Hip-Hop and the Huxtables: Rap's Relationship With The Cosby Show

The Cosby Show is no longer appearing on our television sets but the series' impact on hip-hop keeps memories alive.
Author:
Publish date:
the-cosby-show-hip-hop.jpg

“Jammin on the 1.” Theo Huxtable told Stevie Wonder this is the phrase he would recite at a party. To my young ears the line sounded old, dated, the kind of phrase that would sit in the company of “Jive Turkey” and “Foxy Momma.” The episode aired in 1986, I was yet to be born, so there’s no surprise I never heard a DJ utter the words. More than a decade had passed when the episode first graced my eyes, but it was an instant favorite - the phrase and Stevie Wonder singing “I Just Called” stuck with me. A little bit of hip-hop and a whole lot of soul.

It wasn’t just that episode, the Huxtables stuck with me. Watching them on Nick-@-Nite was like viewing a fantasy, a goal, it was a family that seemed worth mimicking - a doctor father, a lawyer mother, and five black kids with different shades and personalities. Growing up, The Cosby Show was more than a show, it was a glimpse into the ideal future. A future of fun, a future of family, a future where you could be black and successful.

At the end of his second verse on “Dreamin,” Lupe Fiasco gives a shoutout to all the televisions programs that raised him. That line has always reminded me of the TV shows that played the role of a third parent, most commonly the Huxtables. They were on the magical box that sat before me, before my peers, and so many others that came before me. The great Questlove was also someone who watched The Cosby Show, who saw the episode of Theo reciting “Jammin on the 1” with Stevie and was affected by what he witnessed. He saw more than black excellence, he saw what I didn’t see, the magic of sampling. Stevie recorded and sampled Rudy’s strange giraffe noise, Vanessa's flirtatious “Robert,” Denis’ very shy “I don’t know what to say,” Clair’s angelic “La,” Cliff’s “Baby” and Theo’s “Jammin on the 1,” chopping up their vocals and making one unique track with all of their voices. In the fourth chapter of his book Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove cites this episode as the single most influential moment in hip-hop history.

“It’s not an album release. It’s not a video. It’s not a concert tour. To my mind, hip-hop was changed forever by the episode of The Cosby Show in which Stevie Wonder’s driver crashes into Denise and Theo. Why do I say that this episode changed hip-hop forever? Simple: it was the first time that 99 percent of us who went on to be hip-hop producers saw what a sampler was. Go look at the episode, you can find it on YouTube or Netflix. At one point Theo says “jammin’ on the one,” and before you knew it, Stevie Wonder had sampled it and inserted it into a “song.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that this episode was the incident that truly sucked me into hip-hop production. It was the first time I saw anything like that, and I’ve surveyed the rest. It was the first time J Dilla saw a sampler. It was the first time Just Blaze saw a sampler. There wasn’t a sense yet that it was truly revolutionary, in the critical sense, that it would explode old ideas of structure, sign, and play. At that point, it was just something cool on a sitcom, and in response to it, in awe of it, an entire generation of talented, ambitious black kids leaned forward in their chairs to the point of falling out.” - Questlove 

Calling this the most significant moment in hip-hop can be seen as hyperbolic, but I believe Questlove when he wrote that seeing the samples used on The Cosby Show affected future producers. Just Blaze was 8, Dilla was 12, and Quest was 15 when the episode first aired; there’s a high probability they all saw the show at the same time, three brilliant minds exploding all at once. The book further details Quest getting the Casio SK-1 for Christmas, a tool that brought him closer to a student he went to school with, Tariq Trotter, better known to the public as Black Thought. Black Thought built a reputation for battling at the lunch table, he was the teenager that was crushing his peers before destroying microphones. Quest had the SK-1, he was the provider of the backing track replacing banging out a rhythm on the lunch table. I haven’t finished the book, I’m not even through with chapter four, but this looks to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship. It all started with the SK-1 and The Cosby Show.

Jazz was the most popular music in the Huxtable household. Jazz played as they danced in the intros, jazz that Cliff would put on the record player. It was as if the hip-hop craze that was taking over New York City failed to reach this upper-middle class, African-American family that lived in Brooklyn Heights. There are only two episodes I recall that directly represented any form of rapping. Knowing Bill Cosby’s views on rap is a good indication on why there was very little in the series. The first instance happened in season six, an episode that aired in April of 1990, when Denise is introduced to a teacher who uses rapping as a method to teach Pre-school students their multiplication. But before Denise had Oliva, it was Theo who spit the first rap on The Cosby Show. Theo and his best friend Cockroach wrote and performed a rap song for their English assignment on Julius Caesar - connecting The Cosby Show, Shakespeare, and hip-hop together for a moment Complex ranked as number 30 on their list of 40 Biggest Hip-Hop Moments in Pop Culture History. Two black kids beatboxing and rhyming on a immensely popular, nationally syndicated series in 1987, in it’s own way showed the power and influence that rap was beginning to have on the world.

Even if Bill Cosby’s views on hip-hop and it’s language are problematic and shortsighted, the Huxtables have made their way into countless rhymes. They were a vision of success, wealth, and they were black; if the Jeffersons embodied moving on up to the East Side, Cliff and Clair were a picture perfect couple, a fact Fetty Wap referenced in his song “Addicted.” And he is far from the only one. Rap is littered with homages to their undying love and the union they built together.

It wasn’t just Cliff and Clair, almost all the Huxtable kids have appeared in a rap lyrics. The most famous might be Luda’s, “Used to play back then now you all grown up like Rudy Huxtable” that he rapped on Usher's "Lovers and Friends". While the show was in syndication, Rudy was the youngest, the baby Huxtable, by the series’ end she was in her late teens. As an adult, little Rudy blossomed into a gorgeous woman. She appeared as the leading lady in Chingy’s “One Call Away,” showing the world that Rudy was all grown up.

Hip-hop wasn’t strongly represented on the series, it’s rather sad when you think of the show being based in New York in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Seeing more hip-hop culture would’ve been great, but I believe what the family represented is what has left the strongest impact. Mickey Factz dives into how it felt to watch The Cosby Show with pride on his song “Huxtable." He captures a very honest admiration for the Huxtable family and what it meant to see them on his television. Mickey even jokes that it was Cliff that made wearing Coogi sweaters cool, but deeper than any fashion, it was seeing a black male doctor, and a black woman lawyer living happily with their family under the same roof that left Factz feeling inspired.

Skyzoo upped the ante by putting the entire Huxtable family on the cover of his The Great Debater album. It was impossible to spend your days on blogs in 2011, and not know of Skyzoo. He was praised far and wide for his lyricism, but no co-sign could have made me want to hear him more than seeing my favorite sitcom characters on the front of his album art. The project's theme is loosely based on the Huxtables, it’s a more abstract concept, one that he revealed during an interview with AWL: “The idea is that, to me, growing up, I always thought the Huxtable family represented winning. To have a beautiful wife, huge home that you owned, dope kids, doctor and lawyer money, Park Slope Brooklyn, to me, that was winning. I strived for that as a kid and pictured me in those sweaters and in that household. So essentially, the tape is all about winning. Success, and all that it takes to get there via this twisted music game.”

The Great Debater was critically-acclaimed upon its release, which led Skyzoo to expand on the Huxtable theme with a deeper conceptual vision on 2012’s Theo VS JJ (Dreams vs Reality). Breaking the album in two halves, Skyzoo crafted the album from the perspectives of Theo Huxtable and J.J. Evans, one of the main characters from the sitcom Good Times. Theo and J.J were two young black men that came from a completely different circumstance. “Good Times” was a true oxymoron, there were very few good times in the series. The Evans’ didn’t come from money, they struggled, they lived in a neighborhood surrounded in poverty but they made due. The Evans were a family of survivors (everyone except for James). The juxtaposition of these two characters and their worlds made for an excellent short project. Rather than rapping from the perspective of Theo or channeling the drive and starvation of J.J. you see Sky find a harmony between the two polar opposites. I also like the idea of The Cosby Show being the life you dream of and Good Times being a better representation of what life was and is like growing up poor and black. If you’re looking for top-tier lyricism and nostalgia, a little hip-hop mixed with a two classic sitcoms, this project is a slice of bliss for you ears.

When Noname raps, “Bill Cosby ain’t the God we made him” on "Freedom Interlude" it feels like a bee sting on my soul. It speaks volumes to how I felt when news of the rape accusations were first announced. I followed The Cosby Show and not Bill Cosby, it was the first I had ever heard of the countless allegations. He wasn’t Bill Cosby to me, he was Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. He was like a father figure. J. Cole rapped on “Simba,” “The only pops a nigga ever seen around was Huxtable.” When the scandal broke, it was like receiving the news as if a close family friend was the one being dragged across my Twitter timeline. The disbelief passes when you finally separate the man from the character he was playing on television. I’ve been terrible at following the case, but I long stopped believing he was innocent; I’ve long accepted Bill Cosby for the man he is and not the man I believed him to be.

The Cosby Show is no longer in syndication on television, I believe the series currently lives on Hulu. I may never watch it again, but I can’t completely dismiss the fond memories I have growing up watching the Huxtables. The only college I ever wanted to attend was Hillman, I day dreamed about dating a girl like Denise, marrying a woman like Claire, and eating hoagies with homies that are a mixture of Theo and Cockroach. The series is part of my life, many of our lives, and it has a left a small imprint on hip-hop. It’s inspired producers, inspired rhymes, inspired albums - there’s a positive legacy that has a tiny light glowing through all the darkness.

I still dream of a future of fun, a future of family, a future of success and black excellence. I still dream of being a Huxtable.

By Yoh, Yoh Huxtable, aka @Yoh31.

Related