The famed rapper talks to The Onion about his rise and falland attempts at career rebirth.
Though preceded by a few other crossover success stories, Young MC presided over the beginning of rap's widespread acceptance on Top 40 radio charts with "Bust A Move" and "Principal's Office." (He also wrote Tone-Loc's hits "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina.") This reign was capped by the multiplatinum success of 1990's Stone Cold Rhymin', and his Grammy and American Music Awards for Best Rap Artist, as well as Billboard's coveted Best New Pop Artist title. Inescapable in 1989 and 1990, Young MC seemed to disappear after being signed by Capitol Records and releasing 1991's Brainstorm. But he's been making music during the intervening years, and 1997 finds him working on a comeback with a small label and a new album, Return Of The 1 Hit Wonder. The Onion recently spoke to Young MC about his place in the music world's past, present and future.
The Onion: Your album title is a bit self-deprecating, wouldn't you say?
Young MC: Somewhat.
O: Do you feel like you're a one-hit-wonder?
YMC: No. Me personally, I don't feel like it. It's just that I know what the industry's like, and I know how people look at careers and artists, so I thought it would be fun to address that. Because I've had more than one hit myself, and I've worked on a lot of hits, but I'm known for one big one ["Bust A Move"]. It's like a label that, right or wrong, people have thrust at me. So I decided, why not confront that with the album title?
O: You're known for a song that turns up on just about every best-of-the-'90s compilation. But it came out in '89, right?
YMC: Yeah, but it went through to the '90s. That record [Stone Cold Rhymin'] was on the chart for 40 weeks.
O: In 1989 and 1990, having a big rap song in the Top 40 was a big deal, whereas now it seems like every other song is rap.
YMC: Yeah, and one thing that's a by-product of that is that the music industry will never be as open or as receptive to a record the way it was to that. You know?
O: Just for yourself?
YMC: Not only for me, for anybody. That record and "Wild Thing" and "Funky Cold Medina" were... Put it like this: My album and Loc's album were, for a lot of people, the first time they listened to rap music. So, to be able to be the introduction to a genre for people, rather than just another song... Right now, all the songs that come out will be just another song, because everyone's gotten accustomed to listening to a lot of rap music, so it could never touch you deeply. Essentially, it's like your first girlfriend. It can never really be the first in terms of rap for a lot of people, so that's why a long time ago I said I wouldn't try to recreate the frenzy that happened with "Bust A Move," 'cause it probably won't happen. I may make a better song in terms of mechanics, but in terms of how people will accept it, the public will never be that receptive to the music again. I just don't see it. At least in terms of the way the song sticks with people. People have had records that have sold more or whatever, but for me, for better or for worse, that song stays with people for a long time. And it still does to this day.
O: It seems like in 1986, Run DMC was on the pop charts, but in between then and 1989, when you and Tone-Loc were big, what other rap was there on the charts?
YMC: Yeah, for better or for worse, that's what it was. You know? A lot of it has to do with the right place at the right time. So I just keep that in mind when I'm making my music, and try to do the best I can. I realize there has to be the right climate.
O: Do you feel like you were treated like a novelty because there wasn't much rap out there?
YMC: A little bit, but the advantage I had, and I'm happy about this, is that people knew that I wrote; they knew that I went to college; they knew that I was doing a lot of other things rather than just sitting there waiting on that one record. So, even though I may be known for that record, a lot of people know me as having a career, and they know I was pretty intelligent about how I dealt with stuff. So that kind of pushed away any of the novelty vibe that might have come of it, because people would see an interview or read an article about me, and say there's more to this kid than just that one record.
O: What have you been up to since 1991, when Brainstorm came out?
YMC: I made another album in '93 called What's The Flavor? That really bounced over into '94; that was also on Capitol. And I had a single in '96 called "Get Your Boogie On," and I've really just been searching for the right label situation to make a product work.
O: Those must not have been very heavily promoted. I don't think a lot of people heard about them.
YMC: No, surprisingly. If a label's gonna give you six figures, and they're going to go through all the hoopla of getting you signed and all that other stuff, and they won't even put enough behind it to alert the media... I mean, that costs little or nothing.
O: Your new album is on a small label, Overall Records. Do you feel like they're handling the situation better?
YMC: Yeah, in terms of people being able to find out that I have music out. You know, everybody knows that I have a record coming, and I get a lot of interviews and a lot of things like that, and that helps.
O: Have you been busy with interviews lately?
YMC: To an extent, yeah. Quite a bit. Well, put it like this, more so than on Brainstorm or my last album. [Laughs.]
O: Do you feel that, at the time, because you had a college degree, that worked against you as far as street credibility goes?
YMC: The thing is, see, to me, if you sell anything more than half a million or three-quarters of a million records, you're going to lose street credibility to an extent. I've heard people talking bad about Dr. Dre and talking bad about Snoop [Doggy Dogg] and people like that, and it has less and less to do with the background and more and more to do with the fan base. And, from my standpoint, I never was a street artist, and I never purported to be a street artist. So, it's not something where something I felt was mine was taken away from me. I think part of the appeal and part of the reason the music has been so long-standing is that people who were intellectuals or were in college, and were not of a street background or whateverwho wouldn't usually listen to rapthey were moved by my song. So in that respect, I think I was able to capitalize on it. So whatever negatives came from having a college education were offset by the positives of people being able to relate to me.
O: How is the new single doing?
YMC: It's doing okay, doing okay. We've sold a few singles, and we're getting a little airplay here and there. I think that to an extent, I knew I was going to take some heat just coming out after all this time, and is it for real, and blah blah blah. The good thing about being with Overall is that we're going to stick with it, and really push two and three and four singles deep into this record, to really saturate the market and get the people aware. Because I think the music is strong. Having the music out there and getting the music heard is the most important thing.
O: What has the reaction of the fans been to your comeback?
O: Do you find that they didn't really know you were making music all those years?
YMC: For sure. You in the press didn't know. It's something where I can't really feel at fault for the record company not doing its job in terms of people knowing that I have a record out. It's one thing if you put a record out and people don't like it. At least they had a chance to hear it and say they didn't like it. Those two albums people didn't hear, so the assumption is that it didn't sell as much, so people didn't like it. But most people didn't hear it. In that respect, I just keep my eye on the prize and keep moving.
O: You've had to move with the times on this album. How many fashions have come and gone since "Bust A Move" was popular? Everything moves very quickly.
YMC: To an extent. You know what? When I made "Bust A Move," I wasn't thinking about that, and the problem was that I was thinking about that on the two albums I had with Capitol. Now I'm not thinking about that stuff anymore. I'm in the same frame of mind that I was in when I was in college writing the lyrics for Stone Cold Rhymin.' Make the best record you can, try to show your skills, and that's about it. Don't have any preconceived notions; don't have any assumptions about what the fans will say, or what people are expecting, or what your demographic is, or blah blah blah. Just make the best music you can, and I think I've done that with this record.
O: The next single, "Mr. Right Now," is a collaboration with [the punk band] Rubberneck. How did that go for you?
YMC: Rubberneck is a group on the label. I knew they did punk stuff, and I listen to all kinds of music, so I thought it would be a trip to do something different like that and collaborate with them.
O: You wrote the song together, right?
YMC: Yeah, they came up with the groove and I wrote the lyrics. It was actually done in the rehearsal studio.
O: Do you feel there hasn't been enough rock and rap crossover?
YMC: Yeah. Put it like this: There's space for more of it to be done. The less that others do, the more there is for people like me to do. Two or three years ago, people would say, "Do you think there's been enough sampling done?," and we probably would have said yes at that point. But [Sean "Puffy" Combs has] proven us wrong. So, in respect to the rock stuff, I know there will be some ground-breaking thing at some point, whether it's me or someone else. It'll happen, and it probably won't be intended. Because "Wild Thing" was rock, and "Funky Cold Medina" was rock. And all the things that those songs did, we didn't intend that. There's no way I could have intended all of that. No one, when they write a record, unless they're Mariah Carey, assumes the record is doing to go platinum.
O: It seems like when there is a rock/rap crossover, a lot of attention is paid to it, but it never quite catches on. Do you see that changing in the future?
YMC: It's interesting. With a record like "Mr. Right Now," we know that there's very few, if any, rap programmers who will play it. But then you turn around and go to rock people, and there are a lot of people who say, "We don't play rap, so we won't play that song." Is it rap or is it rock? It falls between the cracks, and everyone's so into categorizing music that it gets to be a pain. Someone will definitely hit the right note at one point, but I don't know if and when or who. But I guess it'll happen.
O: Getting back to 1989, what was it like when Tone-Loc's single first started catching on?
YMC: It felt good. I wasn't as much of a chart-watcher then as I am now. We thought it would do a little something. To be quite honest, I was more concerned with making sure I had good material on my album, and that I was writing good stuff and could have releases and stuff like that. I was more caught up in the writing. When it really started taking off, and he was everywhere, and everybody was asking me why I didn't do those songs, that's the only time I looked up and said, "Oh my goodness. Look at what's happening here." I hoped I would have just half or a quarter of the success he had.
O: Do you and Tone-Loc keep in touch?
YMC: No, not as much as we should. We're on good terms. We should, and I guess it's my fault. I never leave the house, so that might be part of it. But I consider him one of my friends, definitely.
O: Your song "Coast To Coast" addresses the East Coast/West Coast rivalry.
YMC: To an extent. It really looks at East and West Coast from my standpoint of growing up in the East, and learning to rhyme in the East, and getting my business deals to take off on the West Coast. I felt I needed to tell that story to show that there's a lot more in common between the East Coast and West Coast than people think. To me, it's all been blown out of proportion.
O: And the media do tend to dwell on the negative aspects of rap.
YMC: Oh, for sure.
O: Do you feel that's worked against you?
YMC: The thing is, how many [rap] careers can you name that have lasted from 1989 until now for anybody? Besides LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, whatever. There really aren't any careers where you can say, "Oh if X, Y and Z would have been done, these people would have been able to ride the waves of rap the way it's supposed to be done." There's no way. This music is not conducive to a long career. It's just not. So, knowing that, you just make the best music you can. And that's why I'm not caught up in worrying what everyone thinks about me. I heard from friends of mine who had friends in jail who would sing lyrics to my song; people from very diverse and intense backgrounds who you wouldn't think would get into a Young MC album would be like, "Oh, he's got some flow on this cut, he's got some flow on that cut." I can't please everyone, but if I can get a response like that from a demographic that I know my record company is not even looking to approach, I feel like I'm doing the right thing.