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Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,912 words)
The ’90s Are Old is a Longreads series by Rebecca Schuman, wherein she unpacks the cultural legacy of a decade that refuses to age gracefully.
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In the entirety of 1990, exactly one hip-hop single made it to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. This was “Ice Ice Baby,” and the LP whence its dope melodies came, To the Extreme, also ruled the Billboard album charts for the final eight weeks of that year — knocking off the previous number one, another rap record, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. (It turned out that if U were Vanilla Ice, U could, in fact, touch this.) As the nineties rush-rushed in, aching to break out of the previous decade’s noxious forcefield of Aqua Net, one thing was clear: American Top 40 radio was ready for hip hop — so long as it was squeaky clean, or, failing that, performed by a white guy with the wackest eyebrows in history.
By the end of the decade, the landscape had shifted almost beyond recognition. Synth-pop was the stuff of nostalgia nights; rock was emitting the first gurgle of its death rattle (which sounded like this); and what had heretofore been called “hardcore” hip hop was so ubiquitous in “mainstream” (read: white) culture that its ubiquity became a bit in Mike Judge’s 1999 cult classic Office Space.
Here we see perpetually aggrieved software tech Michael Bolton (no, not that one) rap feverishly along with Scarface’s “No Tears” in his car — until, of course, he passes an older black pedestrian, at which point not only does he pipe down, but he also locks his door.
While Bolton’s racist maneuver is an excellent illustration of how the nineties’ rap explosion did not solve racism forever, it also demonstrates how indelibly the artform had entered the consciousness of the white-dominated culture that many people — mostly white people with little self-awareness — thought of as the “normal” or “default” milieu.
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While the legacy of this musical shift bears significant further discussion, which I am definitely going to do right now, its provenance is fairly straightforward. “Mainstream to me, when it comes to music, just means popular,” explains my former supervisor Akil Kamau, the director of college counseling for a New York-based network of middle and high schools. “The ‘subculture’ wasn’t necessarily accepted,” Kamau points out, “just bites were taken at various times to satisfy a curiosity and to entertain.”
This is a sentiment echoed by another former colleague from my previous, more interesting life, Roshmond Patten, 41, better known as Sum — an MC, artist, copywriter, and creative consultant in Los Angeles. “Capitalism,” he says. “That’s it.” The legendary series of Yo! MTV Raps-worthy TV spots for St. Ides malt liquor certainly bears this out — but there’s also the small matter that the music was legitimately dope and nobody had heard anything like it before. So, capitalism, yes, but aided by “some of the illest beats ever devised,” as Seattle-based professor and historian Daudi Abe writes in 6 ‘N the Morning: West Coast Hip Hop Music 1987-1992 and the Transformation of Mainstream Culture.
Part of this transformation is positive: the diversification of the American Top-40 music scene, and with it of the shared American experience. “Perhaps more than any other era,” Abe argues, West Coast hip hop of the late eighties and early nineties “helped diminish artificial social barriers such as race and class,” which had heretofore defined American history and “reduced social divisions within American society by providing a common point of cultural interest for millions of young people.” Similarly, as Outkast’s Big Boi told the magazine XXL last year, “When [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic came out, music changed. When [Snoop Dogg’s] Doggystyle came out, music changed.” And change — especially when it involves diversifying musical norms without brazen theft from black artists, a.k.a. The Story of Rock and Pop — is good.
The first step in hip hop’s journey from subversion to regular old ‘version was when N.W.A.’s Efil4zaggin (released, after the band’s breakup, as Niggaz4life) hit Billboard‘s top spot in 1991, but I think the exact point of no return was the 1993 release of Doggystyle, which debuted at #1. The lanky, laaaaid-back 22-year-old protegé of Dr. Dre then known as Snoop Doggy Dogg — with his unmistakable flow, those infectious “trademark drawn-out vowels,” as Jelani Cobb has written in To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic — became an instant icon, so much so that for a good decade after Doggystyle‘s release, the default pronunciation of our language’s default gender-based insult for a female human remained biatch.
Biatch — its offensiveness, its ascendance in the (white) mainstream — is indeed something of a microcosm of why Doggystyle was as scandalous as it was wildly popular. In the ’90s as now, all humorless old people knew that the best way to impede an album’s popularity was to be very offended by it (ha) — and, as such, ’90s hip hop was also largely defined by the older generations’ aversion. If you were an American over the age of 45 in 1994, there was no question that you loathed “the gangster rap.” The only question was how you hated it, and that defined your place in the cultural milieu.
Older white liberals — my parents’ do-gooder ACLU set — cried at Boys ‘N the Hood, and thought Ice Cube was an incredible actor, but man did they not support all that talk about bitches and hoes and rat-a-tat-tat. Why couldn’t everyone just be like that nice Young MC? He had a degree in economics!
This was one of many points in the decade where white liberalism and white conservatism converged. It was, after all, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker together who were so aghast at the 2 Live Crew that they plastered those black-and-white stickers all over our tapes. But while liberals tsk-tsked the rap stars’ alleged embrace of violence and misogyny — concerns which the aging fans of my generation have come to find they often share — white conservatives such as former Reagan Secretary of Education Bill Bennett took particular glee in conflating Snoop and his colleagues with young black manhood writ large, as the ultimate proof of some kind of inherent depravity.
The gangsta trope is a highly specific nineties-born prejudice with remarkable staying power: I am 98 percent sure that when President Trump weaves his ignorant-ass tableaux of contemporary American blackness, he’s playing the hyperbolic vignettes of the “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” video in his head. If they didn’t want us to think of them that way, scolded the scolds — as their teenage sons rolled around town with “Murder Was the Case” blasting from the BMW, savoring the n-word like a stoner eating a Hostess apple pie — they would pull up their pants, cut their hair, and start talking right, like that articulate Cosby fellow.
Ah, it’s quite a thing, the way that this particular ’90s respectability-politics battle has come full circle, isn’t it? When America’s beloved sitcom dad wasn’t busy committing sexual assault, he was lecturing the hip-hop generation on its moral turpitude. And now, you guys. Holy shit. “I do think it’s ironic,” agrees Patten, “that Snoop is basically America’s Black Dad now and Cosby is in exile. Who saw that coming in ’94, because I sure as shit did not.”
Indeed, back when Cosby’s horrors were secreted away and he stood in the white imagination for all “respectable” black folk, he was also joined by a chorus of the third, most credible and complex type of hip-hop scold: black elders who objected both to the rappers’ poor role-modeling and the inevitable decontextualization of the glamorized gangsta portrayal by malevolent white folks. It is a sentiment that resonates in writer F. Geoffrey Johnson’s 2013 poem, “a note to hip hop“:
black boys like n.w.a., dr. dre,
snoop dogg, the notorious b.i.g., 50 cent
began to justify the use of
hateful language, claiming they were changing
definitions, making them respectful
The feeling also echoes in the mixed reaction of the audience at the 1994 Soul Train Awards during Snoop and Dre’s electrifying medley of “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” / “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” It is a moment that on the one hand, as Kamau puts it, is “still hot as fuck. I literally got goosebumps watching this.” (It was also funny, he reminds us, to see “Martha Stewart’s bae mean-mugging on stage in all his glory.”)
However. “The real science of this video,” says Patten, “is how frustrated Snoop and Dre look. There are locals and plants in the front rows […] but there was also a bunch of haters in that audience and they were black. If I’m not mistaken, you can hear boos at the end.” Some of the scolding, says Patten, was fair, because “the shit was foul and problematic on many levels. The elders were right about some of it. But they couldn’t stop it,” he says, “because this was generations of pent-up (fill-in-the-blank) hitting a fever pitch.”
Even the older people who were alleged fans were profoundly embarrassing about it. I mean, what about the hagiographies by the white journalists who covered hip hop for the legacy music magazines back in the day? Like, for example, this tour de force of Othering in the September 1993 issue of Rolling Stone, rendered in the voice of a 19th-century anthropologist, in which the author styles N.W.A.’s Niggaz4Life the “ghetto Göterdämmerung” with a straight face (and meant it as a compliment)?
By the end of the ’90s, hip hop was so universal that it even spawned its own genre of rock: nu metal. I will readily admit I had forgotten all about (all right, blocked out) nu metal, but another colleague, Edwin Molina, 42 — a New York-based communications professional, sports reporter, and co-host of The Ed and Fuz Show podcast — makes some good points when he reminds me that it was “the byproduct of kids growing up immersed in both rock (or metal or punk) and hip hop.” (I had previously only grouped artists such as Limp Bizkit and Slipknot under the umbrella Shows Where One Is Least Likely To Find a Live Human Woman.)
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And yet, however one feels about doing it all for the nookie (C’MON), nu metal is a downright respectful homage compared to ’90s hip hop’s other greatest crossover legacy in white America: appropriation, to use the parlance of both that time and ours, on steroids. Thanks to white America’s immense dislike for contextualization of anything outside whiteness, the ’90s brought us scores of suburban douchebag teens thinking it was cool to dress up like Crips and throw gang signs in pictures. “Like Black culture in America throughout history,” Kamau says, appropriation of hip-hop style “gave white mainstream people a safe view into our everyday world. So, you had many who could safely slide on a Wu-Tang t-shirt and safely mimic what they heard and watched on the videos as easily as they could slide on a Superman t-shirt and pretend to fly around their rooms.” The same teens who took on the cultural signifiers of black bodies with willful, gleeful ignorance of black history would grow up to become the guys who never stop asking why they aren’t “allowed” to use that word.
“Because I’m a lot of people’s Only Black Friend,” explains Patten — he is definitely not talking about me here, okay, you guys? — “this comes up a lot, but I’m not an authority on the subject” of the n-word. Not, mind you, by National Review types, but by his well-meaning white, liberal friends. Patten finds it telling that he “grew up in the South and Midwest, where racism was raised and groomed,” but didn’t start getting these sorts of questions — can a white person ever use that word? Why not? — until he moved to “liberal” New York and L.A. “I think this speaks to some more discussion that needs to be had about how behind liberal white America is on many things.”
Because no white-liberal narrative about ’90s hip hop would be complete without a story that centers my own (largely insignificant) experience, I have an anecdote. In the summer of 1994, shortly before I left for college, I commandeered my parents’ sweet red Civic to drive getaway on a mission that was the brainchild of a kid I knew, Keith (not his real name): Head a few miles down I-5 until we reached the mile marker for 187, and then steal it. This brazen misdemeanor (I hope it was a misdemeanor) was ostensibly in homage to a line from “Tha Shiznit” (called back to in “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”) wherein Snoop goes 1-8-7 on a motherfucking cop — with 1-8-7 being the police code for homicide. I still think of my willing participation in this ignominy — not the it’s wrong to steal city property part, because I’m not that much of a narc, but the weird whiteness of it, which even as a self-absorbed and apolitical teen I had the feeling wasn’t quite right — on the occasions I encounter the numerals 1-8-7 together. Until about two months ago, the entry code to my building was 1870*, and I mumbled Snoop under my breath literally every time I came home — and then wished I’d had the backbone, in 1994, to tell Keith that this idea was messed up as hell. Keith is a lawyer now.
This is not to say that all of the nineties’ non-black hip-hop devotees were poseurs, or that sincere hip-hop fans cannot grow up to be lawyers. All of Molina’s friends growing up in Brooklyn listened to hip hop, and some of them were white. “It was like, ‘well everyone likes hip hop,’ because that was the world to me,” he says. It goes without saying that at least three white guys from New York had been into hip hop for quite some time already.
Similarly, Patten also says he “had white friends who dug rap, got it, and it wasn’t weird; it was the cats who started changing up the way they dressed and talked, and then looking at us funny. They were the problem.” He recounts the time he went to a mall in Charlotte when Doggystyle dropped, and as he walked through the parking lot, a white dude drove by with his windows down and the new record cranked. “He slowed down to make sure we heard him saying ‘and bitches who fuck him, gimme that ass’ with the super Southern accent and everything, like a fucking bunghole. And we laughed — but even then, at a young age, I knew we were in for some long years of weird white-dude bullshit.”
Even with all the wack iterations of fandom (and Feind-dom; et tu, 1993 Rolling Stone?), the early-to-mid-’90s g-funk breakthrough changed music, changed young people’s relationship to music and to each other — and, according to the intro to Abe’s 2013 book, “it also allowed the hip hop generation to gradually adjust mainstream cultural norms and expectations,” which “helped set the stage for the election of the first Black president less than twenty years later.”
But — as would become even clearer approximately three years after Abe wrote that sentence — there was another side to g-funk’s intersections with the nineties’ heart of whiteness. There were still almost no black characters in movies or TV that weren’t explicitly “black entertainment.” The 1988 presidential election had just been won (and lost) on a single ad that featured a black man’s mugshot. We were admonished to “celebrate diversity” by people who still locked the doors of their LOVE SEES NO COLOR-stickered Volvos if they found themselves in that sort of neighborhood. As hip-hop culture entered the mainstream, the reaction from the haters was both immediate and a terrifying slow burn. I emailed Abe to ask if he’d write a different intro to his book in 2018. He told me he would not — but added that he, “like most everyone else, [has] come to understand the inevitable backlash.”
Of course, to argue that there is a direct and cleanly demarcated line between scandalized white reception of Doggystyle in 1993 and the stunts of newly emboldened white supremacists in 2018 would be both profoundly unfair to Doggystyle, and would bestow upon the “alt-right” far more credit than it deserves. Similarly, to argue that the world, musical and otherwise, would somehow be better off without the hip-hop takeover of the ’90s would be both ridiculous and incorrect.
But as so many of the icons of that decade reappear in a new context in the fashion and pop culture of our overburdened youth, I’m curious to see if, and how, g-funk will mesh with a new generation of teens — one whose breakout public figures do not abide by racism, gun violence, or the word biatch, and who put up with exactly zero shit from left- and right-wing scolds alike. I suppose I, like all the other conflicted old people, simply have no choice but to wait and see — to chill, as it were, until the next episode.
You’ve Reached the Winter of Our Discontent
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Editor: Ben Huberman