Like many other teenagers, rapper Kamron has disagreed with his father on more than one occasion about his lifestyle. Unlike many teenagers, Kamron and his father have exchanged punches. The B-boy says his father called him a "nigger" for participating in hip-hop culture. That's not unheard of in black families. The only unique thing about the dispute is that the boy and his family are white.
Kamron will soon put the incident on record in the song "Daddy Called Me Nigger 'Cause I Liketed to Rhyme." The public probably won't be able to hear the tune before February, when Kamron's hip-hop quintet releases its debut album. But until then, the group is certain to create controversy wherever it goes. That's because Kamron and his white homeboys have chosen to call themselves Young Black Teenagers.
Even the group's official biography asks rhetorically if the rappers and deejays of Young Black Teenagers are looking for a fight.
Several years after the Beastie Boys formed a rock 'n' roll/hip-hop hybrid and rhymed their way onto the turntables of millions, white rappers are here to stay. Like their predecessors who latched onto blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll, they've embraced--and made a living from--an African-American music form. And there are signs that whites can take over the music the way they have with older genres. Today, whites have a foothold in the hip-hop industry they're not likely to give up. Almost all the major labels feature white rappers on their rosters: Joining Young Black Teenagers on the white scene are Def Jam group 3rd Bass (the first white hip-hop group since the Beastie Boys to have reached superstar status among the music's underground fans), pop rapper Vanilla Ice, woman MC Tairrie B, Ice-T protege Everlast, and the two-tone group Unity 2's Sean Dinsmore. And the success of these rappers--3rd Bass' debut album went gold, Vanilla Ice's first single and album were No. 1 hits, and even Tairrie B has cracked the hip-hop chart--makes it likely that more are in the development stages.
But the flow of whites into hip-hop is marked by racial tension and intense scrutiny, something that white rappers have routinely experienced almost from the moment they begin rapping. The ascent, even if it's inevitable, is proving to be somewhat uneasy, highly public. And, at least for now, the controversy shows no signs of going away.
Fifteen years after its generally acknowledged conception on the streets of New York, hip-hop remains fiercely roots-conscious. And that probably explains why the record industry wasn't immediately able to turn hip-hop white after the Beastie Boys showed up. Virtually any white hip-hop act worth mentioning today has discovered the music not through MTV or on the CD player at home, but by immersing itself in the music firsthand. Doing time in the streets and receiving a nod of approval from the black community have been virtual requirements to ensure credibility and record deals. Today's top white rappers freely drop names of the hip-hop superstars who've nurtured and signed them. But they usually haven't gotten a free pass into the culture. Kamron, for instance, grew up with Public Enemy in racially mixed Freeport, New York. He remembers listening to rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav and his current record-company boss Bill Stephney on a Strong Island college hip-hop radio show back in the early Eighties. And he reminisces fondly over seeing PE's first concert. While still in grade school, Kamron broke into hip-hop culture through breakdancing. Later, he deejayed and then stepped in front of the turntables to rap.
"It's always a hassle from both sides," says Kamron in a recent interview. "White people will be, like, `Are you trying to be black?' And then black people see you walking down the street, and they pass judgment, thinking that you're a wanna-be and trying to steal the culture, when it's not like that at all. A culture ain't something you're born with. It's something that you adapt to."
Or fabricate. Before his suburban Dallas past was uncovered, Vanilla Ice routinely bragged that he'd grown up a block away from housing projects in Miami. The rapper who's already been dubbed hip-hop's Elvis even went so far as to say he'd attended the same high school as the 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell.
Tairrie B, arguably the first legitimate white woman rapper, discovered breakdancing before rapping. "People were, like, `What is she doing here, coming into this club?'" she remembers in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "It was just kind of like, `Well, I wanna dance, and this is how I like to dance.'" Later, encouraged by Philly gangsta-rapper Schoolly D, she decided to pursue a career in hip-hop.
3rd Bass rapper Prime Minister Pete Nice, meanwhile, journeyed to Bedford-Stuyvesant and other black areas of Brooklyn to get his education. "I used to receive resistance from people who would see me walk the streets. They weren't used to seeing a white kid walk their streets," he says during an interview from a New York studio. "At first, there's always a scrutinization of what you're all about. And then when your actual mindset can be expressed, the resistance went by the wayside."
Once these rappers paid their dues, though, skepticism just didn't disappear. Tairrie B and 3rd Bass in particular had to battle preconceived notions of what they should sound like. And if their struggles are any indication, it shows what a new and sometimes baffling phenomenon the packaging of white rappers can be for record execs.
Before signing with N.W.A rapper Eazy-E's Comptown label, Tairrie B tried to break in at Delicious Vinyl Records. She recalls its failure to develop her with no uncertain bitterness. Although the rapper had conceptual visions of her own, upper-echelon types at the company initially decided to team her with a couple of other white women in an effort to create a female version of the Beastie Boys. Tairrie B's partners eventually quit under the strain created by the plan. But that wasn't the rapper's only hassle at Delicious, she says, admitting that telling the world about her days at the label is a vengeance-filled catharsis. Label officials also complained that she sounded too white, the rapper says. In an effort to blacken her, she says, they got label-mates Def Jef and Young MC to write her some rhymes. But Tairrie B never felt comfortable with the material.
3rd Bass would've fit in well at Delicious Vinyl. MC Serch seems perplexed even today over many early doubters' accusations that he and Pete Nice sounded too black to be believable.
"I think that's nonsense. You can't be too black. Somebody can't sound too white. You can't sound too rich or too poor. It's a stereotype, and it's a bad one."
Judging from their recorded output, white rappers are keenly aware of their debt to--and uneasy alliance with--the black hip-hop community. Perhaps to avoid being labeled as wanna-bes, they've usually taken it upon themselves to be up-front about their struggles to gain acceptance as whites in a black world.
This philosophy--"It's a white thang/You better understand"--is especially pervasive on Tairrie B's debut album The Power of a Woman. On the song "Anything You Want," she raps, "Suckers tryin' to step/'Cause they see what's on the surface/ . . . /It's not the color/It's the heart of the artist." And on "Murder She Wrote," the MC makes this ultimatum: "I'm white/So believe the hype."
But the definitive treatment of the subject shows up on 3rd Bass' alternately hilarious and embarrassing song "Flippin' Off the Wall Like Lucy Ball." Affecting a mock Louis Armstrong warble, MC Serch portrays a story that might be the hip-hop equivalent to the Steve Martin movie The Jerk: "A little white boy, down South/No muthafuckin' white people around/They said to me, `White boy/ . . . /You've got so much soul/It's comin' out your asshole.'/ . . . /They said, `When you grow up, you're gonna work with a lotta white people who think they're black.'"
3rd Bass' already-classic song "The Gas Face" shows a bit more sensitivity. In a rap as Africentric as you're likely to get from a white B-boy, Serch brilliantly details the effect of white supremacy on the concepts of good and evil: "Black cat is bad luck/Bad guys wear black/Must've been a white guy who started all that/Make the gas face/For those little white lies."
"That's the only thing we ever get positive feedback on," Serch says of the song.
But Vanilla Ice is easily creating more controversy than all the lesser-known white hip-hop acts combined--first over his success, now for Milli Vanilling his past.
Critic Harry Allen notes that even though the factors that determine chart position are nebulous, Vanilla Ice's historic No. 1 single is still an example of white supremacy in action.
SOUL Records owner Bill Stephney says he isn't surprised that Vanilla Ice is the first rapper to reach the No. 1 spot because it's on the "white" singles chart.
Still, the only act besides Vanilla Ice to have a hip-hop single reach No. 1 was Blondie, whose members all were white. And black rappers Tone-Loc and M.C. Hammer have both put singles in the Top Five, but didn't reach the highest spot. And even though the number of white acts is minuscule, they've had two of hip-hop's four No. 1 pop albums.
Stephney notes that the rapper's very name indicates that Ice has indeed placed emphasis on his color. Suspicion of the lily-white rapper's motives can only be reinforced by the recent revelation that he faked his street credentials.
Then there's the Vanilla Ice tune "Play That Funky Music." With a riff sampled from you-know-what song, the tune degenerates into the chant, "Go, white boy! Go, white boy!"
By the time Vanilla Ice's reign is over, though, the rapper is likely to generate less hype over the way he treats racial topics in his songs and interviews than Young Black Teenagers.
The group is putting together its music with the help of Kamron's mentor, Chuck D, and SOUL Records owners Bill Stephney and Hank Shocklee, whose work also shows up on Public Enemy's albums. Judging from a two-song cassette, the Teenagers sound like a more danceable version of Public Enemy, partyable sample-funk with a slice of industrial taken off the top. The group's vocals put it somewhere between the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But the Teenagers' name, concept and lyrics are probably what'll make them the most revolutionary white rappers since the Beasties' Three Stooges routine. YBT's name is derived from their idea that that being black is a state of mind, a lifestyle, a cultural identity--not a skin color. The group argues that African Americans aren't the only people who wear B-boy uniforms and groove to the exploits of Michael Jordan, the comedy of House Party and the rhythms of hip-hop. "It's like a new movement," says Kamron. "It's a race without a color."
Kamron, who wears his hair in dreadlocks and plays the part of the down-wit'-it rapper perfectly in conversation, claims it's the only culture he knows. And that's fine with him. The Teenagers even have a song titled "Proud To Be Black."
Reaction to the Teenagers goes from curiosity to dubiousness to anger.
Stephney says that negative response to the group is commonly borne of ignorance. "The Teenagers aren't a minstrel group trying to mock African people," he assures. But the exec admits he doesn't agree with their entire shtick.
Nor does writer Allen.
"I think there's a certain amount of truth to it," says Allen, adding, "I would say, in general, I wouldn't agree with it. Between here and Dakar, the westernmost city on the African continent, millions of my people line the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. They don't do that because of their habits. They do it because of white supremacy. In a way, I can understand that blackness is a lifestyle or state of mind. But Young Black Teenagers can choose to be white at any moment. For those people who've been defined as black under white supremacy, they don't have that option."
Allen, who ironically is expected to write the video for "Daddy Called Me Nigger," nevertheless is intrigued by the idea of Kamron's being on the receiving end of a racial slur. And he thinks the song can have a positive effect.
"One of the things I encourage nonwhite people to ask white people is, `What do white people teach their children about racism?' I think we need to know things like that. I definitely think white people know more things about white supremacy than they're telling."
Tairrie B simply seethes at the mention of the group. "I don't get it. I don't wanna get it. I don't understand it. I don't think that being black is a state of mind. I think it's a skin color. I think white is a skin color, and if you have five black guys calling themselves Young White Teenagers, it would be a disgrace, as well. I think people would be offended by it.
"You don't need to be black to be down or to be a rapper. I just don't understand why the guys can't come out and just be, like, `Yeah, I'm white. Okay. So what?'"
In 1988, a band called Living Colour caught the rock 'n' roll world's fancy by playing commercially potent heavy-metal. The group's success was hailed as a sign that racial barriers were being lifted in pop music. But some critics called the band's success just-due, noting that the music originated from African Americans.
Can the same thing happen in hip-hop? Will the music be dominated by white acts until a black rapper in the year 2025 suddenly "crosses over" with a hit song?
Allen talks about Vanilla Ice and 3rd Bass in terms of the "occupation" and "theft" of hip-hop. The same thing that's happened with African-American music forms from blues to jazz to rock 'n' roll is taking place here, only quicker, he argues. He points out that it's possible for a hip-hop record to go from artist's idea through the recording, manufacturing and distribution phases all the way to the listener's ear without ever encountering a black person.
"If somebody else embraces the music, it can be co-opted or taken away," says Stephney, adding that white media like Rolling Stone and MTV have been more timely and comprehensive in their coverage of hip-hop than conservative black media such as Ebony and Black Entertainment Television.
But the person who holds the key to the future of whites in hip-hop may be Vanilla Ice.
"From what I've seen, I think he is important and should be watched carefully," says Allen. "He should be studied, especially by nonwhite people. They should put him in the context of what happens to music under white supremacy."
3rd Basser Pete Nice, who builds up his group as the supreme defender of the underground faith, doesn't bother disguising his fear of a Vanilla planet.
"The five million people who bought M.C. Hammer's record will probably buy his record, and all these white kids around America, who are they gonna relate to the most? The white kid. And I could probably see, like, four million white kids with long tails on the back of their head and fucked-up haircuts, jamming to Vanilla Ice and whoever comes after Vanilla Ice.
"I feel that if pop-rap goes to this level and things keep continuing the way it's going now, rap could become a totally white thing."
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"White people will be, like, `Are you trying to be black?' And then black people . . . pass judgment, thinking that you're a wanna-be and trying to steal the culture."
Even though the number of white acts is minuscule, they've had two of hip-hop's four No. 1 pop albums.
"I just don't understand why the guys can't come out and just be, like, `Yeah, I'm white. Okay. So what?'"
"I feel that if things keep continuing the way it's going now, rap could become a totally white thing.