It was a good year for me, a big year.
In 1990 I graduated high school and started college. For a young Chicano, who came from a family who didn’t have a lot but always had enough, that was probably one of the more important transitions in my life. College changed my world.
My world had already been one that contained transition, hybridity, and knowledge of the multiple. We were a family of both immigrants and US-born. We were spread throughout East LA, in Chicano suburban barrios in the San Gabriel Valley, and Mexico. Like the movements my grandparents made, my dad and mom and two sisters also made movements. We went from working class to middle class in my youth. We went from a family of 5 with no college graduates to one with one, and then another…until we were 5 bachelor’s degrees, 4 MA degrees, and 2 PhDs.
My world was dominated “minority” people, communities, and cultures. It was centered on the late-20th century US popular culture, but also on African American culture (especially West Coast black culture), on Chicano-LA culture, on Filipino second-generation culture. We gravitated to and drew identity from the strands of popular culture that were often not the mainstream, dance club music, funk and soul, hip-hop. As I participated in other cultural strands–notably hard rock and some heavy metal–I never stepped out of the shared culture I knew, I never ceased to be conversant in it or to draw identity from it.
This is the thing about not being part of the mainstream in the United States, when that mainstream negates your existence culturally, socially, and politically. You still are rooted to communities that operate in all those realms, you developed your own sense of “peopleness” as you do, but you also become expert at the culture that is simultaneously “yours” and “theirs.”
And then came college. In college I entered a space that was dominated by a specific kind of late-20th century cultural whiteness, a place that was brutally unaware that their way (of thinking, dressing, having fun, dancing, of hoping) was not the only way. It was an introduction to a new world for me, including new music, but also a long process of coming to terms with who I was/am. My main advantage was that I knew them and the content of their world when they did not know mine.
Part of my growth was a greater awareness and appreciation for the culture I came from. Songs I never liked all that much, styles of music that I knew but did not necessarily love, became more meaningful to me then. They were markers of my community, the one I had left to come to college. They were ways of embracing my difference, my special knowledge, a process that helped protect me from what could sometimes be a difficult adjustment. They were also declarations of my knowledge, my rootedness to a world that “they” never knew existed.
That happened at the same time parts of that people-of-color culture (we didn’t call it than then, not yet) were becoming fully intrenched in the mainstream, too.
Here are five songs from 1990 that represent that for me.* They are not songs unknown to anyone, certainly not to others of my generation. But what they meant for us was, I think, distinct than what they meant for the upper class white kids at my college.
5. “Mama Said Knock You Out” (LL Cool J)
“Don’t call it a comeback!” With that line LL Cool J begins a powerful and aggressive track that would become his biggest hit of all time. He was a very well-known person in my world well before 1990. He had been up and down already just in the period of my high school years. Songs like “I Need Love,” “Going Back to Cali,” and “I Need a Beat” were classics to my young mind. The punch of this chart-topper made it a favorite to dance to in those years at college. It was like a musical declaration of your oppositional strength.
4. “Poison” (Bel Biv Devoe)
You can’t get more mainstream than Bel Biv Devoe, the trio that spun off from 80s boy group New Edition. It was that history, though, that made them mean something more. We had grown up with them, they were “our” boy band. And when they became kinda crude (and sexist) and obvious with their breakout song “Poison”––reminding us “Never trust a big butt and smile”–it somehow seemed right, it seemed authentic. Their success made you, well, proud.
3. “U Can’t Touch This” (MC Hammer)
This might be the biggest song of the year, a commercial hit that made Oaktown rapper MC Hammer a household name, and his baggy pants a cultural phenomenon. But he wasn’t new to us. Hammer’s “Turn This Mutha Out” was played at every house party I ever went to, a track (like Rob Bases and DJ Eazy Rock’s “Joy and Pain”) that never failed to fill the dance floor. When “U Can’t Touch This” played at my senior prom, there was a humor and celebratory feel to it. It was both stupid and, strangely, ours.
2. “Humpty Dance” (Digital Underground)
“Alright, stop what ‘cha doin’, ’cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to.” I want you to know that I typed those words without listening to the song or checking them online. I can go all the way to the end of the song that way, too. Digital Underground was a funny, creative, eclectic grouping. Known for being the starting point for the career of Tupac Shakur, their 1990 album Sex Packets spawned two hits, “Doowatchyalike” and this classic. Digital Underground’s album was pretty dirty, something that wasn’t in-line with the success of this single, but something that somehow made it more authentic. There’s no assimilative politeness or decorum here.
1. “Groove Is In the Heart” (Deee-Lite)
I remember being at a freshman orientation dance in college, an event that took place the week before classes started, a social held outside in the middle of a closed-off street. I was feeling it already, the feeling of being one of so very few of who you were, the feeling that was a stark contrast to the world I had know, to the world that made me. It comes with bursts of confidence, of fear, of self-doubt and, later, anger. When this song came on it seemed like, for a precious moment, there were only people of color dancing in the streets. I don’t have words to explain what that meant. Deee-Lite, the multiracial dance/funk/club group, who were clear precursors to acts like Black-Eyed Peas a generation later, never hit it bigger than with this song from their debut album. It featured funk legend Bootsy Collins, a man I thought was in the group until about a decade later. The song is a classic, both now and then.
*The word “classic” is going to be used a lot here.