The Roots of Rap and Hip Hop
Writer and critic Nelson George. He's one of this country's most prominent chroniclers of black music and culture. His new book "Hip Hop America" (Viking) is a history of Hip Hop, and a memoir of his own life, growing up to the musical strains of Hip Hop.
Other segments from the episode on November 11, 1998
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 11, 1998
Head: Nelson George & Hip Hop America
KEN TUCKER, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Ken Tucker sitting in for Terry Gross.
My guest, Nelson George, has just published "Hip Hop America," a history of rap and contemporary rhythm and blues that traces the evolution of this music from the late '70s to the present, from the pop rap of Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" through socially conscious hip hop like Public Enemy's album "Fear of a Black Planet" to today's gangster rap and beyond.
Nelson George was, so to speak, there at the creation. As a writer for first, "Billboard" magazine, and then publications ranging from "The Village Voice," "Esquire," and "Essence," he interviewed scores of rap musicians. He's the author of eight books including "The Death of Rhythm and Blues," and is a consulting producer for the "Chris Rock Show" on HBO.
Let's start, as George does in his book, with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" which he cites as the first national rap hit, from 1979.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SUGAR HILL GANG PERFORMING "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")
Hip-hop don't stop
Work it out people
Welcome to the boogie to bang bang
The boogie to the boogie to the beat
Now what you hear
Is not a test
I'm rapping to the beat
And me the groove and my friends
Are gonna try to move your feet
You see I am Wonder Mike
And I'd like to say hello
To the black to the white
The red and the brown
To the purple and yellow
But first I got to ...
TUCKER: Can you explain a little bit about -- put this in the context of what was going on in black pop music at this time immediately preceding this. Kind of how disco led to the importance of the record spinning DJ which, in turn, led to the development of rap.
NELSON GEORGE, AUTHOR, "HIP-HOP AMERICA": Well, you kind of said it there, you know, disco had made the DJ as a cultural figure, really, important both in the black community, Latino community, gay community, across the board.
Wherever you went there were discos and the DJ, as the arbiter of taste, was becoming a very big cult figure throughout America. So, all this stuff -- there was disco going on, black dance music, there was the cult of the DJ. And what the hip hop kids were doing, specifically, DJs in Harlem and the Bronx was they were gravitating to the idea of the DJ as Godhead DJ (ph) arbiter of taste.
But they had their own esthetic which began developing, and that was one in which -- it wasn't so much about playing specific whole records, it was more about playing specific parts of records. So, they would have taken a disco records let's say -- they could take a record by the South Soul Orchestra which was a very big disco group of the era, and they might play just the percussion break that came in four minutes into the record.
And they would play that percussion break and have two records, and cut between the two percussion breaks, so, that over the course of, let's say, a minute of play that six or seven second section of percussion break becomes extended to become a one minute of almost a new rhythm track.
So, that's really the building block of hip hop is this idea of taking bits of records, the best parts, the parts that are the most rhythmic and creating almost new sounds with them.
TUCKER: And also, it was the kind of music that was truly grassroots. It was not relying upon the music industry and radio, it was music that was creating itself.
GEORGE: Yeah, I mean it was a great song, actually, back in that period by The Average White Band, they had Benny King singing with them and it was called "Star in the Ghetto." And that, basically, was what the era of the DJs became, they were stars in the ghetto, literally.
In the South Bronx, in Harlem, then later in Brooklyn, throughout Queens, there was this whole circuit of underground -- underground wouldn't even be the right word to say. Underground suggests there was -- they were just neighborhood spots: parks, roller skating ranks, little discos. The first thing that I could find, that I wrote about rap, was for the "Amsterdam News," and I think it was from '77 or '78 and I don't even have the exact date now, unfortunately.
It was in the summer, I know that for sure and I was in college, and I went up to the Bronx to see DJ Cool Herk (ph) who is now regarded as one of the trilogy of the original hip hop DJs. It's Cool Herk, Grand Master Flash, and Africa Bambatta (ph).
And I went to see him in this park in the South Bronx, it's actually a pretty cool story because I got there just before dusk maybe around five or so, and there are kids standing around on this park -- this schoolyard just kind of hanging out waiting around. And a van pulls up, and out of the van Cool Herk and a few guys got out carrying crates of records in milk crates, as well as a card table, and a bunch of equipment.
They set up the -- unscrewed the base of a street lamp. Somehow, they re-wired the thing so that they plugged in their wires into the wire in the street lamp, and that's how they got their electricity. And bang, they were doing a concert right there in the middle of the park.
TUCKER: Well, let's play one of these kind of fundamental DJs, Grand Master Flash, who has had one of the longest careers in the genre. Let's start by playing a little bit from Grand Master Flash and the Furious Fives' 1982 hit "The Message."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GRAND MASTER FLASH AND THE FURIOUS FIVE PERFORMING "THE MESSAGE")
It's like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder
How I keep from going under
It's like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder
How I keep from going under
Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stage
And know they just don't care
I can't take the smell
Can't take the noise
Got no money to move out
I guess got no choice
Rats in the front room
Vultures in the back
Junkies in the alley
With a baseball bat
I try to get away but I couldn't get far
Because a man with a (unintelligible) repossessed my car
Don't push may 'cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to lose my head
It's like a jungle sometimes...
TUCKER: Now, who was Grand Master Flash and why is what he did with turntables so important?
GEORGE: Well, Flas, really was a guy who along with another MC, Grand Wizard Theodore, who took the idea of actually playing the turntable. The idea of scratching. The idea of taking the turntable and a vinyl, and not just playing it in a passive way or even mixing it in an aggressive way, but actually rub the vinyl and the needle against each other to create its own percussive sound.
That was their concept, and it was quite an amazing -- I mean, it's just a weird thing. One of the things about hip hop, throughout its history, is that it's been very involved with technology -- both recording technology, and different kinds of instrumentation.
And the idea of turning the actual turntable into an instrument was just kind of an amazing one, and it became a staple and remains, to this day, a staple of hip hop DJing and a sound of hip hop. If anyone says to you the two things about hip hop anyone will know it is a guy rhyming, you know, throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don't care and "ziga ziga."
Ask anybody, and they know "ziga ziga." It's that sound, and the way that you think about a rock guitarist and there certain cliche things that are associated with rock and roll -- the ziga ziga sound that Flash created is like the cliche sound of hip hop.
TUCKER: Right. So, when it came time to actually get this kind of music down on record, Sugar Hill Records was really the most significant first label, I think, for rap. Would you agree?
TUCKER: Yeah, and what was the label significance in terms of signing acts and getting that music out there to a wider audience?
GEORGE: Well, they're the ones who put the Sugar Hill Gang record out. They're the ones who put up "The Message." Basically, from about 1979 to '82 they were the hip hop label, both because of the Sugar Hill Gang breakthrough, then, also, finding some of the other really legitimate stars: Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, Spoony G they signed, they also put out the first sort of female MC records - both with a group called Sequence which was three girls from down south, and they also later on signed The Funky Four Plus One which was a group that had been on a little independent label out of Harlem.
And they had the first, really, good female MC on record which was Shar Rock (ph) who was the Plus One. So, they were really significant in getting hip hop off to a start, it really gave hip hop a sense of -- they believed in it enough to be committed to it.
TUCKER: And I guess in part that was because the woman who ran Sugar Hill Records, Sylvia Robinson, had her own roots in soul music, right? She had pop hits herself.
GEORGE: Yeah, she'd had a song called, a very famous one-hit wonder song called "Love Is Strange" by Mickey and Sylvia. Later, she had a song called "Pillow Talk" which was a big hit in the '70s. And she and her husband, Joe Robinson, had both had a company called All Platinum Records out of Englewood, New Jersey.
And, in fact, the Sugar Hill Gang basically kept them -- put them back in business. All Platinum by '78-'79 had gone into bankruptcy. Like many of the r&b independent labels of the '70s -- '60s and '70s, when the big corporations -- when CBS, Warner Bros., PolyGram got very involved in black music in the '70s the little smaller black and white owned independent labels had a hard time surviving. And, in fact, it was hip hop, in a sense, that really gave them a new life, and put them back in business.
TUCKER: I was living in Los Angeles in the late '70s when a lot of this music first started, and I think the first song that I became aware of as a rap hit was Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks." So, when I read your book I was very impressed to learn that you're a background chanter on that cut.
GEORGE: That's right.
TUCKER: One of the most important early rap hits, and Nelson George is there in the background.
GEORGE: What's very funny is my roommate at the time, a guy named Robert Ford Jr. -- it's a whole tangled story, but I was like a -- he was basically ducking his girlfriend, and I was trying to duck -- get out of my mother's house. So, we became roommates together out in Queens, and at the time he was writing for "Billboard" and he had met Russell Simmons, who was sort of a party promoter in Queens.
And Russell had gone to school with Kurtis Blow, they were both at City College together. So, through the fact that we were all hanging out together, and I was their roommate I got here all these tracks, and I ended up going down to the studio a lot because Robert Ford and another guy at "Billboard" had put up and out of the money to make a first Christmas rapping.
And then "The Breaks," and that was actually -- I can remember that day pretty graphically because we were all in this -- it made the track. And they had about, I would say, 15 people in the studio with earphones on clapping and chanting "That's the breaks, that's the breaks." I remember very clearly, for some reason, it was really a nice day and who knew?
I used to listen to myself on the radio -- there's one sound I make toward the end of the record where I think I meow - you can hear pretty clearly.
TUCKER: You meow, and then, I don't know, 25 years later George Clinton is woofing.
GEORGE: There you go.
TUCKER: Yeah. I'm talking to Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America." Let's take a short break here.
This is FRESH AIR.
TUCKER: My guest, Nelson George, is the author of "Hip Hop America."
The next stage of rap was defined in your telling of the story, I think, by Russell Simmons' Rush Management Company, and the Def Jam record label. And throughout the '80s, Simmons signed everybody from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince to Run DMC, to LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys. It reads like a who's who of rap.
Why was Russell Simmons such an astute arbiter of that kind of musical taste?
GEORGE: I just think Russell was one of the first people of the generation to see this as a long-term thing, and to believe in the music. I mean, I remember going with him to meetings or being around because at that time I was at "Billboard" by this period. I was sort of a black music editor at "Billboard," I think I started in '82, and the resistance from the established world of black music was very very uniform.
The people who were running the Solar Records' of the world, the people who were running the (unintelligible) Internationals, the vice presidents for black music at various labels just would not -- didn't believe in this music as a viable thing. They were very locked into rhythm and blues.
They believe that rhythm and blues had fought very hard to become a mainstream music, and was no need for this other thing.
TUCKER: It was a very -- what was predominant on black radio at that point would have been very smooth, ballad-oriented r&b.
GEORGE: Yeah, people like, you know, Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson had a huge run. One of the disconnects between the generations and disconnects in the music was that r&b had become very polished, and not always in a bad way. I think Vandross is great singer, and I think Vandross is one of the greatest singers, actually, in the tradition.
But overall the entire framework of what was r&b had lost the guts that had made it soul music in the '60s into the early '70s -- even funk head really gone out of play. There was a lot of grittiness, and hip hop brought back the grittiness to black music. It brought back a sense of street reality, it brought back raw -- a rawness, and a kind of confrontational attitude which, you know, you can hear in Otis Redding's voice, you can hear it in Wilson Pickett's voice, you can hear it in Aretha Franklin's voice.
So, a lot of folks who were running the black music departments had become Courvoisier people, if you will. They had gold cards, and they had a house in the suburbs, and they weren't feeling this stuff. And so, Russell was a very abrasive young man, very aggressive, and they weren't feeling him too much either.
Russell's biggest connection and connections of all the hip hop people at that time tended to be with people -- a lot of the younger white people who might have been involved or aware of coming out of the punk-new wave scene. So, you'd see this connection -- I remember hanging out with Russell one night in '84 or so, and went from -- we started in Queens at sort of roller skating rank giving out records, we went all the way to the Bronx to the Disco Fever which was one of the core hip hop clubs, and then we ended the night down at Harrah's which was a rock and roll club in the West -- "new wave" club in the West Side, and we went to the Peppermint Lounge.
We went to a lot of places where there were people still listening to The Clash and stuff like that. And that connection between the uptown hip hop scene and sort of the downtown hipster scene, if you will, was very very important, and now when we talk about hip hop being pop music it began -- the bridge was built then between the uptown scene and sort of the progressive wing of white pop music.
TUCKER: Right. Well, let's play one of the biggest hits from a Simmons act, Run DMC's "Walk This Way," which kind of relates to what you're saying in the sense that it was released in 1986 and it was a collaboration with a white hard rock band, Aerosmith.
And then I'd like you to comment on its significant after we play little bit of "Walk This Way."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- RUN DMC AND AEROSMITH PERFORMING "WALK THIS WAY")
Back seat lover
And I talked to my daddy, say
He said "You ain't seen nothin'
" 'Til you're down on a muffin
"And you're sure to be
A-changin' your ways"
I met a cheerleader
Was a real big bleeder
Oh, times I could reminisce
'Cause the best thing lovin'
Was her sister and her cousin
And it started with a little kiss
With the boys...
TUCKER: That's "Walk This Way," a collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith. Was this like the first time that a white rock group had collaborated with a rap act?
GEORGE: I don't know. There might have been other collaborations, I don't want to say that it's the first one, but I will say it was the most significant one. And two things about that record that strike me: one is Run DMC had been always interested in rock and roll. I mean it was Rock Box before that, King of Rock before that also had a rock guitar influence.
Records like Billy Squire's "The Big Beat" had been a big hip hop record. There were other records -- I mean "Walk This Way" that second where the drum comes in had been sampled -- sampled, it wasn't even around then, but the idea of utilizing hip hop DJing for a long time.
So, there was a continuity where working with Aerosmith was not as radical, especially on that particular record, as it may seem. There was a whole historical context for it. Then the other thing to mention is Rick Rubin, who produced the track, and Rick had been a rock and roll kid from Long Island who had gravitated to hip hop for the same reasons.
He felt the abrasiveness, the aggressiveness, and he hooked up with Russell at one of these downtown clubs that I was just talking about earlier, and they really had a kinship. Actually Def Jam was started by Rick in his dorm room at NYU, and in fact, he is the one who originally signed LL Cool J.
GEORGE: And he also actually was the key person in bringing Public Enemy into the fold at Def Jam. So, Rick was a key person because as a personality and as a record producer he, not only saw the bridges between rock and roll and hip hop, but he helped create the bridge.
TUCKER: Well, what was it do you think that a white audience was getting out of music that was often conceived by black artists for black audiences? I mean, was there an immediate interest in -- by white audiences in terms of looking at the commercial potential for rap music?
GEORGE: Yeah, I mean people always say that White audiences discovered hip hop later. No. "Rappers Delight" was one of the biggest records in the country, and in fact -- the year it came out NARAS, which is the Association of Record Retailers named it single of the year for 1979.
And in fact, because of the weird way the Billboard charts were done in those days it never quite made it to the Top 20, but in every other country including Canada, the UK, throughout Europe, it was a top five, and even a top 10 top five record.
So, "The Message," again, was another record that had a tremendous white following. There's always been a white audience for hip hop. And much for the same reasons, I believe, that initially, you know, rock and roll, soul music, and then later on reggae had white fans.
There's a certain kind of honesty, a certain kind of lack of artifice which was very prevalent -- particularly in the '80s hip hop -- maybe less so now that spoke to people who were looking for something that was aggressive and something that was -- didn't seem as polished.
And one of things that happened with r&b is it became so polished that it lost a lot of its youth appeal with young white kids, particularly. So, hip hop filled the vacuum. I think that sometimes when -- especially a lot of black people talk about white kids liking hip hop there's a lot of resentment in their voices, but -- which is funny to me because I remember when black people, not very long ago, in fact disdained hip hop and saw it as this ugly thing.
In fact, I mean, one of my pet theories is that black people claim historically their culture when white people begin liking it. Because it -- "Oh, what's going on here, they're stealing our music."
TUCKER: Right, and that's being very protective.
GEORGE: Exactly. When it's still kind of disreputable. I mean, that goes for blues, and that goes for a lot of different kinds of music. I mean, right now jazz is considered, you know, classical American music, but you know, that wasn't the case during most of its history.
TUCKER: Nelson George is the author of "Hip-hop America." We'll continue our interview in the second half of the show.
I'm Ken Tucker, and this is FRESH AIR.
TUCKER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ken Tucker.
We're talking to Nelson George, who's written a history of hip hop music. I asked him more about current developments in the genre.
As you move into the '90s, an important offshoot of hip hop is producer Teddy Riley's so-called "new jack swing." Riley produced everybody from DJs like Koo Moe Dee and Heavy D, and he produced vocalists like Keith Sweat and Bobby Brown.
Let's listen to one of my favorite hip hop songs of all time, Koo Moe Dee's "How You Like Me Now," and then I'd like you to talk about Teddy Riley's innovations.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- KOO MOE DEE PERFORMING "HOW YOU LIKE ME NOW")
Three seconds later
I got ya
Shakin' ya head
The rhymes kick
The beats hittin' ya
Just like a home run
Slammin' like slam dunks
Ride the wave
James Brown (unintelligible)
Happened to James
Like it happened to me
How you think the feeling
Using my rap styles
And I'm playin' the background
I ain't with that
You can't forget that
You took my styles
I'm takin' it back
Like "Return of the Jedi"
(Unintelligible) MC's in the place
Can only rock rhyme
And only rock crowds
But never rock
How you like me now?
TUCKER: That's Koo Moe Dee.
GEORGE: That's a great record.
TUCKER: It really is. I mean, that vocal is like so authoritative, and that drum beat is just so pounding.
What did Teddy Riley bring to this hip hop party?
GEORGE: Well, I mean as his record sort of illustrates a couple of things. One is, you hear the sampling. He, you know, you hear actual sampling, and Teddy was very very an early sampler in terms of using established beats such as James Brown which he uses on this record.
TUCKER: Yeah, from "Night Train."
GEORGE: Right. But he also brought another thing which is also kind of a record -- there is a great sense of musicality. It's not a flat -- he didn't sample or loop someone's beat. The beat is there, but he also mixes in his keyboard arrangements were quite quite important and quite quite smart.
He had been a church boy, he was one of those little phenomenal kids who play like eight instruments by the time he was like 11. So, he had great musicality, and great (unintelligible) of song. I mean if you listen to the vocal, this vocal is really really arranged even the way that Moe Dee comes into the first line, he doesn't just start rhyming, he sort of sings into it.
So, Teddy is the key guy because he understood music, as a true musician, as a true prodigy, and understood hip hop as a child of growing up with rap records. And he is the first producer that I know of who could blend both, who came out of both. Where Rick came out of rock and brought a rock aesthetic to hip hop, Teddy brought a gospel, as well as r&b, as well as hip hop aesthetic together.
And so, that's why he was so influential -- he could really produce vocals for hip hop artists as well as produce vocals for singers, and that wasn't done at that time -- it was quite unprecedented. Now, everyone does that, but Teddy was the first and Teddy still does it as well as anyone.
TUCKER: There's that great quote from the critic Barry Michael Cooper that you quote in your book. Cooper wrote: "There's no space to breathe in Riley's music. The orchestration slams you, the drums tear out your heart. Riley's music is Robocop, funk, and full effect, go-go music gunned down by rap and electronics, then rebuilt with more vicious beats and an in-charge large attitude."
That was like great pop music criticism, I think.
GEORGE: Barry Cooper was one my friends and peers at "The Voice" in the '80s, and Barry did an amazing profile on Teddy back around the time of "How You Like Me Now," about Teddy's influence. It was just a wonderful period, again, because Teddy was a person who began to reinject guts into r&b.
Particularly with Keith Sweat's first album which is a great record they did together, and Bobby Brown's "Don't Be Cruel" album.
TUCKER: "My Prerogative."
GEORGE: "My Prerogative," yeah, just an amazing record, "My Prerogative." Bobby Brown, though now he's sort of become sort of a caricature, he's, you know, now he's Whitney Houston's husband as much as anything -- was really a key figure in reconnecting rhythm and blues, soul music, and hip hop because Bobby came out of New Edition which was one of the first groups that really tried to mix the two.
He wasn't a great vocalist, but he had great attitude in his vocals. And that's one of things people don't appreciate about pop singing. You have to be a great singer to be a big star, you have to present a persona through your voice. And Teddy had a really -- he really mixed in a soul man aesthetic with a hip hop attitude.
And so, then you had, you know, he's the closest guy -- I remember from that period -- the wildest guy sounds like he could have been hanging out with Wilson Pickett as well as hanging out with Koo Moe Dee.
TUCKER: Well, let's play another very different, but no less relentless Teddy Riley-produced hit. This is Blackstreet's "No Diggity."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- BLACKSTREET PERFORMING "NO DIGGITY")
You know what
I like to play on
No diggity no doubt
Play on player
Play on player
Yo drink drop the first
It's going down face the black street
The homeless got (unintelligible) creations
For a black athlete no doubt
Put it down never slouch
As long as my credit can vouch
That dog couldn't catch me
Tell me who can stop (unintelligible) makin' moves
Attracting honeys like a magnet
Giving up eargasms
With my mellow waxing
Still moving his flavor
With the homey's Flat Street and Teddy
The original buck shaker...
TUCKER: That's "No Diggity." I really like the piano on that.
GEORGE: Oh, absolutely. The piano is fantastic, and also the way that "mmm-hmm" comes in on vocal. That arrangement, again, you hear Teddy's gospel influence, you hear Teddy's understanding of hip hop. It's just a wonderful record, and the other thing that's interesting is, you know, the vocalist - the rhymer in that was Dr. Dre who is also one of the best and greatest producers in hip hop.
And the sort of collaboration that goes on in hip hop a lot is a great sense now of community. Actually this particular moment in hip hop is a very good one in that a lot of East Coast-West Coast things, a lot of the things that have been sort of scarring hip hop throughout the mid-part of this decade have really faded away.
And you see people from all across the board working together, collaborating: East Coast, West Coast, north, south, and there's a lot of sense of community in the music right now. And this record was a reflection of that.
TUCKER: Yeah, you write: "While Teddy Riley created new jack swing, Dr. Dre ruled gangster rap." From what context did Dre's attitude about hip hop come from, and why did his productions style come to dominate this area of the music?
GEORGE: Well, you know, it's funny -- interesting -- he's very much an extension of Teddy in the sense that he was very funk-oriented. Not as gospel, not as churchy as Teddy, and -- which seems appropriate for the material being rhymed about.
But very -- I mean really a funk finder and a person deeply into P- funk and so on. Again, another really excellent musician -- really good keyboards particularly which is a very important part of hip hop. So, he had an aesthetic that was based on this kind of a country funk aesthetic, you might say.
People think of L.A. as this very, you know, big glamorous city, but once you get outside of West Hollywood, especially get over to the black sections of town it's a very southern-feeling city, and the music that they've always listened to out there was always a lot funkier than what New York was doing.
They were always much more fans of Cameo, and Confunction, Bar-Kays, a lot of bands that weren't as big in the northeast but were huge down south. Well, you had L.A. which had its own particular urban culture -- very aggressive urban culture, had a lot of gang stuff going on. And you combine that with this aesthetic of funk, and that's where you sort of arrive at where Dr. Dre came as a producer.
TUCKER: Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America." We'll be back after a short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
TUCKER: Back to our interview with Nelson George who has written a history of rap music.
One of the things your book does is place rap in its social and political context. When you talk about gangster rap, so much of the public dialogue about this music is condemning its use of profanity, and misogyny, and the general idea seems to be to suppress it without acknowledging that this music is reflecting what's going on in young black lives. Would you agree with that?
GEORGE: Yeah, it is absolutely, and to this day, I just saw a review -- what did I see the other day? I saw someone's record was written about -- it was gangster rapper blah, blah, blah. And gangsta rapper has become like liberal. It's like what are those words you say when you don't want anyone to pay attention to them.
Or we know what they're about already, and it's really shortsighted, it's really -- instead of creating dialogue it cuts off dialogue. So, what these guys -- actually it's interesting thing because I know a lot of the West Coast rappers themselves -- Ice Cube and so on try to get their music called "reality rap." And that was -- Eazy E even used that phrase. It didn't really catch on because it wasn't obviously as charismatic -- and we love the phrase gangster anything in America.
But the truth is that the songs had a lot more diversity, and they had a lot of truth to them, and to this day, I mean, there's a lot of what I call "wrestling hip hop" which would be -- not Jesse "The Body" Ventura stuff, but definitely, you know, we say things to get an effect.
But at the core of this music is a reality of poor working-class urban life that this music communicates, and that's why it will continue to live on. There's always going to be "gangster rap" or "reality rap" as long as a percentage of young people, not just black people, but young people in America live -- can't find jobs, have a lot of crime around them, have a lot of police brutality.
There's going to be an audience to make -- people who make these records and an audience that supports these records, and that's as simple as that. Even to this day, what Master P is doing down in New Orleans, a lot of it deals with this lifestyle. A lot of what JZ out of New York -- who's had the top record in America for five straight weeks deals with -- is "gangster rap."
If you define it as such, but if you don't listen to the records, you don't really understand what they really mean. Otherwise, you're just taking it -- it's just a slogan.
TUCKER: At the same time, I don't think we should sort of underestimate the polarizing effect that gangster rap, when it first came out, really had.
There's a moment in your book I'd like you speak about, it's when you say you were on a panel at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1989, and the question of what hip hop meant and where it was going came up. And you say that you launched into an attack on the 2 Live Crew and their raunchy lyrics, and you were surprised that this young black audience started hissing and shouting you down. What was going on in that exchange?
GEORGE: Well, I mean one thing about Luke. Luke doesn't really do what I would call gangster rap.
TUCKER: Luke Campbell, the head of the 2 Live Crew.
GEORGE: Because he rarely talks about anything but sex. There's no cocaine being sold, there's nobody being shot, there's no drive-bys, there's no racist policeman -- it's all about women and big butts. That's Luke's entire...
TUCKER: It's the Bob Guccione of gangster rap.
GEORGE: Yes, he is. So, I wouldn't call him a gangsta rapper. I think that that's -- again, that's where that phrase gangsta rap that creates this whole sense of this is what this is, and Luke didn't sound like anything that was going on the West Coast.
But, in any event, that day I was really struck by the -- I don't know if it was a generation gap or attitude gap, however you want to look at it. In terms of the way the younger people view this music, they viewed Luke as fun. Luke was either to be played at the party Friday night, Saturday night. They weren't that concerned about what he said.
Particularly, the young women were like, look, I'm not a ho, my friends ain't hos. So, this record is not about me, I don't really care, it makes me dance. And, you know, from a feminist point of view: oh! But, you know, from a party point of you it was perfectly fine.
So, there was his contradiction, I thought, in a lot of the views of these women which really disturbed me, and I've never been a fan of that particular wing of the music. And I do think it promotes values and promotes views of women at even these young women were not quite internalizing.
It's one thing to have a song, you know, that's about a sexy woman, it's another thing to have 12 cuts on the album which are just about -- not about her personality, not about romance, not about a relationship, just about sort of bestial activities I would say.
I just, you know, just thought that this was a bad thing. And I talk about it at length in the book, and Luke was a big part of helping spread because Luke is one of the people who innovated the booty video. The video of the girl in the Daisy Duke shaking her behind very close to a camera lens was really Luke's idea.
TUCKER: His significant contribution to the culture.
GEORGE: Exactly. So, I mean, I think that they had a very negative effect on relations within the black community, and youth community in general.
TUCKER: My guest is Nelson George, author of "Hip Hop America."
For the mass pop audience right now, I would say the most familiar name in hip hop is Sean "Puffy" Combs who's had hit after hit. Let's listen to a little bit of one of those hits, a song he created with the late Biggie Smalls called "Mo Money, Mo Problems."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SEAN "PUFFY" COMBS AND NOTORIOUS B.I.G. PERFORMING "MO MONEY, MO PROBLEMS)
Now who's hot who's not
Tell me (unintelligible)
TUCKER: Nelson George, what is your take on Puffy? Innovator? Or fraud? Or what?
GEORGE: No, definitely innovator on a number of levels. Just in terms of a marketing of hip hop -- going back to when he was an intern at Uptown, and then later an A&R executive -- Puffy was very very smart about imagery. Jodeci, which is a vocal group from North Carolina that was on Uptown, came to town in a band and were trying to get a deal, had really great voices.
Puffy is the one who put them in the baggy outfits, took their shirts off of them, made sure they had tattoos, and figured out there's a look there, a way to take this kind of southern soul music look voices and make them seem hip hop and cool.
Mary J. Blige, he was very very involved in the first two records in terms of creating the look and the attitude of Mary J. Blige that made her like the queen of hip hop. His own label, Bad Boy -- his videos have all been very very smart, very very fun, great eye candy. So, a) he's always been very good at understanding how to make this music fun and accessible to a lot of people.
B) One thing he understood about hip hop was that hip hop as pop was to have choruses. Now, the thing about Puffy that makes people -- that makes people mad at him is he takes choruses from other people.
TUCKER: Right. That's what I was getting to earlier when I said fraud. People seem to get so steamed when he takes like whole chunks of like Diana Ross out of that cut we just played.
GEORGE: I look at this way, I mean, for someone who grew up on -- knows the original "I'm Coming Out" maybe it is somewhat objectionable, I don't know. It used to be initially to me, but the reality is that these records aren't for me. I am a 41 hero black men. They're for someone who is 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 who doesn't know the original, and thinks, in many cases, that some of these things are new music.
And if it's fun to them, if they dance to it, if it's making their life better in some way that music does, then it's not bad thing. As long as, you know, Vernon Edwards and Nile Rodgers, who wrote the original song are getting paid, as long as Diana Ross getting being paid, as the kids enjoy it that's -- and that's what it's about ultimately. It's still fun music -- what Puffy does very well is make music that's fun to have a party with.
And when you get to all the politics of hip hop, and you get to all the stuff of who owns in, black people, white people, when he gets to its impact as social -- the bottom line is, this is music that was it created initially for parties, and when it works well it still works best as music for parties.
TUCKER: Nelson George is the author of "Hip Hop America." Here's Public Enemy "fighting the power."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- PUBLIC ENEMY PERFORMING "FIGHT THE POWER")
Get our best trained best educated
Best equipped best prepared who refuse to fight
As a matter it's safe to say that they would rather
Switch than fight
1989 a number another summer
The sound of a funky drummer
Music in your heart 'cause I know they got soul
Brothers and sisters listen y'all
Singing while I'm singing
Getting what you're getting
know what I know
Why the black man sweating
In the river I'm rolling
Got to give us what we want
Got to give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom of death
We got to fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
Fight the power
We got to fight the power
TUCKER: Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg explains why you may not want to use the Web to translate your favorite (unintelligible) from Marcel Proust just yet.
This is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
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Dateline: Ken Tucker, Philadelphia
Guest: Nelson George
High: Writer and critic Nelson George. He's one of this country's most prominent chroniclers of Black music and culture. His new book "Hip Hop America" is a history of hip hop and a memoir of his own life.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Nelson George; Media; "Hip Hop America"
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Nelson George & Hip Hop America
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.