Norman Lear Portrait Session
TV show creator Norman Lear at home, February 27, 1984 in Los Angeles, California.
Bob Riha Jr/Getty Images

How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television

A look at the two black family portraits the producer created for the world to see.

On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with  Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.

One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.

In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.

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Good Times (1974 - 1979)

Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”

When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.

Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.

Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.

The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.

The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.

But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.

“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”

The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).

The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.

Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’

”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”

Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)

Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved.  Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.

(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)

Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”

Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.

Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.

The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)

The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.

Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers  – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.

George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.

George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?

Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.

Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?

The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.

I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.

George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.

At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.

By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.

George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.

Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”

I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.

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Melyssa Ford

Melyssa Ford: 'My Mother Died During This Pandemic And I Have Nowhere To Put My Grief'

Editor's Note: In a heartwarming tribute, former model now TV/radio host, Melyssa Ford details the final days she shared with her beloved mother, Oksana Barbara Raisa Ford (10/12/1950 - 5/19/2020). Understanding that we have all been connected to COVID-19's tragic reach, this essay explains the plight of one person's experience that represents the pain so many are dealing with in these times around the world.

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COVID-effing-19. This pandemic has been a moment of reckoning for a great many of us. How many of you have been confronted with the hard truth that we took EVERYTHING about our lives and freedoms for granted? The freedom to call up a few friends and go for Happy Hour drinks after a long day at work? The freedom to start our day by going to the gym; the freedom to temporarily vacate our lives by getting on a plane and heading off to some tropical destination? Or the freedom to gather at a burial or memorial service to pay love and respect to a loved one who has passed, as a means of helping to process our own grief? 

My mother died last week. Not from COVID-19, but from colon cancer. But COVID-19 and its endless complications directly affected my family’s lives and, ultimately, my mother's death. 

It was less than a year from diagnosis to her last days. She lived in Toronto (my hometown) and I currently live in Los Angeles. Traveling during this pandemic presented some incredible challenges. Quarantine and shelter in place rules. Closed international borders. Fear and uncertainty. I was terrified that I wouldn’t get to her side in time, since Canada mandates that anyone getting off a plane has to self-quarantine for 14 days (threats of fines and jail time were there to incentivize you to adhere to the new rules). And I knew my mother had very little precious time. 

Months before, when there was still some hope that surgery and chemo would prolong her life, she decided to sell the house I grew up in. I was furious. I looked at this as her giving up; resigning herself to the control of this insidious disease called cancer. But my mother, the truest form of a pragmatist, was preparing for the inevitable and getting her affairs in order. She wanted to leave me with nothing to do except mourn her without the burden of packing up a home with all of her belongings in it after her death. She knows me so well, she knew I’d NEVER pack it up, that I’d have left everything the way it was as a shrine to her and, therefore, never really moving through my grief in a purposeful and healthy manner. 

Cancer ravaged my mother's body but left her brain fully intact. And it was with full cognition, pragmatism and a whole lot of gumption, that she decided to end things on her terms by scheduling her passing with a doctor's assistance via MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) — a legal policy in Canada that allows a terminally ill patient in palliative care to choose the days or weeks remaining in their lives. 

She didn’t want to spend her last months laying confined to a bed, immobile, unable to even take herself to the bathroom. The most basic form of human dignity had been stolen from her and replaced with a catheter and a colostomy bag that my aunt had to drain several times a day. I watched as her skin turned yellow from jaundice, signaling her liver was failing. I watched as her urine went from a dark yellow to crimson, a signal that her kidneys were no longer functional. My mother, the strongest person I had ever known, both physically and mentally, was now frail and seemingly melting into the bed, her skin sagging from her skeletal arms and legs. Her face was gaunt, her head bald, her breastplate visible and bony...in her last days, she was an empty shell of the 5’10” beautiful Viking she had been. With her long blond hair, green eyes, and imposing physical stature, I used to joke that if you gave her a hat with horns, a shield, and a sword, you could send her out to battle. 

The day I arrived in Toronto from L.A., I approached my mother’s bedside after going through a rigorous disinfectant routine. My mother had been discharged from the hospital as there was nothing left to do for her medically except keep her as comfortable as possible. She was sent home to my aunt’s house for the remainder of her days. My aunt’s home was a place of comfort and joy for me, as I’ve spent a great many holidays and family occasions here; this was the best place for my mother to be. With a mask and gloves on, I sat down next to her bedside and tried with all my might not to cry. My Mom had passed on that British “stiff upper lip” mentality to me; it’s rare you will see me expose my emotions. But as of late, I’ve been pretty transparent about it, in an attempt to sort through my competing feelings of grief and guilt. Guilt of not having been the perfect daughter. Grief of being her only child with no one to share the burden of immeasurable sadness with. Guilt of not working on our relationship or attempting to understand her as a person until it was close to the end. Guilt and grief kept coming in waves, threatening to drown me. 

On that first evening, I sat with her for a few hours and we talked more frankly than we ever had about things I had always been scared to ask. Topics such as her tumultuous marriage to my father and why she stayed in such misery. What was HER mother like, who died when my mother was only 15 years old? Was she proud of me and the choices I had made in my life, one of them being never having children?

Eventually, I had to let her sleep. I went upstairs to her bedroom (she was now in a bedroom on the main floor of my aunt’s house since she could no longer walk). Once in her room, I found a journal titled 2019 and began to read. What I read, in between all of the activities she enjoyed such as Aquafit and her book club, was her documenting her disease before she even knew she had it, describing the symptoms that began as uncomfortable that would soon become excruciatingly painful. 

It broke my heart to read this, being on the other side of understanding where this story would end. I found myself wanting to move through the dimension of time and yell, “Go to the hospital!” Reading this only made me wonder if she had caught it during the early days of symptoms, would the outcome be different? Excuse me as I add more guilt and more grief to the already unbearable weight upon my shoulders. 

Our final day was spent much like the last six days I had with my mother, laying beside each other in bed, massaging her, and either watching movies or talking. We would go from walking down memory lane as I showed her old pictures to discussing last-minute details about the Business of Death: the transfer of everything into my name, where certain sentimental pieces of jewelry could be found, who she wanted to receive small tokens of remembrance of her. As sad as I was for myself, my heart broke for my mother. She’s losing EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE. She expressed to me that she was shocked at how quickly her cancer spread throughout her body. It didn’t give her a chance. No amount of holistic remedies or prayers would have changed this (thanks to all my friends who suggested a plant-based diet with sea moss, soursop, and bladderwrack but her colon, GI tract, and bowels had been decimated). 

The few days leading up to her doctor-assisted euthanasia, I found my heart racing in a panic as the end was creeping closer and closer. I don’t know what’s worse, a loved one's death being a surprise or knowing when it’s going to happen with the hours counting down. I know both intimately. My father went the first way, my mother the second. I still can’t tell you the answer.

With plans in place for the funeral home to come and take my mother's body in order to cremate her, I’m left with a feeling of such remorse and sadness. Because of COVID-19, my mother’s friends and I are being robbed of the opportunity to congregate at a memorial service to properly mourn and pay homage and respect to the woman we all loved and admired. My mother deserved that.

I’m so angry. I’m angry at cancer. I’m angry at, as a society, our collective circumstances. I’m angry at the thought that this pandemic could have been controlled if our government officials had reacted swiftly. I’m angry that there are so many people who are experiencing the same thing I am—the death of loved ones, and the inability to gather together for a ceremony that celebrates their lives and sends them off properly.

Trauma changes you. Less than two years ago, I almost died when a truck hit my jeep on a California highway. I spent almost a year recovering. I’m a different person than I was moments before the impact of that crash. And now I’ve got to sort out who I am without my mother on this earth. People report a feeling of disconnectedness after the death of their parent(s); like what kept you tethered to the earth is gone and you are now hurtling through time and space, searching for something to grab onto.

I lost my father many years ago and now my mom is gone. I’m praying that I find something soon to ground me; but for the time being, the search to make sense and meaning of my mother's life and, ultimately her death, shall continue for me, like a room with endless doors or a road that disappears into the horizon. 

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A native of Toronto, Canada and now residing in Beverly Hills, California, Melyssa Ford is a syndicated radio show host on Hollywood Unlocked via iHeart Media's stations nationwide and also hosts her own podcast, I'm Here For The Food (available on all streaming platforms).

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Beenie Man (L) and Bounty Killer (R) in 1995.
David Corio/Redferns

A Look At Beenie Man And Bounty Killer's 'Verzuz' Battle Scorecard

Why was this night different from all other Verzuz battles? Streamed live from Kingston, Jamaica, the Memorial Day “Soundclash Edition” of Swizz Beatz and Timbaland’s flagship IG Live series was easily the most exciting and entertaining yet, as well as the first to delve into dancehall reggae.

Considering the fact that Jamaican sound systems pioneered the sort of “beat battles” have made Verzuz a social media sensation well over half a century ago, the creative decision was more than fitting. By pitting two icons of the genre, Bounty Killer and Beenie Man, in head-to-head competition, this Verzuz battle did not just showcase two of its most respected lyricists ever to hold a microphone, it also tapped into an epic rivalry that stretches back more than a quarter of a century.

At that time the youth born Moses Davis in the Waterhouse section of downtown Kingston was already on the second leg of his career -- having released his first album a decade earlier at the age of ten. Young Rodney Price, formerly known as Bounty Hunter, had just started to make noise under his new artist name Bounty Killer, recording hardcore hits for the legendary Waterhouse-based producer Lloyd “King Jammy” James.

Like all young aspiring artists, Killer had looked up to Beenie as an inspirational figure -- until he felt that the artist had borrowed his style. Beenie and Bounty’s face-to-face clashes, especially their Boxing Day battles at the storied Jamaican stage show Sting in 1993 and 1995, are the stuff of dancehall legend. Despite whatever differences may have existed between them, both artists channeled all that energy into great records -- many of which were played in the heat of the Verzuz battle.

Arguably the most exciting and spontaneous edition of Verzuz yet, the Beenie and Bounty battle was not a “clash” in the traditional Jamaican sense, but it was hardly a conventional beat battle either. Predictions that the island’s WiFi might not be able to handle the strain were soon dismissed -- in keeping with Jamaica’s long tradition of raising the bar when it comes to using technology to create next-level musical entertainment, this was the best-produced beat battle of them all. On the other hand, this was also the first time a Verzuz competitor has had to take a break in the action to negotiate with police officers.

This was surely also the first Verzuz battle to be live-tweeted by a prime minister: PM Andrew Holness took to his official Twitter to declare “Jamaica’s culture is global” and share a screenshot of the action. In keeping with the national pride, the battle opened with a rousing rendition of the Jamaican National Anthem.

When Beenie and Bounty came through VIBE’s IG Live one day before performance, they both declared that they would not be preparing for the battle as the art of war should be spontaneous. This has had people on tender hooks as no one really knows what would happen on the night. But of course all celebrities were out in full force for this highly anticipated battle, as everyone from Diddy to Swizz to Rihanna came through to catch the vibes. It was the only place to be if you were on IG, with more than 400K people checking in at the event's peak.

Here’s Billboard's tune-for-tune breakdown from the top to the very last drop.

ROUND 1: Beenie Man's “Matie” vs. Special Ed feat. Bounty Killer's “Just a Killa”

Beenie kicked things off with his first No. 1 hit (on the Jamaican charts) in honor of the late great Bobby Digital, the legendary producer of this song and countless more, who passed away May 21. Bounty opted to open on an international note, leading with his first hip hop collaboration, a 1995 single by Brooklyn rapper Special Ed featuring a guest verse from young Bounty.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 2: Beenie Man's “Memories” vs. Bounty Killer's “Suspense”

Sticking with the hardcore dancehall, Beenie reached for one of his fan favorites, a mid-’90s banger on the “Hot Wax” riddim that was recorded during the height of his great lyrical war with Bounty Killer (and sampled by Drake on the album version of “Controlla”). Killer responded in kind with a track on the same hard-hitting riddim, making this round feel like a flashback mid-'90s dancehall session.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 3: Beenie Man's “Slam” vs. Bounty Killer's “Living Dangerously”

Shifting into another gear, Beenie drew for his first Billboard hit, a tribute to the sexual prowess of “ghetto girls” recorded on Dave Kelly’s irresistible “Arab Attack” riddim. Bounty responded with one of his most popular songs for the ladies, a collaboration with reggae vocalist par excellence Barrington Levy. Counteracting a classic with another classic, this round was too close to call.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 4: Beenie Man feat. Chevelle Franklin's “Dancehall Queen” vs. Diana King feat. Bounty Killer's “Summer Breezin’”

Keeping the energy high, Beenie unleashed this soundtrack cut from the movie Dancehall Queen (in which he also appeared). Bounty responded with a relatively obscure guest verse on a record by Jamaican pop hitmaker Diana King.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 5: Beenie Man feat. Lil Kim's “Fresh From Yard” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Jeru the Damaja's “Suicide or Murder”

For his first international selection, Beenie chose a DJ Clue production featuring the Queen Bee in her best Brooklyn Jamaican patois mode. Killer kept it BK with a grimy Jeru collab produced by New York’s own Massive B productions.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 6: T.I. feat. Beenie Man's “I’m Serious” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Mobb Deep's “Deadly Zone”

Sticking with the hip hop collabs, Beenie dropped T.I.’s first major-label single featuring a hard-as-nails Neptunes beat and a street-certified Beenie Man hook. But he should have known that badman business is the Killer’s wheelhouse. Bounty clapped back with a grimy Mobb Deep collab off his My Xperience album and took the round.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 7: Guerilla Black feat. Beenie Man's “Compton” vs. Bounty Killer feat. The Fugees' "Hip-Hopera”

Beenie dropped his third straight hip hop crossover track, this one a guest verse for Biggie soundalike Guerilla Black over a bouncy Stalag Riddim. Bounty brought out the big guns, returning fire with a Fugees collab. As the Warlord would say, “People dead!”

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 8: Beenie Man's “Romie” vs. Bounty Killer's “Worthless Bwoy”

Returning to straight-up dancehall, Beenie served up one of his worldwide club classics, a song about a girl named “Romie” set to Shocking Vibes’s hard-driving version of the Punany Riddim. Killer replied with a Dave Kelly banger burning out the guys who lack the stamina to satisfy their significant others.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 9: Beenie Man “Old Dog” vs. Bounty Killer “Stucky”

Beenie Man has plenty of classic dancehall joints, and this Dave Kelly sure shot is one of the most ubiquitous. “Old Dog” recounts his exploits with the opposite sex, shouting out female dancehall stars Patra and Lady Saw along the way. Bounty replied in kind with his own kind of “gyal tune,” more rough than sweet, just the way Killer likes it.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 10: Beenie Man feat. Mya “Girls Them Sugar” vs. Bounty Killer ft. Nona Hendryx & Cocoa Brovaz “It’s a Party”

Beenie closed out the first half of the battle on a strong note with one of his most beautiful records, a Neptunes remake of one of his immortal dancehall classics adorned with a sweet hook sung by Mya. Bounty’s response was strong, but the Wyclef-produced party joint (with a hook by the former member of Labelle and bars from Boot Camp MCs) fell just short of Beenie’s selection.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 11: Beenie Man feat. Wyclef Jean's “Love Me Now” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Swizz Beatz' “Guilty”

Flipping catchy lyrics over Naughty By Nature's classic “O.P.P.” beat, Beenie sounded strong on this Wyclef collab, but Bounty countered with a hard-hitting Swizz Beatz track featuring a blazing guest verse from the Killer.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 12: Beenie Man feat. Barrington Levy's “Murderation” vs. Bounty Killer's “Look”

The vibes were sweet right up until the moment when officers of the Jamaican Constabulary Force interrupted the action. Beenie took care of the situation, informing the police that there were hundreds of thousands of people watching internationally. He then asked his DJ to run one of the hardest tracks in his catalog, a song about the abuse of authority in the ghetto streets. It was such a perfect segue the whole thing almost seemed planned. Killer had no choice but to counter with one of the most powerful songs in his catalogue, another Dave Kelly masterpiece, just barely winning what was arguably the strongest round of the entire battle.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 13: Beenie Man's [Showtime Juggling] vs. Bounty Killer's “Fed Up”

Still charged up by the unexpected visit from the police, Beenie felt a vibe and decided to perform his next song live. Starting out with “Hypocrite,” a blistering broadside against haters on Dave Kelly’s “Showtime” riddim, Beenie’s performance inspired Bounty to join in for what became a multi-song medley that included snippets of Killer’s “Eagle & The Hawk” and “Bullet Proof Skin” as well as Beenie Man’s “Done Have We Things,” “Badman Medley,” “Bury Yuh Dead,” and “Fire Burn.”

After they wrapped up their explosive tag-team performance, Beenie calmly stated “My song dat,” indicating that he wanted the whole extended set to count as one song. Bounty retaliated with “Fed Up,” one of his signature reality tunes that cemented his reputation as Jamaica’s “Poor People Governor.” Another close round, and highly unorthodox. Advantage Killa.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 14: Beenie Man's “World Dance” vs. Bounty Killer's “Gal” 

Beenie Man took it back with one of his biggest early hits, a “buss the dance” selection on Shocking Vibes’ Cordy Roy Riddim. Killer’s response was another hardcore tune for the girls, explosively energetic and lyrically intricate.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 15: Beenie Man's “Modeling” vs. Bounty Killer's “Model”

Taking it back to the early days of his career, Beenie served up a song designed to inspire all the “bashment girls” in the dance to show off their freshest outfits and dance moves. Killer responded in kind with a similar type of song, every bit as lyrically precise as Beenie’s was melodic, making this round a dead heat.

WINNER: Tie

ROUND 16: Beenie Man's “Oyster & Conch” vs. Bounty Killer's “Benz & Bimma”

Sticking with the “gyal” segment, dancehall’s “Doctor” prescribed a musical aphrodisiac, stressing the importance of seafood in your diet. Killer responded with a dancehall smash likening his appreciation of the female physique to his fondness for expensive European automobiles.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 17: Beenie Man's “Dude” vs. Bounty Killer's “Greatest”

Beenie delivered yet another Dave Kelly sureshot, this time on the festive Fiesta Riddim. Killer responded with a little-known 2003 track on the “Hydro” radio, basically conceding this round.

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 18: Beenie Man's “Mm-Hmm” vs. Bounty Killer feat. Cham's “Another Level”

As the battle neared its final rounds, Beenie played this hard-hitting Tony Kelly production and grabbed the mic to chat his lyrics live and direct, showing that dancehall artists of a certain age are still in top form lyrically. Bounty replied with a musical killshot on Dave Kelly’s Clone Riddim, joining forces with Cham to take things to “Another Level.” Feeling the spirit, Beenie grabbed the mic and spit a verse over Bounty’s record.

WINNER: Bounty

ROUND 19: Beenie Man “Nuff Gal” vs. Bounty Killer “Cry For Die For”

Beenie changed up the pace with a jazzy tune for the ladies featuring a swinging horn section. This 1996 Jamaican single could have been a bigger hit for Beenie if it had the right promotion, and still sounds great all these years later. Bounty Killer responded in similarly eclectic mode with a jaunty track on a Riddim based on The Champs' 1950s rock chart-topper “Tequila.”

WINNER: Beenie

ROUND 20: Beenie Man's “I’m Drinkin’ (Rum and Red Bull)” vs. Bounty Killer's “Smoke the Herb”

Beenie closed out his regulation 20 rounds with one of his biggest crossover hits, a collaboration with Fambo that somebody at Red Bull should probably sign up for an endorsement deal. Bounty Killer responded with perhaps his greatest ganja anthems. This one was too close to call. Pick your poison.

WINNER: Tie

EXTRA TUNES

After running a couple of exclusive dubplate specials -- “War Uno Want” by Bounty Killer and a Buju Banton and Beenie Man collab on the M.P.L.A Riddim -- Beenie and Bounty served one final tune. ”Why Beenie saved one of his signature songs, 2004's "King of the Dancehall," for the 21st round is anybody’s guess. Bounty’s response ("Nuh Fren Fish") was something for the hardcore fans only.

Winner: Beenie

BONUS ROUNDS

Wider Catalogue: Beenie Man

While both artists did a good job displaying the breadth of their respective repertoires, blending hardcore dancehall hits with international collaborations, Beenie Man showed off his versatility with a mixture of old and new dancehall hits as well as mixing moods and tempos.

Biggest Snub: Beenie Man (Point to Bounty Killer)

Beenie Man opted not to play “Who Am I” (aka “Sim Simma,”) perhaps his best known international hit. Not to be outdone, Bounty Killer also neglected to play “Hey Baby,” his high-profile collaboration with No Doubt from their Grammy-winning 2001 album Rock Steady. Still Beenie’s oversight was the more inexplicable of the two.

Best Banter: Beenie Man

When police stopped by in the middle of the session and Beenie Man somehow kept his cool telling them “Officer, the whole world is watching… do we have to do this right now? Do you really wanna be that guy?”

Biggest KO: Bounty Killer

Not long after the police stopped by, Beenie and Bounty joined in on an eight song freestyle, venting their frustration at the police. But Bounty’s response, “Poor People Fed Up,” trumped an extended live performance, demonstrating just how much of a punch that song still packs.

People's Champ: Bounty Killer

While Beenie proved the more strategic selector, Bounty Killer’s off-the-cuff adlibs an manic energy -- especially when he noticed Rihanna in the IG audience -- kept the mood up. Even when he played unexpected selections, the Warlord’s respect levels were on 11.

FINAL SCORE: 13-10-3, Beenie Man

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This article originally appeared on Billboard.

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Jonathan Mannion

Iconic Photographer, Jonathan Mannion, Details Shooting Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP' 20 Years Later

This story, in its entirety, is posted on Billboard.com and is written by Carl Lamarre.

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Saturday (May 23) marks the 20th anniversary of Eminem's third album, The Marshall Mathers LP. His magnum opus not only shattered records on the Billboard 200 (debuted at No. 1 with a whopping 1.78 million copies its opening week) but highlighted his abilities as a raw and gifted storyteller. With Em looking to shed light on his real-life persona of Marshall Mathers, he hired famed photographer Jonathan Mannion to help capture his vision.

Mannion, who previously shot legendary album covers such as Jay-Z's 1996 Reasonable Doubt and DMX's 1998 Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, relished the task of teaming up with one of rap's polarizing acts because of their commonalities. Like Eminem, Mannion was a young, hungry creative from the Midwest, whose affinity for hip-hop ran deep, dating back to DJ Quik's debut single, "Born and Raised in Compton." 

Em and Mannion's tag-team expanded to over two continents. Not only did they shoot photos for MMLP in Amsterdam but also Detroit. From the pizza shop that Eminem used to work at to even his old childhood home where he sat on the steps for the album's classic cover art, nothing was off-limits.

READ MORE 20 Years of 'The Marshall Mathers LP': Ranking Every Song From Eminem's Third Album"

It was great," recalls Mannion of the shoot in from of Em's old house. "It was him in his element and delivering his journey. You know, the humble nature of him and his process of getting to be this megastar, which is rooted so clearly in talent. His talent and his relentless drive was it.

"Mannion spoke to Billboard about the 20th anniversary of The Marshall Mathers LP, where the album cover ranks in his collection and Em's dedication to delivering the best shots. 

What does the number 20 mean for you having been involved in the Marshall Mathers LP?

It's really hard to put into words how important this album is for the world, for Eminem (and) for me. There's an endless amount of stories. We shot in Amsterdam and Detroit. Originally, this album was meant to be called Amsterdam. I was like, "We have to go to Amsterdam. We have to all get on a plane and go there. That's the only way we're doing this album." He happened to be performing out there and said, "This is going to sync up perfectly.

"We did a phenomenal session out there -- really poured out hearts into it. Then, I think there was a realization that he wanted to present this trifecta of who he was: Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem. This is how genius this guy is. He's thinking farther down the road to be able to craft these versions of himself. Slim Shady was the gimmick to get everyone's attention, which was still rooted in something phenomenal.

Then, he was like, "Let me tell you about my journey. Let me allow myself to be vulnerable within the space and deliver 'me' and how I really got here [with] my struggles, my pain," and I think that's when everybody really connected with him on a different level. It wasn't just this pop phenomenon that he was rooted in reverence for the culture. He obviously felt like he had to prove himself probably more than the next MC just because he was from Detroit and a white boy. He had something to prove and he was clinical on the album, delivering masterpiece after masterpiece.

READ MORE20 Years of 'Stan': How Eminem’s Epic 2000 Hit Relates to the Fan Culture It Inspired

When it was time to dig into who Marshall Mathers was, we had to do another session in Detroit. So we flew to Detroit to kind of continue [the shoot]. It kind of became this nice balance of Amsterdam and all of these lax drugs laws and all of these experimental moments that he was pursuing at that time to kind of ground himself. We shot outside the pizza shop that he used to work at with people that he still knew from there.

I remember you said in a past interview that you shot him in his boxers and trench coat in the freezing cold towards the end of the shoot.

It's dedication. I was with him entirely, pushing and wanting more, but he one-upped me in this session. We did that and I was like, "OK. He's going to be tired." He's in boxer shorts, combat boots and a trench coat being the fullness of the character that he was presenting as this Amsterdam version of Em. He pushed it and I was like, "Man, this is incredible. What we achieved out here was beyond comprehension. I can't wait for when we get back to see the session and go through it."He was like, "Man, I was thinking I want to do one more shot. Can we go back to the hotel? I want to be in my hotel room writing to my daughter." Usually, I'm the one begging rappers to go a little bit farther because I want to give them the world, but it flipped on me. It wasn't begrudgingly that I went there to that place. I was like, "I'm with this. Thank you." It made another really phenomenal image that we got to share with the world because of that effort.

Continue reading the original article by Carl Lamarre at Billboard here.

 

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THE MARSHALL MATHERS LP. Congratulations to @eminem on an absolutely brilliant project that celebrates 20 YEARS today. There were 2 sessions that yielded the campaign around this album, one in Detroit and the other in Amsterdam. It is one of my top 3 covers of all time. Art direction & Photography, @jonathanmannion. Designed with the masterful @morningbreathinc’s own Jason Noto.

A post shared by Jonathan Mannion (@jonathanmannion) on May 23, 2020 at 11:20am PDT

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To get a feel of Mannion's deep love of hip-hop, check out his Spotify playlist of the many legendary artists and their music from the album covers he's shot. "I did a playlist on Spotify based on a random sampling of 65 of my favorite album covers. Pulled 90 tunes that were bonafide bangers and complied a little vibe," Mannion details. Enjoy the vibes!

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