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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're marking the 20th anniversary of a remarkable year in hip-hop. Over the 12 months of 1993, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, and more than a dozen other artists released or promoted albums that helped to change the sound of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC CLIPS)

MONTAGNE: The rap group Onyx released a raucous single in 1993. "Slam" became an unlikely hit on MTV and pop radio. Dan Charnas reports that "Slam" was on the leading edge of a media sea change.

DAN CHARNAS, BYLINE: In 1990, MTV and pop radio sounded like this:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

WILSON PHILLIPS: (Singing) I know this pain. Why do lock yourself up in these chains?

CHARNAS: There wasn't much hip-hop except on specialty shows like "Yo! MTV Raps." The occasional rap song that did get airplay sounded something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T TOUCH THIS")

MC HAMMER: (Rapping) Can't touch this. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. My, my, my music hits me so hard makes me say oh, my Lord...

CHARNAS: Pop rap from the likes of MC Hammer was anything but hard. Back then, Rick Cummings was the program director at Power 106, a pop station in Los Angeles.

RICK CUMMINGS: Vanilla Ice and Hammer were pop artists. They were non-threatening. There wasn't anything about their lyrics or their appearance that could be terribly troubling or unsettling, or even regarded as somewhat aggressive. They were just really mainstream, mass appeal pop records.

CHARNAS: That's what the folks at Profile Records saw in four kids from Queens who called themselves Onyx.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HA AND WE DO IT LIKE THIS")

ONYX: (Rapping) Ah, and we do it like this. Well, isn't it time for you all to learn money to make, cheaper to burn. First you're feeling high. Then you're feeling low. Down on your luck, you know how it goes...

CHARNAS: Profile Records signed the group in 1990. I'd just landed my first job out of college at Profile doing radio promotion to specialty hip-hop shows. I was green and so was Onyx. Fredro Starr, de facto leader of the group, explains what Onyx was trying to do.

FREDRO STARR: We called it the Country Style back in the days. I used to go down South when I was 13, 14, and I would come back home to Queens, from summer down South. I was down South for like two months, so I kind of had a little Southern drawl and people was noticing, like, you sound like you're from the country.

CHARNAS: The record bombed, even at the specialty rap shows, and Onyx was dropped from the label.

STARR: I walked away and I was like hurt, depressed and everything. You know, I wanted to just jump off a building after that.

CHARNAS: While Starr and his bandmates nursed their wounds, pop radio continued to focus on hip-hop lite. Then, in 1991, something strange happened. In Los Angeles, Rick Cummings saw it in his station's ratings, which dropped from first to tenth.

CUMMINGS: And we started doing a little research we realized very quickly that these young kids, especially the Latinos, were talking about hip-hop. And I still remember this singular moment when a consultant with our group turned to us and said: What's hip-hop. And I thought, oh boy, we are in trouble.

CHARNAS: The following year, Cummings did something that no pop radio programmer in America had ever done. He made hip-hop the core of his format.

CUMMINGS: Once we embraced it, we embraced it fully. If we added a rap record, it played around the clock.

CHARNAS: Amid these developments, the rap group Onyx resurfaced with a new mentor, the late Jam Master Jay, a new record deal with Def Jam/Sony, and a new aesthetic. Bandmates Fredro Starr and Sticky Fingaz explain.

STARR: We created these characters called Mickey Billy and Sticky Fingaz.

STICKY FINGAZ: Yo, Sticky, these stick up kid characters.

STARR: Yeah, we were stick up kids.

FINGAZ: Yeah, hand over the money.

STARR: And that's where the grimy style got created.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, STICK AND MOVE")

ONYX: (Rapping) Give me the money. Give me the money...

STARR: When Jay heard that record, he was like, Yo, who is on this record? Who's this? I was like, that's me and Sticky. He was like, Yo, give me 10 of those.

CHARNAS: But by the time the new album was done, Jam Master Jay decided Onyx didn't have its hit single yet. Jay sent the musicians back into the studio.

STARR: We needed to make a song that was just as aggressive, or more aggressive, but can play on the radio. We spent the whole week in the studio and that's how "Slam" was created.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLAM")

ONYX: (Rapping) Slam. Slam. Duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh. Let the boys be boys. Slam...

STARR: We got the chorus from Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." That's where the idea came from. We wanted to have black people, hip-hop...

FINGAZ: Go crazy.

STARR: ...Slam dancing in the gym just like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLAM")

ONYX: (Rapping) I'm going to use and abuse and I'm so confused. Umm, excuse me, for example, I'm inspiration of a whole generation. And unless you got 10 Sticky Fingers it's an imitation, a figment of your imagination. But-but-but-but wait it gets worse...

CHARNAS: With Slam, Onyx was falling in line with pop radio's new openness to the sounds of the street. Johnny Coppola did radio promotion for Sony Music.

JOHNNY COPPOLA: I can remember getting a call from the music director at WPGC. He said: Dude, this record is so off the hook, the phones will not stop ringing. I had five or six big stations calling me, telling me you've got power rotation on this record.

CHARNAS: Onyx made a rowdy video for "Slam" that hit MTV at a time when the channel had also begun to play harder rap. Patti Galuzzi was MTV's director of music programming at the time.

PATTI GALUZZI: I feel like 1993 was the year that the rap artists in particular started really moving into our heavy rotation. And Onyx felt like it was smack in the middle of the sort of thing that we could play.

CHARNAS: Galuzzi and MTV did have one problem: The album title, which they had to find some way to display onscreen.

GALUZZI: There was no way we had: Back the (CENSORED) up on the (unintelligible). nothing about the lyrics that were misogynistic, violent. I'm sure we had: Back the star, star, star up. But there was nothing about the lyrics that were misogynistic, violent. And it was something like Number 13 in the Top 100 of 1993, which is huge.

CHARNAS: Onyx's "Slam" also became a Top 5 hit at pop radio, a feat that Rick Cummings says would have been impossible just a few years earlier.

CUMMINGS: Had "Slam" come along in '91, I don't know. I'm skeptical that we would have played it. But by 1993, it was like, yeah, this is great, let's play it.

CHARNAS: But Onyx themselves were never able to create a follow-up hit, unable to capitalize on the opening they helped create. Yet "Slam" came at a pivotal moment of hip-hop's ascension to the mainstream. Within a few years, most pop radio stations in the country would essentially switch to hip-hop formats. It became the new rock and roll.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDGMENT NIGHT")

ONYX: (Rapping) Judgment Night. Judgment Night. Huh. Huh. Judgment Night...

CHARNAS: For NPR News, I'm Dan Charnas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDGMENT NIGHT")

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News with Steve Inskeep, I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUDGMENT NIGHT")

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