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By Gail Hilson Woldu
The publication of Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994)1 was a landmark moment for hiphop culture, giving tacit approval to scholarly discourse on hip-hop and leading to other important writing. Journalists, many proudly referring to themselves as “hip-hop heads,” wrote bold articles in trade and popular magazines and newspapers that included The Source, Vibe, XXL, and Rolling Stone as well as the Village Voice, Time, and Newsweek. Members of the academy responded with a freshet of articles and books that linked hip-hop’s roots to other African American vernacular expressions. At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century, writing about hip-hop, like the music and culture, is at an interesting crossroads. On the one hand, we continue to see a wealth of ﬁne academic writing published by scholars in ﬁelds as diverse as cultural studies, musicology, and women’s studies; on the other, we have noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of popular writing about hip-hop, much of which has succumbed to crude street language in an attempt to increase readership. This kaleidoscope, by turns overly pedantic and gratuitously coarse, creates a conundrum as hip-hop struggles to deﬁne—and redeﬁne—itself. Language dictates the tenor of writing on hip-hop, establishing both writer and audience. For the writer on hip-hop culture, whose prospective audiences comprise at least three distinct types of reader—the academic or scholar, the dilettante, and the fan—language is often the sole determinant. Audiences unaccustomed to the style of writing sometimes seen in the academy might not enthusiastically embrace the belief that “hip-hop merely displays in phantasmagorical form the cultural logic of late capitalism” and that “hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to
Gail Hilson Woldu is associate professor and chair of the Department of Music at Trinity College (CT). Her published scholarship focuses on two unlikely ﬁelds: French music at the turn of the twentieth century, and gangsta rap. She has written numerous articles, essays, and book chapters on black musical expression and hip-hop culture, including “Contextualizing Rap,” in American Popular Music: New Approaches to the Twentieth Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) and “Gender as Anomaly,” in The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest (Ashgate, 2006). Woldu is also the author of The Words and Music of Ice Cube, published by Praeger in 2008. 1. Titles not cited directly in footnotes are in the list of “Selected Books on Hip-Hop Culture” that concludes this article.
Notes, September 2010
negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of AfricanAmerican and Caribbean history, identity, and community.”2 By contrast, readers accustomed to academic effusion are likely to require a deﬁnition of hip-hop more expansive than “a term used for urban-based creativity and expression of culture.”3 In the sections that follow a brief introduction to writing on hip-hop culture, I distinguish three categories of writing about hip-hop—works by academics, works by journalists and cultural critics, and works by hiphop’s devotees—and I discuss a handful of signiﬁcant publications of the years 1988–2008. There is a caveat, though: divisions exist within the worlds of writing about hip-hop. These are complicated divides that reﬂect divergent perspectives often based on gender, race, and politics. For these reasons, in surveying the writing of a host of academics and journalists, I consider a twenty-year written history of hip-hop through a variety of lenses, with the hope that these various points of view might illuminate new directions for hip-hop’s chronicled future.4
The earliest period of writing about hip-hop focused on the newly emergent “party” music of the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Characterized by a pulsating, rhythmic bass and rhyming words, this was dance music at its best, intended to bring revelers to their feet. The lyrics are pure fun, with little in them to hint at the political direction rap would take in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Raps by the Fresh Prince (aka actor Will Smith), DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Kid ’N’ Play are archetypes of this genre. Engaging, insightful, and cleverly written, writing on hip-hop in this period is noted more for its journalistic ﬂair than its meticulous documentation. Rolling Stone featured an array of articles on hip-hop, some dating back to the genre’s early days and written by inﬂuential writers on hip-hop culture, including activist and essayist Kevin Powell. Similarly, the Village Voice, long reputed for its arts reviews and alternative coverage of current affairs, highlighted the work of many notable hiphop artists, written by some of the nation’s most prominent cultural critics, among them Greg Tate and Nelson George.
2. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 21. 3. Chuck D., “The Sound of Our Young World,” Time, 8 February 1999, 66. 4. There is a second caveat that must be mentioned: because the body of writing on hip-hop culture is enormous, no single article can address its multiple layers. I intend in this article to introduce curious readers whose specialties in music lie outside hip-hop culture to a sampling of the literature. Most of the books I cite contain lengthy bibliographies that are useful in pointing readers in other, or parallel, directions.
The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture
Writing on hip-hop in the 1990s in generalist and popular-culture magazines focused largely on “gangsta rap.” Popularized in the late 1980s by the South Central Los Angeles group NWA, this subset of rap is the most controversial and written-about element of hip-hop culture. The period 1988–98, the years of gangsta rap’s peak popularity, saw a spate of articles. In 1992, gangsta rap—and it is worth noting that in this presidential election year gangsta rap was a catch phrase for all species of rap—became an agent for national debates on race, crime, and urban violence. The lead story of the 29 June 1992 issue of Newsweek, “Rap and Race: Beyond Sister Souljah—The New Politics of Pop Music,” featured angry, deﬁant, and ﬁnger-pointing Sister Souljah of Public Enemy on its cover. The article’s interior photographs are equally—and intentionally— eye-catching: a two-page group shot of NWA posing with semiautomatic guns, coupled with an inset of NWA member Ice Cube scowling for the camera, is the background for the article’s beginning; several pages later, an unshaven Ice-T (of “Cop Killer” infamy), decked out in black clothing and sporting platinum jewelry, glowers at the reader through black sunglasses. A year later Newsweek asked “When Is Rap 2 Violent?” and featured as its cover boy gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, insolent and sweating beneath a navy blue ski cap. Journalist John Leland’s article “Criminal Records: Gangsta Rap and the Culture of Violence” contains photographs of rap’s most infamous, including, in addition to Snoop Dogg, NWA’s Eazy-E and Dr. Dre, and Tupac Shakur, who had been recently arrested on charges of sexual assault and attempted murder.5 Books, articles, and essays on hip-hop written in the 1990s abound. Among scholarly work, Rose’s Black Noise is without peer. This pioneering book, the ﬁrst comprehensive and copiously documented look at hip-hop culture, is especially noteworthy for its historiographical approach, detailed analysis of hip-hop’s evolution, and extensive bibliography. Although Houston Baker’s collection of essays, Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy (1993), is the antithesis of Rose’s tightly-organized discussion of hip-hop culture, it is signiﬁcant for the provocative questions raised, including, especially, those focused on rap and the law. Three books written by insiders to hip-hop culture for lay readers and devotees of the culture are worth mentioning for their informal and lively discussions: Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991) by Havelock Nelson and Michael Gonzales6; The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop (1994) by S. H. Fernando, Jr 7;
5. John Leland, “Criminal Records: Gangsta Rap and the Culture of Violence,” Newsweek, 29 November 1993, 60–64. 6. (New York: Harmony Books, 1991). 7. (New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1994).
Chang cites an article whose author. Also worthy of note are books narrowly focused on a particular performer or group.9 By the early 2000s. Martin’s Press. given the preeminence of race in American popular culture. Polyculturalism.12 Notes. Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005). Music in American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 12. September 2010 Adam Sexton’s anthology Rap on Rap: Straight-Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture (1995). is “built on the idea that civil society did not need Eurocentrism or whiteness at its core to function. 7 (Berkeley: University of California Press. others. Jeff Chang. 9. Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. hip-hop was widely accepted as an academic discipline. 2002).” Chang takes a hard look at the omnipresence of race in hiphop and the concomitant urbanization of American popular culture. many of which have already become staples in the literature.”12 In discussing rap’s crossover appeal. . dates. Music of the African Diaspora. “Becoming the Hip-Hop Generation. white Chicago grafﬁti writer William “UPSKI” Wimsatt. including Cheryl Keyes’s Rap Music and Street Consciousness (2002)11 are masterful blends of in situ interviews and ethnographic research. This is not surprising. situating hip-hop. and popular-culture scholars. These publications are often reﬂective. Can’t Stop. Although this subject permeates the book’s nineteen chapters. New York: Verso. The shifting mosaic of hip-hop writing at that time was particularly vibrant in the scholarly realm. Can’t Stop. 421. which received the prestigious American Book Award in 2005 and has been touted by a who’s who of cultural critics. 11. 2003). and names coexist alongside sections of extended dialogue and interviews. (Los Angeles: Consafos.10 in the continuum of black musical expression. Among the comprehensive looks at hip-hop is Jeff Chang’s tour de force. says Chang. including Bill Adler’s Tougher than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC (2002)8 and Brian Cross’s interview-based It’s Not About a Salary: Rap. observed the inﬂux of “wiggers” (a pejorative term for a white person who emulates African 8. 2005). 10. hip-hop journalists.” In subsections with provocative titles such as “Hip-Hop’s Urban Lifestyle” and “Polyculturalism and PostWhiteness. (London. and Hip Hop America (1998) by Nelson George. Chang’s book is a hybrid. 2002). as a range of academics published a variety of books and articles. combining careful research with an accessible and casual writing style that contains impassioned opinion. as does Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (2003). it assumes a particularly signiﬁcant position in chapter eighteen. Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993). Lists of statistics. London: Turnaround. 1993). The predominant themes in Chang’s book are race and the intersection of race in hip-hop’s agendas.
among them Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. This bible of hip-hop is noteworthy for its thoughtfully written articles and provocative editorials on the music and politics of hip-hop culture. 14. and Rolling Stone. as well as in less-well-known and underground sources. is less known for the probing quality of its articles than for its splashy ads and its commitment to making hip-hop accessible to audiences of many races and ethnicities. Vibe magazine. THE ACADEMICS Any discussion of scholarly writing on hip-hop must begin with Rose’s Black Noise. 421. Other writing on hip-hop in popular trade magazines is found in XXL. This is not a book for the casual reader.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 13 American culture. moreover. for example—are distracting to lay readers who struggle with Rose’s verbiage and extensive documentation. and rap will become just another platform for every white ethnic group—not only the Irish—to express their suddenly funky selves. xiii. including Kronick and Murder Dog magazines. Spin.”13 Chang also explores race in terms of the “cultural wars” in popular culture. two stand out: The Source and Vibe. Rose. These “wars” peaked during the late 1980s and early 1990s.. By contrast. which was founded in 1993 by music producer Quincy Jones and ceased print publication in 2009. Founded by two Harvard students in 1988—nearly a decade after the onset of hip-hop’s ﬁrst ﬂourishing and at the outset of rap’s most infamous controversies—The Source catapulted many journalists to renown in hip-hop’s realm.” and presidential nominee Bill Clinton’s attacks on Public Enemy’s Sister Souljah in 1992. the qualities that make Rose’s book so appealing to academic audiences—the abundant citations and the sophisticated language. . and were marked in particular by the controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be. it provided a comprehensive history of the evolution of the culture. and popular resistance in contemporary rap music”14 as it describes the social context within which rap 13. Adario Strange. Black Noise. Black Noise “examines the complex and contradictory relationships between forces of racial and sexual domination. often using and drawing on exaggerated stereotypes) in hip-hop culture and posited that “one day the rap audience may be as white as tables in a jazz club. Whatever its ﬂaws. this most important of the early full-length books on rap established hip-hop as a bona ﬁde ﬁeld of scholarly endeavor. Quoted in ibid. Of the commercial magazines and fanzines devoted to hip-hop culture. black cultural priorities. According to Rose. Indeed. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer. and Bakari Kitwana.
Chapter ﬁve..17 Rose takes these arguments several steps further.”19 Of particular signiﬁcance in this chapter are Rose’s discussions of Salt-n-Pepa’s video “Tramp” and Latifah’s landmark “Ladies First. Joanne M. creating Afrodiasporic narratives that manage and stabilize these transitions. on women in rap. and Rupture in Postindustrial New York. Black Noise. Ibid. See as well Angela Y. 150. and by Angela Davis on the historical legacy of black women and music.14 Notes. Davis. MC Lyte. Layering. “ ‘It Jus’ Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” and ﬁfth. urban history. To these ends. Ibid. “Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle. break dancing. ed. 147. Rose discusses hip-hop’s beginnings at length. . 155–66. 17.” In chapter two. Rose situates the music of female rappers in the same contexts argued by Hazel Carby in her essay on the sexual politics of the great blues women of the 1920s. no. and suggests that just as “male rappers’ sexual discourse is not consistently sexist . female sexual discourse is not consistently feminist. 3–21 (New Brunswick.”18 She analyzes the messages of several early female rappers. and rock ‘n’ roll [that] move within and between these historical junctions and larger social forces. explaining that “hip-hop is propelled by Afrodiasporic traditions” and expounding on the “stylistic continuities in dance. 20. among them Salt-n-Pepa.”20 15.”16 In this sense. 19. black feminism. each ﬁlled with the kinds of meticulous documentation that make this book a scholar’s delight. urban blues. September 2010 exists. and instrumentation between rap..” Radical America 20.”15 In-depth discussions of the components of hip-hop—grafﬁti. is among the ﬁrst to consider the “ways black women rappers work within and against dominant sexual and racial narratives in American culture. vocal articulations. Ibid. Rose. Rose uses a “polyvocal” approach. . 4 (1986): 9–22. “ ‘All Aboard the Night Train’: Flow. 16. introducing the reader to the culture’s urban contexts. 18. 1990).. Ibid. and interviews with performers and listeners conducted throughout the United States as well as in Hong Kong and Japan. and Queen Latifah. suggesting “women rappers cannot be situated in total opposition to male rappers. and rap music—ensue. they support and critique males rappers’ sexual discourse in a number of contradictory ways. Hazel Carby. 25.” in Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afro-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. NJ: Rutgers University Press. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. . one that draws upon cultural theory. bebop. break dancing. “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music. The most interesting chapters in Black Noise are the second.
ﬁve on each side of highly polarized debates. In chapters entitled “Negativity” and “Niggativity. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters (New York: Basic Civitas.25 Issues of misrepresentation.” while “images and ideas that reﬂect good will. . and a diverse range of black experiences are relegated to the underground or to the commercial margins of youth culture.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 15 Rose’s second full-length study of hip-hop culture. Ibid. myths.” Rose argues that unfair generalizations about hip-hop abound. Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters (2008). among generalist audiences. In the ﬁrst and larger part. and claiming. 145.. manipulation. Ibid. was written. and demonization are the nucleus of Scott Wilson’s Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism (2008). 78–79. on the one hand. arguing. images of ghetto street culture as the “central brand of blackness for sale in American popular culture. 25. on the other hand. 5. one identiﬁed as being 21. Ibid..”23 Rose also argues against the widespread and commonly accepted.”24 Rose dismisses stereotyped caricatures of the bottom ﬁfth of black America and says that the “dishonest use of ‘keeping it real’ ” is often “a manipulation of black prophetic histories” that serve corporate and mainstream agendas.. stating that “the worst of what we ﬁnd in the music and imagery is commercially promoted. Rose presents ten arguments.”21 The book is divided into two parts. and reﬂects dysfunctional ghetto culture. Ibid. in part. 22. 2008). demeans women. Rose puts us in the middle of each inﬂammatory debate. 24. 23. denials. Wilson juxtaposes these in rap and metal—perhaps the two most controversial and contested forms of popular music at the end of the twentieth century—and discusses the issues in the context of a “negative turn” in the public’s eye of pop culture. that hip-hop causes violence. that hip-hop is not responsible for sexism and that hip-hop performers are just keeping it real. 3.. She bemoans the “dumbing down” of hip-hop’s imagery and is critical of mainstream outlets for the dissemination of hip-hop that are exploitative and paint “increasingly one-dimensional narratives of black ghetto life. and manipulations” about hip-hop culture.22 Among these are chapters that explore hip-hop’s dualities. 144. love of community. that challenge “excesses. and distributed by major corporations. encouraged.” Wilson discusses critical and public response to metal and rap. In the chapter entitled “Hip-Hop Hurts Black People. produced. to address the “terrible crisis” of hip-hop in the early-twenty-ﬁrst century. Tricia Rose.
NY: Manchester University Press.16 Notes.”31 However we might interpret this latter. Jr. these essays are more remarkable for the provocative issues raised than for any information about hip-hop culture. both genres have “negotiated. 1993). “black men are naturally overlibidinal and inherently violent. unleashing a future of negative becoming and (self-) marketing in various directions. Baker discusses the implications of the misinterpretation of the phrase “wild thing.” from Tone-Loc’s song. 28. it appears. In particular. Rap. 27. Baker illuminates how rap’s controversies are ﬁrmly rooted in media ignorance. Presented ﬁrst as lectures at Princeton University in 1992. and the Academy is an interesting read. If language does. and the Academy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. inaugurating both an ethic and an aesthetic. Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism (Manchester. and how rap became a scapegoat for acts of urban violence. His assertion that. Because ¯ “wild thing” was misheard as “wilding.. 43.”30 and to show that “positive sites of rap represent a proﬁtable. like rap. Ibid. binding together an imaginary community based around the entertainment of negativity. Baker argues that rap must become a center for intellectual discourse. Baker.28 As Wilson suggests. Wilson gives an especially riveting assessment of metal’s aesthetic. 2008).. One of Baker’s most interesting discussions centers on the infamous Central Park jogger incident of 1989.” a term that thereafter came to 26. a pose and a style. speeds and tempos. is both the victim and proﬁteer of popular stereotyping. 29.”26 provides the backdrop for a look at popular response to gangsta rap. are woefully underinformed about rap and hip-hop culture. Scott Wilson. Houston Baker’s Black Studies. 31. Ibid. Black Studies. Ibid. 100. writing of its locus between “the desire for teenage rebellion and its commodiﬁcation”27 and the self-loathing that inhabits the music: It succeeds in its failure and is contagious in that success. September 2010 white and the other black. on the other. In this sense. The point of the essays. 59. according to popular racist belief. given its variety of writing styles. including rap’s defenders. 4. Baker’s book no doubt seeks a hybrid readership. survived. 69. which on the one hand epitomize academic arrogance and. in fact. metal. and he says too many cultural critics.. agential resource for an alternative American legality. raged against. . determine audience. Moreover. Ibid. Rap. streetwise cool. which Baker considers “classical black sound. 30. and exploited”29 Satan’s rage.. is to convince readers of the cultural importance of rap. Houston A.
the ﬁrst centered on the sociocultural history and aesthetics of rap. Although Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It (to be discussed further on) provides a far more detailed look at women in rap than Keyes’s seventh chapter. is the culmination of nearly twenty years of ﬁeldwork. or attacking others.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 17 refer to the act of going about in a group threatening. Keyes’s purpose is to provide a wide-ranging history of rap. which is devoted to this topic. a public panic ensued. Music in American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. on the development and explosion of rap. and the Last Poets. 2002). slave traditions. the inﬂuence of Afrika Bambaataa. and comedians Redd Foxx and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. no doubt. with none of the verbosity that often mars academic work on rap.32 which received a CHOICE Award for outstanding academic books in 2004. and rap’s African American forebears. on the roots and stylistic foundation of rap music. and going on to explore African American vernacular expressions. and the rise of rappers and rap impresarios between 1979 and 1985—from the Sugarhill Gang to Russell Simmons to MC Hammer. Rap Brown. robbing. fueled by media images of marauding bands of black hoodlums whose inspiration to commit acts of violence derived from rap’s messages. Keyes frequently writes in the ﬁrst person in these chapters. is a concise survey of three areas: West African bardic traditions. as it enables us to see the multiple strains of African American expression that led to rap. This singularity is signiﬁcant: Keyes’s work is one of the few academic books on rap that includes musical analyses of the music of rap in addition to discussions of rap’s lyrics. The ﬁrst three chapters contain information on hip-hop’s antecedents and earliest beginnings not found in other sources. . Keyes also cites a number of nonmusicians who contributed in some way to rap’s expressive beginnings: boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Cheryl Keyes’s Rap Music and Street Consciousness (2002). This extramusical context is valuable. The ﬁrst chapter. The author divides her eight chapters into two sections. including Gil Scott-Heron. Keyes introduces 32. of her many conversations with the performers discussed and the personal attachment she feels for the subject matter. the second on critical perspectives on rap and the hip-hop nation. the reﬂection. black nationalist H. continuing through Caribbean dancehall music. contain careful discussions of New York gang culture. The writing is clear and precise. and it is the ﬁrst musicological history of rap. Chapters two and three. tracing its roots to West African traditions. The book also contains an outstanding array of photographs and annotations that bespeak the author’s background in ethnomusicology as well as her avocations as a composer and performer.
2006). . “Hip-hop music and culture emerged as a narrative and stylistic distillation of African-American youth sensibilities in the late 1970s. . police brutality. Eng. Hip-hop differed from previous structures inﬂuenced by African-American youth in that it was largely predicated and driven by black youth culture itself. 136. . 34. . 1999). black religious institutions.33 Two especially provocative scholarly books on rap and hip-hop written at the end of the twentieth century are Mark Anthony Neal’s What the Music Said (1999) and Russell Potter’s Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism (1995). in fact. Neal contends that “the emergence of hip-hop. the authors’ intellectual approach to hip-hop and their ideas about the music and culture matter more than the presentation of hard facts and data. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (New York: Routledge. independence. which appeared in a rudimentary state in the mid-1970s. was representative of a concerted effort by young urban blacks to use mass-culture to facilitate communal discourse across a fractured and dislocated national commu- 33. is grounded in the diversity of the Afrodiasporic experience: I maintain that the black popular music tradition has served as a primary vehicle for communally derived critiques of the African-American experience. For example. Ibid. hip-hop included. Neal writes. and control—in women’s rap. 35. gender relations. Neal offers multiple understandings of hip-hop.. Ian Peddie. xi. In each case. September 2010 some of the central themes—among them sexuality. VT: Ashgate Press. Mark Anthony Neal. the dearth or abundance of public venues.34 Not all of What the Music Said is devoted to hip-hop. and the structural and economic transformation of urban spaces all help shape the nature of black popular music particularly as such issues affect community transformation(s) within the African-American diaspora. class stratiﬁcation within the black community. “Gender as Anomaly: Women in Rap.”35 Like Rose. 89–102 (Aldershot. the result of the culture’s multiple layers and complexities. black youth culture.. Neal afﬁrms this in the preface to his book when he states that an understanding of all black music. fewer than ﬁfty of the book’s one-hundred-ninety-eight pages are spent entirely on this subject. and that the quality and breadth of such critiques are wholly related to the quality of life within the black public sphere.” in The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. the corporate annexation of black popular culture. Indeed. national and local political movements.18 Notes. ed. See as well Gail Hilson Woldu. I suggest that issues as diverse as migration patterns. Burlington. crack cocaine. These are densely written pages that challenge the reader to think critically about hip-hop’s musical culture and its place in the public sphere.
”38 Like many early writers on hip-hop. Signifying. In his introduction. In addition to being a ﬁtting homage. reminding readers that hip-hop allowed African American youth to “counter the iconography of fear. Neal discusses the marketing of hip-hop. a cultural crossroads through which everyone passes—whether in a Lexus with the windows rolled up and the a/c on. menace. and everyone in the vast and growing hip-hop nation. He informs us.. The SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press. Potter struggles to deﬁne his subject matter. importantly. post-industrial world together. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Neal grounds hip-hop in musical and sociocultural contexts. 38. citing in particular trends to criminalize hip-hop artists.”37 Elsewhere. the dedication to these maverick poet-musicians cements hip-hop ﬁrmly in the continuum of black musical expression. their audiences. Ibid. and in so doing expand and strengthen the depth of our determination to “ﬁght the powers that be. performers. and all who care about society in a postmodern. the most inﬂuential of the pre-rap groups of the early 1970s. bringing academics. I hope this book will help make evident the multiple connections between hiphop’s insurrectionary knowledges and the historical and societal forces against which they are posed. Ibid. . . 37. 1995). “has from its earliest origins deployed its linguistic ‘games’ in 36.”39 Potter dedicates Spectacular Vernaculars to the Last Poets. 39. dropping some knowledge and breaking down some barriers. for example.”36 And. and the music itself.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 19 nity. 25. 23. And for the rappers themselves. or in a Jeep loaded with speakers blaring out phat bass lines. Ibid. Russell Potter. Potter writes: I hope this book enters into the mix. His discussions of signifying and the history of vernacular speech and hip-hop’s indebtedness to James Brown are particularly compelling. . that hip-hop is “a paradigmatic instance. Russell Potter’s Spectacular Vernaculars is stylistically akin to Baker’s Black Studies. and spectacle that dominated mass-mediated perceptions of contemporary black life by giving voice to the everyday human realities of black life in ways that could not be easily reduced to commodiﬁable stereotypes. we learn. The book seeks to serve two very different audiences—the scholar and everyone else—with the result being pages that weave in and out of “academicspeak” and street vernacular. in which he discusses the viliﬁcation of hip-hop’s performers and audiences. 138.. at once carnival and contest .
and highly sophisticated postmodernism—a postmodernism which in many ways has gone farther and had more crucial consequences than all the academic books on postmodernism rolled into one. and music scholars generally. entwine each section of the book.. Krims’s work is a breath of fresh air among other academic work on hip-hop culture. He argues: Hip-hop. 13. postmodernism. ongoing. exploring how rap’s musical poetics adapt to local requirements. contending that hip-hop is a form of radical postmodernism.41 Adam Krims. including those engaged with progressive musicology”42 and integrates cultural studies. announces his intended audience at the beginning of the book’s ﬁrst chapter. as a concept and as a movement. September 2010 order to frame and mobilize larger questions of power relations.” Krims addresses “scholars of popular music and cultural studies.. which center on music theory and rap music. which. The third chapter looks at a single tune. The ﬁnal chapters look at the geography of rap. and Ice Cube. author of Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity (2000). Ibid. 42. on some form of musical analysis. . Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. Ice-T. and music theory. In chapters one and two. Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate.” In outlining its sonic organization and pointing to its homage to signifying tradition. at least in part. 82. The book’s ﬁve chapters focus on three key areas. In this “poetics of music.20 Notes. 17. Potter eases his way through this murkiness. Adam Krims. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. However. and his speculations on the future of global hip-hop. Not only does Krims examine topics not addressed elsewhere. communications. Ibid. far from being a simple object which a postmodernist project could “bring to light” or offer up as exemplary. Krims discusses the function of theoretical analysis in rap. he challenges his readers to consider his unique perspectives. Krims argues that “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” established for Ice Cube an identity unique among African American revolutionaries. is itself an active. becomes muddier still in the context of hiphop culture. A good example is the distinction Krims makes between the terms “rap” 40.”40 The power play of these games is the basis of much rap from the 1980s. 41. Krims discusses Dutch rap and Cree rap. musicology. employed with singular verve in the music of Public Enemy. all based. To this end. Itself a debated and often little-understood subject. critical theory. for obvious reasons. Equally gripping are Potter’s discussions of hip-hop and race. the focal discussions of Spectacular Vernaculars are on hip-hop and postmodernity. 2000).
and Krims is wise to close this discussion by citing KRS-One who says “rap is something you do. whereas hip-hop refers more broadly to an entire culture.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 21 and “hip-hop.”45 To these ends. In Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It (2004) we ﬁnd that hiphop’s kaleidoscope of scholarly work has shifted. Ibid. 45. In particular. each a tightly written section of thirty pages or so.” Although certainly not the ﬁrst author to distinguish between these two terms (Rose discussed these differences in Black Noise). Although several authors have written book chapters and articles on women rappers and women’s responses to misogynist themes in rap. Pough establishes the framework for her discussions of “wreck. 12. some murkiness of deﬁnition remains.” the book’s dominant theme. namely. 10. Hip Hop Culture. Pough is concerned with “the ways in which the rhetorical practices of Black women participants in Hip-Hop culture ‘bring wreck’—that is moments when Black women’s discourses disrupt dominant masculine discourses. clothing. in which the author argues for creating a genre system for rap music that complements discussions of gender. spoken word poetry. this time to focus on black women. Krims reminds us that the terms “are the objects of some contestation. 2004). . and class in hip-hop. boasting. visual art. The Hip-Hop concept of wreck sheds new light on the things Blacks have had to do in order to obtain and maintain a presence in the larger public sphere.”43 Krims understands rap to refer only to a kind of music.. Pough discusses the rhetoric of black women in a variety of genres—rap music. ﬁght hard and bring attention to their skill and right to be in the public sphere. and fans of the music and the culture in question are often particularly fussy about their usage. The book’s seven chapters. and the world of hip-hop. race. music. Even with these distinctions. Ibid. skill. which is generally conﬁned to explorations of the music alone. and politics. center on black women.”44 Even better examples of the challenges Krims presents us are found in chapter two. ﬁlm. and the Public Sphere (Boston: Northeastern University Press. comprising dancing. black “womanist” traditions. break into the public sphere. recreation. by deﬁning it as a: Hip-Hop term that connotes ﬁghting. Hip-Hop is something you live. or violence. and in some way impact or inﬂuence the United States imaginary. and novels—and in so doing she eclipses other writers’ work on hip-hop. for Black participants in the public sphere 43. Bringing wreck. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood. 44. Pough is the ﬁrst academic writer to devote a full-length monograph to women’s participation in hip-hop culture. Gwendolyn Pough.
and ﬁve. their sons will fail in life and perhaps even end up dead. and ﬁlm.46 Chapters three. ﬁction. Ibid. four. Ed. is the “message the ﬁlm sends to Black women about raising their sons: that Black women cannot raise healthy. VT: Ashgate. Eng. Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series (Aldershot.. Burlington. September 2010 historically. Pough writes that although “the demonization of Black motherhood is nothing new. and that if no father is present.. 47.” Singleton’s ﬁlm “adds to the pathological readings of Black motherhood that circulate in the larger public discourse. Ibid. Lauryn Hill. Here. emotional.”47 More vexing for Pough. Lil’ Kim. Pough’s discussion of black women’s roles in ﬁlms by black ﬁlmmakers is especially intriguing. 48. and ﬁlmmaker Leslie Harris—presenting these as counterpoints to the work of black feminist writers and cultural critics. Her analysis of Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993). Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (2007) and in Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007). 49. centered on music. reveals the ﬁlmmaker’s desire to capture realistic images of black women in ﬁlm from a black woman’s perspective and the ways in which Harris “brought wreck” to the ways black women are represented in ﬁlm and in society at large. .. by Ian Peddie. Women’s presence as rappers in the world of hip-hop is the subject of several other books and articles. and self-sufﬁcient Black men. for example. has meant reshaping the public gaze in such a way as to be recognized as human beings—as functioning and worthwhile members of society— and not to be shut out of or pushed away from the public sphere. In “Gender as Anomaly: Women in Rap. edited by Gwendolyn Pough and others. strong.49 I challenge the male hegemony in rap and examine a handful of the rhetorical tropes (among them ﬁnancial. Chapter ﬁve. 46. 2006). Pough critiques the work of women of the hip-hop generation—among them spoken word artist Jessica Care Moore. and Sister Souljah.” a chapter in The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest (2006). some of which discuss the ambivalence with which women ﬁnd themselves in a male-dominated ﬁeld.” looks at the stereotypes and marginalization of women in John Singleton’s Boyz ’n the Hood (1991) and feminist response to these depictions. 131. rappers Queen Latifah. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up. 17. as for black feminist scholar and cultural critic Michele Wallace. “Girls in the Hood and Other Ghetto Dramas. Ibid.22 Notes. are the heart of Pough’s book. and sexual independence) in women’s rap. This topic is developed further in T.”48 Pough also discusses how the “ghetto girl” as ﬁlm and literary ﬁgure is depicted in work by black women.
and. 53. “If Women Ran Hip Hop. The essays. The forty-three authors—male and female. the Black Madonna” of rap. and what we have to say back. a professor in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University. Pimps Up. gangsta rappers would be referred to “21-day detox programs where they could get clean and sober from violence and misogyny.” In her article. . 52. xviii. “Lil’ Kim. ﬁction. In this sense. Aya de Leon.” which confronts biases against women and serves up a platter of remedies for hip-hop’s ills. ultimately. 51. Several poems speak to a feminist agenda in hip-hop. the book is reminiscent of Baker’s Black Studies. hip-hop culture would “have nothing to be ashamed of ” because destructive behaviors would not exist. and issues of gender identity are explored in Freya Jarman-Ivens’s “Queer(ing) Masculinities in Heterosexist Rap Music. artwork. (Mira Loma. ed. and part of the hip-hop generation (which she deﬁnes as referring to blacks born between 1965 and 1984). 2007). Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga. Hip-Hop Womanhood. poetry. Sharpley-Whiting. 184–85. 54. T. 2007). 199–219 (New York: Routledge. CA: Parker Publishing.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 23 A former runway model. In De Leon’s world.52 Coeditor Elaine Richardson probes issues of gender and sexual inequality. and the Naked Truuf. student at Brown University. male and female. She calls Kim (aka Kimberly Jones) “the Queen Bitch. Elaine Richardson.” in Home Girls Make Some Noise. Ho’s Down “as a way to explore how and why we women do the things we do.” in Queering the Popular Pitch. et al. has been socialized to consider herself as “the embodiment of immorality”53 as well as a racial and sexual object. in “Lil’ Kim. and the Academy. Rap. where passion and subjectivity supplant academic documentation and attempted objectivity. Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (New York: New York University Press. and the Naked Truuf. “What should hip-hop feminism be doing?” Many of these are introspective and cathartic musings. perhaps best known for inﬁltrating areas of the hip-hop business that few women had dared and for her lurid and vulgar rap texts. scholar and lay—offer a variety of examples of “how feminists have begun to deal with. including Aya de Leon’s “If Women Ran Hip Hop. an oftdiscussed topic in hip-hop. 191.”51 and they ask the important question. vii.54 50.” in Home Girls Make Some Noise. wrote Pimps Up. and women in hip-hop.”50 The book is written in an intensely personal style.” conﬂict mediators would help men and women work through their differences. Richardson discusses Kim. and argues that Kim. rappers. Sexuality. Gwendolyn Pough. think about and write about rap music and hip-hop culture. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. what hip hop has to say about it all. and interviews in Pough’s Home Girls Make Some Noise explore feminist perspectives on rap. the Queen Bee. ed. like black women generally. 2006). in terms of the power she represents. Hip-Hop Womanhood.
” and. is a new dogmatics— that is. anthropological. 3. Not only does Prophets explore hip-hop through the continuum of black musical expression. 115. He cites dual arguments about rap music’s cultural integrity. it is actually a hybrid. September 2010 That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004). 55. That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. as do hip-hop’s best scholarly studies. and ethnographical research in deﬁning black urban expressive culture. an anthology coedited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. the implications of this for hip-hop and hardcore rap: To be a nigga is ontologically authentic. on the one hand. Imani Perry. . Although the language of Perry’s study makes its intended audience hip-hop’s cultural elite. it also considers the artistry of the genre.” and. two are particularly interesting: Ronald Judy’s “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity” and Robin D. to those who criticize rap artists—especially hardcore gangsta rappers—for their ignorance of black music other than rap and. 2004). 2004). then. Kelley’s “Looking for the ‘Real’ Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto. the book is accessible to any reader interested in viewing hip-hop through a fresh lens. Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (2004) “stands amid and relies on”56 the extant body of hip-hop scholarship. The result is an appealing combination of formats. is a hefty tome in seven chapters that contains forty-four articles by some of hip-hop’s most prominent authors. This is seen with particular effectiveness in the second chapter. which range from interviews to documented articles. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge. ultimately. Although I have included this book in the section on scholarly work. an attempt to formulate an ontology of the higher thinking called “hip-hop science. G. Of the volume’s many provocative titles.24 Notes. on the other hand. pointing.”55 Kelley discusses the role of sociological. because it takes care of the question of how a human really is among things. in doing so. 56.” the distinctions that must be made between the “badman” and the “bad nigger. Written by a scholar and a fan. and it considers the politics and art of hip-hop culture in seven chapters that focus largely on the aesthetic value of rap. he illuminates the transformation of “nigger” into “nigga. containing work by academics as well as by journalists and cultural critics. Articles by Forman and Neal introduce each chapter. to artists who categorically insist that rap music is the unmediated voice of ghetto youth. Niggadom.” Judy gives us an etymological look at “niggerdom. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke University Press. ed.
France. and The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture (2006). Halifu Osumare.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 25 “My Mic Sound Nice: Art. Books such as Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA (2001). xi. and Harlem. hip-hop in South Africa. Korea. historical. that “there are no easy answers. Jamaica. The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Ibid. and Japan). these studies explore a variety of disparate cultures. Kelley informs readers in the foreword to The Vinyl Ain’t Final. ed. edited by Dipannita Basu and Sidney Lemelle. Marseille. 101.”57 One of the most striking chapters is the sixth.S. since its birth in the very local neighborhoods of the South Bronx. and conflicted representations of gender identity on the part of hip-hop’s female performers. prose. and Lyon). “hip-hop hasn’t ‘gone global. or international at least. or discuss specific movements among immigrant communities (for example.” in which Perry discusses the intersection of poetry.” he and the contributors to the volume challenge readers to tackle hip-hop’s difficult questions and realize. and Consciousness. music. 58.” in particular the seminal role of “Black and Latino kids in New York who launched this global movement in the first place. no simple way to characterize what is at once a global social movement and a multibillion dollar 57. Lemelle (London: Pluto Press. Brazil.. and theater in rap music. Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. . and social dynamics emanating from youth internationally. focus on a particular country (for example. 59. edited by Tony Mitchell. Community.” which she arues are seen through the “lenses of ideology. readers are able to explore its manifestations throughout the world in full-length monographs as well as in articles in scholarly and trade publications. 2006). The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Culture. 38. As an example of the latter. cultural. author of The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (2007).”58 For the most part. in the culture and distribution of hip hop culture. hip-hop in the suburbs of Paris. introduce readers to the worlds of global hip-hop and the complex issues that surround globalism. ultimately. Germany.”59 Although Kelley acknowledges the “centrality of the U.’ It has been global. Because hip-hop culture extends beyond the boundaries of the United States. “The Venus Hip Hop and the Pink Ghetto: Negotiating Spaces for Women. Washington Heights. and art.” Perry’s goals here are several as she discusses women rappers’ efforts to create a space for themselves in the male-dominated world of hip-hop. the possibilities for gender liberation in hip-hop’s future. “Hip-hop is actually made more vital by the varied and discrete political. as writes Halifu Osumare. song. Senegal. culture. historian Robin D. as well as rap’s “intertextualities. 2007). G. Indeed.
double-edged as it may be: when written well.” Condry talks about his fieldwork in Japan: annual visits to Tokyo between 1994 and 2005 during which he attended a festival called B-Boy Park and observed. 29. and contested in his second chapter.” Here. and gangsta rap in post-apartheid South Africa. with articles that look at hip-hop culture—and the business of hip-hop—in Tokyo. Samoa.”61 Despite these nods to American hip-hop with roots in urban African American and Latino communities. as well as those focused on thorny issues that include rap. do-rags. Robin Kelley. Cuba. as a large number of journalists and cultural critics have written on hip-hop. The journalists and cultural critics who write for generalist audiences wield a mighty sword. “Yellow B-Boys. Black Culture. Ian Condry explores cultural globalization. and “keeping it real” in Japan. Ibid. 2006). in 2001. in Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006). xvi. In the introduction. Ian Condry. issues of racial and cultural politics are particularly engaging. THE JOURNALISTS AND CULTURAL CRITICS The work of print media writers has reached larger audiences than that of their academic confreres. . 9. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths to Cultural Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press. as well as the ways in which race is debated.”60 To these ends. 8. and platinum chains.. or even beauty-salon-styled Afros to go with their NBA jerseys or FUBU wear. their articles—ones that often provide the only glimpse into hiphop culture for the masses—introduce lay readers to the vicissitudes and 60. the festival was at heart Japanese. written by authors from various corners of the globe.”62 Condry looks at how Japanese interpret and embody ideas of hip-hop and race. September 2010 industry. he explores blackface Japan. blackness. Ibid. dread hair. and Cultural Globalization. 62. 63.26 Notes. as they are seen through Japanese lenses. and in a large number of sources. Some of the fans had tanned skin. Japan. commodified. with bandanas. participants clad in “the latest thug fashion. Condry calls to our attention the ways in which Japanese rappers “address racism in their own society by drawing inspiration from the racial underpinnings of hip-hop” as well as how they engage in “a new cultural politics of affiliation. in The Vinyl Ain’t Final. 61. with Japanese lyrics and where emcees “rapped about topics that carried a distinctly Japanese flavor. and citizenship in France. focused specifically on Japan.”63 To these ends. “Hip-Hop. and the Elvis Effect. the book contains a diversity of perspectives..
According to editor Raquel Cepeda. A smorgasbord of articles on hip-hop written by prominent hip-hop journalists is contained in And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years (2004). In the earlier article. Ibid. soothing them with the promise that one can experience ‘real’ black life vicariously through records. And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. that considers hip-hop and race. 47. about black youth and black urban life. when poorly written. 68. John Leland.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 27 complexities of this arm of popular culture and black vernacular expression.” Leland alleged that race and racial difference had become “the rhetorical center of pop music” and that in 1992. noting in particular youthful white Americans’ attraction to hardcore rap: “Rap taps racial insecurities. 66.”64 In this collection..”68 Leland wisely linked the marketing and proﬁtable business of rap to race and class. “Rap and Race. the articles perpetuate negative stereotypes about contemporary black music. as well as snapshots of speciﬁc issues in regional and global hip-hop. 2004). hip-hop and gender. Race is the focal point in several of Leland’s articles for generalist readers. . Christopher John Farley.. or. “Rap and Race. a journalist and cultural critic who has written for the New York Times. Ibid. 65. Leland. In 1992 and 1993. ed. (New York: HarperCollins. 2004). There is also the danger that generalist readers will look no further than the summaries of hip-hop culture provided in supermarket checkout-lane magazines. xix. a variety of perspectives is presented.66 wrote two cover stories for Newsweek that explored the national fascination with rap and the inevitable intersections between rap and race. Raquel Cepeda (New York: Faber and Faber. And it did so as a stand-in for an inconvenient topic that had been looming over the campaign all along: race. xviii. Spin. 29 June 1992. concluding “rap is locating white insecurity about 64. “pop music careered into national politics. those by journalists John Leland. and Newsweek magazines. the burden of hip-hop’s journalists is even more onerous. according to decade and beginning with the 1980s. more damaging. hip-hop journalists are “being faced with the task of covering more interesting aspects than what the mainstream predicates. a presidential election year.” Newsweek. and the author of Hip: The History (2004). Among the many articles written in general-audience magazines in the 1990s. Cepeda has attempted to balance the “negative. and Kevin Powell stand out. inﬂated stereotypes afﬁrmed by the artists themselves”65 as well as the narrow vision of hip-hop culture served up by mainstream media.”67 Leland also discussed rap’s appeal to white Americans. generally. as a result. To these ends. 52. 67.
and nihilistic young black men—and the culture of violence that begat and drives the music. ﬁlmmakers and writers to adopt “street” signiﬁers like cornrows and terms like player hater.. 57. Christopher John Farley. . considered hip-hop’s deﬁnitions. In this article. Leland again discussed the appeal of this genre of rap to white youth. . writing “the terms are nearly. Hip-hop has given invisibility a voice. academic writers and those writing for scholarly audiences incline toward deﬁnitions laden with language peculiar to their disciplines.”73 Knowing that these deﬁnitions would prove inadequate. Hip-hop has forced advertisers. Leland asked whether there is a relationship between the music’s messages and violence in black communities and. by contrast. “Hip-Hop Nation: After 20 Years—How It’s Changed America. artistic fulﬁllment and even a sense of identity by exploring the black underclass. . profane. but not completely. Ibid. “Criminal Records: Gangsta Rap and the Culture of Violence. Christopher John Farley. in another version.”72 Farley later gives both pithy and lengthy deﬁnitions of hip-hop and rap. 70. and popularity in his retrospective cover story article “HipHop Nation: After 20 Years—How It’s Changed America” (1999). 29 November 1993. Farley deﬁnes hip-hop as the culture of rap and says that it “refers to the backing music for rap”. 71. In discussing gangsta rap’s images— of violent. . 56. complexities.74 69.70 One of the most interesting aspects of the kaleidoscope of writing on hip-hop culture is the variation in deﬁnition of the words “hip-hop” and “rap. also written for Newsweek.28 Notes. he deﬁnes rap as “a form of rhythmic speaking in rhyme. 60–4. who he said constitute the largest segment of the rap industry. Ibid. 74.” Newsweek. misogynist. Hiphop. Ibid. pop-music critic for Time magazine. . interchangeable. 73.”69 The issue of rap as entertainment versus rap as reality or sliceof-life is the subject of Leland’s article on gangsta rap and the culture of violence. 72. .. . Farley provides other ways to consider the terms. has compelled young people of all races to search for excitement. in particular.71 Although initially imprecise.” As I mentioned earlier. reserving his more expansive assessments for hip-hop: Hip-hop represents a realignment of America’s cultural aesthetics. September 2010 race and black insecurity about class—and selling it back as entertainment. much as the blues and jazz did in past eras. even to Time magazine’s generalist audience. In his concise version. Ibid.” Time. 8 February 1999. 54–64. John Leland. the pot of gold recording companies found in selling images of black-on-black crime to white America. journalists who write for generalist audiences wisely stray from idiosyncratic jargon.
“Hip-Hop Is. Langston Hughes meets Das EFX. The majority of hip-hop’s chroniclers offer their musings in prose. Drunken adjectives and smoked out sentences ﬁlled with sex. and he bemoans the crass. is too lengthy to cite in full. 75. 9 October 2000. Ice Cube. 76. and enigmas: Hip-hop is poetry. Hip-hop is lyin’ ass ni*gas telling lies to eyes. More importantly. . 77. to borrow from old-school hip-hop jargon. . Farley situates hip-hop squarely in the consumer arena. “HipHop Is. 15. Midsummer night fantasies conjured up by ghetto princesses and concrete princes in projects everywhere. he discusses corporate America’s infatuation with rap and cites the enthusiastic response of Hollywood and Madison Avenue to the phenomenon of hip-hop. .77 Although Powell’s primary purpose is to lament the direction hip-hop had taken by 2000. ad nauseam.”75 To this end. pockets and TV screens. violence. in six paragraphs. . Hip-hop is the Black existence. either in the sophisticated language of scholarly writing or in the language of hip-hop fanzines. Kevin Powell. and alcohol. inconsistencies. Powell longs for the golden age of hip-hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hip-hop is agreeing with madness. . 79. Hip-hop journalist Frank Williams cast hip-hop lyrically in 1996 in his very clever analysis. 66. to the hodgepodge of views on hip-hop’s deﬁnition. 78. he also deﬁnes the culture and explains what it has meant to him. January 1996. . and lust. formulaic approach to hip-hop in the twenty-ﬁrst century.” The Source. guns. Frank Williams.” puts a different spin on hip-hop culture in his essay “My Culture at the Crossroads” (2000).The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 29 Farley also cites ﬁlm star and director Warren Beatty and novelist Tom Wolfe in this discussion to support his arguments on the pervasiveness of hip-hop in American popular culture. “My Culture at the Crossroads. ears. in which rappers “rhyme about jewelry. . Ibid. Hip-hop rings of negro spirituals.s. proclaiming it to be “perhaps the only art form that celebrates capitalism openly. can be embraced by people from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds. but the following excerpt illustrates in part Williams’s ideas about hiphop’s vicissitudes. African folktales.” Newsweek. denigrate women in every conceivable way. there are also multiple ways to present these deﬁnitions. This variety adds ﬂavor.”78 Just as there are multiple ways to deﬁne hip-hop. clothing. and party and b. whose style. complexities. according to fashion design mogul Tommy Hilﬁger. a former senior writer for Vibe magazine and self-proclaimed “hip-hop head for life. Hip-hop is tempting sexism and the gloriﬁcation of a wack state of genocidal abyss.”79 The essay.76 Hip-hop historian Kevin Powell. Ibid. Ibid.
. Hip-hop is all some brothers have as a guide book to life. including Bill Adler and Brian Cross. True hip-hop is Not capitalism. This version. 17. ed. the third of these iterations reads “your mother is so hip-hop. “Pink people wanna know if other pink people like hip-hop how can it still be hip-hop?” and stating. It is a street code of laws. Hope. 82. 83. dance. arguing. “Hip-hop is the ﬁrst musical movement in history where black people pimped themselves before the white boy did. 18–19. music.”81 The sardonic statement-cum-poem is in eight sections that pay homage to hip-hop’s roots in black vernacular expression and situate them in commercial and capitalist contexts. Greg Tate. . September 2010 Eazy-E’s gravesite. Ibid. because each began a written exploration of hip-hop from an enduring passion for the culture’s art.”83 In the closing lines. Some. 81. Black male insecurity. Cited in Rap on Rap. Ibid.”82 The penultimate verse explores the multicultural and technological components of hip-hop. 20. THE DEVOTEES The writers whom I have designated as “the devotees” are a heterogeneous group. “hip-hop is half black and half Japanese. Perseverance. This notwithstanding. have deep and abiding roots in the world of hip-hop as publicists and chroniclers.30 Notes. have written celebrated books on popular music and have enjoyed illustrious careers as cultural critics. like Nelson George. in 1993. and performers—and neither as scholarship re80.” The next sections look at the commodiﬁcation of hip-hop. she yelled ho ’fo I even axed her. “What Is Hip-Hop?” in Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip Hop Culture. hip-hop is ultimately the seemingly disconnected elements that fuel and give meaning to black urban existence at the close of the twentieth century. Hip-hop is digital chips on the shoulders of African lips. asking. the term “devotee” is an apt moniker for each person whose work I discuss. The ﬁrst section acknowledges the “dozens” tradition in hip-hop with four lines that each begin “your mother is so hip-hop”. Others. called “What Is Hip-Hop?” seeks to “riddle a paradox with a host of non sequiturs [and] end simpleminded conceptions of hip-hop that pervade the culture from within and without. All are clearly more than “devotees” in the sense that they are far more than fans or hip-hop groupies. 1995). Adam Sexton (New York: Delta Books. the author wants us to understand that in addition to being a grab bag of non sequitur.80 Three years earlier. essayist Greg Tate wrote a similarly lyrical description of hip-hop.
His Hip Hop America (1998) is a personal look at and tribute to the culture that played a key role in his life from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. His Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC (1987). Essence. and in ﬁlm studios. including rappers Afrika Bambaataa. and the Beastie Boys. George 84. Nelson George’s name is synonymous with popular culture. Among the book’s most useful features are the abundant citations of the group’s performances from contemporaneous reviews by critics Greg Tate. it provides a glimpse into the development and cultivation of hip-hop from the late 1970s through the middle 1980s. tells the story of hip-hop through text and image. and in passing names scores of people involved in early hip-hop.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 31 quired for graduate study or academic tenure nor as an assignment for a newspaper or journal. one of the ﬁrst devoted to hip-hop performers. John Leland. 2002). Run’s brother and one of hip-hop’s most successful entrepreneurs. and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell—in a variety of milieus: as high-school students in their middle-class hometown of Hollis. Los Angeles: Consafos Press. 2008).84 published at the height of the group’s popularity. on concert stages in London. The result is an “as it happened” historical document that situates the group’s members— Joseph “Run” Simmons (who resuscitated his career in the early 2000s as a television personality on the MTV reality show Run’s House). Queens. and record producers Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen.” wrote a biography of rappers Run-DMC. 1987. and Nelson George. Adler also discusses the early career of Russell Simmons. .85 written in collaboration with hip-hop graphic artist Cey Adams. in the recording studio. Although George’s style of writing is lucid and accessible to a range of readers. and he has written for the Village Voice. DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop (2008). written in an informal style and peppered with dialogue that makes us feel that we are sitting in someone’s living room listening to a casual conversation between friends. and Esquire. in so doing. Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. (New York: Collins Design. George is the author of eight nonﬁction books on African American culture. a former rap publicist who owned a hip-hop arts gallery in New York called “Eyejammie. the book itself is as complicated as its subject matter. Tokyo. is a ﬁrsthand account. New York. chronicles Run-DMC’s rise to superstardom in the early 1980s. 85. The recipient of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards and an American Book Award. Kurtis Blow. (New York: New American Library. charts the rise of Def Jam Records. Bill Adler. Adler’s most recent work. and throughout the United States. dressed in their trademark black velour Stetsons and white laceless Adidas. Adler’s book. reprint.
It was too obscene. as George tells us in his introduction. This personal approach gives the book a credibility that is sometimes lacking in the work of other writers. .G. Hip Hop America (New York: Viking.”88 He soon learned to respect the music of “these Jhericurled suckers” because he believed the group’s success “would unlock the dark imaginations of young black artists. 87. Two of the most interesting chapters are the tenth and twelfth. Hip Hop America reveals hip-hop culture as the “product of schizophrenic. 135. drawing on George’s engagement with hip-hop culture over the course of more than twenty years. Because the book was published in 1998. Nelson George.” Like the other chapters in the book. 1998). 136. xiii.. along the way explaining the downfall 86. both as an extension of African-American maleness and as a showcase for the art of verbal dexterity and storytelling. Too radical. xiv.”86 He wants us to “understand that the values that underpin so much of hip-hop—materialism. George conﬁdes that when he was introduced to the music of NWA in 1988. we get an insider’s glimpse into hip-hop’s early years. freeing them to use raw language to say things on vinyl no generation of AfricanAmericans had felt comfortable expressing in public. is where the book’s value lies: in George’s recounting the history of hip-hop as it unfolded and reading his diary-like entries on the culture’s iconic ﬁgures. of course.-is-God ears couldn’t really hear NWA yet.”89 George walks us through gangsta rap’s glory days.E.”87 Each of the book’s sixteen chapters is in some way anecdotal. and the Notorious B.. 89.” George looks at the rivalry between East and West Coast rappers. his “old-school New York. these are subdivided into several very short sections.I. P. In reading Hip Hop America. each focused on a single idea and often bearing a fanciful title. Ultimately. sexism. and anti-Semitism) are ingrained in our national culture and not unique to rap music. Tupac Shakur. September 2010 acknowledges the many branches on hip-hop’s tree. we feel an immediate and intimate connection to the culture that is enlivened by George’s experiences with hip-hop as it evolved. 88. Ibid.. “National Music” and “Capitalist Tool.32 Notes. Sean “Puffy” Combs. Much of this discussion looks at the music of NWA and at the conﬂicting aesthetics and ideology of Death Row and Bad Boy records and their chief spokesmen. Suge Knight. This. Ibid. Ibid. post-civil rights movement America. anti-intellectualism—are very much by-products of the larger American culture” and that the unsavory aspects of hip-hop (racism. gun iconography. such as “Fat Laces” and “The Beatles of Gangsterdom. but he centers his discussion on rap and looks in particular at “rapping as art.” In “National Music. brand consciousness.
wrote It’s Not About a Salary: Rap. in 1988. mellow view in the ’70s. a book that explored West Coast rap and the intersection of race and racial politics in this music. and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993). 91.. Just as the Beach Boys spoke for an idealistic vision of the area in the ’60s and the Eagles presented a cynical. Race. Cross divides his book into two unequal sections. started in the 1990s. the recordings from the Compton/Long Beach axis tell the story of the poverty. He concludes his analysis of West Coast rap with these words: This music will serve as an essential part of the historical memory of Southern California in the ’80s and ’90s.”92 During his ﬁrst visit to the United States. Brian Cross. 3. Cross encountered the anomie his generation felt.. It’s Not About a Salary: Rap. owned by Russell Simmons.” looks at hip-hop’s inﬂuence in the political and commerical arenas. Ireland.90 Chapter twelve. the second and lengthier section is devoted entirely to interviews with performers of West Coast rap in the 1980s and early 1990s. . 155. Ibid. This interest in lived experience led Cross to rap. Cross’s fascination with rap and hip-hop culture was inspired initially by the political nature of British and Irish punk music. Brian Cross. and “Puffy” Combs. to this end. In this music. who was born and raised in Limerick. 1993). with its stories that “relate to the social geography that produces them.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 33 of Death Row Records’ cofounder Suge Knight and bewailing the murders of Tupac and Biggie. guns. The ﬁrst provides brief overviews of Los Angeles and Chicano hip-hop. Ibid. Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (London. it should not surprise that important studies of hip-hop have been written by those whose early lives were spent outside the culture’s ﬁrst ﬂowering in America’s urban centers. 92. Karl Kani (aka Carl Williams). “Capitalist Tool. Given the popularity—indeed. ubiquity—of hip-hip in the international sphere. New York: Verso. George discusses hiphop’s inﬂuence in the fashion world and the multi-million-dollar businesses. 143. While George acknowledges that “hiphop’s major problem as a political movement is that MCs are not social activists by training or inclination. and despair that everyone noticed after the 1992 riots—riots that had been happening on CDs all along. Cross also includes an 90.91 Much of the chapter focuses on the commodiﬁcation of hip-hop. Cross encountered the racial realities that informed much early rap and that enlivened his fascination with the stories people tell. as well as in the stories he read daily in the 1970s.” this has not precluded hip-hop from having left its mark on American politics.
we might anticipate a veritable surfeit of this writing. both by phone. in October 1991 and November 1992. black unity. . For a detailed look at NWA in the late 1980s and the cultural politics of gangsta rap. and Ice Cube. Trade magazines. Eazy E. and Old School LA hiphoppers Chino. Cross’s interview style.34 Notes. an archetype of the “hiphop interview. Cli-n-Tel. and Lonzo. He considers Ice Cube to be Los Angeles’ most famous hip-hop son and he asks direct questions about the performer’s views on the Nation of Islam. that details police abuse in Los Angeles between 1965 and 1991. which is forthright and tinged with street jargon. with their strong fan base and eager advertisers. will undoubtedly continue to garner the lion’s share of hip-hop’s readership with pages of splashy advertisements trumpeting hip-hop fashion and articles that provide an insider’s look at the culture and its icons. including the interview with Ice Cube. and rap as political statement versus rap as entertainment. see Gail Hilson Woldu. The Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection (Westport. others. His interview with Eazy E. LA hip-hop culture. homosexuality. have become staples. performance poet Kamau Daa’ood. The Words and Music of Ice Cube. compiled from statistics gathered by the Coalition Against Police Abuse. were conducted by phone. including jazz notables Roy Porter and Horace Tapscott. September 2010 appendix. 1–26. Cross’s interview with Ice Cube. either in the performers’ studios or in Cross’s apartment.” was conducted in two parts. Courses on hip-hop culture.93 FUTURE DIRECTIONS: BEYOND 2010 If past trends in writing about hip-hop culture predict future trends accurately. Indeed. The centerfold and most noteworthy interviews are those of gangsta rappers Ice-T. 2008). and in a variety of styles that appeal to its diverse audiences. works well in establishing an informal tone that elicits equally forthright responses from the performers. CT: Praeger. we will continue to be ﬂush in both quality and quantity of published material. Dr. anomalous in college curricula in the 1990s. addresses the performer’s ignominious business dealings and NWA’s image as nihilistic hoodlums. conducted in the fall of 1992. Most of the interviews were conducted in person. Dre. it also includes interviews with a variety of Los Angelesbased musicians. and academic discourse in these ﬁelds is 93. G Money. We might equally hope to ﬁnd more truly engaging writing on hip-hop by cultural critics such as Jon Pareles of the New York Times. Although the bulk of It’s Not About a Salary centers on performers of gangsta rap. whose insightful and probing articles have enhanced our understanding of hip-hop’s shifting parameters.
and Angela Davis in this realm. while that of Condry. future readers must be reminded at every turn of the culture’s origins and the racial dimension that spawned it. among others. . With the evergrowing popularity and inﬂuence of hip-hop culture. Greg Thomas. there should be no shortage of provocative new writing. Hip-hop’s kaleidoscope. most. Pough. 94. at the dismantling of rap’s hegemonic structures. One ﬁnal area of published work on hip-hop culture needs to be pursued more ambitiously: monograph-length studies of individual performers and groups. 2009). Future writing should also look more closely at women’s roles in hip-hop and. Some of this writing will of necessity restate hip-hop’s history. Keyes. Keyes. Predictably. The work of Rose and Chang. several books have been written about icons Tupac Shakur and Eminem. Future audiences of scholarly writing on hip-hop would be well served by having at their disposal books and articles centered on the importance of race in deﬁning and shaping hip-hop’s cultural politics. Given the multicultural. Sessions on hip-hop topics are routinely included in the national meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology. There are exceptions. Neal. of course. the College Music Society. has proven itself perfectly suited to this range of writing. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism (2009). in particular. While many books and articles exist in this domain.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 35 nearly as commonplace and acceptable as that on blues and jazz. I have already noted the pioneering work of Rose. which delves into the “new bodies of knowledge and new body politics”94 that Kim’s music and presence invokes. Knowledge. Perry. these are of varying quality. By consequence. 5. would be wise to chronicle the years after 2000. whose work I have cited. most are of fanzine quality. and we await either a deﬁnitive study of these legends or studies that explore in-depth a speciﬁc topic. however. Hip-Hop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. and multinational direction of hip-hop in the twenty-ﬁrst century. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. and the American Musicological Society. including Greg Thomas’s HipHop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. to these I would also mention T. scholarly and other writing penned by academics and intended primarily for academic audiences will no doubt see a surge in the quantity of material published. and Pough might be the models against which topic-speciﬁc writing should be measured. multiethnic. Knowledge. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. with its rapidly shifting transformations. will perhaps set the standard for writing focused on comprehensive explorations of hip-hop culture. written for generalist and voyeuristic audiences.
Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. Music/Culture. Krims. 1999. G. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. 1996. Cheney. and the Academy. editor. Black Studies. 2005. Condry. New York: Ecco Press. Youth Identities. Michael Eric. Ogbar. 2004. editor. 2005. editor. New York: Oxford University Press. Kitwana. and Alastair Pennycook. Charise. Jeff. Chang. Durham: Duke University Press. Music/Culture. Forman. Jeffrey O. 2002. Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap. George. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. H. CT: Wesleyan University Press. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures. ——— and Mark Anthony Neal. CT: Wesleyan University Press. Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2006. Nelson. Culture America. Adam. London: Pluto Press. September 2010 SELECTED BOOKS ON HIP-HOP CULTURE Alim. Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. Ian. Costello. 2001. editors. New York: Basic Civitas Books. Can’t Stop. 1990. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. editors. New York: Viking. Houston A. and the Politics of Language. That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Murray. Awad Ibrahim. Tony. Baker. New York: Basic Civitas. Rap. editors. Inc. Wannabes. Dipannita and Sidney J. New York: St.36 Notes. 2006. 1993. 1998. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. 2006. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas. with a new chapter. Mitchell. Cepeda. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. 2005. New York: New York University Press. . 2005. Basu. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. New York: Routledge. Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism. Lemelle. Wiggers. Reprint. and the New Reality of Race in America. 2000. and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. New York: Routledge. Samy. Dyson. The ’Hood Comes First: Race. 2009. Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. 2007. Middletown. Space. Bakari. Martin’s Press. Raquel. Middletown. And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. Neal. ———. Hip Hop America. New York: Faber and Faber. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. Mark Anthony. Mark and David Foster Wallace. 2004. New York: Routledge..
2008. 2008. Imani. Mira Loma. New York: Basic Civitas. 2008. on the other. Gwendolyn. Durham: Duke University Press. Boston: Northeastern University Press. we have noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of popular writing about hip-hop. ———. and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. 2007. musicology. NH: University Press of New England. 1995. Potter. NY: Manchester University Press. Pimps Up. Adam. and women’s studies. Quinn. New York: Routledge. The SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. Greg. 2009. Pough. Craig.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 37 Osumare. Woldu. Everyday Lives. Queering the Popular Pitch. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood. New York: New York University Press. 2004. much of which has succumbed to crude . Music/Culture. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hip Hop Matters: Politics. On the one hand. Manchester. we continue to see a wealth of ﬁne academic writing published by scholars in ﬁelds as diverse as cultural studies.. Thomas. Sharpley-Whiting. Boston: Beacon Press. 2005. CT: Praeger Books. Albany: State University of New York Press. CA: Parker Publishing. New York: Delta. Perry. Rose. Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. 2006. writing about hip-hop is at an interesting crossroads. Hanover. Watkins. Denean. 2007. 1995. T. Pop Culture. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2004. Sexton. editor. Halifu. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. The Words and Music of Ice Cube. et al. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism. Knowledge. 1994. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. 2007. Popular Cultures. and the Public Sphere. Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters. ———. Hip-Hop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. editors. Russell A. The Praeger SingerSongwriter Collection. 2005. Westport. New York: Columbia University Press. ABSTRACT At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century. S. Hip Hop Culture. Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip Hop Culture. editors. Tricia. Eithne. Sheila and Jennifer Rycenga. Gail Hilson. Wilson. Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism. Scott. The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves. Whiteley.
September 2010 street language in an attempt to increase readership. This kaleidoscope. This article distinguishes three categories of writing about hip-hop— works by academics. and works by hip-hop’s devotees—and discusses a handful of signiﬁcant publications written between 1988 and 2008.38 Notes. works by journalists and cultural critics. by turns overly pedantic and gratuitously coarse. creates a conundrum as hip-hop struggles to deﬁne—and redeﬁne—itself. This twenty-year written history of hip-hop is considered through a variety of lenses. with the hope that the various points of view might illuminate new directions for hip-hop’s chronicled future. .
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