I’ve written about how the “Backpacker” went from becoming a term that meant “thugged out Hip Hop head” to “cornball indie Hip Hop purist” in the past. Now I’m going to explain how the “Backpacker” came into being in the first place.
Let’s first retrace our steps and go back to the end of the end of the 1st Golden Era Of Hip Hop (1986-1989) when House, New Jack Swing & the Afrocentric Era all converged and when collectives like the original Flavor Unit and Native Tongues were on top of the world.
Elements of New Jack Swing & House were beginning to influence the sound and culture of Hip Hop as early as 1988. Teddy Riley was actively producing Hip Hop and R&B meanwhile Andre Harrell’s Uptown/MCA was making both radio & club hits left and right.
At the same time, it was no surprise to hear jawns like Inner City’s “Good Life” & “Big Fun”, Ten City’s “That’s The Way Love Is” & “Devotion” or Raze’s “Break For Love” on the radio or at parties in the regular rotation. In addition, cats were still rocking African medallions & beads around the same time.
Even at parties & clubs you saw the mingling of the New Jack Swing crowd (which were the forefathers of the Shiny Suit/Jiggy Era), the House crowd (which slowly turned into the Electronica/Trip Hop/Jungle/UK Garage/Grime & Dubstep crowd) & the typical Hip Hop listener which was into pretty much everything that was being played on the radio or in the clubs at the time.
However, when we entered the 90’s and the Afrocentric Era eventually died out and House went back underground something new arose in it’s place after the first Hip Hop Golden Era had came to a close (1986-1989).
1990 served as an excellent transition year rife with a high volume of classic releases such as “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted”, “Fear Of A Black Planet”, “Business Is Usual”, “Holy Intellect”, “Step In The Arena”, “To The East, Blackwards”, “People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm”, “One For All”, “Sex Packets”, “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em” and “Wanted: Dead Or Alive”, “Livin’ Like Hustlers” & “Edutainment”. The Afrocentric movement in Hip Hop was still going strong and several seminal albums dropped.
The House influence on Hip Hop was all but gone but as Hardcore Rap made more and more inroads and the backlash against overly radio friendly Rap such as Young MC, Vanilla Ice & MC Hammer washed over the Hip Hop community it created the space for a new breed of Hip Hop fan to emerge.
1991 was certainly emblematic of the recent sea change in Hip Hop. A Tribe Called Quest dropped the masterpiece “The Low End Theory”. De La Soul released “De La Soul Is Dead”. Black Sheep debuted with “A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing”. Ice Cube delivered his “Death Certificate”. Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Del The Funkee Homosapien, Leaders Of The New School, Freestyle Fellowship, Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, K.M.D., Main Source, Showbiz & A.G., The UMC’s & Organized Konfuzion all made their debuts this year. The average Hip Hop fan would never be the same animal ever again.
The Afrocentric Era that was embodied partly by the Native Tongues and many was quietly drawing to a close. While Public Enemy did drop “Apocalypse ‘91”, the climate of the Rap game had changed significantly and the advent of new, stricter sampling laws had stifled the noise. The new production lineup failed to match the same feel of the Bomb Squad and if Pete Rock hadn’t laced them with remixes for “Nighttrain” & “Shut ‘Em Down” who knows what would’ve happened?
Even the casual Hip Hop fan between 1990 and 1991 noticed that the music took a harder, more serious tone. Even the supposed “positive” groups were coming harder with their production and subject matter. Native Tongue affiliates Black Sheep were calling women “hoes” all over their album, De La Soul was making jams about fighting and A Tribe Called Quest professed to make “strictly hardcore tracks, not a New Jack Swing”.
The West Coast dropped a gang of classics via Ice Cube, N.W.A., Above The Law, DJ Quik, Compton’s Most Wanted, A.M.G and Cypress Hill during this same time period. Del The Funkee Homosapien introduced the Hieroglyphics crew to the world at large while Freestyle Fellowship helped to open Hip Hop fans’ eyes to the fact that there was far more going in Cali than just gangsta shit.
While we were blasting “Soul Clap” in our headphones and getting our East Coast Stomp on to “Case Of The PTA” we began to notice that the way we were being perceived had gone through a metamorphosis as well. There has always been open season on Rap fans or B-Boys, let’s get that straight first of all.
The main reason Public Enemy adopted their iconic logo in the first place is because of how Rap fans were treated and viewed by the public at large as criminals. The thing is that was all before the music and culture had completely crossed over and people still thought Rap was a passing fad. By this time, it was clear that Hip Hop and it’s fans were NOT going away and they were going to be a permanent issue from here on out.
It was 1991 when I began noticing retail stores and other establishments institute new guidelines and rules for patrons. Oddly enough, they all included the same thing, a backpack check. Establishments would just racially profile youth before, but since Hip Hop had crossed over to a wide audience spanning all races, ethnicities and backgrounds it made more sense to just focus on Hip Hop fans as a whole by targeting their dress and paraphernalia instead.
I remember being stopped before I could enter stores in the mall or in shopping districts in Downtown Crossing in Boston along with my friends around this time. It was then that I first heard the term “backpackers” being used by staff at these establishments as a blanket term to describe young, urban Hip Hop fans as well.
Even spots that had cameras, sensors, ink or dye packs and security or loss prevention staffs would have signs asking you to check your backpack before entering. They prayed you saw the sign and left rather than entering.
If you did choose to enter said establishment afterwards you still were followed around regardless of your ethnic background. All you needed to do was have Del’s “Mistadobalina” or Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill A Man” blaring through your Koss Pro 25 or Nova 45 headphones to be targeted. Simple enough, right?
As we entered 1992, the transition period was over and we were officially in a new Hip Hop era. Albums such as “The Chronic”, “Mecca And The Soul Brother”, “Daily Operation”, “Dead Serious”, “Whut? Thee Album”, “Reel To Reel”, “Business Never Personal”, “The Predator”, “Bizarre Ride II Tha Pharcyde”, “Sex And Violence”, “Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop”, “Runaway Slave”, “House Of Pain”, “Blue Funk”, “Live And Let Die” and “Music To Driveby” among other classics owned that calendar year. It was also when the term “backpacker” began to come into common usage thanks to Grand Puba.
Grand Puba’s “Reel To Reel” album was largely influential in that not only did it provide heads with a slew of classic jams but he popularized the backpack as an essential accessory for Hip Hop heads. Keep in mind that groups were already wearing backpacks circa 1991 but none of them ever referenced it their rhymes, made it a point to highlight them in their videos or incorporate them into their overall images. Grand Puba did that first on his lead single “360º (What Goes Around)”.
Leaders Of The New School rocked backpacks regularly. A Tribe Called Quest rocked backpacks regularly. The UMC’s wore backpacks. K.M.D. rocked backpacks. Organized Konfusion rocked backpacks. Redman rocked a backpack. Large Professor rocked a backpack. Das Efx rocked backpacks. The group Rough House Survivers lead single was a minor hit called “Check Da Back Pack”. Hip Hop heads universally acknowledged backpacks as part of their uniform.
Instead of allowing the term “backpacker” to define “young urban patrons that are potential troublemakers” or simply “unwanted clientele” by outsiders of the culture it became synonymous with “Hip Hop fan”. However, the term would take on yet another more dubious meaning as years passed as highlighted by the 1992 Das EFX ode to the general public’s perception of the early 90’s urban dwelling Hip Hop head “Hard Like A Criminal”.
At the close of 1992, The Source declared that it was “The Year Of The Underground” as defined by the artists, producers, groups and the overall musical aesthetic that dominated it. Little did we know we had entered the 2nd Golden Era of Hip Hop and the entire 5 year period from 1992 to 1996 would also be dominated by the underground.
1993 saw the introduction of Wu Tang Clan, Black Moon, Lords Of The Underground, Onyx, The Beatnuts, The Roots, Souls Of Mischief and The Alkaholiks. The year was also defined by classics like Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Doggystyle”, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Midnight Marauders”, Erick Sermon’s “No Pressure”, Masta Ace Incorporated “Slaughterhouse”, De La Soul’s “Buhloone Mindstate”, Ultramagnetic MC’s “The Four Horsemen”, Del The Funkee Homosapien’s “No Need For Alarm”, Cypress Hill’s “Black Sunday” and Akinyele’s “Vagina Diner”.
The backpack remained the reigning accessory of choice for Hip Hop heads as exemplified by seeing them on the backs of the leading emcees of the day. When Buckshot Shorty and 5 Ft Accelerator whyled out in the video of “Who Got The Props?” it was impossible to not notice their backpacks. When Method Man performed live he did so with a backpack on. Erick Sermon was rocking vests and a backpack all the time.
Before you knew it, the backpack had evolved from being an accessory of identification by those that sought to keep undesirables out of their establishments to one that even members of the culture used to distinguish between thugs or Hip Hop heads. Problem is that is was hard to tell the difference between the fashionable head and a stick up kid during this era for it’s participants as well as outsiders. This led to any head with a backpack on being perceived as a thug or criminal by the world at large.
By 1994, the term “backpacker” had taken on the exact opposite meaning that it carried by the time Sean Combs would be dancing on MTV and BET next to Mase and The LOX in a shiny suit by not only outsiders to Hip Hop but those inside the culture as well. Enough to the point that most clubs that catered to Hip Hop clientele sought to keep “backpackers” out of their clubs and they instituted uniform dress codes to insure they didn’t cause any potential trouble.
In 1994, the NYC Hip Hop club The Tunnel had a Sunday night party in direct opposition to these rules changes and mandates. At the beginning they played what would largely be considered music that catered to these same dreaded “backpackers”.
A mix of Notorious B.I.G., Nas, various Wu Tang solo jawns (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon & GZA) in addition to many indie East & West coast vinyl based releases. Also keep in mind that we didn’t use the term “backpackers” in reference to each other back then while we were aware such a designation existed.
In conclusion, as we all know the term “backpacker” became somewhat of a derogatory term initially used circa 1997 by mainstream Rap fans in reference to indie leaning Hip Hop heads during the post Telecommunications Act fallout. It also became a term used by these same fans in reference to each other.
Once Company Flow splashed the phrase “Independent As Fuck” on the insert of “Funcrusher Plus” there was no turning back for Hip Hop. It was officially “Us vs. Them” and that’s sadly been the status quo for almost 15 years now.
I first heard the phrase “backpacker” used a buzz/code word by people that didn’t want my business or patronage 20 years ago. Today, I hear the same exact term, from mainstream Rap fans who try to belittle me for not listening to that watered down bullshit that’s on the radio nowadays. So much for progress, huh?
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