Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In 1990, Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest, and Ice Cube reflected the splintering of the hip-hop nation

Illustration for article titled In 1990, Hammer, Vanilla Ice, A Tribe Called Quest, and Ice Cube reflected the splintering of the hip-hop nation

Hip-Hop And You Do Stop is a series chronicling Nathan Rabin’s deep love for (and growing estrangement from) hip-hop through the filter of golden age and ’90s hip-hop. Each entry documents a year in the genre’s development, beginning with 1988 and concluding with 2000.


One of the overlooked pleasures of being a veteran pop-culture watcher lies in seeing artists evolve and change in ways you never could have anticipated. When Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston first rose to prominence, for example, they were perfect to the point of being boring. Their impeccably crafted personas were diligently scrubbed of the vulnerability, imperfections, and unpredictability that make us human. As a result, there was something cold and robotic about their output.

Carey and Houston looked perfect. They sounded perfect. They recorded songs polished to a blinding sheen by armies of producers, songwriters, and studio technicians. So when Carey and Houston’s carefully crafted facade of soulless perfection cracked to reveal deeply eccentric, troubled, and self-destructive lost souls, it rendered the pair human and vulnerable in a way they never were before. Carey and Houston became infinitely more interesting and unpredictable than they were before public downward spirals. We thought we knew them, but in reality all we really knew was the image their handlers and record labels and publicists created. It turned out we didn’t really know them at all.

Houston and Carey didn’t crack in spite of being held up by their labels and society at large as an image of glossy perfection for all women (and ambitious drag queens) to aspire to; they cracked because they were held up by their labels and society at large as an image of glossy perfection. That’s an insane level of pressure for anyone to bear. Is it any wonder Houston and Carey imploded? Who wouldn’t under similar circumstances?

On a similar note, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice once personified the glossy soullessness of mainstream hip-hop. When they exploded onto pop culture and elevated hip-hop to new levels of popularity, critical derision, and public mockery, Ice and Hammer came off as frightfully generic. But like Houston and Carey, they ultimately proved far more interesting and unpredictable than their early images suggested.

The music MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice made might have been bland, soulless, and forgettable, yet the artists behind that music were anything but even if it took decades for their full eccentricity to emerge. In the 22 years since his debut, To The Extreme, Vanilla Ice heralded the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in song (“Ninja Rap” from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret Of The Ooze soundtrack); ventured into softcore pornography via a cameo in Madonna’s infamous Sex book; swaggered and smirked in Cool As Ice; became a competitive jet-ski racer; got addicted to heroin; attempted suicide; reinvented himself first as a stoner MC, then as a nü-metal rap-rock screamer; destroyed the set of an MTV special called 25 Lame in a fit of rage after being invited to drop by and prove what a great sport he was (turns out he wasn’t that great a sport); competed on both Celebrity Boxing and Celebrity Bull Riding Challenge; launched a reality show on HGTV about his sideline renovating houses; signed with Insane Clown Posse’s Psychopathic Records (after over a decade of proudly broadcasting his love for the self-styled “most hated band in music”); and was, if I may damn Ice with some very faint praise, the best part of the recent Adam Sandler vehicle That’s My Boy. And just as the runaway success of The Monkees television show helped fund watershed movies like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces by pumping money into Raybert/BBS Productions, Suge Knight’s gangsta-rap label Death Row Records got an influx of cash when Knight famously “convinced” Ice to let go of the publishing rights to “Ice Ice Baby” by dangling him out of a window.

Ice’s post-heyday life has been anything but bland, but it’s easy to see how folks could have listened to To The Extreme and imagined the sneering white boy behind it would never go on to do anything remotely interesting. It’s not that the album is devoid of personality. It should be so lucky! No, To The Extreme suffers from an abundance of personality; it all just happens to be awful.


Before To The Extreme justifies the tidal wave of contempt that greeted its release, it comes damn close to single-handedly redeeming itself and Ice’s whole misbegotten career with kick-off track “Ice Ice Baby.” The song is an irresistible pop single that transforms the percolating bass line of David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure”—a sound that provides a simple yet powerful musical analogue to the heedless, unstoppable rush of modern life in the 20th century—into swaggering dumbass bravado. Ice’s account of checking out the honeys and fleeing a drive-by is only as good as it absolutely needs to be, since “Ice Ice Baby” succeeds spectacularly thanks to the “Under Pressure” bassline, conspiratorially whispered chorus, and rejoinder to “Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it.”

The album’s slick, facile charm disappears the moment “Ice Ice Baby” stops. The rest of To The Extreme lacks the peculiar alchemy that makes the opener such a great pop song and includes track after track that blatantly recycle the hit’s formula: big, instantly identifiable samples wedded to interchangeable, snottily delivered lyrics about girls and lyrical skills.


To The Extreme saves the true depths of its awfulness for its final three tracks, all of which hurtle majestically past unknowing self-parody into the realm of the supremely terrible. Honestly, if Lonely Island had invented a time machine and recorded a parody of pathetic white-boy Rastafarian posturing, they couldn’t have done a more vicious job than Ice does himself on “Rosta Mon,” a token “reggae” song where Ice stops trying to rap in favor of talking lethargically in a comically inept attempt at a Jamaican accent. Actually, that’s not true: In 2008 Lonely Island released “Ras Trent,” a brilliant parody of the white privilege that allows a man like Vanilla Ice to imagine he can get away with recording a song like “Rosta Mon.” “Ras Trent” isn’t a direct parody of “Rosta Mon,” but it could be.

“Rosta Mon you be jammin’ so smooth / You rockin’ on the mic and you can only improve,” Ice raps optimistically; the lyricism and delivery on this track really do leave nowhere to go but up, as exemplified when the renaissance man explains, “Vanilla’s on the mic and you know I’m not lazy.” This sounds like a terrible line until you recall that on “Play That Funky Music,” the album’s first single—“Ice Ice Baby” was a B-side that became a hit when a prominent DJ noticed it was a hell of a lot more fun than the A-side—Ice raps, “Hittin’ hard and the girlies goin’ crazy / Vanilla’s on the mic. Man, I’m not lazy.” That might seem redundant and even a little, well, lazy, except that on “Rosta Mon,” Ice raps “you know I’m not lazy,” and on “Play That Funky Music,” Ice raps, “Man, I’m not lazy.” They’re really two slightly different ways of saying the exact same thing.

“Rosta Mon” seems to set the bar prohibitively low, even for a Vanilla Ice album, but the man born Robert Van Winkle limbos under the exceedingly low expectations generated by songs like “Rosta Mon” with the next track, “I Love You,” an appalling “I Need Love” knock-off that finds Ice taking a momentary break from winking sexism and lyrics about deflowering virgins to pledge his undying love in the smarmiest, least convincing manner imaginable. The production takes the quiet storm of “I Need Love” into the sleepy world of easy listening, complete with a gratuitous saxophone solo that smoothly whispers, “Enjoy your massage, sir or ma’am.”

By the time “Doin’ A Roni,” a hyperventilating, minute-long beatbox track about the joys of deflowering virgins (a subject that also comes up on “Ice Cold,” where the young charmer rhymes, “Be on the lookout in your vicinity / I’m robbin’ virgins of their virginity”), brings To The Extreme to a merciful close, Ice has thoroughly squandered the goodwill generated by “Ice Ice Baby.”


“Ice Ice Baby” was really all Ice had going for him beyond a marketable look and personal style. It’s a testament to how little faith Ice’s label SBK had in the rapper’s abilities that less than a year after To The Extreme shocked the world en route to going platinum 11 times, Ice followed it up with Extremely Live, a live album that combines live songs from To The Extreme with two covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and a few new tracks like “Rollin’ In My 5.0.” If SBK Records was deliberately trying to cure the public’s peculiar hunger for Ice’s music through grotesque oversaturation of the market, it couldn’t have done a better job; Extremely Live was followed up by yet another stopgap quickie release the same year: the official soundtrack to Cool As Ice. This album paired new Vanilla Ice songs with tracks from the likes of Daisy Dee, Rozalla, D’New featuring Temple, Partners In Kryme featuring Debbe Cole, and Lonnie Gordon.

Like Ice, MC Hammer ruthlessly exploited his fame in a manner that ensured it would not last. In the aftermath of his breakthrough album Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em, Hammer made a long-form video called Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em: The Movie (in which he took on a drug dealer in his hometown), launched a line of Hammer dolls, and hosted a Saturday morning cartoon called Hammerman about a young man who becomes a superhero after acquiring a pair of magical talking shoes.

Also like Ice, Hammer owed it all to a single so killer it convinced 18 million people to buy an album from a rapper named MC Hammer whose cover looked like Urkel posing for his prep-school yearbook photo. With Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em, as with To The Extreme, it’s all about the single. Like “Ice Ice Baby,” “U Can’t Touch This” is a fantastic pop song whose infectiousness has almost nothing to do with the man behind it and everything to do with an irresistible bassline purloined wholesale from a massive hit from the past. In this case, it was Rick James’ “Superfreak” and a monster hook with a nifty gimmick: The music drops out completely so that Hammer can calmly, confidently say the chorus.

Like To The Extreme, Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em tries to recapture the magic of its single with pandering pop songs crafted from the same blueprint and yielding rapidly diminishing returns. When MC Hammer became an ordained minister in the late ’90s, it was a redundant gesture. He spends so much time sermonizing on behalf of all that is right and good on Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em that his professional moniker might as well be MC Brush Your Teeth, Eat Your Vegetables, And Floss Nightly. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are outtakes from this era with titles like “Math Homework (Do It Before Bedtime!)” and “Visit Grandma (If You Want Your Allowance This Week).”


Before he was playing stadiums, Hammer released an arena-sized album in Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em. He comes off here as a dance-floor General Patton hoarsely shouting orders to an army of soldiers gyrating in perfectly syncopated rhythm. In dance mode, Hammer has a tendency to yell his lyrics in a clumsy appropriation of DMC’s intense delivery; on songs like “Have You Seen Her,” he all but purrs his come-ons.

Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em was a pop smash crudely assembled from hits from the past: The Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her”; The Jackson 5’s “Dancin’ Machine” (which Vanilla Ice also essentially covered on To The Extreme as “Dancin’”); and Prince’s “Soft And Wet” (which Hammer has helpfully rechristened “She’s Soft And Wet”). Hammer didn’t re-imagine or re-conceive these songs; he simply offered a slight variation on the already popular. In the process, he helped establish a magpie aesthetic that would make Diddy a vast fortune.

It would be wrong to expect subtlety or understatement from a preacher named Hammer. Accordingly, Hammer preaches from the mountains on “Pray,” admonishes us to help the children on “Help The Children,” and agitates for black pride on the well-intentioned but empty “Black Is Black” (actually “well-intentioned but empty” pretty much describes the whole album).

Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em is largely devoid of the eccentricities that would make Hammer such an intriguing figure in the long shadow of his enormous early fame. A prominent exception can be found on the end of “Crime Story,” when Hammer stops offering cautionary tales about the dangers of street life and reaches out to members of the crime community with a simple plea: Do what you have to do, provide for your family, but please let the 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children “do their thing at the schoolhouse” instead of pressuring them to join gangs. The plea benefits from a perverse specificity: Hammer clearly delineates that he’s only talking about 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds. 13-year-olds are apparently fair game. If the whole album were that strangely personal and idiosyncratic, it might be something more than a great pop single tethered to an album that’s borderline offensive in its intense desire not to offend.


When Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em became one of the best-selling albums of all time, it seemed likely we’d see a lot more rappers in the MC Hammer mold. Who wouldn’t be willing to slap on gypsy pants and rap earnestly about God or saving the babies if a platinum-plus payday was the reward? But it turns out Hammer’s clean-cut, God-loving, community-minded take on mainstream hip-hop was a dead-end rather than a lucrative new lane. Hammer proved to be the exception rather than the rule: a Jesus-loving, rabidly patriotic, ex-G.I. nerd who prizes dancing ability, athleticism, regular church attendance, and civic responsibility above street credibility.

To The Extreme and Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em accidentally ended up playing a big role in hip-hop’s evolution by giving rappers—especially young artists coming of age creatively in the massive commercial shadow of Hammer and Vanilla Ice’s unparalleled success—something against which to define themselves. If Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest gave multiple generations of acolytes, creative progeny, and knock-offs something to aspire to, Hammer and Vanilla Ice personified who young artists didn’t want to be. Hammer might have fancied himself a role model, but to his peers and the rappers who came after him, he was more like a grim warning.


Long after To The Extreme’s buzz died down, and its creator became a walking punchline, the ghost of Vanilla Ice has continued to haunt white rappers. White rappers who emerged after Vanilla Ice’s rise and fall invariably had to prove that they were no Vanilla Ice, that their success was a product of skill, talent, and hard work, not a catchy sample and a flashy haircut. When Eminem started to make noise nationally, for example, he was posited as the anti-Vanilla Ice, an award-winning battle rapper and veteran of countless lyrical skirmishes whose authenticity and credibility were co-signed by no less an icon than Dr. Dre. After Hammer, rappers who smiled, danced, earnestly dispensed Godly messages, and pitched their music to family audiences did so at their own peril. Hammer defined what a rapper shouldn’t be: a corny, pandering, family-friendly dancer, a proponent of gypsy pants on the easy-listening end of pop and R&B.


Hip-hop is a realm of constantly shifting rules and codes. Hammer probably didn’t even realize he had violated so many of the genre’s sacrosanct rules until his would-be peers stepped up from all sides of the hip-hop spectrum to let him know in no uncertain terms that he had transgressed some of the art form’s core principles. On “Check The Rhime,” Q-Tip famously called out Hammer when he rapped “Proper. What you say, Hammer? ‘Proper’? / Rap is not pop; if you call it that, then stop.”


On “Stay True To The Game,” Ice Cube launches a vitriolic attack on rappers who abandon their communities, move to white neighborhoods, and abandon their roots in pursuit of crossover success. Cube tellingly refuses to name names, but it’s apparent that at least one of the verses is directly squarely at Hammer.

In the video for “True To The Game,” the conflict between mainstream sellouts and black-nationalist true believers plays out metaphorically when Ice Cube kidnaps a sellout clearly modeled on Hammer (a grinning clown busting flamboyant dance moves while wearing a lipstick-red sequined jacket with matching pants) along with a two others, and takes them to a shadowy warehouse where a Nation Of Islam minister favors them with the benefit of his knowledge. It’s hip-hop wish fulfillment at its most poignantly sincere: There’s something weirdly touching about the belief that a few hours with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan are all it would take to transform Hammer from a sellout to a super soul brother.


Cube was undergoing some pretty radical changes himself when his 1990 solo debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, was being conceived and executed. Following the release of Straight Outta Compton, Cube acrimoniously parted ways with N.W.A. (amid a flurry of allegations, rumors, and diss songs), headed to New York, and hooked up with Public Enemy’s production team The Bomb Squad because Jerry Heller (N.W.A.’s manager) and Eazy-E vetoed Cube’s initial plan to have Dr. Dre produce his solo album. This change in latitude brought with it a change in attitude. Hooking up with Public Enemy’s in-house producers focused and elevated Cube’s rage even if he still had a tendency to spray vitriol in every direction, merited or not. Cube held everyone in suspicion, from powerful politicians to crackhead beggars: Everyone was a hustler or a trick.

AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted refuses to delineate between righteous rage and flat-out ignorance, between acidic social commentary and unfiltered misanthropy. This album isn’t about providing answers; it’s about asking the right questions and upsetting the right people. And if it doesn’t offend you on some level—morally, aesthetically, politically—then it’s not doing its job. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted isn’t just a title: It’s a mission statement and a blatant provocation from a man skilled in the art of pissing people off.


The album opens with a skit where an electric chair-bound Cube answers a prison guard’s request for his last words with a belligerent “Fuck all y’all!” To borrow the title of a song off the album, in the paranoid world of AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, every minority is an endangered species. On the album’s title track, Cube explicitly states, “Every motherfucker with a color is most wanted.”

AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted erased the always-shaky divide separating gangsta-rap nihilism from political-rap consciousness by focusing with laser-like precision on the rage and richly merited sense of persecution underlying both subgenres. On “Endangered Species (Tales From The Darkside),” Cube shoots a withering glance at the Afrocentric movement and hisses through clenched teeth, “You want to free Africa, I stare at ya / ’Cause we ain’t got it too good in America” while rapping alongside Chuck D, the face and booming voice of righteous, critically sanctioned political hip-hop.

The primary target of the album is institutional racism in all its disguises, but provides a withering depiction of inner-city culture. In AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, threats are everywhere. On “Once Upon A Time In The Projects,” Cube can’t even venture into the projects in search of casual sex without ending up in jail after discovering that the apartment of his prospective lover doubles as a crackhouse. In the song, Cube builds a rich, vivid, funky, and tragicomic universe, rich with telling details: crackheads lurking in the parking lot, the mom who fires up a joint in front of her child without thinking twice, yet asks Cube to “excuse my house” for its untidiness, the uneven couch Cube sits on and the beat-up black and white television the family watches. Cube’s storytelling is incredibly vivid. Not only do we know what the scene looks like, we can almost smell the shitty diapers, urine-stained stairwells, and ever-present haze of pot smoke.

Women loom large as one of the biggest threats of all in AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, but the rapper undercuts the juvenile, knee-jerk sexism that characterizes so much of the album (and gangsta rap in general) with “It’s A Man’s World,” a war-of-the-sexes duet with protégé Yo-Yo where the female rapper doesn’t just hold her own in the face of Cube’s cartoonish, over-the-top misogyny; she fucking destroys him on what is easily Cube’s best and most important solo album.

It’s hard to tell what Cube genuinely means here and what he’s saying to provoke a reaction, as he makes a special point of going too far to engender controversy and discussion. If MC Hammer was in the business of ingratiation, Cube was in the business of alienation. On “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” Cube explicitly links crossover entertainment like Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em to our nation’s shameful history of racism and genocide when he quips viciously, “They asked me if I like Arsenio / About as much as the bicentennial.”


AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is fueled by its contradictions. It’s political and gangsta, righteous and ignorant, equal parts scathing social commentary and angry youth fantasy. It’s an album that takes on the sum of American culture and finds it woefully lacking as well as the perfect marriage between a production team that specialized in capturing the insistent sound of society falling apart and a rapper of unusual depth and urgency at the apex of his career. The production on To The Extreme and Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ’Em gently ushers listeners into a world that’s soothing in its utter familiarity; the Bomb Squad’s work on AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted takes familiar songs, sounds, and samples, then twists them into jarring, uncomfortable, revelatory new shapes. Most Wanted surveys a world that is devoid of comfort and safety, musically and otherwise. It’s both timeless and an unmistakable product of a turbulent time. Twenty-two years on, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted still demands to be heard, angrily.

A Tribe Called Quest’s debut People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm was just as undeniable albeit in a much gentler fashion. The album continued the work De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising and Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique started in making hip-hop palatable to a white collegiate audiences. If you went to college in the ’90s, as I did, A Tribe Called Quest was about as big as they came; universities stopped just short of including People’s Instinctive Travels and The Low End Theory in the welcome packages they gave incoming freshmen.


It’s difficult to view People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm outside of the filter of Beats, Rhymes & Life: Travels With A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Rapaport’s masterful 2011 documentary about A Tribe Called Quest in general and the fraught, complicated relationship of Q-Tip and Phife in particular.

A quick glimpse at the writing credits for A Tribe Called Quest’s debut confirms what Beats, Rhymes & Life strongly suggests: Though the concept of a tribe working in unison is central to the group’s philosophy—as well as the philosophy of the Native Tongues collective of which A Tribe Called Quest was a huge part (other important members include De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep, and Leaders Of The New School)—A Tribe Called Quest was unmistakably Q-Tip’s group.


Beats, Rhymes & Life: Travels With A Tribe Called Quest left me with a new respect for Q-Tip as an artist and a new hostility for him as a man. Q-Tip emerges in Rapaport’s documentary as a glowering perfectionist, a control freak who dominates the sensitive, diabetes-stricken Phife in a manner that’s insensitive at best and cruel at worst. It can be difficult to reconcile Q-Tip the goofy, nasal young charmer who seduced a hip-hop nation on People’s Instinctive Travels with the grim, taskmaster depicted in Rapaport’s film. But it’s easy to see how Q-Tip’s perfectionist, workaholic tendencies could lead to an album this brilliant. Though it’s credited to A Tribe Called Quest, Phife only contributes verses on four of the album’s 14 songs; other than that, it’s practically a Q-Tip solo album.

Q-Tip’s scowling hostility in the film is especially surprising considering that an almost child-like sense of playfulness and likability define the album. Over jazzy, laconic coffee-shop grooves, Q-Tip gently chides/lovingly counsels a French immigrant lost in the weird world of New York (“Luck Of Lucien”), delivers a comic account of getting separated from his billfold (“I Left My Wallet In El Segundo”), and transforms Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” into a perfect break beat on “Can I Kick It?”

But nowhere is Q-Tip’s boyish charm and understated confidence more apparent than on “Bonita Applebum,” a love song of disarming tenderness. On “Bonita Applebum,” Q-Tip’s seduction is both musical and lyrical; the sensual groove sets the mood and establishes a tone of swooning romanticism just as much as Tip’s flirtatious lyrics. “Bonita Applebum” poignantly captures the butterfly-inducing excitement of fresh infatuation and the life-affirming joy of young love. It’s sexy without explicitly being about sex, romantic without being pandering or cynical. If all songs about women were as loving and respectful as this one, hip-hop and the culture at large would be a much different, much better place.

Q-Tip and Phife have such magnificent chemistry on tracks like “Can I Kick It” and “Mr. Muhammad” and Q-Tip mentions him and Ali Shaheed Muhammad so often that it’s easy to imagine Phife plays a bigger role on the album than he actually does. If People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm captures the friction that led to A Tribe Called Quest’s demise, it also conveys the sense of openness and community that made the Native Tongues collective such a powerful force for good in hip-hop, that feeling that anything was possible, and the rules didn’t matter as long as everyone stuck together and performed music from the soul. At that stage in its development, hip-hop could be anything and was. It could be silly. It could be sexual. It could be soulful and serious and funny and funky and geeky and cool. People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm is all of those things. Its shagginess and looseness provide much of its enduring bohemian appeal; A Tribe Called Quest shaved much of its rough edges, self-indulgence and fat with its follow-up album, The Low End Theory, but it didn’t recapture the blissful innocence and dewy optimism it possessed in its youthful prime.

Psychopathic Records’ 2011 Gathering Of The Juggalos, an annual festival of arts and culture, offered a surreal vantage point from which to view hip-hop’s Class of 1990. Vanilla Ice used the festival to consummate his long-simmering professional relationship with Insane Clown Posse by signing to the label, while MC Hammer made the most of his main-stage slot with a spectacularly sweaty, boldly theatrical mini-extravaganza. (Hammer justified his presence at such a haven for sin and debauchery—a “drug bridge” where mood-altering substances of all manner can be procured is among the festival’s signature amenities—by comparing it to Jesus’ ministering to whores and infidels.) Hammer’s set climaxed with him temporarily leaving the stage in a dense fog of perspiration and clown-painted Insane Clown Posse fans climbing onto the stage to deliver chants like “Family! Family” and “Whoop! Whoop!” before the opening strains of “U Can’t Touch This” came over the speakers. And Hammer, a man who once released an album that sold somewhere in the area of 18 million copies, began performing his breakout smash surrounded by drunk, high Juggalos clearly overjoyed to be onstage with a real-life famous person, singing a song just about everyone knows. It was a moment of transcendent cheesiness and unabashed old-school showmanship and one of the undeniable highlights of a strange, unpredictable, awesome festival.


Ice Cube delivered a solid but much less memorable performance at the 2011 Gathering. Cube once rapped about everything: sex, race, class, gender, violence, politics, show business, women, pop culture, history, capitalism. But age, success, and an acting career seem to have shrunk Cube’s worldview and once-massive ambition. At the Gathering, Cube and his hype men stayed on message: They shouted out the West Coast so often it was as if they were on the old Groucho Marx game show You Bet Your Life, and “California,” “West,” and “Coast” were the secret words. Cube was once impossible to ignore or deny; he was a lightning rod in our culture war, but at the Gathering his once contradictory, incendiary, and often incoherent message was reduced to being inordinately proud of the geographical region that produced him.

Alone among the artists chronicled here, A Tribe Called Quest did not perform at the 2011 Gathering of The Juggalos, though Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest suggests that’s only because Insane Clown Posse did not offer them an invitation accompanied by a check large enough to inspire them to continue to perpetuate the beautiful fiction that the sublime chemistry that existed on albums like People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm and The Low End Theory exists in real life as well.


Up Next: 2Pacalypse 1991: A flood of masterpieces from all over the map, musically and geographically, convey the depth and richness of a nascent hip-hop renaissance: Quik Is The Name; De La Soul Is Dead; Niggaz 4 Life; All Souled Out; We Can’t Be Stopped; Of The Heart, Of The Soul And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience; Cypress Hill; Naughty By Nature; The Low End Theory; I Wish My Brother George Was Here; A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing; Death Certificate; 2Pacalypse Now; and Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed. The releases of MC Hammer’s 2 Legit 2 Quit and 2Pac’s 2Pacalypse Now within two weeks of each other signal a changing of the guard.