Safe for Crackers: AM, Then FM Edition

Written by Music, Safe for Crackers

What were you doing in 1986?

If you were a suburban kid with access to a radio or MTV, you were experiencing the dawn of rap as a commercial force to be reckoned with. The genre had been around for awhile, of course, but this was the year it really started to enter the wider marketplace; the year it was cool to wear Adidas, fight for your right to party, and understand that it really didn’t matter whether Johnny and Gina made it or not.

To celebrate suburban rap’s 21st birthday, a number of bloggers, writers, and friends will be sharing their memories of this era, and talking about the songs that acted as their gateway to rap — the music that, in Jason’s words, made it “safe for crackers.” Break out your Bugle Boys and get ready to rock the bells!

This week’s entry comes to us courtesy of Jeff Ash, proprietor of AM, Then FM, always a thoroughly magnificent destination for your music-thirsty browser. Jeff’s fond of saying he’s older than dirt, but his taste is as impeccably timeless as his musical knowledge is vast. If you aren’t reading AM, Then FM on a regular basis, hie thee to the above URL and repent of your foolish ways. Take it away, Jeff!

My mind was being blown anyway, so what was another genre?

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, one of the most liberal, most eccentric places on the planet. Think Berkeley. Think Austin.

There, I discovered a radio station like none I’d ever heard, like none I’ve heard since.

Because I worked nights, I spent my early afternoons listening to the volunteer DJs on WORT, 89.9 FM, listener-sponsored Back Porch Radio. They spun a staggeringly diverse mix of local bands, indie rock, R&B, soul, dance, jazz, punk, country and performance art.

The Chili Peppers and Fishbone, side by side with Camper Van Beethoven and Mojo Nixon, side by side with Husker Du and fIREHOSE, side by side with Laurie Anderson and Stan Ridgway, side by side with John Hiatt and Richard Thompson.

And, yes, side by side with the hip-hop we now recognize as old school.

In that summer of 1982, I was careening through my mid-20s and still rocking out, having been raised on Top 40 radio. AM, then FM, if you will.

Yet some of my formative FM was the late-night, free-form variety. During its heyday in the mid-’70s, I heard Gil Scott-Heron for the first time. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (download) was quite a revelation to a kid from a small town in central Wisconsin.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the door to hip-hop had opened.

One afternoon, one of the WORT DJs played something new. The voice was a direct, vaguely familiar baritone: “Well, the first thing I want to say is, mandate, my ass.”

Then the laid-back beat of “B Movie” (download) kicked in and Gil Scott-Heron, circa 1981, ripped Reagan for the next 6 minutes, 45 seconds.

From there, it didn’t take me long to warm up to something else played fairly regularly on Back Porch Radio. There was no playlist, and each DJ did their own thing, but seemingly everyone spun “The Message” (download) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which came out in 1982. The more I heard it, the more I dug it.

“Don’t push me, ’cause I’m close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”

It seemed like a logical progression, from digging the social commentary of the Temptations to Edwin Starr to Curtis Mayfield to Gil Scott-Heron to Grandmaster Flash.

And anything that took a whack at Reagan was all right with me.

The free-thinking WORT DJs shared that view, so when the Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison — another Wisconsin guy — dabbled in hip-hop while mocking Reagan, well, that was a match made in heaven.

Harrison and Bootsy Collins sampled and shredded one memorable line from Reagan. Goofing around an open radio mike, he says, “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in 5 minutes.” Bonzo Goes to Washington’s “5 Minutes” (download), from 1984, is one of my favorites.

Mainstream hip-hop? Certainly not. But influenced by it, and certainly socially aware.

Likewise, “World Destruction” (download), an angry, apocalyptic piece on which John Lydon — yes, Johnny Rotten — teamed up with Afrika Bambaataa and Time Zone in 1984.

Lydon rants: “This is a world destruction. Your life ain’t nothing. The human race is becoming a disgrace. The rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer. Fascist, chauvinistic government fools.”

Bambaataa preaches: “People, Muslims, Christians and Hindus are in a time zone just searching for the truth. Who are you to think you’re a superior race? Facing forth your everlasting doom.”

Mainstream hip-hop? Again, no. But again influenced by it, another message of its time, and another of my favorites.

Seemingly everyone who’s written one of these essays has paid homage to Run-D.M.C., and I’m no different. Being older than dirt, I just came on board a little earlier.

WORT’s DJs played Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 debut album, but it seemed almost too commercial for that air. Yet once I heard “Rock Box” (download), I was in. Never mind that it didn’t have a heavy message. It had some fine beats and Eddie Martinez’s sizzling guitars, and that was plenty.

By the time 1986 — Jefito’s benchmark year — rolled around, I was 11 years out of high school, a year shy of 30 and a year away from getting married. I’d also had four years of Back Porch Radio inside my head, a primer on any number of genres, including hip-hop. And I listened for four more years, until we left Madison.

Which is why today, at 50, I’ll still try new things, and why you’ll find Nelly, Kelis and Kid Rock — yeah, I know he isn’t necessarily hip-hop, either — and any number of mashups and mixes sampling “The Message” among the tunes stuffed into my head and into my Mac.