Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Togetherness Kind of Thing

2 Black 2 Strong is a 22-year-old Harlem rapper who got steamed about proposed flag amendments "changing the Bill of Rights, changing the rules of this country. If you're unhappy with the American system you should burn the flag if that's what you want to do. You're burning a symbol of oppression." So he wrote a rhyme about it. Produced by Clappers Records' Lister Hewan-Lowe, who was behind Brother "D" with Collective Effort's "How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?" back when rap was about as political as hot butter on the buttered popcorn, 2 Black 2 Strong & MMG's "Burn Baby Burn" comes out for torching the star-spangled banner, not the neighborhood. With an internationalist cameo from Chuck D and an intro from Revolutionary Communist Party firebrand Joey Johnson, whose Supreme Court case established the constitutional precedent 2 Black 2 Strong is testing, it's a pure incitement to free speech. But when Relativity, whose In-Effect subsidiary took on the record, made "Burn Baby Burn" part of a three-cassette promotional package, a Weaverville, North Carolina, tape manufacturer erected a stone wall. Relativity was informed that "offensive language" in "Burn Baby Burn" (which begins "Fuck the red-white-and-blue") and the Limbomaniacs' "The Toilet Is Flooded" (the plot precis of a horror movie about a turd) was why Sonopress wouldn't touch the package, which was eventually shunted off to CBS's Columbia Pressing Company in Carrollton, Georgia. Sonopress, the U.S. base of a major European duplicator owned by Bertelsmann (which also owns RCA), refuses to comment.

Last Sunday 2 Black 2 Strong was on the Broadway Village Art Fair's 15-act, Tower Records-organized music bill with acts ranging from Raging Slab to 3rd Bass. Things quickly got hot. Stomping a flag backstage for an Italian TV crew, they started arguing with a Vietnam vet who didn't like the camouflage gear sported by MMG's War Child: "You've never been to war." "I go to war every day in my neighborhood." "When's the last time you ducked bullets?" "Last night, in my neighborhood." There was shouting, not to mention offensive language, about how white people don't understand war. A chair was brandished; Tower security was brandished; police appeared. Tower's Hedi Kim, who'd conceived the musical presentation as "a nice day, a family day, a togetherness kind of thing," was avowedly shocked, and told the band that if the crew "caused any more trouble" they'd be outta there. But after 2 Black 2 Strong promised not to burn any flags and took a few "Censorship Is Un-American" posters, she was reassured, and went off to take care of business.

Like most free festivals, however, this one was beset by tech problems, and when the turntables didn't work, tempers flared again. 2 Black 2 Strong crossed out the prefix of "Un-American" and lectured on how American censorship was, and after a little singalong Pink Floyd--"We don't need your education/We don't need your police patrols"--elected to go a cappella with "Burn Baby Burn." Since he's a master of the strong, black "fuck," offensive language soon boomed out over the P.A. And less than two verses in, according to several witnesses in the crowd of about 200, a female cop was signalling the sound man with an across-the-throat gesture: "Either you cut it off or we're going to," she was heard to threaten. (Inspector Michael Julian of the Ninth Precinct says his investigation indicates that no police officer was involved in the incident.) Nearer the stage, another officer rescued a flag from either a stomping or a torching. (Joey Johnson claims a cop "snagged it from behind," rolled it into a ball, and walked away. "That was my property," he fumes.) Alerted by walkie-talkie, Hedi Kim ran down with the security director and ordered the plug pulled. The group went off, but soon 2 Black 2 Strong returned to recite a rhyme called "Ameriklan Nightmare." Though a policeman was seen on stage, Kim says she dragged the rapper off herself. "They were only supposed to do one song and that was their single," she complains. "They came there looking for a fight."

Now why should 2 Black 2 Strong want to fight? As of October 15, their streetwise, beatwise, unmistakably political, and arguably offensive record was still in Tower's window and available from many other retailers--though not the huge Musicland/Sam Goody chain. A notoriously craven player in the censorship wars, Musicland refuses to comment on or commit itself to future policy regarding "Burn Baby Burn." But from here it looks like a basic Revolutionary Communist Party precept is coming home to roost: even with the Supreme Court on your side, free speech is a sham in a society where you don't control the means of production--or much of anything else.

Village Voice, 1990