Twenty-five years ago might seem like a long time. But for many of us coming of age in 1988, it was an era of good times, slick rhymes, pumping beats and dancing feet. It was the time of Def Jam Records, runner Florence “Flo Jo” Griffith-Joyner taking the gold in the Summer Olympics, and Cold Chillin’ discs with Biz Goin’ Off and Kane keeping it “Raw.” Heavyweight champ Mike Tyson knocked out opponents in the ring and the streets of Harlem (as he did with Mitch Greene), and Living Colour was playing raucous rock ’n’ roll in a downtown club called CBGB’s.
Although ’88 represented the hip-hop generation’s personal year of cutting edge music and sepia-toned heroes, we were far from hippies splashing in the mud à la the Summer of Love. Indeed, before becoming too romantic about that period, I should point out that all wasn’t sweet as sugar: Ronald Reagan was still in the White House, the AIDS plague was out of control, crack cocaine flooded the streets, and many of our communities were on the verge of ruin as social programs rapidly disappeared.
As a twentysomething writer living in Harlem, I felt an equal measure of excitement and uneasiness in the air then. At any moment, a party could be set off or a life could be snuffed out. Personally, I spent much time in trendy downtown Manhattan clubs like the Pyramid, The World and sometimes the Paradise Garage, where DJ Larry Levan controlled the underground sounds that rocked the foundation.
Every week, I flipped through The Village Voice where culture writers Greg Tate, Lisa Jones, Barry Michael Cooper, Nelson George, Carol Cooper and Harry Allen documented those fast-moving artistic times. The Jungle Brothers were housin’, Spike Lee was shooting Do the Right Thing in Do or Die Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the Marsalis brothers were blowing their respective horns in Greenwich Village jazz clubs.
Yet outside my first-floor bedroom window, I heard the coarse voices of cocaine corner boys dressed in stylish Dapper Dan gear or brightly hued Troop jackets, slinging drugs until dawn and beyond. “Crack, jumbo crack,” they boasted, hawking their poison like it was legal. At some point an argument might break out and a few shots would be fired, but by the next day, it was business as usual.
On television, there were campaign commercials for Jesse Jackson, who was still on a mission to be the first Black president four years after his initial 1984 run. Decades prior to Barack Obama galloping into Washington, D.C., Jackson was another political-minded Chicagoan who gave Black folks hope as we attempted to cope with a government that had seemingly turned its back on our communities.
“I can’t wait for Jesse to turn the White House black,” an old friend said as Public Enemy’s bombastic “Bring the Noise,” blared from his boom box. Nine years after “Rapper’s Delight” made its debut on the charts, hip-hop had emerged from the underground to influence a nation of millions in ways the mainstream never thought possible.
Little white kids in New York City’s tri-state area were trying to breakdance to the James Brown-induced “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, a song that became the rap single of the summer. The season was also dominated by “dope” albums by Eric B. and Rakim (Follow the Leader), Salt-n-Pepa (A Salt with a Deadly Pepa), Boogie Down Productions (By All Means Necessary), Stetsasonic (In Full Gear), Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick), MC Lyte (Lyte as a Rock) and Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back). On the west coast, N.W.A gave us a peek of their crazy world on Straight Outta Compton, while MC Hammer began his soon-to-come pop takeover with the refreshing Let’s Get It Started.
Although New York City elitists often dissed the suburbs of Long Island as corny, in 1988 its natives were in full effect, as represented by the success of Eddie Murphy and EPMD. Like it was yesterday, I clearly remember my crew and I sloughing in our seats at some long-gone Times Square theater, noisily awaiting Coming to America to flicker onto the movie screen. Two hours later, we were convinced the film was the funniest we had ever seen.
Two other Long Island boys Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith formed EPMD (Eric and Parrish Making Dollars), and signed to the independently owned Sleeping Bag Records, a label with Mantronix and Just Ice also on the label. With a slowed down verbal flow on their funky singles “It’s My Thing” and “You’re a Customer,” the group’s debut album Strictly Business was the summer’s surprise smash.
“Strictly Business was recorded and finished in two weeks,” Sermon told me a few years ago. The group received $1,500 to sign on the dotted line. “The studio cost $30.00 an hour. Both of us used the same mic. We tried to do most songs in one take.”
But while creative boys were doing their thing, there were many artistic sisters doing it as well. Folksy singer Tracy Chapman sped up the charts with “Fast Car,” a song that inspired countless reggae versions. Meanwhile, an unknown writer named Terry McMillian published an excerpt of her forthcoming novel Disappearing Acts in the pages of Essence.
Across the bridge in Brooklyn, a bamboo-earring wearing young lady calling herself MC Lyte was rapping about her man Sam on “I Cram to Understand U (Sam).” A few months later, when she dropped the hectic and heavy follow-up “Paper Thin”—which blared from the speakers of notorious hip-hop spots the Latin Quarter and Union Square on a regular—it was obvious Lyte was no novelty act.
Though times could be hard and the music could be tough, a sweet Uptown singing soul sister named Jacci McGhee, who sang background on Salt-n-Pepa’s wild track “Expression,” joined forces with balladeer Keith Sweat and producer Teddy Riley. Constructing the slow jam anthem “Make It Last Forever,” the hypnotic ballad helped set-off a new musical movement called new jack swing. Combining the hardness of hip-hop with the smoothness of R&B, new jack swing (a phrase invented by Village Voice writer Barry Michael Cooper) became yet another uptown sound to go worldwide.
Tested and tried on Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” and Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show,” the sound fully flourished on Bobby Brown’s awesome Don’t Be Cruel album, released in June of ’88. Brown’s stellar second single, “My Prerogative,” soon became the new jack swing anthem.
Two months later, led by hip-hop Renaissance man Fab 5 Freddy, Yo! MTV Raps was launched on the music channel, which further helped with the mainstreaming of hip-hop culture and rap music. “Our first show was a live-remote from the Dope Jam concert at Nassau Coliseum,” Fab recalls. “We featured LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane and Eric B. and Rakim.”
For me, the most sorrowful event of 1988 was on August 12, the day neo-expressionistic painter and downtown B-boy Jean-Michel Basquiat died in his East Village apartment from a heroin overdose. A hero to most who strived to be fresh and different, Basquiat achieved fame as an artist and on the gossip pages. Only 27, the brother was planning to attend a Run-DMC concert the evening of his death.
Without a doubt, the spirit of ’88 was an exhilarating, exciting and sometimes scary time, one that will forever blaze like an eternal flame in my heart and mind.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.