In this week’s New York magazine, Carl Swanson uses the opening of an exhibition at the New Museum to explore the question of whether or not 1993 changed the world. As part of the issue, we interviewed several directors, musicians, actors, and TV showrunners for their thoughts and memories from two decades ago. A selection, below:
Albert Hughes, co-director of Menace II Society
Our intention was to shock. We were heavily influenced by gangsta rap, and we wanted to make a movie equivalent. Hood movies had been made for a black market. Very few people knew our real goal was to make one for white people. When we completed it, because this was our first film, we thought, This is a piece of shit. This is not what we wanted to make. It wasn’t hard enough. It was just soft. And then we started getting the reactions. New Line took us to Cannes, and we were walking down the promenade, and one of the publicists handed us a transcript — Siskel & Ebert had given us a glowing review. We were in shock. And then Roger Ebert himself tapped me on the shoulder! We kind of figured that hip-hop would embrace it. Pimps are popular, gangsters are popular, so the first market is kids and hip-hop — that was more foreseeable. But to consider it a classic? I still have a hard time with that word, because we see all its pimples and warts.
Tupac was originally cast for a small role — the Muslim character who gets shot at the end — but there’s a lot of misconceptions about what happened with him. He never shot anything. He was just on rehearsals for a few weeks. But he was being very disruptive, more to my brother’s liking, and he wasn’t totally prepared, and he was making a joke out of everything. So my brother tried to have a conversation with him about it, and it got heated, and I thought there might be a fight, until Tupac smiled at him. Later, we tried reaching his manager to tell him it wasn’t working out, but we thought there was no way to get rid of him. New Line had told us that unless we had a platinum-selling artist attached, they wouldn’t green-light the film. But then we ran into [New Line CEO] Bob Shaye at Glengarry Glen Ross that night, and he said, “If you’re having problems, get rid of him.”
Okay! We tried calling him, but Tupac wouldn’t return our calls. Jump to a year later, and we pull up on a corner and there’s Tupac with fifteen guys, gangbangers, and it looked like they were prepping for a beat-down. My brother got out of the car, and Tupac said, “I’m going to beat all your asses.” Tupac was, what, 150 pounds? There’s no way he could beat both our asses. My brother figured out that he was less offended by being fired and more offended by the way he got the news, on MTV, so he started saying, “I tried calling you.” And you could tell by his face Tupac was going, “Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.” But he’s got these fifteen guys with him, so he can’t back down. So they jumped my brother, and I got chased through downtown L.A. by three cars. And it was all a big miscommunication, a misunderstanding! But Tupac at the time was into the thug thing. In hindsight, we lost a great talent there. I still have love for the guy, and he did apologize later. But the truth of what happened is nothing like all the news reports.
In late 1992, I went on a date with a woman who was a grad student at Columbia, and on the date, she was telling me about e-mail. I had never heard about it, and she said, “It would be so much fun if we could e-mail together.” And I felt so sad and ignorant. A few months later, in ‘93, a tech-savvy friend hooked me up with an Earthlink account and a modem, and so 1993 was the first year I got e-mail. At the time, I didn’t have too many friends who also had e-mail, so I couldn’t write to that many people.
It was an odd time, because I had been involved in the New York underground dance world since the mid eighties, and I assumed that this egregiously marginal music world would only interest people in lower Manhattan, and I was really surprised that I was able to make records and go on tour and do all the conventional things that I thought I never could do. I remember thinking that I was amazed I had my own personal computer and e-mail and the ability to make records in my bedroom. That in and of itself was amazing. I don’t think I have any gift of prescience, so I didn’t see any trajectory of what was to come. If nothing had progressed and all I had was my computer and e-mail and a little synthesizer in my bedroom, I think I would be content with that. I had no idea of any expanding technology.
Considering that the dance scene was so drug-fueled, it was also surprisingly innocent. All the D.J.’s and producers knew each other. We played in the same clubs, hung out at Satellite Records, lived in the same neighborhood. There was a kind of sweet provincial innocence to the world at that time, and a bunch of us thought we would always be marginal D.J.’s and producers who made music that no one outside of our world listened to. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this, but one of the biggest variables was just MDMA. It’s almost impossible to talk about the rise of electronic/dance music without talking about the rise of ecstasy use. You’d go to raves and parties and what have you, and music was a big part of it, but its success is largely depending on the availability of good ecstasy. This was ironic for me at the time, because I was sober. I’ve had some intense bouts of non-sobriety after this, but I was sober through it all and able to remember everything. I could literally go to events with 10,000 people there and be the only one not on something.
Richard Linklater, director of Dazed and Confused
It doesn’t feel like twenty years ago to me. Culturally, Nirvana and grunge had solidified, so that was in the air, and I saw a direct connection [to my film]: “This is the progenitor of what’s happening now.” I remember riding around listening to music at the time and thinking, Not much has changed. I mean, Aerosmith were on tour that summer! “Nothing’s changed that much, except it’s not on 8-track.” And that was my whole point — some things never change in teenager land. I’m not surprised teenagers today relate to it, because they’re forever riding around, looking for something to do, and not much is going on. There was no big narrative to define their lives. But I had to pitch something, so I said, “It’s the seventies, and it’s the last day of school … ” It’s amazing that it got made at all, because what happens with Pink’s character is chump change compared to teenage dramas where you got your girlfriend pregnant or someone dies or it’s the prom. John Hughes’s movies had good stuff like that, but this was different. And most of the character had a similar lower socioeconomic background. Even the richest person in this town isn’t very rich.
I got a cast of unknowns, so no one really knew the actors. No star. There was a lot of talent, though. Some of them had been in movies before. Ben Affleck had been working, Parker Posey was on a soap, but for many of them, it was their first movie. I remember that was one thing that was being held against the movie, because it was a bunch of people no one knows. I said, “So? We’ll make stars of them!” The studio was interested in Brendan Fraser, because they thought he was the only known actor of his age range. I think he had just done Encino Man, so he was sort of a name. I sent him the script — I didn’t have any prohibition against name actors — and he read it and he liked it, but he didn’t want to do another high-school movie. Had he loved it, we would have had a meeting.
It’s not like we approached [the film] as this was “important.” It’s important to get things done, but you don’t approach it as “This is important.” That’s the last thing you want. That’s not the vibe of the movie. It’s just hanging out, kids having fun. Everyone worked hard, but there’s nothing worse than feeling what you’re doing is important. That’s what’s wrong when art takes itself too seriously. But I also didn’t want to look back on that time with a syrupy view. It was cool that it was a bit of a mixed bag. Pink, Jason London’s character, said, “If I refer to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.” [Laughs.] Time is a big, big theme, and film is a powerful medium, with the power of identification, which it evokes whether you want to or not. I’m not surprised people look back on the film fondly.
Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files
I had to pitch the show twice. The second time I brought it into Fo”x, I did some show-and-tell. I brought in something called a Roper Survey, which showed that there was a high percentage of people who believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life, how many people believed in alien abductions, and so on. There was nothing like this on television — nothing scary on television — and whenever you’re doing something different, there’s resistance. I got some crazy notes in the development process. There was a character in the pilot named Dr. Heitz Werber, a psychotherapist dealing with alien abductees, and I got this note in capital letters: DO NOT HAVE HIM SPEAK WITH AN AUSTRIAN ACCENT!”
I think about this, twenty years later — what was it that made the show a hit? What happened in the culture for it to capitalize on? And now, because I’m looking at it from a distance, I think it was a very uneasy time, not only in America, but the world. This was the first real sense we had of globalism. This was when NAFTA was signed. That was the year Lorena Bobbitt happened, and at that moment, we all believed you really could trust no one. While I wouldn’t call The X Files a punk-rock show, I would say it had some of that spirit.
Liz Phair, musician, Exile in Guyville
There was an ingrained sense that a scene was happening that was different than large arena rock, and I wanted to be a part of it, this distinct underground community of musicians. There was the feeling that music was being made by people not qualified to be stars, a feeling of empowerment. There was a huge wave of that for women as well. I don’t know if my record [Exile in Guyville] was a part of that big wave, but it was a visible one. Public Enemy just popped in my head: [raps] “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me you see/ Straight-up racist that sucker was/ Simple and plain/ Mother fuck him and John Wayne/ Cause I’m black and I’m proud.” Why would I, as a white girl, be listening to that? And yet it had the same impact on anyone who was speaking out for themselves in a way that was not articulated before. That was the Zeitgeist, and it was a cool time.
At the time, I felt like somebody on the front lines, making her mark, but I was also filled with self-importance. It’s a double-edged sword. I was completely wrapped up in myself. It’s interesting how keenly I wanted to be a part of it, and I was not going to rest until I became a part of the cultural movement. It felt like everybody had a shot at being somebody, and that sense came from punk, the do-it-yourself feeling. When I listen to Exile in Guyville now, I wish I could conjure the sense of outrage. Where’s the outrage? It’s a personal record that reached so many people, but it’s small, almost like a three-piece — me and a guitar and a chorus pedal — with very private lyrics. I must been self-possessed to say exactly what I did, and self-aware, but I don’t hear the anger anymore. Like on “Fuck and Run,” I don’t think about what he did at all, but my position of wanting intimacy and accepting less. “6’1”” still feels accusatory. But overall, it’s a very sad record when I listen to it now. Maybe it depends on the age when you first heard it.
Steve Albini, recording engineer on P.J. Harvey’s Rid of Me and Nirvana’s In Utero
The music business has changed so much [since 1993]. Now bands by default are more responsible for their own careers, and I’m quite happy about that arrangement. The collapse of the industrial music business is a good thing. It’s more democratic. You can get a worldwide audience through the Internet. There is less of a gatekeeper mentality. The definition of selling out didn’t change in 1993, not for the people who make music for its own sake and are aware of the industry. What changed was that selling out was suddenly available for people for whom it had never been an option before — for the bands who it never would have occurred to try to be a hit band. Suddenly record-label scouts and even people within their own peer groups were telling them they could be a rock star in the conventional sense.
When Nirvana made In Utero, they had management, a dedicated A&R team, and a record label that was yammering on about how the record wasn’t fit for radio. But they had fuck-off money, which is good, so they essentially made the album independent of the label and presented it as finished, and the label was terrified of that. It changed the standard protocol, and if other bands did that, they would lose control over them, so it was a terrifying notion to the label. They did everything they could to scuttle that record, short of not releasing it. They were trying to convince people not to like it, trying to convince the band to make it over. One journalist called me up to say, “I just got off the phone with Gary Gersh, and he said you ruined the Nirvana album.” They didn’t give a shit about the band. They just wanted to consolidate their power. No one gets to do anything without their say-so, so they had no respect for the way Nirvana was conducting business. It’s kind of awesome now, because then, a record label’s threat against a band would have been to keep them tied up in a legal limbo, and now, as contracts from that era expire, that’s more and more meaningless.
David Milch, co-creator of NYPD Blue
Getting NYPD Blue on the air was a protracted struggle. Capital Cities, which at the time ran ABC [before Disney], was terrified of the language and the degree of skin being exposed. We were supposed to be on the air in the fall of 1992. It took us an extra year to get on the air. What finally broke the impasse was that the then-head of Capitol Cities [Thomas Murphy] went to his church and prayed over it, and then he decided to let us go on the air.
There’s no question that cable has really changed everything. Networks were losing audiences to cable, and so they were willing to reexamine their standards based on that. We were very fortunate in that regard, because the puritanical residuum made it difficult otherwise. I remember once, one of the actors objected to one of the lines, something to do with male anatomy. He queried it by asking, “Who writes this shit?” And I was called down to the set as the person who writes this shit. And in the middle of it, I had a heart attack! And I was so pissed at this guy, I wasn’t going to admit that I was having a heart attack! So I finished the argument — it took another ten minutes — and then they took me to the hospital. That’s what symbolizes the struggle for me.
Michael Ian Black, The State on MTV
MTV was a different kind of place back then. The channel was just getting into original programming, and it felt really hip and current, even if it doesn’t anymore, at least to the eyes of a 31-year-old, as opposed to when I was 11 and doing The State. It really felt the place to be, and I don’t know if we could have done it anywhere else. It’s never easy to launch a show, but now you can just do it yourself. You don’t need a television network.
I associate The State with a specific time in New York. Comedy was dead, essentially, and that was a good thing. The eighties had kind of killed comedy in terms of the stand-up world. Cable television had killed it, by overexposing it until it collapsed. Because comedy was dead, there was no place to perform. It didn’t exist. Now you can go to a comedy club any night of the week and there are any dozen shows you can watch or perform in. Then there were zero or close to zero clubs, and the ones that did exist felt lame. No one went recreationally, except tourists. So if you wanted to do something, you were on your own. But this was good, because it forced a reinvention, and I think a lot of us were aware of what was going on and that there were good opportunities. And out of that came us and the whole New York alternative comedy movement and the L.A. comedy movement. Upright Citizens Brigade moved to New York shortly afterward. It wasn’t all of a sudden — it happened slowly — but there started to be a new voice emerging, actually, a ton of disparate voices: Janeane Garofalo, Louis C.K. It felt very fertile, and it was exciting to be a part of that. We were starting to figure out what comedy could be, from the ground up. We were pretty insular. We didn’t know other sketch comedy groups, so we were teaching ourselves.
A whole kind of surreal, absurdist strain of American comedy became mainstream. It was less political, because we had one of our own in the White House. If anything, there was more purity in those days, because we were adamant about not being the sell-out hack comics we saw on TV. I think of The State like a punk-rock band, in terms of our attitude and our enthusiasm and our material. In the beginning, we were trying to find our way, and so was MTV, but MTV had the power in the relationship. They gave us a barrage of notes at first to mold us into a traditional sketch comedy mode, but over time I think they learned to trust us and we learned to trust ourselves. And once we figured out who we were comedically, we were successful. I think we had to go through our own growing pains, and it was an adjustment period. One note MTV gave us was to encourage us to do recurring characters, like they have on SNL, and we just didn’t want to do that. Or we didn’t think we would be good at it. But they kept telling us to do it. So as an F-you to the network, we created Louie, and he only spoke in a catchphrase: “I wanna dip my balls in it.” And then he became a hit right away! So of course they were totally right, and we were totally right. We just did it in the only way we could.