What many don’t know about me is my hip-hop past. When you are very young, you don’t listen to music consciously until at one point you hear something that grabs you. For me, that was hip-hop, or rap as it was mostly called back then. I must have been around 10 or 11 when I got introduced to that kind of music and something spoke to me about it. I mainly started with Public Enemy, one of the most political bands of the last century, so I like to believe that this aspect made it appealing to me. But I was very young, so who knows. Anyway, although my musical tastes changed several times over the years, I always fondly remember hip-hop music and come back to it from time to time. I then also like to believe that the genre has changed for the worse and that (as the cliché goes) everything was better in the past (which normally isn't true). But then again, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of my favourite albums of the last couple of years.
Recently I had the idea to go back at the time of my musical genesis and look at the music I was listening to in 5th and 6th grade with my 30ish eyes. And because there is so much, I want to do a meta-series in which I look at one album that I liked back then to see how I view it today. First I say what I remember of the album (I’m trying to use album I really haven’t listened to in a long time), then I listen to it and look at the lyrics to see what I think. Sure, this is self-indulgent and probably not many people care about my thoughts on long-forgotten hip-hop, but, hey, it’s my blog, so who is going to stop me?
I want to start with an album that I haven’t thought about in years but that somehow popped into my memory again recently for reasons unbeknown to me. This album is Banned in the U.S.A. by 2 Live Crew, released in 1990. It’s the first album to receive the now infamous Parental Advisory sticker.
What I remember: The band was known for its vulgar lyrics dealing with sex and therefore was challenged by many people in the U.S. There were talks of censorship, so this album was a reaction and made a big deal of freedom of speech, painting the band as martyrs fighting for their right to express themselves. So it does seem like a political album which was something I appreciated even back then (honestly… no, I didn’t have that many friends). And that somehow seemed surprising for these sex song guys to make a political statement.
What I say now: In a way, this is a perfect album to start this series because listening to it now is somewhat astounding. The political statements are kind of ridiculous while the sex songs are worse than I would have thought. Let’s start with politics: The title song is the first song too and it features the basic message that the band wanted to convey (and yes, Bruce Springsteen granted the band the rights to use his song but you’ll read that wherever you find anything about that album, so that’s that), which is simple: the U.S. is a free county, so they should be allowed to sing about whatever they like. Which is a fine message and hard to disagree with. But how they make their argument is embarrassing. They mainly talk about the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech and that their music is for adults. But they use rhymes like:
Freedom of Speech will never dieFor us to help, our ancestors diedDon’t keep thinking that we will quitWe’ll always stand and never sit
Really? That’s the best you came up with for your main song? And, well, your ancestors were probably black, so they did not have the chance to fight for freedom of speech. Then again, ‘We’ll never sit’ is pretty convincing.
Wisen up, cause on Election Day We'll see who's banned in the U.S.A.
What does that even mean? That their enemies will be banned in the next election? This doesn’t make any sense. But wait, here’s Luke, the ringleader of the band who doesn’t rap but gives speeches. Watch out:
What is this?? Is this not America? This is not China! This is not Russia! This is not the place where they brought down the wall, this is America! We have the right to say what we want to say, we have the right to do what we want to do, and what I do in my house, you might not do in your house! So what I do in my house is my business!
‘The place where they brought down the wall.’ Wow. Could this have been intentionally vague or did he really not know what Germany or Berlin is? This must be the lamest protest for freedom of speech ever. And it sounds even worse when you hear him say it.
There is another message they want to get across in the title song, which is that they ‘don’t talk about harassing and sexually brutalizing women’ and ‘There's nothing but pleasure written in our rhyme.’ That probably depends on your definition of fun and harassment, but man, those songs painfully sexist. I was more or less aware of that back then, but I my ideas of sexuality were not very clear yet, so I kind of overheard all that stuff. I remember that I didn’t particularly like some of those songs. But listening to it now is tough. Women are constantly called ‘bitches’ or just ‘pussy’, they are never referred to as persons with their own wishes but are only there to satisfy the men. There is a song called Strip Club which talks about them visiting a strip club. There is a song called Mamalopenga about a Cuban woman who ‘said she was hungry and told me to feed her.’ And there is a song I don’t really want to talk about, but it’s all about their favourite sex position and it includes lines like:
I make her do things like nothing before Just riding you like a pony I’ll treat any bitch like a whore
So when you're naked, down on all fours You better make sure that you get yours Cause a nigga like me will love ya and leave ya I got mine, hoe, see ya
Is that really so far from ‘harassing and sexually brutalizing women’? And where is the pleasure they are talking about? It’s horrible and dumb and so awfully demeaning. I even left out all the parts with four-letter-words which are probably even worse, but I did not want to read that here again and again (not because of the words themselves, but it was just too ugly). There are also terrible, terrible homophobic jokes later on and Luke saying ‘fuck’ many times while the others are giggling and Luke ranting about gays and lesbians for several minutes.
So, in the end I have to say that this album was very different than I remembered it. It’s awful and back then I liked it. But the lyrics are cringeworthy, the singing sounds amateurish and the music is okay most of the time but nothing special. The sexism bothers me so much now that I’m glad, I must have resisted it back then. The homophobia is even worse. I would not listen to this again and I doubt I will revisit another 2 Live Crew record anytime soon.
I don’t know what anyone else thought of my experiment but I somewhat enjoyed it, even if listening to that music was not very joyful. But it made me curious about all those other albums that sit in the back of my mind as a vague memory and how they will turn out today.
To finish with one more line from Banned in the U.S.A.
This is the 90s and we’re coming on strong
Until we go back to the 90s, listen to some music that knows that women are people.