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"IT'S GONE TOO FAR!"

The Spotify anti-hate initiative and the can of worms it has naïvely opened is hardly the first time artists—and black artists in particular—have come under fire on moral grounds, nor is it the first time they’ve fought back. In previous firestorms, of course, the issue has been musical content rather than personal conduct, though misogyny was frequently a factor. But history has repeatedly shown that the moral high ground can be a precarious perch to maintain.

In 1985, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator and future Vice President Al Gore, co-founded the activist group Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Gore had become incensed when she realized her 11-year-old daughter was listening to the titillating, masturbation-referencing “Darling Nikki” on Prince’s Purple Rain, causing her newly formed organization, backed by a large segment of the populace, to pressure the labels to police themselves. The labels eventually caved, agreeing to begin slapping those now-ubiquitous “Parental Advisory” stickers on albums containing explicit lyrics. 

Five years later, the members of the rap group 2 Live Crew were arrested for performing “obscene songs” onstage after activist Jack Thompson called for an investigation into whether the Miami-based hip-hop group’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be violated obscenity statutes. A Florida judge ruled there was “probable cause to believe” the album was obscene, in that it contained songs including “The Fuck Shop” and “Bad Ass Bitch,” written by bandleader Luther Campbell. Subsequently, other judges around the country issued similar rulings. But after a jury acquitted Campbell and 2 Live Crew, Florida’s state attorney decided against pursuing other similar cases. This flap was one of the factors that led to the creation of Rock the Vote. Org founder Jeff Ayeroff said that the arrest “was a real wake-up call” that had “catalyze[d] the music industry.”

Warner Bros. Records and parent company Time Warner came under fire in 1992, after the label released the self-titled debut album by the Ice-T-led rap-metal band Body Count, which contained the song “Cop Killer.” The outcry was widespread, encompassing Vice President Dan Quayle, around 60 congressmen, Gore and law-enforcement officials around the country. The critics called for boycotts of Time Warner products, while some major investors sold their stock; more ominous were the anonymous death threats being received not just by Ice-T but also executives at Time Warner and WBR.

True to his beliefs, legendary WBR chief Mo Ostin stood his ground, giving his full support to his artist’s right to express himself. Time Warner head Gerald Levin took a bold and risky stance of his own, issuing a statement that read, “Time Warner is committed to the free expression of ideas for all our authors, journalists, recording artists, screenwriters, actors and directors. We believe this commitment is crucial to a democratic society, where the full range of opinion and thought—whether we agree with it or not—must be able to find an outlet.”

Three months after the album’s release, Ice-T made a surprising move. “At the moment, the cops are in criminal mode,” he stated. “They’ve threatened to bomb the record company. I’m in the position now where I think Warner Bros. is taking the war for me. So, as of today, I’m gonna pull the song off the record.”

In response to Ice-T’s request, Ostin agreed to yank the album, remove the track and replace it with a version “with amended artwork to reflect this change.”

Speaking at the New Music Seminar that June, Ice-T explained what had prompted him to record and release the song in the first place. “I don’t have nothing against all police,” he said. “I feel that if the cops were a total legit organization, not corrupt, I would probably be a cop, because I want shit to be right. But it ain’t.”

On the modified version of Body Count, Ice-T replaced “Cop Killer” with a version of his 1989 song “Freedom of Speech,” an indictment of the PMRC. Touché.  

As the “Cop Killer” controversy raged, presidential candidate Bill Clinton stepped into the crossfire when he criticized rapper/activist Sister Souljah for a rhetorical statement she’d made that he deemed inflammatory. “If black people kill black people every day,” she wondered, “why not have a week and kill white people?” What was polarizing about Clinton’s condemnation was that he compared Sister Souljah to Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who’d hosted the Rainbow Coalition event at which Clinton made his remarks, strongly objected to Clinton’s view—throwing serious shade at Bubba, in modern-day parlance. While Clinton’s motivation was political—part of his strategy to position himself as a centrist "New Democrat"—it was also divisive, applauded by many and condemned by many others, much like the citizenry’s reaction to the coarse utterances of the present Commander in Chief.

Putting the most earthshaking controversy in context, a 1990 deal that brought Suge Knight’s Death Row Records to startup label Interscope brought the fledgling label its defining early hits from Dr. Dre (notably his 1992 hip-hop milestone The Chronic), Snoop Dogg and, later, Tupac Shakur, establishing the Jimmy Iovine-led label as a bastion of West Coast gangsta rap. Five years later, Interscope came under attack by political activist C. Delores Tucker and former federal drug czar William Bennett for releasing rap songs containing lyrics glorifying violence and objectifying women. Their anger was directed toward not only Death Row and Interscope but also Warner Music Group, whose Doug Morris had entered into a joint venture with Interscope when he was co-head of Atlantic with Ahmet Ertegun. This PR crisis coincided with the insanity at Time Warner-owned WMG, whose Chairman, Bob Morgado, pushed out legendary Ostin and made Morris President of WMG before Morgado was himself fired and replaced by Michael Fuchs. The madness continued when Fuchs fired Morris.

Under intense pressure from Tucker and Bennett, who were conducting their crusade through the national media, Fuchs washed his hands of the matter. Having no clue about the value or potential of Interscope, he unloaded the label at a bargain price to MCA Music Entertainment Group, which was headed by none other than Morris, who’d been swooped up by new owner Edgar Bronfman Jr. as soon as he’d become available. That transaction brought Morris and Iovine back into business together—they’d become friends and associates in 1981, when Iovine had produced Stevie Nicks’ smash album Bella Donna for Atlantic—as the controversy fizzled out. A year after that extremely eventful 1995, MCA was renamed Universal Music Group, and, following UMG’s 1998 acquisition of PolyGram, Morris once again bet on Iovine, putting A&M, Geffen and MCA under the Interscope umbrella, thus creating the Interscope Geffen A&M label group. IGA notched hit after hit under Iovine’s inspired leadership, exemplified by his handing Dre the demo of then-unknown white rapper Eminem, solidifying the company’s ownership of the genre, as Interscope and UMG emerged virtually unscathed from the firestorm. So, in a sense, Tucker and Bennett played prominent if inadvertent roles in the establishment of the dominant label and music group of the 21st century.

 In each of these instances, the artists under attack had the support of the RIAA and the ACLU, but the present situation would appear to have nothing to do with First Amendment rights. Instead, Spotify is being buffeted by the unforeseen consequences of its own clumsy attempt to do the right thing. And that has no shortage of historical parallels.

 

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