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Cypress Hill bring the N-Word to FM radio [July 25, 1993]
Plus: Madonna, Manic Street Preachers, and Smashing Pumpkins
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to July 25, 1993!
📰 Bill Clinton unveils the new Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, his solution for allowing gays in the military by simply not talking about it.
📽️ Arnie makes fun of himself in high-concept comedy The Last Action Hero.
📺 BBC launch a new music show called No Stilettoes, hosted by Eddie Reader in Glasgow. Despite some great Scottish and international bands, the show doesn’t last.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Pray’ by Take That, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 32…
Cypress Hill, ’Insane In The Brain’
Whenever there’s any kind of discourse about the N-word, a little warning light flashes in my brain, telling me not to go there.
I don’t have anything to contribute. For starters, I’m not Black, which means that I don’t really understand where or how deeply this word cuts. Also, the N-word debate is a uniquely American issue, tied into the history of a country that was founded by people who owned other people.
Of course, we’re all Americans these days. We’re all part of that culture to some extent.
I’ve been listening to lots of hip-hop recently, which means asking myself those cringey white guy questions (Can I sing along? What if I’m alone in the car?) I’ve also been using a Twitter alternative called Bluesky recently, which was fun until a controversy about the N-word became so heated that it seemed possible Bluesky might shut down entirely.
We are all Americans now.
This issue was always scheduled to be about Cypress Hill, but just before I started writing it, the band appeared on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. To be honest, it wasn’t a great performance (the recent Juvenile appearance was much better), although they did reveal that they didn’t want ‘Insane In The Brain’ as the lead single off Black Sunday. They preferred ‘I Ain’t Going Out Like That’, but Sony insisted on ‘Insane’.
And then they performed the song.
When B-Real sang the bridge to the first chorus, he said:
I don't fuck with the big 4-O
Bro, I got to maintain
'Cause a homie like me is going insane
Insane in the membrane…
Sen Dog changed his line on the second verse to “Cypress is going insane”, then B-Real sang “homie” again on the third verse.
Was this a gesture of politeness for the genteel NPR? Nope. Checking some other live videos confirms that this is how they perform now. Cypress Hill have dropped the N-word from ‘Insane In The Brain’.
This feels especially significant because, thirty years ago, Cypress Hill were the ones who brought the N-word into the pop charts.
Who you trying to get crazy with ése?
Here would be a good place to explore the history of the N-word. However, we’re not going to do that because (a) I’m not the right person to lead the conversation, and (b) there’s a whole corpus of literature on the topic.
I will say that there’s always been something transcendently powerful about the word, even outside of American culture. I grew up in 1980s Ireland, a place so ethnically homogenous that I can literally remember the first time I saw a Black person. We had no connection with American culture or any reason to feel enmity towards Black people.
And yet, I remember the N-word being thrown around a lot back then. There were jokes where it formed the punchline, insults where it was meant to degrade, and sometimes people said it for the sheer transgressive joy of saying it.
The N-word had something about it that isn’t contained in other slurs. Something about the hot, wet sound of that word is uniquely violent. It has the heft of a weapon.
Some people would say that no, this is impossible. Words don’t have any power, other than the power we choose to give them.
Lenny Bruce was one champion of this theory. One of his most infamous comedy routines involves him saying the N-word a few dozen times, along with a whole pantheon of other racial slurs. He’s not trying to offend, but to make a point that saying these words out loud will erode their power, until :
“…n—— didn't mean didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a n—— at school."
An appealing idea, in a suburban, progressive, To Kill A Mockingbird kind of way, but nobody put this theory to the test, and public usage of the N-word remained limited.
Punks just jealous 'cause they can't outwrite me
The N-word had been part of hip-hop throughout the 80s, even before the advent of N.W.A. But hip-hop songs rarely crossed over into the mainstream charts, especially if those songs contained anything potentially offensive.
In 1992, only nine hip-hop singles entered the Billboard Top 100—and two of those were by MC Hammer. Only one of those songs, ‘Mind Playing Tricks On Me’ by Geto Boys, contained the N-word. It peaked at Number 23 and didn’t chart outside the US).
In 1993, almost thirty hip-hop singles charted in the US, including seminal classics like Ice Cube’s ‘It Was A Good Day’ and Dre’s ‘Nuthin But A G Thang’ (which was, hilariously, held off Number One by Snow’s ‘Informer’). Gangsta rap was becoming the mainstream, which meant that the N-word was becoming a central part of pop culture. Radio stations began grappling with the ethics of it all: can we play that word? Should we bleep it? If it’s in the title of a song, can we say that title on air?
Dre and Cube didn’t do much chart business outside of the US, but international audiences did go wild for Cypress Hill—which perhaps isn’t surprising, given that ‘Insane In The Brain’ is just a reworked version of House Of Pain’s already established international hit, ‘Jump Around’.
(For clarity: Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs created the original beat. He gave it to House Of Pain for ‘Jump Around’ and produced the track for them. When Cypress Hill started work on Black Sunday, B-Real wrote some new lyrics and Muggs recycled the beat.)
By the summer of 1993, most English-speaking countries had pop hits on the radio that featured the N-word in the lyrics, although it was generally beeped out (which only drew more attention to it). Meanwhile, in 1993, the year’s most talked-about film, Reservoir Dogs, featured white people casually saying the N-word in a casual way that almost felt Lenny Bruce-ian.
This was the 90s, when progressive politics were on the rise, and America was led Bill Clinton, a man that Toni Morrison dubbed, “America’s first Black president.” To some, it felt like perhaps society was on its way to eroding the power of the N-Word.
The New York Times wrote about this subject in 1993 and found a range of opinions, including one emerging rapper who was optimistic:
Kris Parker, a leading rap artist known as KRS-One, predicts that through black culture's ability to affect popular American culture through the electronic media, "n——r" will be de-racialized by its broader use and become just another word.
"In another 5 to 10 years, you're going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests," he said. "It's going to be that accepted by the society."
1993 ended with a controversy involving the N-word at the Friars Club roast of Whoopi Goldberg. Roger Ebert wrote:
[The audience] cringed in disbelief during the opening monologue by actor Ted Danson, Whoopi's lover, who appeared in blackface and used the word "n——r" more than a dozen times during a series of jokes that drew smaller and smaller laughs, until finally the audience was groaning and Danson faltered as he tried to plow through his written material.
Whoopi Goldberg defended Danson, saying that the whole thing was her idea and that she’d written most of the material. “Let's get these words all out in the open,” she said.
These pigs wanna blow my house down
People started saying the N-word a lot. But Lenny Bruce’s theory was incorrect. The word did not lose any of its power.
In 1994, honorary Black man Bill Clinton signed a Crime Bill that put a lot of Black men in prison, leading to the current epidemic of mass incarceration. Hilary supported Bill’s policy by promoting the racist myth of the “superpredator”—essentially, a polite version of the N-word.
The N-word’s biggest 90s moment occurred in 1995 during the O.J. Simpson trial, when Detective Mark Fuhrmann (who found the infamous bloody glove) was caught on tape using the N-word over 40 times.
Fuhrmann hadn’t been singing along to Snoop Dogg either, or quoting dialogue from Pulp Fiction. If you read the transcript (which is pretty brutal) you see that Fuhrmann uses the word as a very precise tool of white supremacy. Many of his quotes are about using violent force to control Black people—in his mouth, the N-word is a self-contained rationale for that violence.
Lenny Bruce was in dreamland. The N-word isn’t a social taboo like “fuck” or “shit”. Its power comes from somewhere much deeper and darker.
Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, a history professor and daughter of Richard Pryor, said this in her lecture, “The N-Word In The Classroom”:
The N-word is an idea disguised as a word: that black people are intellectually biologically and immutably inferior to white people, and that inferiority means that the injustice we suffer, the inequality we endure, is essentially our own fault. Speaking of the word only as racist spew or as an obscenity in hip-hop music makes it sound as if it's a disease located in the American vocal chords that can be snipped right out. It's not and it can't.
I get why Cypress Hill have dropped the N-word from most performances of ‘Insane In The Brain’. They’ve always had some pushback on their use of the word, given that B-Real doesn’t present as Black and their audience often presents as very, very white. It’s just easier to drop it.
Although that raises a whole bunch of other questions, like why one word gets special treatment above other slurs. In 1994, Courtney Love got in trouble for getting her audience to shout the N-word, but she says was trying to make a point about how hip-hop is fine with using misogynistic slurs.
And… yeah, it’s worth debating all of these things. There are no easy answers. But maybe answers aren’t the point. Maybe the point is just thinking about what words really mean.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 7, new] Madonna, ‘Rain’
A gentle ending to Madonna’s chaotic Erotica era, with a tasteful pop ballad and a gorgeous video clip. ‘Rain’ was originally commissioned for a movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights that never happened. It was actually written before the rest of Erotica, which is perhaps why it doesn’t quite feel like part of this Madonna era.
[Number 19 ↑] Shara Nelson, ‘Down That Road’
Shara Nelson achieved immortality back in 1991 as lead vocalist on Massive Attack’s ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. Nelson’s solo single was a modest hit, but suffers from the same kind of Lighthouse Family-esque on a lot of early 90s British R’n’B records.
[Number 22, new] Manic Street Preachers, ‘La Tristesse Durera’
James’ attempt to pronounce the French phrase '“la tristesse durera” (“the sadness endures”, taken from Van Gogh’s suicide note) is kind of wild, but the same is true of his pronunciation of many English words in the song. Try to count how many syllables he fits into the word “bill”, for example.
Early Manics records were incomprehensible without the lyric sheet.
[Number 23, new] Janet Jackson, ‘If’
Janet was so far ahead of her brother, it’s almost funny.
[Number 40, new] Stan, ‘Suntan’
A nightmarish creation by the people (other than Right Said Fred) responsible for ‘I’m Too Sexy’. Most people have forgotten that this exists, but those who do often cite it as the worst song of the decade.
It’s kind of catchy though.
Album of the Week
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
Smashing Pumpkins were always lumped into the grunge category, even though they had little in common with Seattle bands other than loud guitars, a grumpy attitude, and a lead singer who couldn’t really sing.
Siamese Dream more closely resembles a kind of grunge counter-programming, a broadcast from an alternative universe where Chicago became the epicentre of 90s alternative rock. Siamese Dream feels like a rejection of grunge values: where grunge is shabby, Dream is ornate; where grunge is homespun, Dream is grandiose.
Most importantly, where grunge draws from punk and metal, The Pumpkins are unashamed of their prog rock influences. A song like ‘Today’ has the bones of a standard Gen X alt.rock track, but layers of intricate guitars build it into a huge, swooning anthem.
Not that this always goes according to plan. Billy Corgan is immensely talented but also weirdly unlikable—when you mention Smashing Pumpkins to people, they often reply, “love that band but hate their fuckin’ singer”.
The success of any Smashing Pumpkins song depends on getting just the right amount of Billy in it. On Siamese Dream, you’ve got songs like ‘Rocket’ which probably doesn’t have enough Billy and drift into dullness. And then you have ‘Disarm’ which is almost a great song, but becomes so over-wraught and over-laden with strings that it ends up feeling like an Adrian Mole poem.
It’s just too much Billy. They should have dialled back the Billy.
Fortunately, Siamese Dream achieves optimal levels of Billy on most tracks, from blazing opener ‘Cherub Rock’ to the genre-hopping ‘Spaceboy’. The ideal level of Billy is achieved on the album’s standout track, ‘Mayonaise’, which sounds like a post-apocalyptic vision of Sunset Strip rock.
People laughed when Billy Corgan said that Kurt Cobain was his “greatest opponent” because it vaguely implies that he was the second-biggest figure in grunge. But, in hindsight, Kurt probably did have more in common with Billy than with, say, Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell, neither of whom were ever quite as adventurous in their songwriting.
Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins both wanted to experiment and keep pushing into new territories. Sometimes, that backfired on the Pumpkins, and their resulting catalogue is a bit hit-and-miss. But when their experiments worked, they were capable of greatness, and Siamese Dream probably has the highest success rate of all their records.
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