Conscious Hip-Hop has been beaten up badly but not killed!

How one of America’s most vibrant art forms (and the social movement it was a part of) lost it’s soul virtually overnight.

This is a hip hop mystery, a tragedy of epic proportions, told through the eyes of a man who, at one time, stood right at the top of critical and commercial success. But you don’t have to know much about him, or even hip hop itself, to appreciate it. It’s also a Tale of Two Americas - one Black and one White. It’s U.S. History with a capital H, as American as the Civil War, and at least as relevant as anything they taught you in school. It’s a story that hasn’t received much press, which is surprising given just how big a story this is- but then again, that’s not surprising at all.

A Little Hip Hop History (for the uninitiated)

Travel back in time with me to the early 90’s, a time when “rap music” had broken through into white youth culture, which means it was finally making the music industry some big bucks. Other than Rick Rubin, I doubt many white music execs cared for or even understood the music and culture that was paying for their new sports cars and old coke habits- but for the moment, it didn’t really matter. Hip hop was a seller’s market; it seemed like you could throw almost anything out there and people would flock to it like hipsters to a vacant Williamsburg apartment (that’s a 21st Century New York City joke for y’all.) One need only look at the tween duo Kriss Kross, whose 1992 debut went quadruple-platinum (fueled by “Jump”, a catchy but soullessly corporate jingle that became the longest lasting #1 single in hip hop history at that point) as proof. And those guys were in middle school.

One outcome of this zillion dollar windfall was that the record industry was in a generous mood. These little pockets of creative freedom and experimentation don’t happen often in the mainstream, but they do happen [1], and whomever is lucky enough to be hanging around at the time becomes the beneficiary of good fortune, chiseled into the history books for reasons beyond their control. In this case, the lucky bastards were acts like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest on the smooth end, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions on the hard. All four groups feature incredibly talented artists who worked diligently to achieve success they rightfully deserved- but if they had emerged, say, today, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t occupy such precious, warm places in our cultural heart, simply because there would be no marketing muscle bringing them to America’s attention. In the days before the internet, the road to fame was pretty damn narrow.

But the four acts in question had something else sorely lacking from today’s commercial hip hop hotshots- a genuine connection to the fundamental tenets of hip hop culture: peace, love, unity, and having fun. That’s not just some hippy dippy s***; it’s a catch phrase that very accurately describes the very best elements of Black Culture. While any individual artist has the freedom to do whatever s/he wants, hip hop groups (like their jazz forefathers) readily acknowledged the musical legacy on whose shoulders they rode on. Hip hop wasn’t merely a sound- it was a way of life that involved, literally, taking what your predecessors made, chopping it up, and building something new with the pieces- a musical baton that passed from one African American hand to the next, and sometimes back again. Hip hop was house parties, where people could gather together in a positive environment and showcase their musical performance skills or simply dance along, much like humans have been doing for thousands of years. Being an MC meant being a part of a huge family whom you owed props to; hip hop was both an environment of creative competition and a spiritual support team to keep you going when times were tough.

Can you imagine the Cure, for example, inserting a track on every single album they released where Robert Smith yelled out “yo Morrissey! Depeche Mode! How’s it hangin’, Echo?” And then hearing the following on a Smiths album, six months later: “Back atcha, Robbie!” ? Only punk rock, which is the closest thing white people have to rap music, approached that deep sense of community (I’m thinking specifically of the Huskers, Minutemen, et al.) But just try and find a hip hop album from that era that didn’t include the name drop; contrary to the ominous black thug stereotypes Hollywood consistently scared America with, hip hop was a positive force generated by a group of people who had every excuse to be feeling negative, but thought better of it.

My personal connection to hip hop is as an outsider. In high school, I was the one Mexican kid among two thousand suburban teenagers that, to my memory, contained zero Black kids. Our concept of rap music (we didn’t even know the term “hip hop” existed) was Run DMC busting into an Aerosmith song, The Beastie Boys screaming “Fight For Your Right!” and a very Fresh Prince verbalizing our adolescent hunches that parents just didn’t understand us [2]. I loved the idea of rap music- I literally froze in utter amazement the first time I heard the scratching and sampling from M.A.R.S.’ “Pump Up the Volume” on the radio- but without the internet, elder siblings, or in-the-know friends, there was just no way for hip hop culture to permeate my suburban safety blanket.

It wasn’t until I became a DJ at my college radio station that I truly lost my hip hop cherry. Yes, I became a lifelong fan of all the greats like Public Enemy, but, outsider that I always seem to be, my path took me further afield. In March of 1992, two albums that would change my life permanently happened to drop at the same time. One, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury was an urban, industrial-noise assemblage of political commentary brought to you by a duo including now-cheery-and-herb-smoking-boho Michael Franti. He wasn’t cheery back then, I can guarantee that, tackling the corporate machine head on with a musical force that was equal parts Gil Scott Heron, Chuck D, and Jello Biafra- a full eight months before Rage Against the Machine’s debut would try a similar political attack with a full band.

The album landed them a spot on U2’s Zoo TV tour, but also a permanent spot in my budding progressive heart. Yet it was the other March ’92 album that has had a longer lasting impact, not just on me but on a whole generation of socially conscious people searching for a voice. There, among the radio station rubble of promotional cd’s yearning for some college airplay, was this funky blue and orange album by a group with the oddest of names: Arrested Development.

Against All Odds

If you’re a millennial, no doubt the name “Arrested Development” brings to mind the Bluth Family, Bob Loblaw, and never nudes. But between 1992–93, everyone knew this name belonged to the first hip-hop act ever to win Best New Artist at the Grammys, a group whose debut sold over four million copies, dominated the MTV airwaves, topped the prestigious Village VoicePazz and Jop Critic’s Poll, and earned a headlining spot at Lollapalooza- all by defying every single preconception you could possibly have about hip hop. In many ways, their success made no sense: their sound was rural, featuring live instruments while everyone else’s was urban and sample-heavy. Their MC was a short, dread-headed bohemian who preached spirituality and rapped about the homeless. While everyone else filled their stage with sexy Fly Girls showing off their goods, AD’s set featured large African women as backup singers and a 60-year-old man named Baba Oje. I mean, I loved everything about these folks, but I couldn’t figure out why, all of a sudden, everyone else seemed to as well.

For about 18 months, I didn’t really care. Between AD’s success, the continuing maturity and mainstream acceptance of acts like Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul… and the rise of new creative groups like The Digable Planets - or the metal-rap fusion of Rage Against the Machine- it seemed like the Revolution was being televised, right now, in front of our eyes. It wasn’t just music, either. Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Malcolm X, came out at the end of ’92 with a juicy 33 million dollar budget. Think about that- in the early 90’s, Hollywood was convinced it could make money on an extremely controversial historical figure who made the majority of white America very nervous. This is the same industry that sticks to sequels and reboots, superhero franchises and special effect blockbusters. And Malcolm X wasn’t the safe, non-threatening world of the Cosby Show, either- this was the story of an outright revolutionary icon of Black Power.

Looking at this time period with contemporary eyes, it’s sad to reflect on how good we had it back then- and by “we” I mean all of us. No one thought racism had disappeared, but it was clearly on its way out, or so we believed. Bill Clinton was playing saxophone on a black man named Arsenio’s talk show, and white America loved it. Michael Jordan was the hero of every kid out there, regardless of what color their skin happened to be. And so on, and so forth, and so forth.

When my beloved Arrested Development released their sophomore effort, Zingalamaduni in June of 1994, it was a landmark moment- the culmination of everything this movement had been working towards. Somehow, Speech & co. had managed to top their brilliant debut, handing us a work that was more focused lyrically, richer musically, and more cohesive sonically, from start to finish, the way great concept albums are supposed to be. Not that this was ever officially branded as such, but there was definitely a guiding theme to the songs, and that theme was Revolution. “Just a shell until you decide to rebel” went one such song, while “United Minds” urged us to “tell the oppressor we’ll take no less than total justice.” This was the album that everything else had been working towards- this was the capstone that brought the movement into focus, and invited people of all races to participate. People of all skin colors would come together in solidarity, understanding that this love-bound unity would topple all the forces that had been working against us for centuries.

At least, that’s what was supposed to happen. Instead, nothing happened. No one bought Zingalamaduni; no one talked about it, no one promoted it, no one cared. This wasn’t just another good album lost in the shuffle; it was (and is) one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, released by the hottest hip hop band in the nation, and yet it never made the slightest mark anywhere. Really? Not a peep?

And it wasn’t just AD; just two months later, Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age came out to an equally silent response. In October, The Digable Planets’ hit-debut follow-up, Blowout Comb (which is now acknowledged as a classic, seminal album) also shared the same experience. Like AD, these weren’t unknown artists, nor were they flash-in-the-pan Milli Vanilli one-hit-wonders. They were critically-acclaimed, creatively-vibrant acts whose previous albums (Apocalypse 91… and Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space), respectively) had certified platinum and gold sales- yet none of that goodwill translated into any kind of mainstream attention. By the end of the decade, every single hip hop group I’ve mentioned here was either gone or relegated to underground status, which, in pre-internet days pretty much meant the same thing. If it wasn’t on the radio, on rapidly-disappearing Music Television, or written about in the few music magazines you could find that covered hip hop, it just didn’t exist to most of America. Fans of that kind of hip-hop (like me) moved on, dazed and confused, wondering if it had all been a dream.

 
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Back to the Future

Return with me now to the present. Let’s take a trip down to Georgia, where a certain Reverend Thomas lives, devoted husband and father of two, working as the minister of a church called The Seed- where he spends part of his time speaking passionately about social issues to young people from a spiritual perspective. He’s also quite busy running Victory Spot, his new art school that aims to help young artists reach their full potential in a positive and healthy environment. It’s all very similar to what Thomas was doing in the 90’s, when he was better known simply as Speech, the creative force behind (and the MC in front of) Arrested Development. Actually, he’s still known as Speech today, and Arrested Development is still very much alive and well, believe it or not. After Zingalamaduni, the band did, in fact, break up- but their popularity in Japan (as the Tom Waits song goes) kept them going long enough for a second life back in the States. They’ve been recording and performing for most of the 21st Century, and the amazing part is that they’re still really damn good. Musically and lyrically, it’s as if the downfall I just described never happened, and the creative wave they rode in on never crashed. They’ve released 7 albums since their comeback- all of them solid, some of them absolutely brilliant- and with two of those albums having dropped just recently, Speech is clearly not interested in slowing down. Which is why, in order to solve this hip hop murder mystery, I needed to track him down.

No group in hip hop felt the effects of the movement’s end more acutely than AD; no person experienced going from 100 to 0 more quickly than Speech, or saw the events unfold in such an intimate way. When I first heard his song “The Trends,” from AD’s near-perfect (that’s not hyperbole) 2010 effort, Strong, the floodgates of my memory blew open, and I was reminded of everything I had experienced myself but didn’t know how to process. Speech had crystallized that feeling into a coherent thought, and so, with his ground-zero view of the 90’s music scene, Speech remains our ideal- and urgently necessary- hip hop history professor.

***“During the early 90’s,” Speech is telling me during a recent conversation, “it was very in style to be diverse, to be method oriented and conscious. Public Enemy, Tribe Called Quest, and of course Arrested Development- we were selling millions of albums. The Cosby Show was a cross hit show talking about a black family in a way that had yet to be talked about in mainstream media, and movies like Do the Right Thing and Boys n the Hood were prominent. It was a true revolution of thought, one that tried to tackle the issues America has been wrestling with since the days of slavery- which, by the way, is only 150 years ago. Not a very long time.“There were a lot of wounds that needed to be healed, and we were addressing them. During that same time period, however, street culture started to become more sexy as a reaction to America’s war on drugs. Drug dealers were starting to get demonized- which, to some extent, rightfully so, but then to another extent, quite unfairly- and so the drug dealers defended themselves with ‘hey, we’re not demons, we’re just out there with no jobs. We have no opportunities, there’s no after school programs, nothing.’ They felt their viewpoint was being ignored, so there was a backlash against conscious music and a change- or trend- that was very much wanting to hear the perspective of what was once called the bad guy.”

History backs this up. When Bill Clinton entered the White House in 1992, despite his popularity among African Americans and Democrats, it was his “tough on crime” stance that won him the support of a conservative middle America- a position reflected in much of his administration’s domestic policy, such as the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 “Personal Responsibility Act”- two conservative-leaning bills that the Clintons championed as a way to curtail criminals and welfare-abusers, respectively. To a lot of white people, the obvious culprits in both of these categories were black people. No, not the black people that we all loved on the Cosby Show, perhaps, but those “other” black people- you know, the ones living in urban areas selling and using crack, or the single moms on welfare who kept cranking out kids non-stop. Though most white folks probably had never actually encountered such a person, the nightly news and Hollywood made sure they were prominent in our collective imagination (it’s not that different today, sadly.) Never mind the American economic system that had created this situation in the first place; hooded black teenagers were a threat that had to be dealt with. So while all this wonderful, socially-conscious, African-rooted art was thriving, so was the flip-side to the black experience.

When N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton came out in 1988, it was a genuinely masterful piece of self-expression, the kind Speech was just referring to: a realistic portrait of life from the other side of the tracks. As the 90’s progressed, however, Ice Cube, Dre, and Eazy-E’s respective careers slowly watered down that “gritty honesty” into a self-conscious gangsta schtick, one plastered all over MTV and hungrily consumed by suburban white kids who viewed it all with the same romantic prism their parents had held for the Italian Mafia. Says Speech:“The majority of white people would buy and love these gangsta hip hop tapes, listening to these gritty stories on record- and so of course, black artists would continue to supply it. Hip hop just became synonymous with being a drug dealer- what they used to call “keeping it real.” In order to be real, you literally had to do time. If you had been shot, you were a better candidate for coming out with a rap record. Instead of it being about skills with lyrics or beatmaking, or of having diverse thoughts, the game became: “Was he a drug dealer for real? Well, then he can learn how to rap! Let’s put him out there because he’s the real deal.“So there was a backlash against conscious music. Instead, you had artists like NAS talking about being a street hustler selling drugs, being straightforward about his life on the street, what he had to do to survive. You had the Wu-Tang, talking about their reality on the streets, and so the hustler became, to some extent, a hero. So when artists like Biggie Smalls and later Jay Z appeared, gangsta thugs became heroes again. I say again because back in the 70’s, the Blacksploitation era had the same type of feel. You had the Pimp, who was the guy who you wanted to admire, he had the women, the clothes, the cars- you admired him, and those movies did very well. So this was sort of a revisit of that same scene. Too Short was talking a lot about being a pimp, when 50 Cent came out, he was talking about being a pimp… so these types of themes really took over.”

Did they ever. From Quentin Tarantino to virtually every successful rapper from that era, the whole self-conscious retro-fest of black 70’s gangster culture was lovingly embraced by blacks and whites alike. This is even more ironic when you realize that the first Blacksploitation film, Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, suffered a very similar fate. Van Peebles, a strong-minded, idiosyncratic artist of the 60’s and 70’s, channeled all his anger into a controversial, independent film that expressed all the rage his people had been feeling against a system that continually shoved them to the bottom. Like Straight Outta Compton, it was a hit- such a huge hit, that Hollywood wasted no time co-opting this new genre and turning it into the money-making escapist fantasy genre we continue to glorify today. Out with the socio-political commentary, in with the bling, the funk, and the ho’s.

 
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Conspiracy Theories?

Maybe that’s all conscious music ever was- another flavor of the month. It certainly was from a music industry perspective- one of many flavors, as easily discarded as a disposable razor blade. All the college kids with Public Enemy t-shirts got themselves jobs, bought themselves houses, and traded idealism for realism. The only time the phrase “Fight the Power” comes to anyone’s mind these days is when a DJ nostalgically spins it at a club as part of a “who remembers this jam?” throwback set.

But that’s not the whole truth. The Million Man March did happen- and people did become more aware of their historical context. For all our country’s racial baggage, those of us in our 20’s at the time had no problem embracing all this delicious black culture, even as outsiders. Movies like Jungle Fever and Zebrahead tackled inter-racial relationships head on, and to us, such radical ideas just seemed obvious. What white guy wouldn’t want a beautiful black girlfriend? I know we were naive, but we were also genuine- as was the hope our generation carried with it. All that wonderful self-expression, empowerment, and enlightenment did have an impact- in my life, specifically, and in the lives of a lot of people as well. That impact has shaped our growth and the way we are now raising the next generation, whom we hope can finally- FINALLY- shed these stupid racial chains that continue to bog America down.

“It did affect people,” continues Speech. “During those times, statistics show that black college enrollment skyrocketed. The support of black on black businesses skyrocketed- which is important by the way; it’s not a separatist thing. It’s a way of helping economies within our own neighborhoods become more independent so that we’re not depending on illegal activities like drug dealing and prostitution and all these other things. People were literally changing their lives during that time period.

“And yet- corporations had no personal investment in conscious music. It was doing well financially, and movies like Malcolm X and Boyz N the Hood were doing well at the box office, but as far as corporations were concerned, if there was another type of music and film that would do just as well, then fine! We’ll take it! And when things like a Nas hit big, then the message to the corporations was: ‘here’s different material that’s doing just as well, and it’s promoting gross materialism, which is boosting the sales of all types of product out there. It’s a win-win situation, there’s no White Guilt, there’s no having to rally for change, no one has to get real introspective about things… it’s a road that’s much easier to travel, with less conflict. If both of them are going to make money, we’ll go with this one.’ That’s what I believe happened.

“Now, some people will say it was more sinister. Some will say, and I won’t necessarily disagree with them, that corporations, along with various extremely rich men, were deciding purposely to put out music that was going to destroy conscious music and the movement. Some will say these things were also meant to enhance the privatization of prisons, to keep those beds warm and make sure there was a pipeline from the street straight to the prison. I’m not going to say that it’s impossible for that to happen. I’m not really sure, to be honest. I will say that, without a question, the access was definitely given more to unconscious music than it was to conscious music.

“When we put out Zingalamaduni, we had just sold four million copies of Three Years, Five Months, and Two Days In the Life of… we had had an international, unprecedented success. We were named band of the year by Rolling Stone in 1993; we were undoubtedly a successful act. And yet for our second album, they were not willing to give us any budget comparable to a band that had just sold 4 million albums prior. There was a definite sort of stiff-arm put towards us that any other successful band, like a Nirvana, did not receive. They’d get a bigger budget so that the band could do even bigger and better things… we did not. The rug was completely pulled out from under us- promotion for our album turned into nothing after just a couple of months, and everything was abandoned, as far as we were concerned. And a similar thing happened to other conscious groups we knew. So yeah, I think the corporations definitely made a decision that they were going to go with this other style of hip hop, less confrontational, easier to swallow… and in their minds, at least, total entertainment.”

Those are some heavy claims, but again, the facts back Speech up. Whether or not there was a conscious decision by corporate America to kill the movement, there is no question our government and private industry have worked hand-in-hand to increase the prison population- converting many of our prisons into privately-run businesses, and using this increased prison population as literal slave labor for corporations all across the country. When you consider that one third of Americans are black, yet two thirds of our prisoners are black, the whole thing starts to look like a very deliberate attempt at bringing back the days of slavery through a nice and legal sheen. Check out Wanda James’ story; she’s an upper middle-class lawyer whose 17-year old brother was arrested for marijuana possession. No prior arrests, but because he was black and in Texas, he was allowed no lawyer and declared a felon by a judge- sentenced to four-and-a-half years picking cotton in prison as a result. Picking cotton. The irony couldn’t be more ridiculously insulting, yet last year alone, over seven hundred thousand people were arrested for the same thing, with black folks holding the dubious honor of being four times more likely than white folks to get arrested. The whole thing is outrageous enough to turn you into a bona fide conspiracy theorist.

Not convinced? Check out this historical chart of the U.S. Prison Population, and notice how much it started growing exponentially a) after Reagan became president and b) after Clinton passed his Tough on Crime Bill. Now look at how many people were in jail because of drug offenses in 1980 vs today. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of living bodies roaming around incarcerated, not for violent crimes but because of drugs. Finally, compare the odds: if you’re a black man, you have a 33% chance of being incarcerated, but if you’re white, that chance is under 6%. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details the prison-corporate-America relationship well and is definitely worth a read, but even just a little research on your own will reveal how companies like Kitchell Inc. have made millions of bucks building prison after prison, or how several prison-supply companies are doing amazing business in this burgeoning industry. I shouldn’t have to mention that the point of a prison is to punish and reform humans who disrupt society, and not to act as a substitute slave factory unaffected by our labor laws.

I first heard about this enraging prison scam back in 1997, when Michael Moore spoke to a former inmate from a Ventura, CA prison who confessed he used to take airline reservations over the phone for TWA while in jail (you can watch the disturbingly hilarious interview yourself in The Big One if you’re curious.) And it’s not just TWA; tons of household-name companies like Microsoft, IBM, Target and even Macy’s are all cashing in on this great little opportunity, too. So once you start compiling the amount of people and companies profiting from an increased number of black men in prison, is it so hard to imagine that the first order of business was to get rid of this pesky Black Consciousness Movement (whose goal was to empower people and reduce crime)? Would you encourage something that is completely opposed to what you’re trying to achieve?

 

Playing Monopoly

There’s another key player in conscious hip hop’s demise- an unwitting one from the land of technology and public policy.

The FCC was created in 1934 via the Communications Act, which established America’s broadcasting rules in an effort to regulate the emerging markets of telephone, radio, and television. For 60 years, America operated under these same rules, believe it or not- but by the mid 90’s, the rapidly-changing face of technology was forcing our government to come up with something more relevant. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was their answer; I won’t bog you down with the many things it accomplished (Wikipedia actually has a decent summary of the whole thing) but one thing it did real well was turn media ownership into a giant Monopoly board, which is ironic since the entire point of the act, as stated by our lawmakers, was to foster competition and increase diversity through deregulation. Here’s an important story that sets up the 1997 TC Act [3], and illustrates just how far our country has gone from serving the public interest to serving corporate interests, which ties in directly to our hip-hop story:

In the late 80’s, a company named Metro Broadcasting was one of several applicants hoping to secure an FCC license for a new TV station in Orlando, Florida. They lost the bid to Rainbow Broadcasting, on the grounds that one of the FCC’s goals is to promote broadcast diversity. Rainbow was 80% Hispanic-owned, while Metro had only one minority partner in its ranks, so the FCC handed the contract to Rainbow. Metro appealed on the grounds of reverse discrimination, and the case went back-and-forth in the lower courts until 1990, when it reached the Supreme Court- led at the time by the conservative William Rehnquist. After much deliberation, the court upheld the ruling 5–4, and you should check out Justice Brennan’s written opinion on the matter.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Although for the past two decades minorities have constituted at least one-fifth of the United States population, during this time relatively few members of minority groups have held broadcast licenses. In 1971, minorities owned only 10 of the approximately 7,500 radio stations in the country, and none of the more than 1,000 television stations; in 1978, minorities owned less than 1 percent of the Nation’s radio and television stations; and in 1986, they owned just 2.1 percent of the more than 11,000 radio and television stations in the United States. Moreover, these statistics fail to reflect the fact that, as late entrants who often have been able to obtain only the less valuable stations, many minority broadcasters serve geographically limited markets with relatively small audiences.

[W]e are compelled to observe that the views of racial minorities continue to be inadequately represented in the broadcast media. This situation is detrimental not only to the minority audience, but to all of the viewing and listening public. Adequate representation of minority viewpoints in programming serves not only the needs and interests of the minority community but also enriches and educates the non-minority audience. It enhances the diversified programming which is a key objective not only of the Communications Act of 1934 but also of the First Amendment.”

The dissenting opinion, as voiced by Justice Kennedy, saw this decision simply as unfair affirmative action:

“I cannot agree with the Court that the Constitution permits the Government to discriminate among its citizens on the basis of race in order to serve interests so trivial as “broadcast diversity.”

The whole “affirmative action” debate is one that will be argued for a long time yet, but to take a group of people who have been systematically discriminated against, not to mention beaten, persecuted, and hated for hundreds of years and call their cultural need to communicate ideas “trivial” is not just insulting and ignorant, it’s borderline racist. Or, like, completely, totally racist. Regardless, this case makes quite clear where both the FCC and the Supreme Court were philosophically at in 1990- yet seven neoliberal years later, our country was a very different place. NAFTA, the elimination of the Glass-Steagall Act, and now this Telecommunications Actare all Clinton-era decisions that gave corporate giants the ability to own larger and larger shares of their respective markets, and the ensuing years saw multiple lawsuits by companies such as Fox pushing to reduce the FCC’s regulating power- which is exactly what happened.

Only three years after the act, reports were already exposing this disturbing trend in radio consolidation, and by 2002, Clear Channel had gone from a small, 40-station fish to a 1225-station Great White, controlling a huge chunk of the radio pie. All of this consolidation pretty much booted alternative media from the general public’s eyes and ears, whittling our arts & entertainment choices to a few, lowest-common-denominator options even the biggest media recluse couldn’t escape from (I’m talking to you, Britney, Backstreet Boys, & Ace of Base.) The world of hip hop was no different; what had merely been a trend before was now an unstoppable behemoth, as Dre, Biggie, Nas and Jay-Z made sure there could be only one (style of hip hop, that is.)

“When that happened, it pretty much sealed the deal,” Speech corroborates. “It’s what allowed an artist like Jay Z to have the numerous huge hits that he’s had, since, basically, all the record labels became three giant labels. Those three labels pretty much controlled the medium in every city. They had partnerships with the TV channels that would play music videos, they owned the radio stations that would play rap music, and they owned a lot of the newspapers as well. For the artists that they wanted to promote, it was a carte blanche ability to reach all listeners in all cities across the nation at one time. And a lot less people were making a lot more decisions for the rest of us.

“Before the switch, groups like the Pharycide to MC Hammer to Arrested Development to Young MC to PM Dawn to NWA could all coexist on tours together, on radio together, and no one complained. After the switch, it become what you still see today: one hip hop style of music, and a subject matter that’s very narrow, one-dimensional. You have a couple of exceptions like Kendrick Lamar, but for every one of him or J. Cole, you have about five thousand other groups doing the opposite. Most people can’t even name ten conscious artists that exist in the mainstream of rap today- they’ve all gone underground.

“Access is the key word. Conscious music was no longer given access. If you played the game, the rules became ‘look, just dumb it down. Stop talking about those same things. Get on the bandwagon and embrace this new “urban culture” that’s coming aboard. Embrace the pimp culture, the drug dealer culture, the street hardness, and we’ll continue to promote you. And if you don’t do that, you’re simply not part of the narrative we’ve created.’ And in that way, it became a form of censorship.”

Richard T. Craig’s African Americans and Mass Media uses the parallel case of BET’s rise and fall to illustrate a similar point. It’s a fascinating (but painful) story: Robert L. Johnson started Black Entertainment Television for the obvious reason that there wasn’t a single network owned by or operated for the African American community. BET blew up during the same hip-hop era we’ve been talking about: late 80’s through mid- 90’s. From the start, Johnson made his agenda clear: the only way for African-Americans to get the kind of programming they wanted was to own media outlets, and at that moment they owned none. BET was here to change that dynamic, and Johnson worked hard at making it happen. By the time the Telecommunications Act came along in 1996, BET was airing five diverse news-oriented shows daily or weekly, providing much-needed commentary and critique to the black community at large. But then, somewhere between 2000–2001, Johnson did a bizarre thing. Despite proving to the world that a black-owned cable network was not only financially possible but necessary, Johnson decided to sell his baby to Viacom - and with it, the network’s soul.

Things changed right away. Despite their success, three of these staple news shows were given the axe, along with popular BET Tonight host Tavis Smiley. By 2005, even their flagship show BET Nightly News was gone. None of this should be surprising to anyone who’s lived through the last 20 years of mergers and acquisitions, but it’s the irony that hurts the most. Robert Johnson had created BET to combat the exact thing it was now doing- letting white people make decisions for black people, and eliminate the diversity of ideas African-Americans were starving for in the public sphere. By handing the reigns to Viacom, Johnson not only sold his people out- he made it clear that diversity was definitely not in the best interest of Corporate America, whose advertisers had no desire to fund critical, investigative news shows that might encourage their viewers to question things. And that’s exactly where things stand today.

 
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Facing the Mirror

Okay, so now we understand why the powers-that-be let the movement die. But the hardest pill to swallow, and the mirror we all need to face, is our own culpability in the matter. Because the truth is, no amount of corporate power can stop people when people really want something- whether it’s something gigantic like Ghandi’s passive resistance against British oppression, or something relatively small- like the unprecedented success of Tyler Perry’s 2006 smash, Madea’s Family Reunion. This one still blows me away- the film scored $30 million just in its opening weekend, number one at the box office, and yet not a single white person had a clue it even existed. “Who the hell is Tyler Perry?” we all asked ourselves, and yet here was a man speaking to an important- and clearly ignored- audience that white corporate America considered unimportant. It was a testament to the fact that even the thickest corporate walls have cracks in them if you know where to look, and though I don’t relate at all to Perry’s aesthetic sensibility, I was beyond thrilled to know this little indie film was kicking so much ass. If such a success could still take place purely through grass-roots word-of-mouth, why couldn’t We the People keep the 90’s Black Consciousness Movement alive?

“It’s because most of us black people- we’re still not conscious,” explains Speech. “To be conscious means you’re well aware of 1) the horrible rape that was done to us as human beings during slavery, which lasted over 200 years, and 2) after slavery, the continuation of that horror story, the lack of humanity we suffer through, and the rights that we’re still lacking. You have to be very aware of those things, and also of the continuing movement of freedom fighters- from Harriet Tubman, to Frederick Douglass, to W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X - you’re very aware of them, you know their teachings, you’ve studied under them, and you understand that there is a legitimate way to get out from under the oppression. People literally lived and died and sacrificed their lives in order for us to reach our point- and a conscious mind understands that.

“An unconscious mind, on the other hand, is just the opposite. It sees value only where the majority of society sees value. So similar to what black people were doing with minstrel shows back in the day [4], our unconscious mind will seek out whatever makes the most money, whatever brings back a value- whether it’s clothes, a house, a car- that’s legitimized by our media.

“Groups like Arrested Development never fell for that- nor did Lauryn Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, X Clan… I think that’s the difference. In our song “People Everyday” I address the difference between The Nigger andThe African. The African is aware that he’s oppressed, but he’s doing everything that he or she can do to overcome, rise above it. Whereas the Nigger understands he’s oppressed, but for whatever reason chooses to wallow in that oppression. So there’s two different mindsets, and sometimes they clash, unable to see the world the same way. Those mindsets still exist at this very moment. When Arrested Development was doing really well as far as sales, we had a lot of hip hop artists that hated our guts and said we were the death of rap. Now those artists weren’t conscious- they didn’t understand what we were talking about, didn’t see the value in it. And that’s why so many of us have allowed our movement and our music to die- not only allowed it, but helped to perpetuate it.

“There were executives - black executives- that bought into glorifying the drug dealer side of hip hop, the strip club side of hip hop. They wanted to get the street hustlers out there and glorify them. The pimps: those that prey on women, those that will do anything for a dollar. It was black people that originally brought that whole world to the record labels, and the labels gave them access because it made tons of money- it was just entertainment in their eyes, and subconsciously, it fit a narrative that white people felt pretty comfortable with.”

Speech’s comments made me wonder how much recorded evidence exists that points to specific instances where execs told artists to ditch the positive and focus on these negative stereotypes. After several search attempts, the evidence started bubbling up. First, there’s this now-infamous anonymous letter (by an alleged industry executive) that discusses a secret meeting detailing how hip hop would be used to increase the prison population. Okay, that one’s possibly a hoax. But then there’s this Too Short interviewwhere he specifically calls out Jive Records’ president Barry Weiss for pressuring him into dropping his earlier political material and releasing the overly-raunchy You Nasty instead. Too Short wanted to balance the pimp stuff with his positive tunes, and Jive repeatedly denied him the chance- now that’s some genuine evidence. Similarly, when Interscope signed 17-year-old Chicago rapper Chief Keef, Rhymefest and other industry insiders blasted the move as a cynical attempt by president Jimmy Iovine at perpetuating the self-destructive images white people have of African-Americans. But the most eloquent and damning critique of the whole matter comes in the form of a speech given by Wise Intelligent, who brilliantly connects Black Culture’s creative output to the activism (or lack of) found in the Black Community. It’s powerful, on point, and worth every second of your time.

Back to Speech: “Throughout the history of America, back when racism was way more in your face than it is now, the media would consistently drive images of black people as brutes, as lower intellectual life forms. Especially men- they were brutes, they were strong, and if you were white you had to ‘watch your women when they’re around. They can’t think high thoughts, they’re not very deep, but they’re definitely strong and they’ve come to rape and ravage. They’re just dangerous.’ It was the same with the black woman: she’s a Jezebel, not to be trusted, she’s overly sexual, has a big butt. Sure, she’ll treat you right in bed, but you certainly don’t want to marry that type, you just want to sleep with her. Those images were scary, but once you could put them on a record and contain them in the form of entertainment, it was just like riding a roller coaster- you’re scared while you’re on it, but you know you’re going to be all right. And that’s what gangsta hip hop does- it allows you, as a listener, to be a little afraid of this dark reality, but then the record’s over and life is the same. You just had a good joyride.

“For label executives, this kind of hip hop was no different than an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. For black people, however, it wasn’t that at all- it was real. And these things would be perpetuated, and our realities and sadness would grow exponentially. How many of us are in prisons now? How many laws that the Clintons put into action in 1994 were justified because of this image of us, of these animals, these ‘Superpredators’? These things made those laws justified- not only for the Clintons, but to blacks as well. Many people voted for those laws.

“And that was the point of my song, ‘The Trends.’ It was my disappointment, really in the black community, because we allowed that trend to happen and we did not support the music that was supporting us. It was music that enriched us, offered us solutions, gave us a soundtrack for healing. And that’s exactly what we needed.”

 
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What Next?

So now what? These issues always seem so insurmountable, so beyond the reach of a single person. But the pendulum of history is pretty damn clear: when things swing far enough in one direction, they have to swing back. My personal take is this: we need to recognize our racist past and present- but we also need to know how to let it go if we’re ever going to have a future. For all our cultural differences, our economic differences, and the indisputable fact that we are existing in parallel Americas- one for white people and one for everyone else- the deeper truth of how similar we all are is still there. Right now, the system that was never meant for black people isn’t working for a lot of white people, either. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, we’re living in a time where we have lots of friends of various colors all over the place- and a very common, clear enemy. Regardless of your personal opinion of either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, the unprecedented success of both men’s presidential bids- performed in radically different ways- is proof positive that something different is in the air. Just four years ago, neither Trump’s fear-based rhetoric nor Sanders’ progressive, anti-corporate rhetoric would have connected with any significant number of white Americans… and yet, here we are. People are clamoring for change- not the fake kind every president since Reagan has pretended to offer, but something real, with tangible results.

What will it take to bring us all together? How do we convince the fear-driven Trump and Tea Party supporters that the people responsible for their shitty lives aren’t African-Americans, Muslims, or Mexicans? And on the flip side, how do we get black and white folks to work within a singular movement that truly reflects the ideal “and justice for all”? For all of his successes, Bernie has failed to galvanize African-Americans - especially the older ones who have fond memories of Bill Clinton.

Says Speech:

“Right now it’s popular to talk about the prison exploitation signed by the Clintons in ’94, but black people remember a time of financial gain during the Clinton years. We felt it was a time of growth for us - people were buying houses, getting more opportunity- and so many black people that were around back then have a fondness for the Clintons. I support Bernie- I may or may not vote for him, but I do understand both sides of the coin. To be honest, we’ve never heard of Bernie Sanders- until this election, he’s never been there.
“Bernie says everything right. And yet, we saw with Obama the huge contest he had to go through to get anything past, and so black people are thinking- if it seems too good to be true, it is. We’ve had a lot of promises made to us, a lot of laws that were passed that were supposed to benefit us, and over the years they seemed to benefit every other group but us. So we have a weariness of the promises. I’m not saying it’s right- I’m not saying that at all- but that’s my opinion as to why everyone is not on the Bernie bandwagon with Spike Lee and Killer Mike.
“If people get to be true activists, then yes, I think we’ll all give something to Bernie. He does have extremely amazing authentic ideas and passion- it’s authentic. That’s truly the word for it. But whether he can get everyone to follow along, we’ll see. I’m a little torn between the two philosophies myself.”

No one can blame an African-American for being skeptical of a politician’s rhetoric- but, so, like, how do we get out of this mess? That was the last thing I asked Speech. Does he think it’s still possible to have a revolution without guns or bloodshed?

“Yes, I do. if we can have that same revolution that we had in the late 80’s and 90’s, if consciousness is in the minds of people, the music is supporting that, is encouraging it, as long as it’s not controlled by corporations but by more independent minded people, I do think we’ll have an opportunity to truly keep the momentum- because that’s the key word. It’s one thing to get people to want something different, it’s another to get them to stick to it, to really fight for the distance. That’s what I’ve been striving to do, but I must say it’s a very lonely road sometimes. I talk to a few different legends who are my heroes- one of them, my hero Chuck D - I know he feels what I feel in this regard. Others, too- Daddy-O of Stetsasonic and I talk all the time- great MC, a very smart man, and we talk a lot about the lack of people willing to go the length. That’s the real trick.”

I don’t know how many people are out there who are willing to go the distance on affecting true social change- but I do know one thing. The movement I witnessed firsthand in the 90’s was real, and it was shared by a lot of people- black and white- in a spirit of warmth and positivity that I know still exists. It flashed itself briefly the night Obama became president, just long enough to remind us it’s not dead- just hibernating. There is lots of great conscious hip hop out there, if you dig for it; from the Last Poets to Run the Jewels, there will always be a human need for good music that speaks to your mind and soul, pushing us to confront our shortcomings. It’s just waiting for us as a culture to wake up again. I still remember how far we made it two decades ago, how exciting it felt, and how great it is to be a part of genuine social growth. The barriers between Blacks and Whites are real, but even more real is the fundamental humanity that reminds us we’re all in the same boat; if we can stop living parallel existences and come together, our combined numbers will be unstoppable. So before I break out into a John Lennon chorus of “Imagine”, just remember: I’m not giving up, never ever ever, and I hope you won’t, either. Take it away, Mr. Wendal….

A huge thank you to Speech for his time and insight into this important matter. Now’s the perfect opportunity to catch up to Arrested Development’s incredible discography, including their two new albums, This Was Never Home and Changing the Narrative (which is available as a free download!)

These guys just don’t quit.

 


Endnotes

[1] Other modern American examples: Early 1970’s Hollywood movies after the studio system broke down; we’ve never again come close to that high-watermark of exciting, experimental film in the mainstream. Similarly, the underground / alternative comic book scene between the release ofWatchmen and the implosion of the industry a decade later gave us a crop of vibrant artists (i.e. Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware) that are still producing the most interesting work in print today.

[2] As cheesy and obviously commercial as Will Smith’s hit singles were on their double-album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, that album is full of amazingly good music that any hip-hop fan will appreciate- especially record number two. Jazzy Jeff’s innovative scratching turned me on to the art of turntablism, and I’ve been a believer ever since.

[3] Everything about both this case and the Telecommunications Act is a matter of public record, but I’ll refer you to African Americans and Mass Media by Richard T. Craig in this case, since it’s such a great academic study on this whole issue.

[4] Once again, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow speaks about this- the fact that, once black folks realized white people loved minstrel shows, rather than fight them, they embraced and embellished the stereotypes much in the same way that Gangsta rappers embraced our thug-life stereotypes. Read her book for the details. If you think the metaphor exaggerates things a little, check out this video of Bobby Shmurda prancing around for a room full of apathetic Epic Records execs in hopes of snagging a record deal- and compare it with the minstrel shows of yesteryear. Same shit, different century.

You can contact Memo at: razalasomem — — at — — gmail