YOUNG BLACK TEENAGERS
Melody Maker, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
are crazily racially mixed up times in the US of A. While politically
and economically the plight of black people is much the same as ever,
culturally African-Americans have never been more visible or audible.
Oldtimer chatshow host and American icon Johnny Carson has been
overtaken in the ratings by his younger, funkier and indelibly black
rival Arsenio Hall. Hall has brought rap braggadochio and street slang
into the living rooms of ordinary folks across Middle America. And he's
not alone: there's ex-rapper the Young Fresh Prince's successful sitcom
and the feisty black comedy show "In Living Colour". In pop, the
wholesome MC Hammer has taken rap into the heart of teenage shopping
mall culture. Then you've got the Caucasian parasites like Vanilla Ice
and New Kids On The Block with their castrated version of rap menace.
The rap community is confused by its own
overground success. Some applaud the likes of Hammer for representing
the positive face of rap all the way to the Grammys; others bemoan the
way the new media-friendly rap has distanced itself from street reality
and become just another form of Uncle Tom entertainment for the white
mainstream. In reaction, there's arisen a blacker-than-thou ethos in hip
hop, whether it's the ultra-realism of ganster rappers (NWA, Geto Boys)
or the righteous Afro-centrist groups (Brand Nubian, Poor Righteous
And now, adding fuel to the flames,
here's the provocatively named Young Black Teenagers, whose gimmick is
that they're all white. "Black is a not a colour to us," they aver.
"Blackness is a state of mind."
YBT are proteges of
producer Hank Shocklee (reknowned along with his 'Bomb Squad' cohorts
for sculpting Public Enemy's wall of noise). YBT's imminent debut album
is also the debut LP for Shocklee's new label SOUL.
aint tryna say we're black," says Kamron (one of the group's three
rappers) defensively. "Our song 'Proud To Be Black' is all about growing
up in a black culture, then coming home and catching hell for being
into black style and black slang."
Some would say
that it's all very well aligning yourself with black culture, but you
have a choice, black people don't. They'd say that there's a history of
oppression behind 'black' identity that African-Americans live every
minute of their lives, and it's presumptuous to imagine you can simply
simply buy into that.
"We're not saying we're
black," retorts Tommy Never (another rapper). "It's just that growing up
the way we did, you develop a state of mind that's perceived by white
people as 'black'. 'Black' relates to different people in different
ways. So there's gonna be some clashes. We're not trying to tell
anybody we're black, and we're not trying to tell anybody what 'black'
"We're members of a new race," continues
Kamron. "A race without a colour. There's a lot of Hispanic and white
kids growing up whose models and inspirations are from black culture.
Rap is a whole culture that relates to the way you talk, the way you
dress, the way you think, even the way you eat and hang out."
generally agree that you and 3rd Bass have an "authentic" and
respectful relationship to rap, whereas Vanilla Ice is dissed as a
"There's a difference between
capitalising on something, and doing it cos you're part of it. We're
part of the rap culture. Vanilla Ice came up through commercial radio,
we're coming from a street angle. We ain't nothing but another rap
Nonetheless YBT don't quite fit in the
current rap scheme: they don't peddle a thug's eye view of ghetto hell,
they're not post-daisy age peaceniks, and they're not into
consciousness- raising "edutainment" either. Instead they talk of
bringing back "the oldschool sound, the roots of rap that we grew up on
but a lot of people today don't know about". Their two singles to date
typify this oldschool style, with their raw, grainy sound and sleazy,
faintly misogynistic subject matter. The debut, "Knowbody Knows Kelli"
was inspired by Kelly Bundy, the slutty, air-headed teenager from the
brilliant and hugely sucessful US sitcom "Married With Children". YBT's
fantasy is that Kelly is a hooker being pimped by Bart Simpson. Their
new single, "To My Donna", is a lewd invitation to Ms Ciccone "to come
get it/it's heated". Yuk!
Kamron explains. "See,
Madonna and Lenny Kravitz took a Public Enemy beat and turned it into
'Justify My Love'. Chuck D and Hank Shocklee were upset about it, and
suggested to us that we write a answer record. They felt that it was
their beat, and that they shoulda had credit for it. It wasn't a
sampled beat, it was something they'd programmed. And all Madonna did
was add some moans over the top. There's a difference between taking a
small sample and switching it around until it's something original, and
what Madonna and Kravitz did, which was just taking the beat outright.
So what we're saying to Madonna is 'you want it, come get it, babeee'"