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THE '90S: UNAPOLOGETIC BLACKNESS (PART 1)

In this excerpt from our Black Music Month special, writer Miles Marshall Lewis explores the decade in which "young black America forced white listeners to cross over to them, on their own terms." Check out the playlist that accompanied the issue on Spotify Apple Music and Vevo.

Mega-success in African-American music during the neon 1980s basically meant crossing over to white audiences, à la Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson. But in the keep-it-real ’90s—when the twentysomethings of Generation X came of age—young black America forced white listeners to cross over to them, on their own terms.

Black-owned and -operated record labels (Roc-a-Fella Records, Cash Money Records), an R&B golden age (En Vogue, Boyz II Men), nouveau twists on classic soul (Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo) and the millions-selling mainstreaming of hip-hop (Jay Z, DMX) all marked the ’90s as the decade of the reverse crossover.

How did performing unapologetic blackness become the way to win? How did hip-hop truly become American culture’s new rock & roll once and for all? It went a little something like this.

By the ’90s—as the Reagan-lite era of George H. W. Bush was wrapping up and the liberally optimistic Clinton days were dawning—the young adulthood of the hip-hop generation was flowering like De La Soul’s “Daisy Age.” As ’80s teenagers, Gen X was weaned on the materialism of Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton, the gangster nihilism of Scarface, and the overall “greed is good” yuppie atmosphere of Wall Street. Musically, albums like Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full (the duo, dipped in gold and Gucci by way of Dapper Dan, clenched bundles of $20 bills) and N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton (jammed with gunplay, misogyny and humor) had already had an impact on college-bound and street-hustling youth alike. The zeitgeist set the scene for the blunt lyricism and entrepreneurialism of the decade to come.

In nationwide theaters, Krush Groove had already taught us all about Def Jam Recordings founder Russell Simmons back in 1985. Like an Empire prototype, the thinly veiled rap biopic introduced the newly minted concept of the hip-hop mogul to a whole generation. Enter brash, bird-chested Uptown Records intern Sean “Puffy” Combs. The one-time Howard University business major left his Historically Black College life behind and began molding Uptown talent in his own image, with reverberations throughout the entire music industry. The suits-and-champagne slickness of R&B lovers like Freddie Jackson and Luther Vandross got tossed. As a 21-year-old, ghetto-fabulous A&R executive, Combs famously outfitted rhythm-and-blues bad boys Jodeci as a mirror of himself: Timberland boots, ski caps, baseball snapbacks and head-to-toe black bagginess.

On Jodeci’s 1991 Forever My Lady, the quartet’s tattoos, street style and hip-hop realness complemented the music itself. Combs did the same for Yonkers-born chanteuse Mary J. Blige one year later on What’s the 411?, as well as 1994’s classic My Life, creating a lane for hip-hop soul on airwaves worldwide. Building on the New Jack Swing sound of producer Teddy Riley and the “hip-hop smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop-feel appeal” of Bell Biv DeVoe, Combs began his reign as a producer. His “Come and Talk to Me” remix for Jodeci owed as much to rap duo EPMD’s “You’re a Customer” as Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” did to the Kool G Rap original, a formula Combs repeated by sampling MC Lyte on the Mary J. Blige classic “Reminisce.” Fusing R&B with hip-hop is simply the air we breathe today, from Drake and Future to Chris Brown and Justin Timberlake. But it truly began in the ’90s.

“Once the marketplace found that urban black culture was marketable—think of the Sprite commercials with Heavy D, etc.—it made urban black culture cutting-edge cool,” recalls Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. “The best measure of when that happened was the success of Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison, which mixed classic R&B with a hip-hop edge and became one of the top-selling pop albums of 1990. Suddenly, white kids wanted the most authentic ‘blackness,’ spurred on by shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and films like Boyz n the Hood. Instead of black artists crossing over to white audiences, those audiences crossed over to blackness.”

In the next excerpt: Native Tongues and G-Funk.

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