On a historic Tuesday night (January 3rd 1989), The Arsenio Hall Show made its debut. 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 mainstream success Arsenio managed to achieve.
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 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.