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STICKER SHOCK: RAP VS. THE CENSORS

 

Despite the quaintness of their “Washington Wives” moniker, the impact of Tipper Gore and her three fellow co-founders of the Parents Music Resource Center—or PMRC—was not small in 1985. It lingers even today.

Following the PMRC-inspired Senate hearings of ’85--featuring testimony from free-speech defenders Frank Zappa, Dee Snider and John Denver—the “Parental Advisory” stickers arrived. The RIAA, after consulting with the PMRC and National PTA agreed to have stickers bearing the legend “PARENTAL ADVISORY – EXPLICIT CONTENT” affixed to product flagged as containing overly violent, sexual or drug-related themes.

The overall result, as predicted by many in the industry, was a giant headache. Massive retailers such as Wal-Mart just said no to carrying such stickered product, eventually sparking the production of “clean” versions of the same recordings; retailers that did order the stickered product, meanwhile, now risked running afoul of local and statewide censorship laws.

Which is where rap censorship enters the picture.

It came to its unpleasant head sometime between 1989 and 1990—when Miami’s 2 Live Crew released “Me So Horny,” from their 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and, other-coastwise, FBI Assistant Director Mitch Ahlerich penned a note to Ruthless Records about the new single from N.W.A’s debut set, Straight Outta Compton. The track was called “Fuck Tha Police,” and Ahlerich’s missive expressed extreme displeasure with that notion. To put it mildly.

The pushback was hard, and mostly aimed for the wallet. 

In Miami, that meant 2 Live Crew’s album being declared obscene—legally speaking—by a political crew including Florida governor Bob Martinez, a Broward County Sheriff, and a local circuit judge. Ramifications? If you owned a retail outlet that sold Nasty, you’d get popped. And if you were in 2 Live Crew, and were performing live, ditto. Though the judge’s obscenity declaration was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1992, it took some time.

And in LA, N.W.A’s ability to tour was seriously undercut by a large number of police across the country unwilling to offer security services for the creators of “Fuck Tha Police.” Yet that was a polite, even passive aggressive approach, in retrospect.

When cutting-edge rappers went for the political jugular, it was noticed. In 1991, when Public Enemy offered up “By the Time I Get To Arizona”—their furious response to that state’s conspicuous refusal to make MLK’s birthday a state holiday—its accompanying music video was yanked by MTV after only one airing. That the video depicted Arizona Governor Evan Meacham getting killed by a car bomb may have been a factor.

And even President Bill Clinton (playfully termed “our first black President” for his overall liberalism and saxophone stylings) stuck his foot in it all with his proclamation that a commen by activist Sistah Souljah might be a political line-in-the sand for both him and relevant others. Souljah—nee Lisa Williamson—stirred some cultural anguish in 1992 when she told the Washington Post, “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” Clinton, later addressing Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, caused a few sparks for noting, "If you took the words 'white' and 'black,' and you reversed them, you might think [KKK leader] David Duke was giving that speech."

To those not emotionally connected, it would appear that battle lines were being drawn.

On one hand, there was this writer, an entertainment reporter, interviewing Ice-T in 1991, both of us sitting on a plush couch up the hill from Spago in the Hollywood Hills, talking about the entertainment business. He was telling me his new role model was Cher.  ”She’d do Silkwood and get the Academy Award,” he told me, ”then flip and be butt naked on a battleship, and nobody would question it. Because that’s her singing, not her acting.”

But on the other hand, fewer politicians were paying attention to Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” video than “Cop Killer” by Ice-T’s thrash-metal band, Body Count. The clip rankled a scary political crew including Tipper Gore, President George H.W. Bush, VP Dan Quayle, and even actor Charlton Heston. The Washington Post’s account of Heston’s address to Time Warner Inc. stockholders, during which he voiced his objection to the song, perfectly encapsulates the era’s corporate dilemma.

In retrospect, Time Warner’s hands-on involvement with the era’s most cutting-edge rap artists is stunning; likewise, what happened with it all—in terms of corporate decisions—is equally so.

“It was strange,” the Post reported, “to hear Heston's sonorous voice unflinchingly recite some of the more controversial and profane lyrics of the song: ‘Die, die, die, pig, die! {Expletive} the police! ... I know your family's grievin', {expletive} 'em!’”

In retrospect, Time Warner’s hands-on involvement with the era’s most cutting-edge rap artists is stunning; likewise, what happened with it all—in terms of corporate decisions—is equally so. Credit, or blame, must go to C. DeLores Tucker, civil rights activist who fervently took a stand against gangsta rap, bought stock in the company, and vigorously protested the company’s affiliation with Death Row Records, then affiliated with Interscope.

By 1995, Time Warner and Interscope had parted ways, and rapper Tupac Shakur had penned “How Do U Want It?,” which included the passage, ‘C. DeLores Tucker, you’s a motherfucker/Instead of trying to help a nigga, you destroy a brotha.”

The political brouhaha over gangsta rap did not instantly dispel: After Tucker, politicians such as Bob Dole and William Bennett, among other moral guardians continued to decry the evils of ostensibly obscene rap. In retrospect, Time Warner’s selling its half-interest in Interscope to Ted Field & Jimmy Iovine for a reported $100M in late 1995 was not a bad deal by any stretch—unless you were Time Warner. Within two months, MCA Records doled out $200M for its own 50% share of the label. Once again, in between Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Eminem--artists whose albums each bore Parental Advisory warning stickers as a matter of course—significant dollars were generated. And popular culture.  

Minds, likely to the dismay of C. DeLores Tucker, were forever altered.

 

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