Spirit of ’88: A youthful hit turns 30

Boston-based reggae/arena rock fusion band The Happy Campers, circa 1988. | Photo courtesy of Mason Vincent

BY JIM MELLOAN | Hip-hop music, better known back in the day as rap, boasts a long lineage dating back to the 1970s, with some precursors, such as the now 50-year-old “Here Comes the Judge” by Pigmeat Markham, going back further. But it took a long time before rap began to crack the Billboard Hot 100 with any regularity. The single that launched the genre in the pop charts is the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which made it to No. 36 in 1980. That song was a feel-good paean to rapping, dancing, sex, and bad food. To those of a more negative, perhaps punk-influenced, frame of mind, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which made it to No. 62 in 1982, was a welcome contrast, with its sparse, edgy meter, and the chorus that warned “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head / It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

As rap continued to develop in the ’80s, it stayed pretty much a stranger to the pop chart. You needed a gimmick to make it to the Top 40. Run-DMC found one in 1986 with its cover of Aerosmith’s ’70s hit “Walk This Way,” featuring Aerosmith members Steve Tyler and Joe Perry. That one made it to No. 4 — the first rap single to crack the Top 5. White, rock-tinged rappers The Beastie Boys hit No. 7 in March of 1987 with “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).”

The year 1988 saw a huge expansion in the number of rap records released. There to catch the wave was a duo from Philadelphia: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. Their single “Parents Just Don’t Understand” broke new ground in the integration of black culture and middle class, indeed upper middle class, concerns. This week marks the 30th anniversary of the song peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The Fresh Prince, Will Smith, came from West Philadelphia’s Wynnefield neighborhood, which saw significant integration in the ’60s. He’s the son of an Air Force vet/refrigerator engineer and a school board administrator. He went to a Catholic elementary school — just about as far from Grandmaster Flash’s gritty existence as you could get. The Fresh Prince rapped about his problems with his mom’s dowdy choices in picking out his clothes and getting pulled over by the cops when he took his parents’ new Porsche out for a spin. Accompanied by a cartoonish video spackled with harmless day-glo graffiti, the song ushered in a new era of light-hearted, joyful celebration of the mundanities of the good life. Others in this wave included Young MC, who rapped about the importance of Busting a Move and the degradation of being sent to the Principal’s Office, and Tone Lōc, who was all about doing the Wild Thing (lyrics by Young MC).

It was the last year of the Reagan administration, and the economy was humming. There was such optimism in the air that a Boston improv troupe I was later involved with, Guilty Children, bought a $25,000 Chrysler van in 1987 on the theory that they would easily be able to make the payments on it in perpetuity by doing gigs all along the East Coast down to Key West and back. (This theory proved to be faulty.) A number one hit in the fall of 1988 was Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” That advice had been often touted by Indian mystic Meher Baba, who was followed both by The Who’s Pete Townshend and my (black) friend Jerry’s grandmother. The presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush adopted the song as its official campaign song, until Democrat McFerrin told them to cut it out (and refused to perform the song until they did).

As for me, in April of 1988 I moved into an (Asian-owned) house in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood with the black half of a reggae/arena rock fusion band called The Happy Campers. Front man, guitarist, and main songwriter Mason Vincent is an ex-Marine who was active on the San Francisco rock scene in the 1970s. Bassist Steve Fulton was born to a black man and a white woman in the mid-’60s, and adopted by a large Boston white family. His dad used to joke about putting him out on the front lawn with a lantern. I would often catch Steve mouthing the words to “Parents Just Don’t Understand” when it came up on MTV. As for the white guys, drummer Grant MacKenzie was from the Boston suburb of Sharon, and keyboardist Mike Zalewski was from Maine. The band was expert at living up to their name and creating good vibes at venues in Boston, out on Cape Cod, up in New Hampshire, and elsewhere. The idea behind their sound was perhaps crystallized when they hit upon the notion of doing a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Their version started with a slow, portentous guitar solo playing the main instrumental theme, then it went into one drop reggae rhythm as Mason sang lead. Never have I seen dance floors fill up so fast as they did in that moment.

Sometimes friends would express negative feelings about “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or the new sitcom called “Roseanne.” We would respond that we were a Don’t Worry, Be Happy/Roseanne household. There was a cute little four-year-old Chinese girl down the street. I told her once that one of Mason and Steve’s white friends, Danny, had married a Chinese girl. The four-year-old smilingly expressed disbelief and disapproval. “She should marry a Chinese boy.”

Well, the era ended. Will Smith went on to star in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and then become what Forbes called the most bankable movie star worldwide. Gangsta rap became ascendant. In his first nationwide televised speech as president, in September of 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced that he was going to get very, very serious about the drug war. In 1992 producer Don Was, under the alias A Thousand Points of Night, put together a satirical pastiche of Bush sound clips called “Read My Lips.” Steve [Stephen] Fulton is now Deputy Director at Catholic Charities of Boston. Mason is still a working musician. And I like to reminisce about good times, while still having a few.

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