On July 13th, Touré wrote a piece that was published by The Washington Post titled “How America And Hip-Hop Failed Each Other”. Touré’s piece quickly made the rounds through the Hip Hop blogosphere. I personally read it from AlLindstrom.com via Twitter and I have to say that I have more than a few issues with his article. In regards to much of the data that Touré used regarding the war on drugs, the incarceration rates, unemployment rates and the books he brings into the discussion to help hammer home his conclusion none of those were the problem. Oddly enough, where Touré’s entire piece fell apart was when he discussed anything regarding Hip-Hop. Let me explain why…
Basically Touré’s entire article hinges on how Hip-Hop went from having a majority Black audience in the mid to late 80’s when it was largely Afrocentric and fairly conscious/uplifting to possessing a mostly Caucasian audience that reveled in criminal/gangsta archetypes by the mid 90’s. Touré attributes this changeover directly to America’s war on drugs began by Richard Nixon but kicked into overdrive by the Reagan administration and it’s by products and aftereffects. My issue is that while the FBI’s antidrug funding increased exponentially and crack’s growing presence in the inner cities obviously affected the culture of Hip-Hop those outside influences weren’t the key reasons Hip-Hop’s overall aesthetic and core fanbase switched between the 80’s and 90’s.
Let’s get to the meat of the issue here. The switchover Touré is referring to his article actually did occur. I saw it happen firsthand and I lived through all of it. Why did it happen? Not exactly for the reasons that Touré alludes to, they were far more organic and internal than he led many to believe. A great deal of the factors that resulted in the changeover of Rap’s audience are so obvious I wonder how Touré could’ve possibly overlooked them.
Between the years of 1986 and 1993, Hip-Hop had this change in core fanbase, overall aesthetic and direction which Touré wrote about. What happened within the world of Hip-Hop itself during those years holds the key to everything. The first part of this timeline includes the first Hip-Hop Golden Era which spanned the approximate years of 1986 to 1989. During this era advances in sampling technology, production techniques and a new focus on lyricism all emerged spearheaded by several visionaries and pioneers in Hip-Hop production and emceeing.
During this era emcees like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and Afrocentric/conscious/trailblazing groups like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Stetsasonic, Ultramagnetic MC’s, Gang Starr, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul amongst others all came into prominence. What we tend to forget is that hardcore/gangsta acts like Schoolly D, Just-Ice, Ice T, N.W.A., Geto Boys and many others were already popular during this same era as well. This is where the naturally fickle nature of urban music reared it’s ugly head.
In urban music (such as Hip-Hop) generations occur in 3 to 5 year segments. If a particular style or sub genre of Hip-Hop is hot in 1991 it will fall off sometime between 1994 and 1996 in most cases. Take into account the rise and fall of once super successful acts like Fu-Schnickens and Das EFX for example. The first Golden Era of Hip-Hop came to a natural end after 4 years and settled into crucial space that gave rise to the second (and last) Golden Era of Hip-Hop which lasted between 1992 to 1996 (some include 1997 while I contend it’s part of another era entirely). During the years of 1990 and 1991 the changeover Touré attributes to outside influences other than byproducts caused by internal cultural turmoil occurred.
We’ve entered 1990, the Afrocentric/Conscious Era of Hip-Hop music is already on it’s last legs. A perfect indicator of this change is the group X-Clan and the Blackwatch Movement lead by Professor X (Lumumba Carson). In 1990, their album “To The East, Blackwards” was successful enough for individual group members to record solo albums between 1990 and 1992.
By the time X-Clan released their sophomore album in 1992, interest in the group had dropped significantly and shortly thereafter they broke up. What happened in 1990 that initiated this change? The answer actually lies back in 1989 with a string of initial crossover hits that led to an explosion of factors in 1990 and Touré somehow missed all of them completely (which is odd given you’d think he’d research these things before he wrote them).
How exactly did Hip-Hop’s fanbase gain so many White fans between 1989 and 1992 anyways? Let’s examine that issue by looking at Hip-Hop itself. In 1989, several crossover hits that ended up on Rock & Pop radio, got aired on MTV’s “Yo! MTV Raps” and gained popularity with young kids that weren’t initially Rap fans were made. Among them being Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend”, De La Soul’s “Me, Myself & I”, Young MC’s “Bust A Move”, Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” & “Funky Cold Medina” and MC Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out”.
All of these songs and more people across the country getting cable and access to “Yo! MTV Raps” plus in January 1989 “The Arsenio Hall Show” began airing. Arsenio Hall brought Hip-Hop into America’s homes as frequent musical guests every weeknight and he even allowed them to sit on his couch & speak their piece. This led to a perfect storm come a wave of Rap hits in 1990 that changed Rap’s destiny forever.
In January 1990, MC Hammer released the inescapable pop Rap hit “U Can’t Touch This”. It became one of the first Rap songs to hit the #1 spot on the Billboard charts. In July 1990, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” became the next #1 Rap song to hit on Billboard. Between the success of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” and Vanilla Ice’s “To The Extreme” they brought Rap to a wider audience then ever before possible thanks to spins on Rock and Pop radio plus the support of MTV. The success of these two albums forced many Rap artists and Hip-Hop labels to attempt to make crossover hits much in the same fashion.
In addition to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, Salt N’ Pepa crossed over with a softer sound and the Platinum hit “Expression”. “Expression” pushed their album to Platinum sales and soon other female rappers (most notably MC Lyte & Queen Latifah) switched up to lighter fare in hopes of moving more units and gaining mainstream appeal. This lead to much internal turmoil in the Rap world as rappers began to call each other out for attempting to “sell out”. As would be expected, there was a backlash against what was deemed “Pop Rap”.
In addition, more things happened to widen Hip-Hop’s appeal to segments of the population that weren’t previously Rap fans in 1990. In April 1990, the fledgling Fox network began airing a Hip-Hopcentric comedy sketch show written mostly by brothers Keenan Ivory Wayans & Damon Wayans. They introduced Hip-Hop acts to the American audience every week by featuring them as music guests to close the show. Kid N’ Play starred in the film “House Party” which became a box office hit and made them mainstream stars. They even gained a Saturday morning cartoon the next Fall (alongside MC Hammer’s “Hammerman”).
Touré even overlooked that in 1990 Will Smith’s Quincy Jones produced show “The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air” began airing on NBC. It quickly became a ratings hit and made Hip-Hop all the more palatable to mainstream audiences. Between the combined popularity of “Yo! MTV Raps”, “The Arsenio Hall Show”, “In Living Color” and “The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air” White audiences where being bombarded with Rap and flashes of urban/Hip-Hop culture. At the same time Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance”, Candyman’s “Knockin’ Boots” and Monie Love’s “It’s A Shame (My Sister)” had also become huge crossover Billboard hits in 1990. Hip-Hop was everywhere.
So how did we get from MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice dancing onstage in sequins and endorsing every product under the sun to everyone being “hardcore”, “keepin’ it real” and representin’” by 1993? It’s pretty simple. Beginning in 1991, labels began to seek out “alternative Rap” groups or “alternative Rappers” to cater to these fans that would be turned off by harder more aggressive Rap.
What happened next? Acts like P.M. Dawn emerged and became successful. P.M. Dawn’s success led to Arrested Development getting signed. By then, a huge segment of Hip-Hop fans and artists became very irritated with Hip-Hop/Rap’s recent Pop leanings and there was a great backlash against it that had been brewing since January 1990 but finally came to a head in January 1992.
The event that is often cited as the tipping point when the Pop Rap Era ended and the second Hip-Hop Golden Age began is the January night in 1992 where P.M. Dawn did a set at Sound Factory and previously Prince Be said some less than flattering (and downright stupid) things about Public Enemy and KRS One in recent interviews with the music press. KRS One, the BDP crew and several affiliates and artists that supported him rushed the stage, tossed Prince Be off and KRS One rocked “I’m Still #1” for a frenzied audience. The backlash against Pop Rap and Alternative Rap had reached critical mass and ushered in a new Golden Age of Hip-Hop as numerous seminal and classic Hip-Hop releases would drop in succession in the following months.
The cover of issue #39 (December ’92) of The Source declared 1992 “The Year Of The Underground”. From that point on if you weren’t hard, reppin’ the streets, keepin’ it real, smoking blunts, drinking 40’s, playing ceelo, selling crack, bustin’ guns or just keeping it raw or gutter you were seen as not being down with “real Hip Hop” by 1993. This was a complete 180º from the Pop leaning Rap that pervaded the charts and airwaves between 1990 and 1991. Every action has an equal or opposite reaction, after all.
Touré completely glossed over these occurrences in the world of Hip-Hop making it seem as if these changes in Rap and it’s culture occurred almost overnight and they were directly affected by the government’s so called “War On Drugs”. Don’t we all remember White kids ironically reciting Del’s “Mistadobalina” or doing the East Coast stomp as “Scenario” played at the end of 1991? I sure do…
Inexplicably, Touré didn’t even think to mention how the Time Warner/Cop Killer Controversy or the LA Riots in April 1992 affected records labels staying away from signing conscious rappers and Rap groups in the following years (case in point, Paris’ “Bush Killa” LP being released later as “Sleeping With The Enemy” on his own Scarface label after being dropped by a major post the Time Warner boycott).
The fallout resulting from the reaction to Body Count’s single “Cop Killer” post the LA Riots ultimately had a lot more to do with the lack of social commentary in Hip-Hop or conscious Rap in later years than any of the external factors Touré listed in his article, especially after the Telecommunications Act was signed in February 1996 (Touré DID research this, right?). If you were an outsider to Hip-Hop culture and weren’t a fan through this tumultuous time you’d simply take Touré at his word, seeing as how he’s the expert. That would be dangerous and ill advised to say the least.
Let’s finish with Touré and his constant mentions of Katheryn Russell-Brown’s “criminalblackman” theory (from her 1998 book “The Color Of Crime” pictured above) and it’s application to how Hip-Hop artists (and by extension all Black men) are viewed. The thugged out image that pervaded Hip-Hop actually began as an adverse reaction to the Pop Rappers in gaudy sequined outfits that supposedly sold out the culture in the previous couple of years. Beginning in late 1991 and early 1992, Rap songs began to cross over without having to diluting it’s sound (i.e. Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours (Revisited)”, ATCQ’s “Scenario”, Del’s “Mistadobalina”, EPMD’s “Crossover”, Das EFX’s “They Want EFX” & Dr. Dre & Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Deep Cover”).
From 1992 to 1996, Hip-Hop went in the opposite direction with it’s sound, look and overall aesthetic (as I previously established it always did naturally). That’s NOT to say that corporations and labels didn’t exploit this supposed “criminalblackman” image, focus on it, leading others to adopt it and reap untold fortunes from it. In conclusion, Touré admirably found a way to simultaneously simplify and complicate the shift of Hip-Hop’s fanbase and focus during a crucial phase “at the same damn time”. For that he failed.
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