How doomsday rhetoric scorched the earth of rap’s underground
It is dark, hell is hot and the year is 1999. Method Man has just released Tical 2000: Judgement Day, Busta Rhymes is recording Anarchy, the conclusion to a four-part series of albums that traffic in cataclysmic symbolism, and rap’s leading supervillain has ushered in Operation: Doomsday. At the turn of the millennium, apocalyptic themes permeated hip-hop to a remarkable extent. Armageddon has been in effect, get a late pass. How did we get here? And 20 years later, what do we make of the proliferation of apocalyptic themes in ’90s hip-hop?
To begin answering these questions, we must return to the outset of the decade and to Public Enemy’s 1990 release, Fear of a Black Planet. On the heels of the earth-shattering It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group symbolically summons their army of raging prophets for a planetary coup. They wrest control from the music industry (“Leave This Off Your Fuckin Charts”), the movie industry (“Burn Hollywood Burn”), the police (“911 Is a Joke”) and give “Power to the People.” The cover artwork depicts a rival planet, terra incognita, looming threateningly close to the Earth, emblazoned with the Public Enemy logo.
The album’s combative sonics underscore its lyrical and visual belligerence, constructing a cacophonous tapestry of hard-hitting drums, dissonant samples, piercing scratches and a barrage of voices, pitting Chuck D’s revolutionary tirades and Flavor Flav’s off-the-cuff adlibs against the alarmed grievances of White America. Fear of a Black Planet conjures the potential of a radical, planetary remaking in the face of the structural anti-blackness that the group squares up against. In doing so, they envision the end of the world as we know it.
Public Enemy’s antagonism illustrates the two-pronged nature of apocalyptic discourse in general. The end of the world can mean different things to different people. When Ronald Reagan frequently invoked end times rhetoric as president of the United States, his intentions were, of course, radically different from that of Public Enemy. Putting a finer point on this central problem of apocalyptic thought, scholar James Ford III, in an ASAP/Journal article, distinguishes between two versions of apocalypticism with politically opposed meanings: major and minor. Major apocalypticism is essentially imperialist: If the West falls, chaos shall reign and the End is near.
This type of doom-laden discourse seeks to strengthen empire, as it did increasingly from the 1980s onward in sectors of the Republican–aligned Christian right. Any threats to the white, straight, male world order could be interpreted as signs of an impending apocalypse. “Major apocalyptic perspectives tell a story about the end of the world where the worst thing that can happen is that you lose the imperial power that’s in place,” Ford says from his office at Occidental College in Los Angeles. On the other hand, minor apocalypticism imagines the end of the world not as an event that is likely to occur in a near future, but rather as an ongoing process that is already underway.
As Ford points out, this principle is in full effect on Public Enemy’s follow-up to Fear of a Black Planet, Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black. On “Can’t Truss It,” the album’s second single, Chuck D alludes to a “holocaust” that is “still goin’ on.” Through its use of montage, the track’s music video constructs a parallelism of time layers that illustrates the lyricist’s point: Images of enslaved people working in cotton fields are juxtaposed with contemporary images of black factory workers. The members of Public Enemy flit between these times throughout the video, highlighting the continuities between enslavement and its aftermath. The track and video point to the minor key in which Public Enemy’s apocalypticism is orchestrated. They suggest that the apocalypse started with the Middle Passage and is, indeed, still going on.
The injection of black rage into the American white youth is the 1st stage of preparation for the revolution. Prepare – it’s going down.
Following Public Enemy’s signal articulation, other rappers began to stress this notion of Apocalypse Now during the mid-1990s. They often mirror Frantz Fanon’s dichotomous characterization of life in a colonial society. The Martiniquean psychoanalyst and revolutionary theorist describes the settler’s world as one split into a paradise for some (the settlers) that is “guarded by terrible watchdogs” and a hell for others (the colonial subjects). Ford notes that “in the situation Fanon describes, the settler imperialist would only see the end of empire as the end of the world, while the colonized already endure ‘hell’ on a daily basis.”
Fanon’s dichotomy is reflected in Mobb Deep’s 1996 album title, Hell on Earth. On the title cut, this hellish space is configured as a war zone and Mobb Deep leave in no doubt who the enemy is in this apocalyptic conflict: This war is being fought on the streets, against the police, the “watchdog” in Fanon’s allegory. Ford adds that “New York City itself already encompasses this paradise-versus-hell dichotomy, in terms of standard of living.” One segment of the population greatly profits off Wall Street booms, the other is explicitly barred from reaping the benefits.
In the midst of Giuliani-era repression and racialized “broken window” policing, Mobb Deep’s home turf of Queensbridge became a particularly destitute ground for hip-hop’s minor apocalyptic imaginary: Capone-N-Noreaga deliver their War Report from the borough at large, with ample assistance from QB residents Tragedy Khadafi and Havoc. Screwball records Y2K: The Album, playing on the computer bug purported to wreak havoc on digital data systems. Nas directly adopts the guise of a notorious doomsday prophet for his 1999 album, Nastradamus. Havoc’s role in the construction of Queensbridge’s apocalyptic soundscape needs highlighting: growling bass, deafening drums and ominous string samples form an inescapable juggernaut at the scorched earth of hip-hop’s mid-’90s apocalypse.
Outside of Queensbridge, meanwhile, rap’s No.1 prophets of doom generally follow Fear of a Black Planet’s lead of imagining black radical revolution – or look direct to the Book of Revelations. In the liner notes to his 1993 album, Home Invasion, Ice-T ups the ante of Public Enemy’s tapping into white bourgeois anxieties when he writes: “The injection of black rage into the American white youth is the 1st stage of preparation for the revolution. Prepare – It’s going down.” Sticky Fingaz echoes the sentiment memorably on the intro to Onyx’s “Last Dayz,” issuing a call to arms and heralding a “New World Order.” But the phrase “last days” also hearkens back to the biblical origins of apocalyptic thought, as it is invoked in numerous passages of the New Testament. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony cite similar references frequently throughout their 1997 album The Art of War.
Lauryn Hill arguably delivers the most poignant interpretation of Scripture on “Final Hour.” As Ford points out, “Hill urges her listeners to meditate on Psalm 73,” in which “the wicked,” whose “tongues take possession of the earth” are prophesied to be “swept away by terrors.” But Hill’s “the last shall be first” rhetoric is neither strictly Christian, as her references to Judaism and Islam in the song show, nor is it confined to a promised afterlife, as she grounds it in politically transformative practice.
Ford summarizes Hill’s apocalyptic perspective succinctly: “Hill disabuses her listeners of the fantasy that simply trading places with their oppressors will count as justice. The first becoming last, then, is not merely swapping places in today’s exploitative economies, corrupt legal systems, or rigged political processes. The first becoming last would also mean undoing those structures altogether.”
Method Man’s 1998 album Tical 2000: Judgement Day also cites the biblical idea of Final Judgement. First, though, came the Wu-Tang Clan member’s version of the apocalypse – in the form of a spectacle. In the video for “Judgement Day,” Method Man, clad in pieces of plate armor and chain mail, reigns supreme in what appears to be a vaguely Star Wars-inspired throne room. Horses have returned as the primary mode of transportation for the remaining citizens of New York, as CGI-fireballs unload on the ruined city.
On the album version, the track opens with a paraphrase of the intro sequence to the 1989 cyberpunk movie Cyborg, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. In his role as narrator, Method Man lists a series of catastrophes that have befallen the planet, starting with “the collapse of civilization” and culminating in inescapable disease. He wonders aloud why “the last hardcore MCs” (transposed from Cyborg’s “last scientists”) would work “on a cure that would end the pestilence,” because he himself actually revels in it: “I like the death. I like the misery. I like this world!”
This particular scenario shows how major apocalyptic narratives gained currency as pop culture embraced and reproduced the unlikely possibility of an impending collapse of civilization at the turn of the millennium. Spurred by the notion of what was popularly referred to as the Y2K Scare, the years 1998 and 1999 brought an influx of outspokenly apocalyptic themes across American media. Look no further than the release of movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact for proof of major apocalypticism’s booming marketability in the mainstream.
Tical 2000: Judgement Day was certified platinum within a month of its release. Yet despite major units shifted, there is a kernel of minor apocalypticism at play in Method Man’s spectacular depiction of the end times. On “Perfect World,” he raps from a perspective not unlike Mobb Deep’s (or Frantz Fanon’s) hell on earth. Reptilian land sharks, turf disputes and the threat of being sent to Rahway State Prison approximate the apocalyptic realities in 1998 New York City much more closely than the album’s lead single suggested. In the second verse, Method Man likens the city to Jim Crow-era segregation. The inhabitants of the Big Apple’s “rotten” portion are “still licking the scars from whips on slave ships,” his interlocutor Cho-Flo confirms at the track’s conclusion.
Major and minor apocalypticism always arise in tandem. Ford reminds us that “because of the way major apocalypticisms are supported by mainstream institutions, both political and cultural, it’s almost impossible for an artist to give a completely minor apocalyptic account.” Nowhere in 1990s hip-hop is this more apparent than in the oeuvre of Busta Rhymes. “There’s only four years left,” he intones on the intro to 1996’s The Coming. Over this timespan, the former Leader of the New School will go on to craft an elaborate audiovisual body of work that amplifies the complexities of apocalyptic discourse.
One of the most striking characteristics of this work is Busta’s uncompromising commitment to joyful expression in the face of disaster. The Coming picks up where his classic guest appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario (Remix)” left off. Busta Rhymes is hip-hop’s Cat in the Hat, a trickster-type figure who twists tongues and turns the world on its head. The video for “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check” would set the tone for his pathbreaking presence on music television and inaugurate his prolific creative partnership with director Hype Williams.
In all of the videos from his Hype Williams era, Busta appears as a shape-shifter, racing through outfits and sceneries at a pace that parallels the breakneck speed of his trademark delivery. Artist, writer and Rhizome curator Aria Dean points out that in these videos, “and even sonically and musically, there are various versions of him that meet up with each other.” The characters “interact with each other in the same space-time plane, so he kind of explodes into these different personalities.” Regardless of whichever form they might take, Busta’s characters are always front-and-center, appearing at any moment ready to jump out of the screen, aided by Williams’ recognizable fisheye technique. This highlights what Dean describes as Busta Rhymes’ “apocalyptic blackness.”
Dean points to two levels of her terminology: On the one hand, the concept dovetails with minor apocalyptic discourse, “where a lot of the things that are being imagined as part of the apocalypse already have come to fruition for black people in the West.” At the same time, the term allows Dean to explore how, conceptually, “blackness, as it manifests in the world, has a potential to bring about apocalypse in the sense that it poses a threat to the order of things as Western philosophical and political tradition has set them up.” From this perspective, Busta Rhymes’ explosion of the singular individual self in his videos and music takes on metaphysical qualities. Sonically, lyrically and visually, he centers himself “as an agent of destruction and also rebirth.”
Besides joy and play, Busta’s stylistic palette also reflects dissonance and rage, similar to the music of Public Enemy and Mobb Deep. His signature growling voice forms the centerpiece of his musical persona, which openly aims to be just as intimidating as it is entertaining. You can hear it on the “Outro” to When Disaster Strikes, where Busta’s adlibs morph into agonizing screams, as he roars his prophecies of impending disaster. Here, we are firmly back in major apocalyptic territory, where the end of the world is near and threatens a draining of Western civilization’s resources. But even as Busta Rhymes taps into a major apocalyptic timeline, his aesthetic choices pose a challenge to simplistic notions of doom and gloom. “More than anyone else in that era of hip-hop,” Professor Ford says, “Busta Rhymes lets us know that because we in this minor apocalyptic experience have already been living through so much hell, we can actually still make ourselves happy, even though we’re not in a happy circumstance.”
By the late 1990s the underground, ablaze with end-time rhetoric, increasingly felt like a response to the developments of mainstream rap in the “shiny suit era.” Chuck D himself reflects on this moment in his memoir of sorts, bemoaning the state of hip-hop in 1997: “The Rap game had changed to a point where my competitive nature could no longer operate. Rap tours had all but vanished, an area that allowed Public Enemy to prove all our doubters wrong. Radio stations had to be paid heavy money to play rap records. Record companies flooded the gap with payola, expensive video marketing, and oversaturated replicated marketing campaigns.”
In reaction to this climate, independent labels like Rawkus Records, Def Jux and Fondle ’Em Records start to crop up in the second half of the decade, attempting to provide hip-hop with an alternative model of production, promotion and distribution. This tenor is reflected, among other examples, on the Arsonists’ 1999 album on Matador Records. As the World Burns is filled with fiery attacks on the mainstream, staging an end-times scenario for all those clinging to false idols. On “Underground Vandal,” the chorus lays out the stakes in this conflict: “’Bout to burn your earlobes, with my arsonistic tactics / Bring it on, surface versus under, it’s automatic.” Self-proclaimed underground rap was ready to figuratively raze the major industry empire to the ground.
To an extent, the mainstream hip-hop industry institutions felt the apocalypse that underground rappers were talking about, but that doesn’t mean it ensured a new level of justice for artists since then.
The most enduring statement of underground hip-hop’s apocalyptic fantasies against the mainstream surely is MF DOOM’s 1999 debut album, Operation: Doomsday. Coming off a disappointing deal with Elektra Records, who dropped DOOM’s group KMD only a week after the tragic death of his brother and fellow group member Subroc, the rapper formerly known as Zev Love X resurfaces in a new guise. Donning a repurposed Gladiator mask and tapping into Marvel myth, MF DOOM is out for vengeance as he steps onto the scene solo. He adapts the backstory of Fantastic Four nemesis Victor Von Doom, whose face is deformed by an explosive experiment.
Following his accident, Von Doom builds himself a metal mask and vows to seek revenge on those he blames for his disfigurement. DOOM the rapper mobilizes this supervillain lore to structure the antagonism between himself and the hip-hop industry. Besides drawing heavily on the Fantastic Four comic for the album artwork, he weaves sound bites from the cartoon series into Operation: Doomsday throughout. In doing so, he sets the scene for the conflict that emerges in his lyrics.
On “Doomsday” he announces that he “came to destroy rap” and this M.O. dominates much of the album. “Rhymes Like Dimes” pokes fun at amateurish rappers before threatening their annihilation. Fun is a key aspect of DOOM’s idiosyncratic apocalypticism. In spite of the vengeful violence of its narrative framework, DOOM raps from the perspective of a comic book character. In that sense, DOOM takes certain cues from Busta Rhymes, introducing joy, play and humor into his apocalyptic model. Stylistically, of course, the two rappers are vastly different – DOOM’s inside voice seemingly tumbling out of the side of his mouth, an antithesis to Busta Rhymes’ “dungeon dragon” fire breath. Whereas Busta’s beats (produced largely by DJ Scratch) emphasize sharp synthetics, DOOM embraces smooth jazz fusion loops, often flattening his drums with gating and reverb effects.
DOOM’s understated, heady style of rhyming and production provides a sharp contrast to the major label rap of his era. It also signposted where the underground was to go in the mid-2000s. Aesthetically, he positions himself at the opposite spectrum of his more aggressive mainstream contemporaries, which underscores his self-styled mythology of villainous industry outcast. While his masked adventures did not put a dent in the majors’ armor, the boom years of multi-platinum CD sales would not last much longer. There is a level of poetic justice to this, even if it does not equate to economic justice, as Ford remarks: “To an extent, the mainstream hip-hop industry institutions felt the apocalypse that underground rappers were talking about, but that doesn’t mean it ensured a new level of justice for artists since then.”
Surveying the broad spectrum of apocalyptic themes in 1990s hip-hop, we can see a number of factors contributing to their proliferation at the end of the decade. Doomsday scenarios related to the state of rap music itself and its increased co-optation converged with pop cultural anxieties over what the year 2000 might bring, dovetailing with a thematic trajectory reaching back to the trailblazing work of Public Enemy. A reservoir of metaphors are available within this trope, available to a number of different meanings. From voicing political discontent to attacks on the industry at large, hip-hop’s apocalypticism flourished in the 1990s first and foremost due to its malleability and a convergence of cultural moments.
What remains especially striking about this body of work is that much of it revolves around New York City. By the end of the decade, local scenes from Los Angeles to Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis and Atlanta were challenging New York’s rap empire. Nevertheless, the city remained at the very least a conspicuous figurehead in the cultural imagination. “We have to think of New York as a national city, as a city that can encapsulate the entire nation,” Ford says. “New York artists can have something to say about metropolitan life, about national life and about the globe.” In other parts of the country, a similar tone found different forms of expression: During the ’90s, Atlanta found the Dungeon (Family) and, toward the end of the decade, the trap, Memphis found Triple 6 and Houston found Screw. LA gangsta rap can be read as a form of apocalypticism too, one that once again threads the needle between major and minor.
In retrospect, hip-hop’s apocalypticism – especially of the New York variety – encountered a hard expiration date. While the first 20 months of the new millennium still saw a trickling out of certain Y2K-inspired themes (Anarchy, Y2K: The Album and the Coup’s ill-fated Party Music), September 11, 2001 brought an abrupt end to record labels trying to sell apocalyptic messaging. Clear Channel-guided radio outlets and MTV alike were immediately purged of fear-drenched epics. The boom of major apocalypticism was over, taking the wind out of minor apocalyptic themes in the process. “Busta Rhymes comes closest to warning about this,” Professor Ford says in reference to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He remembers a press conference with the rapper that was already scheduled prior to September 11 but took place a few days after. “People were looking at him like he was an oracle.”
Header image © Kristýna Kulíková