Culture  /  Explainer

Golden-Era Rap Music and the Black Intellectual Tradition

In Hip hop’s “golden era,” the period from 1987 to 1994, rappers used their platforms to bring attention to issues plaguing poor and working-class Black communities.

This period saw emceeing become the dominant hip hop element, usurping deejayinggraffiti, and breakdancingSpreading knowledge, a fifth element, was taken seriously by many emcees, making rap “CNN for Black people,” according to Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE). Ernie Singleton, a former executive with MCA Records, stated that rap music “deals with the kids’ reality of living with high unemployment, a high crime rate, and the devastating drug problem.” Speaking to and with Black youth was an arduous task, but one many rappers embraced. Chuck D, for instance, believed he had an “obligation” to educate with his raps “because I’m aware.” “We’re at a time,” he continued, “when [Black communities are] getting kind of lazy and slack and we’re moving backwards, so I have to try to turn this around.”

And try he did, incorporating socially conscious lyrics in his songs. As a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI), most of his and Public Enemy’s messages consisted of Black Nationalist rhetoric, including the song “Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man),” modeled after former NOI leader Elijah Muhammad’s 1965 book, Message to the Black Man in America. This was Chuck’s and PE’s attempt to provide Black youth with role models, and in another popular effort they introduced young people to Malcolm X. From 1988 through the release of Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X film, hip-hop culture plastered Malcolm’s image, the “X” symbol, or brandished his quotes on hats, backpacks and posters, starting a period referred to as “Malcolmania.” Black intellectuals had mixed reviews on this period. The cultural critic Stanley Crouch insisted that hip hop’s Malcolm nostalgia relegated the Black icon to a political “bad-boy image,” and places selling Malcolm X-themed clothing were pandering to Black consumers. The historian Robin D. G. Kelley lauded rappers’ ability to evoke Malcolm’s “totality of lived experience in their lyrics,” suggesting that Malcolm X lived vicariously through the hip hop generation. Other scholars believed this period watered down Black culture. According to historians Barbara Ransby and Tracye Mathews, Malcolmania left Black youth “with the disempowering misperception that only the larger than life great men can make or change history.” The “deified persona of Malcolm X,” made him a “paragon of puritanical morality.” “Thus,” continued the authors, “the prescription for solving the problems and dilemmas facing the African-American community today is—add strong Black man and stir.”