In 1988, hip-hop was at a crossroads. After a series of violent incidents, anti-rap backlash from mainstream outlets was at a high. And that’s when KRS-One formed the Stop The Violence Movement.
On August 12th, 1988 Run DMC and company rocked the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. That night, there were reported incidents that resulted in several injuries. A month later, at the Dope Jam rap concert stop at the same venue, violence erupted again. This time, there was one death and 12 injuries. The fallout was the mainstream media blaming rap music for these occurrences and several venues making moves to ban future rap shows across the country, including Nassau Coliseum, who announced its ban on September 13th, 1988.
The genre was at a crossroads. And the anti-rap backlash was not only seeking to undo all the progress that it had made, but prevent it from growing any further. Something had to be done. A definitive statement needed to be made.
Music journalist, and at the time Billboard magazine black music editor, Nelson George was unsettled by the coverage from news outlets, dailies, and periodicals following the incident and wanted to be proactive. He teamed up with Jive/RCA executive Ann Carli (credited as Tokyo Rose) and co-ordinated with KRS-One to have a one-off release with an all-star cast of hip-hop luminaries to represent the rap community’s response to not only the violence that obscured the positive impact of rap music but the mainstream criticism of the genre which was often mired in prejudice and racism.
The Black music establishment hadn’t done much to stand up for rap in the face of these attacks which was odd since between 1988 and 1989 between 25 to 33 percent of the releases on the Top Black Albums charts were rap LP’s. Despite rap making many strides, older Black music fans, Black radio program directors and even Black music journalists weren’t coming to the defense of hip-hop culture.
Per usual, the Hip-Hop Generation was going to have to fight the powers that be.
Boogie Down Productions member D-Nice produced and mixed “Self Destruction” in recording sessions held chiefly in Power Play Studios with aid from engineers Ivan “Doc” Rodriguez and Elai Tubo. The lineup of artists on the recording was heavily represented by Rush Artist Management and included KRS One, D-Nice, and Ms. Melodie of Boogie Down Productions; Daddy-O, Wise, Delight, and Frukwan of Stetsasonic; Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy; Doug E. Fresh of Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew; Heavy D of Heavy D & The Boyz; and Just-Ice, MC Lyte, and Kool Moe Dee. Photography for the single cover was shot by Glen Friedman and a portion of the profits were to go to the National Urban League to fund youth educational programs combatting Black on Black crime.
The single was to be released on Jive Records distributed by RCA with a release date of January 15th, 1989. What would be Martin Luther King Jr.’s 60th birthday.
The year 1989 was a crucial juncture for the rap industry for several reasons. On January 3rd, 1989, The Arsenio Hall Show debuted on FOX syndicated stations across the nation. For the first time ever there were going to be rap categories added to the American Music Awards and the Grammy Awards. After a decade of existence, rap had finally begun being recognized as a music genre worthy of acknowledgment, even though the majority of the Black music community remained dismissive and resistant to it and the mainstream media still refused to regard it as a legitimate art form deserving of fair and equitable press coverage.
Once “Self Destruction” was released rap fans made their voices heard by supporting it in droves despite trepidation and resistance from mainstream Black radio. With every passing week it gained more traction; it started inching up the Black music charts despite moderate radio adds. It didn’t enter the Hot Black Singles chart until February 18th, and it climbed steadily until the March 11th edition of Billboard featuring the debut of its new Top Rap Songs chart when “Self Destruction” made its premiere as the number one rap single in the country.
It would ultimately peak at number 30 on the Hot Black Singles chart but rap was already making inroads on the charts via Tone Loc (“Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina”) and De La Soul (“Me, Myself & I”). “Self Destruction” only got bigger after the video, which was shot in Harlem, debuted on BET and MTV’s highest rated program Yo! MTV Raps. The show had aired its first daily episodes with new hosts Ed Lover and Doctor Dre on March 13th, 1989. “Self Destruction” entered the rotation on MTV shortly after.
“Self Destruction” held the spot at the top of the Hot Rap Songs chart for 10 consecutive weeks, between March 11th and May 13th (“Me, Myself & I” eventually took over the top spot.) By the spring, it was already the top-selling 12” single in the history of RCA distribution and it raised in excess of $100,000 for the National Urban League. The single was RIAA certified Gold on August 2nd, 1989 without ever charting on the Hot 100 thanks to the indifference of Black radio outside of rap programs and no crossover appeal.
On August 11th, 1989 Black Entertainment Television decided to throw their hats into the ring and debut a show to compete with Yo! MTV Raps called Rap City. The show was hosted by Chris “Da Mayor” Thomas, a comedian who often toured with rap acts as an opening act, most notably on the Run’s House Tour. With this action, a statement was made and heard loud and clear: rap was a force to be reckoned with and could no longer be denied despite how either the entrenched Black music establishment, rock publications or the racially biased mainstream news industry felt about it.
White kids who were strictly Rock fans just five years previous now had Run DMC, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, N.W.A., De La Soul, MC Hammer, Tone Loc, and Young MC posters on the walls of their rooms. Their friends at school were listening to everything from 2 Live Crew, The D.O.C, and Kwame to Living Colour, Aerosmith, Motley Crue, and Skid Row. Rap’s White fanbase steadily grew over the following years, despite the Rock journalists outcry over sampling or the assertion that rap promotes and incites violence.
On the set of the “Self Destruction” video shoot in Harlem, West Coast rappers, such as Tone Loc and Young MC, visited to be a part of the event. In Spring 1990, a supergroup of West Coast rap artists called The West Coast All-Stars released the anti-gang violence song “We’re All In The Same Gang.” Thanks to the path that “Self Destruction” had paved, it not only hit number one on the Hot Rap Songs chart, it reached the Top 10 on the Hot Black Singles. The song eventually crossed over to the Hot 100, peaking at 35, and received a Gold certification from the RIAA.
At the outset of 1989, several factors were potentially threatening the very existence of rap. It wasn’t getting the love it deserved despite its popularity amongst the youth of all backgrounds or its unflinching willingness to talk about issues affecting inner-city Blacks and Latinos. No genre conveyed the rebellious attitude that Rock was supposed to embody the way rap did at the tail end of the first Golden Era.
In the end, rap was able to weather the storm and become the soundtrack of an entire generation largely due to warning its listeners they were headed for self-destruction.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.