Reviews: Friends by Whodini

By this point, there had been some rap songs that had gotten popular enough that they’d become seen as pop songs. When Whodini made “Friends,” it was the first time a rapper or rap group tried to make a pop song on purpose.

Background

It’s very likely that you know Whodini’s music—“Friends,” “Freaks Come Out at Night,” possibly “One Love,” and, depending on the kind of company you keep, even “Five Minutes of Funk”—but do not know Whodini, and that makes sense because that’s how it went for all but the most iconic figures from 1980s rap. And while the group Whodini—two rappers, Jalil Hutchins and John Fletcher, and DJ Drew Carter—was fun enough, it’s what they did that’s had a lasting impact.

There was a short article in the December 1984 issue of Billboard called “Whodini Makes ‘Friends’ at Radio, Retail.” It was about Whodini and the success that “Friends” was experiencing, but really it was about how in the little more than five years since “Rapper’s Delight” had wandered its way onto the radio, rap music had gone from something to aspiring toward something. 

There were two quotes in the story that I’m going to use right now that, reading them today, seem especially profound, though I suppose that shouldn’t be all that surprising given that two especially profound people gave them.

This first one is from Larry Smith, who, by then, had coproduced Run- DMC’s radical first album and all of Whodini’s Escape. He was talking about Whodini’s record company trying to steer them toward sounding a certain way. 

He said, “They wanted the whole thing to be more like Run- D.M.C., but I didn’t want to do exactly that. Whodini’s a bit more adult, I think, and rap’s not just for kids anymore.” 

I suspect he meant this literally, as stems of rap music had already begun to grow a bit salacious (Whodini had a song called “I’m a Ho,” and on it they admitted to playing a game called Tag Team Sex), but I also suspect he meant this figuratively. Rap album sales were increasing at a tremendous rate. Escape was actually the first rap album ever to go platinum, an easy indicator that the stakes were getting.

This second one is from Barry Weiss. At the time, he was the manager of artist development at Jive Records. However, if you know his name it’s likely because he was one of the key figures behind the careers of Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys, and if your brain is telling you, But those are all pop acts, not rap acts, that’s sort of exactly the point, my dude. 

He told Billboard, “The rap market’s moving from novelty to mainstream R&B, and with ‘Friends’ there is a very concerted effort to capture the older, sophisticated demographic5 and to open them up to rap.” This would seem like commonplace thinking, but that’s only because we know that this is exactly what ended up happening. 

Friends’ Influence on Rap

In 1984, rap was still years away from merging fully with mainstream R&B and more than a full decade away from the most perfect version of it. “Friends” helped introduce the idea of a more conventional sense of melody to rap, de-emphasizing rhythm as an end in itself. It directly predicted the rap and R&B trend. It probably started it.

The two have commingled ever since.

To expand on the point made by Larry Smith about rap growing to become a demonstrable genre:

Rap began being shown on TV. There were two shows that debuted on local TV in 1984 that focused on rap. Both were in New York. The first was called Video Music Box, which ran all the way through 1996. It played rap videos, though at the time that usually just meant footage of a group or person performing somewhere. The two guys who ran it/hosted it—Ralph McDaniels and Lionel C. Martin—eventually started producing the videos themselves, putting proper money behind them. The other show, Graffiti Rock, presented a rounder view of hip-hop, highlighting not just the music but also break dancing, graffiti, and DJing. Also, it was around this time that MTV started to occasionally play rap videos, too, owed largely to Run- DMC’s distinctly rock-inspired version of rap. It’s strange to think about now, but there was for sure a period where MTV was not all that interested in music by black musicians.

Rap got movies. There were two. There was Beat Street, which was praised immediately and is now fondly remembered for its authenticity. And there was Breakin’, which was pooped on immediately and is now fondly remembered for its accidental silliness. I remember watching both of them when I was a kid, probably somewhere between eight and ten years old. Beat Street, most famous for the scene where two guys get electrocuted to death while fighting on a subway track, was way too heavy for me. Conversely, the most serious part of Breakin’ was when a guy who was very good at break dancing swept the sidewalk outside of a convenience store with a magic broom. That was something I could get behind.

Rap got a radio station. Los Angeles beat New York to it. They premiered KDAY that year, the first station in the country that played mostly rap music. Dr. Dre worked there if you can even believe that (which you should be able to because it makes total sense).

The Fresh Fest tour was booked. It was the first rap tour to play the big arenas and coliseums and it was a resounding success. Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, Whodini, the Fat Boys, Newcleus, some separate break-dance

crews—they toured twenty-seven different cities, introducing rap’s swaggering bravado and aesthetics to large-scale audiences. The tour grossed more than $3.5 million dollars.

Best Rap Songs About Friendship

1). “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” Tupac (1996). It’s perfect. I would very much like to meet the person Tupac wrote this song for. I’m sure he’s quite something.

3). “Just a Friend,” Biz Markie (1989). Did you know that Biz Markie was in Sharknado 2? He was.

4). “I Miss My Homies,” Master P featuring Pimp C and Silkk the Shocker (1997). This was like when Puff Daddy made “I’ll Be Missing You” with 112 and Faith Evans, except Sting was not involved. Master P rapped about a dead friend, Pimp C rapped about a dead friend, and Silkk the Shocker rapped about three dead friends and one incarcerated friend. Stacey Dash played a flying angel in the video, making her the second- most popular angel in a rap video in the ’90s (the death angel from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s 1995 “Tha Crossroads” video is the first).

7). “Talk to ’Em,” Young Jeezy (2005). Young Jeezy raps to a frined of his who got locked up. It’s very good. I wish I was Young Jeezy’s friend. I saw him one time. It was right before a concert Jeezy had in Houston. I was walking around in the corridor area before the show started and he walked right by me. We literally brushed shoulders. When I realized who it was, I was like, “Oh snap! Jeezy! Hey, man. Wow. I’m such a big fan of yours.” He stopped for a moment, looked at me, then said, and I’ll never forget this, he said, “I’m not Young Jeezy.” It wasn‘t Young Jeezy.

24). “A’Yo Kato,” DMX (2003). This one’s DMX rapping to a friend of his who’d died. Being a rapper’s friend is very hazardous, it would appear.

1,000). “Best Friend,” 50 Cent featuring Olivia (2005). Nope.

“Friends” goes tenth on this list. It’s enjoyable to listen to still, but generally only when you want to be nostalgic or ironic. In terms of consequence, though, it’s first place—at worst, second.

“Friends” was an advice record where the group talked about paying attention to the type of friends you had, and that was kind of weird, because there just aren’t a bunch of times where a rapper tells you that you should try to be friends with a woman before you sleep with her. It was also very smart because they were vague enough in it that it was kind of a pop platitude (“Friends / How many of us have them?”) but also left enough gray area that it was able to remain a rap song. 

That’s really where Whodini excelled, and why their music remains vital, why “Friends” is the most important song of 1984. It smoothed out rap enough that it could be pop while still remaining a rap song. It suggested what would eventually become the entire premise behind mainstream rap.

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