In the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, the poet Sonia Sanchez offers a method for reading and understanding the work of her friend, the only black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
“In order to survive,” Sanchez says, “you should reread Toni Morrison every 10 years.”
After the news broke last week that Morrison had died, her death hit with the same intensity one associates with the passing of a beloved auntie. And yet I found comfort in three things. Unlike the beginning of her career as a novelist, when Morrison’s genius was up for debate and her choice to write free of concerns about the opinions of white people raised hackles, the entire world rose up to mourn her and celebrate her many contributions. Second, she graced the earth for 88 years. It didn’t feel as though someone had been prematurely stolen from us, like Lorraine Hansberry dying at age 34 or being forced to say goodbye to Jimmy Baldwin when he was 63. And third, I decided to follow Sanchez’s advice, starting with Sula.
For most of my childhood, Morrison’s works were beautifully crafted abstractions. The words were accessible, and yet admiring them was not the same as understanding them.
When I read Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, as a high school senior, my approach was practically clinical. I absorbed the work the same way I pored over the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — that is to say, in obsessive pursuit of an “A” — reading and regurgitating literary criticism and taking apart the book’s symbolism, context and ideas. But there was one moment when I connected to Morrison as a black girl.
During a class discussion, a white girl in the nearly all-white class asked the teacher what “high yellow” meant. I piped up because I actually knew the answer. “It’s a couple shades lighter than me,” I explained.
The girl turned and glared at me. “Well, thanks for that, Soraya,” she snarled, and then went on to admonish me for employing such a graphic example. I was confused and a little embarrassed. Why was she angry with me? Why had she reacted with such venom, as though I’d pointed out a deficiency that had embarrassed her? A wall grew between my blackness and that which Morrison had recorded for posterity, and I learned that it was offensive to connect the two. So Pecola Breedlove, the book’s main character, meant about as much to me as Ivan Denisovich. Two fascinating foreigners in two different gulags.
It wasn’t until my 20s — after having studied at Howard, the same university Morrison attended and taught at — that I picked up her work again, dared to see myself in it and read for my own pleasure and edification.
I chose Sula. Morrison’s second novel, published in 1973, is the story of friends Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who grow up in a small town and whose adult lives move in different directions. Probably about 10% of it stuck with me. I remember being enchanted by Sula’s clothing. Wrote Morrison:
She was dressed in a manner that was as close to a movie star as anyone would ever see. A black crepe dress splashed with pink and yellow zinnias, foxtails, a black felt hat with the veil of net lowered over one eye. In her right hand was a black purse with a beaded clasp and in her left a red leather traveling case, so small, so charming — no one had ever seen anything like it before, including the mayor’s wife and the music teacher, both of whom had been to Rome.
Sula had left her tiny community of Medallion, Ohio, for college in Nashville, Tennessee, and had returned worldly, glamorous and uncontainable. I grew up in a small North Carolina town I had no desire to revisit. After spending a summer working in Jackson, Mississippi, and another in Kansas City, Missouri, I realized I had something in common with Sula, which was that the provincial life was not for me. I yearned to be in a real city with black people and public transportation. And like Sula, I didn’t much see the point of marriage.
Those with husbands had folded themselves into starched coffins, their sides bursting with other people’s skinned dreams and bony regrets. Those without men were like sour-tipped needles featuring one constant empty eye. Those with men had had the sweetness sucked from their breath by ovens and steam kettles. Their children were like distant but exposed wounds whose aches were no less intimate because separate from their flesh. They had looked at the world and back at their children, back at the world and back again at their children, and Sula knew that one clear young eye was all that kept the knife away from the throat’s curve.
The married women of Medallion were cautionary tales, especially for a young adult woman with no children. Every time a relative or a stranger made a remark about my potential as a wife and mother, I wanted to scream, the same way I wanted to scream every Thanksgiving in my grandmother’s house when all the women were conscripted into domestic duties while the men got to sit and watch football.
So Sula’s words to her grandmother, Eva, made perfect sense to me. “You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you,” Eva told Sula.
“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”
“Selfish. Ain’t no woman got no business floatin’ around without no man.”
I supposed I, like Sula, would simply be selfish. Sula made sense to me. I didn’t fully grasp why Sula kept bouncing from man to man — I suppose I thought of her as the Samantha Jones of her day — but I understood choosing yourself first.
Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her, and with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.
So what if she died young? At least she had the sense to do a little living first. My admiration was superficial and grounded in my own stubborn, rather narrowly defined pursuit of the feminist cause. The darker details of Sula’s life slid by in my mind, and for the next 10 years, I walked around with an incomplete understanding of her.
And then the woman who created Sula died.
Recently, I’d been skipping around Morrison’s essays in The Source of Self-Regard, which, on some level, is a helpful guidebook for how to be a black woman in America without going mad. And I’d seen Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ wonderful documentary about Morrison.
Her words were still important, but I was mostly obsessed with Morrison’s life and personality. She was a lioness of American literature, yes, but she was also charming, sensual and self-assured. Here was a woman with a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize grinning as she talked about how good she was at making carrot cakes, how she indulged her sexual appetites as a Howard student without a lick of shame or regret. To Morrison, chasing ambition did not require abandoning pleasure.
For some time now, my editor has sent me on assignments and reminded me to have fun. My responses are always halting and awkward because I’m going to work, and work requires focus, and fun just seemed inappropriate.
And yet here was the freest black woman in the world, and she lived her life in such a way that pleasure and style were not antithetical to intellectual rigor. If anything, they fed it. The fact that Morrison was a writer made this seem all the more superhuman. Writing is typically characterized by long bouts of misery rewarded with occasional pearls of short-lived but deeply intense satisfaction. Morrison seemed to have found a way to supply herself with a steady stream of joy.
Rather than living literary goddess, I began to think about Morrison as a fellow writer, a fellow Howard grad, a fellow woman. There were whole worlds in the lives of my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and their grandmothers that I thought were none of my business because, well, they told me they were none of my business. What did a child need to know about the personal exploits of her ancestors? That was grown folks’ business. I realized that reading Morrison’s books feels like gaining entry into a club of black adulthood. They turn ancestors into contemporaries.
So I revisited Sula last week because Sula, like so much of Morrison’s writing, is a grown woman novel. The fact that Sula slept with her best friend’s husband is, frankly, the least interesting thing about her. I saw Sula through new eyes, as a woman who did a horrible thing as a 12-year-old (accidentally killing Chicken Little by throwing him in the river, where he drowned) and never fully got over it, no matter how hard she tried.
This time, I marveled at Morrison’s freedom. So much focus has been paid, and rightfully so, to how she didn’t seek white validation. But it’s more than that. Morrison possessed the moxie to create whatever world she pleased and follow whatever road beckoned in it. In doing so, she could create a heroine who slept with everyone’s husbands but genuinely didn’t mean anything by it. Who else breaks taboos with such gentle elegance, without the need to shout about it in the prose, but simply allows it to unfold?
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Now I think the thing Sula actually spent most of her adult life chasing was joy, the love she felt she deserved, and she kept coming up short. She’d try on a man, then do away with him the moment she knew he didn’t have what she was looking for. And she kept doing it until she met Ajax.
Morrison was unafraid of letting everyone in Medallion regard Sula as a witch while daring to assert how Sula’s presence actually improved the lives of those in her community, whether they recognized it or not. When the people of Medallion don’t have Sula to kick around, they lose the vessel for all their displeasures and frustrations and insecurities and simply fall prey to them again.
This time, I paid closer attention to Nel, Sula’s best friend, and her realization that motherhood will be the most interesting thing about her life. I thought of my friends who are now mothers, and I felt grateful that I am able to make space for their children and their partners in my heart instead of walling myself off from the changes they welcomed in their lives. I got lost in Sula and Nel’s friendship in a way I never had before, and in this passage in particular, when Sula is alone on her deathbed:
While in this state of weary anticipation, she noticed that she was not breathing, that her heart had stopped completely. A crease of fear touched her breast, for any second there was sure to be a violent explosion in her brain, a gasping for breath. Then she realized, or rather, she sensed, that there was not going to be any pain. She was not breathing because she didn’t have to. Her body did not need oxygen. She was dead.
Sula felt her face smiling. “Well I’ll be damned,” she thought, “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.”
It took nearly 20 years, but I finally did what Morrison had been inviting me to do, through decades of writing: to see myself in her words, as only a grown woman can.
A new OWN drama from the playwright behind Moonlight and Choir Boy has the potential to grow into a compelling work of television — once it develops some consistency.
David Makes Man, which premieres Aug. 14 at 10 p.m. EDT on OWN, stars Akili McDowell as David, a 14-year-old middle schooler from the projects who plays guardian to his precocious 9-year-old brother when their mother, Gloria (Alana Arenas), is too weary to be roused. Every morning, David gets Jonathan Greg, or JG (Cayden Williams), out the door to school, then sprints to catch a bus to a predominantly white magnet school across town. He and his mother have high hopes that David can earn entrance into an exclusive prep school called Hurston.
There are plenty of unconventional supporting characters, from a drug dealer named Sky (Isaiah Johnson), who urges David to do right with a never-ending supply of riddles and poetry, to Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles), a kindly, shade-throwing drag queen who lives next door, to David’s best friend Seren (Nathaniel McIntyre), a mixed-race, middle-class kid who to David appears to have it made. David’s teacher (Phylicia Rashad) and counselor (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) provide a combination of tough love and constancy in his life.
This is the first time McCraney has brought his meditative style to television. He’s working with Dee Harris-Lawrence (Shots Fired, Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.), who serves as showrunner. OWN labels David Makes Man, co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Michael B. Jordan, a “lyrical drama,” but the results are mixed. Themes from McCraney’s previous work, such as poverty, adolescence and dubious mentors, show up in David Makes Man. A chorus of purples and blues punctuates the visual style of director Michael Francis Williams. But the South Florida setting is what keeps David Makes Man from turning into a collection of clichés about a poor black kid growing up in the projects with a single mom who’s a recovering addict.
Watching the characters of David Makes Man can sometimes feel like a visit to Bon Temps, the fictional setting for True Blood, minus the vampires and werewolves and with significantly more black people. The OWN drama faces a challenge in marrying the demands of serialized television with an impressionistic style more common in film. Its pilot is immersive, focused more on viewer experience than plot. For instance, a needed clarification about where the show and David’s life will go comes in the final minutes of the first episode.
The search for balance between styles is evident in subsequent episodes, as the surrealism of ghosts, internal voices and flashbacks creeps into the daily drama of David’s life in The Ville, a housing project officially known as Homestead Gardens. Not unlike the cheery purple of the motel in The Florida Project, the apartments of The Ville are coated in a candy cane pink stucco that’s frequently at odds with the realities of life for most of its residents. As if he doesn’t have enough to contend with, David is also trying to stay out of the clutches of Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), a menacing teenage dealer who is bent on conscripting David into serving him and his boss, Raynan’s fearsome uncle.
A scene at the house of Seren’s white mother and black stepfather veers into soap opera territory, and so does a confrontation between David’s mother and father. That’s not unusual for OWN’s other prestige dramas, Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, but it feels out of place in a show that’s set its ambitions rather high. That’s especially true given the abuse that Seren appears to be enduring from both parents.
Still, David Makes Man grows more comfortable and confident in itself by episode five. With engaging performances from Arenas, Coles, Johnson and especially McDowell, who colors David with a potent mix of sweetness and anxiety, it’s ripe to blossom into something special. When Gloria joins Mx. Elijah to dress up as Janelle Monáe, she comes alive for a momentary spark of joy in a show that’s often characterized by the heaviness of lack — lack of food, lack of money, lack of safety — and the tension that comes with the possibility of violence.
It’s intriguing to see a variety of shows find different ways to wrestle with the strangeness that emanates from Florida. There’s Claws, starring Niecy Nash, which recently concluded its second season, and the upcoming On Becoming a God in Central Florida, a dark comedy premiering on Showtime later this month that follows a woman trying to exact revenge on the pyramid scheme that bankrupted her family. Claws and On Becoming a God offer more levity than David Makes Man, but they’re all panels of a patchwork quilt making sense of Florida. It’s the only thing, really, that can explain the presence of a group of tough but amiable trans sex workers who help David get home one night, like he’s Dorothy in a modern-day Oz.
That balance of earnestness and oddities could make for compelling television, so long as its makers keep tweaking.
It’s become one of those albums that “real heads” use to test your knowledge, the kind of classic release that garners almost universal acclaim that’s only amplified by the fact that so many still sleep on its greatness.
No One Can Do It Better, the West Coast landmark that cemented Ruthless Records as hip-hop’s first West Coast powerhouse label, was released in the summer of 1989. “Boyz n the Hood” was the spark, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton announced Ruthless to the mainstream and Eazy Duz It proved it was no fluke. But No One Can Do It Better showed that the machine was truly rolling, a hit album from the label’s secret weapon — a young rhymer out of Texas who had little in common with the Comptonites he’d found himself writing for.
Tracy Curry becomes The D.O.C.
Tracy Curry was born in Houston, but after moving to Dallas, a teenage Curry joined the Fila Fresh Crew in 1986 with Fresh K and Dr. Rock. The group made the jump to Compton, California, a year later, where an affiliation with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru connected them to fledgling producer Dr. Dre. He was on the cusp of forming a group with local hustler Eazy-E and a creative collective that included young rhymers Ice Cube and MC Ren, along with Dr. Dre’s friends DJ Yella and Arabian Prince. After 1987’s indie compilation N.W.A. and The Posse launched the group and Ruthless Records signed a distribution deal with Priority Records, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E & Co. set to work on N.W.A’s proper debut album. Young Tray Curry, aka The D.O.C. (a nod to N.W.A’s acronym-themed moniker), rose to the fore as a writer for the creative core of Ruthless Records, penning rhymes for the project and Eazy-E’s debut solo album, Eazy Duz It.
Dr. Dre’s eye for talent would lead to superstardom for Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and The D.O.C. is a major part of that lineage. He was the 18-year-old phenom penning Dr. Dre’s verses and providing N.W.A with much of its voice. He was largely Ice Cube’s verbal foil, as the two writers gave Dr. Dre and Eazy-E much of their musical personas.
But in the summer of 1989, The D.O.C. finally got the spotlight, and he was more than ready. “It’s Funky Enough,” … Better’s most indelible single, announced Curry as the next big thing from Ruthless. Over a sample of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor,” The D.O.C. kicks a fierce patois-inspired performance, the kind of instant classic single that makes a career. He showcased his lyricism on standout “The D.O.C. and The Doctor,” and Marvin Gaye-sampling “The Formula” was smooth enough for radio. But “It’s Funky Enough” was the anthem.
“They used to call me ‘One Take Willie,’ ” The D.O.C. recalled to HipHopDX in 2011. “We started that. Kurupt is the only other m—–f—- to do that. … I had begged Dre to make that beat. It took me about three f—–‘ months of begging him to make that beat before he finally made it. And those lyrics were actually meant for another song, but I didn’t have no words for that beat yet. So when I went in, I was just gonna lay something so he could finish adding the instrumental s— into the track. And when the beat came on, it just sounded Jamaican. So that’s the character that came out. And I just spit that s—.”
Now 30 years later, No One Can Do It Better sounds like the bridge between famed producer Dr. Dre’s Straight Outta Compton sound — a more groove-driven spin on Bomb Squad-ish sonic textures — and the slow-rolling G-Funk he would make famous in the early 1990s. As such, it remains one of the more important releases in Dr. Dre’s history, in West Coast music and in hip-hop overall. The D.O.C. had strong East Coast influences, from Rakim to The Fresh Prince, and his emphasis on skill made him arguably Ruthless’ most accomplished rhymer — even more so than early Ice Cube.
A life-changing auto accident
But fans know what happened next: After leaving a party in November 1989, an inebriated D.O.C. veered off Ventura Highway and crashed into a divider. His body was flung from the vehicle and into a tree. He suffered severe facial lacerations and throat damage that cost him his vocal cords. The rapper would survive, but nothing was the same after his throat surgery — his famous voice was gone. At 21, one of the hottest rappers in the game had to face the prospect that his career was over. And his friend Dr. Dre told him to let it go.
“He said, ‘They think you’re the king right now. You should go out like that,’ ” The D.O.C. told Sway In The Morning in 2017. “I just couldn’t accept that, you know? It just wasn’t in my DNA. I couldn’t do it.”
After the accident, The D.O.C. would remain a fixture in Dr. Dre’s orbit and seminal in the shaping of ’90s hip-hop. His ghostwriting would feature prominently on N.W.A’s controversial N—-z4Life in 1991, and The D.O.C. wrote Dr. Dre’s first solo single, the soundtrack single “Deep Cover,” which introduced the world to a 19-year-old kid from Long Beach, California, named Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Along with the new star, The D.O.C. co-wrote the classic “Nuthin’ But A G Thang,” released in fall 1992 as the monster first single from Dr. Dre’s highly anticipated solo debut. It was The D.O.C. who encouraged Dr. Dre to break away from Eazy-E and Ruthless Records, and it was The D.O.C. who introduced Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, who would launch the infamous Death Row Records in 1992.
The D.O.C.’s career would founder — 1996’s Helter Skelter and 2003’s Deuce went largely unnoticed — but his legacy as a ghostwriter put him at the heart of West Coast hip-hop’s most classic period. He would work with Dr. Dre again on his comeback hit 2001 in 1999, which means The D.O.C. was in the booth for virtually every classic Dr. Dre recorded for the better part of 13 years. He is inextricable from Dr. Dre’s legacy. But everything that he lost, an acrimonious split from Death Row and his admittedly complicated relationship with Dr. Dre has made for dark moments.
“It’s been a real struggle,” he told Kyle Kramer in a 2015 VICE interview. “And I’m sure that I tried to commit suicide a whole bunch of times. Lots of drugs and alcohol, and not being able to do the one thing that you really love doing. It was a real struggle. But through all of it, I never turned my back on anybody. I never said anything ill of anybody. I love and have respect and admiration for everybody in my past.”
The linchpins of West Coast hip-hop are well-documented. Dr. Dre is the master producer. Ice Cube is the angry superstar. 2Pac is the mythologized martyr. And Snoop is the icon. But we should always remember the glue for so many legacies was a guy who came from Texas. A guy who in the summer of 1989 seemed like he was going to rule the world. He dared to name his debut No One Can Do It Better, and for a few months, he was absolutely right.
There are stories that become part of the fabric of American culture, told, retold and reimagined many times over, like West Side Story, Porgy and Bess, and A Raisin in the Sun. In recent years, a number of storytellers have attempted to fold police shootings of black people into works that are similarly grand and timeless.
Few of those efforts have been so memorable, so unshakable, that they ascend to something more. Blue, a new opera that just had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, may be the exception.
The opera, by composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson, is a tragedy built on big themes: familial loyalty, race and regret. Blue tells the story of a black couple in Harlem and the death of their only son, who, as a teen, is shot and killed by a police officer (whose race is not specified). What’s more devastating is that the teen’s father is a police officer too. One of his colleagues killed his son.
Police violence provides a rich area for opera and theater in general. The tragedy of innocence and hope interrupted by untimely, unprovoked death works in the same way that consumption provides a common vehicle for life cut short in La Traviata, La Bohème and Les Contes D’Hoffman.
What makes Blue stand out is that it demands a place in the American operatic canon. Thompson and Tesori skillfully marry the traditions of opera with modern storytelling to create new archetypes, which is underscored by Thompson’s decision to keep his characters nameless. They are simply identified as The Father, The Mother and The Reverend, with supporting roles played by Three Girlfriends and Three Police Officer Buddies.
The show opens with The Mother (mezzo-soprano Briana Hunter) cupping her pregnant belly and chatting with her Three Girlfriends. She’s married a cop, much to their horror, and is about to give birth to a baby boy.
Her friends’ advice is morbid. They counsel her to have an abortion and try again for a girl. America, they say, is no place to safely raise a black boy. If she insists on having the kid, maybe raise him in China, where he won’t be seen as a threat before he even hits his 10th birthday.
But The Mother and The Father (bass baritone Kenneth Kellogg) carry on, making a home in Harlem for their little boy, who quickly grows into a teen questioning how and why he ended up with a cop for a father.
Tesori’s orchestrations hum with the aural signatures of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two composers who shaped the sound of Americana. But Tesori also uses Blue to expand definitions of the quintessential American sound by including a few bars from Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” in a scene where The Son (tenor Aaron Crouch) is arguing with The Father. The Son provides yet another variation on Bigger Thomas, updated for 2019. This time, he’s a middle-class skater punk. Costume designer Jessica Jahn has kitted The Son in the Gen Z aesthetic of the newly woke: a plaid shirt, a Thrasher hoodie, ripped jeans, DC sneakers and, most notably, a half-shorn head topped with dreadlocks à la Erik Killmonger.
Blue centers on one big conflict. In The Son’s bedroom, The Father and his teenage progeny engage in a well-worn argument. The Son, hyperaware of how race colors the way he is perceived in the world, is a simmering cauldron of anger and resentment directed toward his cop father. He can’t understand why his father would choose to earn a living by contributing to the mass incarceration system that disproportionately targets black and brown people.
Sings The Son:
That’s exactly what I am.
Black men brought into this world as white people’s fodder. For labor and for sport.
Go so far but no further.
But we keep multiplying and climbing and advancing. Now they can’t get rid of us fast enough.
The Father has more immediate concerns: providing for his family, and keeping his son safe. He tells him:
That’s what you’re supposed to do.
Look at you.
Dressed like somebody’s damn Gypsy.
Get a haircut, pull up your pants, remove the jewelry.
Take off the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie, the hoodie.
The generational divide between parent and son over race and respectability, especially with regard to police violence, is a common trope at this point. Thematically, Blue has a lot in common with the Broadway play American Son and the third season of Queen Sugar, which both feature teen boys pushing back against the way their parents choose to navigate race and prejudice in America. Jamal, the never-seen son in American Son, and Micah West (Nicholas L. Ashe) hate the politics of respectability and actively rebel against them.
They reject their parents’ accommodationist tactics for dealing with white supremacy. In American Son, it’s Jamal’s father, Scott (Steven Pasquale), who has faith in the American judicial system. In the most recent season of Queen Sugar, Micah finds himself at odds with his mother, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), who wants to repair a broken system from within. Micah, by contrast, wants to set the whole system ablaze.
In all three stories, the parents must face the fact that they are helpless when it comes to protecting their sons from state violence. Their sons see their attempts as capitulations to white supremacy. Normal family squabbles, like the emotional distance between a stoic, conservatively masculine father and his radical son, get complicated and even more hurtful.
In Blue, The Son sings:
If you struck me
or put your arms around me …
Just once …
I’d begin to know there was a human being inside that blue clown suit — who imagines he’s my father.
A black man.
Kellogg, Crouch and Hunter make for a powerful trio of voices, and when Hunter disappears for nearly a third of the opera, it’s impossible not to wonder if Thompson forgot about her. The argument between The Father and The Son is momentous, and The Mother’s absence prompts a question: What is her role when it comes to the ideological rift between the two most important people in her life? The stage goes black with The Father embracing his son as he stews with teenage rancor. When the lights come back up after intermission, The Son is dead and The Father is sitting with The Reverend (Gordon Hawkins), trying to process the guilty ache his son’s homicide has created.
But Thompson, who also directs the production, is not forgetful, merely strategic. A flashback in the third act hinges on The Mother’s role as nurturer, caregiver and peacekeeper. It also takes a largely predictable plot someplace devastating. Thompson fashions The Mother, The Father and The Son into a new black Everyfamily. Their pain can be easily projected onto so many parents, whom we come to know when the worst moments of their lives become hashtags and images of their slain children echo across the internet.
The story of Blue crystalizes a horrifying event, the killing of an unarmed black child and the extinguishing of hope and innocence, while its score never lets its audience forget that this, too, is part of the American tradition.
Right now, Lil Nas X rules the top of the Billboard charts with his trap/country hit “Old Town Road.” There was some initial disagreement over what genre the song belonged to, and then he released a remix stamped with the country imprimatur of a Billy Ray Cyrus feature. The remix has paid off for both artists, with Cyrus enjoying a warm reception at the recent BET Awards, where he performed live with Lil Nas X. Their unexpected collaboration, along with the hit that resulted, is reminiscent of an earlier pairing that disrupted the music industry and American culture: Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” which debuted on July 4, 1986.
I spoke to Geoff Edgers about his book Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever. Just like everything else in America, music is infused with racial politics. It shows up in who gets credit and compensation for their art, how the work is considered and awarded by professional organizations, whose music gets played on which radio station, even how individual songs are categorized by genre. The entire notion of “crossing over” describes music that breaks down the boundaries of our still-segregated ears. Edgers’ book examines how one of the most famous rock/hip-hop mashups got made, the repercussions of its commercial success, and what it told us about race and music in America.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You have this mashup of two groups that are opposite in a lot of ways. One is older white rockers, and the other black kids who are cultural upstarts. I started thinking of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, where again, there’s an aging white artist who’s lending some of his own juice to legitimize the younger one.
It’s a good comparison in some ways. It’s complicated because of how screwy the Billboard charts are and the fact that that song was huge without the Billboard charts putting it on country.
There is something to be said for the fact that Aerosmith for Run-DMC, they were a tool to get on the radio. That was about it. I mean, the song itself was not something they [Run-DMC] loved then or love now, particularly. But it did do exactly that. They simply wouldn’t have gotten on the radio or on MTV without those two scraggly white guys.
You could write a whole book just on artists who’ve had songs blow up that they actually didn’t care for very much.
So much of what does well isn’t our best. And so much of what is our best doesn’t necessarily do well. The reality is ‘Walk This Way’ is a good song, the Run-DMC version is good, but it’s not the best Run-DMC song even on Raising Hell. But it is the most important song on Raising Hell. And it’s got to be the most important song in their catalog.
But that creates a problem for you as a group because you want to be known by your best, and you also don’t want to share the spotlight. So both Aerosmith and Run-DMC, I don’t think, have ever been totally at peace with that version of that song.
Given that we live in the age of the evaporating attention span, were you worried about writing a book about one song?
I’ve had people criticize the book for the long title that they feel is hyperbole. And people will tweet like, ‘This whole book about one song?’ But it’s not really a book about one song; it’s about a lot of different things. Part of it is about rewriting history the way it should be, and not the way the winners wrote it. I don’t have anything against Rick Rubin, but I do think Larry Smith has been forgotten when the guy was basically the Phil Spector of hip-hop. I also think that getting Sha-Rock and Grandmaster Caz and Run-DMC the proper credit they deserve, it’s not out there. The false story that’s been out there is that this famous rock band, Aerosmith, helped a bunch of fledgling rappers build a career. And that just couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, if I did that book over, it would be longer. It would be more about that song. I feel like maybe I’ve gotten to think that MTV and radio was more racist than I did when I was putting the book together. And I might have explored that more. But I just felt like I wanted to tell the facts — like, all the reporting — and get that out.
Your book provides a different understanding of ‘Walk This Way.’ You say that the stakes were superlow for Run-DMC. They weren’t walking into a recording session thinking, ‘This is going to put us on some sort of rocket ship.’ They’re annoyed.
It’s a weird split between, on one hand, these guys don’t even know if this song’s going to come out. The producers don’t even know. But then, on the other side, Spin magazine is in the studio that one day, and TV news is there, so somebody knew something was going down that could be important. You know, Run and Darryl rapped terribly that day. I watched that footage that I was able to get from Viacom that hadn’t been released. They weren’t taking it seriously. They weren’t doing a good job. And they had to come later and lay down their vocals again because they didn’t do it right.
You mentioned thinking that your reporting led you to conclude that MTV and radio were a lot more racist than you had originally thought. What the folks from MTV are saying or not saying feels very common. ‘Well, you know, it’s about format.’ No one is being overtly racist, but no one’s thinking about who is excluded by decisions to focus on pop and ignore rap.
I got a little tangled up in the Michael Jackson myth, the story that MTV wouldn’t play Michael Jackson, which I think my reporting shows is not true. But what I didn’t think about enough, or what I’ve come to think about as I put the book together, I decided that it’s true that MTV played African American artists. And it’s true that they would define what African American artists they could play based on the ‘rock’ format or ‘pop’ format. They’d play Lionel Richie. Or Tina Turner. Or Michael Jackson. And their defense was, ‘We’re not racist, we’re not breaking the format.’
Well, the fact is, breaking the format, playing hip-hop, would have been the idea of playing, essentially, an art form built out of African American communities. So if you say you’re going to cut that off completely, that, to me, is getting you into that racist territory.
I guess they weren’t playing, like, Barbra Streisand or Anne Murray because they didn’t fit the format. I’m not sure there were oppressed 55-year-old white singers in Canada who felt like they hadn’t been given a chance, you know? Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t like, ‘God, they’re persecuting me for being Canadian.’ But, I mean, you could make an argument, seriously, that what The Fat Boys and Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC, what they were doing was really important, and the idea that it was cut off from a huge segment of popular culture was criminal.
Why did it take so long to get Run to talk to you?
I could get Darryl [McDaniels] on the phone right now. I assume that [Run] didn’t see the benefit. I assume he also finds it tiring to talk about what he thinks is going to be the same thing over and over again. And it just took forever. I’d talked to all the famous people in the book multiple times by the time I got to him.
What I will say is that he was extremely generous, and I think he was surprised when I brought him this footage he hadn’t seen of the session and let him narrate it. Once he saw that, he was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing stuff,’ and he wanted a copy of it.
What’s your favorite song on Raising Hell?
Probably ‘It’s Tricky.’ Maybe ‘My Adidas,’ you know, maybe. I was 15 when that album came out — that’s when you make your connection to real music. As much as I like something that will come out now and I’ll go, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ I mean I’m an old man. I can’t feel the visceral connection to anything the way I did from 1982 to 1989, I just can’t.
Look around and it might feel like we’re in a golden age of rap tours.
Rhyme greats De La Soul recently finished a European tour billed The Gods of Rap with the legendary Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier. And the summer concert season is set to feature even more high-profile hip-hop shows.
West Coast giant Snoop Dogg is headlining the Masters of Ceremony tour with such heavyweights as 50 Cent, DMX, Ludacris and The Lox. Lil Wayne is doing a string of solo gigs and will launch a 38-city tour with pop punk heroes blink-182 starting June 27. Stoner rap fave Wiz Khalifa will headline a 29-city trek on July 9. The reunited Wu-Tang Clan continue their well-received 36 Chambers 25th Anniversary Celebration Tour, and Cardi B will be barnstorming through the beginning of August.
With all this rap talent on the road, The Undefeated decided to take a crack at ranking the 20 greatest hip-hop tours of all time.
Our list was compiled using several rules: First and foremost, the headliners for every tour must be from the hip-hop/rap genre. That means huge record-breaking, co-headlining live runs such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s On the Run II Tour were not included, given Queen Bey’s rhythm and blues/pop leanings. We also took into account the cultural and historical impact of each tour. Several artists, ranging from Run-DMC and Salt-N-Pepa to MC Hammer and Nicki Minaj, were included because they broke new ground, beyond how much their tours grossed. For years, hip-hop has battled the perception that it doesn’t translate well to live performance. This list challenges such myopic ideas.
With only 20 spots, some of rap’s most storied live gigs had to be left off the list. Many were casualties of overlap, such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys’ memorable 1987 Together Forever Tour and the Sizzling Summer Tour ’90, which featured Public Enemy, Heavy D & the Boyz, Kid ’n Play, Digital Underground and Queen Latifah. The 12-date Lyricist Lounge Tour, a 1998 showcase that featured Big Punisher, The Roots, De La Soul, Black Star, Common, Black Moon’s Buckshot and Fat Joe, also just missed the cut.
You may notice that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. are missing from the list. But this was no momentary lapse of sanity. ’Pac’s and Biggie’s brief runs took place when rap shows were beginning to become a rarity, leaving most of their memorable stage moments to one-off shows. Dirty South royalty Outkast’s strongest live outing, when Big Boi and Andre 3000 reunited in 2014, was not included because it was less of a tour and more of a savvy festival run.
There are other honorable mentions: Def Jam Survival of the Illest Tour (1998), which featured DMX, the Def Squad, Foxy Brown, Onyx and Cormega; the Ruff Ryders/Cash Money Tour (2000); Anger Management 3 Tour with Eminem and 50 Cent (2005); J. Cole’s Dollar & A Dream Tour (2013); and Drake’s Aubrey & The Three Migos LIVE! tour (2018).
With that said, on with the show!
20. Pinkprint Tour (2015)
Nicki Minaj, featuring Meek Mill, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe and Dej Loaf
The most lucrative hip-hop trek headlined by a woman also served as the coronation of Nicki Minaj as hip-hop’s newest queen. What made The Pinkprint Tour such a gloriously over-the-top affair was its seamless balance of dramatic Broadway-like theater, silly high jinks and a flex of artistic ferocity. One moment Minaj was in a black lace dress covering her eyes while mourning the loss of a turbulent union during “The Crying Game.” The next, she was backing up her memorable appearance on Kanye West’s “Monster” as the most wig-snatching guest verse of that decade. And the Barbz went wild.
Gross: $22 million from 38 shows
19. The Damn. Tour (2017-18)
Kendrick Lamar, featuring Travis Scott, DRAM and YG
When you have dropped two of the most critically lauded albums of your era in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) and To Pimp a Butterfly (2015), there’s already an embarrassment of riches to pull from for any live setting. But Kendrick Lamar understood that to live up to his bold “greatest rapper alive” proclamation he also needed populist anthems to turn on the masses. The Damn. album and world tour presented just that, as he led his followers each night in an elevating rap-along. It kicked off with a martial arts film, a cheeky nod to Lamar’s Kung Fu Kenny alter ego, before launching into the chest-beating “DNA.”
Gross: More than $62.7 million from 62 shows
18. Summer Sixteen Tour (2016)
Drake and Future
This mammoth, co-headlining tour was a no-brainer: Drake, the hit-making heartthrob, Canada’s clap-back native son and part-time goofy Toronto Raptors superfan. And Future, the self-anointed Atlanta Trap King, gleeful nihilist and producer, whose slapping, codeine-addled bars made him a controversial figure on and off record. The magic of this yin/yang pairing shined brightest when they teamed up to perform such tracks as “Jumpman” and “Big Rings” off their industry-shaking 2015 mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. When the smoke settled, Drake and Future walked away with the highest-earning hip-hop tour of all time.
Gross: $84.3 million from 54 shows
17. Salt-N-Pepa Tour (1988)
Featuring Keith Sweat, Heavy D & the Boyz, EU, Johnny Kemp, Full Force, Kid ’n Play and Rob Base
It may seem preposterous in this outspoken, girl-power age of Cardi B, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, Kash Doll, Young M.A, Tierra Whack and City Girls, but back in the early ’80s, the thought of a “female” rhyme group anchoring a massive tour seemed out of reach. That was before the 1986 debut of Salt-N-Pepa, the pioneering group who’s racked up a plethora of groundbreaking moments and sold more than 15 million albums. The first female rap act to go platinum (Hot, Cool & Vicious) and score a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 200 (“Push It”), Salt-N-Pepa led a diverse, arena-hopping showcase that gave the middle finger to any misogynistic notions. And Salt, Pepa and DJ Spinderella continue to be road warriors. They’re currently on New Kids on the Block’s arena-packing Mixtape Tour.
Encore: Opening-act standouts Heavy D & the Boyz would co-headline their own tour the following year off the platinum success of their 1989 masterpiece Big Tyme.
16. Glow in the Dark Tour (2008)
Kanye West, featuring Rihanna, N.E.R.D, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and Santigold
Yes, Kanye West has had more ambitious showings (2013-14’s button-pushing Yeezus Tour) and more aesthetically adventurous gigs (the 2016 Saint Pablo Tour featured a floating stage, which hovered above the audience). But never has the Chicago-born visionary sounded so hungry, focused and optimistic than he did on his first big solo excursion, the Glow in the Dark Tour.
Before the Kardashian reality-show level freak-outs and MAGA hat obsessing, West was just a kid who wanted to share his spacey sci-fi dreamscape with the public, complete with a talking computerized spaceship named Jane. Even the rotating opening acts — topped off by the coolest pop star on the planet, Rihanna — were ridiculously talented.
Gross: $30.8 million from 49 shows
15. I Am Music Tour (2008-09)
Lil Wayne, featuring T-Pain and Keyshia Cole
Between 2002 and 2007, Young Money general Lil Wayne was hip-hop’s hardest-working force of nature, releasing an astounding 16 mixtapes. Then Weezy broke from the pack with the massively successful I Am Music Tour. The bulk of Lil Wayne’s 90-minute set was propelled by his career-defining 2008 album Tha Carter III, which by the show’s second leg had already sold 2 million copies. By the time T-Pain joined the New Orleans spitter for a playful battle of the featured acts, Lil Wayne’s takeover was complete.
Gross: $42 million from 78 shows
14. Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em Tour (1990-91)
MC Hammer, featuring En Vogue and Vanilla Ice
With 15 background dancers, 12 singers, seven musicians, two DJs, eight security men, three valets and a private Boeing 727 plane, MC Hammer’s world tour was eye-popping. Rap fans had never seen anything of the magnitude of the Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em stadium gigs, which recalled Parliament-Funkadelic’s army-size traveling heyday in the 1970s.
Each night the Oakland, California, dancing machine, born Stanley Burrell, left pools of sweat onstage as if he was the second coming of James Brown. If the sight of more than 30 folks onstage doing the Running Man, with MC Hammer breaking into his signature typewriter dance during “U Can’t Touch This,” didn’t make you get up, you should have checked your pulse.
Gross: $26.3 million from 138 shows
13. Things Fall Apart! Tour (1999)
Each gig was a revelation. This was no surprise given that Philadelphia hip-hop collective The Roots, formed by longtime friends drummer Questlove and lead lyricist Black Thought, had a reputation for being unpredictable. Still, it’s ironic that a group known for being the ultimate road warriors — they were known for touring 45 weeks a year before becoming the house band on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2014 — is represented on this list by one of their shortest tours.
But the brilliant Things Fall Apart club and hall sprint, which took place throughout March 1999, proved to be an epic blitz fueled by the band’s most commercially lauded material to date, Questlove’s steady percussive heart and the inhuman breath control of Black Thought.
Encore: Neo soul diva Jill Scott, who co-wrote The Roots’ breakout single “You Got Me,” gave fans an early taste of her artistry as she joined the band onstage for some serious vocal workouts.
12. House of Blues’ Smokin’ Grooves Tour (1996)
The Fugees, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Ziggy Marley and Spearhead
While gangsta rap was topping the charts, the hip-hop industry faced a bleak situation on the touring front. Concert promoters were scared to book “urban” acts in large venues. Enter the House of Blues’ Kevin Morrow and Cara Lewis, the booking agent who achieved mythic status when she received a shout-out on Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 anthem “Paid in Full.” The pair envisioned a Lollapalooza-like tour heavy on hip-hop and good vibes. The first ’96 incarnation came out of the gate with Haitian-American rap trio The Fugees, multiplatinum weed ambassadors Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes.
Encore: The series, which has also featured Outkast, The Roots, Lauryn Hill, Gang Starr, The Pharcyde, Foxy Brown and Public Enemy, is credited with opening the door for a return to more straight-ahead hip-hop tours led by Jay-Z, DMX and Dr. Dre.
11. Watch the Throne Tour (2011-12)
Jay-Z and Kanye West
In better times, Jay-Z and Kanye West exhibited lofty friendship goals we could all aspire to, with their bromance popping on the platinum album Watch the Throne. Before their much-publicized fallout, Jay-Z and West took their act on the road for the mother of all double-bill spectacles.
Two of hip-hop’s greatest traded classics such as the ominous “Where I’m From” (Jay-Z) and soaring “Jesus Walks” (West) from separate stages on opposite sides of the venue. Those lucky enough to catch the tour can still recall the dream tag team launching into their encore of “N—as in Paris” amid roars from thousands of revelers.
Gross: $75.6 million from 63 shows
10. The Miseducation Tour (1999)
Lauryn Hill, featuring Outkast
In 1998, Lauryn Hill wasn’t just the best woman emcee or the best emcee alive and kicking. The former standout Fugees member was briefly the voice of her generation as she rode the multiplatinum, multi-Grammy success of her solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. By February 1999, it was time to take the show on the road. Hill and her 10-piece band went beyond the hype, especially when they tore through a blistering take of the heartbreaking “Ex-Factor.”
Encore: Outkast (Atlantans Andre 3000 and Big Boi) rocked the house backed by some conspicuous props, including two front grilles of a Cadillac and a throwback Ford truck, kicked off their own headlining Stanklove theater tour in early 2001.
9. No Way Out Tour (1997-98)
Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, Lil’ Kim, Ma$e, Busta Rhymes, Foxy Brown, 112, The Lox, Usher, Kid Capri, Lil’ Cease and Jay-Z
The Los Angeles Times headline spoke volumes: “Combs to Headline Rare Rap Tour.” Combs, of course, is Sean “Diddy” Combs, the music, fashion, television and liquor mogul who Forbes estimates now has a net worth of $820 million. But back then, the hustler formerly known as Puff Daddy was struggling to keep his Bad Boy Records afloat after the March 9, 1997, murder of Brooklyn, New York, rhyme king The Notorious B.I.G.
But out of unspeakable tragedy rose Combs’ chart-dominating No Way Out album and an emotional all-star tour. Despite suggestions that large-scale rap shows were too much of a financial gamble, Puffy rallied the Bad Boy troops and a few close friends and proved the naysayers wrong. The No Way Out Tour was both a cathartic exercise and a joyous celebration of life. “It’s All About the Benjamins” shook the foundation of every building as Combs, The Lox and a show-stealing Lil’ Kim made monetary excess look regal. And the heartfelt Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You,” which was performed live at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, had audiences in tears.
Gross: $16 million
8. Hard Knock Life Tour (1999)
Jay-Z, featuring DMX, Redman and Method Man
Jay-Z stands now as hip-hop’s most bankable live draw. In 2017, the newly minted billionaire’s 4:44 Live Nation production pulled in $44.7 million, becoming America’s all-time highest-grossing solo rap jaunt. It’s a long way from the days of Jay-Z lumbering through performances in a bulletproof vest when he was last off the bench on Puff Daddy’s No Way Out Tour.
Surely the seeds of Jay-Z’s evolution as a concert staple were first planted on his Hard Knock Life Tour, which was documented in the 2000 film Backstage. This was a confident, full-throated Shawn Carter, and he would need every ounce of charisma, with Ruff Ryders lead dog DMX enrapturing fans as if he were a Baptist preacher at a tent revival and the duo of Redman and Method Man rapping and swinging over crowds from ropes attached to moving cranes. What a gig.
Gross: $18 million
7. Bring the Noise Tour (1988)
Public Enemy and Ice-T, featuring Eazy-E & N.W.A. and EPMD
There has always been a controlled chaos to a Public Enemy live show. Lead orator Chuck D jolted the crowd with a ferocity over the intricate, combustible production of the Bomb Squad while clock-rocking Flavor Flav, the prototypical hype man, jumped and zigzagged across the stage.
DJ Terminator X cut records like a cyborg and never smiled. And Professor Griff and the S1Ws exuded an intimidating, paramilitary presence. Armed with their 1988 watershed black nationalist work, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, an album many music historians consider to be the pinnacle hip-hop statement, Public Enemy spearheaded arguably the most exciting rap tour ever conceived.
Encore: Along for the wild ride was the godfather of West Coast rap, Ice-T, who was putting on the rest of the country to Los Angeles’ violent Crips and Bloods gang wars with the too-real “Colors.” N.W.A. was just about to set the world on fire with their opus Straight Outta Compton. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella unleashed a profanity-laced declaration of street knowledge that was instantly slapped with parental advisory stickers. And Erick and Parrish were making dollars with their rough and raw EPMD joint Strictly Business.
6. Nitro World Tour (1989-90)
LL Cool J, featuring Public Enemy, Eazy E & N.W.A., Big Daddy Kane, Too $hort, EPMD, Slick Rick, De La Soul and Special Ed
In early ’85, LL Cool J was a 16-year-old rhyme fanatic living in his grandparents’ Queens, New York, home. Three years later, the kid who became Def Jam Records’ signature artist with his iconic B-boy manifesto Radio was the most successful solo emcee on the planet with more than 4 million albums sold and counting. LL Cool J was also headlining some of the hottest events of rap’s golden era. And he was at his cockiest love-me-or-hate-me peak during the Nitro Tour.
But not even LL Cool J was ready for the monster that was N.W.A. The self-proclaimed World’s Most Dangerous Group completely hijacked the spotlight when N.W.A. was warned by officials not to perform their controversial track “F— the Police” at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. A minute into the song, cops stormed the stage and shut down Eazy-E and crew’s volatile set, a wild scene that was later re-created in the 2015 N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton.
Encore: A few months before the Detroit gig, N.W.A. was booed during a Run-DMC show at New York’s Apollo Theater. “We all had watched Showtime at the Apollo, so we all knew if it went bad what was gonna happen,” Ice Cube explained on the Complex story series What Had Happened Was … “We hit the stage, and as soon as they saw the Jheri curls, all you heard was ‘Boo!’ I mean, before we even got a line out, they was booin’. I guess they just wasn’t feeling the Jheri curls.”
5. The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever (1991-92)
Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Geto Boys, Kid ’n Play, Naughty by Nature, A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School and Oaktown’s 3.5.7.
Props to the promoter who put together this awesome collection of hip-hop firepower for a tour that at least aimed to live up to its tagline. What stands out the most was the early acknowledgment of rap’s reach beyond the East and West coasts. The significance of including Houston’s Geto Boys, for instance, cannot be overstated.
Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill carried the flag for Southern hip-hop, winning over skeptical concertgoers with their raw dissection of ’hood paranoia, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” which had become a favorite on Yo! MTV Raps. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince proved they could still rock the house with PG-rated material. (It helped that Will Smith had just begun the first season of NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) Queen Latifah busted through the testosterone with the empowering “Ladies First.” And Naughty by Nature frequently knocked out the most crowd-pleasing set of the night with their promiscuous anthem “O.P.P.”
Encore: The World’s Greatest Rap Show Ever made its Jan. 3, 1992, stop at New York’s Madison Square Garden less than a week after nine people were fatally crushed at a hip-hop charity basketball game at City College of New York. Before Public Enemy’s powerful message of black self-determination, Heavy D, an organizer of the doomed event, made a plea for unity. Fans were certainly listening. The gig was a resounding, peaceful triumph.
4. Def Jam Tour (1987)
LL Cool J, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, and Public Enemy
From 1986 to 1992, New York’s Def Jam Records was the premier hip-hop label. Its roster of artists, which included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, EPMD and Slick Rick, was unparalleled in range and cultural dominance. So when it came time for partners Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to spread the Def Jam gospel on its first international tour, the imprint’s biggest star, LL Cool J, was chosen to lead the way. And he didn’t disappoint.
James Todd Smith strutted out of a giant neon boombox sporting a Kangol hat, dookie rope gold chain and Adidas jacket. Of course, that jacket would soon be thrown to the floor as a shirtless Ladies Love Cool James tore through his ’85 single “Rock the Bells” as if it were the last song he would get to perform.
For many overseas, their first taste of American rap also included DJ Eric B. & Rakim, who were killing the streets with their 1987 masterpiece Paid In Full. Almost overnight in Germany, France, Norway and the Netherlands, hip-hop became the new religion.
Encore: This was the first proper world tour for Public Enemy, who had just dropped their 12-inch single “Rebel Without a Pause.” Although they were the opening act, Chuck D and his posse stole the show, establishing their standing as global behemoths. The now-legendary show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon can be heard throughout It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
3. Up In Smoke (2000)
Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Eminem, Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Nate Dogg, and Xzibit
As over-the-top, profane spectacles go, the Up In Smoke Tour has few rivals. Detroit’s Eminem stormed the stage wearing a red jumpsuit with “County Jail” stitched on the back. Ice Cube, before being joined by his Westside Connection cohorts, Mack 10 and WC, emerged from a cryogenic chamber. Hennessy-sipping and weed-toking Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg rode out in a hydraulically juiced lowrider. There was a 15-foot talking skull!
The multimillion-dollar stage design put the concert industry on notice that not only could rap shows attain the lavish production values of the best rock shows, they could surpass them. It was also an emphatic statement that the largely West Coast rap dignitaries knew how to throw a party. And there still isn’t another hip-hop song that matches the first 20 seconds of Dre’s “Next Episode” in concert.
Gross: $22.2 million from 44 shows
2. Raising Hell Tour (1986)
Run-DMC, featuring LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Whodini
There’s a reason Run-DMC is hailed as the greatest live hip-hop act of its era. They understood that less is always more. Because of their stripped-down beats and rhymes, the group amplified the genius of every aspect of their concert presentation up to 11. Jam Master Jay’s scratching was more thunderous than the other DJs on the 1s and 2s. Run’s pay-me stage presence commanded respect. And D had the throat-grabbing voice of God. They wore Godfather hats, black jeans and shoelace-less Adidas sneakers. The Hollis, Queens, crew was the personification of cool.
LL Cool J was just 18 during the Raising Hell Tour, but he was coming after Run-DMC’s crown every night. The hotel-wrecking Beastie Boys co-piloted rap’s bum-rush into Middle America, scaring parents wherever they landed. And Whodini brilliantly straddled the line between electro funkateers and around-the-way dudes representing BK to the fullest.
As “Walk This Way,” Run-DMC’s genre-shifting Aerosmith collaboration, exploded on the pop charts, vaulting the Raising Hell album to 3 million copies sold (the first hip-hop album to go triple platinum), ticket sales followed. The 45-city tour affirmed hip-hop’s cultural takeover.
Encore: The image of Joseph Simmons commanding 20,000-plus fans to hold up their sneakers during a performance of “My Adidas” at a New York show is still a surreal sight.
1. Fresh Fest (1984)
Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, The Fat Boys, Newcleus & the Dynamic Breakers, New York City Breakers, Turbo and Ozone
Ricky Walker had an idea: The concert promoter wanted to put together the first national rap music and break-dancing tour. In 1984, hip-hop had moved on from its underground beginnings in the Bronx. Run-DMC had just dropped their self-titled debut, and their “Rock Box” became the first rap video to received play on MTV. Breakin’, the first break dancing movie to hit the big screen, pulled in nearly $40 million at the box office on a minuscule $1.2 million budget. Walker saw the future.
He called New York impresario Simmons to tap some of his Rush Productions talent, which included heartthrob Brooklyn trio Whodini, rap’s first solo superstar Kurtis Blow, the comedic Fat Boys and, of course, the hottest hip-hop act in the country, Run-DMC. But when it came time to promote the first show, billed as the Swatch Watch NYC Fresh Fest Festival, in Greensboro, North Carolina, Walker was laughed out of the room by a radio ad man.
Rap was still viewed by many record industry power brokers as a passing fad. In a 1985 interview with Billboard magazine, Walker recalled the salesperson pleading with him. “You’re a friend of mine,” he said. “Can’t I talk you out of doing this show?”
Walker’s instincts, however, proved to be dead-on. Fresh Fest moved 7,500 tickets in four hours. The tour, which also featured some of the best street dancers on the planet, such as Breakin’ stars Boogaloo Shrimp and Shabba Doo, as well as the synth funk-rap group Newcleus, not only did brisk business at mid-level venues but also sold out 20,000-seat arenas in Chicago and Philadelphia. Like the pioneering rock ‘n’ roll shows of the ’50s conceived by Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed, the Fresh Fest proved that rap could be a serious and profitable art form. The rest is hip-hop history.
Gross: $3.5 million
TV’s major networks made their upfront announcements recently, and there are some interesting shows coming to screens this fall.
Saturday Night Live vet Kenan Thompson finally lands a starring vehicle with NBC’s The Kenan Show, a family sitcom about a single dad. ABC’s black-ish spinoff mixed-ish stars Tika Sumpter and centers on an interracial hippie family in the 1980s. Megalyn Echikunwoke is one of the leads on Not Just Me from Fox. It’s about a woman coming to grips with discovering her father sired multiple children. Sunnyside is a Kal Penn-driven NBC sitcom with a multiethnic cast about a former New York City councilman who helps immigrants living in Queens, New York. Folake Olowofoyeku stars with Billy Gardell in Bob Hearts Abishola, a CBS sitcom about a middle-aged white guy who has a heart attack and falls for his Nigerian cardiac nurse. “Hardy har har.”
Considering returning shows such as The Last O.G. and the ever-popular black-ish on traditional networks, there seems to be a resurgence in sitcoms as it pertains to black programming. That isn’t incidental; networks have only recently been embracing of dramas driven by black leads. And that aversion spoke to how those networks saw black imagery and how it is received by white audiences. We had to fight to get black antiheroes on the small screen.
So often in American pop culture, dysfunction in characters has been used as a parallel for the wider human experience — and that dysfunction is regularly white and male. No matter how many snitching wiseguys or horse-killing compadres Tony Soprano strangled, bludgeoned or shot, no matter how many rivals, partners and associates Walter White murdered or manipulated, it was all supposed to show us something about the human condition.
As is the function of privilege, white storytellers not only have the benefit of larger, wider platforms but also of not having to navigate racism’s dizzying maze of double standards and slanted expectations. White criminality on screen could say something about humanity; black criminality on screen was expected to say something about black people. From the ‘hood movies of the early 1990s to that other beloved HBO drama The Wire, if bad black people were at the center of the story, there would be a lot of hand-wringing about what the portrayal was going to yield in a culture that undoubtedly relishes demonizing black folks.
That burden of portrayal and mainstream platforms’ indifference toward black creators and audiences meant that, at least on the small screen, dark or dramatic black content was suddenly in short supply. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, as dysfunctional white people became the centerpiece of American television, black shows nearly disappeared from the popular landscape. Even during the beloved “heyday” of black TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, scripted black TV tended to be predominantly family sitcoms. The few shows that were still prominent in the 2000s remained PG-friendly half-hour comedies — until Scandal.
Debuting to strong ratings back in 2012 and becoming the No. 1 show in its time slot, Shonda Rhimes’ hit announced the arrival of a new era in black television. The show was the first major contemporary drama with a black female lead. In centering on a complex black woman who was both obviously brilliant at what she did but who was wrestling with personal demons and character dysfunctions that would threaten all that she’d built, that prime-time hit changed what popular black television in the “prestige TV”-driven age could look like. Characters such as Olivia Pope of Scandal, Paper Boi of Atlanta, Ghost St. Patrick of Power, Taystee of Orange is the New Black and Cookie Lyon of Empire would be driven by drama, heightened spectacle, suspense, surrealism and provocative storytelling. They showcased intriguing characters of questionable morals but undeniable charisma and riveting conflict. Of course, these were all very different kinds of shows, but they all highlighted the development of a new wave.
The black TV experience of the 2010s has not been defined by sitcoms or reality shows, although both have remained consistently popular. No, much like the wider culture, so much of our television experience has been driven by melodramas, crime shows and nighttime soaps. And in putting black characters on screen who dared to dwell in darkness, it’s helped expand the scope of mainstream black content. “Safe” depictions of black experiences are no longer a prerequisite for high visibility, and darker depictions don’t have to be filtered through white creatives’ lenses.
But that doesn’t mean disparities have disappeared.
The Starz series Power became a surprise hit in 2014 when it debuted. A glitzy urban series about a drug kingpin attempting to climb the social ladder of Manhattan’s elite, the show is the biggest on the network, but the writing and acting aren’t quite at the level of top-tier television dramas, and the tone keeps its storytelling just shy of grim, forgoing (or negating) suspense for shock and salaciousness. And while a character such as Lucious Lyon was always portrayed as the devil in a suede jacket — and there is no denying Cookie Lyon is no angel either — Fox’s Empire relies more on pomp and melodrama than actual suspense, casting the show’s darkness against a blinged-out haze of camp and histrionics. There still seems to be a dearth of black-themed shows on television willing to fully commit to taking their protagonists to an unsettling place, one that, while compelling, also doesn’t assuage the audience’s discomfort.
And Netflix’s ever-popular ensemble prison drama Orange Is the New Black has showcased a diverse set of black female characters: inmates of varying backgrounds thrust together in a minimum security prison. The show highlights personalities that can be as sympathetic and relatable as some are manipulative and murderous. But the acclaimed series was initially marketed as the story of an upper-crust white woman plucked out of her pampered world and now doing time — something it eventually subverted, to be sure. But did being pushed as such help ensure that it wouldn’t be received as a niche “black show” by audiences and critics?
The May 19 series finale of Game of Thrones was the talk of pop culture, as HBO’s gargantuan hit wrapped eight seasons of ice zombies, dragons, brothels, torture and incest with a controversial last episode that underwhelmed many and confounded others. But the better finale that night was from the cable network’s half-hour thriller-comedy Barry, a stunning little show that ended its second season in emotionally gripping (and shockingly violent) fashion. While obviously not the grand blockbuster that HBO has had in Thrones, Barry has proved to be another major critical success for the network, with star Bill Hader earning the outstanding lead actor in a comedy series Emmy last year for his work on the show, which he executive produces with Alec Berg.
On the show, Saturday Night Live alum Hader gets to indulge his serious side and delivers some stellar performances. As hitman turned aspiring actor Barry Berkman, Hader’s everyman persona and comedic talents are still evident, but it’s secondary to a starkly stellar dramatic performance as the emotionally fraught, reluctant killer. The show deftly balances the more screwball moments with searing tension that has all the suspense of a David Fincher thriller. When the violence happens, it’s often swift and brutal — and without a wink or nod. Barry’s genuine desire to change his life sits parallel with his more rage-filled tendencies, and that inner conflict often leads to someone catching a bullet.
Popular shows Orange Is the New Black, Empire and Power will all be concluding soon. The final season of Orange Is the New Black hits Netflix in July, with Fox’s hip-hop soap opera and Starz’s 50 Cent-produced hit ending their runs with their upcoming respective sixth seasons. As such, we will be saying goodbye to some beloved on-screen bad people in the next several months. Hopefully, when we look back at these characters and shows, we’ll see what was only the beginning of a more diverse era in black programming. With upcoming shows such as For Life (described by ABC as “a fictional serialized legal and family drama about a prisoner who becomes a lawyer, litigating cases for other inmates while fighting to overturn his own life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit”) and returning series such as Snowfall and How to Get Away With Murder, black antiheroes are still on our screens — but networks shouldn’t let such shows fall to the periphery.
Here’s hoping we remain committed to telling our darker tales with as much gusto as the uplifting and/or lighthearted ones. And here’s hoping those tales don’t always have to add a wink to soften the sting. Our deepest dysfunctions can make for compelling truths on screen. Our dark tales are as affirming as any, and they only added to the broadening of our on-screen identity. If these wildly different shows have one common legacy, that is certainly it. And that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.
It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.
That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.
The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.
“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets
They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast
The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”
Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.
Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.
The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.
But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.
The Plain Brown Rapper
It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.
Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?
The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.
Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”
But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”
As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.
Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”
The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”
Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.
In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.
Triumph of the Will
It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”
The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.
“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”
Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.
His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.
Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.
His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).
This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.
Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”
But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.
Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.
He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”
But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.
His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.
The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”
That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”
Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:
“I believe in God, I believe in destiny
Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined
But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”
He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.
Then he faded from the music scene.
The smartest dude
In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.
Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.
Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.
He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.
“The smartest dude survives the best.”