Dancehall Pastiche and the Piecing Together of the Coming of Crack Narrative

This is the music video for Shinehead’s “Gimme No Crack,” from his 1988 breakout reggae-rap fusion album Unity, as ripped from a VHS tape of an episode of Yo! MTV Raps.

Over the years I’ve sometimes found myself humming this song when I’m thinking or reading about rock cocaine. The tune was embedded in my memory as an incredibly catchy marker of the arrival of rap and its urban visual landscapes to my suburban adolescence. I hadn’t thought of “Gimme No Crack” as a serious item among late-twentieth-century cultural responses to cocaine, but rather as a corny pop PSA from what I have the great fortune of remembering as a more innocent time. Now that Youtube has brought this video back to me in all its vivid details, I’m not sure it doesn’t have something to tell us about the cultural construction of the crack story.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the arrival of crack to urban neighborhoods as a historical narrative that has a life of its own, as a shorthand for explaining and obscuring a much wider set of forces that shaped the experience of dramatic change in cities in the 1980s. This struck me most recently while reading Michael Durfee’s illuminating posts on the infamous federal sentencing legislation, Alexine Fleck’s breakdown of the “crack baby” myth, and a personal essay by Michael A. Gonzales on living through rock cocaine’s impact on Harlem in the 1980s. These empirically and experientially sourced essays made me realize that in a lifetime of cultural consumption, starting with media reports in the mid-1980s but ranging through TV drama, film, fiction, music, and memoir to the present day, I have internalized a composite I think of as “The Coming of Crack” narrative, the story about what happened to black neighborhoods when this form of cocaine gained popularity in the early 1980s.

“Gimme No Crack” and its video bring together the major elements of this narrative, but they do so in a particularly transparent way. Because of the allusive nature of the topical music video, but more decisively because of the magpie techniques of the dancehall reggae style that Shinehead brought to hip-hop, the video exposes the pre-assembled conventionality of these elements, and perhaps more important, the tensions between their various political valences. It exposes the artifice in a story form that we usually take to be mimetic, and reveals some of the gears by which it makes and conceals meaning.

All of the song’s messaging around crack flows through a style that borrows, recomposes, and riffs on pieces from other musical works and, lyrically, an even wider variety of cultural resources. As a dancehall singer, Carl “Shinehead” Aiken’s method was to sing and, performing in the Bronx in the early 1980s, rap over already remixed Jamaican dub music played by a deejay on a sound system for a responsive audience. It is a style devoted to recombining existing cultural materials in immediately surprising, satisfying, and repeatable ways.

Not playing.

“Gimme No Crack” is structured by the use of three main sources. First, it opens in allusion to Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” playing on the musical bass/base cocaine homophone and invoking Chuck D’s voice of militant black protest, but turning it quickly toward temperance-like rhetoric (“the devil’s animal”) in the gospel tradition.

Roots and beats.

Second, Shinehead’s dated refrain – “I’m real cool, I chill to the max / I might act crazy but I don’t smoke crack” – derives from dancehall pioneer Johnny Osbourne’s 1987 spiritual-uplift dub, “On the Right Track,” a lyric about surviving “tribulation” in mantra-like invocations of scriptural archetypes.

Finally, the gloomy interlude verse that mythologizes crack’s arrival–

It was a cold and rainy Sunday morning when the baseheads rolled in town.
You should see all dem borrow and every minute dem a search the ground.
No one dared try to take them, no one shared with them a spliff,
No one dared challenge the strangers with the base pipes on their lips,
The base pipes on their lips.

Frontier masculinity.

–is based on Marty Robbins’s minor 1960 southwestern country hit, “Big Iron,” about a showdown between a stoic frontier ranger and a notorious outlaw, each of whom carries “a big iron on his hip.” Shinehead’s version turns crack addicts into zombies, and sneaks in a rastafarian reference to cannabis as a sign of civilized xenophilia against the all-alienating base-pipe (an allusion reinforced by the echo of “marijuana!” in the song’s rapid-fire refrain of “don’t give me that me don’t want that crack! crack!”).

These gestures toward political protest, religious faith, and gunfighter mythology draw on major elements in the black cultural response to crack, without committing to any single mode. They create a politically malleable framework for content that arrays the familiar conventions of crack drama in ways that feel both rooted in real experience and mediated by news and film. The first verse covers the “sell everything you own to feed the addiction” motif, leading finally and amusingly to the loss of that all-purpose kitchen item and metaphor for urban life, the pressure cooker. Next comes street violence, in an exaggerated firsthand witness of an ordinary ghetto drug-bust turning into a shootout between a crazed crackhead and “four dozen cops” who ultimately call in the “team named SWAT.” Next up is the good-girl-ruined vignette, in the tale of Pat. The video dramatizes these scenes as well as other standard images of the crack trade, including disheveled, paranoid users in a crack house, ruthless dealers on the playground, and a well-to-do 1980s white guy buying nervously in the ghetto. It intersperses with them an array of dramatic news footage, primarily of violent police busts. It concludes with an uplifting ending, as Shinehead slaps the rock out of a girl’s curious hand and then helps her put up an anti-drug poster before walking away with a protective arm around her through the bleak project courtyard.

In its overall ethos, the video is informed by everything from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, to the reggae tradition of punitive, “way of transgressors is hard” conservatism, to fatalistic Mexican mural death imagery, to the black protest of police brutality and white hypocrisy. It’s a welter of effects snatched from the cultural ether surrounding drugs. It’s dancehall bric-a-brac in a 1980s imagistic “everything plus the kitchen sink” music video.

But in combining all these elements so opportunistically, it exposes more clearly than do smoother iterations of the narrative the tensions and even contradictions between them. These include the juxtaposition of sympathy for good local kids lost to addiction with the harsh ostracizing of baseheads as subhuman strangers, not even native to the landscape. And when images of unpredictable insanity by users and ruthless murder by dealers mingle with those of indiscriminately violent police operations, we are witness to the starting points of various political responses to crack.

The police presence.

One can perceive in it a cultural counterpart to what Michael Durfee described as the implicit endorsement by black opinion leaders of the sentencing disparity laws in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The comments Michael cites are early invocations of what has become the lasting imagery of this narrative.

But the video’s use of surveillance footage, news reports, and police-procedural scene-setting also establishes a drumbeat of police violence as an essential problem of the crisis. It includes one of the most distressingly frequent images of the crack era, that of a police officer using a rubber-gloved hand to force a suspect’s mouth open and probe violently to the back of the gums and throat to snatch the hidden rocks before they can be swallowed. This disturbing act of penetration comes courtesy of the draconian 100-to-1 sentencing law and is a textbook example of the way a regulatory regime can invade bodies as well as produce statistics. The consequences of being caught in possession of even a small amount of rock cocaine were so extreme that it became de rigeur for small dealers and users to carry crack wrapped in plastic film (not in those famous “vials”) deep inside the mouth for quick swallowing in case of apprehension. That both this bizarre behavior and the bizarrely invasive police response to it have come to seem inevitable since 1986 is another example of how the insanity of the war on drugs so often sits in plain sight.

The overall effect of “Gimme No Crack,” at least this far in retrospect, is the deconstruction of the whole crack story itself in ways that de-familiarize the familiar, not unlike the effect created by those over-the-top dark temperance tales of the 1840s.

Having seen these components juxtaposed so opportunistically makes other iterations of the story easier to recognize. The aforementioned Michael A. Gonzalez essay, “Dark Days — Life in Crack City,” for example, is a compelling personal recollection of the dramatic changes that took place in the landscape of his “nether world between Harlem and Washington Heights” neighborhood after the arrival of crack in 1984. While questioning neither Gonzalez’s credibility nor the power of his prose, much of it struck me as instantly familiar. It is built from the elements of “The Coming of Crack” narrative: the first shock of the smokers’ strange behavior and their oddly clinical pipes and vials; the promising youths lost to lifelong addiction after just one hit; pretty girls reduced from turning heads to turning tricks and, eventually, producing “crack babies”; “brazen” and “loco” young dealers exchanging lethal gunfire over petty turf disputes. Seemingly overnight, the cityscape itself is “decimated,” left a “war-torn” no-go area littered with broken glass and broken dreams.

The arrival of this world and its stock of figures and storylines are familiar not only from “Gimme No Crack” but from the whole range of media, popular, and literary culture that documented and dramatized the crack trade from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Even though Gonzalez’s friend who deals is “unlike the crazed dealers depicted in urban gangster films,” he is in fact exactly as winningly meditative and as ruthlessly materialistic as those characters are, while the re-up man is a “hulking jeri-curled dude carrying an Uzi” straight from central casting. The essay is saved from these cliches by the sense of personal loss, in both Gonzales and his grandmother, of what had seemed so recently a warm and stable community. But even here its effect is to reinforce the narrative of panicked bewilderment that fed the sentencing legislation. Gonzales is working on a longer prose project which may frame these scenes in ways that shape their meaning differently. Out of such a larger context, though, as parts of an intimate personal recollection, they seem retroactively to serve the apocalyptic narrative and the disastrous policy consequences it rationalized.

The tradition of photographic realism.

Finally, even as activists continue to work on the injustices surrounding crack, we are living through the earlier phases of similar panics regarding crystal meth and, more recently, prescription opioids. Stories of “epidemics” “wreaking havoc” on communities, with villainous dealers, unscrupulous doctors, and zombie users, are appearing in similarly progressive locations, by writers who no doubt are less interested in stoking panic than in telling a great story and raising an important issue. Even when they work to keep the focus on the off-screen forces benefiting from drug abuse, the sensation and pathos in these stories is hard to resist. This is why I am also drawn to the unrealistic, the corny, and even the ludicrous in drug storytelling. Sometimes it can take a decisive break from reality to remind us that we are, in fact, telling stories using materials that come pre-loaded with meaning.

2 thoughts on “Dancehall Pastiche and the Piecing Together of the Coming of Crack Narrative

  1. Thank you for mentioning my essay “Dark Days,” though in my defense I will say it wasn’t my attempt to write cliches, but to simply document what I saw during that period. It was a rough time and I lived in the middle of what felt like a war zone. I haven’t really read that many crack narratives, except for Iced by Ray Shell (a great book), so I’m not certain if my “characters” are stock or not, but they were very real to me.

  2. Michael, thanks for taking my thoughts about your memorable essay in the spirit I intended. As I said, I don’t doubt your memories, but I’m fascinated by the interaction of such hard facts with cultural figures, an interaction that is impossible to avoid. And in some ways, my real topic here is reading rather than writing, as I start from the situation of readers like me who bring to this story a set of perceptions shaped by books, television, film and yes, even Yo! MTV Raps. Thanks for the Iced recommendation, btw, I’m going to check it out. All the best, Eoin.

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