I went to go see The Wackness over the weekend, with another friend of mine that grew up in NYC.  The Wackness is a pretty generic coming of age story, about a 17-year old boy in NYC in 1994, in the last summer before heading out to college.  It won an Audience Award at Sundance, but it is mostly typical stuff - selling drugs, meeting crazy people, summer romance, bonding between older misguided guy and younger lost male, etc.  In fact, it may go off on too many tangents at times, sort of losing its focus.  Much like a 17-year old's attention span.

We (the NYCers) enjoyed it more than the rest of our crowd.  For example, Canadian DJM certainly did not seem very fond of the movie.  So my guess is that it will appeal more to people who were around in NYC in the early 90's, and who love hip-hop music from that era.

Now, before we get to the things the movie's director got wrong, let's give them props on the things they got right:  they captured the vibe of riding the subway pretty well.  Some really good choices on the music - Nas' Illmatic, Biggie, and the Wu-Tang headline the soundtrack.  The first half of the movie had me reciting lines and nodding my head as classic joints such as "The World Is Yours" and "Heaven & Hell" came on.

Unfortunately, the 1994 vibe got a little mashed in my mind, as the mixtape soundtrack started digging into music from other years.  For example, "Summertime" is certainly a classic joint, but isn't that really a 1991 track?  By 1994 he was no longer the Fresh Prince; just Will Smith, TV star.  Ditto Biz Markie's "Just A Friend".  Great tracks, no doubt, but if the vibe was to go for a 1994 feel, here are some rap artists that were getting heavy radio airplay at the time in NYC:  Black Moon (and Smif N Wessun), Naughty By Nature, Onyx (yes, they suck, but in the interest of being historically accurate: they were huge back then), Mobb Deep.  Non-East Coast rappers from that period with heavy rotation: Outkast, Da Brat, Dre and Snoop, Bone Thugs N Harmony.

To be fair, Only Built For Cuban Linx didn't really come out in 1994; it goes Wu-Tang in 1993, building up until the Method Man and ODB solo albums in 1994, then Rae's iconoclastic album in 1995.  Nitpicking, admittedly, but still... details count.

Similarly, there are two recurring running themes in the movie about 1994 NYC that seemed off-track to me: One is the "Things sure have changed since Giuliani took over".  It's heard a bit in the movie, and it strikes us as an attempt to sort of revisionism.  The writer is trying to impose a thought that, while absolutely true in retrospect, was not on the minds of people living in the city at the time.

In 1994, we were just in year one of Rudy's reign.  He was only then starting to sell his "broken windows" plan, in which minor crimes would be prosecuted vigorously in an attempt to lower overall crime.  Back in 1994, no one really saw where this was all going - even one year of reduced crime (crime peaked in NYC in 1992, and has been falling steadily since) wasn't an actual trend just yet. 

It's interesting to note how Giuliani's legacy evolved, devolved, and re-evolved over time.  In his first term, he slowly took charge of a city that was a bit battered and divided during the Dinkins administration.  Dinkins never got a fair shake in some respects - the later crime reduction was a combination of Dinkins' policies, Giuliani's policies, and overall sustained economic growth.  But the bottom line is that Giuliani took over a city that was still hurting from a vicious crack epidemic, and related crime increases, that dominated the late 80's and early 90's. 

By the time he ran for re-election in 1997, Giuliani was King of the City.  He was easily re-elected.  He wasn't completely hated, even in poor neighborhoods.  It was in his second term that he become even more intolerant of dissent.  He refused to deal with certain minority community leaders.  He sent cops into minority neighborhoods, and treated them like war zones. People in those neighborhoods were viewed with eternal suspicion, and were more likely to be arrested by police than helped.  He openly supported cops in some questionable police brutality/abuse situations - Patrick Dorismond, later Diallo. 

He had worn out his welcome by 2000.  He would have been thrashed by Hillary Clinton in the Senate race, and so he pulled out of that race (blaming it on the cancer treatment), all while being a lame duck mayor.

I can recall attending a conference in 1999 or 2000, in which prominent NYC historian Mike Wallace spoke.  He told great stories about NYC - the history of NYC, how it became incorporated in 1898, how Brooklyn at various times in NYC history contemplated becoming its own independent city.  At one point, he was asked by an audience member to give an opinion on "how history would remember Rudy Giuliani's reign".

This was pre-9/11, of course.  Professor Wallace's response was along the lines of "crime-reduction is nice, but it's cyclical.  It happens regardless of who is Mayor, generally due to economic conditions.  The crime reduction of the late 90's will likely get attributed to economy's upbeat, and being that it is the only real accomplishment of the Giuliani administration, he will likely not be viewed as much of a significant mayor."

Certainly 9/11 changed that to a degree, and gave Giuliani a chance at an encore in politics (this year's fail Presidency bid).   But the larger point is this:  in 1994, nobody had a clue where Giuliani was taking this city, or what his legacy would be.

Similarly, the other major recurring theme in the movie is that "Ready to Die (the Notorious B.I.G.'s first album) was something everyone recognized immediately as... truly significant".

Nope.  In 1994 Ready to Die was a great album, sure.  It got 5 mics.  But it is revisionism to imply that people really went that ga-ga over the album when it came out. 

See, I've always argued that Biggie's aura grew because he was slain.  If Suge Knight (just kidding) had killed Nas instead of Biggie, we would recognize Nas as the greatest rapper of all-time.  It's only fair; he does have the greatest album in hip-hop history (Illmatic). 

In fact, in 1995, it was highly controversial when, at the First Annual Source Awards (they actually mattered that first year, too... people forgot how important stuff like The Source magazine, MTV Raps, Video Music Box, etc. were to the development and spreading of hip-hop) the Notorious B.I.G. won lyricist of the year over Nas. 

In any event, minor quibbles aside, The Wackness did a decent job of capturing some of the vibe of early 90's NYC.  It works well as a compliment to movies like Juice, which showcased the grittier aspects of the city at the time.  The Wackness showcases the heart of the city, the crazy characters that once filled the streets of NYC, now only to be seemingly lost over the years....


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36 Comments

Comments

[August 6, 2008 7:31 PM]  |  link  |  reply
clintonhillchill said

I have to disagree with you on a few things...Biggies album did hit the MAJORITY of ppl like that. All over the city that album was a BIG deal. You know your my homie but I think your personal opinion is clouding your memory of the times a bit. Now illmatic is my favorite and also the best hiphop album of all time but it was not getting pumped out of EVERY booming system in the city like Ready to Die was...also keep in mind that Biggie's album peaked in the summer. Also, we in my hood did feel the impact of guiliani. I remember cops in '94 clearing a block of old men, who were just playing cards, dominoes, chess and getting their sip on..the cops ticketed ALL of them! Cops started stressing things thst they wouldnt bat an eye at before! By '95 you had rappers like Biggie saying "who throws gats to guiliani..."...shit on Ready to Die he said "And my mayor giuliani aint trying to see no black man turn into john gotti". Trust we were feeling it homie! With that said, in this big city, we can similar experiences as well as different ones. I definitely plan on checking this movie and I'm sure that may be more relatable to me being a nyer who grew up in those times.

[August 7, 2008 1:16 PM]  |  link  |  reply
greekprof said

I was going to see the flick earlier this week but got sidetracked. I saw Wu, Biggie and Gangstarr advertised as soundtrack inclusions, and while they were to be expected, I was wondering if less mainstream acts that were bumped in '94 would receive play in the movie (like da youngstas, mad lion, smif n wessun, etc).

The taglines for the movie, "it's 1994... and Giuliani is beginning to implement his anti-fun initiatives," do smack of a bit of the revisionism SML described (not to mention making Rudy sound like the mayor in Footloose), but there was more animosity toward Rudy than SML gives credit for -- and to which clintonchill correctly alludes.

By the end of '94 -- and certainly by the start of 1995 -- it was patently clear that Rudy's New York was going to be a starkly different place then the one in which we grew up. I guess in the summer of '94 we were still experiencing Rudy-lite, and many people brushed off his war on squeegie guys, jaywalkers, and low-rent weed dealers in parks as quaint anachronisms.

By '95, though, I think the majority of non-white/working class new yorkers had begun to chafe under the mini police state tactics Giuliani implemented. Remember that Louima occurred in '97, and the "it's giuliani-time!" anger that boiled over had been simmering for at least 3 years. Civil servants negotiating contracts in '94 and '95 also got to see his nasty side, as did the special high schools which caught a nice budget chop in the spring of '95. In the last instance, I remember attending a packed rally at city hall to protest the cuts. Trivial, yes, but when a movie is positing a very specific time frame as the site of a paradigm shift, periodization matters.

[Though to be fair, just as crime declined during the last two years of the dinkins administration, so too did the "anti-fun" initiatives begin (the war on subway graffiti and street hustlers was essentially won by the end of '91) -- dinkins gets credit for neither the crime drop nor the start of draconian rule enforcement, of course...)

btw - ready to die received 4.5 mics in the source (years later, in a "my bad" issue, they amended biggie's and some other albums to 5 mic status). also, 'juicy' and the 'one more chance' remix received more play in 1994 nyc than all of illmatic's tracks put together.


[August 7, 2008 2:28 PM]  |  link  |  reply
stopmikelupica said

Good points, gentlemen. Thank you both for the feedback. Love my NYC peeps!

The Guiliani stuff mentioned by both CHC and Greekprof are on target... I may be guilty of a hazy memory, too. You guys are both right, in that the low level tough enforcement certainly dated back to Guiliani's first term (and before); I don't disagree with ya'll on that. I simply meant, as Greek Prof mentioned, that it took a while before people really turned on Guiliani's tactics. I don't think that in 1994 there was a strong sentiment against the draconian law enforcement; I think it took a while for that to build up. But I absolutely respect and appreciate ClintonHillChill's perspective... certainly some people knew, even early on, what was to come! I'm just not sure it was as commonplace of a sentiment as the movie made it seem.

As for the Biggie debate... well, this one is a bit tougher. Biggie got more radio play than Illmatic - that's not even a question. Anything Diddy produced back then was on Hot 97 all day long - Total, Craig Mack, various remixes. The point I was trying to make is that Biggie's impact, both as a lyricist and as a game-changing influence, wasn't immediately recognized. You can't recognize the influence at the time - who knew Biggie would lead to Jay-Z, Lil Kim, everyone and their momma, namechecking every high-end product from Gucci to Prada to Cris. Hell, even Nas changed his style ("pushing the Q45 Finite") partially because of Ready To Die. But those all came later, like 1997-. In 1994 we were still knee deep in the hard core east coast + west coast g-funk era. You were more likely to hear Biggie than Illmatic, but you were also more likely to hear Warren G or Dre than Biggie. Or at least as likely. Same for Onyx, Naughty, Wu-Tang, Busta, The Fugees (The Score came out, what, 1995?), or Black Moon.

Sources for listening to music in 1994: The Box, BET, Hot 97, Video Music Box.

Point being, I think Ready To Die was one of the hot albums in 1994; but it wasn't until a few years later when everyone started copying his style that it became clear how influential Biggie really was. That, to me, is when the MAJORITY of people started realizing Ready To Die's true legacy. But that's just my personal recollection, and certainly not the only one!

In both these situations (Giuluini and Biggie) I just feel like people might have felt like something was happening in 1994, but they wouldn't know or understand the full impact until a few years later. Sort of like the housing market right now - we all sort of know something is happening right now. Everyone seems to have a theory on what the long-term effect will be America's economy. But until it plays out in a few years, we won't really know who was right, or what the full historical impact of the housing market correction is....

[August 8, 2008 10:55 AM]  |  link  |  reply
clintonhillchill said

SML, soon after Biggie came out, you saw cats in the street rocking kangols, and coogies...thats impact homie..let's also not forget that BIG was on the grind and had a buzz before he came out w/ party and bullshit and dreams of fuckin an r&b chick...he was also hitting up remixes hard..let's also not forget that audio of him and Pac at BDK's bday party spittin' live..."I got 7 mack 11's, about 8 38's.." He didn't even have an album yet!! As for Guiliani, we were probably at different stages in life so we were impacted differently...you were still in HS in '94..I damn near lived in the streets in that time. I was in the tunnel, the palladium, etc....trust me BIG hit immediately!

[August 8, 2008 1:34 PM]  |  link  |  reply
Diallo said

I have no clue how NY cats felt about Biggie in '94, but at my college (Atlanta) all the NY dudes were bumping/worshipping Nas. A few were on Biggie's jock, but he wasn't given the lavish praise afforded to Nas. As a kid from the south I was like, what's the big deal? Neither of these cats can hang with Raheem the Dream:)

[August 8, 2008 2:49 PM]  |  link  |  reply
JJ said

SML, Off topic, but wanted to hear from you about the newest NY Jet, the release of Pennington and your take on the whole thing...

[August 8, 2008 10:11 PM]  |  link  |  reply
stopmikelupica said

JJ: I'll throw up a post tomorrow on Favre, but here's the short take on it:

It was a no-brainer for the Jets, from a business perspective. The Giants are defending Super Bowl champs; the Jets play in the same division as the Pats. They needed to do something, to promote the team with the new stadium open up next year, and the Jets trying to sell those PSL like the Giants are.

More to come tomorrow.

CHC: Good points, as always. I'll leave the Biggie alone - you made a very convincing case. As for Guiliani... peep this: in 1995 or 1996, I got caught turnstile hopping. No big deal... I hopped mad turnstiles. First time I got busted, though there were always undercover cops around, going back to '91. I got a ticket, which went under the fake name I gave the cops.

That was law enforcement in 95/96... tougher than the wild days of before, when little crimes weren't even enforced (I'm talking shoplifting, smoking weed in public, drinking on stoops, hopping turnstiles, homeless people... all those things that were prevalent in the late 80's, early 90's). But not yet criminalized... well, let me give you an example:

In 1999, a female coworker - a young white women - told me about how she got caught "hopping a turnstile". In her case, she was (and this does sound hokey, but it's true) helping out an older woman who couldn't get through the turnstile, so she swipe them both in, and they "doubled up". NYers know what that means! Anyway, the cops not only gave them both tickets - a white girl, and an old woman - but also took both of them down to the precient and booked them. She spent 6 hours in detention.

That's the difference between Guiliani enforcement in '95, and Guiliani enforcement in '99... not just the enforcement of minor crimes, but the criminalization of minor crimes. Not just tickets, but everyone going through the system now.

And yes, I realize that certain people were likely getting processed through the system in 1994, too. Obviously Guiliani's crime plan included criminalizing minorities. But the city at large (re: everyone else, including those who voted him into office a second term) didn't turn on Guiliani until he truly began running everyone - everyone - through the system. That's when the press, the media, everyone turned on him.

[August 13, 2008 6:51 PM]  |  link  |  reply
Zach said

You should read Freakonomics. Levitt and Dubner make an interesting case for a highly controversial explanation of the NYC crime drop in the mid 90s. Essentially, Roe v Wade was 20 years before. "Unwantedness leads to crime, abortion leads to less unwantedness." (paraphrased)

While a causal relationship isn't obvious (or, some may say, moral), its an interesting read.

[October 18, 2008 4:46 AM]  |  link  |  reply
Jake said

Great to read your thoughts, even if I'm three months late. I agree that the movie didn't really nail it 100% in terms of the 90s, but there were some good details. I was especially feeling the American Airlines headphones. Anyway, when it comes to nostalgia I'm personally more of a 1996/97 guy.

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Spring Training 08






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