WEEKLY DISCUSSION FORUM #7: Squadron Supreme's “Utopia Program”

After a mass global conflict, governments and nations are teetering on collapse. The Squadron Supreme are the only superhero team left on Earth.

In the beginning, the Utopia Program seems successful. Squadron Supreme round up all weapons and provide every human with non-lethal personal protection devices such as a force field; violence drops dramatically. The Squadron control food production and worldwide hunger decreases.

One of the most controversial measures of the Utopia Program
is the Behavior Modification machine, a technology that attempts to “decriminalize” any thoughts or behaviors a past convicted criminal may have. Behavior-modified convicts subjected to this device had their criminal records eradicated
 and were provided jobs in the various nation-wide restoration projects.

Despite the Squadron being super human, they are far from infallible. They have secrets, ambitions, shame, ego, hopes and despairs. These are the individuals making and enforcing all public policies and norms for society.

Members of the Squadron Supreme disagree on long-term consequences of such sweeping power they possess over humanity, tragically fighting amongst themselves and ultimately disbanding the Utopia Program.


A Radical Redistribution

Man, it’s quiet in here. Us white people are breathing easier after the last two and half weeks.

Must be nice.

In July of 2014, Eric Garner was choked to death in Staten Island by an NYPD police officer who never faced criminal charges. That year my friend, mentor and muse Malcolm Little a.k.a. Malarts crafted a cacophonous, rowdy protest of a beat called “Another Summer”. Disgusted myself, I collaborated with Malcolm to paint a picture with his hip hop instrumental, sampling black voices and music from the 1960s into the 21st century in opposition to the police state.

In 2020, not only is Malcolm no longer with us, but according to a Washington Post database approximately 5,407 people have been shot and killed by police since January 1, 2015. In defense of the increase of lethal force by police, political commentator Heather MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal on June 2, 2020, “However sickening the video of [George] Floyd’s arrest, it isn’t representative of the 375 million annual contacts that police officers have with civilians. A solid body of evidence finds no structural bias in the criminal justice system with regard to arrests, prosecution or sentencing. Crime and suspect behavior, not race, determine most police actions.”

I don’t respond and react to what is written in the Wall Street Journal. Do you ever wonder and imagine what type of people do?

These past four years have seen an organized discreditation of what some consider “academically inspired racial victimology”. Attempts to look at the bigger historical picture of criminal justice in America have been ignored if not dismissed by some politicians and news media. There has been refusal to recognize the trends of oppression are not decades but centuries old, baked into a country born in blood.

My dear white brothers and sisters, no matter how pure your heart’s intentions are, no matter how color blind you are raising your children, you are in a race against time, the pit and the pendulum. There are larger forces at play and many Black Lives at stake. If you are not willing to fight for the equity of black Americans, its indigenous people, all people of color NOW, then WHEN?!? “Sometimes tragedy can change one’s point of view / You say it’s justice until that same gun point at you” Allentown’s King Magnetic rapped in 2015.

These past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) millennials & Gen Z took to the streets worldwide in peace and protest and in anger and exhaustion. It has been a stunning moment where the needle has actually been moved for criminal justice reform. Legislation is being considered and passed that has been debated for years. In the streets, the youth discovered that’s just what you’ll find- Just Us.

During it all, news media transformed protests into riots, as if it is impossible to consider these are two separate news events with different actors, motives and outcomes. I’ve seen this movie before: 1992 Los Angeles, 2015 Ferguson, 2016 Baltimore. In the framing of conventional news, images of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress” have been criminalized, a dangerous act, all the more so during COVID-19.

But if it were not for my daughter Margaret, I may not have experienced another perspective. Mags began to share with me TikTok videos from the frontlines: raw footage, unfiltered emotions of protestors united unequivocally under the banner of Black Lives Matter. In these 20 second video vignettes there is no careful consideration of the “very fine people on both sides”. So many of these videos asserted the awful truth of a police state helmed by a dehumanizing petulant president: this is America.

Seeing these shared clips, reminded me of Malcolm and my “Another Summer” project sitting on the shelf. If you have ever attempted to create art of out of tragedy then you may be aware the process is traumatic, therapeutic, euphoric and appalling all at once. The blues in all its forms- folk, jazz, soul, reggae, disco, house, funk and hip hop- are all triumphantly sad. Like George Carlin quipped, “It's not enough to know which notes to play. You need to know why they need to be played.”

Sometimes these songs are sung to oneself, shared only with the Creator, a negotiation for the cruel inequalities of black life in America. “Another Summer” was, at first, one of those private moments. Putting to bed the project in 2015, Malcolm wrote in an email, “It's more like ‘Another Year’, sad as that is to say.”

But Malcolm always championed the sights and sounds of the youth, his inspiration always drawing from a higher level, connecting generations from the past to our future. I began to conceive of a video for “Another Summer” because there’s nothing I wouldn’t wager to assume Malcolm would not have been directly involved in the protests of our current moment. There was work to be done.

Retitled “A Radical Redistribution” and uncomfortably updated for 2020, I offer this project to white people to nurture their discomfort, to assist in the acknowledgement of the centuries old practices of murder and mayhem by a white supremacist state. These are not only Black men and women dying, they are purportedly our fellow American citizens. Freedom certainly isn’t fucking free for them. If the definition of freedom isn’t for fighting the powers of racism and injustice then what exactly is it then? As I write this tonight, Rayshard Brooks, a black man in Atlanta was shot and killed in an alleged illegal act yesterday. It’s as if every crime is being solved by the death penalty.

Hope you understand, the line being drawn is- excuse me- in black and white. What side are you on? If you truly have a sense of the miscarriage of justice in the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery to name a few then SAY SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING. There are SO MANY WAYS, countless ways; let’s all endorse the smallest gestures to the largest donation. But DO IT and BE PERSISTENT, DON’T LOOK AWAY.

White guilt may be a necessary part of the realization process but please do that with a therapist not your black friend at work. Black people are not here to absolve us from the shame of the country’s past, our lifetime of inaction and definitely not our shirking of our responsibilities as citizens. People of color and all marginalized identities are paying a steep price for white people’s supposed comfort and safety.

Lastly, this video is awful. It is difficult to watch, difficult to make. Such reactions pale to what it might be like to see your son or daughter, father or mother suffer such a fate. Or simply someone who looks like you be killed and assaulted again and again with impunity.

There is nothing about this video to take pride in no matter how well received. I beg the mercy of God and the families and friends of whose last moments of life have been grotesquely captured on the most innovative of technologies. Technologies which have, thus far, done nothing to improve the safety of our citizenry from lethal force police practices. Technologies that additionally aid and abet a criminal justice system which endorses and profits from such tactics at large.

My intention for this work is these Black Lives are not lost in vein. Maybe Malcolm and I will make a kinder and gentler video one day. But until Shiloh comes, fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding.

A Radical Retribution

Music and Concept: MalArts
Samples and Scratches: ARM 18
Video Content: @margalaid04 (IG)
Video Editing: ARM 18

To the Black Lives lost in this video, Rest in Peace:
Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Philando Castile, James Earl Channey, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor

Credit is due to the following Artists, Leaders and Visionaries:
Boogie Down Productions, James Brown, Bobby Byrd, John Coltrane, Denzel Curry, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (“Malcolm X”), Cypress Hill, De La Soul, Dave Dennis , Ava DuVernay, Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Killer Mike, KRS ONE, Spike Lee, NWA, Richard Pryor, Public Enemy, Q-Tip, Thomas “TNT” Todd

For the inspiration, TikTok, you don’t stop:
@itsmariettaa, @itzkay.k, @kareemrahma, @kiara.customz, @lillsofaa, @marrrrrrrrrri, @michelle_but_not_obama, @morganpawlowskii, @mikaylarez, @officialmacrose, @philiphurstmedia, @sarabarabobarabanannafan, @segyrella, @steviemackey. @suitcasepocket, @thehighlyeducated, @trevordennis_, @weneedpeace, @whitepeopledeservetodie6, @whoisaleckson, @wtfricky, @_wig_

Material was used from the following Usual Suspects:
ABC News, Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS Evening News, Channel 4 News, Columbus Education Association, Comedy Central, CNN, The Daily News, The Daily Show, Fox News, France 24, Global News, Hill.TV, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, NBC Houston, NBC Miami, NBC News, The New York Times, NowThis, The Sacramento Bee, Smithsonian Channel, The Telegraph, Time, Yahoo! Finance, YouTube

Many other photographers, videographers and raw footage was used and likely not credited appropriately, for instance, Portlandrone.com, Insaaf Blog and @larryalldayvid. My bad, we are in the fog of war. You are appreciated. Shout out to independent photojournalist, Tim Druck of Indigo Photography of Louisville, KY whose his unwavering commitment to anti-racism on ground and online spurned this project on.



In Memoriam: MALARTS

Concentration on creation is my daily operation /
It’s a mission coming up a Nubian within this nation
- PS Chase, "Now Power"

If you ever once to hear me DJ and were so kind to thought I was cool, it is entirely because of Malcolm Little.

Malcolm blessed me with my tag and DJ name ARM 18. Just my initials and age at the time- it had an old school TAKI 183 feel to it. But like the sticker he put it to, it stuck. Because long before I ever did, Malcolm believed in me.

Mal, Moods, Public Speaker, Chase, IndyMal, MalArts et al was a true blue Renaissance man, a travellin’ man; a sci-fi afro punk artist-in-residence, perpetually on the move, like a rolling stone, but who most often called Staten Island home. We met in the summer of 1993 in upstate NY at Bard College and immediately set off on adventurers with our fellow mad ones, “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing.” Malcolm was mad in this way and became our unassuming fearless spiritual leader: General of the Love Army International, Outback Master, clutch hitting outfielder for the Easy Living Krew.

Get into mastery of self not mastery of men /
I keep a whole mess of fam but very few true friends
- PS Chase, "Now Power"

Malcolm rolled deep, but to know him you had to accept he was decidedly an enigmatic loner. Nonetheless, he was seemingly a friend and ally to many, having a rich personal history that touched all five boroughs and beyond. His smile and kindness were a strength not to be underestimated.

Nor was his intolerance for herbs, bullshit and injustice. When Malcolm was in your presence, it was time to build and destroy, activate and motive, blow up the spot. He owned a kinetic intellect; for Malcolm, theories and experiences were one in the same, he seized the moment with a loving death grip in order to know the ledge.

Programmed with the man with the hat and the tan /
Captain Chase throw another phat style in the can
- PS Chase, "Now Power"

Malcolm could drop science without a lecture. There’s an effortlessness to his affective artistry found in the dozens of mediums he utilized: spray cans, blackbooks, canvas, graphic design, film, guitars, drums, samplers, a jean jacket, a pad and a pen, to name but a few. Mal was also a prop master, never without a go-go gadget: a Sharpie, a skateboard, a microphone, a camera, a lighter, a flower.

He possessed the gift of gab, the poetics of a statement as significant as the idea. Speaking upon racism: “And therein lies the tragedy, a kind of fucked up form of perfection.” He could speak upon Marshall McLuhan, McCoy Tyner or Malcolm McLaren with verve, ease and expertise. Malcolm took a phrase rarely heard, flip it and it became our daily word: parlay, tical, maintain, true, fam, audio goldrush, stereo moonrise, dub lodge, the Tragic NorthEast.

As my city’s sinking time to jump in the life boat /
stay fluid with thoughts and action, jack, that will keep hope
- PS Chase, "Open Wide (Approaching Terra Nova)"

With Malcolm, we were always on a “mission”. We trekked through a foot of snow in the Catskills and discovered an abandoned Fresh Air Fund tennis camp seemingly sealed in time, each cabin a treasure trove of 1970s memorabilia; with 7,000 other NY state college students, Malcolm stormed Albany’s capital center in protest of Pataki’s proposed 1995 budget cuts in higher ed for the underprivileged; at a 1999 spring fair, I cut up break beats in front of confused Lehigh University students as Malcolm chose not to rhyme on the mic but break out his harmonica and blow like Bobby Dylan. Don't think twice, he winked, it's alright.

He was the first person who taught us that you could choose your own family, my freshman year roommate “Matt Kenny” recalled. “So many memories I have of him involve intimate conversations that took place amid noise and activity. But it was easy to feel like you were alone on an island with Malcolm, exploring underlying reasons for the failures of the past and present, plotting how to make the future much, much better.” When finishing an immense mural that blended science fiction with 60s counter culture psychedelia in Bard’s Old Gym, he considered his work and remarked, “In this world, even love needs an army.”

He commissioned me ARM 18 and called my DJ sets the “dream scene”. Being “named” not only felt like an honor, but a duty. I wasn't alone in receiving such a gift, the disciples he never asked for were the beneficiaries of his magnanimity as well. In friendship, Malcolm expressed loyalty by pushing you to be more, encouraging you to remix yourself as much as possible in order to produce, create, innovate on a higher level. We would find comfort in our skin if we continued to shed it.

Malcolm, you selflessly gave so much to me right up until your last weekend: vision, encouragement, playfulness. I just want to quit DJing now and shut it down but I hear your voice applauding me on: “ARM One Eight flip the plate / it’s time to make perfect blends / because all this hip shit needs to hop now and then”

Peace, akhi. Your work will not go unheard, unrecognized or unseen. Immaletemknow.

And Mal, I apologize, sincerely. It felt like you shared with me everything but the burden. I offer all my love, utmost respect and am eternally grateful. I hope I am what you expected.


Public Enemy # 1

The character and music of PE were intended to challenge the status quo of the white ruling class.  For PE, Hip Hop was a soundtrack for a social rebellion: defiant raps were meant to spark action while a scathing musical backdrop rejected all conventional notions of “music.”

All aspects of PE- production techniques, songwriting methods, even nicknames- were calculated concepts to convey Public Enemy’s call for a social and musical revolution.  These elaborate conceits proved Hip Hop music embodied more than just boasts and festive rhymes.  PE established that rapping and making beats was a culture that would allow voices previously unheard to contribute to the betterment of society.  This idea is no different than what Bam and the Zulus instituted ten years prior.  Rather than in Bronx high schools, Public Enemy’s stage was worldwide and aided by widespread media coverage.

PE lent legitimacy to all Hip Hop DJs, MCs, rappers and producers who followed for not necessarily the same radical reasons.  Through PE and other groups of this era, Hip Hop was understood as a cultural force to be reckoned with as the culture began to redefine social norms, political viewpoints, and the commercial possibilities of Hip Hop.  From the late 1980s on, whether a rapper posed “gangsta,” “thug,” or “playa,” his or her brand of Hip Hop music became synonymous with inner city youth, specifically young black men. 

1.    Chuck D

Took the title of “The Hard Rhymer” or symbolically, “Blackman”

a.     Confrontational, roaring vocal style, similar to Run DMC
·      Chuck D’s booming voice shouted over Bomb Squad beats emphasized metaphorically how the voice of Black Americans have traditionally been silenced
b.     Hijacking modern media sloganeering techniques, Chuck D wrote songs promoting complex political and cultural viewpoints in sharp, accessible song titles or rhymed verses.  Burn Hollywood Burn,” “Night of the Living Baseheads,” or “Welcome to the Terrordome” read like newspaper headlines.
·      Chuck D coined the widely used 1980s/90s sound bite stating that “Hip Hop is Black CNN”; meaning, Hip Hop covered the ignored plight of urban blacks and minorities in Reagan’s America.
·      William Jelani Cobb's To the Break of Dawn: “Their singular genius lay in the fact that [Public Enemy] recognized rap music as a form of media at a time when the most astute practitioners of the genre were just getting hip to the idea of music as a business”

c.     Speaking as the average “Blackman,” the oppression and racism indicted in Chuck’s songs did not have to be necessarily experienced by himself.
·      William Jelani Cobb: “The lyrics themselves were politically charged double entendres- as if an MC had returned to the tradition of the Negro spirituals that slaves encoded their messages of subversion”
-  pg 61, To the Break of Dawn

·      Simon Frith theorized that popular music discourse serves as a representation of COMMUNITY.  Chuck D purposely attempts to be a spokesperson for young Black America.  In "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" Chuck D takes the perspective of an incarcerated objector to enlistment.  The video and his lyrics relay the brutal experience of prison and a proposed escape:

2.    Flavor Flav

a.     As “hype man” or "Joker" for PE, Flavor balanced seriousness of the group with comic, outrageous behavior. 
·      With dark sunglasses, extravagant outfits, and symbolic “clocks,” Flavor’s mystical joker personality was highly entertaining.
b.     As goofy as he behaved, in song, video, and concert, Flavor’s rhymes always complimented Chuck D’s vision  
·        Indirectly, Flav represented untapped potential within black youth, the ability to transition from the ‘hood to Hollywood, from lawlessness to knowledge of self.  He was Public Enemy’s “Id” to Chuck D’s “Ego”
·        Simon Frith's ideas are useful here as well.  As Flavor represents a means to help listeners manage their PUBLIC and PRIVATE lives.  

In "911 is Joke" Flavor condemns law enforcement humorously, walking that fine line of outrage and disbelief.  The private injustices and tragedies black Americans experience within the criminal justice system historically have not been punished publicly:

3.    DJ Terminator X and The Bomb Squad, the production team

a.     Music as uncompromising and extreme as the subject of Chuck D’s lyrics

b.     Consciously sought to deconstruct “white” definitions of music by creating sonic collages of rhythmic noise

Hip Hop was not deemed music by the trained ear, then the Bomb Squad found this criticism perversely inspirational. As Eric Sadler admitted, with PE’s music, the group wanted to “destroy shit, we want to fuck music up”

Detonation: Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad 

c.     DJ scratches often used musically in intros, breaks, or bridges
d.     Bomb Squad sampled black musicians and black leaders of the 1960 / 70s to connect Hip Hop with “Pro Black” ideological movements of the past.
  • By sampling the JBs or Malcolm X, PE brought the history of Black America into a new context
  • The lives and deaths of MLK and Malcolm X, the legacy of slavery, and America’s unspoken history of violent racial prejudice were just as relevant to the late 1980s as they were to the civil rights era. James Brown’s political activism and uncompromising funk represented a social progressivism pop music had seldom seen. Utilizing the samples of these men and women either behind microphones or drum kits, placed Hip Hop directly in succession to Black American’s rich history of resistance and triumphs in the face of social and economic adversity.
  • Frith: popular music shapes our popular MEMORY and organizes our sense of TIME and HISTORY
In "Can't Truss It" the voices of Richard Pryor, Malcolm X are brought into the same context as Chuck and Flavor's lyrics. With an equal sense of history, the visual images parallel a slavery plantation and the industrial factory, the strange fruit of lynching with Rodney King's public beating at the hands of the LAPD:

4.    The Security of the First World / The S1Ws
S1Ws: “The Black Panthers of Rap”
a.     Wearing Army fatigues, yielding Uzis, marching to the beat, the “S1Ws” reinforced PE’s militancy with physical presence.
b.     Professor Griff, “The Minister of Information,” leader the S1Ws, was the organizational influence behind “Unity Force.”
·      UNITY FORCE” was a Martial Arts and Black Islamic organization formed in Long Island during the early 1980s which had worked with the Spectrum City sound system.
·      With over 50 members at one point, the group’s purpose was to teach a disciplined physical and mental self awareness program for young black men. 
·      The Public Enemy’s initial goal was to use Hip Hop music as a vehicle for the “S1Ws” agenda.
c.     Griff and the S1Ws functioned as the “road crew,” managing stage and security for Spectrum City and early Public Enemy events.

d.     Griff’s penchant for careless, inflammatory anti-Semitic remarks revealed Public Enemy’s limited, disorganized political vision. (Public Enemy publicist Bill Adler explains further in linked video above)

5.    Public Enemy Logo

a.     The logo, designed by Chuck D, envisioning an S1W caught in the cross hairs of a rifle, captured the belief that black political leaders and activists have been targeted and killed by the US government throughout the 20th century.
b.     Further, PE and the logo represent a prevalent theme in Hip Hop that began in “The Message,” promoted by PE, and carried on in raps by Tupac, Kendrick Lamar and scores of others: young Black men of America are under attack by police, urban decay, poor educational institutions, and limited economic opportunity.

Poet, musician, singer songwriter Gil Scott-Heron
provided inspiration for PE in sound and image

  •       PE was featured in an FBI report to Congress examining "Rap Music and Its Effects on National Security" in September of 1990. The above video "Night of the Living Baseheads" highlights the band's brand, creativity and perhaps not so sensational idea that the Public Enemy was the target of hate groups and law officials
II. Def Jam Tells You Who I Am”: Marketing Revolution

1. The Revolution will be televised 

a.   While other Def Jam acts sold more (Beastie Boys, Run DMC, and LL Cool J), between 1988 and 1991 however, Public Enemy’s music, videos, lectures, and concerts attracted controversy not only in the music press but in the political arena as well.
  • During the fallout from Griff’s Washington Post interview even PE single releases “Fight the Power” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” were scrutinized by the media and religious watch dog groups alike.

  • 1991’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” was a song in which Chuck D angrily demands Arizona honor the federally mandated observance of MLK’s birthday. To further drive home the outrage, members of PE joined an African American boycott of the Arizona tourism industry, choosing not to perform in the state. Within a year, Arizona voters relented and in 1993 the state finally celebrated its first MLK holiday.

    • All of the above guaranteed more media exposure for Def Jam and larger social acceptance of Hip Hop “music” in general as popular culture discourse that could not be ignored.

    2.     PE’s aspirations had to content to the paradox of mass market revolution

    a.     PE suggests there is rampant injustice in America; Def Jam markets a PE record as the SOLUTION.
    b.     Frith described Springsteen’s music containing a “whiff of nostalgia and air of fatalism.”  Is Public Enemy’s music the sound of the revolution or an uprising’s last stand?
    • With PE’s attempt to draw attention to MLK, Malcolm X, James Brown it became apparent there were no contemporary counterparts. The Nation of Islam had a reserved relationship with rappers and Jesse Jackson distanced himself from the Hip Hop “movement.
    • With a vacuum in black leadership that appealed to urban youth in the late 1980s, Chuck D and other rappers (KRS ONE, Ice T, Luther Campbell, Tupac, Notorious BIG) became de facto spokespersons and “role models.”
    • William Jelani Cobb in To the Break of Dawn: “That [Biggie and Tupac’s] deaths came to be seen in some quarters as ‘assignations’ on par with those of Malcolm and King illustrated not only how blurred the definitions of celebrity and leadership have become since the civil rights era, but also how few imaginative leaders have been cultivated since then. In their wake, charismatic artists were mistaken for political leadership.”

    3.     Record labels and entertainment companies attempted to market to this “unrest” in the 1990s similar to other counter cultural movements of the past
    a.  Scores of “Black nationalistic” rap groups (Poor Righteous Teachers, X Clan, Queen Latifa, Brand Nubian, Boogie Down Productions) were promoted during this period
    b.   Similar to marketing to teenage angst in the 1950s such as James Dean “Rebel without a Cause” or the Hippies of the 1960s, countercultural movements can be appropriated by Madison Ave and Hollywood to sell entertainment ventures and other ancillary products
    c.     When the currency of such artistry dissipates, a new marketing scheme is hatched.  Dr. Dre’s 1993 “gangsta rap” success The Chronic ensured a new wave of artists with a far more nihilistic world view would dominate Hip Hop discourse in the coming years.
               4.      Record companies have more in common with Adam Smith than Marcus Garvey. The                          “BOTTOM LINE” determines the success of a recording artist for a 
                        label, not cultural impact. Social and political aspirations are secondary, if not                                        an afterthought.


    The Golden Era

    “Golden Era” or “Golden Age” of Hip Hop Creativity

    From approximately 1985 to 1994 “The Golden Era” has been called as such by Hip Hop scholars, journalists, rappers, producers and entrepreneurs. From hardcore hip hop to bubblegum hip pop for over 20 years, the Golden Era has been put on a pedestal; sounds and images from this time period are a bar to be measured against or symbols employed to confirm authenticity.  In 1994, Chicago's Common (Sense) did not begin this trend but famously enshrined it in gender, equating "Hip-Hop in its Essence and Realness" with a girlfriend that he fell in love with only to have his heart broken.

    Here's but a few selections of the music and videos that reminisced over HER:

    RZA of Wu Tang, “Can It All Be So Simple Then?” (1993)

     Rooftop like we bringin' '88 back” – Iggy Azalea, “Fancy” (2014)

    Flashbacks are the future in marketing, music and even comedy.  Watch as symbols of the Golden Era are used to promote Brad Pitt's latest movie by breakdancing with Jimmy Fallon or the Black Eyed Peas attempt at a comeback in 2015 or an NWA or Roxanne Shante biopics:

    So why all the nostalgia? The reasons are several. First, as William Jelani Cobb writes in To the Break of Dawn, artists were working from a tabula rasa or a "BLANK SLATE".  With maybe only a few dozen or so notable recordings by the mid 1980s, Hip Hop recording artists had creative freedom to imagine rap music in new and varied ways.  Jelani Cobb illustrates how this process emphasised originality, resulting in a “push to expand beyond the horizons of what was and could be Hip Hop resulted in a manifold of new creations.” 

    And so, when a rap recording artist of this era succeeded amongst peers, critics and in sales, authenticity was confirmed.  “[Golden Era artists] had to first create their art form itself before getting down to the business of creating actual art.”  With no precedence, hip hop artists of this era not only made their first records but each release created whole new sub-genres with their efforts: pop rap, Black nationalist rap, gangsta rap, Afrocentric rap and so on. Unlike many contrived corporate rock n' roll and pop stars of the 1980s and 90s, rap music was considered "real".

    Second, there is the visceral thrill and the celebrated purity that the Golden Era was a youth movement.  Many of the artists were under 21 YEARS OLD, not even adults.  Many performers' approach to their careers were a special combination of being carefree with confidence, imaginative yet determined.  Jelani Cobb emphasizes this unique phenomenon: “Artists spend years trying to cultivate a unique approach to their chosen form; in these golden years, a critical mass of mic prodigies were creating themselves and their art form at the same time.” 

    Sociomuscologist Simon Frith has theorized music shapes our popular MEMORY and organizes our sense of TIME and HISTORY.  Rock n' Roll criticism and fandom has has a similar romantic nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s.  Considering these creative dynamics at play during the production and consumption of rap during this time period, it is understandable that Hip Hop's Golden Era becomes a measuring stick for the artists that follow, a reference point for innovation and aspiration.
    How to Succeed in the Record Business Without Really Trying

    I got a letter from a record company the other day...
    In Blues People, Leroi Jones made clear creativity does not occur in a vacuum.  However, ironically, another factor to be considered in the Golden Era's productivity was the lack of stifling corporate control. Record labels were “laissez-faire” (“LEAVE ALONE”) in their approach to Hip Hop acts on their roster. On one hand, this meant little monies were spent finding, developing and promoting rap acts. But on the other hand, as record labels signed Hip Hop artists without much scrutiny, this allowed for Hip Hop practitioners to police themselves, especially in New York City.

    Most large record labels were ill equipped to cultivate Hip Hop talent.  The wise choice was to turn to those gatekeepers who were in the know: established Hip Hop DJs, journalists, promoters or nightclub owners.  Informally, these types acted as A&R (“Artist and Repertoire”) for the label, scouting talent and guiding the creative process.  Along with promotional push of grassroots "street teams," tried and tested Hip Hop performers landed record deals with an international reach from this synergy.

    In New York City in particular, talent was vetted on the live stage and “paying dues” in front of live audiences could make or break an artist. Criteria of the time dictated an MC had to be able to “rock the house” before they were prepared to step into a recording booth. Here's an example of a young Fresh Prince and his DJ Jazzy Jeff earning their way to acclaim first on stage in New York before MTV.

    Interestingly, the competitive nature of live Hip Hop music found in MC or DJ or sound system “battles” manifested in the form of a “DIS” records or “ANSWER” records.  UTFO's "Roxanne, Roxanne" created a wave of responses in 1984, certifying controversy to be a lucrative marketing technique to promote or break an artist.

    As lead by KRS ONE and MC Shan, one of the more significant rivalries of this era was between the Bronx's Boogie Down Productions and Queen's Juice Crew.  You love to hear the story again and again:

    Note KRS ONE's comments on his sudden arrival and new found responsibility: “I found myself representing the Bronx… I didn't realize what a record did for pride… the Bronx was alive again.” Keep this in mind when considering Public Enemy's career and how Hip Hop artists of the Golden Era became quasi-political figures.  Willingly or not, the lyrics and ideologies of many artists of this era became thought of as representations of Black urban youth.

    The record industry also benefited unwittingly by the bare-bones, do it yourself aesthetic of Hip Hop music production.  Prior to sampling becoming cost prohibitive in the late 1990s, rap records were produced inexpensively with innovative recording techniques.  Bambaataa's “PLANET ROCK” provided a blueprint: popular breakbeats and DJ routines could be reconstructed and reimagined into a new song form.  William Jelani Cobb explains further: “At best, [Hip Hop artists] take pre-existing scraps of sound and color and compose them into entirely new piece of art.  At its worst, the new production amounted to musical plagiarism.”

    Before sampling litigation marginalized the technique, a clear gesture was being made attempting to highlight records of old as useful in a new context.  Stetsasonic explain in “Talkin’ All That Jazz”:

    “Tell the truth, James Brown was old / 'Til Eric and Rakim came out with ‘I Got Soul’
    Rap brings back old R&B / And if we would not, people could've forgot”

    Jelani Cobb continues: “[Sampling] technology transformed used record bins into aural scrap yards, and that long-neglected album collection gathering dust in the attic into a vinyl encyclopedia of sounds.” While borrowing, covering and outright stealing of songs, vamps, chords and lyrics can be found in any American popular music form, never had an entire genre dedicated itself to carrying the torch of artists, music and movements that had long disappeared in the public imagination. Plagiarism aside, one can argue by championing a sampling approach to music making, Golden Era rap artists assisted in introducing blues, jazz, soul and rock n' roll to a new, younger audience

    "Just a mad cool out... It's about 5 o'clock in the morning"
    Famed D&D Studio was known for its "raw" sound
    For the record labels, this meant low investment, high yield. Rather than using LIVE musicians, technicians, song writers and established producers, Hip Hop records from the Golden Era were often conceived by DJ and MC’s spontaneous creativity. With the aid of a single engineer, a turntable, sampler and a drum machine, Hip Hop artists created records within weeks, reducing the costs of studio time and paid professionals. Jelani Cobb explains this unique occurrence: “The emerging sound of Hip Hop managed to be both elemental and technological simultaneously.”

    The term Golden Era certainly sounds like a subjective measurement but a variety of factors have at the very least revealed this era in Hip Hop music as being unique in how it was produced, overseen and consumed.  Evidenced in the lyrics of Wu Tang, Nas and Biggie, offspring of the Golden Era, every good thing comes to a close.  Even KRS ONE lamented in 1993: “But all along, I'm still lookin' around / And all I can see are these rap groups fallin' down.”

    By the mid 90s, the record industry became more savvy, milking the above formula for all it was worth, prompting veterans of the culture to wonder what happens when you're outta here.  More significantly, the next generation of MCs in the 1990s were the children of crack cocaine, survivors of the surrounding violence of the epidemic and resulting mass incarceration.  The sound and intent of rap music would be forever altered leaving the Golden Era to be a distant memory.


    Legends of the Fall 1994

    "No time for looking back, it's done"

    Like 1979, 1982, 1988 or 1997, any working chronology of Hip Hop music should never overlook 1994 as a pinnacle year of its development, especially for New York.  Knowledgeable heads will cite Nas’ Illmatic and Notorious BIG’s Ready to Die with just cause.  Those less provincial will note Snoop Doggy Dogg’s solo album, Common’s resurrection of Chicago and Outkast’s debut from Atlanta.  Strikingly, Fall 1994 Hip Hop is a period that sounds both dated and inventive.  It is a moment when old school sensibilities of rocking mics mixed with a menace inflicted by a box cutter’s blade.  

    The mixtapes Legends of the Fall 1994 (aka "When We Were Very Young") Volumes OneTwo and Three captures both the pleasure and pain of this period. Mixes are zipped up and Apple Music friendly by yours truly. Or you can find Spotify playlists here for Volumes OneTwo and Three.

    "A strange form,
    somethin' kind of lyrical"
    By that autumn, the serendipitous creativity and commercial growth of rap music from 1986 to 1993 was coming to close.  1994 was, in some ways, the Golden Era’s wake.  These songs were brutal lyrical laments of a transformative and uplifting street culture passing away.  Moreover, raps of this era chronicle the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic on the black American urban underclass unflinchingly.  These kids grew up on Planet Ready Rock where the lines between the rap game and crack game had blurred.  The impact of the latter loomed too large to ignore evidenced by unflinching titles such as “Shook Ones” or “Stray Bullet.”

    No doubt Nas' epic “One Love” or declarative “Life’s a Bitch” may be the best of these moments.  But Lord Finesse’s “Shorties Kaught in the System” or Rae and Ghost’s “Heaven and Hell” also capture a growing dread that things done changed.  The youth of the late 1980s and 1990s have been abandoned not only by systemic inequality of the Reagan years but familial rejection.  "Ready to die, why I act that way? / Pop Duke left Mom Duke, the faggot took the back way” Biggie scorns on “The What.”  

    "You see it, I be it"
    Songs such as “Downtown Swinga,” “Buck ‘em Down” and “Let’s Get It On” all capture a confrontational, uncompromising stance: alienated urban black youth who casually flash steel, blow trees and guzzle Hennessy as a means of opposition for anyone within or outside their cypher that encroach upon their block.  “The most violent of the violent-lest crimes we give life to / If these QueensBridge kids don't like you” Prodigy intones on “Shook Ones.”

    Friends are no allies either, in “Alladat” Sadat X raps: “Everybody claims to know nothin’ /  And these is the peoples that's down wit me / Supposedly, theys on my side, yeah right / They let a nigga die in the night if you let em” Parrish Smith publicly feuds with his long time friend and business partner Erick Sermon on “I Saw It Cummin’”: “Not trying to promote violence but thats the way it is / The code of the ghetto ain't got shit to do with showbiz.” Further, Biggie and Tupac may famously share a track here on “Let’s Get It On” but within a year’s time whatever friendship they might have had would be marred by a growing violent coastal feud.  

    The type of sonic and platonic unity showcased by Kid n’ Play’s “2 Hype” or Rob Base and DJ EZ’s Rock “It Takes Two” in 1988 has been eclipsed by the perils of both glitz and glamour and the code of the streets by 1994.  In OC’s words, “Time’s Up” the rap game had become a farce, ribald fables without lessons, lyrics without meaning: “Non-conceptual, non-exceptional / Everybody’s either crime-related or sexual.” Veteran Craig Mack swings in “Flava in Ya Ear,” simply saying of new jacks, “You won’t be around next year…”

    "From Melrose to Patterson, Lexington to Madison"

    "When we start the revolution..."
    There has been always an issue of legality born of the original practices: the acts of graffiti writing, powering DJ equipment from lamp posts, breakdancing and partying in public spaces initially thrived because of the lack of civil order in the Bronx in the 1970s.  Paradoxically, as the clamp down of these “quality of life” crimes removed Hip Hop culture from public spaces in the 1980s, the emerging crack market and the recreational consumption of “blunts,” Heines and Becks become mixed up with B-Boy bravado.  By 1994 the traditional “Four Elements” archetype and illusions of the B-Boy literally transformed before our ears.  Hip Hop lore intersects with criminology as Nas outlines in “Represent”: 

    More of matter of factly, graf writer and master of ceremonies El da Sensei from the Artifacts breaks down a day in the life: 

    Curiously, some of the main ingredients of this era survives from a time before crack.  Vocal stop gap measures sometimes identified as the black preacher's “whooping” are heard in such as standard Hip Hop phrases “Yes, yes, y’all” or “And ya don’t stop."  Further the “call and response” devices for song hooks are evidenced throughout.  Whether with sample snippets or vocal choruses, songs such as “Mansion and a Yacht,” “Hit Me with That”, “Without a Doubt,” “2,3 Break,” “What a Niggy Know,” and “Word is Bond” all display the hallmarks of an Old School era fading away.  The works of the Redman and The Artifacts carry the baton as well but are weighed down by a casual misogyny and nihilism that characterizes American culture at large by this decade.

    "For every rhyme I write is 25 to life"
    Setting aside sociological analysis, scanning the track listings of these mixtapes reveals the emergence of notable long standing Hip Hop icons both on the mic and behind the boards during this particular autumn.  Biggie and Nas’ should not overshadow the rise in profile of household names such as Busta Rhymes, Common Sense and The Roots.  The verbal assault of Pharoe Monche of Organized Konfusion (“Bring It On”), Sadat XMad Skillz and Keith Murray should not be overlooked either.  Black Moon, Smif n’ Wessun and Mobb Deep refined a murder music aesthetic that continues to be emulated to this day.  The lyrical variety of 1994 was on display as well.  The Cella Dwellas dabble in mysticism (“Land of the Lost”) and the Gravediggaz the macabre (“1-800-Suicide”).  Common Sense (“Chapter 13”), Organized Konfusion ("Stray Bullet") and Jeru the Damaja ("You Can't Stop the Prophet") all employ metaphor skillfully.

    "That's what I consider real
    in this field of music"
    While production work in the Fall 1994 solidified Large Professor, Premier, Pete Rock and Q-Tip’s legacy, Bronx wunderkind Buckwild almost single handedly reinvented the Diggin’ in the Crates aesthetic.  Eschewing be bop horns and piano riffs, Buckwild unearthed the cinematic progressive jazz soundscapes of David Axlerod (“C'mon wit da Git Down”) and Les DeMerle (“Time’s Up”).  The sampling aesthetic had always favored a wide palate, but with “Alladat” and “Thirteen” Buckwild carried on tradition with inventive chops of familiar breakbeats.  Likewise making a name for himself, Chicago’s NO I.D. should be recognized for his new take on soulful boom bap in “Check the Method” and “Communism.”  As a result, twenty years later, NO I.D. has become sought out by Jay-Z, Nas, Common, Big Sean and Kendrick Lamar when attempting to recapture this storied sound of the 1990s.

    It’s ironic to be canonizing a year and a season that itself was lamenting the end of one era and the beginning of the next.  If we were to personify Hip Hop culture, one might characterize that Hip Hop in 1994 began to take inventory of its self in its twenties, mourning the "back in the days" passed.  Captured on these mixtapes are the generational voices of young black adults navigating a rap music industry’s coming of age while simultaneously besieged by the violence and catastrophe of the avertible crack cocaine epidemic.  Their collective past histories had become the future by the fall of 1994 and as such, Hip Hop prepared to sing the blues.