UK Fresh ’86: Fresher’s Ball

Out of the subway and into the charts, hip hop is stronger than it’s ever been, with dazzling new talents like LL Cool J and Mantronix. While Run DMC are tearing up the stadium circuit in the States, we are about to be treated to the biggest array of hip hop talent ever assembled in the UK. Frank Owen previews UK FRESH 86′

IF THE HISTORY of black music is the history of its appropriation by mainstream culture, then hip hop has convincingly turned the tables.

The process whereby street styles are turned into media myths, the way that the specific content or meaning of black dance culture is turned into a general cultural style for the masses, once seemed inevitable. And hip hop is certainly not immune to that process — witness the string of chart acts that have plugged into hip hop’s surface tension and texture (BAD, Frankie, Scritti Politti, etc. But while hip hop is certainly appropriated, it also counter-appropriates.

Hip hop ransacks the ubiquitous, hi-tech, action-packed realm of mass media culture voraciously. It dismantles and re-assembles mass media images and sounds, before remotivating and re-transmitting those fragments with new and dazzling meanings. Hip hop is important because in the face of a pop scene that believes its most radical gestures will be inevitably recuperated (that’s why nostalgia is so important to so much rock music these days), it has shown that it is possible to reverse that process.

Despite the endless string of adverts sporting hip hop grooves and graphics, despite Prince Charles breakdancing on the Six O’Clock News, despite Malcolm McLaren even, hip hop still remains a scandalous presence on the pop scene, still lingers as a disturbance. Why are rock critics still so outraged by this hip hop thingy? Why does it still seem so incomprehensible to so many people?

Why does someone like Julie Burchill work herself up into a seething rage in order to condemn hip hop as the latest strategy to depoliticise and infantalise black power: “Big black babies singing, spinning and scribbling mutated nursery rhymes are applauded by white artscum? — ‘He can write his name. He can jump a rope. He can make words rhyme.’ — as though they were dogs walking on their hind legs.”

Mainly it’s because hip hop fails to fall neatly into those simple political dualisms so beloved by rock critics. It is neither subversive or co-opted, left or right, “real” street music or fantasy media music. Hip hop exists between the street and the screen, and it’s this unique position that gives hip hop its contradictory character.

Of course hip hop is misogynist. You only have to hear comic rapper Just Ice singing “This girl is a slut/She’s got crabbies up her butt” to realise that. And it’s not an excuse when I point to the fact that girls have always been marginalised in youth subcultures from Teds onwards. But despite this exaggerated and boastful machismo that permeates hip hop the women have not been pushed to one side. There are as many women rappers taking the stage for the first time now as there were women musicians in the heyday of punk — a supposedly more politically sound music in terms of sexual politics. And could anything as ideologically right on as punk have produced anything as upful and charming as ‘Girls Ruling The World’ by Celebrity Club.

Hip hop is often eulogised for its hardness, for its uncompromising, stripped down sonic attack. It’s black punk, say some. The critical consensus among white critics is that this is a direct product of the ghetto — hard times met with a hip and hard stance and a hip and hard music. Again the contradictions and complexity of the music are ignored.

Take Run DMC, for example. With their gangster homburgs and stony faces and hardcore hip hop metal, they aren’t so much an image of ghetto gangster masculinity as some people have taken them, more a bourgeois fantasy about ghetto, gangster masculinity. Don’t take my word for it. As Rick Rubin, Def Jam supremo and a long time associate of theirs, says: “Run DMC come from nice middle-class backgrounds. Run DMC are able to dress the way they do, adapt that gangster image and keep their music hard because ghetto life is distant to them. Bands that grew up in the Bronx, like Grandmaster Flash, dressed in leathers and braids and adopted that space look because for them it was so bad that they wanted to escape.”

The beauty of hip hop is in the way it defies easy classification and political certainties, it’s difficult music to get into, a difficult code to crack and it requires a massive adjustment in the way you listen to music. But now’s your chance. This Saturday at Wembley sees some of the hottest talents in rap gathered for the biggest celebration of hip hop that this country has ever seen. Run DMC and LL Cool J won’t be there, but other than that the bill is the strongest possible. The mighty Mantronix will be topping the bill in the evening, but you already know about them. For the lowdown on the best of the rest read on. See you at the hotdog stand.

The Real Roxanne

“The Hispanic population in most major American cities is in intermediate position. There is no racial barrier between Puerto Ricans and blacks. Words, grammar and expressions pass freely among blacks and Puerto Ricans. but there are also many Puerto Ricans who adopt the white vocabulary and separate themselves from the black community. In mixed schools we find a strong tendency among Hispanic girls to use the local white vernacular, while the boys lean towards the black vernacular of the streets.”
— William Labov, Sociolinguist.

CONTRARY TO popular belief, the Real Roxanne isn’t black but Hispanic. And, further contrary to received opinion, it’s not just Puerto Rican boys who like to rap; the girls do, too.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, she grew up in a black neighbourhood where all her best friends were black. At the age of 13 she heard her first rap record, The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’. Thereafter she would hang out in the local schoolyard listening and dancing to the black kids who would bring along a couple of turntables and hold a jam right there on the tarmac.

Six years on, in the face of a homeboy fashion for hip hop records that disrespect women (Just Ice’s ‘That Girl Is A Slut’, Doug E. Fresh’s ‘She’s A Prostitute’, etc), The Real Roxanne has affirmed a women’s right to rap in a big way with her big hit ‘Bang Zoom (Let’s Go-Go)’ — a multi-media, Go-Go fuelled melange of The Isley Brothers sweet and sour soul ‘Leaving For The Love Of You’, UTFO’s ‘Roxanne, Roxanne’, Bugs Bunny cartoon quips and the engine room scene from Fred Astaire’s ‘Slap That Bass’ routine in the film Shall We Dance.

Sitting in Air Studios on Oxford Road, dressed in snakeskin pedal pushers, sporting a mass of gold jewellery and wearing make-up inspired by her big idol, Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame, Roxanne is waiting to lay down the vocals on the version of ‘Bang Zoom’ that will be broadcast on that week’s TOTP. What’s this story about you and Roxanne Shanté refusing to travel in the same plane for the UK Fresh concert, Roxanne?

“Oh, that’s just a publicity gimmick. I’m not going to pay her no mind.”

She said to me the other day on the phone that she thought you were stuck up.

“That’s because I don’t dress like she does in Fila sportswear. I dress hip-hop but not all the time. I’m into my own style and I like to experiment with the Spanish look, the genie look, with frills and lace, with all sorts of things.

“More importantly, I like to show the ladies that you gotta be strong. Whatever you want in life, you wake up and it’s like a craving for it everyday. I always say picture yourself there. I always think I’m the top.

“I want to be sophisticated but I want to be hard also. I don’t want to just stay in one thing all the time. That’s why I write rap music and ballads and I’m going to be doing a lot more singing in the future.”

Are you surprised at the success of the single in this country?

“I guess I am. In America rap is repressed in some ways. Older black people say it’s not representative of black culture. They say it shows blacks as simple and primitive. But the bottom line is that there is something inherently good about it and it’s selling.”

Aren’t you going to find it difficult coping with the pressures of being a successful recording act and being a single mother? (Roxanne had a baby when she was 14. Tiena-Marie is now five.)

“Not really. We’re more like sisters and friends growing up together than mother and daughter.”

At the moment she intends to continue her association with UTFO and big drum beater and deejay Howie Tee, who together constructed and collated the sonic inner-city playground that is ‘Bang Zoom’, only her third single. Her first was a product of the Roxanne wars (Roxanne Shanté, Roxanne’s grandmother, etc) that was rap fad of the month briefly last year and it was called ‘The Real Roxanne’. Her second single was called ‘Romeo’ and was a comic rap about Roxanne’s attempt to impress this stuck-up guy. With her third single. The Real Roxanne is no longer just another hip-hop gimmick.

Afrika Babaataa

“All Praise Is Due To Allah Respect For All Peace On Earth Funk Is Universal”
(Afrika Bambaataa)

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA’S combination of costume funk, techno-pop and Nation Of Islam black consciousness is not the massively influential thing it once was. How radical the listening experience that was ‘Planet Rock’, Bambaataa’s second single, is difficult to remember given the endless stream of orchestral whoomphs, Robbie the Robot vocals and Kraftwerk synth lines that followed in its wake.

But the Renegade of Funk is back with a bill-topping appearance at Wembley (which nearly fell through due to financial wrangles) and a new 12 inch on import. ‘Bambaataa’s Theme’ B/W ‘Tension’ taken from the album The Greater Funk Is Everywhere. The album is presently gathering dust on the shelves at Tommy Boy because Bambaataa is once again in dispute with his record company. No new experience to Bambaataa, his Time Zone album that was to involve John Lydon also having been shelved because of a dispute with Celluloid.

Bambaataa sees the refusal of the early rap stars like himself and Grandmaster Flash to submit to record company control as the reason why rappers like Run DMC and LL Cool J are now hogging the limelight. “Acts like The Fat Boys, Run DMC and LL are more stable than we were. They won’t argue with their record company. They’re not like us because we were aware of the exploitation involved.”

“The importance of Afrika Bambaataa
was and still is in the way that when I see
something wrong I speak out against it. I
feel there’s a plot to destroy hip hop
coming from the record companies and
government telling the youth to make
crazy records about drugs and
disrespecting women and be a clown, be
a fool.”

“It’s good to have party raps, but they even have rap records now telling you how to smoke crack. We don’t need those sort of records. People are going to have to wake up, are going to have to get wiser. Youth are the future of this world and they’re not going to be able to take it over if they’re full of drugs.”

Knowledge, wisdom and understanding are very important to Bambaataa who along with Clinton is one of funk’s great philosophers: “Knowledge is to know and is the foundation of all things in existence… Knowledge is to know thyself and to know others. Knowledge is to know your surroundings, environment, the nature of life and death, animals, the solar system, the universe, the past, present and future. Knowledge is to know the supreme one.”

As you can see, Bambaataa’s visionary project for a Zulu Nation of black and white, founded on the principles of dance is still going strong. But it’s also easy to see why Bambaataa’s message has gone out of fashion. As Roxanne Shanté said to me: “People have got fed up with being lectured as if it was their mother or father: ‘Well, you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that.’ Who wants to go to a party and be lectured? You can stay at home and hear that.”

Despite his lack of a global profile in recent years, Bambaataa is still a force to be reckoned with on the club scene in New York. He deejays regularly at The World, a progressive club of black and white dances trotting to the latest Bam death mix of elements as diverse as soca, Afro, European techno-pop and hip-hop.

Tommy Boy are also about to release a Bambaataa album Planet Rock — The Album with new material including a collaboration with Trouble Funk.

Other than that, check out the new single already mentioned. ‘Bambaataa’s Theme’ is an epic reworking of John Carpenter’s film score to Assault On Precinct 13 and the B-side is ‘Tension’ — a dramatic wailing vocal skirts around the edge of a booming bass drum vortex. I love it but it’s unlikely to appeal at a time when the hardcore, anti-melodic wrecking crews are carrying the swing.

Roxanne Shanté

“WOMEN CAN’T rap,” say the homeboy cockocrats. “Oh yeah!“says Roxanne Shanté, revealing two rows of metal teeth. “Bite This!” It was on her second single ‘Bite This’ that Roxanne Shanté revealed to the full her talent for essential eloquence, linguistic licence and verbal dexterity against a backdrop of hard beats and whiplash scratching.

Roxanne Shanté is at the opposite end of the hip hop scale from The Real Roxanne. Compare Shanté’s harsh ego-centred style to the more sophisticated comic style of the other Roxanne. Compare her bulky, big-boned body (“In the past year I went from 116 pounds to 165 pounds but now I’m 145 pounds”) to The Real Roxanne’s sylph-like figure.

As Roxanne Shanté says of the other Roxanne: “She gets on stage and wants to be a prima donna. When I get on stage you can tell by the way I dress that I’m a proper hip hopper. Girls on stage in dresses, shoes, stockings and curls doesn’t work. When I get on stage in jeans and sneakers I get more applause than she ever gets.” Mind you, Roxanne does admit to one luxury… wearing Calvin Klein underwear.

In 1983, at the tender age of 14, she wrote a song called ‘Roxanne Shanté’ claiming rather predictably that she was the greatest rapper on the planet and, less predictably, challenging anyone to come up with a song better and harder than hers. Sure enough, soon there were answerback records flying left, right and centre — about 20 in all — including one from The Real Roxanne called ‘The Real Roxanne’.

After that there was ‘Bite This’, followed by a string of other releases; the only ones that made any impression in this country being ‘Def Fresh Crew’ and ‘I’m Fly, Shanté’. ‘Def Fresh Crew’ was a journey to the bass end of the sonic spectrum and a seismic party rap with a message in the tail. “We don’t sniff coke/We don’t get high/All we do is get real high” enunciated Roxanne, saving her baddest rap for the scourge of crack.

“Most of the time I write about myself with what this crack thing I rap about that a lot. Crack has just taken over New York. Everybody is on it. People smoke it in the streets openly. It wasn’t meant to be a message rap as such. People are tired of being lectured to. It was spontaneous. It was something that just happened to come out of my mouth like a lot of things I do.”

Still only 16 — she attends Mark Serburk High School in upstate New York — Roxanne has a reputation for showing the way forward for other girls who wanted to take up the rap vacation. “When I first came out it was like I was sticking up for the girls. But the girls don’t appreciate it when I do it. Every time I would speak up for women, the women in the audience would say ‘She ain’t no real rapper’. She’s conceited, I don’t like her. She thinks that she’s better than everyone else’.”

What was the reaction of the boys? “The boys would say ‘Oh, she’s fun. I want to be her man…’ and ‘Baby, can I take you home?’ Usually I tell them that I’m not that type of girl and throw a tantrum. And when I throw a tantrum everybody shuts up.”

What about the future of hip hop? Which way is it heading? Is the hip hop scene in danger of self-destructing under the weight of it’s own violence?

“The violence will continue as long as there’s boy rappers like LL Cool J who get up on stage and boast who’s the roughest and the toughest. That sort of rap causes conflict. On the music front the beats are getting slower all the time and it’s getting more like reggae. A lot of rappers like the slower beats because it gives them more space to work in.”

Lovebug Starski

SUPPOSEDLY, when he heard that ‘Amityville’ had breached the British Top 30, Lovebug Starski (or the Lovebug as he’s known to his friends) burst into tears. Perhaps it’s not surprising since the Lovebug’s recent success has been a long time coming.

Starski has been involved with hip hop-since 1978 (“the basics of rap is what I created,” he says modestly, and incorrectly) and it’s only recently that he’s been acknowledged as one of the founding generation of rap. This probably accounts for his dislike of the hip hop young turks like Mantronix and LL Cool J: “LL Cool J is a street rapper and that’s okay for this month. Let’s wait and see what next month brings. I’m more of a sophisticated and inspirational rapper. I don’t only talk about myself or the trials and tribulations of life. I talk about the brighter side of life. People like LL Cool J — that sort of ego rapper — are on a trip without luggage.”

Starski refuses any notion that there is a coherent hip hop scene. As far as he’s concerned the world of hardcore hip hop might as well be on Mars. And as for competition between the various acts at Wembley, Starski comments grumpily: “There is no competition in my book. I’m there to do a job. I’ve not given any thought about the other acts.”

Lovebug Starski likes Billy Joel and Michael Jackson and probably will turn out to be the first rap quiz show host.


HASHIM IS one of the lesser known acts on the bill but he’s the man responsible for the official anthem for the event called, appropriately enough, ‘UK Fresh 86 (The Anthem)’. His previous two singles were ‘Al-Naafiysh (The Soul)’ and ‘Primrose Path’.

‘Al-Naafiysh’ was produced while he was involved with on Islamic black consciousness group called the Five Per Centers — a notorious Brooklyn-based group that were half-street gang and half-radical Back To Africa factions. Hashim became disillusioned with the black separatism of the group and the increasing violence that surrounded the group’s activities — violence which was exacerbated by lurid press reports at the time.

Nowadays Hashim wants little to do with the hardcore hip hop crowd and is aiming to produce a sophisticated, and revitalised electro-based music that will have more in common with Jan Hammer and Harold Faltermeyer than what is normally associated with the term hip-hop.

Grandmaster Flash

“YOUNG boys making noise, what’s the big fuss
Imitating the style pioneered by us”
— ‘Freelance’ by Grandmaster Flash

GRANDMASTER Flash has been involved in some grandmaster pieces in his time (‘The Message’, ‘White Lines’, ‘Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’) but the new generation of rappers seem to have stolen his thunder of late. And that fact seems to grate. However, in the world of hip hop finders are never keepers and there’s little point in being an original on a scene that has little respect for the originality of any culture. NOW is the word, the aesthetic, the epistemology even. And the Grandmaster has always been that one step behind of late.

If the Grandmaster has failed to seize the moment on vinyl recently, then the Wembley live appearance might change things. The Grandmaster live experience is a thing to behold, involving not only the Grandmaster but the four-way rap-around attack of Raheim, Lavon, Kidd Creole and Mister Broadway. Dressed to kill in fancy dress leathers and wet look hair, the show should be a killer.

© Frank OwenMelody Maker, 19 July 1986

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