerned with what my role should be. I am only concerned with completing my mission here on Earth. My mission is what it is and I think I’m presenting it in a proper way. What people think about me is their business.”

“What is your mission?”

Without a moment’s hesitation he responded, “My mission is to tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all those of higher consciousness who can be saved. Those who can’t can be left alone.”

A year later I reflected on those words while reading the comments of Rev. Marvin Gaye, Sr., Marvin’s father, from his Los Angeles jail cell. It had all gone wrong for Marvin since our talk. The physical assaults on others, including his 70-year-old father, Marvin’s self-inflicted psychological degradation of himself with his “sniffing,” and the lack of creative energy it all suggested, meant Marvin’s unrest was real. Still, to me, the most frightening comment was Rev. Gaye’s response to whether he loved his son or not: “Let’s say that I didn’t dislike him.”

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Summer 1958 — Stardom was taking its toll on the Moonglows, one of the 1950s top vocal groups. One member had been hospitalized for drug abuse. Another was tripping on the glamour and the friendly little girls. Harvey Fuqua, the Moonglows’ founder and most level-headed member, was disturbed to see how the Moonglows were not profiting from their fame. It was during this period of growing disillusionment that four Washington, D.C. teens, called the Marquees, finally talked Fuqua into listening to them in his hotel room. Well Fuqua was “freaked out” by them, particularly the lanky kid in the back named Marvin Gaye. By the winter of 1959 two editions of the Moonglows had come and gone when Fuqua accepted an offer to move to Detroit as a partner in Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis’s Anna records.

That Fuqua kept Marvin with him is testimony to his eye for talent and the growth of a friendship that, in many ways, would parallel that of future Motown coworkers Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. On the surface Marvin was this seemingly calm, tall, smooth-skinned charmer whom the ladies found most seductive. Marvin was cool. Yet there was an insecurity and a spirituality in his soul that overwhelmed his worldly desire, causing great inner turmoil. This conflict could be traced to his often strained relationship with his father, a well-known minister in Washington, D.C. Rev. Gaye was flamboyant, persuasive, and yet disquieting as well. There was a strange, repressed sexuality about him that caused whispers in the nation[‘s capital. His son, so sensitive and so clearly possessed of his father’s spiritual determination and his own special musical gifts (he sang, played piano and drums), sought to establish his own identity.

So he pursued a career singing “the devil’s music” and in Fuqua found a strong, masculine figure who respected his talent. Together they’d sit for hours at the piano, Fuqua showing Marvin chord progressions. Marvin took instruction well, but his rebel’s edge would flash when something conflicted with his views. His combination of sex and spirituality, malleability and conviction, made Fuqua feel Marvin was something special. Marvin, not crazy about returning to D.C., accepted Fuqua’s invitation.

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Marvin never recorded for Anna records. But he sure met the label’s namesake, Gwen’s sister Anna. “Right away Anna snatched him,” Fuqua told Aaron Fuchs, “just snatched him immediately.” Anna was something. She was 17 years older than Marvin, but folks in Detroit thought she was more than a match for most men. Ambitious, shrewd, and quite “fine,” she introduced Marvin to brother Berry, leading to session work as a pianist and drummer. Later, after Berry had established Motown as an independent label, Marvin cut The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, a collection of MOR standards done with a bit of jazz flavor. It was an effort, the first of several by Motown, to reach the supper club audience that supported black crooners Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and Sam Cooke. It flopped and some were doubtful he’d get another chance. Yeah, he was Berry’s brother-in-law (that’s the reason some figured he got the shot in the first place), but Berry was cold-blooded about business.

Then in July Stevenson and Berry’s brother George had an idea for a dance record. Marvin wasn’t crazy about singing hardcore r&b. But Anna was used to being pampered and Marvin’s pretty face didn’t pay bills. Neither did a drummer’s salary. With Marvin’s songwriting aid “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” was recorded late in the month. “You could hear the man screaming on that tune, you could tell he was hungry,” says Dave Hamilton who played guitar on it. “If you listen to that song you’ll say, ‘Hey, man, he was trying to make it because he was on his last leg.'” Despite “Stubborn” cracking the r&b top 10, Marvin’s future at Motown was in no way assured. He was already getting a reputation for being “moody” and “difficult.” It wasn’t until December that he cut anything else with hit potential. “Hitch Hike,” a thumping boogie turn that again called for a rougher style than Gaye enjoyed, was produced by Stevenson and his bright young assistant Clarence Paul. “Stubborn”‘s groove wears better than “Hitch Hike”‘s twenty years later, yet his second hit was probably more important to his career. Gaye proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder. He proved too that the intangible “thing” some heard in Gaye’s performance of “Stubborn” was no fluke. The man had sex appeal. “I never wanted to sing the hot stuff,” he would later tell David Ritz in Essence. “With a great deal of bucking, I did it because … well I wanted the money and the glory. So I worked with all the producers. But I wanted to be a pop singer — like Nat Cole or Sinatra or Tony Bennett. I wanted to be a pop-singer Sam Cooke, proving that our kind of music and our kind of feeling could work in the context of pop ballads. Motown never gave me the push I needed.”

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Cholly Atkins, Motown’s choreographer during the glory years, remembers things differently. “Marvin had the greatest opportunity in the world and we were grooming him for it,” Atkins says. “He almost had first choice to replace Sam Cooke when Sam passed away. He had his foot in the door. He was playing smart supper clubs and doing excellent, but it wasn’t his bag. He wanted to go on not shaving with a skull cap on and old dungarees, you know what I mean, instead of the tuxedo and stuff. That’s what he felt comfortable doing … But he has his own thoughts about where he wants to go or what he wants to do with his life. And he doesn’t like anybody influencing him otherwise.”

Beans Bowles, a road manager and Motown executive in the mid-60s, remembers Marvin as a “very disturbed young man … because of what he wanted to do and the frustrations that he had trying to do them. He wanted to play football. He tried to join the Detroit Lions.”

In 1970, at 31, Marvin tried to get Detroit’s local NFL franchise to let him attend rookie camp. This was the period after Tammi Terrell’s death when he was, against Motown’s wishes, working on What’s Going On. Yet he was willing to stop all that for the opportunity to play pro football. Why?

“My father was a minister and he wanted me in church most of the time,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “I played very little sandlot football and I got me a few whippins for staying after school watching the team practice.” This parental discipline only ignited Marvin’s contrary nature and his fantasies. “I don’t want to be known as the black George Plimpton,” he said, somewhat insulted by the comparison. “I have no ulterior motive … I’m not writing a book. I just love football. I love the glory of it … there’s an ego thing involved … and the glory is with the pros.”

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The Lions, not surprisingly, turned him down flat. Marvin’s attempt didn’t surprise those who knew him then either. At Motown picnics he always played all out, trying to outshine his contemporaries at every opportunity. One time he severely strained an ankle running a pass pattern. In Los Angeles in the early 1970s he developed quite a reputation as a treacherous half-court basketball player. He even tried to buy a piece of a WFL franchise in the mid-70s.

There were two levels to Marvin’s often fanatical attachment to sports. One was a deep seated desire to prove his manhood, his strength, his macho, in a world where brute power met delicate grace in physical celebration. For all his sex appeal and interest in sexuality (“you make a person think you’re going to do something, but never do until you’re ready”), Gaye wanted to assert his physical superiority over other men.

Linked to this was a need for teamwork, a need to enjoy the fruits of collaboration. All his best work, be it some early hits with Micky Stevenson, Let’s Get It On with Ed Townsend, What’s Going On with Alfred Cleveland or Midnight Love with Harvey Fuqua were done in tandem with others. For all his self-conscious artistic arrogance, he was a team player. In the ’60s Marvin bent his voice to the wishes of Motown, but he did so his way, vocally if not musically. He claimed he had three different voices, a falsetto, a gritty gospel shout, and a smooth midrange close to his speaking voice. Depending on the tune’s key, tone and intention he was able to accommodate it, becoming a creative slave to the music’s will. On the early hits (“Ain’t That Peculiar,” “Hitch-Hike”) Gaye is rough, ready, and willing. His glide through the opening verse of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is the riff Nick Ashford, the song’s co-writer and producer, has been reaching for all these years. On Berry Gordy’s “Try It Baby” Marvin’s coolly slick delivery reminds us of the Harlem bars I visited with my father as a child. His version of “Grapevine” is so intense, so pretty, so goddamn black in spirit, it seems to catalogue that world of black male emotions Charles Fuller evokes in his insightful Soldier’s Play. Listening to Marvin’s three-record Anthology LP will confirm that no Motown artist gave as much to the music as he did. If he had never made another record after December 31, 1969 his contributions to the company would have given a lasting fame even greater than that reserved for Levi Stubbs and Martha Reeves. But, as Marvin often tried to tell them, he had even more to offer.

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In 1971, Motown released What’s Going On, a landmark that, forgive the heresy, is as important and as successfully ambitious as Sergeant Pepper. What?! I said this before Gaye’s demise and I still say it. Stanley Crouch, in a well-reasoned analysis of What’s Going On, explains it better than anyone ever has.

“His is a talent for which the studio must have been invented. Through overdubbing, Gaye imparted lyric, rhythmic, and emotional counterpoint to his material. The result was a swirling stream-of-consciousness that enabled him to protest, show allegiance, love, hate, dismiss, and desire in one proverbial fell swoop. In his way, what Gaye did was reiterate electronically the polyrhythmic African underpinnings of black American music and reassess the domestic polyphony which is its linear extension.”

Furthermore, Crouch asserted, “The upshot of his genius was the ease and power with which he could pivot from a superficially simple but virtuosic use of rests and accents to a multilinear layered density. In fact, if one were to say that James Brown could be the Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie of rhythm and blues, then Marvin Gaye is obviously its Ellington and Miles Davis.”

Though lyrically Marvin never again reached as far outside his personal experience for material, the musical ambience of What’s Going On was refined with varying degrees of effectiveness for the rest of his career.

Part of the reason for Gaye’s introspection was a series of personal dramas — a costly divorce from Anna, a tempestuous marriage to a woman 17 years his junior, constant creative hassles with Motown and antagonism with his father over religion, money, and his mother. Drugs became his escape hatch and his prison. As his In Our Lifetime so brazenly articulates, the devil was after his soul and damned if he wasn’t determined to win.

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April 1983 — Any purchaser of other Rupert Murdoch newstock publications knows the details of Marvin Gaye’s death. I expect the trial, if his father isn’t declared insane, to be an evil spectacle, full of drugs, sex, and interfamily conflicts. It won’t be fun. What was, and will always be my favorite memory of Marvin, was his performance of the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. Dressed as dapperly as any nightclub star, standing before an audience of die-hard sports fans, and some of the world’s greatest athletes, Gaye turned out our nation’s most confusing melody, asserting an aesthetic and intellectual power that rocked the house. I play it over and over now. CBS was going to release it as a single. Don’t you think they should now?

1984 Village Voice article by Nelson George about Marvin Gaye

1984 Village Voice article by Nelson George about Marvin Gaye

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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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Willie Randolph: The Brownsville Bomber

Summer 1974.
Past the hopscotch question mark and to the left of the skelly court was a pitch­ing rubber drawn in white chalk. During the course of your average Brownsville summer it moved around a bit, but basi­cally it stayed about 70 feet from the concrete barrel that served double duty as funhouse and backstop. All the little kids had been chased away and the stick­ball crew, the black guys from 305 and 315 Livonia Avenue and the Puerto Ri­cans from 360 Dumont, were banging around with sleek brown and orange broom handles and bats autographed by Thurman Munson, Danny Cater, and Horace Clarke, from Yankees Bat Day. Black tape was wrapped around the ends of bats and sticks for a solid grip. We’d spent so many summers on this asphalt stickball field, pounding Pinsy Pinky rubber balls into gloves and playing from noon to dark while ring-a-levio games, baby carriages, little brothers and sisters swirled around. As we’d gotten older, the endless summers of our adolescence had given way to the distractions of teen life; loose joints, part-time jobs, blue-light parties and, on occasion, reading books.

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On this day we were all out there again because Mickey was back home and, well, we all just wanted to be around. Bill Tra­vers in the Daily News always called him Willie Randolph, which confused me be­cause around the Tilden projects he was always Mickey as in Mantle, since he was one of the best hitters on the block. Whatever you called him, Randolph was the only guy on our block, or for that matter in all of Brownsville, that we knew of with a big league baseball con­tract. It meant a lot to me since not only did I live in the same project but was three years behind him at the same high school, and, after a so-so year of JV ball, was trying out for the varsity. Since both our project and high school were named after Samuel J. Tilden, New York State governor and presidential candidate of yesteryear, I thought maybe I’d stumbled upon a good omen.

A stickball game started and somehow I managed to get to pitch to Mickey, er, Willie. It would have been glorious to strike him out, but my hero was the Yan­kees’ underappreciated sinkerballer Mel Stottlemyre — in my mind as good as the Mets’ Seaver and Koosman — so it would have been fine if he merely grounded into an imaginary double play. Oh, well. The Tilden projects were (still are) 16 stories high. Surrounding the roof is a metal rail­ing, and right on top an incinerator. This is important information. In a moment of ill-timed machismo, I reared back and fired a high hard one. Armed with a brown stickball bat and batting instruc­tion from a Pittsburgh Pirate system known for producing hitters, Randolph smacked the pink projectile way up in the air, over the asphalt infield, over the fence that was an automatic double, over the alley that was a triple, and —crash!­ — right up against the fence over the 16th floor of a building whose number time has mercifully obscured. I remember thinking, “I hope he makes it to the ma­jor leagues. At least then I’ll have a good story to tell.”

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Summer 1986.
Brownsville is not one of the neighbor­hoods Borough President Howard Gold­en highlights in his rosy reports about Brooklyn’s future. In Brooklyn in the 21st Century, prepared by the Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn with Golden’s cooperation, my childhood home — high­- and low-rise projects, the dying shopping strips of Belmont and Pitkin Avenues, Arab and Korean store owners, hard­working blacks and Hispanics, and more crack salesmen than summer jobs (are crack houses Reagan’s real urban enterprise zones?) — is mentioned just twice. Brownsville is one of those places where “the underclass,” the fashionable term for distancing America from its poor, multiplies and survives.

For Randolph, his friends, and me, too, one of the keys to survival in Brownsville of the ’70s was the number 2 (now 3) elevated IRT subway that runs through Brownsville and past what used to be my window at 315 Livonia Avenue. It was a magic carpet to “the Deuce” (a/k/a 42nd Street) and the movies; to Coney Island (after you switched to the D); and to Shea and Yankee stadiums. Mickey Ran­dolph took the 2 to the Deuce to the 7 — he was a Mets fan. I took the 2 to the 4 — I thought Horace Clarke was a fine second baseman. Time sure does pass.

Earlier this season, I took that ride again, getting on at Rockaway Avenue in Brownsville and taking that long trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx, anxiously anticipating the moment when the 4 train explodes into sunlight and there, white as a little boy’s birthday cake, is Yankee Stadium.

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In my stickball days I’d come down the steps and head left to the bleachers. This evening I hang a right past Babe Ruth Park, the handball courts, the suit-and-tie crowd entering the Stadium Club, right up to the press gate. While working for the Amsterdam News as a college student in the late ’70s, I’d often taken this  journey, and Randolph, traded to the Yankees in 1975, had been good to me, introducing me to a couple of players and basically making an insecure college kid feel alright. Good thing, too, because the Yankee clubhouse was as taut as a newly strung tennis racket. Reggie Jackson was always nasty to me. Thurman Munson was mean. Graig Nettles was a redneck. Billy Martin’s office was the hellhole of an unstable enemy. Except for Oscar Gamble, a funny motormouth who knew his on-base percentage and homer-to-at-­bat ratio from day to day, even the other Yankees were wary of writers they didn’t know and many they did. Later, when Geoffrey Stokes dissected Yankee psy­chology with his Voice piece “The Para­noid Style of Yankee Baseball,” I knew exactly what he meant.

Now things seemed different. Ran­dolph was no longer just a sane soul in a room of gifted egotists, but co-captain of a team with pitchers too young to know what to do or too old to do it well, a rookie manager still to be tested under fire, and some of the greatest players in the game. Captain! Hard to imagine homeboy from Brooklyn — a negro — be­ing captain of America’s Team.

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

Walking into the clubhouse this time I didn’t have to hold my breath for fear that someone would step on my toes. My first impression: Winfield is bigger than any of those aforementioned Yankee stars, yet when he sat watching Carol Jenkins on Live at Five or strutted past the Winfield Foundation letters stapled to the bulletin board, he didn’t dominate the room the way those money players did. I don’t know what the departed Don Baylor meant in the clubhouse, but in comparison to the “good old days,” some­thing was different; whether it meant there was a leadership vacuum or just non-Yankee normal baseball tranquillity, I don’t know.

Randolph sat in the center of the room, watching Live at Five, too, and lacing up his cleats. He recognized me immediate­ly, smiled, and we started talking. Our talk that night and in subsequent conver­sations was defined and divided in two parts: the “Mickey” Randolph story of how a Brooklyn boy grew into a major league ballplayer; and the tale of number 30, Willie Randolph, a man obsessed with consistency, privacy, and pride. So the following is on the order of a double­sided single: “Homeboys on Parade” b/w “Yankee Attitude (Why Willie Randolph Has Outlasted Fred Stanley, Bucky Dent, Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, and 24 Other Double Play Partners).”

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S I D E  O N E

Mickey Randolph didn’t hang out, which was unusual for the neighbor­hood’s top athletes, who enjoyed basking in the respect their ability generated. The difference was probably that most of the stars of the ‘Ville played hoops; and like the notorious World B. Free (then Lloyd “All World” Free of Canarsie High) most Brownsville players chanted the mantra “Give up the pill.” While these cats were holding court Randolph was upstairs. “I remember they would call me, ‘Hey, Mickey, come on down, man, we’re playing ring-a-levio,’ or, ‘We’re playin’ manhunt,’ and I’d go, ‘Naw, man, I got to get my rest.’ At that time I didn’t need rest,” he says with a chuckle in the Yankee dugout. “But that’s what I thought I needed to do to be prepared to win the next day. I didn’t know that guys had a beer or two or got drunk or smoked a joint. I actually be­lieved that athletes got their rest at night. I remember my homeboys hanging out on the corner partying, and I was upstairs watching the Mets at 8 o’clock.”

Part of Randolph’s baseball orienta­tion may have resulted from living in 360, which the black guys in 315 and 305 called “the Puerto Rican building.” “His­panic building?” he says with a smile.

“Yeah, the majority of them were. They make them good rice and beans and are a good band of people. I remember even going to Puerto Rico, my first time being out of Brooklyn. I must have been 10 or 11 years old. We had an all-star team within this league and they won a trip to Puerto Rico for a week; we went on a little tour of three cities. I remember sleeping with a net over me. It was so weird. I just wanted to play ball. It could have been with the Russians; I didn’t care who it was with.”

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Crucial to Randolph’s development as a young player was his friendship with a gardener at the Tilden projects named Frank Tepedino. His namesake and nephew was a scrubby reserve outfielder with the Yankees from 1969 to 1972 and another nephew, Russell, played second base on the same Tilden JV baseball team I did. “Frank gave me my first break,” Randolph says. “He got tired of chasing us off his grass and everything, so he said, ‘Listen, you guys really want to play ball? Come on down to Five Dia­monds [in Prospect Park] on Saturday and we’ll play.’ ”

Tepedino introduced him to American Legion ball, where he competed against Italians and Jews from outside Brooklyn’s dark neighborhoods, and also to a few tricks of the trade. Man on first. Ball hit up the middle. Randolph fields it and, instead of flipping underhand or turning his body to throw sideways, he flips it backhand, “Frank showed that to me when I was 11 or 12,” he says, grabbing a ball and twisting his wrist to demon­strate. “I remember him very vividly saying, ‘Get close to the base. Get that ball and flip your wrist around and shovel it.’ I would sit in my room and put a pillow on the bed and just take a hardball and for hours just stand there throwing the ball into that pillow.”

Gifted basketball players are scouted in junior high, but relatively little attention is paid to New York City baseball players. For every Randolph, or fellow Brooklynite Julio Cruz (White Sox), or Shawon Dunston (Cubs), a slew of bas­ketball players emerges from the inner city every year. Part of the problem is the lack of fields and the poor quality of those that exist. Willie and I traded stories about the Tilden High School field in East Flatbush; I remember twice getting hit in the throat on bad hops, he got it once in the mouth. Randolph once took his spikes and dug up a rock “as big as a damn basketball” in the shortstop hole. Quality instruction is in short supply as well. Basically, “you just had to get what you could from this guy or that guy, and keep your eyes open for anything else,” says Randolph, who in the off-season does clinics around the metropolitan area.

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Fear keeps many baseball scouts out of Brownsville and neighborhoods like it. “Half of them are afraid they’re gonna get mugged,” he says. “Some scouts came out to see me and stayed in the car.” Still, by his senior year at Tilden, Ran­dolph was all-city at shortstop and enough of a prospect that the Mets, Expos, and Royals all took a look, but the Pirates were the only ones that showed real interest.

In the ’70s the Pirates were one of the most popular teams in black America be­cause they were always ready and willing to sign and play black and Hispanic play­ers. In fact, they are the only major league team in history to put nine black/Hispanic players in the game at one time. However, the open-door racial policies of the Pirates didn’t mean they liked scout­ing in Brooklyn, either. Randolph signed his Pittsburgh Pirate contract in a car outside diamond seven at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds. “It’s the seventh inning of a game and they call me off the field. They say, ‘Listen we got to go back to Pittsburgh. We want you to sign. You got to sign, and gotta sign it now. We ain’t gonna wait.’ I got in the car. On this particular day they did not want to get out of the car. They just wanted to get it done and over with.”

At one point during our dugout talk another reporter, whom I didn’t see, sat down behind me with an open notebook. Randolph had me stop taping and told my fellow scribe quite firmly not to take notes. Willie considered this a private interview. Said reporter remarked that he was after his own “angle” and retreated a few feet. Willie had been comfortable talking about his pre-Yankee days, but his rebuff of the other reporter made me remember that Willie is a New York Yan­kee, not simply some homeboy I grew up with.

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S I D E  T W O  

Sitting in front of Randolph’s locker some weeks later, waiting for him to emerge from the weight room, it struck me that the second baseman is the Yan­kees’ Invisible Man; through tempera­ment and study he has kept his true char­acter obscure on the most reported about sports franchise in America. If Randolph were a b-boy, I’d say he was “fronting.” My man wouldn’t lie to the Daily News, but he’s much too wise to tell folks what he really thinks about his years with the pinstriped crew. Listen to how Randolph schooled the troubled and now departed Bobby Meacham on reporters: “He told me, ‘Just answer what they ask you. Don’t volunteer additional comments.’ ”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in contrast to my previous visit, he was initially quite guarded. He asked me very directly what I was trying to “get,” as if he suspected I was out to do a hatch­et job. That homeboy stuff had worn off. Randolph was just pursuing his policy of cautious engagement, quite aware that at Yankee Stadium, giving the wrong quote to the right reporter is like setting fire to your ass. And through 21 managerial changes, four World Series, four All-Star selections, more seasons in pinstripes than any black Yankee except Elston Howard 912) and Roy White (14), this is one Brownsville cat who has kept himself quite chilly.

Ask him about the media and he says, “I’m much more open these days because I’m more mature. I feel like I can con­verse without falling into traps that I might have fell into earlier,” but he makes it clear scribes are not his closest friends. “I got burned sometimes early in my career which probably made me a little tougher. It’s like when you grew up on the block and someone came out of their face wrong, you don’t forget it. You don’t make the same mistakes.”

Privacy, you see, is a big issue with Randolph. You have rarely seen pictures of his wife Gretchen, his high school sweetheart who lived in 305 Livonia, or his three kids. Away from the ballpark, with the exception of the baseball clinics and some charitable appearances, he keeps a low profile, attending Broadway shows (he was one of the few to like Big Deal) and catching some jazz in the Vil­lage. Randolph assiduously avoids the ce­lebrity backstage hustle. “The PR guy is pushing, ‘Come on, let’s get the publicity picture.’ I say, ‘That’s for you. Does the man want to do that? Did he request me to come back here?’ So I just go do my thing, sit back, check it out, slip out the side door, in my car, and I’m gone.”

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Aside from his don’t-crowd-me, I-won’t-crowd-you attitude, another factor in his reticence may be that his current contract ends this season. That will make him a 32-year-old second baseman with three to four quality years ahead of him. From the Yankees’ viewpoint, he may be nearing the end of his value as trade bait. Is the recently acquired (and younger) Wayne Tolleson next season’s second sacker? I hope not. Despite making more errors in the first half of this season than he did all of last, Willie can still pick it, and because of his exceptional batting eye (he’s been in the base-on-balls top five all season), he’s still a good number two hitter even if Lou Piniella doesn’t think so. Randolph would definitely be a valuable commodity in the open market, someone teams like the Orioles and the Padres would covet. Of course Randolph doesn’t want to go. His roots are too deep in this city and his team.

So first we talked with the tape record­er off. I explained what I was looking for and Randolph listened, nodding at me and saying little. And, to my surprise, the Invisible Man began to open up about the Yankees. “People think, ‘Oh, you’re never involved in any controversy.’ That’s not necessarily true. That’s not true at all. I’ve had my spats and squab­bles with ownership. I don’t run to the paper and publicize it like some guys might. I just let it roll off my back. I don’t let it get to the point that it starts eating at me and affects my play.”

In 1982 boss George fined and flogged Randolph for missing an off-day work­out. “I had a prior commitment with the Mental Health Association and I felt I couldn’t cancel. There were over 1000 people there to see me. Kids. There was a little bickering about it in the papers. He was really pissed about it. This was dur­ing the strike year. We weren’t even play­ing ball when I committed to this so, just because we came back to playing ball and he feels we’re playing horseshit, I can’t just disappoint the kids and tell them I can’t come.”

Billy Martin and Dick Howser turned out to be his favorite managers: Billy for his style, and the Kansas City manager (now recovering from brain surgery) for his temperament. “Billy Martin taught me a lot. He was my first manager. He believed in me at a very young age. Not too many rookies play under Billy. He gave me a chance to play and really didn’t mess with my game. I like Billy’s aggressive style. Now, the total contrast was Dick Howser. Dick Howser was a coach before be became a manager, so I had a chance to get to know him before he took the job. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t say a lot, but he was open for suggestions. If you had any problems you could go and talk to him. He just treated me with a lot of respect and, hey, we won 103 ball games that year (1980), so you can’t argue with that. You don’t win 103 games by sitting on your butt in the manager’s seat.”

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Then he adds with an ironic smile and a laugh, “Managers can’t do it for you, Nelson. You got to go out there yourself. No one’s gonna help you at that plate facing that 90 mph fastball. No one can turn that double play for you.” For him, the difference between competitive ball­-clubs, like the current Yankees, and the championship squads of the late ’70s is not found in batting averages and ERAs. “When you think about those years you remember we had a veteran team with a certain moxie, a certain attitude that I think got us over a lot,” he says with obvious affection. “Today we have a tremendous amount of talent. Man for man, I think we have much more talent than many other teams. But that doesn’t al­ways win you championships. You have to have a certain makeup, a certain arro­gance, a cockiness about yourself; just the way you played the game. Nettles, Reggie, Thurman, Chris [Chambliss], Mickey [Rivers], Goose [Gossage], all those guys — they knew how to win, that’s all.” Which suggests that some of the qualities I found so intimidating at the time were part of what made them so cold-blooded in all those memorable battles with the Red Sox, Royals, and Dodgers. “At times it got to the point that we felt we could turn it on when we had to. It seemed that way anyway. It’s a bad habit to get into but we seemed to be able to do that. It was amazing.”

It was 10 years ago this summer that Randolph, the star of Yankee training camp, won the second base job opposite shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley. That same historic season the renovated Yankee Stadium reopened, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner were the toast (not just the talk) of the town, Thurman Munson was the only straw in the drink, and behind the steady starting pitching of Catfish Hunter, Ed Figueroa, and Don Gullett, the Yankees won the American League East by 10½ over Boston, bring­ing the franchise its first pennant in 12 years. Randolph, Piniella, and Guidry (who that year appeared in only seven major league contests) are the only sur­vivors from that campaign. Piniella, of course, is managing, and as captains, Guidry and Randolph are following in the cleat marks of Babe Ruth, Lou Geh­rig, Munson, and Nettles (also Roger Peckinpaugh and Everett Scott). No one made a big deal about Randolph being the Yankees’ first black captain, and nei­ther does he. What apparently is more significant to him is the time it took for management to acknowledge his leader­ship with the title. My impression is that Randolph wanted to be made captain when Nettles went to San Diego in spring 1984.

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“Nothing. Nothing really,” Randolph answers very softly when asked what difference being co-captain has made. “I feel that for the last five or six years I’ve been a leader in my own way on this club. You know in your own mind, you know from the response from your teammates. No writer or no one else has to tell you, ‘He’s the leader.’ ” He takes on a whin­ing, mocking voice to say, ” ‘Oh, I think I’ve arrived. I think I’m a leader.’ I don’t need that. My relationship with my teammates is what makes me captain, not statistics or longevity. When it happened, it was a highlight for me, but you have to understand it was talked about for awhile. So maybe a little bit of the ooomph kinda went away a little bit. It wasn’t like I just said, ‘Oh, well.’ But I was already comfortable with the way I perceived myself and what I meant to this team when they announced it. I don’t want to play it down, but you have to know the history of the whole thing.”

Roy White, the senior black Yankee when Randolph joined the club, currently hitting coach, backs him up. Standing by the batting cage watching Randolph work on his swing, White recalls that in ’76, “He was a quiet kind of shy young man with a lot of talent you immediately no­ticed,” but that today “Willie is a leader on the club and is a lot more verbal about it than people realize. In the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the bus, he talks to guys, gets on them. He’s very good with the younger players.” Meacham felt that way and, according to Stokes’s book on the 1983 Yankee season, Pinstripe Pandemonium, that was true then with Mea­cham, Andre Robertson, and Brian Dayett. Stokes also remarked “it sometimes seemed as though there were two different Willie Randolphs wearing pinstripes.”

Randolph’s attitude is that of the clas­sic other-borough New Yorker. Where out-of-towners like Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, George Steinbrenner, and Billy Martin came to the Apple to get drunk on the city’s glamour and power, Ran­dolph sips from the cup lightly. A camera ad. A Gillette spot with Steve Garvey and Steve Carlton. Some stuff on WPIX and SportsChannel. That’s all this hometown hero has tasted. He says, “I haven’t really pursued it. I’ve been open for it,” yet Randolph must know that solid second basemen with barely over 30 lifetime homers don’t get Madison Avenue calls unless they chase.

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He hasn’t. He won’t. He’s still got the baseball obsessiveness that kept him up­stairs at night watching the Mets and perfecting his double play toss. The dif­ference, over the long run, between some of the very gifted Puerto Rican players in 360 Dumont and Willie “Mickey” Ran­dolph wasn’t raw talent. There were cats we played with who could put the ball on the roof of the Tilden projects, and field as sweet as Topps bubble gum. What sep­arated Randolph from his local peers is what separates the 1976 Yankees and 1986 Yankees.

“When you walk out in the field you have to really feel like you can win; that you’re the best at what you can do. That’s how I approach my job,” he says near the end of our talk, buttoning up the most famous jersey in professional sports. “It’s all about attitude.” ♦

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

1986 article in the Village Voice about Will Randolph, the Brownsville Bomber, by Nelson George

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Michael Jordan: B-Ball Buppie

Alone with the tube in a hotel room in Antigua the night the NBA season starts. Most of the Black Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Association conference attendees are on a Jolly Roger pseudo-­pirate ship circling the island, savoring seafood, dancing with the CPAs from L.A., or networking with the handsome sports agent from Denver under a luminous starlit sky. Sprawled across my bed is a complete NBA roster ripped out of USA Today, Ira Berkow’s Times column on why Earl Monroe should be in the Hall of Fame (yes! imprison Earl the Pearl!) and a copy of Basketball Digest that cost $7.50 down here. On a Friday night in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, I sit in my room watching a scratchy feed from a Chicago superstation as the undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers visit the new and improved Windy City Jordanaires. In between ads for the Illinois State Lottery’s free Michael Jordan calendar, a Jordan Wheaties spot with a cameo by Laker James Worthy, and closeups of Jordan’s num­ber 23 sprinkled liberally throughout the station bump­ers, Air Nike starts the season by scoring 54 points in a five-point overtime win. He’s merely effective the first three quarters but, as he later told AP, the “last 10 minutes were the type of game you’d like to play for 48 minutes.” Candy-sweet bank shots, 15-foot J’s in Ron Harper’s face, and a couple of right-hand, string-bend­ing, tongue-dangling dunks tie the game in the fourth quarter and win it in overtime. God must be watching too: right after the game there’s an intense 20-minute tropical shower.

Next morning clouds obscured the sun and brief squalls of rain sent sunbathers scurrying in and out of tanktops. Inside a hotel conference room the seminar on marketing sports and entertainment figures to advertis­ers was dominated by Bill Strickland, a husky, light-brown man wearing glasses, salt-and-pepper beard, and a short Afro. Strickland, the most prominent African­-American rep at Pro-Serve, which handles 160 athletes, among them Jordan, Worthy, Patrick Ewing, Arthur Ashe, and Jimmy Connors, related the saga of Jordan’s journey from ballplayer to corporate icon. “Michael Jor­dan makes five times his on-court fee in endorsements,” he said. The collected lawyers, accountants, and execu­tives gasped. The brother gets $3 million a year from the Bulls.

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Yet when he was drafted by the Bulls in 1984, after beating Georgetown with a last-second shot in the 1982 NCAA title game as a freshman, being named Sporting News college player of 1983 and ’84, leading the Olympic team to gold in 1984, only two companies approached him for endorsements: Nike and Converse (which, for the record, is the sneaker he wore in college). Nike wasn’t looking to make Jordan a trademark. The initial offer was your typical jock-athletic shoe hookup — some cash, some posters, and an unlimited supply of footwear.

But Pro-Serve pushed hard on what it believed was a unique product. Playing the game spectacularly yet somehow unselfishly and the media with calm Southern charm, Jordan was positioned as basketball’s Arthur Ashe, bridging a deep class schism. And within a year the agency had gotten Nike to move on its idea of a “signature shoe” called Air Jordan. This revolutionized the signature endorsement game, bringing Nike approxi­mately $130 million Air Jordan’s first year, opening the door for the Ewing collection (“In the ad, when Patrick turns to face the camera, he smiled to soften his ‘Hoya Paranoia’ image,” reports Strickland) and the Mugsy Mobile, a special-edition Ford Fiesta sold only in the D.C.-Baltimore home turf of 5-3 NBA guard Tyrone “Mugsy” Bogues.

Jordan became a Coca-Cola spokesman, according to Neva Richardson of Chicago’s Burrel Advertising, the nation’s largest black-owned agency, because the company needed help. In the wake of the “new Coke” fiasco, the soda makers hooked onto Max Headroom as their new commercial symbol. Problem was, black folks — who compose a huge part of Coke’s market — hated the com­puter-generated talking head. Here came Mr. Jordan. “Michael Jordan legitimized Max with a black audience” by interacting with him in a spot, according to Richardson.

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But Jordan’s ultimate challenge was getting hooked with Mickey Dee’s. “It took Pro-Serve a year to turn McDonald’s around,” Strickland says. Three times Ronald McDonald said “No” to Jordan. The major impedi­ments were (a) Jordan played a team sport in which individual identification isn’t as high as in boxing, ten­nis, or golf, and (b) Jordan was black. (“Absurd,” a McDonald’s spokesperson countered.) But Pro-Serve kept up the pressure, and as Jordan became an icon, McDonald’s bought in. Meanwhile, black Super Bowl most valuable players Doug Williams and Jerry Rice both complained of getting few if any national endorse­ment offers, whereas Boomer Esiason has fronted sever­al national campaigns since the Bengals lost last Janu­ary. In a Wall Street Journal piece on the audience­-recognition ratings of top athletes, seven of the top 10 were African Americans, but only one of the seven, Jordan, is really clocking dollars. Despite the number of black faces sprinkled in current ads and the success of black athletes overall, the male African-American sports star is still viewed as a potential negative. McDonald’s was leery of touching Ewing because he had a child out of wedlock. (When informed of this account, the same McDonald’s spokesperson said, “I’ve never heard of it.”) Yannick Noah, a charismatic tennis star with endorse­ments throughout Europe, Africa, and Japan, was passed over by American ad agencies because “his dreads didn’t sell in Manhattan,” said Strickland.

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After the seminar, down by the beach, I talked with Barry Mayo, the general manager and part-owner of Chicago’s WVAZ, who in the radio world is as much a star as Jordan is in his. Listening to him analyze for­mats is like watching Air Jordan probe a defense. For some reason our talk reminded me of last summer, when Jordan appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated play­ing golf. Then it hit me. With his well-honed talents, shrewd advisers, and carefully cultivated smile Jordan bad, in C. L. R. James’s famous sports phrase, gone beyond the boundary. On-court he is, in his time, the equal of the Big O, Russell, Wilt, the Pearl, and Dr. J, all prime exponents of the improvisational impulse I like to call the Black Athletic Aesthetic. Off-court, though, he represents more than that to the collected black professionals of BESLA.

Jordan’s blend of middle-class dignity with Julius Erving’s high-intensity elegance, both funneled through a hi-tech marketing campaign, makes him the locker-­room peer of Mayo and Strickland. More than any other contemporary African-American athlete, his ability to thrive in the pressure cooker of corporate America (his off-season consists primarily of appearances at various company conferences, charitable events, and shooting commercial spots), while never making any embarrass­ing “I’m not black, I’m universal” comments or selling his soul rather than just his visage, makes him a role model. Professional black women, who tend to find athletes sexy but shallow, are attracted by his serious­ness (that Jordan married the mother of his son only made him larger in their eyes). His success embodies the equation all of us at Antigua are seeking: success, with maybe a bit of compromise, but without sellout. Spend­ing the night watching Jordan work wasn’t simply bas­ketball junkiedom, but paying respects to a peer. Mi­chael Jordan —commodity, pop star, all-African­-American guy — is the first true buppie b-ball star. And he did it all without a nose job. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rappin’ With Russell Simmons

Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

A Time Line to Post-Soul Black Culture

1971 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1972 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1974 

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

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

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

1975 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”413735″ /]

1976 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”719876″ /]

1977 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

1978 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716127″ /]

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

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

Former community activ­ist MARION BARRY is elect­ed mayor of Washington.

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716474″ /]

1979 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718817″ /]

1980 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”717919″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

1981 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1982 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1983

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JESSE JACKSON announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

[related_posts post_id_1=”143541″ /]

1984

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

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

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

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

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

MARVIN GAYE’s father shoots him dead.

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”371070″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”378043″ /]

1985

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

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

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

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

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

THE FAT BOYS jiggle through a Swatch Watch spot.

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”713552″ /]

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

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

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

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

LOUIS FARRAKHAN addresses 25,000 at Madison Square Garden.

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

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1986 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”670235″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1987 

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

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

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

JEEPS with booming sys­tems become a new urban status symbol.

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716961″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDDIE MURPHY’s Come­dy Express appears on HBO, introducing many to ARSENIO HALL, ROBERT TOWNSEND, CHRIS ROCK, MARSHA WARFIELD, and BARRY SOBEL.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1988 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”713561″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”604068″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT dies of a heroin overdose.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RONALD BROWN is voted chair of the Democratic Party.

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”29428″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1990

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”399229″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

1991

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

COOLEY HIGH is released on videocassette.

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”718384″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[related_posts post_id_1=”714770″ /]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Hiphop Nation: America Raps Back

Nationwide: America Raps Back
January 19, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MASTERS OF CEREMONY: Best Crack Record

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

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

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

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

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

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Tupac’s Got a Musical

An entire neighborhood assembles onstage in Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new hip-hop musical inspired by the lyrics of rapper Tupac Shakur. But one man is conspicuously missing from the crowd: That’d be Shakur himself, a bard of America’s violent streets whose poetry castigates a hypocritical nation for neglect. Until his 1996 murder in a drive-by shooting (at age 25), Shakur was a best-selling recording artist embraced by millions for his expressive authenticity. The rapper was controversial, not least in his death, for living some of the harsh realities he lamented in song. At the time of his killing, Nelson George, writing for the Voice, called Shakur a “gifted black artist, reckless young man, and now the hip-hop James Dean.”

Holler If Ya Hear Me avoids biography; instead, it uses Shakur’s words to voice the lives of imaginary present-day characters. But the show relies so much on his powerfully personal compositions that it might have been more successful as a bio-musical. After all, the artist is present — or at least his aura is.

Bypassing all that, the show introduces us to the thinnest cutouts of characters dwelling in an unnamed, besieged inner city. John (Saul Williams) served time and now wants to go straight. Vertus (Christopher Jackson) grieves for his gunned-down little brother, Benny, and copes with calls for vengeance, while his wizened and stoic mother, Mrs. Weston (Tonya Pinkins), longs only for change on the blighted block. Meanwhile, a disturbed Street Preacher (John Earl Jelks) hovers with bland messages of protest and prophecy (“PEACE IS NOW”).

Todd Kreidler’s banal dialogue and incoherent book feel compromised to other elements from the start, and the show might have worked better in more abstract form, without a narrative to weigh things down. The script, directed by Kenny Leon, endlessly restates each character’s dilemmas but rarely progresses or evolves; nearly every scene seems to recite the same litany. Holler wants to tell everyone’s story simultaneously but tends to catalog afflictions rather than making them theatrical. The musical ends up a sprawling, generic mess, with dull echoes of West Side Story and Do the Right Thing.

Holler misfires especially badly whenever Broadway sentiment collides with the rawness of Shakur’s original lyrics. There are a few rousing raps, most delivered by the talented Williams, who’s left to maintain a steely glare without much else to do dramatically until guns get pulled. But when choruses of amiable young men and women materialize to turn anthems of urban anguish into boulevard dance numbers, it’s a garish extravaganza. As one song puts it, “Life in the hood is all good for nobody.” Broadway aims to please; the lyrics stir and provoke. A chasm between those aspirations opens wide.

There are other reasons the show fails to launch: The set design is an unwieldy, unattractive wreck, and the whole enterprise, which includes a small educational exhibit after you pass the merch tables, can feel cynical and overly earnest at the same time. That’s not so unusual for commercial concoctions these days, but in this case, unfortunately, Broadway presents Shakur’s resonant polemics as kitsch.

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GET IN DEEP WITH D’ANGELO

Michael Eugene Archer, otherwise known as D’Angelo, he of the silky-smooth croon and Adonisian pelvic muscles, sits down with Nelson George, filmmaker, critic, and author of The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s month-long festival in New York City. (The organization has staged similar, engaging lectures with Erykah Badu and James Murphy.) D’Angelo’s history as a prodigiously talented and innovative singer and part of seminal neo-soul collective Soulquarians are fodder enough for conversation, and it’s possible he’ll shed some light on his long-time-coming third album tentatively scheduled for release this year, which he’s recording with Questlove.

Wed., May 21, 6 p.m., 2014