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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.