Hiphop's street-based old school shoves its pop-friendly new school offstage while being filmed by MTV—how's that for a metaphor? Bronx-bred KRS-One's bum- rushing of Jersey City's P.M. Dawn during their January 1992 performance at New York's Sound Factory drew a sharp line: real vs. fake, street vs. pop, hard vs. soft. The Shove Felt Round the World came at the tail end of hiphop's first pop era—beginning at the end of '88, when Tone Loc's "Wild Thing" became the biggest-selling single since "We Are the World"—and happened between the man who pretty much invented gangsta rap and an act that embodied a whole lot of things hiphop's hardcore audience wasn't interested in: blatant femininity, mystical mumbo jumbo, every sonic edge cushioned—shit that could get you killed in prison, basically. Best and most incongruous of all, the whole thing was ignited thanks to a fashion magazine.
Well, okay—Details was a style magazine, full of male models in suits and sharp music reporting. The magazine liked P.M. Dawn; the whole media did, it seemed. So did I—a teenager with a voracious appetite for music, including radio pop. I liked hiphop, too, but it was more peripheral than for my classmates who thought P.M. Dawn was soft. ("They should stick to ballads," one concluded.)
A few months prior to the Shove, Details interviewed P.M. Dawn. In that story, Prince Be mused, "KRS-One wants to be a teacher, but a teacher of what?" The Bronx rapper's physical reply served as the official old-school reaction to a group that reveled in its own pop appeal.
P.M. Dawn's chart breakthrough had been central to hiphop's own general acceptance by the music biz. "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," as every chart geek knows, was the first ever number-one hit of the SoundScan era. It was also the first black rap single to reach number one on the pop charts—previous hiphop chart-toppers were Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. Not that the charts necessarily meant anything to rap hard-liners looking sideways at Prince Be lyrics such as "Eternity is holding a Rubik's Cube/And everything inside it seems to be nude." One YouTube clip from a Public Enemy concert features Chuck D asking the audience's approval or disapproval of various other rap acts. "P.M. Dawn?" he asks, and Flavor Flav interjects: "Fuck that motherfucker!" (He doesn't even do that when Chuck says "Milli Vanilli?" five times.) When Prince Be cracked on KRS-One to Details, the gloves came off.
The scene of the Shove was a Sound Factory show with a multiartist bill being filmed for MTV. (KRS may have positioned himself as an ultra-purist—"Boom-bap, original rap," went his big chorus—but he knew a media opportunity when he saw one.) "You could feel something in the air," Dres from Black Sheep, who were also on the bill, told Subsoniq Radio in 2009 about the air of violence overhanging the taping. "I didn't know if that energy was directed at us, or what."
It wasn't: Boogie Down Productions, KRS's group, marched onstage during P.M. Dawn's set, snatched the DJ away from the decks, shoved Prince Be and DJ Minutemix off the stage, and broke into BDP's classic "I'm Still #1." ("A teacher of what?" Prince Be wanted to know. "I answered his question," KRS-One told USA Today. "I'm a teacher of respect.") The message of the Shove came through loud and clear: Fans like me, who frequently came to hiphop via the pop airwaves, and the street-level fans were different beasts.
This event doesn't get talked about much anymore, and I don't think it's just because the culture has an ever-shorter memory. It's because the myth that the Shove enacts has been retroactively superceded by another tale—the Dangle, that long-rumored and, despite the aggrieved party's vehement denials, long-accepted-as-fact event in which Suge Knight dangled Vanilla Ice over a balcony railing by his ankles. In return for his life, Vanilla signed his share of "Ice Ice Baby" over to Knight.
Whatever really happened, it's an even more potent metaphor for a more unadulterated version of hiphop—Knight ran Death Row Records, whose stars included Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac—staging a hostile takeover from the softer mainstream. And with hiphop, metaphor is all.