The very notion of what it means to be black is being questioned today like never before. We have Chet Hanks, the rapping son of legendary actor Tom Hanks, running around defending his use of the “N” word. We also have the Rachel Dolezal phenomenon, which has familiarized society with the term “transracial.”
However, we’ve seen this racial confluence before. “Hip-hopper-non-stoppers” indulging in hip-hop culture in the early ’90s will remember a group by the name of the Young Black Teenagers (YBT), five white MCs from NYC. (Note: Group member ATA was half Puerto Rican.) They came up under Public Enemy and made waves when they hit the scene in 1991 with their debut self-titled album. The album never charted, but America was fascinated by the quintet using such a name. The group’s frontman, Kamron (born Ron Winge, and identifying as Irish, Norwegian, German, and Scandinavian) explained the “Black” in YBT to me recently, saying, “Black can be looked at in a few different ways. It can be looked at as a race, a black hole, or unknown. It could’ve meant the culture of hip-hop covering every race and creed, no matter what, based on how you got down with the culture and how you represented the culture.”
Though the group called it quits in 1994, Kamron has stayed active as DJ Kamron. He is a producer for the Marksmen Guerilla Producers Network, lacing tracks for the likes of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Jerry Wonder, and 50 Cent, as well as TV commercials, video games, and films. His scratches and cuts were featured on Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted and in the battle scenes in the movie Juice. As senior engineer at Geejam Recording Studio in Jamaica, he has worked with Drake and engineered tracks for Goodie Mob’s Age Against the Machine.
Kamron was indoctrinated in hip-hop as a lifestyle growing up in the diverse Freeport, “Strong Island,” right alongside hip-hop icons like Public Enemy and Busta Rhymes when hip-hop was still a grassroots thing. (Contrast that with Dolezal who grew up in Montana and Hanks who grew up a child to two Hollywood parents.) As a preteen in the early ’80s, like other youth in the neighborhood, Kamron took up tagging, B-boying, and DJing. He chose the name Kamron as an acronym for “King Aries Mackin’ Rulin’ Over Nuckleheads,” a tribute to his favorite rapper at the time, KRS-One, his astrological sign, and the crowns he incorporated into his grafitti. “When we started breakdancing, it was black, Spanish, white, Asian,” he says. “It was a few white kids, not a lot. I started DJing when I was 11. We all did graffiti and breakdancing. The culture was just evolving, especially out here in Long Island.”
He didn’t start rapping right away. Kamron served as DJ for numerous acts, but he didn’t really spit until one of the MCs he DJ’d for had a battle and surprisingly put him on the spot to rhyme. After rapping for the Bomb Squad, he was taken in as a developing artist.
Kamron also got caught up in his neighborhood. “I was a knucklehead in the street and had a lot of homies that went to school in Brooklyn,” he says. “I used to cut out of school and go to Brooklyn to run with them and do a lot of negative shit. I ended up getting jammed up. I caught a robbery charge and had to go do six months at 17 years old in the county [jail].”
When he came home, Public Enemy was bubbling, and Kamron ran into the Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee, who had secured a deal with MCA for his Sounds of Urban Listeners (SOUL) label. “I saw [Shocklee] at Penn Station, and he told me he was trying to put together a white rap group and wanted me to be down. I had never met the other dudes in the group.”
That’s right. The YBT were given their name by Public Enemy. Shocklee, Chuck D, and PE were forming groups out of their pool of talent and had names and logos on a board in what Busta Rhymes described as “science lab shit.” Kamron and his group wanted the name Leaders of the New School, but so did Busta, Charlie Brown, and Dinco D. According to Busta, Chuck D sent the groups home to make a track called “Fuck the Old School.” The group with the song that the Bomb Squad felt the most got the name.
The YBT marketed themselves as paying respect to black culture with the name. The media went crazy trying to understand how this group of white teens with songs like “Proud to Be Black” could possibly feel that way. “That was the worst part about the whole thing,” says Kamron. “I’d been doing hip-hop since I was a little kid, pre-teen years. Every kid that’s into that culture and the music wants to get on and get records and make joints. I got into it for the love. I wanted to make hot records. All [the media] wanted to talk about was, ‘How can you call yourself black if you’re not black?’ No bullshit, it was like 20 interviews a day.” The timing could not have been worse. “This was the Vanilla Ice era,” says Kamron. “Even though we had the Beastie Boys, people were looking at them like a rock band. Vanilla Ice blew up, and there was a lot hate behind that. There was a lot of white rappers that came out that was wack. It was a lot of pressure.”
All [the media] wanted to talk about was, ‘How can you call yourself black if you’re not black?’ —DJ Kamron
The first, self-titled YBT album came out in 1991, and the fervor surrounding them landed Kamron a role in House Party 2 as Jamal, Kid’s white roommate at Harris University who loved big booties, bean pies, and bone rolling. Kamron admits that the group’s second album, Dead Enz Kidz Doin’ Lifetime Bidz, in 1993 was received better than the first. The album’s rowdy lead single, “Tap the Bottle,” was the group’s biggest hit peaking at No. 6 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot Rap Singles chart. “It was rough in the beginning, but then by the time we got the second album and we did ‘Tap the Bottle,’ the focus switched from the name and the concept to the music for us,” says Kamron.
In the end, Kamron and the Young Black Teenagers never identified as black, though the name they were given would suggest otherwise, leaving them to deal with the backlash. Nevertheless, Kamron’s life has been heavily infused with black culture as evidenced by his life and career. He has never lied about who he is. He has dated black women for decades (including Charlie Brown’s sister) and has biracial children. He has worn his hair in locs. He admits to using the “N” word with his friends. He explains, “I know the meaning of the word, and I know its context, and I’ve used it, but I’ve never in my life used it in a negative context. It’s just how it is. I’m in the streets with my peoples, and that’s how we talk.” When it comes to people like Rachel Dolezal, he says, “I’m not mad at ol’ girl. Everybody does what they want to do. Personally, I’m never going to say, ‘Yeah, I’m black,’ but all four of my children are black.”
Nowadays, Kamron can be found touring with Pharoahe Monch, whom he manages through WAR Media. He is also prepping the release of the YBT’s third album, a collection of tracks that have laid dormant for years. “To me, the culture of hip-hop came from African-Americans,” he says. “It’s a black culture, per se. Where everything is now, compared to then, I think [the transracial issue is] deep. The whole race thing, to me, is blurred lines. Separating people by race at this point is going to breed a lot of hate and a lot of bullshit.”
Ryan Smith can be found talking about God knows what on Twitter at @MeWeFree.