“The apartment is crowded with teenagers, all wearing half-laced sneakers and necklace ropes of gold. Doorbells ring every few minutes, white powder dusts the table tops; jagged-edge matchbook covers and dollar bills seem to flow from hand to hand. The talk is frenetic, filled with masterful plans and false promises. Everybody has a girl. Everybody has cocaine. Everybody has a gun.”
The Cocaine Kids begins this way, with a description whose promise is as glib and as false, in the end, as the transient glow of cocaine intoxication that suffuses it. The scene is the snapshot by which all its participants would want to be remembered. It would capture a romantic vision of themselves, a souvenir of a golden hour when they were “living large.” It promises a kind of adventure. But Terry Williams has studied the child laborers of the cocaine industry in the Bronx too well to pretend to find anything exotic in their lives. We can better appreciate both his intentions and his discoveries if we take his opening tableau as documenting only the play rituals of a caste of adolescents so inured to being denied the substance of what they have been told they want that they consume their lives chasing after its shadows.
The Cocaine Kids chronicles the affairs of a small firm that traffics in an outlawed commodity. Most of its members spend sixteen hours a day at the office, sitting around with a dog and a gun behind a large steel door, serving customers, answering the telephone, watching television absently, as they wait for their “package” to arrive, preparing it for sale when it does, dipping and dabbing in the “product” to pass the time, which stretches days into nights into days of languid routine punctuated by occasional moments of special risk or reward. Others on the payroll “scramble” in the street, selling “jumbo crack” in little glass vials, dodging the police and predatory stick-up boys. In truth, “all the kids out here be scramblin,” observes Kitty, one of Williams’s subjects:
“It’s a way of life…. Nobody stays in the street for long hustling like this and makes money without a crew. If they stay out there they are hooked in some kinda way to the life, the excitement, the nickel-and-diming, or the drugs. Right now, if you stay out here a few months you doing good…. I don’t believe most people make money over the long run, only in the short….”
Children became a labor force in the dope industry twenty years ago as an unintended effect of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws in New York, which required that adults convicted of selling narcotics be given mandatory sentences of a severity intended to be daunting. Because children are generally more focused, callous, less considerate of risk and more congenial to discipline than grownups, are usually broke, conditioned to be acquisitive, and relatively immune from rigorous sanction, they are well-adapted to working the dope stroll, a name for all places where there is street commerce in heroin and cocaine. Within a couple of years stories began to surface beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived and worked about black and Hispanic teen-age boys buying German cars with cash clotted up so thick in their back pockets they had to bend over to take it out, and playing ball in the park for hundreds of dollars a game.
The Nixon administration’s campaign to stop the importation of marijuana was the only interdiction policy of recent history to work, at least enough to make dearer the staple commodity of the American drug culture. At about the same time, cocaine, which had been a specialty drug, regularly used by the well-to-do underground but for most others who kept it company an indulgence for special occasions, crossed over onto college campuses and spread from there into the American mainstream. Once that happened the price immediately doubled. The basic equation of dope economics changed; cocaine was easier to smuggle than marijuana and became more profitable.
A huge American market developed for cocaine, exclusively controlled by a cartel whose proprietors in Colombia had figured out how to bypass the industry’s traditional networks when they moved their goods and sold them. Miami had become a flourishing Latin outpost on the mainland of North America. The Italians had relinquished their place at the top of the criminal food chain, and their gentling influence on urban American outlaw culture receded. Meanwhile, Jamaicans brought their model of criminal enterprise to the African-American neighborhoods they settled into throughout the Northeast: “posses”—organized, violent, centered on guns and drugs. First Cubans, then Dominicans were around in these neighborhoods in larger numbers than ever before to become the foot soldiers and shopkeepers for the oligarchy of Colombians who held the monopoly on the runaway American cocaine commerce, worth by 1986, according to the best guess of a presidential commission, more than $50 billion a year.
Williams noticed that
Dominicans began setting up [cocaine] businesses in predominantly African-American communities like Harlem in 1983. They were able to gain a foothold because they had a large pool of available cash from cocaine sales, could tap into a large African-American cocaine-consuming market—and because…African-American dealers are notorious for selling over-adulterated cocaine….
Consumers of illicit drugs have no lasting allegiances to particular sources of supply; they are purely value-driven. African-American consumers of these commodities are no more ethnocentric in the purchasing decisions they make than other Americans are about what kind of cars or television sets they buy. On the other hand, Latin American wholesale purveyors of cocaine are no less predisposed to doing business with people like themselves than investment bankers are.
From top to bottom of the distribution pyramid, most business among drug dealers is done on consignment. Credit-worthiness determines whether an individual can stay in the business or not, and it is strictly a function of performance. But access to the first chance—to handle a “package,” which, if skillfully managed, can grow into a franchise—most often accrues from one’s proximity to networks of people bound by ties of family and tribe.
Beginning in the middle 1980s, after fifteen years of nearly unabated growth, cocaine prices responded to a glutted market by declining sharply and suddenly. This circumstance had been forestalled for a while by the introduction of a process for smoking cocaine called freebasing, which involved distilling away by homely chemistry the adulterants in powdered cocaine and smoking what was left—a paste rendered nearly pure—once it dried. The effects of freebasing are intense, short-lived, and, for many, relentlessly compelling. Its practice requires consumers to buy much more cocaine and to use it up much more quickly. By the early Eighties smoking cocaine was widespread enough to have invigorated the marketplace by making more costly one of the most expensive addictions in the world.
Still the cartel overproduced, and now needed another way to expand its market again, a way to get its product into the hands of customers whose pockets only held five or ten dollars at a time. This was “crack,” which, from a merchandising standpoint, is essentially nothing more than “new and improved” freebase: already processed, ready to smoke, packaged and marketed as never before, and made as available to its consumers as a two-pound bag of sugar at the A&P.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the price of a kilogram of pure cocaine in New York City fell from $100,000 in 1980 to $16,000 by 1988. This price deflation made the cost of a seat on the cocaine exchange accessible to free-lance entrepreneurs who often before had stumbled into the market under-capitalized and gotten their heads bumped because they didn’t have enough steady cash to assure reliable supply, or couldn’t regularly support organizations of their own. It was now easier for people within the communities where drugs had become a formidable local enterprise to acquire control of their own underground economies, and to become the major employers of neighborhood youth.
Terry Williams is an anthropologist who spent the years between 1982 and 1988 conducting an ethnographic study of a small, teen-aged, mostly Dominican crew of cocaine dealers operating at or near street level in the Washington Heights section of New York City. The main product of his research, The Cocaine Kids, is a lean, journalistic account of some of what he saw there. The book is important not only for the quality and accuracy of the detail it discloses about the cocaine business but for what Williams shows us of its essential ordinariness. He describes a regular business of distribution and sales like most others, engaged in, in this instance, by a small cast of young people with mostly conventional aspirations, whose everyday lives seem like minor domestic dramas that aren’t any more exciting than most of ours.
Williams introduces us to seven major players, with Max, the “man behind the scale,” at the top, supported by his crew chief, Chillie, who presides over house and street sales from “the office,” a one-bedroom apartment in the middle of Washington Heights which also serves as the company store. Max was eighteen in 1985, which would make him by now a twenty-four-year-old living in Florida if nothing has gone awry since Williams wrote his book. But then nothing very untoward happened to any of these cocaine kids except Chillie, who drowned at a beach in Santo Domingo, where he had gone to recuperate from being shot on the street after a visit from federal agents closed his store. Nobody else got hurt, nobody went to jail.
When Max retired, his protégé, Jake, established his own thriving cocaine business in the South Bronx. Charlie went to community college. Masterrap, who loved language enough to think of it as his true vocation, and wanted more than anything else to become a performer of rap music, got a job in a restaurant. Slick, quick Kitty, who handled sales to Max’s recreational carriage trade, took her two children and faded into the Bronx. But except for Max and Jake nobody kept much of whatever they acquired other than their memories of having displayed themselves for a while in style at a couple of the after-hours spots in which local reputations were made and soon forgotten.
Of course following the money in the drug business is always slippery, since the dealers usually lie to each other and the authorities lie to everybody else. By Williams’s estimate, Chillie’s store did $16,000 a week worth of business for two or three years but when it closed he was forced onto the street because he couldn’t, or somehow didn’t, find another apartment to work out of. Chillie made about $100,000 a year and fretted sometimes about whether he was doing well enough in high school. Kitty says she was making “two or three thousand dollars a week,” then “like a thousand a night,” but by the end of the book she is reduced to thinking of a new boyfriend as “security for the future.” So the money they made at their hard and sometimes dangerous employment came and went in synchrony with the constant rhythm of street commerce—“cop and blow,” acquire and squander. Except for Max.
In Max, Williams has given us, without any effort to make him seem heroic, a precocious master. Max began dealing when he was fourteen years old and rescued the family franchise after his older brother, Hector, lost it, having grown dissolute from lapsing too long into immoderate use of his product. Max had five uninterrupted years of doing business, a whole career in his line of work. He managed an organization that sold between three and five kilos of cocaine each week and never had to hurt anybody. He made “crazy money” and spent a lot of it to take care of his extended family.
According to Williams, Max would send nearly every week $5,000 to his people in Santo Domingo, much of it used by them to buy houses. When several among his relatives showed up broke in New York, Max set them up in bodegas or other cash businesses. He lived a relatively temperate and inconspicuous life with his wife, Suzanne.
When crack started to become nearly all there was of the cocaine business and turned it nastier than he wanted to be, Max retired at twenty-one, bought a house in Florida, and moved there, where he presumably remained, until Williams’s book, an undisclosed revelation. Now he can be an inspirational case study in the underground schools where young boys learn this trade.
Still, it’s an even harder trade these days for most than the one Williams describes. Not many fourteen-year-olds are ever enfranchised by the Colombians; certainly none would be who aren’t Hispanic. For nearly all the others, “unlike Max,” as Williams puts it, they
start out in lowly positions, then move up through hard work, skill, intelligence and a little luck. A kid who can routinely handle money, control personal use of cocaine, deal with buyers, and control a weapon, may make it out of the street and into the elite….
To the pursuit of this remote and alluring prospect many are called; after the street has done its winnowing hardly any are left who ever get close enough to so bright a success to see its glimmer, let alone feel its glow. Much as these kids are, in their way, young urban professionals at whatever is at hand, all that most of them amount to on the dope stroll is time-servers with short careers.
Certainly this is true of all but one of Max’s crew. The exception is Jake, who, at seventeen, was the youngest and hungriest. He met Max “by accident” one day when Max was on his way somewhere to pick up a package and needed “some back.” After that, Max gave him steady work. Jake was Max’s agent on the street. He sold crack hand-to-hand so he carried a nine millimeter pistol and sniffed cocaine to fortify himself. Described as “a tireless worker, honest and loyal, [someone who] would never hurt Max,” Jake nevertheless built his working capital by skimming profit from his employer: “He would telephone Max to say the crack was selling at one price (say $8 a cap) and Max would instruct him to sell at $5; Jake would sell at $8 and make $3 extra on each [transaction].” After Max was gone, Jake recruited his own cadre of newly arrived Dominican kids as hungry as he used to be, “bought into established crack houses and set others up with his own crew….”
While Williams makes it plain that as a rule very few engaged in this business prosper in it for long, he also shows us, in Max and Jake, exceptions near enough at hand to make sure we understand why for so many black and Hispanic kids of similar circumstances selling drugs seems like a reasonable career choice.
Running one of the cocaine franchises has much in common with owning a small supermarket, including the interest all proprietors share in maintaining an orderly, stable environment in which to do business. Since people like Max and his crew are outlaws, they have to do their own policing, either by violence or by the threat of it regularly applied to poachers, associates who are persistently irresponsible, and every so often to ordinary citizens who don’t get out of the way. Young boys say in the city these days it’s just live and let die.
In 1986, the last year for which the National Center for Health Service has collated information, there were about twice as many black women as black men in this country, and so many young men died that it depressed the average life expectancy of the African-American population as a whole. Lately, homicide has become the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four, who are dying at a rate that has increased by 67 percent in four years and is now six times greater than for other Americans the same age. Ninety-five percent of all the killings which accumulated into this statistic were attributable to guns.
In a book she edited in 1988 called Young, Black, and Male in America: An Endangered Species, the black sociologist Jewell Taylor Gibbs asserted that young black males
are truly endangered—not only indirectly from society’s neglect and abuse, but quite directly by their own actions and activities…. [They] are continuing to kill, maim, or narcotize themselves faster than they could be annihilated through wars or natural diseases. They not only destroy themselves, but also jeopardize… family formation for young black women,…the stability of the black community and endanger the entire society….
There is a suggestion, both in her tone and in what she says, of something most of the young men she refers to have probably never had, the rebuke of a mother or grandmother which could both invoke and convey the used-to-be-unbroken tradition represented in the mind’s image by the face of Mary McLeod Bethune but embodied in so many others. These women would have chastised their young by reminding them of the indignities their grandfathers endured in silence and the acres of white folks’ dirty laundry their grandmothers labored over so that they could stand now at the threshold of opportunities that forebears worthier than they could only have imagined. Thus to behave like this was, for them, to betray that history of sacrifice as well as some essential part of who they were meant to be.
There would be something else in this rebuke, too. It would speak for the deep disquiet of one generation of African-Americans who look at a sizable element of the next and see in it something apart, something outside what had been understood to be a cultural continuum that had withstood the worst assaults of outsiders. It is the rebuke of a generation fearful that the transmission of the essentially conservative social traditions of African-American life has for some of its children been permanently broken.
Several millions, mostly men who lived in cities, were infected by taking heroin in 1968; some died, and many of the others never fully recovered and are now in their thirties and forties dying from AIDS, or have succumbed along the way to one or another of the predictable consequences of long-term addiction: jail, disease, social isolation, financial marginality. The proportion of black men in the cities of America who are living within what this society considers its social and economic mainstream has grown progressively smaller for the last twenty years.
Members of this savagely depleted generation should have been the governors of the generation of boys they brought into the world but haven’t been around to look after, boys who have grown into lives mostly disassociated from any older people for whom they have much respect: boys raised to abandon women by women abandoned by men.
Walking through Max’s neighborhood, Terry Williams sees
a new generation of Cocaine Kids in faded jeans and unlaced sneakers, draped with gold chains, their arrow-pointed haircuts topping fresh faces and hard-edged frowns… grown before their time, wise before they leave home, smart before they go to school… rule-breakers before they know the rules and law-breakers after they know the law.
Many of them learned in the places where they grew up that the best parts of men’s lives are lived outside families.
When CBS News reported one Sunday last June that 48 percent of all young black males in New York City were unemployed, it probably didn’t know what that didn’t mean, because many who are without jobs are not without work. The young sales force of the narcotics industry inhabits a world of work in which they are invested with the authority of the product they sell. Their package may be sometimes up, sometimes down, but in principle the people they deal with are there to buy what they are there to sell. Which means, if it’s the right stuff, adults will mutter and suck their teeth but still obey when children the ages of their own tell them to stand here, wait over there, “come correct or get the fuck on.”
Boys who sell heroin and crack learn about the power of commodities over people. Most of them disdain the use of their own product and have contempt for people who don’t. But, then, they are scarcely unique in selling what has power over other people to buy what has power over them—clothes, cars, gold chains, sneakers, whatever is supposed to be “dope” at the time.
“It looks like the hip hop fashion for the summer of ’90 is not going to be that different from last year…. Yes, it looks like Nike has got our money again….”
—from a report by the Houston correspondent of The Source
Not long ago the inventory of merchandise marketed directly to the young was pretty much limited to jeans, soft drinks, junk food, hair-and-skin-care products, records, and other small-priced, flavor-of-the-month incidentals that kids could buy with the money their parents gave them. Even when the young were a demographic bulge, advertisers paid at least as much attention to influencing the disposition of their first adult purchases, like beer and cars, as they did to trying to sell them more than they could afford to buy. In the last twenty years or so the kinds of businesses for which teen-aged labor had value—fast foods, convenience stores, services of all kinds—proliferated. It seemed almost as if a whole generation of kids awakened for the first time to the possibility of having regular discretionary income.
Soon more high school students were working than ever before, some nearly as many hours as they spent in school; not as was generally supposed, particularly of the poor, to contribute to the support of their families, but to buy things they weren’t supposed to be able to afford until they were grown. As people in the business of selling things caught a fresh scent, they lifted their heads and pursued it. A market grew up around the cash the young now had to dispose of; and the young grew prematurely into an adult taste for acquiring deflected status from commodities they had money to buy but didn’t need.
Some of these kids by now resonate like tuning forks to changes in pitch caused by the changes in fashions in the culture of acquisition. If you wanted evidence for the merchandising job Americans have done on their young these last fifteen years, you wouldn’t have to look hard to find the outposts that professional sports leagues have built inside the heads of black kids in the city. Lately, young boys have taken to naming their “crews” after sports teams, merging their identities with brand names they associate with television, money, and celebrity:
In Boston the Greenwood Street gang wears Green Bay Packer garb, the Vamp Hill Kings wear Los Angeles Kings and Raider gear, and the Castlegate gang wears Cincinnati Reds clothes. “The Intervale gang uses all Adidas stuff,…” says Bill Stewart III, the probation officer at the Dorchester District Court in Boston, one of the busiest criminal courts in the nation. “They even have an Adidas handshake, copying the three stripes on the product. They extend three fingers when they shake hands…. When I look around sometimes [referring to the baseball caps on the heads of young men in the corridors of the courthouse] I think I’m in spring training in Florida.”1
The allure of the teams and their affiliated brand names to such children is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the rebound of the National Basketball Association from its former position on the lower rungs of the major league sports ladder to the heights from which it now contemplates its future as a multinational enterprise controlling teams in Europe and Asia and gathering the whole world at its feet. Professional basketball resurrected itself by making a virtue of its social disability as a game increasingly dominated by black athletes, less and less accompanied by the white faces that might provide the extenuating grace for middle-class customers.
The NBA had no way of making the mainstream audience it needed comfortable with the essentially Afro-American personality of its product except by selling itself as a star-crowded repertory company of the world’s greatest athletes—without giving too many players too much exposure, because they were too big and too black not to be potentially off-putting. The first major exception was the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers’ Julius Erving, the unselfishness of whose play seemed as surpassing as the genius he brought to it. Erving took up the burden of being the NBA’s public face until he was joined by Los Angeles’s Magic Johnson, who had an incandescent smile, and Boston’s Larry Bird, the white identity who played the black game and finally anchored it in the hearts of the television networks.
The improvements in basketball’s fortunes coincided with the escalation of the “sneaker wars,” which had begun as a skirmish between two shoe companies, Adidas and Puma, over which one could rent more billboard space for the most televised feet at the 1968 Olympics. The wars grew inflamed in the decade that followed, when sneakers became this country’s leisure footwear of choice, and exercise got fashionable. By now fiercely engaged in a competition for huge stakes, companies discovered along the way, while they spun off clothing lines and various other shoe products to fit every possible market niche, that young black urban males were not only manic consumers of what they were selling but also had a startlingly large influence in these companies’ affairs, since they defined the so-called street styles that very often anticipated general tastes in casual fashions.
So the sneaker companies took the images of the black stars the NBA had cautiously made and pumped them large. One of them, Nike, spent $60 million last year on advertising, much of that dedicated to transforming Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson into television stars, then into celebrities, establishing their places among the transcendent few who are not any longer paid for what they do but for who they are. Most people sell their services or sell things; the particularly gifted get to sell themselves. Which is how some youths sometimes become the business traded on the youth commodities exchange.
Raw Recruits is a book about business practices in sub-professional basketball, where the interests of one part of America’s institutional establishment, its colleges and universities, coincide closely enough with those of some black kids with special talents to create a marketplace in which they engage each other in direct commercial relationships. Because these relationships often involve undercover transactions, they often require the employment of intermediaries. The protocols observed in these arrangements encompass stealth, dissembling, denial, and, when any miscreant among their order is laid bare to outsiders, communal silence deep as a cloister’s.
Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian have written a book rather like an extended series of magazine exposés, full of the familiar names of coaches and players with price tags attached and bills of lading sticking out of their pockets. But the true texture of the story they tell is revealed, like the world it describes, in its characterizations of people who have something valuable to sell for the first time in their lives and of other people who see their chance in helping them to make the deal.
The obscurity of Don Fields’s life as a citizen of Los Angeles had been brightened only once, when his son Kenny became a basketball star at UCLA. After Kenny’s time passed, Don Fields faded too, but in 1984 he reappeared without visible credentials as an agent for the mother of John Williams, a promising California high school player, in her negotiations with the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Wolff and Keteyian report that Don Fields demanded compensation for Williams on the following terms:
$50,000 in cash, a new Datsun 280 ZX Turbo, a $600-a-month allowance, a no-show summer job, and spending money for the senior prom…. The allowance will have to be paid with dignity. When Kenneth was at UCLA, when he went to get his, he always had to go over to some booster’s house, sit around, have a Coke or sandwich and talk to the guys, like he was a little lap dog begging for his food. So with John… I just want him to come and see you and you hand him the envelope.
Despite his commendable interest in keeping Williams out of the way of the long shadow of the plantation, Fields never collected his broker’s fee, since somebody else closed the deal another way, and John Williams, first of the great Los Angeles high school basketball players to be brought to market, ended up going to Louisiana State, where he apprenticed for two years before he became a legitimate professional, known around the Southeastern Conference, a notorious cash-and-carry outfit, as the “Louisiana Purchase.”
Raw Recruits describes the purchase and sale of adolescent basketball players by coaches, parents, the kids themselves, and fellow travelers like “street agents” and summer-league operators who, to “control the product”—young players—early, establish their proprietary claim on twelve-year-olds by plying them with sneakers and sweat suits: “Nothing surprises me,” says a summer league coach. “All hands are out. Some of these kids, they could open up a sporting goods store by the time they get to high school. A pair of Nikes and a sweat suit to a sixth-grader is like $100,000 to a college kid.”
Television money made college basketball big business and overheated the environment around it but didn’t change the basic working conditions: many colleges have been paying athletes in one way or another for as long as they’ve been charging an admission price to see their games. But compensation for players has never been nearly commensurate with the amount of money they generate. For a long time now the basketball culture in our cities hasn’t been good for a lot of kids who thrive in it, producing in them as it does a false and temporary sense of empowerment, worse for some than narcotics. “Sometimes I wonder what dishonesty is,” says John Thompson of Georgetown University, our basketball coach in the last Olympics, and the highest paid shoe company “consultant.” “Is it dishonest for a kid to be paid… or is it just against the rules?”
Colleges may rent ballplayers but because of their direct interest in the folkways and spending habits of black youth, sneaker companies may have become the biggest stakeholders in the game. If college basketball had a commissioner he would likely be Sonny Vaccaro, who represents Nike, a company with much the biggest part of the business in athletic shoes, worth five-and-a-half billion dollars last year. Vaccaro conceived of a better way to market sneakers and thereby “extended Nike’s reach below the surface of the game.”
Vaccaro threw [the] rules out. Pay the coaches, he said. Give them the shoes. [John] Thompson tops the Nike pay scale, and George-town is the company’s “flagship,” because Vaccaro knows well the credibility the Hoyas and their coach have in the inner city, where Georgetown regalia is standard attire. He knows that street styles germinate in the school yards and rec centers of the eastern ghettos, in Harlem and Bed-Sty and Baltimore and West Philly and DC and flow across the continent from there.
Many of the most successful college coaches make less money from their own colleges than from the sneaker companies, who pay them as much as $200,000 a year, nominally as consultants but mainly to insure that players on their teams will be seen and photographed wearing a certain brand of shoes and accessories. The companies regard this practice as an investment in potential magazine covers and television airspace. College coaches may use some of the money and merchandise the companies liberally provide to “take care of” high school coaches who have good players.
The companies also directly support summer leagues around the country with subsidies of cash and free products. According to Wolff and Keteyian, last year the father of a twelve-year-old boy in southern California was reportedly offered $15,000 to commit his son to play in a particular summer youth league there. This boy was so valuable because he is projected to be the best of his generation of players in a very large media market, and his enlistment almost guarantees the league’s attractiveness to other talented young players, who will be highly visible themselves in the sneakers of the sponsoring shoe company, Reebok, wherever they play for the next five years.
In this manner are created the most enduring relationships in the game, those among players and sneaker companies and coaches. A desirable schoolboy with Nike-sponsored feet, for example, tends to find his way to a college coach associated with Nike. This assures the college he works for of having the talent it needs to win often enough to stay on television, for which it receives considerable revenue. So the colleges get paid, the coaches get paid, and the sneaker companies get paid in media exposure bought indirectly at a small percentage of what it is worth. The kid won’t begin to get paid in full unless he becomes good enough to play in the NBA and be one of about three hundred basketball players in the United States of America with a license to sell their own feet.
In their own way, the sneaker companies are more closely connected with young black males than any other of this society’s institutions, except maybe its courts and prisons. Because of the commerce they make together, these companies are the principal legal holders of property left in America for whom these kids have value. They come to know each other as any merchant knows a steady customer, well enough, at least, for the sneaker companies to recognize how vulnerable these young people are to the symbols of belonging in a place where they think they will never truly belong, their habit of pursuing the shadows of something they think they were never meant to have.2
Now we have a Reebok commercial on television in which Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers holds up a sneaker, the $160 object of desire, and says to the camera, “Some people are into BMWs… I’m into gym shoes.” Newspaper reports from Chicago to New Haven tell of sporting-goods retailers who claim that sneaker company sales representatives have called to encourage them to organize private showings of new product lines for the shopping convenience of drug dealers.
To spread the fashion, sneaker companies made sure they got their shoes onto the feet of the elite classes of young black male society: the outlaws, the athletes, and the new breed of entertainers, performers of rap music, who represent for an audience they came from but never left the possibility that ordinary lives could become the basis of real celebrity. Young boys get paid to “rock the good rhymes” and reinvent themselves as poets, prophets, gangsters, woman handlers, folk heroes, and stars across all the territories where “hip hop,” rap music, is like a national anthem.
There is much in the discourse of rap culture, or what its residents call “the hip hop nation,” that is more interesting as sociology than as art, because it refers only to “the pussy, the money, and the mic[rophone],” and while much that has happened in the affairs of men can be attributed to the pursuit or denial of each of these concerns of adolescent boys, they have not necessarily been the only constituents of serious art. The price of admission to the rap game is cheaper for most of those who aspire to play in it than any other branch of the performing arts, since it can be paid in coin more common than discipline or talent. For some the only thing required is the will to self-proclaim.
Rap requires its best performers to be able to do at least one of two things—“kick game” or “drop knowledge”; the most skilled can both entertain and inform, and a few original talents can do both at the same time. Two of these, Ice-T and Ice Cube, preside over the Los Angeles school of gangster poets from its campus in the mostly black city of Compton, as the preeminent young dramaturgists in the clamorous theater of the street.
According to their folklore, Ice-T and Ice Cube were hope-to-die gang warriors who were well enough able to transpose “crime posses” into “rhyme posses” to trade the “bang and hustle” of local criminal enterprise for the “big game” and get rich by the standards of their community without “selling out” their essential selves or casting off any old allegiances. Some of the best rap performers speak for a place they didn’t happen to come from: Ice Cube is a grown-up child not of the street but of the stable working class. His father is a “landscape artist,” his mother works in a library at UCLA. Perhaps we should learn from his example, and from Public Enemy’s, whose members first met in an Afro-American music appreciation class at Adelphi University, in Long Island, not to regard this form of expression as a kind of folk art innocent of artifice or calculation. Yet if Ice Cube hasn’t really lived the life he talks about it would be impossible not to think he had, so much authority is there in the persona he has made, and so much has he been invested with by his audience.
Ice Cube sounds like, and speaks to, the violent fantasies of unreconstructed members of a caste who expect nothing more from American society than what they can take:
Word, yo, but who the fuck is heard,
it’s time to take a trip to the suburbs
Let’em see a nigger invasion,
point blank on a Caucasian,
Cock the hammer and crack a smile,
“Take me to your house, pal…”
(In 1968, words less incendiary than these got H. “Rap” Brown indicted in Maryland for inciting to riot. These days, Ice Cube is doing malt liquor commercials on television.)
But much of his work, and Ice-T’s, is full of pointed, sometimes funny, social commentary, sardonic instruction to young men about the world of their everyday, and vivid miniature crime melodramas—“automatic Uzi motherfucking bloodbaths”—that are like three-minute radio plays, even more lurid than the gangster movies of the Thirties and Forties they seem both to update and recall: “I got something guaranteed to stop the bum’s rush; give me the gat, step back, and watch me do the job… I’m rolling with the Lench Mob…”;
I grabbed my AK, my 16[mm], my baby Mac, threw a 9[mm] in the small of my back…; Twelve o’clock midnight, posse was airtight, twenty-five cars under the street light…cars hit the corner like a long black snake, just looking for a life to take…then we spot him, Evil E shot him, dead in the face to make sure we got him….”
If many young black males are settled in their conviction that they are permanent outsiders in this society, more than a few determined to become the most American outsiders they know how to be: gangsters, our national urban outlaw archetype.
The best of the New York school of rap performers—the famous Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim, Chris Parker (KRS-1) of Boogie Down Productions—tend to be more cerebral and high-minded, and think of themselves as messengers and “righteous teachers”—but all of them, from all over, are part of a tradition many of them know hardly anything about, except in perhaps those places of the brain where cultural memory resides. They are only the youngest of the tellers of tales who try to sing the passage of black men into the world.
So, in recent times, the Last Poets, who did their declaiming in 1970 accompanied by spare rhythm sections of Harlem Africanesque percussion, are the fathers of Public Enemy, whose soundtrack is assembled by computer and drum machine; and the 2-Live Crew is distinguishable from the penis folklorists of other generations like Rudy Ray Moore mostly by the relative impoverishment of their capacity for narrative invention. Caught between not knowing the old stories and not being able to think of any new ones, they are left without characters to play.
Rudy Ray Moore made “party records,” of a kind called “filthy” when “funk” was still a word unfit for polite company. He told of epic sexual apocrypha, of Dolomite and Hurricane Annie, in rhymed couplets rhythmically intoned, heirloom tales about the Signifying Monkey, and “Shine on the Titanic.” The cast of 2-Live Crew make themselves stars of their own nasty fables, which leaves them without distance enough between teller and tale to allow those being told to suspend their fear that the attitudes the group proclaims, and the doings they describe, might be visited upon some neighbor’s daughter if the opportunity presented itself to the people behind the voices on tape.
This lack of distance makes it seem as though the group is talking about something real instead of mythical, and this is what got them into trouble recently with the guardians of the culture of their large unintended audience of young white males. The attention of white people has often been unhealthy for the preservation of the traditions of African-American life, even ones disreputable enough to make old ladies draw back and exclaim, “Oh my God.” And it is certainly true that so many white kids haven’t listened so hard to anything so raw and black and southern since Otis Redding died.
Every so often a genuine article in the social commerce of one of America’s darker tribes washes up on our Eurocentric shores, where it is picked up by the inhabitants and admired as an exotic specimen, until they tire of it and toss it away. So it was with Richard Pryor in 1983 and so it is now with 2-Live Crew, who have been given a huge endowment of counterfeit celebrity by people who would have the rest of us believe that the coarseness of these young men really has the capacity to scald sensibilities as refined as their own. These loud and extended recriminations against the group came to sound like that keynote address in 1957 which moved the Pennsylvania Association of Chiefs of Police to pass a resolution at its convention deploring the corruption of the Commonwealth’s young by “jungle” music. Others hear echoes of a time when colored people were thought by most white Americans to be naturally licentious, moral contaminants from whom women and children had to be protected.
“Yo, Ice, I’m working on a term paper for college. What’s the First Amendment?”
—Ice T, “Freedom of Speech, Just Watch What you Say,”
Freedom of Speech, 1990
I first came upon Jonathan Shecter, editor of The Source, the bible of hip hop culture, last April when he was an undergraduate at Harvard, in an office across the street from a carwash in Somerville, Massachusetts. I had gone to see him because I had read about a special edition of the magazine his roommate, David Mays, had begun as a newsletter little more than two years ago, called The Decade In Rap: 1980–1990 which was reported to be the best concise history of this music. When I saw it I realized it wasn’t meant to be a linear account of any history at all. It was more a montage of images and transcribed voices, which taken as a whole gives a true and vivid impression.
The Source is a magazine that takes both its subject and its readers seriously; this distinguishes it from other American publications aimed at the audience for music popular among the young and black, which generally do neither. The Source never contemplates the music without considering how it fits into the lives of people, or considers any of the various people who form the culture of its working world without contemplating the music. Its review of music in the last decade contains much concrete information of the sort that becomes the ingredients of social history.
When I arrived, Shecter was doing business, a telephone in either hand, a term paper he was working on spread across his lap, and a baseball cap imprinted with “NWA—Straight Out of Compton” turned backward on his head. He told me he believed rap music was bringing the races together and would teach black children about their culture and history. And indeed I remembered that a few days before, The Boston Globe reported that more than a third of several dozen black children interviewed had never heard of Malcolm X before they listened to Public Enemy. Shecter pointed out Malcolm’s picture on the cover of the then current edition of his magazine. This music, he said to me, is young black America’s television screen.
For those of us who can remember what black radio sounded like before its owners dared even to hope that enough white people might be induced to listen to allow them to raise their advertising rates, rap music seems less like television than like alternative radio; a mutated medium, subscription radio programmed for a nation of the young and the black, broadcast on spools of cassette tape, where everything on the air is meant to be danced to and the commercials are people advertising themselves.
Its pioneers were young men in the early 1970s, in Brooklyn and mostly in the Bronx, who might have been on radio if their dreams had come true, or spinning records in joints if anyone would have had them. Instead, they patched together their own equipment and outfitted trucks and vans and played house parties and parks and schoolyards.
“The hip-hop itself started in the Bronx,” Afrika Bambaata, one of its founding fathers, told The Source,
comin’ from Kool DJ Herc. Now, you had DJs before him that used to come out, but they was playin’ like disco music. He’s the one that brought the whole concept of playin’ beats, and playin that little certain part of the record, and doin’ some talk over it….
What began as a way of using turntable techniques associated with radio production—like “segueing”—to make dance records last longer in the era of the discotheque, evolved quickly into a new métier, whose practitioners used the output of what the music industry had always considered its “talent”—singers, musicians, songwriters, arrangers, producers—merely as raw material for their own craft. Records were pried open and pulled apart and pieces of others inserted; the effect was patchwork without seams or evident stitchery, a new and different whole fabricated from entirely independent parts.
By the middle of the Seventies technology flowed from the advanced world of recording studio engineers, whose tools had always seemed arcane, through the intermediary of the dance clubs into the underdeveloped country of the street which, out of want and necessity, took such of those tools as it could acquire and converted them to its own ingenious and unorthodox uses. Even the throwaway noise which attends “cueing up” a record to prepare it to be played was made useful as a source of rhythm—the process called “scratching”—even spoken words, apart from what meanings they may convey, were also used as instruments of percussion. The street broke down what the technicians made, stripping the music to its naked core—rhythms, and their component “beats”—these were then spliced together, reconstructed, in different arrangements.
By now the soundtrack of the hip hop nation is all synthetic music: assembled from rhythm box burble, a snippet of a stolen riff, four-second fragments of bass line appropriated from somewhere and chopped up so small as to be no more than a blip of an echo of something remembered, when it is recognizable at all; all these are compressed then laid end-to-end in sequences programmed by computers. This is called “sampling.” There are machines now, samplers, which take any sound, of varying lengths, and convert it into a piece of digital information. Many of these are recorded like this, then manipulated by other machines called sequencers that arrange them any which way you want.
What would we know of our own lives if all the things ever said to us important enough to recollect were recalled as words and phrases that were “sampled” rather than quoted? What, then, can these young people know of this richest of traditions if the popular music of African-Americans is available to them mostly as scraps of sound run through a mixmaster? It is a history that is recycled every day into something made from something else that is no longer identifiable as what it was. What it used to be isn’t important anymore anyway but for the elements in it that were serviceable in the making of some new thing. Just as one supposes that elements of half a dozen newspapers are conjoined to become a shopping bag, the music of James Brown, who hasn’t often been in a recording studio lately, is still integral, still selling millions of records, and nobody knows it but the plunderers of his work and a few copyright lawyers.
Jonathan Shecter and David Mays graduated from Harvard and moved their magazine to New York. Before they left I talked to Shecter again about the reemergence of cultural nationalism among black youth, and I remarked that so many of them seemed disassociated from any history, which makes unlikely the prospect that they can teach much of it to others, who know less. The saddest part for me, I said, of the unfortunate interview Professor Griff of Public Enemy gave to a newspaper reporter in Washington, DC, summer before last when he carried on about the international Jewish conspiracy and its control over the world’s wealth, then pointed to the gold around his neck, and said, “That’s why they call it jew’lry,” was that here was a young man, a self-styled “Minister of Information,” who stumbled upon The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and thought he found some fresh material. Shecter’s face brightened. “Of course,” he said, “I hadn’t thought about it that way. That stuff’s been around since the Thirties, hasn’t it?”
Twenty years ago there was a whole menu of cultural nationalists for black Americans to choose from. Now there is only Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam didn’t have to be reinvented because it seems always to have been around; these days doing business in the same place for sixty years confers permanence. For many young black males in the city, who see more of him now than ever, Louis Farrakhan is the public figure most admired, a more commanding presence than Jesse Jackson, who is a star to their mothers’ generation and still speaks of inclusion when all they can feel is an alienation so deep they think it’s a place to live.
Not that many know much about Farrakhan; for most of them it is enough to believe he walks in the shoes of the martyred hero Malcolm, about whom they know even less. It has been twenty years since the Last Poets suggested that black people “loved to hear Malcolm talk, but they didn’t love Malcolm.” How could they love him better now when they know him only at a distance proper to the veneration of icons?
Farrakhan understands as well as anybody the way we have of discouraging too long a memory or too close a familiarity with our past, since it might inhibit us from reinventing our history and ourselves whenever it suits. So when he preached the funeral of Yusef Hawkins he could look out over the congregated mourners and say to them, “You were there when they crucified Malcolm,” substituting “Malcolm” for “our Lord” in the line from the old song he intended as reference, invoking the now sanctified memory of a man whose death he once coldly asserted was the price for having blasphemed God. And his auditors, most of whom had been alive long enough to have heard something about who killed Malcolm, nevertheless affirmed him.
Many in other audiences will likely agree with Louis Farrakhan whenever he says that white America has a plan to eliminate black people, and just as Pharaoh killed the sons of the Jews, so the government has targeted young black males for destruction and is preparing the social and political climate by making them objects of fear and contempt, as Hitler did the Jews. Because there is a place inside many black Americans that is sure it knows that under the right circumstances white American society is capable of every bit of that:
(Spoken in the voice of a white female newsreader, bored but studiously perky, nearing the end of her nightly broadcast) At the bottom of our news tonight there’s been a new animal aimed in the direction of falling off the face of the earth. Yes, young black teenagers are reported to be the oldest and the newest creatures added to the endangered species list. As of now, the government has not taken steps to protect the young blacks. When asked why, a top law official replied, “Because they make good game.”
—Ice Cube in “Tales From the Darkside,”
Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, 1990
On television not long ago George Will decried the “rebarbarization of our cities” by young black males. A cold wind indeed, blowing in the direction of where Terry Williams sees “struggling young people trying to make a place for themselves in a world…many wish would go away.”
Because the prevailing culture acts upon them most directly, these children are among its purest products. That culture is disclosed to them through a small window, and there is little they can see of it that doesn’t suggest to them that the measure of the value of a human being is the value of what he or she can consume. They have inherited one more of our bankruptcies, these most American children of all.
April 11, 1991
Rick Telander, “Senseless,” Sports Ilustrated (May 14, 1990), p. 43. ↩
The importance of African-American consumers to the athletic footwear industry has not been lost on Operation PUSH. Last July, Dr. Tyrone Crider, its current director, announced a national campaign to induce African-Americans to boycott Nike products unless the company appointed a black person to its board of directors and began to use minority-owned banks and advertising agencies. Nike bristled, citing its history of good corporate citizenship and charging that PUSH had “financial ties” to Reebok, its chief competitor. Nike estimates that blacks account for about 15 percent of its $2.5 billion in annual sales; PUSH contends the true figure is closer to 30 percent. ↩