The Thin Line Between Rap and Reality

An interview with Eric Harvey, author of the new history of hip-hop and tabloid TV, Who Got the Camera?

Who Got The Camera: A History of Rap and Reality by Eric Harvey is available now on University of Texas Press (2021)

The story of hip-hop’s “classic” era—the mid-eighties to mid-nineties—is retold so often it threatens to overtake hippie San Francisco or high-punk CBGB as pop’s most overdetermined moment. 

But that story still has much to teach us. Exhibit A: the just-published Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality by Eric Harvey. No, the book has nothing to do with Love and Hip-Hop or Marriage Boot Camp: Hip-Hop Edition or Keeping Up with the Kardashians special guest celeb Kanye West. 

Instead, Harvey—an associate professor in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan—concentrates on the convergence of hip-hop’s first decade of commercial domination, beginning with Run-D.M.C. and ending with the feud and deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., and the beginnings of reality television: Cops, America’s Most Wanted (which spawned the title of Ice Cube’s first album without N.W.A, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted), and the racy (in more ways than one) daytime talk shows of Geraldo Rivera and Maury Povich. In addition to showing Middle America subcultures heretofore verboten on non-cable TV from BDSM to Michael Alig’s Club Kids, those “tabloid” talk shows helped frame the “debate” on gangsta rap—many times with the rappers themselves as guests (cf. this four-part Oprah Winfrey appearance by Ice-T).

Harvey, a regular contributor to Pitchfork and other publications, was fascinated early on by those convergences—not to mention the role of law enforcement as antagonist within hip-hop itself. This was something Harvey knew firsthand, growing up in Indianapolis, where, as he acknowledges in the book’s introduction, his father was a deputy sheriff. Additionally, the author worked as a video editor for a local production house. That grounding helps give the book a heft that lifts it out of the merely theoretical. So does his theory itself—one that has produced a definitive look at music and television, a rare feat. I interviewed Harvey over email. 

 

What does your dad think of this book? What has he thought of the pieces and other work leading up to it?

My dad died in December 1998, when I was a senior in college. I know it’s probably weird not to have mentioned it in the preface/acknowledgements, and I went back and forth on it. I wrote it out with the whole story in it, but kept that part out because it introduced a tragic event in the preface that itself didn’t have anything to do with the story. I felt it would detract from that section, as crass as it sounds. But you’re right to ask the question—it’s a great one.

 

You briefly mention that you edited videotape for a local production company, and your dismay at the manipulation of footage that went on. You were already a seasoned viewer of reality shows, and also clearly not a naif going in. So I have to wonder if it was the frequency or the level of manipulation that got to you more? Or just both?

Before I started shooting and editing TV documentaries, I studied TV and documentary in college, so I definitely had a sense of how that world worked, but nothing close to what I learned in the day-to-day interactions with in-house and network producers with six-figure budgets. The stress that was put on emphasizing the salaciousness of some of the footage I shot, for instance, or one Monday morning meeting where, I kid you not, we had to rethink a program that was in post-production because a Discovery executive mentioned his thoughts on the subject casually at a weekend cocktail party. It wasn’t as much that I learned that, say, Geraldo Rivera was purposefully booking guests who’d fight, as much as I learned the dark arts of lingering on a gnarly b-roll shot for a few seconds longer, or use the close-up shot of the crash instead of the wide shot. That level of micro-manipulation was the name of the game, of course, but actually participating in it made me nauseous. 

 

VIDEO: Roy Innis v. Nazis on Geraldo

Many of the shows you discuss in the book, though not all, were either on Fox, which was at first just a fledgling gaggle of syndicated stations, or were syndicated themselves outright. Did you find anything in your research pertaining to the rise of syndicated broadcasting during the eighties?

Indeed—to keep up with cable and, later, Fox, the big three broadcast networks increasingly relied on syndication agreements with independent production companies. Most of the big daytime talk shows, for instance, were licensed by networks in this way, which explains why, occasionally, shows would appear on different networks in different markets. And of course, one thing that came from such a production agreement, versus a program produced “in house” at a network, is that the content was often pretty outrageous for the standard audience, involving guests and topics that might have been nixed early on in the process by a worried exec. And so network affiliates would have to bear the brunt of angry phone calls when Geraldo booked Satanists on his show, for example, and threaten to pull the plug, which went up the chain at the network, and then over to his producers. 

 

The same thing was also true of cable: Obviously, MTV and BET are helping publicize reality rap, and to an extent the Biggie-2Pac feud. But it was CNN that made America thirsty for 24-hour news cycles. What, if any, role would you say CNN played in the book’s events?

CNN most definitely set the table, so to speak, for the rise of tabloid culture. Having to fill 24 hours and acquire new viewers willing to shell out for a cable package each month meant leaning into sensationalistic stories like “Baby Jessica” faling into a well and being rescued (an early ratings win for CNN) and of course, in 1991, the Gulf War. There was originally a longer chunk in the book about CNN producers and executives turning the Gulf War into a high-tech video game that distanced journalists and viewers from the actual facts on the ground (dead, innocent Iraqis) with spectacular footage of bombs with cameras attached blowing up anonymized buildings. After Bush 1’s invasion of Panama to oust America’s former ally Manuel Noriega, the Gulf War was the nation’s first big attempt to prove its global military might after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. And CNN was along for the ride, in a huge way, it was the first time that most Americans had tuned into the network en masse for ongoing “breaking” news, and the broadcast networks played along, investing millions into high-tech graphics packages and bringing in ex-generals as “analysts,” providing a remarkably and depressingly one-sided vision of the conflict. CNN turned war into high-tech spectacle. Three years later…do I need to mention CNN’s role in turning the OJ murders from a washed-up athlete and pitchman’s crimes into a multi-year, headline-grabbing spectacle? Everyone followed CNN’s lead there, too. 

 

Music was tabloid fodder in the nineties other ways as well: Sinead O’Connor and the National Anthem, or Kurt and Courtney. It was an era that was obsessed, in many aspects, with “keeping it real.” You argue persuasively that part of hip-hop’s greatness and legacy was its instinct for scandal. Did that (gotta say it) reality principle help keep hip-hop at the top of the pop-music food chain where alternative withered under its own self-imposed weight?

Don’t forget Axl Rose! But yes, in the early years of the conservative moral panic over music and obscenity, rock and heavy metal especially were constantly part of the discussion. It’s interesting—but not odd—to see how that shifted once Nirvana, et al turned “heavy” music into an authenticity-obsessed emotional forum. While songs like “Jeremy” addressed the kind of subject matter you’d expect to encounter on an episode of Inside Edition or Jenny Jones, for the most part rock music avoided the kinds of tabloid scandal that many rappers actively sought (with your exceptions duly noted). The thing that reality rappers did so well—and that 2Pac solidified once he became a superstar known as much for his rap sheet as rap (sorry) in 1993—is fully merging their outsider “keeping it real” status into the spectacle of late-capitalist celebrity culture. Once Pac and Snoop (and Dre and Suge) started sucking all the oxygen out of the hip-hop conversation in 1995, I don’t think there was any going back. Hip hop shifted to a new model for stardom based on the Jay-Z and Puffy ideal of executive-suite realness, while the politically-themed music increasingly moved underground. I do think that a primary reason that hip hop took over popular music by the early 2000s was because of a full identification with late capitalist reality (see Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism” for much more on this).

 

VIDEO: Sinead O’Connor on SNL

Having written about Run-D.M.C.’s rise, I was gripped by your account of the aftermath of the 1986 Long Beach riot. It was unprecedented territory for hip-hop and it caught everyone short, allowing what you call “moral entrepreneurs” to swoop in and blame rap music for gang activity, when in fact it reflects that reality. You echo that story with Chuck D of Public Enemy vowing not to let the same kind of thing happen to him—only for the Professor Griff fracas to do just that. But rap stars get progressively better at PR management. Who masters it first?

A really good question, because to the degree that rappers started shifting the national political conversation by the early 1990s, their messages were either explicitly subsumed by those with far more economic and political power, or they turned their energies toward their rap rivals instead of the powers that be (six on one, half a dozen on the other, etc.). Perhaps surprisingly, I’d say Luther Campbell made out fairly well for himself—calling the tabloid press and its law-enforcement bretheren’s bluff and ultimately winning at the highest level. Campbell’s label provided a great example for future Black entrepreneurs to make it on their own terms, though of course they weren’t exactly trying to foster the same kinds of political change as Chuck D or Ice Cube. 

 

I’d imagine that most people under, say, thirty wouldn’t recognize Ice-T as a rapper: he’s been a TV actor for a long time now. Even as someone who likes his early records—sharply defined persona, good storyteller, fabulous intonation—I think his greatest performance may be one you mention in the book: his appearance on Oprah Winfrey in the wake of his 1991 O.G. Original Gangster album. He convinced people in my home about hip-hop’s use value and artistic merit that wouldn’t listen to me (or his records) until then. It’s really hard to imagine that entire media moment without him. What did he bring to the table in terms of arguing for, and not just making, reality rap?

You’re the first interviewer to bring up Ice-T, who I think has more or less been completely written out of this moment apart from “Cop Killer,” which is a shame. Your correct evaluation of his skills notwithstanding, most rap fans wouldn’t call him a good technical rapper (and he’d agree), which I think has lessened his impact. But he was a sui generis public figure from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, doing as much as Chuck D or Ice Cube to shift the conversation about race and power toward a Black street perspective. Right before NWA broke, T was the first rapper to proudly flex his Crip bonafides, and more importantly to merge hip-hop with the bleak style of 1970s Black authors like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines. He was the first one to constantly bang the “reality rap” hammer—in his interviews and the book he published in 1994—and his willingness to translate his charismatic persona into Hollywood action and “street” films paved the way for 2Pac as much as Cube did.

 

My favorite quote in the book is the Los Angeles Times calling the CBS tabloid news magazine West 57th “the Flashdance of TV news.” Which library’s files did you dig that up from? Tell me about the libraries and archives you did your research in.

That is a really great quote, and it definitely underscores how establishment journalists and critics were struggling to come to terms with the tabloid era, which would soon subsume their work and alter their reputations more than they could have ever predicted. Digging in news archives was easily my favorite part of book research, and it came in three parts. First and most obviously are the paid online archives, especially the NYT and LA Times, whose back issues are readily accessible (though sometimes requiring a bit of search-engine mojo). Also a newspapers.com subscription permitted me to see layout choices and photos for original stories, giving me a better sense of what newspaper readers were encountering at the time. I put together the entire 2 Live Crew story mostly from archived issues of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, for instance. As we all know, the back issues of SPIN, Vibe, Ebony, and Jet are freely available online, and Cornell University’s hip-hop archive (donated by erstwhile Run-DMC publicist Bill Adler) were incredibly useful. (I also finagled access to the Rolling Stone archives from a friend who works for the magazine). Secondly, I bought a ton of old books and magazines from eBay, from old issues of TV Guide to stacks of early 1990s Newsweeks and Entertainment Weekly, to rapper biographies (Ice-T, Chuck D, Luther Campbell, Scarface, Snoop, 2Pac) and of-their-time chronicles of the launch of Fox, America’s Most Wanted, and so on. This is probably what I spent most of my modest book advance on; I kept the books and donated the rest after scouring them for relevant information. Finally, I took a couple big trips to two archives: Indiana University’s Archives of African American Music and Culture, where I spent two days digging into a massive trove of early issues of The Source, and two days at Vanderbilt University’s Television News Archive, which has a gigantic, streamable database of just about every over-the-air news broadcast since the late 1960s.

 

Geraldo Rivera was big in my family’s house simply in part because he was Puerto Rican, like my mother’s dad—representation matters. How much of a breakthrough was tabloid TV and/or reality rap in terms of racial and other kinds of minority representation starting in the late eighties?

Huge. Oprah’s impact on Black women’s representation on television has been hashed over numerous times, as well, but the impact extended beyond the hosts. Daytime talk was far from a progressive space in the sense we use that term today, but an old-school liberal like Phil Donahue was diving directly into the struggles for Black liberation more than any nightly newscast or daily metro newspaper. Then there are the scholars of daytime TV and gender like Elayne Rapping, Janice Peck and Jane Shattuc, who have written extensively about the daytime talk landscape as a deeply feminized space for discussing everything from public affairs to more intimate issues, framed not as an authoritative, masculinist desire for knowledge but as an affective mode of sharing individualized experiences with likeminded others. Finally, daytime talk offered a useful platform for countless others on the so-called “fringes” of mainstream conversation—athiests, disabled people, LGBTQ+ folks, sex workers, and others—to introduce the rest of the world to themselves and people like them. And reality rappers, while of course wildly intolerant of women and LGBTQ+ folks, were incredibly important in foregrounding and mainstreaming issues that high school educational systems weren’t touching: the 1980s explosion of pan-African solidarity and Afrocentrism, the mere existence of titanic figures like Marcus Garvey; a more complex and sympathetic portrayal of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the post-Farrakhan Nation of Islam. 

 

One thing the book gives an ambient sense of without really spelling it out is the ever-increasing sense in that period of what was referred to then as information overload. The amount of immediately available entertainment and information skyrocketed: a surfeit of new cable channels, ever more and (thanks to the CD) longer albums, an increasingly abundant and widely distributed global cinema. That was reflected, particularly, in the Bomb Squad’s production style. How did their work with Public Enemy and Ice Cube reflect and refract the mediascape, both stylistically and in directly sampling it?

Tremendously. At one point about halfway through the book, I quote Ice Cube from an interview with Dee Barnes where he compared his brain to a VCR, which I think sums up this era more than any quote apart from Chuck D calling rap a Black television station. This framing allows you to look at this era of hip-hop in a couple related ways: obviously through its direct and metaphorical ties to television itself, but also as what you might call a technology for creatively dealing with information glut. When I hear Nation of Millions and AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, it’s like a massive standing archive of Black popular culture—music, oratory, film, television, stand-up comedy—reconfigured into a thrilling new medium. And while it was all predicted by Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” it also specifically happens at a moment when digital samplers and cable television were still new, and the average person felt like they were flooded with information, numerous perspectives on that information, marketing, and entertainment, and a select few wrangled the new technologies on offer to combine what was around them into something new.

 

 

How does Ice Cube’s Death Certificate sound to you these days? Does it still incinerate the way it seemed to back then, or was much of that down to the moment?

There are definitely parts of that album that make me reflexively cringe in the same way I did when I first heard it at 14. I knew that “Black Korea” was a terrifying and bigoted call to action, and I knew what anti-Semitism was (likely thanks in part to daytime talk shows), so those parts of, say, “No Vaseline” didn’t resonate with me the way Cube wanted them to. But at the same time, “Bird in the Hand” still hits as hard as ever, and is still as sadly relevant. It’s one of the great protest songs of all time, sort of like a post-grad version of “Fuck Tha Police” that zooms out to the racism embedded into the American economic system. Same goes for “Alive on Arrival,” as much an exposé and critique of American emergency medical infrastruture as “911 is a Joke.” But to be totally honest, I think the primary impact of Death Certificate to this day is less its political program than its representation of everyday Black lives in Los Angeles. From “Steady Mobbin’” to “Doin’ Dumb Shit” and “Look Who’s Burnin’,” Death Certificate paved the way for The Chronic and Doggystyle in content as well as sound (Cube, Sir Jinx, and DJ Pooh did as much to introduce P-Funk into the west coast rap lexicon as anyone). This is an aspect of Cube’s career that is very underappreciated, I think: he carved out a space for reality rappers to explore not just the sensationalistic and tabloid aspects of American racism, but the day-to-day realities of life in the ‘hood.

 

Those of us who spend too much time on social media know “Florida man” as the start of an absurdist claim. Yet that was how a lot of the activity surrounding the 2 Live Crew trial and some of the reality shows you discuss also begin. Could the As Nasty as They Wanna Be arrest have happened elsewhere then? Could it now?

One of the things that I hope this book helps contextualize is just how obnoxious, absurd, and frightening the links between politicians, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, and various moral entrepreneurs like Jack Thompson became in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As was brought up in the 2 Live Crew trial, the test for obscenity is defined in part by “community standards” in a given area, and at the time, Broward County, Florida was not exactly “pure” by any metrics. The group’s defense team went out and bought numerous hardcore X-rated films in the same neighborhoods, for example, to demonstrate that the case against 2 Live Crew wasn’t based on obscenity as much as Black “street” language making its way into non-Black ears. At the center of the whole ordeal was Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro, who never met a camera he couldn’t commandeer for his own publicity purposes. Before he loaned out his department for the pilot episode of Cops in 1989, he auditioned for Miami Vice and gave extensive interviews to the press about his Draconian and media-savvy (and plain racist) approach toward drugs in his jurisdiction. As I note in the conclusion to the book, the approach toward criminalizing hip-hop have evolved over the subsequent decades—Fox talking heads will still occasionally position popular rappers as “thugs” and the like, but it’s much more common for local D.A.s to execute search-and-destroy missions on small, unknown rappers for discussing crime in their lyrics.

 

VIDEO: Dan Rather reports on 2 Live Crew on CBS 1990

This book helps contextualize just what a bombshell the Rodney King video was—there simply wasn’t easily available evidence of the police doing that sort of thing, never mind doing it, by much evidence since then, quite routinely. Why did it take so long? How much of the legwork that made it possible had been the work of reality TV?

In August 1988, the NYPD instigated a riot in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, in a violent attempt to clear the area of squatters and unhoused people and quiet a demonstration against an unfair curfew recently imposed upon the park. Two citizens—Clayton Patterson and Paul Garrin—captured much of the police violence on videotape, which helped sway public opinion and gave the officers and their spokespeople no P.R. “out” from the facts on the ground. But compared to the King video less than three years later, this was more of a local story. In the intervening years, camcordering became a massive pastime for Americans, and news stations from local affiliates to CNN were eager to acquire the kinds of you-had-to-be-there footage that their own video teams could never capture on their own. This was part and parcel of the increasing “reality entertainment” landscape—America’s Funniest Home Videos was a massive hit at the time—but I think that footage as stunningly violent as the King tape would have been a major national issue if it had been released at any point in history. What we might call “camcorder culture” meant that the daily practices and beliefs of an increasing number of Americans were influenced by the notion that they might be able to participate in mass-media discourse as much as, say, rappers or Oprah’s guests. And we also have to note that the quality of the recordings captured by camcorders was more sophisticated than ever: it’s impossible to imagine a 16mm film camera or even a VHS-C camcorder capturing the King beating with the clarity (even with all the blurriness) that George Holliday’s camera did.

 

Which parts of the recent elections resonate most loudly with the book to you?

The easiest answer here is Ice Cube’s willingness to sit down with the Trump team and discuss policies for Black Americans. Obviously it was a massive PR failure for Ice Cube, but if you look at his personal political history, it makes a lot more sense. As someone who never officially joined the Nation of Islam but adopted his politics from the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, it makes perfect sense that Cube’s approach would be one that sought to improve the lives of African-Americans by any means necessary, regardless of political party. This doesn’t mean that Cube was right, but it does explain where he’s coming from. Listen to Death Certificate; it’s all there. The other thing that irked me about the 2016 election and the Trump presidency was the refusal of mainstream political reporters to admit their failures in understanding and effectively covering Trump. The discourse immediately shifted toward the impact of “fake news” on Facebook, which was not a major factor at all, instead of the very obvious explanation that Trump had built his entire celebrity image in the 1980s tabloid era—from NYC rags to fawning appearances on Oprah and the like—the second reality era, with The Apprentice, and, not for nothing, as an avatar of exorbitant wealth in countless rap lyrics. Not only was Trump was willing to drag his political opponents into the mud with him and embrace reactionary and bigoted identity politics, but more broadly, he appealed to a long-latent tendency in American political life to vote not for the most qualified candidate but the one who could manipulate political spectacle most effectively. I still don’t think that American political reporters (or, for that matters, the mainstream left) have learned this lesson; they’re still treating the GOP as a regular political party instead of a radicalized collective of culture warriors. I don’t know if the answer to this problem is for the left (and the media) to meet the GOP on its own tabloid terms, but whatever it is they’re currently doing feels like a moderate recipe for total failure.

 

VIDEO: Eric Harvey in conversation with Scott Poulson-Bryant

 

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Michaelangelo Matos

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Hachette, 2020). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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