A Decade in Rap Censorship (1990-1999)
By SPIN Staff, SPIN Magazine
At times, particularly during the first half of the '90s, the number of institutional attempts to push back against hip-hop made you think that some sort of power structure was systemically responding to a serious threat. Naaaahhh! That'd be crazy conspiracy talk, right? Anyway, here are some of the decade's censorship lowlights…
N.W.A Concerts Shut Down by Police (1990): As a result of FBI Assistant Director Mitch Ahlerich's letter to the group's label, Ruthless Records, in which he unofficially complained about “Fuck Tha Police” off N.W.A's debut album Straight Outta Compton, the anti- brutality track was placed at the center of a law-enforcement crusade. Police across the country refused to provide security for concerts, seriously undercutting the group's ability to tour.
2 Live Crew Obscenity Trial (1990): One year after the release of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be and its hit single, “Me So Horny,” lawyer Jack Thompson (who was affiliated with the American Family Association), Florida governor Bob Martinez, County Circuit Judge Mel Grossman, and Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro teamed up to get the album declared legally “obscene.” Record-store retailers were arrested for selling Nasty, and 2 Live Crew were arrested for performing. In 1992, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit finally overturned the obscenity decision.
Gingrich Encourages Advertisers to Drop Rap Stations (1991): With politicians launching strongly-worded lectures against hip-hop's degradation of the country's moral values, House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Broadcasting and Cable magazine that he believed businesses should pull all their ads from radio stations that played rap music. It was a small, public gesture, but it demonstrated how hip-hop soon would be attacked by the intimidation of the money men who backed the music, rather than by outright censorship.
MTV Bans Public Enemy's “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (1991): On November 6, 1990, Arizona rejected a proposal to create a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King. The next year, Public Enemy responded with “By The Time I Get to Arizona,” off their album Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black. The video for the song was a sunbaked noir that featured Public Enemy visiting the Copper State and killing Governor Evan Meacham with a car bomb. The video was played on MTV once before being banned, with little care given to its larger socio-political message.
Bill Clinton's Sister Souljah Moment (1992): During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton spoke out against rapper, author, and activist Sister Souljah, who was quoted in a Washington Post interview suggesting that those inflicting black-on-black violence might kill white people instead. While giving a speech to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition (who had also invited Souljah to speak), Clinton took a stand, comparing Souljah's rhetoric to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. “Sister Souljah Moment” since has become pundit shorthand for a politician who rejects a perceived member of the fringe in order to court centrist voters.
Body Count's “Cop Killer” Removed (1992): Ice-T's 1992 hard-rock project Body Count came to prominence thanks to the vitriolic rant “Cop Killer,” which arrived at a flashpoint moment when it was politically advantageous for white politicians to consistently badmouth hip-hop. Like “Fuck Tha Police,” the song was willfully misread as a call-to-arms against police rather than as a protest against racial profiling and police brutality. Tipper Gore, the reason we have "Parental Advisory" stickers on CDs, compared Ice-T's rhetoric to Hitler's; President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle both spoke out against the song, and actor Charlton Heston read the lyrics aloud at a Time Warner shareholders' meeting. Ultimately, Ice-T removed the song from further pressings of Body Count's album and released it as a free single.
Tommy Boy Prevented From Releasing Sleeping With the Enemy (1992): Political gangsta rapper Paris' second full-length featured the controversy-courting combo of “Bush Killa” (about the assassination of the President) and "Coffee, Donuts & Death" (a police-brutality revenge fantasy), as well as an insert photo of the Bay Area rapper hiding behind a tree gripping a Tec-9 as the president spoke. Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros., distributor for Paris' label Tommy Boy, stopped its release. Paris subsequently founded Scarface Records and put out Sleeping With the Enemy himself.
Ice-T Leaves Warner Bros. Over Home Invasion: After “Cop Killer” became a high-profile political football, Warner Bros. was hesitant to release Ice-T's solo album Home Invasion. Originally slated for November 1992, it was delayed because of the L.A. riots, the presidential election, and an album cover that depicted the Heston and Quayle contingent's worst nightmare: a white child alone in his room, listening to rap, seemingly infected by the violent lyrics, which conjure up images of robbery and rape. Its release was rescheduled for February 1993. But Ice-T, still frustrated by the “Cop Killer” controversy, and aware that he was fighting a losing battle, eventually left Warner Bros. and released the album with Priority in March of 1993.
C. Delores Tucker Goes to War with Hip-Hop (1993-94): Activist C. Delores Tucker spent the '90s grappling with the misogyny and violence in hip-hop: She bought stock in Time Warner, allowing her to protest at shareholder meetings, and thus had a direct impact on the Death Row-affiliated Interscope Records being dropped from the company. Tucker also protested the NAACP giving a 1994 Image Award to Tupac Shakur and would later sue Shakur when the rapper responded on “How Do U Want It?”: “C. Delores Tucker, you's a motherfucker / Instead of trying to help a nigga, you destroy a brother."
MTV Bans Hammer's “Pumps and a Bump” Video (1994): MC Hammer, looking for a bit more edge after the mega-success and subsequent backlash to “U Can't Touch This,” responded with The Funky Headhunter, and its edgier (and more exploitative) single “Pumps and a Bump.” In the video, he also updated his dance routine with a move that basically consisted of him humping the air in a Speedo, and moving his manhood up and down in what appeared to be an erect state ("Hammer Time," indeed!). It was pretty much "Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show" cranked to 11, yet it proved how conservative the country remained about expressions of sexuality.
Insane Clown Posse Dropped from Hollywood Records (1997): ICP's breakthrough fourth album, The Great Milenko, was originally released by the Disney-owned label Hollywood Records. During the album's recording, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were told to remove three songs ("Under The Moon," "Boogie Woogie Wu," and "The Neden Game”), and to change the lyrics to other songs. The Clowns complied, but within hours of the album hitting shelves, it was still pulled, and the band was dropped. In addition to the questionable lyrics, Disney was still facing protests from religious groups targeting the company for its introduction of the popular “Gay Day” celebration at Disney World. ICP moved to Island and released the album as originally intended.
Eminem Excised from NFL Commercial (1997): At the height of Slim Shady mania, the National Football League released an ad campaign riffing on Eminem's hit single “My Name Is." Featuring football legends Joe Gibbs, “Mean” Joe Greene, Joe Montana, and Joe Namath, the “My Name is Joe” ads aired a few times before someone pointed out that the song they were riffing on featured lyrics like, “Since age 12, I felt like I'm someone else / Because I hung my original self from the top bunk with a belt / Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee's tits off / And smacked her so hard I knocked her clothes backwards like Kris Kross.” The NFL legends' version, of course, did not contain anything even remotely provocative. Still, the ads were pulled, as if even a suggestion of the explicit version was enough to corrupt and offend. B.S.