PRINT May 1995


the Rap Channel

IT’S EASY TO FORGET the consternation that MTV once caused among the faithful. Not just the end of music “as we knew it, ” MTV was proof that the suits had finally found a way to convert the disloyal yearnings of youth into market obedience. Even if music video did not come to replace records altogether, it would be an indispensable industry tool, and the pleasure of sounds would surely surrender to the power of images in the struggle for sales. The fans, it was predicted, would become less important than TV advertisers or programmers. The video would not simply be an ad for the record , but would develop an ontological life of its own—to the detriment, it was assumed, of everyone who really cared about music.

Some of these fears were the familiar ones that accompany any new form in popular culture. Others were an accurate forecast of industrial tendencies. Among other things, MTV saved the music business (in serious decline at the end of the ’70s) big time, reinvented youth programming, and boosted the two-TV home (one for kids). Above all, the music video became the place where you could view the harmonic convergence of many culture industries: music, film, cable TV, video game, advertising, celebrity, style, sports. Today, most videos are the visible embodiment, in three minutes, of the integration of these industries under the common logos of the transnational entertainment Goliaths. MTV played a dutiful role in that process, and is now a “life-style channel” in its own right, so diversified, in fact, that it is fast losing those viewers who tune in exclusively for their music-video fix.

This has spawned at least two responses: first, from the industry giants, plans for a new 24-hour music-video channel collectively owned by Thorn EMI, Polygram, Sony, BMG, Time Warner (together, these record companies control nearly 75 percent of all U.S. music releases), and Ticketmaster. Currently on hold until the Justice feds decide whether the scheme violates antitrust laws, the proposed channel is a sure sign that MTV is either no longer needed or has gotten too big for its boots. Second, in cable’s minor leagues, channels devoted primarily to music video have successfully emerged: Rock Video Monthly, The Box, MOR Music TV, and Much Music (the latter from Canada, but now available in the U.S.).

Over the last year, The Box in particular has become the channel of choice for the disaffected legions. With a 20-million-household reach spread through the U.S., the U.K., and Puerto Rico, The Box operates through 160 automated video jukeboxes hooked up to cable systems. The available selections, which differ from market to market, are activated by viewers’ 1-900 phone calls, and cost from 99 cents to $3. Fifteen to twenty new videos every week advertise the channel’s commitment to the principle of the fresh play-list. Although the viewer-choice rule makes The Box a populist medium—“Music Television You Control ”—it is widely suspected that record companies boost their videos by hiring phone solicitors. (Last year, cashing in on this rumor, the channel ran a Great Playola Scheme: companies could buy “paid presentations,” legit video time for $27,000 a pop.) Still, The Box retains a rep as the channel with an ear to street buzz.

If the Box can boast its star-making achievements as hype-free, among these are some dubious contributions to music history: the original success of Vanilla Ice and Snow, the comebacks of Hammer, Meat Loaf, and Tom Jones, and the U.S. career of Ace of Base. More estimable feats include the pioneering of the G-Funk classic “Nuthin’ But a G Thang,” the nurturing of Danzig, Nine Inch Nails, and Prong, and, most recently, the showcasing of Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man. Above all, The Box has become a haven for hip hop audiences fed up with urban radio’s disdain and MTV’s marginalizing of rap. With the recent debut of El Box, in Long Beach, it may also become North America’s Latino music channel.

It’s difficult to gauge patterns of viewer choice from any one day of The Box’s relatively unstructured airtime, but you can certainly tell which videos are on a roll. The channel trumpets its willingness to show videos that MTV will not, courting the moniker of “alternative” that has always eluded MTV. Given its appeal to direct democracy and the absence of any supervising VJ mentality, you can even believe that videos are being selected primarily for their visual or sonic appeal, and that there is no organized, direct connection to the corporate heart of sales. Such are the contradictions of commercial music culture that advertisements made to move product can finally achieve ethical credibility only in an environment, like The Box, created to bolster the belief that the industry is entirely at the service of popular demand.

In medialand, the strategy of appealing to alternative programming also usually means snaring the “nonwhite” audience, which, of course, also includes millions of white Negroes. The strategy is often temporary, as in the case of Fox or the new Warner Brothers network, but successful in gaining an edge on the established competitors. As it happens, many of the most popular black music videos turn out to be the most lascivious. On the hip hop tip, Sir Mix A Lot, 69 Boyz, Luke, 2 Live Crew, and the Hammer of “Pumps and a Bump” were among last year’s top acts, while R. Kelly’s raw material on “Summer Bunnies, ” “Bump N’ Grind, ” and “Your Body’s Calling” dominated the R&B list (with Patra not far behind). Too Short, Dis-N-Dat, and K7’s “Move It Like This” have taken over in ’95. Almost all of these videos share a focus on female butt action, the pelvic thrusts especially attaining near-jackhammer velocity. Short bursts of booty hi-energy, these displays of skills are usually performed in scanty swimwear, and often in a competitive public setting—at a beach or dance party, around the pool, at a car meet. There is no male equivalent, unless you count an equal-opportunity video by Hammer, featuring his own sausage in a bikini brief, that had to be reedited for non-Box viewing.

These moves had their immediate origin in the sexually provocative dances and “batty-rider” costumes of Jamaican dance-hall and ragga culture, the woman either bent double or else upright, legs akimbo, doing the tootsie roll. Arguably, the ragga girls were explicitly rejecting the chaste, submissive roles demanded of Rastafarian women. In video, Sir Mix A Lot’s politically savvy “Baby Got Back” was the official founder of the genre (although Wrex N Effect’s “Rumpshaker” came earlier). “Baby Got Back” exposed white culture’s blindness to the diversity of body shapes through Mix a Lot’s own wanton rap about his craving for the almighty rear. What lay behind this hankering was a long tradition of black esthetics based on the erogenous display of the female buttocks. Often magnified and distorted by the white appetite for black spectacle, rump-shaking has nonetheless long been the motor force in black popular dance and performance traditions, not to mention the theater of daily life. As a result of such traditions, the female butt can signify as a source of authority, if not power, in black culture. By contrast, for a bossy white girl like Madonna, the pussy is the place of truth.

There’s more to this than the codes of black sexual esthetics, however: what Sir Mix A Lot did was provide music video with its own specific visual form of this spectacle. On the face of it, video rump-shaking owes more to the superphysical feats of cartoon characters than to anything, say, in Josephine Baker, or in blaxploitation pornography. Inserted into the video flow like special FIX, these bursts of ballistic virtuosity accentuate the “video” in “video ho” as much as the “ho.” In this respect they also belong to the history of music video as a visual technology, gorging on the esthetics of speed cutting and governed by the exhibitionism of direct camera address. On the other hand, the competition among women to take part in such spectacles—usually unpaid and unsung—is reportedly fierce. At the very least, all of this needs to be acknowledged at a time when the booty jerk is fueling talk of the new profanity in black music, seen as the completion of a sorry descent from the gospel-drenched phrasing of R&B and soul. R. Kelly’s response—“I don’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump ’n’ grind”—may be disingenuous, but it’s quite sane when put in the perspective of the social and economic warfare currently being waged by the new elites.

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American Studies program at New York University. His latest book is The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (Verso).