This is a transcript of Episode 4 of Season 3 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
This podcast has language that some people might find offensive.
In 1990, the Billboard album charts were dominated by rock and pop: Janet Jackson, Aerosmith, Paula Abdul, Motley Crue.
The biggest rappers were Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer.
The following year, the chart looked very different. NWA was at the top. Soon, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac would be too.
Gangsta rap hadn’t suddenly gotten more popular. What changed was that Billboard had started using SoundScan, a more accurate system for counting record sales.
For hip-hop fans, these new charts were validation—proof that rap music made for people who loved rap was both hugely popular and a massive money maker.
But not everyone was celebrating.
In the early 1990s, the Reverend Calvin Butts fashioned himself as an advocate for inner-city black neighborhoods.
From the pulpit of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Butts campaigned against advertisements for liquor and cigarettes.
And in the spring of 1993, he identified another malignant force: violent and misogynistic rap music.
REV. CALVIN BUTTS III: I may have more in common with a white man who loves humanity than I do with a black man who thinks that he ought to call all women “Bs” and “hoes.” So, you know, there is some point where we can’t be pushed into this corner and say, well, you know, for the sake of unity we ought to just keep this quiet.
Butts singled out some rap acts by name: N.W.A, 2 Live Crew, and the Geto Boys. He called their music “filth.”
And he didn’t just rant against rap from the pulpit. On the morning of June 5, 1993, he led a few hundred supporters to the sidewalk in front of his church. There he’d placed several boxes of cassette tapes and compact discs. He also had a steamroller.
But when Butts climbed aboard and got ready to start crushing, he found that his path was blocked. Dozens of rap fans had showed up to stage a counter-protest. They shouted that the reverend was out of touch, and accused him of censorship.
Taking in the tense scene, Butts called off the steamrolling.
Instead, he and his followers boarded a bus to midtown Manhattan. There, they dumped everything in front of the Madison Avenue headquarters of the Sony Corporation. Sony, Butts said, was “representative of an industry which laughs at black people all the way to the bank.”
Some members of Butts’ group crushed the music under their feet for good measure.
REPORTER: Butts got so angry, he organized a rap stomping.
REV. CALVIN BUTTS III: Recognize that this poison kills. And the industry bears a lot of the responsibility. This is your garbage. Take it back!
Butts told the hip-hop magazine The Source that he was a fan of rap music and he called it “an important art form.” He said that he was speaking out against “those who prostitute the music and send negative and filthy messages to our children and adults.” Here’s Butts on the New York TV show Video Music Box.
REV. CALVIN BUTTS III: I’m talking about lyrics that reflect a kind of attitude toward a person that sees them as a piece of sexual meat rather than a human being. This is not only a condition in the community of people of African descent. We’ve got to worry about the complete deterioration of the moral fabric in America.
In 1994, the group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony used a line from one of Butts’ sermons as a sample:
“Thuggish Ruggish Bone”—Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
[From “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony]
CALVIN BUTTS: We’re not against rap. We’re not against rappers. But we are against those thugs, thugs, thugs, thugs…
Reverend Butts came down hard on rappers, but he was willing to engage with the music and its defenders. The next black activist to take up the fight would be less accommodating.
C. DELORES TUCKER: I am here to put the nation on notice that violence perpetuated against women through the music industry in the forms of gangsta rap and misogynist lyrics will not be tolerated any longer!
How did hip-hop divide black leaders along generational and gender lines? How did veterans of the civil rights movement make common cause with white conservatives? And how did a 66-year-old woman on a moral crusade upend the music industry?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Joel Anderson, and this is episode 4: Against Those Thugs.
In her office in Washington, D.C., C. Delores Tucker displayed a photo of herself arm in arm with Martin Luther King. Tucker marched with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Her civil rights activism launched her on a political career in her home state of Pennsylvania.
In 1971, Tucker became the first black woman to hold a cabinet-level position in the state.
A. Peter Bailey was a reporter with Ebony Magazine when he was assigned to write a profile of Tucker, who was Pennsylvania’s secretary of the commonwealth.
A. PETER BAILEY: I think the title of the article was “The Lady to See in Pennsylvania.” That’s what the name of the article in Ebony…
Bailey spent three days with Tucker in Harrisburg, the state capital.
A. PETER BAILEY: And I came away from those three days that this is a person who takes care of business. That was my initial impression of her. And it was never changed over the next 25 years.
Tucker’s career in state politics ended in scandal. In 1977, the governor fired her for using her office for personal enrichment. She’d collected tens of thousands of dollars for speeches, and used state employees to write them.
After that, Tucker kept running for office—lieutenant governor, U.S. Senate, House of Representatives—but she never made it past the Democratic primaries.
But even as she failed to win elections, Tucker continued to get audiences with powerful people. She co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, and she mixed with the likes of Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and Gloria Steinem.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Yeah, she was a powerful presence!
That’s Eleanor Holmes Norton, who’s represented Washington D.C. in the House of Representatives since 1991. She knew Tucker from civil rights work in the 1960s and got reacquainted with her in the ‘90s.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: We associate that kind of presence in making speeches and the rest with men like Martin Luther King. I’m not saying she was Martin Luther King, but she was a very accomplished speaker.
Tucker drew her inspiration from the black church, addressing crowds as if she was speaking from a pulpit. As she spoke, her voice would build into the sing-song intonation of a preacher.
C. DELORES TUCKER: We marched for our rights in Selma - I was there with Dr. King. We were beaten with billy clubs and were bitten with dogs unleashed by Bull Connor. We will not tolerate injustice and insults from our worst enemies then, and we sure ain’t gonna accept insults from our youth now!
Tucker was impossible to ignore.
She wore colorful turbans to all her public appearances. And she carried herself with the bearing of a woman who believed she belonged in any room.
In the fall of 1993, Tucker was at an event for the Congressional Black Caucus when the singers Dionne Warwick and Melba Moore approached her. Warwick and Moore had had long careers in pop and R&B, and they were outraged by the kind of music that was now ascending to the top of the charts.
Tucker quickly agreed to join them in the fight against offensive rap lyrics. She later claimed that the dangers of hip-hop had become real for her when her niece asked her, “What is a bitch?”
Here’s Eleanor Holmes Norton again.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: I don’t think that there’s any doubt that probably the average American would find that music offensive. A lot of cursing, a lot of name calling. There’s nothing to be said for that as an artistic matter. So she decided to go up strong against it.
Tucker was attacking black rappers. But she also believed that white record executives were forcing them to traffic in demeaning stereotypes.
She called rap music “pornography,” pointing to the graphic descriptions of sex and depictions of women as “bitches” and “hoes.”
“Bitches Ain’t Shit”—Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg
[From “Bitches Ain’t Shit” by Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg
Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks
Lick on these nuts and suck the dick
Gets the fuck out after you’re done
“This Dick’s For You”—Geto Boys
[From “This Dick’s For You” by Geto Boys]
Big dick daddy, droppin’ you hoes in the sack
Bustin’ nut after nut on your motherfuckin’ back
And she blamed rap’s glamorization of gang violence for inner-city crime.
[From “Gangsta Gangsta” by N.W.A]
Homies all standin’ around, just hangin’
Some dope-dealin’, some gang-bangin’
We decide to roll and we deep
See a nigga on Dayton’s and we creep
Real slow and before you know
I had my shotgun pointed in the window
Like the law enforcement officers who blamed rappers for assaults on cops, she argued that the music was inciting its listeners to antisocial behavior.
Rap fans had grown used to hearing these kinds of objections—often from women of Tucker’s generation.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: We thought it was just the wrong sequel to the civil rights movement.
C. Delores Tucker didn’t always side with her civil-rights allies. Starting in the 1960s, the NAACP gave out Image Awards for artistic work by black Americans. In advance of the 1994 awards, Tupac Shakur was nominated for his role in Poetic Justice. In the film, Tupac played a sympathetic single father who falls for Janet Jackson.
Two days after Tupac’s nomination was announced, he was arrested and charged with sexually abusing Ayanna Jackson.
Tucker said that Tupac “demonstrated a pattern of behavior that demeaned black women.” She pushed the NAACP to withdraw his nomination.
The group kept Tupac in contention, despite the controversy.
REPORTER: As celebrities arrive for tonight’s Image Awards, they had a lot to say about honoring Tupac Shakur. Do you have any concerns about Tupac being honored - does it bother you?
QUEEN LATIFAH: Tupac is my man.
ANNA MARIA HORSFORD: I think he should be prayed for. I don’t think it’s at a point where…
Tupac didn’t win an Image Award. And Tucker’s movement was catching on. Black Entertainment Television announced it would stop airing rap music videos that showed guns. Radio stations, which had already shown concern over explicit lyrics, pledged to take derogatory rap songs off their playlists.
Tucker’s advocacy got its biggest boost, however, when she leaned on her old political connections. Tucker enlisted Congresswoman Cardiss Collins and Senator Carol Moseley Braun, to bring her fight against rap to Capitol Hill.
Let’s take a quick break.
On February 23, 1994, a Senate sub-committee held a hearing on “violent and demeaning imagery in popular music.”
During her testimony, Tucker said gangsta rap was turning children into a social time bomb, and that America’s rap-addled youth “will trigger a crime wave of epidemic proportions that we have never seen the likes of.”
She then read from a letter she claimed she’d received from a prisoner: “Rappers make it sound so good and look so real that I would drink and smoke drugs just like on the video, thinking that that was the only way I could be somebody,” the prisoner supposedly wrote.
“My hood girls became hoes and bitches. What is so bad about it is they accepted it.”
Tucker’s testimony didn’t go unchallenged. Michael Eric Dyson, who was then a professor at Brown, warned against the “ongoing, time-honored tradition” of “demonizing … young black men” and pathologizing black youth culture.
Also speaking up in defense of gangsta rap was Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Waters was a 55-year-old black woman. She would’ve seemed a natural ally for Tucker. But Waters represented South Central Los Angeles, where much of the music being debated in Congress came from.
“These are my children,” Waters said.
“I do not intend to marginalize or demean them. Rather, I take responsibility for trying to understand what they are saying.”
But the hearings didn’t end with any concrete policy proposals. Moseley-Braun did say that record companies needed to do more to protect children from offensive lyrics. “We don’t threaten,” she said. “We suggest.”
C. Delores Tucker and Carol Moseley Braun were criticizing rap from the outside. But there were also women within the hip-hop community who took issue with what some male rappers were saying.
Kierna Mayo came up listening to rap in Brooklyn in the 1980s. She went to high school with future hip-hop stars.
KIERNA MAYO: A lot of the Native Tongue kids were either associated or involved. Also, The Jungle Brothers…So then—and then there’s Q-Tip!
Mayo became a staff writer at The Source, where she and other women used their platform to celebrate the music they loved—and to call out sexism where they found it.
KIERNA MAYO: That’s what we were trying to do by way of our presence at The Source. Like, vying for space, vying for accuracy. Telling women’s stories from a woman’s perspective. Challenging the blatant, rampant misogyny that C. Delores Tucker was also trying to challenge.
In 1994, Mayo pitched her editors on a profile of Tucker. She was hoping to find some common ground with hip-hop’s most visible critic.
KIERNA MAYO: You know, I had a certain—as I do for all black elders—I had a certain reverence and respect for her that I was hoping would be returned in kind. Not just to me, but to the culture.
It didn’t go that way.
KIERNA MAYO: She seemed a little kooky to me.
Talking to Mayo, Tucker described gangsta rap as part of a huge and murderous conspiracy. “What [record companies] are doing is programming [listeners] to say that we are not people.
And when the man comes to exterminate us and put us in concentration camps, the white kids are going to be happy about it.” For Tucker, these concentration camps weren’t some far off thing. She claimed that the first of them had already been built in New Orleans.
KIERNA MAYO: A lot of the conversation in retrospect was kind of, like wild, like far-fetched.
Mayo’s profile portrayed Tucker as ignorant of hip-hop and still hung up on the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. The problem with Tucker’s activism, Mayo wrote, is “her fundamental belief that gangsta rap is a cause and not an effect.”
We’re gonna take a time out.
Rap music was dividing the civil rights and hip-hop generations. It was also attracting increasing numbers of white listeners.
REPORTER: Gangsta rap has become incredibly popular and profitable by selling lyrics about black on black violence to a young mainstream audience that wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a ghetto.
After Billboard switched over to SoundScan, record companies got regular confirmation that hip-hop’s audience had expanded beyond its original base of black and brown kids in East Coast cities.
Even as some radio stations banned rap with explicit lyrics, others embraced the music, changing their formats to all hip hop, all the time. Yo! MTV Raps was the network’s highest-rated show. The LA Times described rap as a 700 million dollar a year business.
REPORTER: Rap is essentially a black art form. But it’s a gold mine for white recording companies, which artists say encourage the hardcore lyrics because they sell. And surprisingly, 70% of rap music is bought by white young people.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I got, this is Wu-Tang Clan, this the new Snoop Dogg, obviously that’s real popular.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I think it’s a way of rebelling against what they’ve grown up with and uh is something that’s a little dangerous without getting too close to the reality of it.
Record companies were happy to capitalize on increasing sales from black and white record buyers.
But they also faced increasing criticism from black and white cultural conservatives.
William Bennett made his name as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education and George H.W. Bush’s national drug czar.
After he left the White House, Bennett became a cultural warrior. He looked like a Founding Father—silver-haired, jowly and very, very serious. He thought of himself as a “national moral compass,” and he talked about the importance of teaching values to children. He saw little to like in rap music, and he wanted in on C. Delores Tucker’s crusade.
They made an odd couple, but they found common cause in battling gangsta rap.
C. DELORES TUCKER: I’m a liberal Democrat.
WILLIAM BENNETT: And I’m a conservative Republican. But we’re both worried about the society our children live in today.
Here’s A. Peter Bailey, who worked for Tucker then.
A. PETER BAILEY: In this instance, I considered that music so destructive, that if I had to work with Bill Bennett in order to do something with it, then I was prepared to do so.
To kick off their partnership, Bennett and Tucker staged a dramatic appearance at Time Warner’s 1995 shareholders’ meeting—much as Charlton Heston had done three years earlier.
Tucker had bought 10 shares of Time Warner stock, which entitled her to speak at the meeting.
She came prepared to put on a show.
A. PETER BAILEY: And they said she came in there dressed like, you’d of thought she was like, the superstar of all superstars. You know, she came in there with her turban on and everything you know. And she said when she walked in, they had a black woman who had a position with Time Warner then and she was kind of directing her to a seat—it was kind of near the back of the room. And Dr. Tucker said she walked right by her and took a seat right down front. And they didn’t dare ask her to move.
Tucker read lyrics from songs by Tupac and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and asked CEO Gerald Levin, “How long will Time Warner put profit before principle?”
Here’s how Tucker described the event at a press conference.
C. DELORES TUCKER: And I was able to address the chairman, the Board of Directors, the stockholders. And Time Magazine reported that after I finished the seventeen minute address, that there was one third of the stockholders applauding. So, we are making an impact because of our children.
C. Delores Tucker certainly wasn’t the first to attack rap lyrics. But the Tucker-Bennett alliance was something new—the beginning of a bipartisan national campaign against gangsta rap.
Bob Dole, the Senate Majority Leader who was on his way to the presidential nomination, got on board.
SEN. BOB DOLE: A line has been crossed—not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency. It’s crossed every time sexual violence is given a catchy tune. I’m talking about groups like Cannibal Corpse, Geto Boys, and 2 Live Crew. The mainstreaming of deviancy must come to an end. But it will only stop when the leaders of the entertainment industry recognize and shoulder their responsibility.
Bennett and Tucker singled out Time Warner—and especially its partial subsidiary Interscope Records, which handled distribution for Suge Knight’s Death Row label. Tucker told the New York Times: “Interscope is a company Time Warner needs to get out of business with immediately.”
Death Row and its artists were furious. Suge Knight ran a two-page ad in The Source featuring a list of “Freedom Fighters.” Under the names Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X, was C. Delores Tucker, crossed out with a red line. In gang circles, crossing out a name meant someone was marked for death.
Here’s Tupac, in a 1995 interview from Dannemora prison:
TUPAC SHAKUR: I don’t understand how Delores Tucker and Bob Dole and all these other dudes, how they can say like we got gangsta music. I never even classified my music as gangsta music and if you really—I know they haven’t listened to my tape. I know somebody geesed them up to go attack Tupac. And now what it does is they attacked a few famous rappers and now them themselves are famous. Delores Tucker just wanna get a name, which she won’t find. Cause it’ll fade. I don’t see how she can say she’s helping the black community and strike back at us. Um, we are the black community.
Eventually, Time Warner cracked.
First, the company fired Doug Morris, the executive who had made the Interscope deal. Tucker took the credit. “I predict that Interscope Records will fall next,” she said in a statement.
Behind the scenes, Tucker had even bigger plans. She set up a meeting with Suge Knight, and pitched him on a new venture that would put out “positive” hip-hop records. She said she could convince Time Warner to put up $80 million.
Suge Knight wasn’t interested.
Interscope and Death Row filed lawsuits against Tucker alleging that she was interfering in their contractual relationship.
Tucker never became a rap mogul herself. But she did score a win in her campaign against Interscope. In September 1995, Time Warner sold its stake in the label back to co-founders Ted Field and Jimmy Iovine.
REPORTER: Time Warner, now involved in a huge merger deal with the Turner Company, is cutting itself loose from one of its most controversial and profitable holdings. Time Warner today announced it’s selling off its 50 percent stake in a record distributor specializing in gangsta rap music.
But Tucker’s victory was short-lived. After Time Warner fired Doug Morris, he took a job running MCA Records. Within a few months, MCA bought that 50 percent stake in Interscope for $200 million, netting the label’s founders a $90 million profit.
Rap was now big business—and that meant it was too valuable to contain. Here’s Dan Charnas. He’s the author of the book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
DAN CHARNAS: You’re not going to be able to kill gangsta rap, certainly, and you’re not gonna be able to kill hip hop in general. It’s just going to be like whack-a-mole. If it gets too hot, you tamp it down. But it’s going to pop up somewhere else because ultimately what really mattered was capital and how much money everything would make.
The purchase of Interscope made MCA one of the biggest labels in the music industry. Renamed Universal Music Group, today it’s the largest. Nine months after the sale, the top four slots in the Billboard album charts belonged to Bush, No Doubt, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac—all Interscope artists.
Tucker retreated from the spotlight after the Interscope sale.
A. PETER BAILEY: She was not taking care of herself, her health, the way she should because of her commitment that she had to work you know keep, keep battling this gangsta rap stuff. That’s how strongly she felt about it. So she, she didn’t do some of the things she should probably should have done, health-wise.
Tupac lashed out at Tucker in a song called “How Do U Want It,” which came out as a single in June 1996.
“How Do U Want It”—2Pac
[From “How Do U Want It” by 2Pac]
These niggas play these Cali days
C. Delores Tucker, you’s a motherfucker
Instead of helping a nigga, you destroy a brother
Worse than the others
In 1997, Tucker filed a lawsuit against Tupac’s estate and his record labels, claiming the song caused her emotional distress. The suit was dismissed.
Tucker died in 2005.
Tupac was wrong when he said her name would fade. It’s been kept alive in hip-hop lyrics that Tucker surely would have hated.
“Million Dollar Baby”—Lil Wayne
[From “Million Dollar Baby” by Lil Wayne]
No I’m not in a thesaurus
Can’t be banned I’m sorry Miss. Delores
[From “Rockin’” by Lil’ Kim]
C. Delores T., Screw her, I never knew her
[From “Rap Game” by D12]
EMINEM: Fuck the government
Tell that C. Delores Tucker slut to suck a dick
Next week on Slow Burn: Tupac and Death Row go on the attack.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear a bonus episode of the show this week and every week this season.
In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear an extended interview with Kierna Mayo, one of the first staff writers at The Source magazine. I talked to her about interviewing C. Delores Tucker, and about covering the early days of hip hop. To hear it, sign up for Slate Plus at slate.com/slowburn.
Slow Burn is produced by me and Christopher Johnson, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Sophie Summergrad is our researcher. Our mix engineers are Jared Paul, and Paul Mounsey. Donwill composed our theme song.
The artwork for Slow Burn is by Lisa Larson-Walker. Special thanks to Slate’s Chau Tu, Derreck Johnson, Chris Molanphy, Lowen Liu, Allison Benedikt, and Jared Hohlt.
You can find a full list of books, articles, and documentaries used to research this episode on our show page.
And by the way, we created a playlist on Spotify to go with this season. We’ll be updating it each week with new episodes, and songs by Tupac, Biggie, and their collaborators. Check it out every week at the link in the show notes.
Thanks for listening.