I previously touched on the era that led to the birth of the original backpackers (1990 & 1991) as it was a transition period between the First Golden Era Of Hip Hop (1986-89) and what would eventually become the Second Golden Age Of Hip Hop (1992-96) in a piece called “A B-Boy’s Alpha © Cannibal Ox (The Evolution Of the Backpacker 1991-2011)”. I went into depth about the origins of the backpacker but I didn’t fully explain a phenomenon that occurred between the years 1990 and 1992 that I now refer to as the “Backpacker Uprising”. By 1993, several established emcees would be forced to switch their styles up because of it.
I’ll paint the full picture and explain the climate of the Hip Hop scene at the time to put things all in perspective for this post entitled “Born Into The 90’s © R. Kelly & The Public Announcement”. As I explained before, in urban music between 1990 and 1991 we had R&B (New Jack Swing), House and Hip Hop all occupying the same space and vying for the ears and hearts of listeners. The beginning of the problem really occurred when all of these fans came face to face in a club or party setting and had to interact with each other.
In 1990, a phenomenon occurred that led to the eventual birth of the so-called backpacker. MC Hammer (who had previously dissed Run DMC and was dissed by 3rd Bass) dropped a single “U Can’t Touch This” that crossed over and hit #1 on Billboard which singlehandedly ushered in a new era of Pop Rap. In February 1990, the LP “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em” dropped and sold like hotcakes made from crack batter. If you say “Hammer”? Proper. Rap is not Pop if you call it that then STOP © Q-Tip, 1991
The backlash against Pop Rap was further fueled by the breakout success of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” (people forget that BET was the first station to play Vanilla Ice’s videos) and his album “To The Extreme” moved like cocaine straight from Bolivia in the Summer of 1990. Both MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice (who were once tourmates) had made Rap music cross over much to the dismay of a particular segment of Hip Hop fans. These less than enthused fans would later be known as “backpackers”.
The proto backpackers were up in arms when Salt N’ Pepa opted for a more Pop orientated, radio friendly sound. Many of the songs on their 1990 album “Black’s Magic” incorporated Club MTV leaning fare that lead to them selling a ton of records and crossing over to a pop audience. In 1991, both Queen Latifah and MC Lyte would follow suit and alienate their original fanbase in hopes of attaining similar success. However, an anti-Pop Rap sea change had occurred. This gradual switch in Hip Hop’s overall aesthetic was mostly engineered by this new breed of Hip Hop fan, the backpacker.
That being said, you had the more aggressive Hip Hop fans who were becoming more and more infuriated with what they felt like were outside elements watering down Hip Hop music. Two of those elements were New Jack Swing and House which rappers would often use in their songs in hopes of achieving a radio hit from time to time. This led to animosity between Rap fans and the much more respectful clubgoers that belonged to the New Jack Swing or House crowds. Between 1990 and 1991 these clashes began happening so frequently that something had to give.
The House & New Jack Swing heads got along fine and the dancers rarely clashed with each other even though they battled often. The Hip Hop heads of the era frequently clashed with both the House & New Jack Swing fans and the dancers often clashed in battles over dress, style, approach and overall aesthetic. The House & New Jack Swing crowd on average were of college age and the Hip Hop crowd was on average a bit younger so they were still in high school. Since the New Jack Swing and House crowd were older, dressed up when they came to the club and they both got along it was an easy call. Those damb Rap fans had to go…
By 1991, the first uniform dress codes were instituted across the board with the intention of discouraging the younger unruly and problematic Hip Hop fans out of not only the club but from other places of business as well. These “backpackers” were the new undesirables. The new urban underclass even within their own world. What’s crazy is within 18 months time these very same “backpackers” would become the new mainstream and people would be switching up their styles and dress code to avoid being left behind.
After all the ice grilling backpackers were finally removed from the club scene in 1991 it really took off. Cats were freely dancing to C & C Music Factory, Black Box, K.L.F, Crystal Waters, Adeva, Guy, Ralph Tresvant, Madonna, Cathy Dennis, Mariah Carey & CeCe Peniston with less worry about physical harm being brought to them by those damb thugs who got pissed off if the DJ didn’t play any Hip Hop for a stretch longer than an hour. They were happier nodding their heads to the beats blaring out of their cars’ tape decks or headphones instead anyways.
I was part of the burgeoning group of backpackers listening to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Black Sheep, Cypress Hill, Ice Cube, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Showbiz & AG, Del The Funkee Homosapien, EPMD and Leaders Of The New School while doing the East Coast Stomp on tapes by P.M. Dawn and Candyman. We were middle fingering all that “punk smooth shit”, all those bubblegum Pop Rap acts and anyone blatantly trying to cross over by diluting their sound. Little did we know that we were about to bring about a revolution in Hip Hop in 1992. We were just outcasts in the world of urban music (and culture) at the time…
1992 opened with an event that reverberated throughout Hip Hop. The latest Pop Rap act P.M. Dawn was doing a set at Sound Factory. They’d recently become media darlings leading to a number of interviews where Prince Be said some less than flattering (and downright stupid) things about Public Enemy and KRS One. KRS One, BDP and crew rushed the stage, tossed him off and rocked “I’m Still #1”. The backlash against Pop Rap and Alternative Rap had begun. The backpackers had usurped the throne and the underground had become the new mainstream. The cover of issue #39 of The Source declared 1992 “The Year Of The Underground”. From then on? If it wasn’t rough, it wasn’t right.
The new face of crossover Hip Hop success in 1992 was Das EFX. The dread headed emcees spit verses with a new style and an aesthetic that screamed underground outcasts. Morlocks that emerged from the sewer to invade Hip Hop. Their videos were dark and somber. Their style was hoodies, bubble vests, bubble gooses, backpacks, baggy jeans & Timberlands. They rhymed about drinking 40’s and smoking blunts AND THEY WENT PLATINUM DOING IT! Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Young MC, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice had to make radio friendly fare in order to cross over and sell in excess of one million units before. Times had indeed changed.
Everyone had to fall in line with the new Rap aesthetic (which had actually been the aesthetic since about 1991 but whatever) so Young MC switched his style up and dropped “What’s The Flavor”, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince came with “Code Red”, LL Cool J countered with “14 Shots To The Dome”, MC Lyte came out with “Ain’t No Other”, Queen Latifah dropped “Black Reign” , Da Youngstaz released “The Aftermath” and The UMC’s dropped “Unleashed”. It had gotten so real that even MC Hammer dropped “The Funky Headhunter” in 1994 (and returned the MC to his name) while Vanilla Ice became a Rasta and a dropped the Chronic inspired “Mind Blowin’” LP. “Keep it real” and “represent” were the new Hip Hop buzz words.
Beginning in 1994, the NYC club The Tunnel actually began to do a night specifically for these Hip Hop fans or “backpackers” on Sunday nights called ‘Mecca”. Those same cats that got pushed out of the club just three years prior were now being called back to it and there was no House or New Jack Swing popping off from the DJ booth. Also the beef between Hip Hop and House dancing was a wrap because they’d all morphed into a new style every serious dancer was doing. The last became first. The underground became mainstream. The backpackers had conquered Hip Hop. Then a few years later, a piece of paper got signed that eventually turned the whole Rap world upside down…