Part 3: In Which MTV Raps
I don't think MTV has ever been as culturally on the edge as it was during the early days of Yo! MTV Raps. Has anyone ever been as cool as Fab 5 Freddy just for existing? Fab 5 Freddy was the intellectual of Yo! MTV Raps, while Ed Lover and Dr. Dre were doing their best to out-moron Beavis and Butthead.
Nevertheless, with all of the rap feuds throughout the years, I wondered how there was never any gun-shed over the name Dr. Dre. Can you imagine two different people both being named Tupac back then without some fireworks?
There was rap back in the days when MTV was frightened of black people, but after MTV started featuring it every afternoon it was like someone poured gas over the already ignited flame.
If there was any universal lesson about pop culture and the 20th century (and thus MTV), I suppose it should have been to never underestimate the ability of the next generation to extend the boundaries of noise, venom, and world-threatening bad taste ... oh, and never underestimate MTV's ability to jump on the bandwagon and profit from it.
When I was in college, I used to wonder how things could ever get any more menacing to the adult world than punk rock. How was it conceivably possible for people raised on punk to be confronted with anything more threatening, nihilistic, and loud? In the end we all underestimated rap.
Young MC - "Bust a Move"
It seemed at the time to me to be not much more than a one-note novelty act. I remember being fairly entertained by the more melodic efforts that hit the charts like Young MC's "Bust a Move" and De La Soul's "Me Myself and I," but the possibility that rap would become as diverse and dominant a force as it is today seemed totally out of the question to me until Public Enemy released It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
That album took the argument that rap music was nothing but random noise and threw it back in the face of the music world with screeching police sirens, sounds of random gunfire, and the intense anger of Chuck D's Marv Albert impression that he accurately labeled "lyrical terrorism." At its core I never really found Public Enemy to be all that frightening because I understood where they were coming from. They might be singing about an armed insurrection into Arizona, but they were all about letting out their violence in the rage of their music.
Public Enemy - "Fight the Power"
Then came NWA's Straight Outta Compton, and all hell broke loose. Before NWA, Tipper Gore's panties were all in a knot about suggestive Prince songs. Tipper and her cohorts used to spend all night playing "Erotic City" over and over again desperately trying to see if they could figure out whether Prince was saying "funk" or "f***" in the chorus. Then came NWA's "F*** tha Police." Ratings stickers? Sure put ‘em on our albums we don't care. F***, put two on if you like as long as I get paid. This was truly scary stuff. Tales of gangland violence, pimping, altercations with the police, drive by shootings, drug dealing, guns galore, and the omnipresence of the word motherf*****. Rappers use the word motherf***** more than the Beatles used love, peace, and pronouns.
NWA - "Straight Outta Compton"
Of course, the thing that scared the bejesus out of those soccer moms who were really paying attention was that suburban white kids started eating this up like it was covered in sugar. Imagine how cool guys who don't listen to the police are to kids who don't want to listen to their parents. These guys don't speak your language, you have to learn to speak theirs. Who wouldn't rather be known as Ghostface Killa or Shock G.? After all, rock and art and stuff have a long history of middle class hipsters desperately grabbing on to lower class cool.
Pretty soon rapper replaced athlete as the best way out of the 'hood, and how could anyone resist these packing cowboys with street smart style? As long as they stayed out of court and didn't get killed, rappers could seemingly get away with anything, and rap albums were like a doorway into the life of gangster, hustler cool without having to be poor. Unfortunately as fascinated liberals waxed poetic about poetry from the oppressed streets and the rest of the world increasingly swung to the dope beats that Dr. Dre and his followers were dishing out, some truly frightening stuff started going on. Folks started shooting each other. Of course that only made things that much more interesting.
The man or, in the Tipper Gore era of "no sex until you get that song off of the air," the white women, tried to make a stand around 1989, and their choice was ingenious. In going after 2 Live Crew and their leader Luke (I can’t finish his name because George Lucas sued him) and his hit opus "Me So Horny," they were going after perhaps the least talented and certainly the least artistic rapper in history.
2 Live Crew - "Me So Horny"
Why mess with a guy with brains like Lenny Bruce, when you can mess with a guy with missing teeth, whose entire aesthetic goal seemed to be becoming the first super successful American Black pornographer. Nevertheless, give Luther Campbell some credit:
1) Sampling “Me So Horny, Me Love You Long Time” from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket was genius.
2) I love the scene in Ice Cube’s (as in crazy motherf***** named) Players Club, where it’s announced that Luke is in the house and all the strippers come running like Oprah’s giving away cars in the lobby. Wow, what odds do you think I could have gotten from Tipper Gore when Straight Outta Compton came out against Cube one day starring in successful children’s movies? Had I laid like ten bucks, she’d owe me so much she’d have to sleep with me on demand, and Al wouldn’t have had anything to say about it even if Florida had gone his way.
3) Dude was so completely absurd that no one could really take much of it seriously. Much as I fear censorship even in today’s world, the rise of gangsta rap proves that money talks in America no matter how offended you are. Record companies didn’t scurry to sign Gerry and the Pacemakers because they loved their music and once rap started to sell, there were a million record executives ready, willing, and able to argue the merits of the art of the ghetto.
Sadly, it eventually ended with bling and a bunch of hot tubs. With Puff Daddy around to quell the tides of insurrection, MTV was safe to sell beats, jewelry, Pimp My Ride, and Cribs. Soon somehow, it would even turn into Jersey Shore.
In the end, money always wins, especially on MTV.
Puff Daddy - "It's All About the Benjamins""
Tomorrow: Yo! MTV laughs