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It’s early 1994. Robin Allen, the bruising emcee first introduced to millions as The Lady of Rage on Dr. Dre’s 1992 opus The Chronic, had been asked by Dre if she had anything in her arsenal for a new joint he was working on.
Rage was the second rapper signed to Death Row Records, which during the height of its ’90s run grossed an estimated $100 million per year. After the multiplatinum success of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s stunning 1993 Doggystyle, The Lady of Rage had next. And unbeknownst to her, the mashing, funk-injected “Afro Puffs” was set to be included on the soundtrack for a basketball drama called Above the Rim.
Because after the self-proclaimed “lyrical murderer” had knocked out her bars at the famed Can-Am Recording Studio in sleepy Tarzana, California, Rage wasn’t impressed with the playback. In fact, she hated the song.
“I didn’t think ‘Afro Puffs’ should be my first solo track because I didn’t believe it was lyrical enough,” Allen says more than two decades later. “I thought those rhymes were just child’s play.”
This was the high-flying age of black cinema, first reignited in the mid-’80s by future Academy Award-winning director Spike Lee with his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It. What followed was an “urban film” explosion exemplified by the surprise success of New Jack City (1991). The Wesley Snipes/Ice-T drug drama was a hit with audiences, pulling in nearly $50 million at the box office. And when record label executives saw its eclectic soundtrack — featuring the likes of Color Me Badd (“I Wanna Sex You Up”), Guy (“New Jack City”), 2 Live Crew (“In the Dust”) and the aforementioned Ice-T (“New Jack Hustler (Nino’s Theme)”) — reach double platinum status, executives scrambled to repeat its success.
Having a chart-topping soundtrack soon became as important as scoring a box-office hit. Musical accompaniments to Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Juice (1992) went gold. The soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy romantic comedy Boomerang (1992) hit triple platinum. There was also the gold soundtrack to Poetic Justice (1993) and the platinum one for Menace II Society (1993). The soundtrack for multimillion-selling, Babyface-produced Waiting to Exhale (1995) remains a classic, as does the platinum one for The Nutty Professor (1996), the double platinum one for Soul Food (1997) and the platinum Bulworth (1998).
So, despite her protests, The Lady of Rage became a vital part of the success of one of that era’s most celebrated soundtracks. “I even begged Suge to take me off Above the Rim,” Allen recalls. “One day I was riding in the car with my manager at the time and I said, ‘I’m sure glad Suge dropped ‘Afro Puffs’ from the soundtrack.’ And she’s like, ‘Girl, Suge didn’t take that song off the album.’ I lost it. I had no idea how big the Above the Rim soundtrack would become. But Suge knew.”
Of course, Suge is Marion “Suge” Knight, the infamous co-founder and CEO of Death Row who today sits inside a California state prison cell. He was sentenced last October to 28 years for voluntary manslaughter. In recent years, the 53-year-old’s fearsome reputation has taken a hit. But back in ’94, Knight was fast becoming the most intimidating man in the music industry: a rap boogeyman known for imposing violent will on friends and foes alike. Few people said no to Suge Knight.
Yet, the former Compton, California, football standout was also an ambitious businessman who negotiated the ownership of his label’s master recordings as part of its partnership with Interscope, a rarity in the music business. Knight saw Above the Rim as a chance for Death Row to step outside of its gangsta rap confines. The bet paid off.
Released 25 years ago on March 22, 1994, the Above the Rim soundtrack sold more than 2 million copies and topped the R&B Albums chart for 10 consecutive weeks. It peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, the pop album chart, raising the profile of Death Row as a major industry player.
It’s true that the cultural impact of the black star-powered movie soundtrack started way before the ’90s. There’s Isaac Hayes’ monumental Shaft (1971), Curtis Mayfield’s riveting Superfly (1972) and the Aretha Franklin/Mayfield gem Sparkle (1976). Prince’s Oscar-winning, bar-raising Purple Rain and Whitney Houston’s 18-times platinum global smash The Bodyguard are revered icons of the form. But Above the Rim flipped the proverbial script. “The album was more successful than the movie,” Brian Alexander Morgan says with a laugh. He’s the principal songwriter and one of the producers of SWV’s infectious “Anything” remix featuring Staten Island, New York, hip-hop heroes the Wu-Tang Clan, one of several great songs on the Above the Rim soundtrack.
And it’s true. While Above the Rim today stands as a cult classic, the film — written by Barry Michael Cooper and starring Duane Martin, Leon, Tupac Shakur, Bernie Mac and Marlon Wayans — stalled out in theaters at little over $16 million. But the Above the Rim soundtrack succeeded in part because of its very oddness: a hard-core West Coast rap label handling the music for a movie set in Harlem USA. But somehow it all worked.
The Lady of Rage’s “Afro Puffs” song, the one she fought Knight over, became the biggest hit of the underrated emcee’s career during the summer of ’94, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Singles chart. And the rhyme empress was joined by her seemingly unstoppable Death Row label mates.
Snoop Dogg, Tha Dogg Pound’s Daz Dillinger and ’hood-certified crooner Nate Dogg showed out on the ride-out track “Big Pimpin’.” No-nonsense songstress Jewell — who had previously contributed soulful vocals to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride” and Snoop’s “Who Am I (What’s My Name)” — was featured on two standout tracks, including the sensual Aaron Hall duet “Gonna Give It to Ya.”
Washington, D.C.’s Majic 102.3 Radio One host and former BET personality Madelyne Woods joined Death Row in the winter of ’94 as a production coordinator for the Above the Rim soundtrack — at times doubling as an executive assistant for Knight. She still marvels at the vocal prowess of Jewell Caples.
“There was nothing fake about Jewell,” says Woods, forever immortalized by A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife on their 1993 “Electric Relaxation” (“But hon, you got the goods, like Madelyne Woods …”). “She made it very clear what she thought about you. And the talent that woman had … Jewell could blow the doors off of anybody in the industry today with her rich tone and delivery. That’s what was so amazing about Death Row. The stable was so deep with talent.”
Deep is an understatement. Daz’s in-the-zone Dogg Pound partner Kurupt delivers the most potent verse on the sinister “Dogg Pound 4 Life”: “Before I even step m—–f—–s hit the deck / I gets wreck with a tech so cash in like checks, fool.” Even now Kurupt’s face beams when he speaks of those wild but productive Above the Rim studio sessions.
“The key to ‘Dogg Pound 4 Life’ is that was the reality for us,” says Kurupt, who is revered as one of the most devastating West Coast lyricists to pick up a mic. “We were really Dogg Pound for life: me, Daz, Snoop and Nate Dogg. I wanted to prove that … I was the greatest. And I really believed that, because we had the best team. That’s what you hear on Above the Rim. We had Rage, who would come to the studio before anybody because she wanted to be the first one on the mic. We had Snoop, who was a monster. We had Dr. Dre, who was a genius. And we had Suge making s— happen.”
And of course there was the larger-than-life presence of the enigmatic Tupac Shakur, the brilliant, scene-stealing star of Above the Rim who was quickly becoming known as much for his Thug Life-propelled street anthems as he was for his high-profile run-ins with the law. When you hear the heartfelt ode to the dead homies “Pour Out a Little Liquor” and his bonus soundtrack cuts — “Loyal to the Game,” featuring Treach and Riddler, and the haunting “Pain” — you are listening to an uncompromising artist just a few verses away from becoming a pop culture antihero.
But at its heart, the story of Above the Rim is one of brazen musical curveballs. And the biggest one of them all was Warren G and Nate Dogg’s million-plus-selling “Regulate,” that era’s most unlikely pop triumph.
Everything about “Regulate” is blissfully absurd. From the blue-eyed soul easy-listening sample of Michael McDonald’s 1982 hit “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” to its fairy-tale opening: “It was a clear black night, a clear white moon.” That segues into a harrowing back-and-forth tale between Warren G and Nate Dogg about surviving a violent carjacking.
But “Regulate” almost missed the cut. Although Warren G — who came up in Long Beach, California, with Snoop and Nate as a member of the group 213 — made solid contributions to both The Chronic and Doggystyle, he was still a man without a country, so to speak. Warren G was looking for a record deal, but Knight was slow to recognize.
Meanwhile, Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, which was in a slump, desperately wanted in on the West Coast rap takeover. Chris Lighty signed Warren G to his Violator Records, which was distributed by Def Jam, and the rest is history. “Regulate” was chosen as Above the Rim’s first official single and was unleashed on the public in the summer of ’94. The monster track zoomed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles, a massive anchor for the soundtrack and an MTV staple.
But it wasn’t just Warren G’s come-up that had the industry buzzing. Death Row, the imprint known for behind-the-scenes beatdowns and the hardest gangsta rap around, had proved it could compile a savvy soundtrack dominated by the sounds of rhythm and blues. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the perfectionist Dr. Dre, today a near-billionaire music mogul and revered hip-hop visionary, had carte blanche over all selected tracks on Above the Rim.
“The sound had to be just right for Dre,” says veteran video game, music and film sound mixer Phil Brewster, a former assistant recording engineer at Death Row. “He’d come in the studio, listen to a mix and go, ‘Oh, no. F— that.’ And he would take all the faders and bring them down and start EQ-ing even when the track wasn’t playing. Within 10 to 15 minutes, Dr. Dre had the best mix. It was incredible to see.”
But the throwback attitude of such Above the Rim cuts as “Old Time’s Sake,” “Part Time Lover, “Hoochies Need Love Too, and Al B. Sure’s “I’m Still In Love With You” carry the DNA of Suge Knight. “This was a fantasy album for Suge,” says Woods. “If you were in the car with him, during the whole ride there would be nothing but old soul and R&B like Teddy Pendergrass, the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke and New Birth played. Suge didn’t ride around listening to a lot of gangsta rap.”
Decades later, the towering shadow of Above the Rim still hovers over all modern soundtracks (such as Kendrick Lamar’s vital 2018 Oscar-nominated project for Black Panther) that have the audacity to risk it all. For Kurupt, who in recent years has moved into the commercial cannabis business, Above the Rim will always be in heavy rotation.
“You can find a lot of greatness and genius on the streets,” he says. “Death Row was giving outlets to people who had no other way in life, but they had talent, and Above the Rim was another outlet for us. Suge and Dre wanted us to make a soundtrack that was equivalent to a classic album. That’s why we are still talking about it all these years later.”
Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)
If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)
Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.
Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange
A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.
American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer
Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin
If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim
The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.
The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards
If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)
How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming
You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.
Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak
Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.
Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg
Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.