The video for “Hangin’ Tough” flicks between scenes of the New Kids in concert – watched by air-punching and weeping fans – and images of them street-dancing in sync on a graffiti-heavy background. One of them hefts a baseball bat – cut to the concert and it’s a jacket, which he hurls moodily to the floor. Underneath he’s wearing a T-Shirt, black-on-white lettering, Katharine Hammett style: “HOME BOY”.
If the cultural coding of the New Kids wasn’t pretty obvious already, “Hangin’ Tough” makes it absurdly glaring. The kids are streetwise, tough guys, but “streetwise” and “tough” now mean nothing but “hip-hop”. And a particular version of hip-hop, too – at a time when rap itself was splintering in twenty different directions, a cartoon image of urban youth gained currency: B-Boying, shape-throwing, high on attitude, vaguely New York, not necessarily black. One massive source for this – especially in Britain where they were the first hip-hop act to have household name pop-culture impact – is the Beastie Boys, and you can definitely hear a low-alcohol, decaf version of the Beasties in the snotty bark the New Kids use here.
Every 90s boy band who tried to be tough as well as tender – which is most of them – owed something to this hand-me-down idea of hip-hop. We’ll see it repeatedly as the decade goes on, though never quite this egregious again. Musically, “Hangin’ Tough” is crude but effective – a basic stomp-stomp-clap beat, a chant, an electro riff: take out the horrible guitar solo and it could have been intriguingly dirty. But this approach needs frontmen who are absolutely convincing, and the New Kids fall terribly short. The “We’re rough!” and “Are you tough enough?” shouts wouldn’t fool a five-year old. At least it’s funny.
Even though strictly speaking it’s a hangover from ’89, this is the perfect opener for 1990’s Number Ones, which provide us with a grand tour of hip-hop inauthenticity: rapping Europeans, rapping footballers, rapping queens of pop, kids’ TV tie-in raps, all leading up to – well, wait and see. Some of these records were excellent: all are better than “Hangin’ Tough”, but it’s this one which provides the decade’s boy bands with a crucial part of their DNA.