“CAUTION,” warns the back cover of George Clinton’s 1986 album R&B Skeletons in the Closet, “Segments of This Album May Contain JUNGLE MUSIC!” This tongue-in cheek warning is one of many drawings on the cover by Clinton’s go-to artist, Pedro Bell, responding to a growing trend in the 1980s: black artists who were crossing over to white audiences. For musicians aspiring to crossover success, there’s even a handy list of “What To DROP To Go POP.” Captain Crossover, a robot composed equally of black and white parts, details how black artists can change their lyrics, hair, clothes, and behavior to “almost [guarantee their] stardom.” Last on the list is a demand: “FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM because airbody knows that anybody who lives in the projects more than 2 years, is never going to make it.” If this list isn’t clarifying enough, the record jacket farther down advertises longer how-to-cross-over books, including “Your Roots Erasing Manual” and “Kiss the Booty Goodbye and Other Facts.” The results of paying attention to these books appear in a set of before and after pictures, which show that smoother hair and lighter skin result from correct application of these instructional manuals.
Critiques of crossover artists similar to the ones on Clinton’s album were common in the mid-1980s. In a 1984 editorial in Billboard magazine, music critic Gerrie Summers warned that whereas the perks of crossing over were obvious, such as reaching bigger audiences and benefiting from the resources of the better-supported pop divisions of record companies, serious negative consequences were possible. Among them were the “alienation of listeners,” “dilution of a musical genre,” and, above all, the “destruction of the human spirit.”1 Disapproval of black crossover artists wasn’t merely confined to the pages of music periodicals. The mostly black audiences at the 1988 and 1989 Soul Train Awards booed Whitney Houston for having crossed over too much — she had so much success with pop audiences that black fans felt she “wasn’t theirs anymore,” as she detailed to Ebony a few years later.2
What did black artists drop as they went pop? Did crossing over necessarily entail a “crossing out” of black musicians’ black identity, as James Mtume put it?3 These questions permeated the musical discourse in the 1980s, less than two decades after the 1972 Harvard report inspired white-owned record companies to take an increased interest in their black music divisions.4 In an astute summary of this critical debate published in the early 1990s, Reebee Garofalo noted that issues concerning crossover “live on and are, as of yet, unresolved.”5 But for a younger generation of black listeners, resolution had already occurred. Based on conversations with 54 black junior high and high school students in Austin, Texas, between 1986 and 1989, Venise T. Berry’s 1993 article “Crossing Over: Musical Perceptions Within Black Adolescent Culture” reveals a generational shift in attitudes toward crossover among black audiences. Moving the focus from music critics to young consumers, Berry’s ethnography uniquely shifts the terms of the debate over crossover’s racial politics.
Berry’s article provides a refreshingly balanced alternative to the contemporary negative evaluations of the black crossover artists noted above, which have the potential to leave little room for artistic intent and agency.6 The teenagers Berry surveys recognize the financial benefits of black artists crossing over into the white mainstream, and “acknowledged the need and accepted the fact that changes must occur” for black artists to cross over.7 A majority of her respondents displayed a “mature understanding” of the simultaneous advantages and drawbacks of crossing over, and they largely did not agree that crossing over necessarily entails a devastating crossing out. In fact, only five percent of her respondents claimed that crossing over was solely damaging, including her subject Tyrone, who worried that “such a move would take the blackness out of the music.”8
A generation removed from the height of the civil rights movement and coming of age in an era of stagnant, if not decreasing, black economic opportunity, these teenagers stress the importance of black artists’ economic interests, while articulating their concerns about artists’ commitments to the black community and authentic expressions of their black identity. Cash may not rule everything around them, to loosely paraphrase the Wu-Tang Clan song released the same year as Berry’s article, but it matters. In many ways, the teens articulate a generational change in attitudes toward crossover at a moment when a similar shift in musical taste also was occurring — the rise of hip hop. This new youth genre would be at the forefront of changing attitudes about crossover as hip hop artists articulated that, rather than crossing out, crossing over simply made financial sense.
Hip hop came of age during this period of expanding crossover possibilities for black artists and increased scrutiny of their crossover dreams. And hip hop, at least in the beginning of its commercial recording career, based its sound on songs that achieved crossover success. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” considered the first commercial rap record, cashed in on the popularity of disco, 1979’s biggest crossover style. The song built on Chic’s “Good Times,” which dominated the number one spot on Billboard’s black music chart in late summer 1979 before crossing over and hitting number one on the pop chart in August.
But just a few years later, hip hop, out of its infancy and becoming a force the record industry was reckoning with, changed the nature of crossing over. Although certain artists’ pandering to white audiences was part of the growing discourse about hip hop authenticity, crossing over for many hip hop artists did not necessarily entail crossing out as Clinton defined the term. Rather than forgetting their roots, as Clinton advised, hip hop artists stressed their origins in the projects and other low-income neighborhoods. Rather than erasing the booty, rappers released songs, such as “Baby Got Back,” celebrating booties that are “just so… black.” Given the perceived choice of creating economically successful diluted black sound or less profitable authentic black expression, some in the hip hop industry chose neither. Bill Adler, legendary early rap promoter and manager, gives Russell Simmons of Def Jam credit for inspiring a new crossover strategy: “Russell thought we didn’t have to water down that culture in order to cross over. In fact, we’re going to do what we do at full strength and pull the mainstream in our direction. We didn’t cross over to them. They crossed over to us.”9 Berry notes this difference, writing that groups such as Public Enemy and N.W.A “are changing the rules as they pick up a more diverse following” by challenging white audiences to embrace artists who overtly sounded their black identity.10
Hip hop wasn’t the only force changing the nature of crossover. In 1987, Billboard magazine recognized a “new breed” of radio stations with a new chart, the “Hot Crossover 30 Chart.”11 Mainly located in major metropolitan areas, these stations challenged the mostly segregated commercial radio formatting of the 1980s by playing the type of crossover music that Clinton mocked for a multicultural audience. These stations transformed crossover from an action that record companies hoped their black artists would take into a rapidly concretizing sound, format, and associated radio audience. As David Brackett writes in his recent book, Categorizing Sound, the existence of this chart indicated “crossover had become its own convention,” one which was produced and codified by the playlists on these stations.12 By the early 1990s, this convention included the black sounds of hip hop, although rarely the insistently black sounds of Public Enemy and N.W.A. Instead they played — alongside other hip hop, dance, pop, and R&B songs — the proudly black and proudly rich sounds of Uptown and Bad Boy Records’ artists, whose blackness, according to Uptown’s Andre Harrell, meant “you don’t feel like you have to conform in your dress or your attitudes.” Blackness and crossing over, for Harrell, were musically inclusive; blackness entitled his artists to “cross all boundaries.”13
Over the past thirty years, these stations have cohered into a radio format now called Rhythmic, which still plays hip hop, R&B, and hip-hop-influenced pop for broad audiences much like Berry’s teenagers, for whom “crossing over is not only accepted, but in many cases, expected.”14 During the same period, hip hop has grown into the most popular genre in the United States while maintaining its strong black identity, indicating that Berry’s study was not an aberration. Rather, the teens were proven right.