Golden-Era Rap Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition

This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50.

Hip hop party in nightclub (Shutterstock).

Hip hop’s “golden era,” the period from 1987 to 1994, was a crucial moment in African American history. Many rappers used their platforms to bring attention to issues plaguing poor and working-class Black communities, including but not limited to the AIDS and crack epidemics, police brutality and the expansion of the prison-industrial complex, state-sanctioned violence, and misogynoir. Some emcees felt obligated to speak for voiceless Black youth in ways they felt African Americans were being failed by government entities, educational systems, and media outlets. To this end, rappers functioned as organic Black intellectuals during a period in which there was a marked decline of Black radical intellectuals in the Black public sphere. Rappers being “embedded and dedicated to movement” makes them organic intellectuals and an important component of what made the golden era, golden. Rappers made significant contributions to the Black intellectual tradition despite the music industry’s compromising commercialization of hip-hop culture.

This period saw emceeing become the dominant hip hop element, usurping deejaying, graffiti, and breakdancing. Spreading knowledge, a fifth element, was taken seriously by many emcees, making rap “CNN for Black people,” according to Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE). Ernie Singleton, a former executive with MCA Records, stated that rap music “deals with the kids’ reality of living with high unemployment, a high crime rate, and the devastating drug problem.” Speaking to and with Black youth was an arduous task, but one many rappers embraced. Chuck D, for instance, believed he had an “obligation” to educate with his raps “because I’m aware.” “We’re at a time,” he continued, “when [Black communities are] getting kind of lazy and slack and we’re moving backwards, so I have to try to turn this around.”1

And try he did, incorporating socially conscious lyrics in his songs. As a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), most of his and Public Enemy’s messages consisted of Black Nationalist rhetoric, including the song “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man),” modeled after former NOI leader Elijah Muhammad’s 1965 book, Message to the Black Man in America. This was Chuck’s and PE’s attempt to provide Black youth with role models, and in another popular effort they introduced young people to Malcolm X. From 1988 through the release of Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X film, hip-hop culture plastered Malcolm’s image, the “X” symbol, or brandished his quotes on hats, backpacks and posters, starting a period referred to as “Malcolmania.” Black intellectuals had mixed reviews on this period. The cultural critic Stanley Crouch insisted that hip hop’s Malcolm nostalgia relegated the Black icon to a political “bad-boy image,” and places selling Malcolm X-themed clothing were pandering to Black consumers.2 The historian Robin D. G. Kelley lauded rappers’ ability to evoke Malcolm’s “totality of lived experience in their lyrics,” suggesting that Malcolm X lived vicariously through the hip hop generation. Other scholars believed this period watered down Black culture. According to historians Barbara Ransby and Tracye Mathews, Malcolmania left Black youth “with the disempowering misperception that only the larger than life great men can make or change history.” The “deified persona of Malcolm X,” made him a “paragon of puritanical morality.” “Thus,” continued the authors, “the prescription for solving the problems and dilemmas facing the African-American community today is—add strong Black man and stir.”

Many rappers did their best to keep Malcolm X’s legacy alive, centering Black youth in their outreach efforts.

One of the most successful attempts was the Stop the Violence (STV) movement, led by KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. STV was a coalition of emcees, including KRS, PE, MC Lyte, and Kool Moe Dee, among others. The STV movement sought to “point out the causes and social costs of black-on-black violence, to raise funds for the National Urban League’s campaign against illiteracy and crime in the inner city and, finally, to show that rap can be an important tool to stimulate reading and writing skills of inner-city youth.”3

[3] One of the STV movement’s crowning achievements was recording the song and video “Self-Destruction.” The song starts with a soundbite from a Malcolm X speech, proclaiming that “America has a serious problem.” The track features thirteen emcees and the song was intentionally released on January 15, 1989, to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, “making the record part of the celebration, and calling attention to the self-genocide that is threatening his legacy.” In addition to publishing a manuscript, the STV coalition raised over $200,000 for the Urban League’s initiative and hoped that their song would “boost the confidence of young people who are striving against the most severe economic and social obstacles to do the right thing.”

East coast rappers were not alone in their concerns with the criminalization of Black youth amidst rising crime rates in poor and working-class communities. Following the release of “Self-Destruction,” West Coast artists produced “We’re All in the Same Gang,” a track released in 1990. In addition to Tone Loc and Young M.C., who appeared in “Self-Destruction,” the West Coast All Stars’ rendition featured Ice-T, NWA members Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and MC Ren, J.J. Fad and others. With gang culture spreading rapidly throughout California, rappers sought to steer Black and Latinx youth in more positive directions. However, rappers could only do so much, as large segments of America’s Black youth remained impoverished and unemployed, thus highlighting the impact of structural racism and the limitations of individual responsibility.

Black rappers and scholars alike saw sexism and misogynoir within hip-hop culture as vestiges of racial capitalism. This was not, however, an excuse for certain rappers’ actions—particularly Black men. According to sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, during the golden era, rap became another mode of American capitalism, meaning it was used for consumption so more could be produced, and demand for the dominant groups’ material typically was favored. “Examples chosen to reveal one group’s experiences,” Collins says, “can be read as specific to that group and thus dismissed as less important than examining the cultural themes that bind us all.” Songs like 1988’s “Paper Thin” by then-eighteen-year-old MC Lyte, became a “Black woman’s anthem that [sustained] an uncomfortable balance between brutal cynicism and honest vulnerability,” says sociologist and pioneering hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose. Lyte also addressed issues such as domestic violence, infidelity, and drug use in ways that were more conversational than denigrating to her audience. “What I like to do is put myself in the first person,” she said. “People can listen when you have a problem. But they don’t like it when you tell them that they have a problem.”

This was especially the case regarding rappers who were raised in neighborhoods with a strong gang presence during the rise of a rap subgenre critics described as “gangsta rap.” Some critics, especially white ones, enjoyed rap music with gang references. The journalist John Leland, for instance, said rapper Ice Cube “killed rap music” when he left the group NWA and indulged in social critiques of police brutality and systemic racism, while speaking to Black youth. Robin D. G. Kelley described such claims as “a place of adventure, unbridled violence, erotic fantasy, and/or an imaginary alternative to suburban boredom” for white rap fans and critics. Opinions like Leland’s gave the impression that all rappers glorified gang violence when artists like Los Angeles-based rapper Ice-T, who was raised around local gangs, proved the opposite. For example, the song “Colors” offers perspectives on why youth join gangs out of a sense of belonging, while warning them of the outcome. On. “I’m Your Pusher,” T recommends his supporters try to “push” records rather than crack. On “High Rollers,” he describes the life of a “high profile personality, who earns his pay illegally.” The high roller has the lifestyle portrayed as successful to American consumers, only for him to get murdered at the end of the song. These recordings led journalists to label Ice-T “the mouthpiece for urban teenagers.”4

Hip hop’s commercialization, perpetuation of violence and misogyny is more amplified today than during its golden era. Many Black intellectuals predicted this outcome. In Women, Culture, & Politics, Angela Davis states that hip hop got “molded by the demands of the capitalist marketplace, which measures its products according to their profit-making potential.” The scholar and cultural critic bell hooks went a step further, claiming subgenres like gangsta rap reflected dominant American society. “The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap,” says hooks, “are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” Music critiquing white supremacy, racial capitalism, and sexism and gender violence tends to fall through the cracks. Yet, in confronting systemic problems, many of these rappers dreamt of brighter futures, reminding Black youth of the importance of education and displaying the creative potential of Black artistic expressions.

  1. Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1987.
  2. Washington Post, November 15, 1992.
  3. Washington Post, November 2, 1988.
  4. Philadelphia Inquirer, November 14, 1989.
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Antoine S. Johnson

Antoine S. Johnson is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of the History of Medicine and 2024 Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. His research interests include race in medicine, anti-Black racism in medicine, and Black popular culture. He is currently working on a book manuscript on the Black AIDS epidemic and Black AIDS activism in the Bay Area. He is from Oakland, California and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, San Francisco in the History of Health Sciences.

Comments on “Golden-Era Rap Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition

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    Great article son!

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    Very good and enlightening. Thank you for sharing.

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    This is a really interesting essay. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of Ice-T, a severely underrated rapper, with O.G. being perhaps his best album and New Jack Hustler just an incredible piece of poetry (“In my brain I got a capitalist migraine” or “My uzis my best friend/Cold as a mortician”).

    I wonder if the 1994 cut off for the Golden Era might be reconsidered. For example, 1995 saw the release of the second Roots album, solo albums from Raekwon and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Goodie Mob’s debut, and second albums from Mobb Deep, the GZA, Bone Thugs-and-Harmony, and KRS-One. While 1996 had first albums from Jay-Z, Kool Keith, Ghostface Killah, Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, Busta Rhymes, Xzibit, and Eminem. Not to mention second albums from Outkast, Nas, and The Fugees.

    Could one extend this particular era out to 1998, with the the repercussions from the deaths Biggie (1997) and Tupac (1996) still echoing? I’ve always felt that one can chart a shift in hip-hop post-Biggie and Tupac.

    But really nice work, especially the use of bell hooks, she just makes everything better.

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