December 19, 2011  |   By

grandpa al lewisBack in the glorious, deregulation-happy days of the late Reagan years, 900 numbers suddenly popped up everywhere. At first most of them were pretty G rated. In fact, the first widespread use of 900 numbers was to function as proto-fan pages, where people could call up and get updates from their favorite stars and also get completely wallet-punched in the process. Anyone who was anyone did it in the late 1980s/early 1990s, from Robocop to He-Man to Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis (who was recruiting kids for his totally not creepy “Junior Vampires of America” club).

I was reminded of this fact while attempting to curate the Rap Ads feature, because it seems that the golden era of half-assed commercial hip hop jingles coincided with the heyday of celebrity-themed 900 numbers. Musicians were especially keen on taking advantage of this lucrative and questionably ethical revenue stream by telling young fans their turn ons and turn offs and upcoming tour dates at the low, low price of $2 a minute. These ads were almost always underscored with the phrase “Kids, get your parents’ permission,” virtually assuring that the directive would be defied. They also made sure to give out the numbers extra s-l-o-w so no kid could possibly miss it. (As in this shameful 900 commercial for Santa Claus himself. Boo, Kris Kringle.)

Of course, the biggest 900 number offenders were teeny bop acts like Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and New Kids on the Block. Watching the latter example now, I am struck by several things: 1) the painful broadness of the group’s Bahhston accents; 2) the painful broadness of Donnie Wahlberg’s “street” act (worrrrrd); and 3) Danny Wood’s eerie similarity to Bowser from Sha Na Na.

At least some of the proceeds from the NKOTB “hotline” went to charity. No such promise from this next example, which should surprise no one. This KISS 900 number was clearly launched to help one thing: the Gene Simmons Palatial Mansion and Sunglasses Fund. I can’t decide what is more terrifying here: Paul Stanley without makeup or The God of Thunder’s lame attempts at humor. Stay tuned to the end for a glimpse of Zakk Wylde and Ozzy Osbourne in Santa gear for no reason whatsoever!

Also not too keen on charity: long forgotten hair metal practitioners Warrant. They promise to tell you about “what town we blew up last” and what went on “behind tour bus doors.” Both of these items are enough to have them all arrested. This earns extra points for being filmed at the scenic locale of a junior high’s front lawn.

As far as I’m concerned, the most memorable 900 ad is this one for DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. That’s mostly because my friend snuck out of CCD one afternoon, went into a priest’s office, and dialed the number from a church phone. Apparently, the damnation of his eternal soul was totally worth being reminded that parents just don’t understand. To this day, “1-900-909-JEFF” is to my mind what Proust’s petit madeleine was to his.

MC Hammer also joined the 900 number craze, but his commercial goes off the rails a bit at the end. If I wasn’t aware of Hammer’s clean living lifestyle, I’d suspect some chemical amusement aid was to blame. I have no idea who the other guy in this ad is, but I bet he wound up with more of Hammer’s royalties than Hammer.

It wasn’t just the happy rappers who went the 900 route, though. Even hardcore types like Ice-T jumped on the bandwagon. It’s weird that he had to resort to this, but according to the commercial itself, he’s still selling CDs out of the back of his car and using a Zack Morris-style cell phone, so I’m gonna guess he needed the cash.


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