Despite the exclamation in its title, Yo! MTV Raps began tentatively. The show premiered in the U.S. in August 1988, only after the original MTV Europe show launched a year prior. What was originally slotted to be solely weekly show exploded in popularity, and at its peak aired six times a week. Hosted by Doctor Dre (nope, not the N.W.A one), Ed Lover, and Fab 5 Freddy, Yo! MTV Raps played an absolutely crucial role in bringing hip-hop to a wider audience in America and ultimately, the world. It gave artists like Tupac Shakur, Geto Boys, Ice-T, N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Public Enemy a louder voice and they used that voice to shake the world. Yo! MTV Raps gave rappers a platform to expose real issues in American society, but it was also funny, goofy, freewheeling, and at times violent and shocking.
As many people would have you believe, a central tenet of the music industry is to offend the powers that be. The powers that be most often being whatever generation came before the offenders -- and the Federal Communications Commission. For as long as I can remember, people have been saying that popular culture is deteriorating into something brasher, crasser, or more irreverent. And true, if cultural degeneracy could be charted by the sheer numbers of swear words in albums by year then the Bitch Scale would look exponential. But when you look at some of the biggest music “scandals” of the last 10 years, they’re embarassingly soft. When ABC News ranks Britney Spears flashing her lady bits and Janet Jackson’s half-second Nipplegate on their list of Top 10 Biggest Scandals of the last decade, it’s safe to say the entertainment industry has doled out more provocative years.
On the surface, we’re living in some rabble-rousing times. People say whatever the hell they want to say, listeners be damned. While freedom of expression is a beautiful thing, and I suppose on fundamental level it’s ‘great’ that Lil’ Wayne can say “You homo niggas getting AIDS in the ass / While the homie here tryna get paid in advance.” The problem is the “Go DJ” verse serves absolutely no purpose except as a casual side dish of hate in an otherwise gratuitously clichéd song that borders on self-parody. “Go DJ,” like so many other cultural “shockers” today, may preserve the right to free speech and the freedom to offend, but the problem is, the ideas behind these acts continue to run a much less challenging course.
Maybe I’m guilty of the same cultural nostalgia, but take self-appointed provocateur potentate Tyler, The Creator. Between songs “Bitch Suck Dick,” “Tron Cat,” and -- well, just pick one -- Tyler, The Creator manages to repeatedly act out shock value at its most shallow level. Yes, his lyrics are venomously nihilistic and violent (see Tron Cat verse “rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome), but in a forced, aping kind of way. Tyler’s verses are the product of a very smart, but very immature guy who doesn’t know how to channel his anger into something more directed than erratic slurs and Hitler references. He doesn’t challenge his listeners. He creates a circle jerk around things “other” people find offensive.
But there was a time when rap lyrics were more than the sum of their shock value. Just look at Goblin compared to Ice Cube’s 1991 album Death Certificate. A recent write-up in the Guardian described Death Certificate as one of the most offensive albums of all time, and controversy surrounding the album even led to an official statewide ban on displaying the rapper’s image in Oregon retail stores. Yet in 1991, and even now, the rapper’s second full studio release was massively successful. The record went platinum within 2 months of its release and hit #2 on the Billboards 200 charts. For Hip Hop Week over a decade later, MTV listed Death Certificate as #8 in their list of the Greatest Hip Hop Albums of All Time.
The record was released when Ice Cube was 23, not that much older than 20-year-old Tyler, The Creator. An equal opportunity offender, Death Certificate pictures Uncle Sam’s stiff toes on a mortuary gurney and yeah, there’s some racially charged and misogynistic stuff. But even the most ferociously aggressive lyrics are complicated by Ice Cube’s greater social critique. Designed for vinyl, the album is organized into two sides, the Death Side that Cube defined as, "a mirrored image of where we are today" and the Life Side, "a vision of where we need to go." So even incendiary songs like “Givin' Up the Nappy Dug Out,” a track about all the sexually explicit things he’s going to do to a man’s daughter, carry an overt self-critique by being place on the Death side.
A year before Death Certificate, Yo! MTV Raps featured rappers 2 Live Crew released As Nasty As They Want To Be, the first album deemed legally obscene. That same year, Newsweek ran a scare tactic story about the fate popular culture called “The Rap Attitude” "A new musical culture," it said, "filled with self-assertion and anger, has come boiling up from the streets. Some people think it should have stayed there." The article lets slip its own hateful biases by referring to “self-assertion” as if it were a characteristic worthy of contempt, to which Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons replied, “Surely the moral outrage in this piece would be better applied to contemporary American crises in health care, education, joblessness."
Even then, in 1991, with artists like Ice Cube and 2 Live Crew sparking outrage around the world, Yo! MTV Raps host Doctor Dre lamented that while Yo! MTV Raps had brought greater exposure and appreciation for hip-hop, that same recognition was diluting the potency of the music. "Video does sell records." Dre said, “The mistake a lot of rap artists are making now is that they`re making a record to fit the video.” He thought hip-hop in the early 90s was soft. And now Ice Cube does family movies.
Of course, no level of eyebrow-raising, slap-in-the-face offenses could hurt MTV. It was censorship that ultimately made the ratings plunge, when in 1991 the network pulled Public Enemy’s video for “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” claiming it was too violent. Within a couple years of that moment of cultural intervention, Yo! MTV Raps was back to airing once a week, and only after midnight. By 1995, the series finale was broadcast, whereupon MTV stripped down the concept and repackaged it simply as Yo! at a later hour and without regular veejays.
People will find a way to be offended by most about anything, especially when it comes to music. Some will be bothered by an artist’s politics, others by their lifestyle, wardrobe (or lack thereof). Even boringness can offend. I’ve heard plenty of fan outrage when an album falls short of the anticipated mark, fails to thrill, or doesn’t sound “like their old stuff.” The difference isn’t really whether the offense is intended or unintended, noses and back hair will be turned up either way. The difference is whether the incendiary statements are productive or counterproductive, where the inflammatory words direct the fire. When words can spark flames in the mind and ignite anger, anger that is stoked by real world problems and fed by ideas for solutions, then by all means offend.
““MTV2 Revives 'Yo! MTV Raps'” at The Wrap (2011).
‘'Yo! MTV Raps' Returns To The Airwaves With 'Classic Cuts’” by Brennan Williams at the Huffington Post (2011).
“28 Black Music Milestones: BET, 'Yo! MTV Raps' Launch” at Billboard.com (2011).
"Rappers and Rape: The Incredible Sound and Hateful Lyrics of Odd Future” by Hermione Hoby at the Guardian (2011).
“What is the Most Offensive Album of All Time?” by Angus Batey at the Guardian (2010).
“20 Years On: Ice Cube's Death Certificate Revisited” by Angus Batey at The Quietus (2011).
“This Day In Hip Hop and Rap History” by Chuck D at Rap Station.
“The Doctor`s Diagnosis” by Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune (1991).
“Ice Cube: It Was A Good Day” by Steven Hyden at the A.C. Club (2011).
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.