‘Tanning Of America’ Directors On How Hip-Hop Is Changing America

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    Last night, VH1 premiered <em>The Tanning Of America</em>, the first episode of a four-part series exploring America's social evolution through Black entertainment. Based on longtime record executive and manager Steve Stoute's book of the same name, the documentary travels through the early elements of entertainment leading up to today's hip-hop and its extreme impact on American culture.<br /><br />WIth Nas, Diddy, and Russell Simmons all appearing in the premiere episode along with Rev. Al Sharpton, Corey Booker, and Steve Stoute, <em>The Tanning Of America</em> not only covers primal aspects of hip-hop but connects the genre to the U.S.' political stances, commending hip-hop for playing huge role in the election of the first black president. Overall, the documentary crafts an interesting concept, ultimately unveiling that hip-hop has unknowingly united a nation that was for so long separated along racial boundaries. Chronicling all the way from the 1950s, <em>The Tanning Of America</em> essentially tells the story of how hip-hop has changed the world.<br /><br /><em>XXL</em> spoke with the directors of <em>The Tanning Of America</em>, Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman—the two minds behind the influential 2006 crime documentary <em>Cocaine Cowboys</em>—who not only shared "tanning" experiences of their own but also gave grave explanation of how the documentary came together as a whole. <em>—Miranda Johnson (<a title="randa" href="https://twitter.com/Randa_Writes" target="_blank">@Randa_Writes</a>)</em>
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    <h2><em>XXL: </em>What made you want to get involved with the documentary?</h2><strong>Billy Corben:</strong> We had a mutual [understanding] with Stoute. I believe it was around pre-publication of the book. He’d gotten traction and had asked if we would be interested in taking a look at it. We didn’t know him personally but Alfred was familiar with his success and his background. When we read the book, they had already given us the heads up that they were possibly interested in doing a documentary out of it. And we realized the size and scope of the story in addition to the provocative nature of the thesis. That hip-hop culture and hip-hop music elected the first black president, and then, of course, having to cover these decades of history, of American history, we quickly said that this would make a great documentary. <br /><br />Stoute agreed; he was a fan of our work in <em>Cocaine Cowboys</em> and the ESPN <em>30 for 30</em>'s that we had done. And we had a relationship over there at VH1. We’d always been looking for something to do together and there didn’t seem to be a lot of places that would take on something this big. Both in terms of the history, in terms of the times and just budget-wise and everything. We just didn’t think there were a lot of options, so we thought of VH1. Right away they were excited about it, and we got it done.
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    <h2><em>XXL: </em>Do you believe that ‘tanning' has affected your life?</h2><strong>BC:</strong> For me, personally, I started thinking how I was impacted by black entertainers, black culture, and black music. I realized that my favorite movie of all time as a kid was <em>Blazing Shadows</em>; major tanning. Then the VHS tape that I literally wore out in my parents VCR was <em>The Best Of Eddie Murphy: Saturday Night Live</em>. I watched that on a loop. The music my friends were listening to in Miami was Run-DMC, Beastie Boys, 2 Live Crew and this is the music that I grew up with. The TV shows that I watched, for some reason I was just drawn to these show and watched them religiously every week. <em>Different Strokes</em>, <em>The Cosby Show</em>, later <em>A Different World</em>, <em>Amen</em>, then later on I watched <em>Arsenio</em>. I realized, wow, I’m reading the book and this really created a situation where your sense of humor and your taste in music are color blind. It’s what you like and what make you laugh and what moves you. So those are just the things that I was naturally drawn to and as a result you kind of grow up with black culture and people in your living room which is an experience that white people don’t necessarily have. And as a result it kind of makes you a more accepting and tolerant person. <br /><br /><strong>Alfred Spellman: </strong>And growing up in Miami, I remember vividly in sixth grade when Uncle Luke had realized “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” and 2 Live Crew, that was Miami music. My childhood, I remember the sixth grade prom, a local DJ came out and “Me So Horny” came on and I remember the plug got pulled on that song so fast. Then the next year Uncle Luke gets arrested on obscenity charges and the governor had tried to ban the records. So growing up, being like 12, 13 years old, the music that you're listening to is trying to be banned—that really sets the counter-cultural influence pretty early on. <br /><br /><strong>BC: </strong>And I think the issue is that this is generational. People don’t necessarily want to listen to the music that their parents listened to, they want something of their own. You're not gonna rebel listening to the music that your parents listened to, you want your own sound and your own style. I think that’s where the line is kind of drawn. What we saw in researching this, it wasn’t just a pushback from white people in hip-hop, there was also a pushback from earlier generation African Americans in America. A lot of black record executives didn’t embrace hip-hop. They thought it was a fad and not going to last.
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    <h2><em>XXL: </em>What were some of the most surprising things you came across while making it?</h2><strong>AS: </strong>Not shocking, really, but one of the things that Billy and I found interesting was that Billy and I would sit in the office and see how Stoute kind of followed his timeline in his book. We looked at it as one of our jobs, to kind of round it out and fill it in with politics and society and larger cultural events. So one of the things that was most fun about this was kind of connecting those dots. I remember in Episode 2, we have the Rodney King verdict, or the Rodney King case to begin with, leading into the election of Bill Clinton. Then, by the time you get to Episode 4, you're at Hurricane Katrina leading into the election of President Obama. I think looking at those kinds of macro events that don’t necessarily have a direct connection to pop culture, I think stitching those together was the most fun.<br /><br /><strong>BC: </strong>I don’t know if I would call this shocking, but perhaps provocative: revisiting some of the Norman Lear sitcoms and how they so candidly dealt with race and racism. Like <em>All In The Family</em> and <em>The Jeffersons</em>. How just overt but genuinely moving and funny they are. You watch those clips and you say, “Shit, they couldn’t do a show like this now.” It’s sad in a way that you couldn’t, but they are provocative in a way. And seeing some of the overt racism during the protests. White people coming out in the streets, shouting at protesters telling them to “go back where they came from.” I don’t think you would see any of that today.
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    <h2><em>XXL: </em>What impact do you think that the documentary will have? </h2><strong>AS: </strong>When <em>Cocaine Cowboys</em> came out, it generally caught on in the bootleg market. Now-a-days with social media, things spread so much quicker. Good content and good stories spread so much quicker now. So I can hope it only happens that way with <em>Tanning</em>.<br /><br /><strong>BC:</strong> I think <em>Tanning</em> is just as important, if not more important, than <em>Cocaine Cowboys</em>. I like to say, “The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed." People will have even easier and faster access to it, so I hope that people believe in it and want to share it around with people. I believe the message is so important, because it’s not just hip-hop history, it’s now American history. For better or for worse, whether you like it or not, hip-hop culture and these 'tanning' moments are now a part of American history.
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    <h2><em>XXL: </em>Realistically, what do you see in the future for 'tanning'? </h2><strong>AS: </strong>Look at people like Corey Booker, he was Mayor of Newark, now he’s a U.S. senator. I think the next thing we have to change is Congress. We gotta fix the problems in Congress. This is the millennial generation that was raised on hip-hop culture, so as they become of age to run and get elected, I think you’ll see a lot more progress. A lot more progressive views and laws being changed. We need to make some serious changes to our criminal justice system. I think that those born in hip-hop culture are going to lead us into that change.<br /><br /><strong>BC: </strong>I think Alfred is absolutely right; hip-hop elected a President, now we need to change the laws. To be more compassionate, to be more fair. Russell Simmons has been fighting that cause on mandatory minimums for a very long time now and I think we now have an opportunity where the timing is right. A new generation of voters will have to make a change here.

Previously: Nas Doesn’t Think He’s Mainstream

11 Things We Learned From Last Night’s ‘Tanning Of America’ Premiere:

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  • stoute tanning america
    The interviews that went into the show were extensive and exhaustive. Here's a complete list of those interviewed in the first two episodes, premiered last night at the screening: Nas, Diddy, Mariah Carey, Rick Rubin, Will.I.Am, Dr. Dre, Steve Stoute, Rev. Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons, Melvin Van Peebles, Nelson George, Dan Charnas (author of <em>The Big Payback</em>), Brett Ratner, longtime Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, iconic television producer Norman Lear, Mona Scott-Young, Ron Howard, Fab 5 Freddy, Rev Run, FUBU founder Daymond John, Marc Ecko, Jonathan Schecter, Touré, Ben Horowitz, Meg Cox (who wrote the first <em>Wall Street Journal</em> story on Russell Simmons in 1984), Naomi Campbell, Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell, Dapper Dan, Lyor Cohen, Revolt CEO Keith Clinkscales and author Joan Walsh. Whew.
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    The Blaxploitation film genre—pioneered by director Melvin Van Peebles—gave Diddy the "audacity" to dream of success.
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    The success of <em>Good Times</em> made <em>Happy Days</em>—which aired at the same time and on the same night as <em>Good Times</em>—focus more on Fonzie, whose effortless cool and over-reliance on a catchphrase made him similar to <em>Good Times</em>' Jimmie Walker. "Jimmie Walker sold more lunchboxes than the Fonz," said <em>Happy Days</em> star and director Ron Howard, as related by Steve Stoute during the session's panel. "That's the only thing we heard."
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    Fab 5 Freddy referred to early MTV, and its initial boycott of black artists until the likes of Michael Jackson and Prince made them impossible to ignore, as "Television Apartheid."
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    Rev run relates the "legend" of the hook to Run-DMC's "My Adidas." According the the legend—and to Run who repeated it— Def Jam honcho and Run's brother Russell Simmons smoked a bag of Angel Dust and wouldn't stop talking about his Adidas. Thus, the song, which eventually landed Run-DMC a million-dollar Adidas sponsorship.
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    Mariah Carey heard N.W.A for the first time in "a white kid's house." She referred to the incident as, "Uncomfortable."
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    "We gave them a safe look into the hood," Dr. Dre said about why so many white kids fell in love with N.W.A's music. He then pointed to a particular tour he was on with the group where they looked into the crowd and realized they were looking back at a sea of white faces. "That's when we realized that we were branching into something we didn't even understand."
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    "What Bill Cosby started, Will Smith put on steroids," Stoute said, referring to <em>The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air</em>, which took a Cosby-esque formula and injected a hip-hop element into it when the show first aired in 1990.
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    When the FBI infamously sent a letter to N.W.A telling them to stop writing songs like "Fuck Tha Police," Dr. Dre said that none of the group was scared; in fact, they were excited. Dre says that Eazy-E initially wanted to call the officer who sent the letter to thank him for the free publicity, which the group needed at the time as radio was refusing to play their music.
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    At one point during the panel, Nas was asked by moderator Gayle King what made him initially fall in love with hip-hop. "Early '80s," Nas responded. "The early stuff was [Afrika] Bambataa, Zulu Nation, 'Planet Rock,' T La Rock. Run-DMC came in and just nailed it. When Ralph McDaniels [the creator of the infamous Video Music Box television channel] started his show, we would run home from school to watch. It was on channel 31, but it was empty channels until it got to [that channel]... It was kinda cool that we had to go there to get it."