License to Ill

Black journalism in the pages of the 'Voice'

I began reading the Voice because of Stanley Crouch, who in 1977 was the epicenter of frontline jazz criticism in America at the most auspicious moment in the music's progression since the early 1960s. That period saw the communal clustering in New York of the music's last generation of rebellious, high-concept pioneers and Crouch pretty much kept those of us interested parties in the hinterlands up on what they were doing night to night in various lofts, dives, and haunts. Besides his wartime dispatches on the '70s avant-garde, though, Crouch also produced long-form gems like "Bringing Atlantis to the Top," his epic essay on the promising way newjacks like Olu Dara, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, and Julius Hemphill were commingling funk, avant-garde, and other Afro-diasporic forms. "Atlantis" was as significant a thesis on the topic as had been written since Amiri Baraka's "The Changing Same (R&B and the New Music)"—and one that only would have appeared in the Voice.

Having been inducted into the ranks of Voice readers by Crouch, I also got to read the first major piece on hiphop and dance when Sally Banes's breakthrough article on breakdancing was published here in 1981. Being down with the VV in those years also meant reading the scant but intimate work on the 'hood and its tragedies by an amazing and forgotten sister named Ianthe Thomas, Clayton Riley's innovative and comparative analysis of improvisatory technique in basketball and bebop, and a Thulani Davis screed on James Brown—all of which said to me that the Voice was where it was at for an intellectually curious young Negro like myself.

It was largely due to Thulani Davis's encouragement that I sent my first demos in 1981 to Robert Christgau, whose response was, "The more writing like this I get in this paper the more I'll like it." Talk about a license to ill. Christgau became a one-man affirmative action committee in the 1980s, largely responsible for the paper recruiting and employing not only moi but Nelson George, Barry Michael Cooper, Thulani Davis, Carol Cooper, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, and Enrique Fernandez. His roster also included those impressive Negro sympathizers Gary Giddins and Chip Stern—all because he believed Afro-diasporic musics should on occasion be covered by people who weren't strangers to those communities.

When Lisa Jones joined the paper in 1984 she became a one-woman Ivy League affirmative action conduit for a whole generation of predominantly Yale graduate African Americans who gradually invaded the paper as copy editors, writers, and editors—these notably including Lisa Kennedy, Ben Mapp, and Donald Suggs. (The Yale mafia also included Voice luminaries Joe Wood, Erik Davis, Joe Levy, and Julian Dibbell.) The twentysomething group also came to include James Hannaham, Scott Poulson-Bryant, and Public Enemy's media assassin Harry Allen. The Voice's coverage of Black culture and politics became the most trenchant and erudite to be found anywhere in the country, thanks to the aforementioned and to the arrival of Peter Noel and his exceptional coverage of the grassroots Black politics that dominated New York progressive politics in the late '80s and early '90s. So when hiphop and the new Black nationalism were transforming the zeitgeist, the Voice's incredible cadre of young African American writers were thinking deeply about the meaning of Black identity, culture, and politics as emerging figures like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Tricia Rose, and Michele Wallace were bringing their brio to a resurrected Black Identity debate, and as equally dynamic figures from Black bohemia like Spike Lee, errant Voice contributor Vernon Reid, Tracy Chapman, Chuck D, Trey Ellis, the Hudlin Brothers—all of whom were prominently covered in the paper before and after they became household names—began to make work that helped elucidate and complicate that same debate.

The attrition of that corral of talent was to some degree inevitable. People like Lisa Jones and Barry Michael Cooper became players in the film industry; Nelson George focused on film and book projects; others departed because of burnout. Vibe and The Source emerged to become the more logical choices for the next generation of hiphop writer-activists like dream hampton, Karen Good, Robert Marriott, and Paul Miller, who all the same helped keep the paper's hiphop coverage vital and informative.

The Voice never stopped featuring hiphop, but as it became a more dominant staple of American popular culture and developed its own reportorial outlets, the paper's coverage became less central to the discussion—certainly far less than it had been in the early '80s when George and Cooper pretty much single-handedly invented hiphop journalism, and I became, by default, the crackpot inventor of hiphop semiotics (there being few Black writers around at the time who gave much of a damn about either deconstruction or theories of boom-bap-itude).

When I moved to New York in 1982 I got a call from Crouch, who pointedly asked me, what did I see myself as trying to do in New York? I puckishly replied that my intention was to be a moving target. The nature of the Voice easily made that radical pipe dream of a career plan a reality. I can't think of anywhere else my impudent ass would have been able to do the history of Harlem one week, George Clinton and hermeneutics the next, or routinely be encouraged to dispense my arcane opinions on Bootsy Collins, King Sunny Ade, Cecil Taylor, and the Bad Brains, or be given major space to theorize on the trial of eight Black revolutionaries whose sympathies lay with members of the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground.

This doesn't even begin to talk about the utterly outrageous liberties I got to take with the English language high and low here because, as was explained to me—by that amazing staff of editors who midwifed and made the paper sing in the '80s: Christgau, M. Mark, Kit Rachlis, Vince Aletti, Ross Wetzsteon, et. al—the Voice was a writer's paper, where editors were encouraged to help you say what you wanted to say in the way you wanted to say it and stay vaguely consistent with the style manual. The degree to which I and others were able to take this notion and run buck wild with it was confirmed for me years later when Vernon Reid told me that upon first encountering my early work here, he didn't know what the hell I was talking about but he knew I had to be a brother. Point being that for myself and Nelson, Stanley, Barry, Lisa, Thulani, and others, the Voice was once upon a time a place where you could actually get published (and get paid) to think long and hard about the meaning of being Black in a style and form that was racially motivated, and maybe even racially overdetermined for some overwhelmed readers' tastes, but never dull, if only because of how furiously we were all riding our own prose dilznicks and cliznits. We were the sheet, knew it was our time, and let the record show, we all wrote as if we knew it.

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