Excuse My French: The dirty secrets of hip-hop’s clean versions

There is an old rumor that MTV had to produce four different clean versions of Clipse’s ‘Grindin’’.

The song was an obvious smash and quickly entered heavy rotation (in as much as “heavy rotation on MTV” was a thing in 2001). But as it got more spins, MTV realized how many coke references they had missed in the clean version submitted by the label. So they made an even cleaner version. And then another. And another.

True or not, ‘Grindin’’ is a perfect example of the ambiguity over what does and does not belong in a hip-hop song that has been sanitized for public consumption. Taking out the so-called “Carlin words” is simple, but everything else is a judgment call. Double entendres and transient, sometimes hyper-local slang are baked into the music; whoever makes the edit not only has to know what “base”, “pies”, “soft” and “hard” mean, but they also have to decide whether the audience knows what they know – with verses transcribed and annotated quickly on Genius there’s not much mystery any more. And where do you draw the line? In “four and half will get you in the game,” do you edit out “four and a half” if it’s ounces of dope?

“People weren’t up on slang the way they are now.”DJ Wonder

Had ‘Grindin’’ dropped five years earlier, Pusha and Malice’s ridiculous amount of coke references probably would have made the cut. Before the late ‘90s, editing rap lyrics was a straightforward matter of taking out obvious profanity and references to sex, drugs and guns.

“People weren’t up on slang the way they are now,” says DJ Wonder, who mans the decks for the Sway In The Morning show. “If you go back and listen to the radio version of some old school records, they let mad stuff through — gun stuff, drug stuff, slurs and stuff — people won’t deal with that today.”

Even as hip-hop spent its first two decades embroiled in culture wars, its detractors were more interested in taking down rap in defense of the country’s moral fabric than sanitizing the music. So even while 2 Live Crew, Public Enemy, Tupac and plenty of others fought important battles over free speech, most artists only had to meet the guidelines of the FCC and big box retailers like Wal-Mart, who insisted on only carrying censored albums. It was enough to just take out the bad words.

Pioneering New York DJ Stretch Armstrong always found this strange. “Ironically, all of the anti-social, criminal concepts that permeated much of mainstream hip-hop in the ‘90s, as long as the curses were edited, were aired with no reservations by the station. I played a lot of records that fit that description, but my show was in the middle of the night. Hearing songs about murder, dealing drugs and extortion during lunchtime and in the afternoon always struck me as absurd, and irresponsible.”

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of change, but in the late ‘90s hip-hop went from a hugely popular underground phenomenon to a formal part of mainstream American culture. Rap cracked pop radio across the country and gained equal footing in MTV’s regular rotation. No longer sequestered in its own radio and TV channels and cut off through de facto cultural segregation, the standards for clean versions began to change. Hip-hop became accountable to white America. Given the choice between losing out on radio and video play and tightening up their standards, labels had to adjust accordingly.

The FCC’s draconian response to Janet Jackson’s rogue nipple at the Super Bowl in 2004 made every broadcast entity even more skittish, especially after Clear Channel dumped Howard Stern for testing his limits in the middle of an industry-wide crackdown. “After Howard, it was like Radio Disney on every level,” recalls DJ Bonics, a radio veteran and Wiz Khalifa’s tour DJ. “Nobody wanted to get fined a million dollars.”

Rap adjusted to the changing context in a few different ways. For one, there was a resurgence of rappers writing alternative clean versions of their verses instead of just editing the dirty version. Ice Cube and N.W.A. pioneered this technique and it had come and gone throughout rap’s history, but there was an uptick in the late ‘90s, notably by artists like Juvenile and 50 Cent.

It’s hard to deny the effect race has on ideas about what makes a hip-hop song clean.

Labels also began making “squeaky clean” versions of tracks in addition to the standard radio edit to give more conservative outlets a safer option. And as music editing technology grew more accessible, a recording engineer could turn in an a radio edit along with an instrumental and let the label make additional changes in-house. According to Brian Gaffey, who handles mixshow radio promotion for Def Jam, there were around five versions of Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’, all with slightly different amounts of the hook cleaned out.

But mostly, edits just became more conservative — a trend which continues to this day. The evidence is in the overreaches. On ‘Trap Queen’, Fetty Wap goes “[blank] for my baby” because “hard” is potentially sexual. Nicki Minaj has her government name censored on an edit of ‘Starships’ because an overzealous engineer either wasn’t taking any chances or wasn’t given a lyric sheet to work from, and thought “Onika” sounded too much like a racial slur.

It’s hard to deny the effect race has on ideas about what makes a hip-hop song clean. The clean version of Wiz Khalifa’s ‘Young Wild and Free’ loses “smoke weed”, while Swedish pop singer Tove Lo can get “high all the time” with editing impunity. But more insidious is when editing a song simply means removing the blackness. The TRL-shortened version of ‘Forgot About Dre’ was basically just Eminem’s verse. Sure, Left Eye was removed from ‘Waterfalls’ back in 1995, but even after rap became more pop accessible, the radio edit of Katy Perry’s 2013 hit ‘Dark Horse’ chopped out Juicy J’s verse entirely. Worst of all was Philadelphia-based DJ Beatstreet’s experience with the owner of a car dealership who objected to the entirely clean version of Kanye West’s ‘Mercy’ sharing airtime with his ads. To put it lightly, the dealer felt rap fans were not his ideal customers.

“I think America’s attitude towards hip-hop is still completely mired in a lot of racism and leftover stuff that we haven’t dealt with,” says Ricardo Gutierrez, a mastering engineer who began as a disciple of the legendary Herb Powers. “In some ways, it’s the bravado and the swagger that’s not clean.”

Many artists no longer see a reason to make edits of their tracks until labels force their hand. Terrestrial radio is only a concern for the top tier; anyone hustling their music on YouTube and SoundCloud doesn’t have to worry about keeping it clean. The same goes for airplay on the many prominent hip-hop stations on SiriusXM, as satellite radio is not subject to FCC regulation. According to Daniel Lynas, A$AP Rocky’s engineer of choice, “for the most part, artists are not super thrilled about doing edits — it really does fuck with the music.”

Still, even as radio’s power continues to decline, clean edits remain important for artists looking for the increasingly vital licensing check. “Even though we’re not servicing records to mainstream terrestrial radio, you’d be surprised how many instances come up where clean edits are needed: television, video games, in-store play,” says Nick Catchdubs of Fool’s Gold Records. “And everything on Beats1 still needs a clean version.”

But radio edits have been a necessary evil in hip-hop for so long that there is value in their preservation. This is especially important with the rise of commercial “classic hip-hop” stations. DJs have the freedom to play a wide range of hits from the past but are still beholden to FCC standards, and clean edits of random and obscure joints aren’t always easy to come by. Luckily, Dallas’s Big Push has been collecting edits for over 25 years, specializing in Southern and Texas rap. Now a truck driver, Push stumbled upon a station in Jackson, Mississippi, on a haul and was thrilled to hear someone cutting up old Southern hits by the likes of 8Ball and MJG. He immediately realized he might have something to offer and got in touch with the program director. He’s been servicing classic hip-hop stations with deep cuts ever since, saving DJs the headache of editing their own tracks.

I did get in touch with Chad Hugo of The Neptunes to try and verify the story about the long process of editing ‘Grindin’. He told me the song was about skateboarding.



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