The Black in the Hat Comes Back
Also recent was 2 Live Crew’s battle against obscenity laws to vindicate their first amendment rights. Back then, even pre-adolescent and teen rappers had a niche. The Philadelphia group ABC, or “Another Bad Creation”, wore their clothes inside out. Jermaine Dupri’s pre-teen discovery Kris Kross (Chris “Mack Daddy” Kelly and Chris “Daddy Mack” Smith) wore their clothes backwards. Thankfully, Da Brat didn’t bother with clothing gimmicks at the outset of her career. She just wore braids.
United States President William Jefferson Clinton was in his first term in office. Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G. were still alive when Fear of the Black Planet was released. This was a pre-9/11, pre-OJ Simpson-murder-trial type of world, long before the Enron scandal and even longer before the election of Barack Obama.
There was, as the movie suggests, a lot to say about hip-hop stage names, which speaks to rap’s social climate at the time. The Ice Cold character accuses other people of “biting”, or imitating, the “ice” part of his moniker, and he mocks rappers with names like Ice Tray, Ice Water, Ice Coffee, Ice Berg, Ice Cup, and Ice Box. We’ve already noted the real rap names Ice Cube and Ice-T as evidence of the trend.
If rappers weren’t “ice”-related, they were “cool”: DJ Kool Herc, LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Coolio. If you weren’t “cool”, you had to have a cool acronym, like NWA, BDP (Boogie Down Productions), EPMD (Erick and Parrish Making Dollars), or like the backronyms for KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody) and the late and great Guru (Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal). Rap names were bigger and larger: Notorious B.I.G., Big Punisher, Big Daddy Kane, Large Professor, although names like “Too Short” would be exceptions. Elsewhere, others went the royalty route, with titles like King Tee, King Sun, Queen Latifah, and Queen Mother Rage.
Much has been mentioned in the 21st Century about rap names that seem smaller, diminutive, adorned with “Littles” and “Young"s. There are fewer acronyms, and more names that sound like riffs of famous ones. Nipsey Hussle and Slangston Hughes are illustrative. Keep in mind that these names aren’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just a difference in era.
One major aspect of the culture that has changed since Fear of a Black Hat is the respect earned by the once-dreaded “white rapper” label. The movie parodies Vanilla Ice via the character “Vanilla Sherbert”. The character tries to be streetwise and hip by dousing his speech in “urban” lingo, seeking to replicate the “black rapper experience”. A cultural misstep in this direction (i.e., using the so-called friendly version of the N-word) earns him a colossal beat down from our main characters, but before all of that, we recognize that he represents the white rapper stereotype of the time: corny, awkward, and incapable of authentic self-expression. Beastie Boys and 3rd Bass, however, didn’t fall into that category, and these days, there are even more white rappers who challenge that hip-hop stereotype. A few, like Eminem and El-P, have been cited as innovators.
In addition to cataloguing ‘90s hip-hop culture through satire, Fear of a Black Planet can be viewed as making a more serious statement through symbolism, and hopefully I won’t sound too much like Ice Cold advancing this theory, which goes a lil’ somethin’ like this…
At the height of NWH’s fame, the group’s unity is compromised by jealousy and internal beefs. When Tasty Taste starts dating an opinionated groupie named Cheryl C., she exacerbates the tension Tasty feels regarding Ice Cold’s higher public profile. Ice, as the standout performer in the group, receives the most publicity, and Tasty believes he is being slighted. Worse, Ice Cold warns him in no uncertain terms that Cheryl C. is only interested in tagging along with famous men and is not to be trusted. Rap songs like EPMD’s “Golddigger”, and Kanye West’s song of the same name, share this view of the rap groupie and hanger-on.
For our purposes, though, Cheryl C. exhibits the attention span of the fair-weather rap enthusiast who will support an artist when it’s trendy but abandon the cause when something new comes along. Ice Cold and Tasty Taste represent rappers vying for the support of a fickle audience. Cheryl C., like the typical opinionated rap lover, has no problem telling Tasty Taste how he should handle his career, and he follows her opinions and temperament to his undoing. Eventually, she moves on, first to an affair with Ice Cold and then on to hanging out with rival rap ensemble The Jam Boys. NWH’s ensuing dissension sends Ice Cold, Tasty Taste, and Tone Def their separate ways.
Ice Cold continues his pseudo-political agenda as a solo artist, advancing ditties like “Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y.” as examples of his social consciousness, citing the otherwise risqué part of the title as an acronym for “Political Unrest Stabilizes Society, Yeah”. Throughout the film, we’ve seen that Ice Cold basically likes to make dance tracks and club bangers, which symbolizes one alternative for rap creativity after the implosion of the hardcore posturing “gangsta” motif.
The second alternative, if we can even call it an “alternative”, belongs to Tasty Taste. Mirroring the feud between Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, Tasty refuses to let go of Ice Cold’s betrayal and takes his beef to wax. Tasty’s solo outings, “The Ice Man Melteth” and the LL Cool J-mimicking “Granny Said Kick Yo’ Ass”, are consumed with revenge and getting the last word. This, we might say, is the hip-hop sector that refuses to move forward and gets stuck in the past, fighting old grudges.
Finally, Tone Def takes a peaceful, live-and-let-live approach. Eschewing racial classifications, he releases “I’m Just a Human Being” in a style that recalls PM Dawn. It’s sort of a hybrid of singing and rapping, and it shrugged off the genre’s perceived and actual machismo. We might say it has a “pop” feel, or maybe we’d call it “emo”. There are real world examples of this, and this style tends to illuminate the divisions between “old school” heads and those of the “new school”. Think of Drake and Kid Cudi as being closer to this than to Ice Cold and Tasty.
Fear of a Black Hat ends with the group resolving its differences when a manager promises that, if NWH can reunite, he can secure a $400,000 advance from a record label. From there, they go back to performing their NWH hits, and the credits roll. Words on the screen tell us that NWH is working on an album called The Black in the Hat Comes Back, which means they’ve come full circle, branching out but then returning to their familiar material. There is a cautionary message in this, that perhaps rap fans, especially “old school” aficionados, should not be too quick to send rap back to its “golden age”. Rappers should continue to branch out and move forward.
It should also be noted that, Nina Blackburn, the chronicler of NWH’s year in the spotlight, ends up having children with Ice Cold. You know what that means. Even those with distance and some semblance of objectivity can get too close. That’s why movies like Fear of a Black Hat serve such an important function. Sometimes it takes a laughing at ourselves to truly see who we are.