Tangent Sunset

The History of Conscious Music by Alex Cosper

Embedded Dance Messages


The sound of the protest artist engaging in honest expression was still prevalent in the eighties, despite an overall shift in the mainstream to highly produced dance or background music. Conceptual music was certainly no longer the foreground of popular music, as it had been in the sixties and seventies. The leading stars of the eighties were Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. The mainstream was dominated by dance music. Rock artists who had something to say in their music were pushed out of the spotlight by music that wasn't meant to be dissected intellectually at all. Even so, "Billie Jean" told a compelling story of a mysterious pregnancy.

Madonna tried to be controversial in many of her songs and videos, but the material generally relied on a repetitious dance beat and the lyrics never took issues head on. Prince tried to sprinkle in end of the world themes in songs like "1999" and "Let's Go Crazy." His song "Erotic City" was banned on a lot of pop stations for allegedly using the "f word" even though Prince claimed the word was actually "funk." Toward the end of the decade 2LiveCrew would find themselves in jail for using explicit language in songs like "Me So Horny" in shows and recordings. Congress eventually ruled that music with explicit language must be packaged with a warning sticker.

Rhythm & Blues continued to gain ground on the pop landscape throughout the eighties. By the end of the decade the pop charts had become dominated by either R&B or R&B-influenced music with a few hair bands thrown in. R&B legends Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin all re-emerged in the eighties with well-crafted pop records that further elevated their places in history.

Meanwhile, the new R&B sound grew out of the roots of hip hop. Rap music developed in African-American communities in the seventies and broke onto the pop charts at the end of the decade with Curtis Blow and Sugar Hill Gang. Rap began taking on conscious themes with artists like Grand Master Flash, Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube and Ice-T. At first there was paranoia that rap was strictly black music and rock was strictly white music. But with the union of Run DMC and Aerosmith in 1986 came the birth of the rap/rock sound that directly influenced the Beastie Boys and all of the other rap/rock acts to follow.

The most controversial rap would be gangsta rap and/or rap with explicit lyrics such as Body Count's 1992 song "Cop Killer." Ice T was pressured by his label as well as top government officials to pull the song from his rap/metal album with Body Count. He replaced the song with "Freedom Of Speech," as part of rap culture became dealing with the issue of censorship. 2 Live Crew released "Banned In The USA," a parody of the Bruce Springsteen song in 1990 in response to getting arrested for performing explicit songs in the deep south. They had taken rap to a new level of sexual raunchiness in their 1989 hit "Me So Horny." Ice T, though, never got into sleaziness in his rap, as he usually tried to communicate a positive moral that you shouldn't join a gang, as in songs like "Colors," "I'm Your Pusher" and "High Rollers."

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