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'Who Got The Camera?' is the Perfect Book For Every Hip-Hop Head

By Jack Riedy

Who Got The Camera?, a new book from journalist and Grand Valley State University professor, Eric Harvey, examines why Black people need an alternative. Harvey contrasts the proliferation of reality TV via COPS, cable news, and Geraldo Rivera specials that stoked mainstream fear and suspicion of Black people, with “reality rap” artists like Ice-T, Public Enemy, and N.W.A., who offered alternative perspectives through their music while being vilified and censored by politicians and the press. The book surveys the late ‘80s and ‘90s, an era when the common understanding of “reality” became increasingly dependent on mass media, and discusses events like the unsuccessful censorship of 2 Live Crew, the Rodney King beating, and Tupac’s rise as a multimedia star.

Who Got The Camera? is an essential read for anyone interested in classic Hip-Hop and American history; Harvey’s final chapter zooms out to show how the same themes of Black expression, police surveillance, and self-referential mass media echo in today’s world of reality TV presidents and HD cameras in every pocket. I spoke to Harvey about the rise of infotainment, his favorite album from this period, and how the East Coast-West Coast beef ended on a sitcom.

When did you first start listening to rap?

I was born in '77, so I was about 12, 13, 14 during this whole moment. This was my teenage rebellion, so I was infatuated with it. I lived in Indianapolis, not geographically or culturally close to any of this world, but I loved experiencing it from afar. My form of suburban teenage rebellion was getting deep into N.W.A. and Public Enemy and Ice Cube. There was a strip mall record store right by my house in Indianapolis, and they just never checked IDs, never cared. I was just buying tapes based on album covers, basically. And they all have the [Parental Advisory] sticker on them. And that just made it more appealing to me.

I was gonna do something that was more conceptual, probably too academic for what the publishers wanted the book to be. Doing it chronologically, I made this timeline, started off from memory, and when albums came out, big events and presidential elections and stuff like that. And I was like, 'Man, this was an era where these people were collaborating, they were beefing, they were becoming superstars on their own terms in a lot of ways, and redefining what it meant to be a celebrity in America, and how, celebrities can engage with politics and African-American politics and deeply specific stuff, like some of the politics on albums like Fear of a Black Planet, Death Certificate. ' A lot of stuff was way over my head when I was a teenager, but I've come to learn a lot from it. This was a robust time for this world. And they were so much more than rappers, they were entertainers, and they were doing something that had really never been done before.

I did not have the understanding of the shift in news and media that took place in this era until now. Were you conscious of those shifts when you were a teenager?

I definitely wasn't deeply versed in the history of journalism when I was growing up, but I was a super news junkie. I got this from my dad, there was always newspapers laying around the house, and the TV was always on. And my dad was just this, incredible news junkie, watching local news, national news. And I got really into some of the spin-offs, the entertaining stuff that was part news, part entertainment: the talk shows and reality TV, like Cops and America's Most Wanted. My dad was a cop and I just got obsessed with that stuff. That kind of TV really taught me a lot, it gave me a lot of resources in order to kind of navigate the world, in a sense that hip-hop did too. Rap was party music that became serious, television was serious and it became more frivolous. And this 10-year period where they overlap. Looking back, it's almost too perfect.

There's one part of the book where I talk about the show Rescue 911. And it was hosted by William Shatner, and it was all about this terror that can erupt in everyday life, you never know when your kid's gonna trip and fall into a swimming pool, or somebody is going to start shooting on the interstate or something, and that the only protection you have are vigilant citizens and 911 operators. That's one perspective on the insanity of everyday life that I think is also very prominent in hip-hop at the time, which was like “I can't walk down the street without being either harassed by the cops or having a gun pulled on me or not knowing where terror is going to emerge at any given moment.” Both of those, from different directions and different perspectives and different power dynamics, are looking at the same problem: what's it like to live in America in the late '80s, early '90s? And what's the entertainment value of this everyday terror from both directions?

Your conclusion brings the themes of the book into the present. Was your approach any different for that chapter, with so much more history to account for?

That was actually not originally part of the book. I was writing it and thinking I should keep this sealed from '86 to '96, and let everybody else do the rest. And then as I was writing it, Trump got elected and there was a point where I was like, there's just too much here that has happened in the last 25 years to ignore. 

JAY-Z, for instance, comes in right at the end of the last chapter of the book, and capitalizes on this new shift in Hip-Hop after the death of B.I.G. and the death of Tupac. JAY-Z and Puff end up saying, "All right, here's the next move," and it's executive suite expensive, what you would call like, jiggy rap. He and Obama became friends. I felt like I have to mention Eminem, because he was in there with Dr. Dre, then Kanye West is with Jay Z, and everything is threaded in there so tightly that I was like, “Alright, I'm just gonna put this all in the conclusion,” and the conclusion ends up being essentially the year '99 through 2019. But I'm revising the book during the summer of 2020, I have to at least acknowledge that George Floyd was a rapper at one point, so was Michael Brown, and this stuff is more important right now than ever. hip-hop isn't the same kind of headline news format that it was before, because that has been taken over by Twitter and Instagram and there's all these other outlets now for people to get that content and for popular figures to express themselves. Let’s see if I can thread this all together in the final chapter and I hope it holds together.

This book covers some dark subject matter, but do you have a favorite bit of historical connection you came across in your research? There's a section that mentions Snoop going in front of Judge Lance Ito.

Yeah, the OJ judge was also the judge in Snoop's trial. Definitely. There's a part toward the end of the book that I completely memory-holed, where Puffy and Snoop appeared on Steve Harvey's sitcom playing themselves. Steve Harvey plays a high school teacher in a sitcom and both Snoop and Puffy were trying to sample a song that Steve Harvey's character had written called "When the Funk Hits the Fan." And they both show up at his high school, typical sitcom style. And they essentially squash the East Coast, West Coast beef on Steve Harvey's sitcom, which is a fitting conclusion, because this whole beef was mediated from the beginning. It was this big spectacle that was terrifying and lucrative and entertaining all at once, And for it to come to an end on a cheesy UPN sitcom was so fitting, and weirdly moving in its own way. Just two guys who were saying, "Look, we gotta move past this, for the good of everyone." And that moment was something that I memory-holed a little bit. 

Eazy-E's death was something that I had forgotten about a little bit. I was a senior in high school when it happened, it was a massive shock. Hip-hop didn't really engage with AIDS in any meaningful way, but weirdly enough, hip-hop was one of the only popular culture spaces that talked about safe sex regularly. Even Ice Cube, he could have an album with hateful diatribes against gay people, and then he could also say, have safe sex, and both things are hermetically sealed in their own world. Looking back, it was women who were really at the forefront of contextualizing Eazy-E's death. There were women writing about it, like dream hampton and Joan Morgan, who were saying "No, we have to talk about this and the full context of the AIDS epidemic, if we're ever going to understand what it means and how hip-hop is supposed to engage with us." And it's groups like Salt-n-Pepa and TLC, who were rapping about safe sex in a smart, engaging, fun, but socially responsible way. The way the hip-hop community reacted to this moment, and how they really engaged with AIDS in the 90s, as a whole, was something that really hasn’t been touched before, so that was definitely one of those moments too

I think fans of the music tend to defend rappers as a gut-reaction, especially in a free speech context, but what was it like to discuss the good and the bad of lyrics and public statements from people like Ice Cube or the members of Public Enemy?

As a white critic, I think a lot of white folks’ knee-jerk response is to just say, "Oh, it's not my space to talk about what these folks can say or can't say." But yeah, I wanted to dive into that a little bit more. Homophobia and hip-hop is a well-trod territory. But I really didn't want to soft-pedal any of it. You can say some of the stuff that they talk about is just pretty reprehensible while giving them the creative latitude that any artist should be granted. Like Ice Cube in "You Can't Fade Me," talking about kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach so that he doesn't have to worry about raising a kid, he's talking to Greg Tate about it and says, “Yeah, man, this is a sadistic fantasy that a lot of young men that I know have, and I put it on the record, and people think that it's autobiographical, it's not.” Ice Cube has been married to the same woman for decades, he's got kids, but at the same time, you do have to grapple with this stuff. 

2 Live Crew, a lot of their stuff was just absolutely just reprehensible, the kinds of things that they're talking about doing to women. But at the same time, I tried to grapple with the idea of this as a part of what you would call street culture in Miami, where you're trying to outdo one another with being as gross or as sexually explicit or as obscene as you could, trying to like one up each other. The popular culture of America has been absorbing Black popular culture for decades, centuries, and this is another example of it happening, and when it crosses over to white audiences, that’s really when people start freaking out about it.

Tupac, with his sexual assault charges, that section took me forever to figure out how to write because there are people who defend Tupac almost like a saint. If you die young, it’s easy to become this saintly figure where all the bad stuff in your life is glossed over. But I believe his accuser. That's part of the story. He had kind of a horrifying opinion of women. So did Ice Cube. Ice Cube would say stuff women are the root of all evil, they're why black men act like they do, is to impress women. Tupac is kinda like, if you don't lighten up on me for this rape charge, I'm never gonna make another "Keep Ya Head Up." He saw it as a quid pro quo with the press. Like, "Hey, I did this song, isn't that enough?" It takes a lot to be able to hold these multiple realities in your head, that I think Tupac is one of the most, transcendent, great artists of his time. I think Ice Cube personally is my favorite “character” in the book. I think he's brilliant and extremely underappreciated for what he did to change popular music. Same for Chuck D. But I also think that their music can be sexist and repulsive and there's just stuff I just don't listen to anymore, except to engage with as an intellectual project.

You mention an Oprah segment where two women of color debate the issues and how rare that is. When you were researching, was there a lack of female opinions of the issues at the time, or writing from female critics?

Here you have a style of music that is, in large part, based around interactions with women, and  putting women in a particular hyper-sexualized position, and then also raising them up as avatars of goodness and purity, like mother figures. It's easy to look back and to celebrate the voices that did exist in this space, like Queen Latifah, or Yo-Yo, or MC Lyte, folks like that, but come on, they're few and far between. I'm not saying that to say, come on women, speak up. But I'm not blowing anybody's mind saying hip-hop was a masculinist medium of expression, and women were not getting recognized nearly the same way. It took the development of  a hip-hop press to be able to foreground a diversity of voices. There's a scholar named Tricia Rose, who I cite throughout the book, who's one of the earliest and foundational scholars of hip-hop, and she writes about this a lot. Even when male journalists were trying to write about women, or trying to write about hip-hop, they were just always lapsing into like super misogynist language and sexism was just pervasive in this world.

The show that you're talking about was an episode of Oprah, that Ice-T was on, and his then-wife was in the audience. She is Latina, and she got in an argument about the effects of hip-hop on young men with another woman, who identified as Black. I went back and forth through the literature, and it’s rare to hear two women of color talking about hip-hop, and they're often the subjects of hip-hop. It took Oprah to come into the scene to facilitate that, and that was only like a two or three minute exchange on a talk show, not even the subject of the talk show. 

When you hear women's voices, it's usually people like Tipper Gore, who’s a privileged white woman, saying that “this obscenity is poison to children,” etc. Harpies from the center of power who don't understand the culture whatsoever. The 2 Live Crew controversy was a big win for the First Amendment, but Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the original critical race theory scholars, writes a piece for the Boston Review where she lays into Henry Louis Gates who is a prominent African-American historian and scholar and linguist. He testified at the 2 Live Crew trial, saying this is not obscene, this is part of African-American cultural history. And Kimberlé Crenshaw comes in and says, “I'm listening to this music, and I'm being offended as a woman and as a Black woman. Thinking about the intersectionality of gender and race, it's not just a racial issue, let's not write women out of this story.” I think this is one of the earliest moments when average people started thinking about intersectionality, in terms of how power dynamics work, it's not just race, it's not just gender, it's not just sexuality, but these things intersect. She was like, "Look, I want to defend 2 Live Crew, for their right to free speech, and they're being targeted because they're black. But I also want to decry their work, because it just makes black women look like passive sex objects." And so there's a ton of complexity in all of these stories.

The end of this era is marked by the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. Do you see any parallels to our current era where so many rappers have died young?

I think that there is a crisis in the fact that Black men, who are still the most dominant force in hip-hop, are dying at an alarmingly young age. It's impossible not to notice as you see the obituaries for folks like DMX, passing away in his early 50s. Then you have somebody like Nipsey Hussle getting shot. There is a crisis in this country of young Black men not able to age out gracefully, and that's something deeply embedded infrastructurally in American life. It’s something that transcends hip-hop. But hip-hop can be used as a magnifying glass, to bring these things to light, that it's not just rappers dying young, but it's Black men dying too young. 

The book looks at a specific era of musical and American history. Do you think “reality rap” still exists today?

In the mid-2010s, LA started popping again. You have TDE and Kendrick, and you had a lot of rappers that were using that archetype. Obviously "The Chronic" in late '92 established the template of G-Funk, music that's rooted in 70s funk, not necessarily James Brown, more George Clinton. A ton of bass. And a bounce to it that the East Coast music didn't really have. And so I think sonically, there's definitely that. 

Somebody that we haven't talked about yet is Ice-T, who has been written out of this history, because I don't think a lot of critics think that he's a good rapper, and I think they're correct. But Ice-T, Eazy-E and Ice Cube were really the architects of this entire mindset of saying, “we're going to pull from the salacious hyper-realism of blaxploitation, and the pimp architecture that was laid down by Iceberg Slim and folks like that, and we're going to update it for the Reagan crack '80s.” Whether you want to call it a genre or a format, that mindset really just turned rap upside down, and it relocated its power center to LA. Biggie was a huge fan of West Coast rap. I mean, it's all over his debut album, and he recognized that he was trying to pull the power center back to Brooklyn, back to New York City. 

After the death of Tupac and Biggie, the music wasn't necessarily "ripped from the headlines" anymore. It was more like rappers were obsessing over their status and their fame, and it was great in its own way, but that definitely is not tabloid rap anymore. This is not reality rap anymore. When thinking about what Chuck D said about rap is Black America's television station, rap still does that, whether it's trap or any other of the dozens of permutations of hip-hop around the world today, there's DNA from this moment in there. But rap doesn't have to serve that function anymore. I think that there are lots of other places that are serving that Black TV station role today.

In the book you mention that Ice Cube is your favorite artist of this era. Do you have a favorite album from this time?

Yeah, Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy, 1990. I think it's one of the two or three greatest records ever made. I just absolutely love it. It's complex, and it's absolutely controversial and problematic in a lot of ways, but the way it sounds...There's a song in there called "Brothers Gonna Work It Out" that I play, if not every day, every other day, it just gets me absolutely jacked. And it has since I was 14. That era, '90, '91 to me, there's Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Death Certificate, Tupac's first album. It's such a fertile moment for this era of hip-hop. But "Burn Hollywood Burn" is on Fear of a Black Planet, and Ice Cube and "911 is a Joke." It is just an absolutely phenomenal record to me. That's the one. Put on some headphones for Fear of a Black Planet.

Coincidentally I just watched Terminator 2 over Labor Day Weekend, and you mention that George Holliday filmed the set of T2 with the same camera he filmed Rodney King’s assault. Can't beat that for historical alignment.

Right? You have one of the biggest movies of all time at that point, and it’s based around an evil LAPD robot scaring the shit out of people all across LA and chasing a kid in a Public Enemy T-shirt. I mean, it's all right there.