Imagine for a moment it's 1975, and an ABC News program is doing a three-part special on a youth craze called "rock and roll."
As we tune in, a 40-ish newsman expresses mild befuddlement as he rattles off names like Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan, adding, "I'd never heard of any of them either; the kids are really crazy for this stuff." We're introduced to a "daring visionary" who made millions after starting a record company that specialized in rock, and we're shown how to play a "guitar solo." Finally, the host breathlessly explains that rock and roll isn't just music, but has inspired a whole subculture - including fashions!
We'd have laughed ourselves silly, right?
Well, that's roughly the reaction anyone who listens to hip-hop will have tonight, when "Nightline" begins a three-part series on hip-hop music and culture. Hosted by the affably clueless Robert Krulwich, the show seems to suggest that rap music is a mysterious world populated by strange, colorful characters in weird clothes. Incredibly, this sound, originally formulated by ghetto blacks, has become popular enough to attract a large audience of suburban white kids!
Excuse me, but this is news? "Nightline" seems to think so. In the shows' pre-taped news packages, Krulwich and crew gee-whiz their way through segments on rapper/movie star LL Cool J, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons and old school DJ Grandmaster Flash. If it were simply "Hip-Hop for Dummies," the show's approach would be mildly amusing, but Krulwich offers his insights as if his viewers had no idea that rap was a big deal.
Never mind that rap entered the Top-40 21 years ago with "Rapper's Delight" (by the Sugar Hill Gang) and has dominated the charts for most of the last decade. Forget the fact that rappers like Will Smith and Puff Daddy are household names, or that Ice Cube and Queen Latifah have become bankable movie stars.
Somehow, all that passed Krulwich by. So this is how he introduces LL Cool J: "LL Cool J has been famous for more than 15 years. Well, that's what I'm told, because frankly, I'm not a rap fan, and frankly, I'm a little old. So I had no idea how many people know this guy."
Later, Krulwich introduces Simmons, head of the Def Jam entertainment empire and the mogul behind the Phat Farm clothing line. It's an engaging bit of puffery, exaggerating some of Simmons' achievements - departed Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, who in fact discovered Cool J and brought the Beastie Boys to the label, is dismissed with a half-sentence mention - while ignoring others (in particular, Def Jam's forays into television and film).
The package is also slightly disingenuous. Trying to make the point that Simmons is unusually well known for an entertainment executive, Krulwich and crew head out to the suburbs, where they find a group of expensively dressed white teens. Krulwich shows them a photo of Al Gore and asks them to identify the man in the picture. After a few embarrassed ums, one of the kids finally recognizes the vice president.
Krulwich then produces a picture of Simmons, whom the teens immediately ID. We're supposed to be stunned that a record company executive would be as well-known as his acts, but "Nightline" leaves out a few cogent details, such as Simmons' regular appearances on the '90s cable show "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam."
This isn't news to hip-hop fans, but it's not something "Nightline" seems to know.
So before tuning in, it might be worth making a perspective check. The current issue of Vibe has Cool J on the cover, with a cutline teasing "LL Cool J is hard as..."
If you filled in the blank with "steel" or "diamonds," you might actually learn something from "Nightline." If, on the other hand, you correctly answered "hard as hell," you probably know more than Krulwich and his staff.
And if you can complete the couplet ("Battle anybody, I don't care who you tell") and name the source (the album version of "Rock the Bells"), you'll probably be watching Letterman.
When: 11:35 p.m. today, tomorrow and Friday
Where: ABC, Channel 2
In brief: Hip-hop for dummies