On a historic Tuesday night (January 3rd 1989), the Arsenio Hall Show debuted. Arsenio Hall was the first African-American to host a major talk show – and he did so very successfully, reaching a diverse cross-section of mostly under ‘30-something’ viewers. The debut of the Arsenio Hall show was a perfect way to kick things off for the year that urban and “urban-informed” music proliferated throughout American popular culture.
Editor’s note: The Arsenio Hall show served as the most important televised platform for the vibrant music and culture of the New Jack Swing Era. Since the Arsenio Hall show was cancelled in 1994, no other late night talk show hosted by a person of color has yet to attain the level of success Arsenio managed to achieve. You can read more about the Arsenio Hall Show at IMDB or Wikipedia.
But 1989 was also the year that fear and apprehension surrounding the proliferation of hip-hop culture really started to grip the parents of suburban America. Led by Tipper Gore (yes, Al’s wife) and the P.M.R.C. (Parents Music Resource Center), media attention was quickly focused on the unsavory lyrics found in recordings by artists such as N.W.A., Ice-T, and especially the 2 Live Crew. By 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (R.I.A.A.) responded by introducing the now commonplace “Parental Advisory” labels on mostly rap and rock albums.
On the lighter side of things, 1989 witnessed the peak of former New Edition member Bobby Brown, who was making waves with the top ten hits “Every Little Step,” “Rock Witcha,” and “On Our Own.” Out of Los Angeles, Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” became one of rap music’s initial crossover breakthroughs. His follow-up singles “Funky Cold Medina” and “I Got It Goin' On” were also substantial hits in the following months.
Two more rappers would make crossover breakthroughs in 1989. Philadelphia-based DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s album He's The DJ, I'm The Rapper (featuring “Parents Just Don’t Understand”) would go on to win the first ever Rap Grammy in early 1990. Then Tone Loc’s younger brother (and ghostwriter) Young MC unleashed “Bust A Move” in the fall of ’89, and that song became an instant hit. Meanwhile, Oakland rapper MC Hammer was rising fast on the urban charts (powered largely by his electrifying stage performances on tour) with the hits: “Let’s Get It Started,” “Turn This Mutha Out,” and “They Put Me In The Mix.”
Former Janet Jackson choreographer Paula Abdul also made her first appearance in early 1989. After her first two singles failed to ignite the charts (“Knocked Out,” “The Way That You Love Me”), her third single “Straight Up” became a huge hit. The “Straight Up” video even featuring a timely cameo by Arsenio Hall. The rest of 1989 (and 1990) would be a spectacular time period for Paula Abdul.
At the movies, trailblazing filmmaker Spike Lee tackled the subject of racial tension in his critically acclaimed third film, Do The Right Thing. Lee’s film was surrounded by controversy -- some viewers felt it was an incitement to racial violence. Others however, felt Do The Right Thing depicted each side of the race dialogue in America fairly – particularly reviewer Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s most credible film critic. Ebert wrote in his review on June 30th, 1989 (Chicago Sun-Times) that Lee’s film came “...closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.”
The music surrounding Do The Right Thing was also very notable, particularly Public Enemy’s confrontational masterpiece, “Fight The Power.” R&B trio Guy contributed “My Fantasy,” a summer hit that only served to solidify their status as the hottest thing in New Jack Swing. Guy’s Teddy Riley also co-produced a song called “Do The Right Thing” recorded by Red-Head Kingpin and the FBI. Although that song never made the soundtrack (replaced by “Fight The Power”), it was still a moderate urban hit in the summer of ’89.
Released in the spring of 1989, Madonna’s critically acclaimed Like A Prayer album took on a more “urban” feel than its more “mainstream” predecessors did. The video for the album’s first single (and title track) featured a nearly all-Black cast that was either sexualized, deified or both at the same time. The video also featured burning crosses, a Black Jesus who cried blood, stigmata on Madonna’s hands, and a love scene on the floor of a church between Madonna (who had dyed her hair dark brown) and the video’s suave protagonist (played by the actor Leon). Upset by the controversy surrounding the "Like A Prayer" video, Pepsi cancelled its multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Madonna, but music fans worldwide still supported their Queen of Pop.
The second and third singles from the Like A Prayer album (“Express Yourself,” and “Cherish”) went on to become some of her biggest hits ever, and by the time “Oh Father” was released, Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour was wildly anticipated by many. Critics tend to agree that Like A Prayer is arguably Madonna's best work.
Continuing on the pop side of things, the New Kids On The Block managed to achieve their first number #1 single with “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” and proceeded to conquer the suburban teen market. They quickly followed up with a dizzying flurry of hits including “Hangin’ Tough,” “Cover Girl,” a remake of the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time)” and “This One’s For The Children” all before year’s end.
Emulating Teddy Riley and Al B. Sure!'s sound, former Las Vegas radio personality Dino (full name Dino Esposito) hit it big with “I Like It,” making him the first non-Black recording artist to incorporate New Jack Swing into his material. Other Dino hits circa 1989-90 included “Summer Girls,” “Sunshine,” and “Romeo.”
Internationally, hits by Neneh Cherry, the Fine Young Cannibals, Technotronic and Soul II Soul all made an imprint in Pop and Urban music.
London-based Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” (from her debut album ‘Raw Like Sushi’) was a worldwide smash. Born in Stockholm, Sweden (and the stepdaughter of Jazz trumpeter Don Cherry), Neneh Cherry’s sound can be described as an irresistibly eclectic hot soup of dance and hip-hop music.
Technotronic enjoyed phenomenal success with “Pump Up The Jam” and “Get Up! (Before The Night Is Over)” in 1989 and 1990. Based out of Belgium, the act prominently featured the vocals of Ya Kid K, a female rapper born in Zaire. The Fine Young Cannibals scored in a major way with the singles “She Drives Me Crazy,” and “Good Thing.”
Editor's Note: Sean “P. Diddy” Combs appeared as a dancer in a Fine Young Cannibals video around this time while trying to break into the music business.
By late summer/early fall, a U.K. based act named Soul II Soul triumphantly emerged with “Keep On Movin,” an elegant urban anthem that resonated with urban and suburban audiences alike. Soul II Soul’s impressive follow-up singles “Jazzie’s Groove” and especially “Back To Life” served to further immortalize the London-based collective in the minds of urban/dance music enthusiasts to this day.
But perhaps the biggest international New Jack-influenced act to make a debut in 1989 was Milli Vanilli. In the spring of 1989, Rob Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (adorned in red and blue sports jackets respectively) danced their way into the hearts of young America with the video clip for the refreshingly urgent-sounding “Girl You Know It’s True.” The Germany-based duo followed that smash single up with “Baby Don’t Forget My Number,” and by late summer had scored a third time with “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You,” a smolderingly percussive ballad.
As one can probably can see, 1989 was a big year for Rhythmic and urban-informed music compared to the rest of the 1980s. Notable hip hop releases by NWA, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and Digital Underground would emerge around this time as well, and should not be overlooked.
1990: New Jack Makes The World Go ’Round