By now, it’s hardly news that rap is a lightning rod for controversy. But in 1992 the politics of rap overshadowed the music even more than usual. From South Central Los Angeles to the White House, rap was often cast as nothing more than a soundtrack for anarchy in a season of “family values” mania.
Part of this can be attributed to the absence of any giant steps forward taken by those making the music. Far more significant, however, was the unprecedented manner in which rap was dragged into the political arena. In an election year when rap became a central issue, the artists were never able to set their own agenda of black empowerment and awareness; they were too busy defending themselves from attack.
Looming over all of the year’s events was the specter of April’s riots in Los Angeles. Rap has long been the only popular forum for expressing the rage and frustration of the city streets, and some observers took its unapologetic language as evidence that the music directly fueled the violence. After L.A. exploded, though, there was no denying that the brutal rhymes of West Coast gangsta rap weren’t just macho posturing; they expressed the hard truths of real life for a segment of society heretofore invisible on the network news. But the political establishment declined to address the issues raised in these songs. There were too many easy points to be gained from attacking rap.
The year began with an overblown controversy over Public Enemy’s video for “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” which depicted the group assassinating the state’s elected officials for refusing to establish a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In June, Bill Clinton took a cheap shot at Sister Souljah by quoting questionable riot-related remarks she made in an interview with the Washington Post. Clinton’s use of those comments was clearly out of context, presenting Souljah as an indefensible racist. Although building racial coalitions was allegedly a campaign priority, Clinton made a divisive play for the support of conservative Reagan Democrats.
Within days, Ice-T was up against the wall. A Texas police organization discovered a track called “Cop Killer” on his speed-metal album, Body Count, and threatened a boycott of Time Warner, the record’s distributor. Soon everyone from George Bush to Mario Cuomo was targeting the “vile, despicable” (in the words of a letter signed by sixty congressmen) work of this rapper.
Even though “Cop Killer” was no more rap than “Achy Breaky Heart,” had been performed without incident during the 1991 Lollapalooza tour and actually came out several weeks before the L.A. firestorm, rap had become synonymous with everything scary, threatening and black in America’s cities. After six weeks under fire, Ice — weary of explaining that the song was written in the voice of an outraged, “psychopathic” character — decided to pull the track from subsequent pressings of the album. One month later, a suit was filed against rapper and actor 2Pac because his tape 2Pacalypse Now was found in the truck of a Texas man accused of killing a police officer.
Most disturbing is the chilling effect the “Cop Killer” affair has had on new rap releases. Songs and albums by such artists as Paris; Tragedy, a.k.a. Intelligent Hoodlum; and Kool G Rap and DJ Polo have been delayed, altered and even dropped from release schedules by record companies spooked by the ongoing outcry. Politically motivated suppression of minority expression has been one true, sad legacy of the riots.
Videos, rock songs, interviews … was anyone actually listening to music in 1992? To be fair, it was hardly a banner year for hip-hop on record. Acknowledged masters such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions released disappointing new material. Meanwhile, the most talented new artists hit the mark one single at a time: Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours”; “They Want Efx” (this summer’s Jeep favorite), by Das Efx; TLC’s sassy “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” No one, though, was able to deliver a full knockout album.
The year’s biggest crossover hits — Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and the inescapable, chart-dominating “Jump” and “Warm It Up,” by the juvenile fashion delinquents of Kris Kross — transcended the novelty status usually accorded rap songs that turn into pop sensations. But the most promising new direction was offered by Arrested Development, whose 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… was (despite its unwieldy title) the rap album of the year. Fusing progressive politics, laid-back Southern bohemianism and an unselfconscious musical blend of hip-hop, tuneful singing, blues samples and Sly Stone-style funk, the Georgia-based group came up with two stunning, unlikely smashes, “Tennessee” and “People Everyday.” Along with such unclassifiable albums as the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head and Play With Toys, by the newcomer Basehead, Arrested Development represented the coming of age of a generation of musicians who count rap as one influence among many that shaped their musical sensibilities. These groups broke new ground by drawing on the genre’s no-rules approach without surrendering to its unwritten, self-imposed restrictions and formulas.
New releases from such rap superstars as Ice Cube, L.L. Cool J, Naughty by Nature and Ice-T will be storming the charts in early 1993. With the promise of these upcoming works, the ever-expanding pop acceptance of uncompromised hip-hop and the new musical order proposed by Arrested Development and its peers, it is clear that — despite a year in which music took a back seat to headlines — the now-familiar, predictable reports of rap’s death have once again been greatly exaggerated.