Friday, May 3, 2013

Melody Maker, 1990

by Simon Reynolds

These 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 Teachers).

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.

"We 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' means."

"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."

Those-in-the-know generally agree that you and 3rd Bass have an "authentic" and respectful relationship to rap, whereas Vanilla Ice is dissed as a phoney opportunist.

"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 group."

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'"

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