The Great Rap Censorship Scare of 1990
The Geto Boys rattled America’s cultural gatekeepers, making N.W.A and 2 Live Crew look like a society luncheon
If moral panic is the metric by which one can measure the mainstream arrival of a new music genre in America, rap came of age somewhere in the eighteen-month window between the independent release of the Geto Boys’ Grip It! On That Other Level in March of 1989, and that album’s reincarnation as an eponymously retitled, Rick Rubin-supervised major-label remix that hit stores in the fall of 1990. Though the Geto Boys would eventually play a prominent role in the uproar, the media initially fixated on two groups to whom the Texas rap group would often be compared — southern California’s pioneering “gangsta rappers” N.W.A, and south Florida’s raunchy, bass-heavy 2 Live Crew.
As with ragtime, jazz, and rock before it, hip-hop music had seized the attention of America’s moral guardians at the very moment its more salacious-minded practitioners found an eager audience among middle-class white teenagers. Miami’s 2 Live Crew had previously released two albums full of sexually explicit rhymes on its independent Luke Skyywalker Records label, but politicians paid the group little mind until “Me So Horny,” a single from its 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, fell into heavy rotation on a Miami Top 40 station and began to ascend the Billboard Hot 100.
Jack Thompson, a conservative lawyer from Coral Gables, spearheaded a campaign to restrict sales of the album in Florida’s Broward County, eventually leading to a U.S. District Court ruling that declared the album’s lyrics obscene. A record store owner in Ft. Lauderdale was subsequently arrested for selling As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and members of 2 Live Crew were detained and charged with obscenity after a show at an adults-only club in Hollywood, Florida.
Though Thompson’s Florida-based censorship campaign eventually went on to target N.W.A’s million-selling Straight Outta Compton album, the Los Angeles-based gangsta rappers had already been the subject of scrutiny at the federal level. In a 1989 letter to distributor Priority Records, FBI Assistant Director Milt Ahlerich had condemned the group for its song “Fuck Tha Police,” asserting that “recordings such as the one from N.W.A… [encourage] violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer.” According to a report in the New York Times, local police departments had taken to faxing a version of the song’s lyrics from city to city, “and since off-duty police officers often double as concert security personnel, promoters found it increasingly difficult to put on N.W.A concerts.” Shows were canceled or disrupted in Chattanooga, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Tyler, Texas, and police officers at a Michigan concert stormed the stage and ended the show when the group attempted to sing the offending song. “We just wanted to show the kids that you can’t say ‘fuck the police’ in Detroit,” an officer later told the Hollywood Reporter.
The furor over 2 Live Crew’s puerile celebration of sex and N.W.A’s menacing depiction of gang violence was inseparable from the fact that hip-hop music was no longer a provincial novelty built around staccato party rhymes and disco-era breakbeats. Just over one decade after the first rap singles were pressed on to vinyl, hip-hop was a multifaceted (if largely East Coast-based) genre that had come to encompass LL Cool J’s energetic new school raps, Salt-N-Pepa’s danceable girl-pop, Ice-T’s hard-edged street narratives, Public Enemy’s densely produced political provocations, the Digital Underground’s whacked-out party grooves, Queen Latifah’s socially conscious feminist rhymes, the Beastie Boys’ ebullient sonic pastiche, and De La Soul’s jazz-inflected Afrocentrism. Radio-friendly dance-pop acts like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice dominated the Billboard charts for much of 1990, and Yo! MTV Raps was firmly entrenched as the highest rated show on cable TV’s hugely influential twenty-four-hour music-video channel.
Just as significantly, rock & roll, which had once been the soundtrack of transgressive youth, was aging along with its Baby Boomer fans. With punk dead and heavy metal lost in a haze of hairspray, hardcore rap was becoming the high-octane sound of adolescent rebellion. Rap’s new strain of nihilistic anti-authoritarianism didn’t just rankle the likes of Tipper Gore (who suggested that hip-hop would lead American girls to “think of themselves as ‘bitches’ to be abused”) and Newsweek (which declared the attitude underpinning rap to be “repulsive”); it also unsettled political progressives, the black middle class, and hip-hop’s East Coast gatekeepers. Left-wing academics wrote despairing letters to the New York Times, insisting that the likes of 2 Live Crew were “dangerous to the status and safety of women,” aging black jazz aficionados took to the pages of Billboard to condemn rappers as “irresponsible and inarticulate,” and the New York-based rap establishment, startled equally by N.W.A’s violent lyrics and multi-platinum success, responded to Straight Outta Compton with a mix of high-minded finger-wagging and outright hostility.
This reaction was, of course, very much in keeping with a time-honored American tradition of alarm and outrage in the face of boundary-pushing new music. When syncopated ragtime music became a craze in the late nineteenth century, cultural commentators insisted that its euphemistic allusions to promiscuity and violence were an “evil influence on morals and tastes,” while black intellectuals worried that this “low and degrading class of music” would reinforce racist stereotypes about African Americans. Two decades later, jazz was condemned as regressive by radio evangelists and academic Marxists alike, and when rock & roll became popular in the late 1950s it drew the scorn of everyone from Frank Sinatra (who called it a “brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression”) to the civic authorities of Santa Cruz (who banned rock performances in 1956, citing “the provocative rhythms of an all-negro band”), to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI (which, no joke, spent two years scrutinizing the lyrics to “Louie, Louie”).
Curiously, the backlash against rap found its most salient historical parallel not in music, but in comic books, which became wildly popular by tweaking the assumptions of mainstream taste in the years after World War II. Like the upstart rap groups of the late 1980s, the pulp comics of the late 1940s appealed to young consumers through their vivid depiction of vice, lust, horror, and lawlessness, often told from the perpetrators’ points of view. As David Hajdu notes in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, these comics expressed “a cynicism toward authority of all sorts, and a tolerance, if not an appetite, for images of prurience and violence.” Predictably, parents and authorities became convinced that comic books would lead to an outbreak of low-class licentiousness and copycat brutality. Editorials in national newspapers called for action, and by the early 1950s vendors in dozens of American cities were subject to arrest for selling certain crime- or sex-themed comics.
Implicit in this censorship push was the conviction that comics were being “sold” by exploitative publishers rather than “purchased” by young people who enjoyed the raw nature of the content, understood where it converged with (and departed from) reality, and thrilled at its rejection of Middle-American propriety. When activists showed up at schools to confiscate comics and decree that “America is a land of good, strong, law-abiding people who read good books” (as happened in Wisconsin in 1954), teens were not blind to the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the sentiment. Despite a loyal national readership in the tens of millions, however, comics’ publishers ultimately bowed to government pressure to self-police their content, adopting an industry-wide “Comics Code” in the fall of 1954. By 1955, American comic books were effectively censored, and the industry’s more adventurous artists found themselves out of work.
As it happened, N.W.A and 2 Live Crew (and, soon thereafter, the Geto Boys) came to prominence when the American music industry was engaged in its own debate over the extent to which it would police its own content. Black-and-white “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” stickers became standardized early in 1990, and by April of that year WaxWorks, a major music retailer with stores in thirty-seven states, had announced it would no longer stock albums bearing the stickers. Activists on both ends of the political spectrum were pushing corporate record companies to adopt more concrete methods of preempting offensive material, and Arista, Atlantic, Columbia, Elektra, Epic, EMI, MCA, and RCA had all developed protocols that warned artists of the possible “consequences” of their material. N.W.A and 2 Live Crew had reached national prominence in part because their songs were shocking, yet a big reason why they had the creative freedom to shock so unapologetically is that their music had been originally released on non-corporate, self-affiliated regional labels: Compton, California’s Ruthless Records; Liberty City, Florida’s Luke Skyywalker Records.
Roughly halfway along the 2,700-mile stretch of Interstate 10 that separates Compton from Liberty City sat a third provincial urban district — Fifth Ward, Texas, which rose to notoriety when the Geto Boys blew the lid off the rap–morality debate in the summer of 1990. Birthplace to the upstart indie Rap-A-Lot Records, Fifth Ward was the narrative tableau for the tracks on The Geto Boys, the lyrics of which went far beyond the raunch and violence that had gotten N.W.A and 2 Live Crew into so much trouble. “With songs about mutilation, rape, and murder, graphically described and shouted over ominous funk,” the New York Times noted, “it makes the 2 Live Crew’s lewd scenarios sound like a society luncheon.” On the eve of the album’s release, in August of 1990, Geffen Records announced it would renege on its plans to distribute The Geto Boys, citing concerns that its content endorsed the depraved acts it described. “I was flabbergasted that people would describe violence that graphically in music,” Geffen Vice President Bryn Bridenthal told the Associated Press. “People will think this is like 2 Live Crew, which is kind of silly, just pure sex; I was frightened by this.”
The fact that the Geto Boys were ever in a position to rattle America’s cultural gatekeepers represented a hard-won milestone for the Houston-based group, a coming out of sorts for Southern hip-hop, and the beginning of the end of the discussion about where rap belonged in the popular music marketplace. In the months and years that followed, hip-hop was destined to become more than a New York-centric folk movement, or a politically conscious race genre, or a corporate–assimilationist pop phenomenon constrained by the music industry equivalent of the Comics Code. As of 1990, when The Geto Boys doubled down on all the controversy that had come before it, rap had arrived as a truly national music that (among other things) reserved the right to say whatever the fuck it wanted to say, and be whatever the fuck it wanted to be.
For the young men behind the creation of The Geto Boys, this was the realization of a complicated artistic journey that had begun nearly half a decade earlier in a little-known corner of a Texas metropolis that had never been known for its hip-hop.
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