The 1990s Era of Hip Hop and Me
I was fortunate enough to come of age during the 1990s when Hip-Hop was taking a firm hold of urban culture throughout our nation. There was Eric B and Rakim, Run DMC, Heavy D, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Queen Latifa, Das FX, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kriss Kross, MC Lyte, Positive K, Naughty By Nature, Yo-Yo and scores of other groups featured on TV Shows like BET’s Rap City and MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps. This was the cultural world and energy I experienced each and every day that I left the confines of my home. My parents were older and were deeply into Jazz, RnB, Blues and of course Michael Jackson, which was probably the closest thing to Hip-Hop for me during my early childhood. There was clearly a disconnect between what my parents were listening to and what would eventually take the neighborhood and the world by storm.
This generational gap continued to widen as the nineties commenced. There was a new flavor of Hip-Hop emerging that not only scared my parents and elders but actually scared me as well. I remember being nine years old and having one of my teenage afterschool counselors play a track off of one of N.W.A or Eazy-E’s albums. All I know was that I heard Eazy-E’s unmistakably high pitched voice ordering a restaurant full of people to hit the floor, while he proceeded to rob the place. At that exact moment I remember experiencing a feeling of tremendous excitement that include adrenaline running through me but this feeling was followed by feelings of shame and guilt. I almost felt as if I had just witnessed the fictional but dramatically realistic robbery with Eazy-E. I remember the ease at which he threw around the F-word and other curse words as if no one cared or was listening. It was lawless and extremely violent and deserved the “parental advisory” sticker that was placed on its cassette jacket. I also think at this particular moment, Hip-Hop lost some of its innocence for me. It was no longer something I viewed as completely benign and cool but it became something with a dark side and that dark side scared me. Little did I know then how much of a turn Hip-Hop would take towards the dark side.
As I finished Elementary School, Hip-Hop was officially our thing. The ‘Fab Five’ of the University of Michigan had made it to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship two years in a row. They wore the iconic baggy golden or navy blue shorts and had attitudes to match. Tupac Shakur’s Keep Your Head Up was a street anthem. Nas had hit the scene with If I Ruled the World (Imagine That). The intergenerational conflict over Hip-Hop hit the front pages of newspapers and it also was a top story on the nightly news. I remember watching C. Delores Tucker and other leaders condemn the lyrics, imagery and music of Snoop Dogg, Too Live Crew and Tupac Shakur. It was an all out war over the viability of Hip-Hop. All of us young people were unequivocal in our support of Hip-Hop. Why not support it? It was talking to and about us. The young people were tired of the Civil Rights era elders who seemed to be attacking our culture and who were at the same time ineffective at tackling the problem of police brutality and racial profiling that had reached a boiling point with the Rodney King Case and the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. By this time, I had become accustomed to hearing the arguments for and against the raw and explicit lyrics in the rap. Whenever I got the chance I would try to listen to some of the contemptuous artists of the day. Of course, my parents tried their hardest to censor the music I heard and it worked, while I was home. In the house, I would have to listen to Shaquille O’Neal’s album Shaq Diesel or one of Kris Kross’ albums, which I actually found genuinely enjoyable. Nonetheless, I looked forward to going to school and hearing the latest, hardest and most ostracized sounds from my boys, whose parents either did not know, did not care or were listening to the same music. Despite the presence of this controversial element in Hip-Hop during this time, there was still a great deal of light and love. The films Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee had come out and Public Enemy was on the scene with Black Power insignias, black barrettes and the Fruit of Islam stepping in unison on stage. I vividly remember the impact the film, Malcolm X had on the city of Boston. It felt as if everyone from the babies in their strollers, their mothers to the winos on the corners had some “X” paraphernalia on. It could have been a hat, t-shirt, sneakers, key chain or gold necklace but people were representing a certain consciousness about what was going on in society and I could feel the power of the people. The darkness of hip-hop had cleared away and was but a distant memory.
Entering middle school, I was thrown into an environment with older kids, who were so much bigger and tougher than I had imagined them to be. There were no “X” hats or t-shirts to be found. I can vividly remember as a sixth grader, a fight between two sixth grade students and the remarkable thing about it was not the fight at all. I had seen plenty and had my fair share. What struck me about this fight was that one of the combatants was wearing an extraordinary gold chain that consisted of hollow golden links shaped into tiny crosses only to support a much larger and more pronounced golden cross pendant. Class was dismissed and the two young men began cursing and fighting and then this remarkable piece of jewelry exploded like a fourth of July firework with tiny shimmering pieces of gold floating in the air, announcing a new era in Hip-Hop; the era of what Chuck D calls, black animosity. These two sixth graders went at each other with everything they had, as members of the crowd kneeled down to pick up these fragments of gold spread across the school’s dusty hallway. I remember kneeling down and picking up a handful of these golden crosses. I stared at them and wondered, “how did this kid my age afford this chain?…What could I get for these pieces?…what does his family think about this chain?” While in the middle of my thoughts, he appeared before me still panting from the fisticuffs. He still had adrenaline flowing through him because he was trying to pick up these tiny crosses but his hands were shaking too much and he struggles to find his equilibrium and his damaged necklace. I generously extended my hand to him, passing him about five of these flattened and crushed little fragile crosses. He took them nodded agreeably as if to thank me and he went about his business, probably headed to the principal’s office or out of the school. The good old days of decency were over; the dark clouds were back and this time they were here to stay.
It was during middle school around 1996 that I was thoroughly introduced to the darker side of Hip-Hop music. I was turned onto Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s Thuggish Roughish Bone and Mr. Ouija. I remember the macabre intros and preludes on the E. 1999 Eternal album as I hid in my room at night, listening to this music that I knew my parents would not approve of. I still remember the lyrics, “more money, more money, more murda…now.” The rhythmic and harmonious flows of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were choral and yet paradoxically demonic. It was the demonic side of the music that both intrigued and frightened me. Ironically, I was entering the phase of adolescence where young men deny their fears and assert their masculine identities in more forceful ways. I forced myself to enjoy these feelings as I graduated from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die.
The introduction to the Ready to Die album was incredibly powerful, chilling and unforgettable to an impressionable and curious 13 year old mind. It was as if a motion picture was being displayed in the depths of my cerebral cortex, with a vividness High Definition has yet to capture. I remember feeling the same uneasiness and mixed feelings I had from hearing Eazy-E’s skit years prior. Nonetheless, it was time from me to hear these voices from the street that were supposed to be speaking for and to me. So…I listened…and listened…and listened. The lyrics began to make more sense to me as I tried to understand the changing times in the Unites States. I was realizing that the world was a tough place, where the fierce were respected, feared and dominant. The New York Knicks represented this on the basketball court, while Johnnie Cochran, the lead of the O.J. Simpson defense team represented this in the court of law. It seemed as if Hip-Hop culture was fighting back. The days of apologetics and political rallies were over. It was an era of black animosity, animosity towards society, the police and each other. This animosity manifested itself in a feud between the Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur. This feud sparked a bicoastal war of words that seemed to further validate the need for young people to be fierce and aggressive. The music represented this as the artists and groups that captured our attention shifted towards those telling stories of the dark side. Gone were the likes of Kris Kross, Heavy D, Run DMC, Queen Latifa and even Naughty by Nature. In their place rose artists and groups like, the Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Nas, Master P, Capone-N-Noreaga, Jay-Z, UGK, Big Pun, D.M.X and others. This movement of Hip-Hop music and culture towards a more aggressive, criminality laced and hardcore style of music tragically served as the backdrop for the deaths of Hip-Hop’s two most influential stars, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., who were murdered in 1996 and 1997 respectively. This was once again one of the emotional moments when Hip-Hop’s darker side was all too real and I wondered if things were ever going to change.
It was these interactions with Hip-Hop that allowed me to begin to recognize that although the era of yesteryear was gone, the roots of Hip-Hop were still alive in the music if I listened hard enough. I found that there was a balance between the dark side and the light of love in Hip-Hop and that I had to find a balance that spoke to me and my soul. I found the light of love in the music of Lauryn Hill, Dead Prez, Mos Def, The Roots, Talib Kweli but now I had the maturity and understanding to begin extracting life lessons and experiences from the dark side as well. I realized that the harder side of Hip-Hop, although dangerous and controversial, was just as insightful as the overtly positive side. I had finally found a balance, a yin and yang that would continue to guide me through the 2000s allowing me to never get too deep into the conscious stream but likewise never too deep into the streets or too commercial.
Hip-Hop music and culture has definitely played fundamental role in shaping and informing my experiences. It has served to uplift me, fight for my rights, encourage me and educate me but it has also served to scare me, warn me and inform me about the pitfalls and character flaws of men and women. I am thankful for both the divine and demonic elements of Hip-Hop, which have informed me about the duality of existence, the hypocrisy of man and the power of our ability to define ourselves through our own words.