Morgan v. Hennigan, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, 1974 THE SEEK BUTTON on the Ford’s radio is working. The downtown recedes. Miles of neighborhoods fill the windshield. The SEEK function locks on someplace in stereo, college FM probably. “Yeah,” a new friend says, “Whas up. Whas goin on.” The radio has another button, VOL, which gets jacked repeatedly while the Ford hurtles, happily, to the source of the noise. Not to the station’s broadcast booth on a campus across the river, nor to its transmission towers in the suburbs, but rather to RJam Productions in North Dorchester, where black kids from Boston’s now-integrated high schools-Latin, Madison Park, Jeremiah Burke, Mattapan-cut demos and dream of being bigger than even the radio’s new friend, a young man named Schoolly D who right now, at speaker-damaging volume, sounds darn big. “Before we start this next record…,” Schooly’s saying. The record in question is called “Signifying Rapper,” a brief, bloody tale of ghetto retribution from Side 2 of Schoolly’s Smoke Some Kill.
The black areas are cut away from the white areas a federal judge ruled in ’74, and evidence is everywhere that nothing’s changed since then. On the southbound left of the Fitzgerald Expressway pass 20 blocks of grim Irish-Catholic housing projects, the western border of Belfast, complete with Sinn Fein graffiti and murals depicting a glorious United Ireland, a neighborhood where the gadfly will get his fibula busted for praising the ’74 court order that bused “Them” from wherever it is “They” live-the Third World fer crissakes–into 97-percent-white South Boston. On the Expressway’s right is the place the fibula-busters are talking about: the simultaneous northern border of Haiti, Jamaica and Georgia; a territory that maps of Boston call North Dorchester.
Uniting the two sides of the Expressway is just about nothing. Both neighborhoods are tough and poor. Both hate the college world across the river, which, because of Boston’s rotten public schools, they will never see as freshmen. And kids from both neighborhoods can do this hating to the beat of undergraduate radio, which this fine morning features suburban kids with student debt broadcasting the art of a ghetto Philadelphian roughly their age, once much poorer than they, but now, on royalties from Smoke Some Kill, very much richer.
Not that the shared digging of black street music is news, or even new: twenty years ago, when Morgan v. Hennigan, Boston’s ownBrown v. Board of Education, was inching through the courts, and even dark-complected Italians were sometimes unwelcome in the Irish precincts east of the Expressway, kids in Boston’s Little Belfast sang along with James Brown over the radio
“Say it loud
I’m black and I’m proud
Say it loud
I’m black and I’m proud!”
Except that halfway through the infectious funk, the crewcuts realize what they’re saying: Jesus christ, “I’m proud to be black” fer chrissakes, like when you’re in the porno store, you know, and you get lost or something and you find yourself in the men’s part, you know? not the part for men in the part that’s about men, Jesus, and you get the hell outta there. And so they hum/mumble the suppressed parts
“Say it loud
I’m mmm hum proud
Say it loud
Mum hum hum proud!”
But rap isn’t funk, rock or jazz, and the vast crossover move, broadcasting “ghetto” music over college radios to ghettos of a different color, is no simple reenactment of past crossovers. How, for example, does the sing-along fan of Smoke Some Kill mumble his way through these lines:
“Black is beautiful
Brown is sick? slick? stiff?
But white ain’t shit.”
Rjam Productions, modestly headquartered in a mixed black/Hispanic Field,...