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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).
Polyculturalism. as a range of academics published a variety of books and articles. September 2010 Adam Sexton’s anthology Rap on Rap: Straight-Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture (1995). says Chang. many of which have already become staples in the literature.10 in the continuum of black musical expression.9 By the early 2000s. Among the comprehensive looks at hip-hop is Jeff Chang’s tour de force. including Cheryl Keyes’s Rap Music and Street Consciousness (2002)11 are masterful blends of in situ interviews and ethnographic research. Martin’s Press. is “built on the idea that civil society did not need Eurocentrism or whiteness at its core to function.” In subsections with provocative titles such as “Hip-Hop’s Urban Lifestyle” and “Polyculturalism and PostWhiteness. and Hip Hop America (1998) by Nelson George. 1993). 421. 2003). and popular-culture scholars. 10. “Becoming the Hip-Hop Generation. Jeff Chang. Can’t Stop. observed the inﬂux of “wiggers” (a pejorative term for a white person who emulates African 8. 2002). Chang’s book is a hybrid. Can’t Stop. London: Turnaround. given the preeminence of race in American popular culture. situating hip-hop. 11. Chang cites an article whose author. as does Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop (2003). Music of the African Diaspora. 9. Also worthy of note are books narrowly focused on a particular performer or group. (London. The shifting mosaic of hip-hop writing at that time was particularly vibrant in the scholarly realm. 12. Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. 2005). These publications are often reﬂective. others. The predominant themes in Chang’s book are race and the intersection of race in hip-hop’s agendas. . Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005). and names coexist alongside sections of extended dialogue and interviews. Lists of statistics. This is not surprising. hip-hop was widely accepted as an academic discipline. New York: Verso. Although this subject permeates the book’s nineteen chapters. hip-hop journalists. Music in American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. dates. white Chicago grafﬁti writer William “UPSKI” Wimsatt.” Chang takes a hard look at the omnipresence of race in hiphop and the concomitant urbanization of American popular culture. 7 (Berkeley: University of California Press. which received the prestigious American Book Award in 2005 and has been touted by a who’s who of cultural critics. combining careful research with an accessible and casual writing style that contains impassioned opinion. it assumes a particularly signiﬁcant position in chapter eighteen.”12 In discussing rap’s crossover appeal. (Los Angeles: Consafos. 2002). 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. Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993).12 Notes.
. Vibe magazine. 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. THE ACADEMICS Any discussion of scholarly writing on hip-hop must begin with Rose’s Black Noise. which was founded in 1993 by music producer Quincy Jones and ceased print publication in 2009. among them Selwyn Seyfu Hinds. Rose. two stand out: The Source and Vibe. 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. moreover. This bible of hip-hop is noteworthy for its thoughtfully written articles and provocative editorials on the music and politics of hip-hop culture. this most important of the early full-length books on rap established hip-hop as a bona ﬁde ﬁeld of scholarly endeavor. for example—are distracting to lay readers who struggle with Rose’s verbiage and extensive documentation. and were marked in particular by the controversies surrounding 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be. 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. black cultural priorities. and Rolling Stone. . Other writing on hip-hop in popular trade magazines is found in XXL. Black Noise “examines the complex and contradictory relationships between forces of racial and sexual domination. Indeed. This is not a book for the casual reader. including Kronick and Murder Dog magazines. According to Rose. Quoted in ibid. and popular resistance in contemporary rap music”14 as it describes the social context within which rap 13. Black Noise. These “wars” peaked during the late 1980s and early 1990s. the qualities that make Rose’s book so appealing to academic audiences—the abundant citations and the sophisticated language. 421. it provided a comprehensive history of the evolution of the culture.” and presidential nominee Bill Clinton’s attacks on Public Enemy’s Sister Souljah in 1992. Ice-T’s “Cop Killer. Whatever its ﬂaws. and Bakari Kitwana. Spin.”13 Chang also explores race in terms of the “cultural wars” in popular culture. Of the commercial magazines and fanzines devoted to hip-hop culture.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 13 American culture. 14. By contrast. Adario Strange. and rap will become just another platform for every white ethnic group—not only the Irish—to express their suddenly funky selves. as well as in less-well-known and underground sources. xiii.
no. Ibid.” and ﬁfth. Black Noise. Davis. 18. September 2010 exists. Chapter ﬁve. “ ‘It Jus’ Be’s Dat Way Sometime’: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues. Layering.” Radical America 20. .17 Rose takes these arguments several steps further.14 Notes. suggesting “women rappers cannot be situated in total opposition to male rappers. “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music.” in Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afro-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. each ﬁlled with the kinds of meticulous documentation that make this book a scholar’s delight. Ibid. Rose discusses hip-hop’s beginnings at length. 155–66. vocal articulations. Rose. urban blues. and Queen Latifah. creating Afrodiasporic narratives that manage and stabilize these transitions. The most interesting chapters in Black Noise are the second. 150. is among the ﬁrst to consider the “ways black women rappers work within and against dominant sexual and racial narratives in American culture. Ibid. “Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle. female sexual discourse is not consistently feminist. and suggests that just as “male rappers’ sexual discourse is not consistently sexist . and by Angela Davis on the historical legacy of black women and music.”15 In-depth discussions of the components of hip-hop—grafﬁti. and Rupture in Postindustrial New York. and rock ‘n’ roll [that] move within and between these historical junctions and larger social forces. 25. bebop.”16 In this sense. 17. and interviews with performers and listeners conducted throughout the United States as well as in Hong Kong and Japan. “ ‘All Aboard the Night Train’: Flow. NJ: Rutgers University Press. 16. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. and rap music—ensue. among them Salt-n-Pepa. introducing the reader to the culture’s urban contexts..” In chapter two. . Rose uses a “polyvocal” approach.”20 15.”19 Of particular signiﬁcance in this chapter are Rose’s discussions of Salt-n-Pepa’s video “Tramp” and Latifah’s landmark “Ladies First. ed. 19. 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.”18 She analyzes the messages of several early female rappers. . 147. 4 (1986): 9–22. To these ends. Hazel Carby. on women in rap. urban history. Ibid. explaining that “hip-hop is propelled by Afrodiasporic traditions” and expounding on the “stylistic continuities in dance. Joanne M. 20. they support and critique males rappers’ sexual discourse in a number of contradictory ways. MC Lyte.. break dancing. 3–21 (New Brunswick. break dancing. black feminism.. See as well Angela Y. 1990). and instrumentation between rap. one that draws upon cultural theory.
In the ﬁrst and larger part. to address the “terrible crisis” of hip-hop in the early-twenty-ﬁrst century.”23 Rose also argues against the widespread and commonly accepted. Ibid..” Rose argues that unfair generalizations about hip-hop abound. images of ghetto street culture as the “central brand of blackness for sale in American popular culture. was written. Rose presents ten arguments. that challenge “excesses. Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters (2008). Ibid. in part. and distributed by major corporations.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 15 Rose’s second full-length study of hip-hop culture. myths. . Ibid.. produced. on the one hand. love of community.”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. denials. ﬁve on each side of highly polarized debates.. among generalist audiences. Ibid. 22. In chapters entitled “Negativity” and “Niggativity. 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. encouraged. and manipulations” about hip-hop culture. and a diverse range of black experiences are relegated to the underground or to the commercial margins of youth culture.” while “images and ideas that reﬂect good will.”21 The book is divided into two parts. demeans women. on the other hand. 144. 5. 78–79. stating that “the worst of what we ﬁnd in the music and imagery is commercially promoted. 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. 24. manipulation.” Wilson discusses critical and public response to metal and rap. arguing.25 Issues of misrepresentation. Tricia Rose. 3. 25. and claiming.. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters (New York: Basic Civitas.22 Among these are chapters that explore hip-hop’s dualities. 23. In the chapter entitled “Hip-Hop Hurts Black People. Rose puts us in the middle of each inﬂammatory debate. 2008). one identiﬁed as being 21. 145. and demonization are the nucleus of Scott Wilson’s Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism (2008). and reﬂects dysfunctional ghetto culture.
One of Baker’s most interesting discussions centers on the infamous Central Park jogger incident of 1989... “black men are naturally overlibidinal and inherently violent. Black Studies. Ibid. these essays are more remarkable for the provocative issues raised than for any information about hip-hop culture. 27.” from Tone-Loc’s song. survived. The point of the essays. both genres have “negotiated. unleashing a future of negative becoming and (self-) marketing in various directions. NY: Manchester University Press. given its variety of writing styles. Because ¯ “wild thing” was misheard as “wilding. including rap’s defenders. Wilson gives an especially riveting assessment of metal’s aesthetic. Houston Baker’s Black Studies. His assertion that. and exploited”29 Satan’s rage. Ibid. is both the victim and proﬁteer of popular stereotyping.28 As Wilson suggests. Baker. metal. 59. raged against.”31 However we might interpret this latter. . in fact. according to popular racist belief. 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. Jr. speeds and tempos. Ibid.. Baker illuminates how rap’s controversies are ﬁrmly rooted in media ignorance. Baker argues that rap must become a center for intellectual discourse. agential resource for an alternative American legality. streetwise cool. are woefully underinformed about rap and hip-hop culture. In particular. Moreover. and how rap became a scapegoat for acts of urban violence. binding together an imaginary community based around the entertainment of negativity. 28.” a term that thereafter came to 26. 4. 69. which on the one hand epitomize academic arrogance and. September 2010 white and the other black. If language does. and he says too many cultural critics. inaugurating both an ethic and an aesthetic. determine audience. Baker discusses the implications of the misinterpretation of the phrase “wild thing. is to convince readers of the cultural importance of rap.16 Notes.. 31. Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism (Manchester. like rap. on the other. 43. 100. Baker’s book no doubt seeks a hybrid readership. 1993). Ibid. it appears. Scott Wilson. 30.”26 provides the backdrop for a look at popular response to gangsta rap. and the Academy is an interesting read. Presented ﬁrst as lectures at Princeton University in 1992. 2008). 29. Rap. In this sense. Houston A.”30 and to show that “positive sites of rap represent a proﬁtable. and the Academy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Rap. a pose and a style. which Baker considers “classical black sound.
The author divides her eight chapters into two sections. robbing. and going on to explore African American vernacular expressions. Cheryl Keyes’s Rap Music and Street Consciousness (2002). is a concise survey of three areas: West African bardic traditions. including Gil Scott-Heron. 2002). the inﬂuence of Afrika Bambaataa. no doubt. of her many conversations with the performers discussed and the personal attachment she feels for the subject matter. .The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 17 refer to the act of going about in a group threatening. 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. continuing through Caribbean dancehall music. This extramusical context is valuable. the second on critical perspectives on rap and the hip-hop nation. Music in American Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. tracing its roots to West African traditions. with none of the verbosity that often mars academic work on rap. on the roots and stylistic foundation of rap music.32 which received a CHOICE Award for outstanding academic books in 2004. and comedians Redd Foxx and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. fueled by media images of marauding bands of black hoodlums whose inspiration to commit acts of violence derived from rap’s messages. Keyes’s purpose is to provide a wide-ranging history of rap. the ﬁrst centered on the sociocultural history and aesthetics of 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. slave traditions. the reﬂection. and the Last Poets. Keyes introduces 32. and it is the ﬁrst musicological history of rap. on the development and explosion of rap. 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. a public panic ensued. Chapters two and three. or attacking others. which is devoted to this topic. is the culmination of nearly twenty years of ﬁeldwork. The writing is clear and precise. The ﬁrst three chapters contain information on hip-hop’s antecedents and earliest beginnings not found in other sources. and rap’s African American forebears. as it enables us to see the multiple strains of African American expression that led to rap. black nationalist H. and the rise of rappers and rap impresarios between 1979 and 1985—from the Sugarhill Gang to Russell Simmons to MC Hammer. Rap Brown. contain careful discussions of New York gang culture. Keyes frequently writes in the ﬁrst person in these chapters. The ﬁrst chapter. Keyes also cites a number of nonmusicians who contributed in some way to rap’s expressive beginnings: boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
VT: Ashgate Press. black religious institutions. 136. ed.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). . gender relations. 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. hip-hop included. 35. the result of the culture’s multiple layers and complexities. fewer than ﬁfty of the book’s one-hundred-ninety-eight pages are spent entirely on this subject. Ibid. the dearth or abundance of public venues. Indeed. . crack cocaine.. . Mark Anthony Neal. national and local political movements. Hip-hop differed from previous structures inﬂuenced by African-American youth in that it was largely predicated and driven by black youth culture itself. Eng. police brutality.”35 Like Rose. which appeared in a rudimentary state in the mid-1970s. the corporate annexation of black popular culture.34 Not all of What the Music Said is devoted to hip-hop. “Hip-hop music and culture emerged as a narrative and stylistic distillation of African-American youth sensibilities in the late 1970s. Neal afﬁrms this in the preface to his book when he states that an understanding of all black music. 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. See as well Gail Hilson Woldu. black youth culture. Neal offers multiple understandings of hip-hop. 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.” in The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. September 2010 some of the central themes—among them sexuality. class stratiﬁcation within the black community. Ian Peddie. Burlington. Neal contends that “the emergence of hip-hop. In each case. I suggest that issues as diverse as migration patterns. For example. and control—in women’s rap. xi. 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. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (New York: Routledge. 1999). “Gender as Anomaly: Women in Rap. 89–102 (Aldershot. in fact. Neal writes. . 34. independence. 2006). and that the quality and breadth of such critiques are wholly related to the quality of life within the black public sphere. 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..18 Notes.
His discussions of signifying and the history of vernacular speech and hip-hop’s indebtedness to James Brown are particularly compelling. performers. at once carnival and contest . reminding readers that hip-hop allowed African American youth to “counter the iconography of fear. He informs us. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. 37.. and the music itself. “has from its earliest origins deployed its linguistic ‘games’ in 36. 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. In his introduction. . 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. importantly. Russell Potter’s Spectacular Vernaculars is stylistically akin to Baker’s Black Studies. in which he discusses the viliﬁcation of hip-hop’s performers and audiences. Signifying. citing in particular trends to criminalize hip-hop artists. 39. In addition to being a ﬁtting homage. Ibid. or in a Jeep loaded with speakers blaring out phat bass lines. Russell Potter. their audiences. for example. post-industrial world together. menace. dropping some knowledge and breaking down some barriers. Ibid. and all who care about society in a postmodern. 23. Ibid.. we learn. the dedication to these maverick poet-musicians cements hip-hop ﬁrmly in the continuum of black musical expression. and in so doing expand and strengthen the depth of our determination to “ﬁght the powers that be. .”39 Potter dedicates Spectacular Vernaculars to the Last Poets. and everyone in the vast and growing hip-hop nation. Neal discusses the marketing of hip-hop. 25. the most inﬂuential of the pre-rap groups of the early 1970s. . Neal grounds hip-hop in musical and sociocultural contexts. that hip-hop is “a paradigmatic instance. 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.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 19 nity. 38.”38 Like many early writers on hip-hop.”36 And.”37 Elsewhere. And for the rappers themselves. a cultural crossroads through which everyone passes—whether in a Lexus with the windows rolled up and the a/c on. bringing academics. Potter struggles to deﬁne his subject matter. Potter writes: I hope this book enters into the mix. 1995). The SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press. 138.
September 2010 order to frame and mobilize larger questions of power relations. Krims’s work is a breath of fresh air among other academic work on hip-hop culture. Ibid.20 Notes. In chapters one and two.41 Adam Krims. is itself an active. 2000). Krims discusses the function of theoretical analysis in rap. Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. The ﬁnal chapters look at the geography of rap. To this end. author of Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity (2000). The third chapter looks at a single tune. The book’s ﬁve chapters focus on three key areas. far from being a simple object which a postmodernist project could “bring to light” or offer up as exemplary. announces his intended audience at the beginning of the book’s ﬁrst chapter. employed with singular verve in the music of Public Enemy. Adam Krims. critical theory. A good example is the distinction Krims makes between the terms “rap” 40. at least in part. He argues: Hip-hop. including those engaged with progressive musicology”42 and integrates cultural studies.”40 The power play of these games is the basis of much rap from the 1980s. Krims discusses Dutch rap and Cree rap. and his speculations on the future of global hip-hop. Ibid. and music theory.” In outlining its sonic organization and pointing to its homage to signifying tradition. and music scholars generally. exploring how rap’s musical poetics adapt to local requirements. for obvious reasons. becomes muddier still in the context of hiphop culture. Potter eases his way through this murkiness. 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. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate. entwine each section of the book. 41. Not only does Krims examine topics not addressed elsewhere. Ice-T. . all based. on some form of musical analysis. 13.. postmodernism. Equally gripping are Potter’s discussions of hip-hop and race. 82. In this “poetics of music. he challenges his readers to consider his unique perspectives. ongoing. However. musicology. the focal discussions of Spectacular Vernaculars are on hip-hop and postmodernity.. Itself a debated and often little-understood subject. as a concept and as a movement. which. Krims argues that “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” established for Ice Cube an identity unique among African American revolutionaries. and Ice Cube. contending that hip-hop is a form of radical postmodernism. 42. which center on music theory and rap music. communications.” Krims addresses “scholars of popular music and cultural studies. 17.
ﬁlm. and politics.”44 Even better examples of the challenges Krims presents us are found in chapter two.. some murkiness of deﬁnition remains. Pough discusses the rhetoric of black women in a variety of genres—rap music. recreation. or violence. 2004).”43 Krims understands rap to refer only to a kind of music. Bringing wreck.”45 To these ends. break into the public sphere. 45. . 10. comprising dancing. Even with these distinctions. and fans of the music and the culture in question are often particularly fussy about their usage. black “womanist” traditions. The book’s seven chapters. and Krims is wise to close this discussion by citing KRS-One who says “rap is something you do. 44. clothing. race. and in some way impact or inﬂuence the United States imaginary. Krims reminds us that the terms “are the objects of some contestation. spoken word poetry. for Black participants in the public sphere 43. in which the author argues for creating a genre system for rap music that complements discussions of gender. Although several authors have written book chapters and articles on women rappers and women’s responses to misogynist themes in rap. In Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It While I Wreck It (2004) we ﬁnd that hiphop’s kaleidoscope of scholarly work has shifted. Hip Hop Culture.” Although certainly not the ﬁrst author to distinguish between these two terms (Rose discussed these differences in Black Noise). visual art. which is generally conﬁned to explorations of the music alone. In particular. and class in hip-hop. ﬁght hard and bring attention to their skill and right to be in the public sphere. 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. by deﬁning it as a: Hip-Hop term that connotes ﬁghting. Ibid. music. Ibid. and the Public Sphere (Boston: Northeastern University Press. and novels—and in so doing she eclipses other writers’ work on hip-hop. Pough establishes the framework for her discussions of “wreck. Hip-Hop is something you live. whereas hip-hop refers more broadly to an entire culture. and the world of hip-hop. 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. boasting. namely. Gwendolyn Pough. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood. 12.” the book’s dominant theme. each a tightly written section of thirty pages or so. skill.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 21 and “hip-hop. center on black women. Pough is the ﬁrst academic writer to devote a full-length monograph to women’s participation in hip-hop culture. this time to focus on black women.
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. 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. Lil’ Kim..” Singleton’s ﬁlm “adds to the pathological readings of Black motherhood that circulate in the larger public discourse. 49. Pough critiques the work of women of the hip-hop generation—among them spoken word artist Jessica Care Moore. Chapter ﬁve. 48. some of which discuss the ambivalence with which women ﬁnd themselves in a male-dominated ﬁeld. Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series (Aldershot. rappers Queen Latifah. Pough writes that although “the demonization of Black motherhood is nothing new. Eng. September 2010 historically. emotional. as for black feminist scholar and cultural critic Michele Wallace. Lauryn Hill. and that if no father is present.. Ibid. four. Ed. 46. Ibid. Women’s presence as rappers in the world of hip-hop is the subject of several other books and articles. their sons will fail in life and perhaps even end up dead. “Girls in the Hood and Other Ghetto Dramas.” a chapter in The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest (2006). Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (2007) and in Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007).” looks at the stereotypes and marginalization of women in John Singleton’s Boyz ’n the Hood (1991) and feminist response to these depictions.”47 More vexing for Pough. 131. This topic is developed further in T. by Ian Peddie. ﬁction.22 Notes. Her analysis of Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993). are the heart of Pough’s book. Here. centered on music.. and ﬁlm.49 I challenge the male hegemony in rap and examine a handful of the rhetorical tropes (among them ﬁnancial. 47. is the “message the ﬁlm sends to Black women about raising their sons: that Black women cannot raise healthy. and Sister Souljah. Ibid. and sexual independence) in women’s rap. and ﬁve. 2006). VT: Ashgate. edited by Gwendolyn Pough and others.46 Chapters three. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up. for example. Pough’s discussion of black women’s roles in ﬁlms by black ﬁlmmakers is especially intriguing. and self-sufﬁcient Black men.”48 Pough also discusses how the “ghetto girl” as ﬁlm and literary ﬁgure is depicted in work by black women. 17. and ﬁlmmaker Leslie Harris—presenting these as counterpoints to the work of black feminist writers and cultural critics. strong. . In “Gender as Anomaly: Women in Rap. Burlington.
2006). male and female. Pimps Up. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Elaine Richardson. poetry. 199–219 (New York: Routledge. The essays.”51 and they ask the important question. xviii. rappers. et al. Sheila Whiteley and Jennifer Rycenga. and part of the hip-hop generation (which she deﬁnes as referring to blacks born between 1965 and 1984). In De Leon’s world. Richardson discusses Kim.” in Home Girls Make Some Noise. a professor in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University. Sharpley-Whiting. and issues of gender identity are explored in Freya Jarman-Ivens’s “Queer(ing) Masculinities in Heterosexist Rap Music. an oftdiscussed topic in hip-hop. artwork. 2007). Rap. Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (New York: New York University Press. wrote Pimps Up. Gwendolyn Pough. hip-hop culture would “have nothing to be ashamed of ” because destructive behaviors would not exist. 184–85. has been socialized to consider herself as “the embodiment of immorality”53 as well as a racial and sexual object. and what we have to say back.” which confronts biases against women and serves up a platter of remedies for hip-hop’s ills. The forty-three authors—male and female. the book is reminiscent of Baker’s Black Studies. 51. Hip-Hop Womanhood. 53.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 23 A former runway model. ed. Ho’s Down “as a way to explore how and why we women do the things we do. (Mira Loma.52 Coeditor Elaine Richardson probes issues of gender and sexual inequality. ed. the Black Madonna” of rap. ultimately. “Lil’ Kim. 2007). Aya de Leon. where passion and subjectivity supplant academic documentation and attempted objectivity. and the Academy. Denean Sharpley-Whiting.” In her article. T. . what hip hop has to say about it all. 52. ﬁction. in terms of the power she represents. Sexuality. and the Naked Truuf. and the Naked Truuf. 191.”50 The book is written in an intensely personal style. vii. think about and write about rap music and hip-hop culture. perhaps best known for inﬁltrating areas of the hip-hop business that few women had dared and for her lurid and vulgar rap texts.” in Queering the Popular Pitch. like black women generally. In this sense. and argues that Kim.” in Home Girls Make Some Noise. Hip-Hop Womanhood. scholar and lay—offer a variety of examples of “how feminists have begun to deal with.54 50. and. student at Brown University. and interviews in Pough’s Home Girls Make Some Noise explore feminist perspectives on rap. including Aya de Leon’s “If Women Ran Hip Hop. 54. in “Lil’ Kim. CA: Parker Publishing. gangsta rappers would be referred to “21-day detox programs where they could get clean and sober from violence and misogyny. and women in hip-hop. the Queen Bee. Several poems speak to a feminist agenda in hip-hop.” conﬂict mediators would help men and women work through their differences. “If Women Ran Hip Hop. “What should hip-hop feminism be doing?” Many of these are introspective and cathartic musings. She calls Kim (aka Kimberly Jones) “the Queen Bitch.
That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. 2004). Not only does Prophets explore hip-hop through the continuum of black musical expression. The result is an appealing combination of formats. G. 56. Although the language of Perry’s study makes its intended audience hip-hop’s cultural elite. which range from interviews to documented articles. . Imani Perry. Of the volume’s many provocative titles. Kelley’s “Looking for the ‘Real’ Nigga: Social Scientists Construct the Ghetto. and ethnographical research in deﬁning black urban expressive culture. the implications of this for hip-hop and hardcore rap: To be a nigga is ontologically authentic. to those who criticize rap artists—especially hardcore gangsta rappers—for their ignorance of black music other than rap and. This is seen with particular effectiveness in the second chapter. then. an anthology coedited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. anthropological. ed.”55 Kelley discusses the role of sociological.” and. on the other hand. Articles by Forman and Neal introduce each chapter. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Durham: Duke University Press.” Judy gives us an etymological look at “niggerdom. 2004). Niggadom. an attempt to formulate an ontology of the higher thinking called “hip-hop science. September 2010 That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2004). because it takes care of the question of how a human really is among things.24 Notes. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge.” and. it is actually a hybrid. it also considers the artistry of the genre. as do hip-hop’s best scholarly studies. 55. 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. containing work by academics as well as by journalists and cultural critics. He cites dual arguments about rap music’s cultural integrity. is a new dogmatics— that is. 115. on the one hand. to artists who categorically insist that rap music is the unmediated voice of ghetto youth. pointing. and it considers the politics and art of hip-hop culture in seven chapters that focus largely on the aesthetic value of rap. two are particularly interesting: Ronald Judy’s “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity” and Robin D. is a hefty tome in seven chapters that contains forty-four articles by some of hip-hop’s most prominent authors. in doing so. ultimately.” the distinctions that must be made between the “badman” and the “bad nigger. he illuminates the transformation of “nigger” into “nigga. the book is accessible to any reader interested in viewing hip-hop through a fresh lens. Although I have included this book in the section on scholarly work. Written by a scholar and a fan. 3.
Washington Heights.’ It has been global. and art. Community. hip-hop in South Africa.”57 One of the most striking chapters is the sixth. 2006). readers are able to explore its manifestations throughout the world in full-length monographs as well as in articles in scholarly and trade publications.” 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 conflicted representations of gender identity on the part of hip-hop’s female performers. “The Venus Hip Hop and the Pink Ghetto: Negotiating Spaces for Women. since its birth in the very local neighborhoods of the South Bronx. edited by Tony Mitchell. Books such as Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA (2001)..The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 25 “My Mic Sound Nice: Art. Brazil. 2007). no simple way to characterize what is at once a global social movement and a multibillion dollar 57. hip-hop in the suburbs of Paris. Lemelle (London: Pluto Press. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Culture.”59 Although Kelley acknowledges the “centrality of the U. and The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip-Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture (2006). As an example of the latter. in the culture and distribution of hip hop culture. Germany. Halifu Osumare. The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 38. cultural. edited by Dipannita Basu and Sidney Lemelle. focus on a particular country (for example. and Japan). or international at least. or discuss specific movements among immigrant communities (for example. xi. and social dynamics emanating from youth internationally. Marseille. “Hip-hop is actually made more vital by the varied and discrete political. G.”58 For the most part. introduce readers to the worlds of global hip-hop and the complex issues that surround globalism. music. culture. France. and Lyon). ed. ultimately. historian Robin D. author of The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves (2007).” 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. Dipannita Basu and Sidney J. as writes Halifu Osumare.” in particular the seminal role of “Black and Latino kids in New York who launched this global movement in the first place. the possibilities for gender liberation in hip-hop’s future. “hip-hop hasn’t ‘gone global. and Harlem. historical. song. Kelley informs readers in the foreword to The Vinyl Ain’t Final. 59. and Consciousness. Korea. prose. as well as rap’s “intertextualities. Ibid. 58. Jamaica.” which she arues are seen through the “lenses of ideology. these studies explore a variety of disparate cultures. that “there are no easy answers. Indeed. Because hip-hop culture extends beyond the boundaries of the United States. and theater in rap music. . 101.S. Senegal.
62. he explores blackface Japan. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths to Cultural Globalization (Durham: Duke University Press. or even beauty-salon-styled Afros to go with their NBA jerseys or FUBU wear. “Hip-Hop.” Here.26 Notes. Ian Condry.”61 Despite these nods to American hip-hop with roots in urban African American and Latino communities. blackness. 61. and gangsta rap in post-apartheid South Africa. 29. “Yellow B-Boys. In the introduction. 9. . Some of the fans had tanned skin. dread hair. xvi. Black Culture. in The Vinyl Ain’t Final. as well as those focused on thorny issues that include rap.”62 Condry looks at how Japanese interpret and embody ideas of hip-hop and race.. with bandanas. participants clad in “the latest thug fashion. do-rags. Samoa. and “keeping it real” in Japan. 8. and Cultural Globalization. the festival was at heart Japanese. 63. and contested in his second chapter. with articles that look at hip-hop culture—and the business of hip-hop—in Tokyo. September 2010 industry. and in a large number of sources.” 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. their articles—ones that often provide the only glimpse into hiphop culture for the masses—introduce lay readers to the vicissitudes and 60. The journalists and cultural critics who write for generalist audiences wield a mighty sword.. Robin Kelley. Ibid. and the Elvis Effect. 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. as well as the ways in which race is debated. commodified. Cuba. THE JOURNALISTS AND CULTURAL CRITICS The work of print media writers has reached larger audiences than that of their academic confreres. as a large number of journalists and cultural critics have written on hip-hop.”60 To these ends. and platinum chains. double-edged as it may be: when written well. the book contains a diversity of perspectives. Ian Condry explores cultural globalization. written by authors from various corners of the globe. in 2001. with Japanese lyrics and where emcees “rapped about topics that carried a distinctly Japanese flavor. issues of racial and cultural politics are particularly engaging.”63 To these ends. focused specifically on Japan. Japan. in Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (2006). 2006). and citizenship in France. as they are seen through Japanese lenses. Ibid.
In 1992 and 1993. 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. according to decade and beginning with the 1980s. generally. as well as snapshots of speciﬁc issues in regional and global hip-hop. the articles perpetuate negative stereotypes about contemporary black music. xviii. hip-hop and gender. To these ends.”67 Leland also discussed rap’s appeal to white Americans. And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. “Rap and Race.”68 Leland wisely linked the marketing and proﬁtable business of rap to race and class. noting in particular youthful white Americans’ attraction to hardcore rap: “Rap taps racial insecurities. as a result. Cepeda has attempted to balance the “negative.”64 In this collection. hip-hop journalists are “being faced with the task of covering more interesting aspects than what the mainstream predicates. concluding “rap is locating white insecurity about 64. a presidential election year. Christopher John Farley. when poorly written. 68. 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). 47. the burden of hip-hop’s journalists is even more onerous. that considers hip-hop and race. “pop music careered into national politics. John Leland. 67. Leland. And it did so as a stand-in for an inconvenient topic that had been looming over the campaign all along: race. Ibid. 52. and the author of Hip: The History (2004). more damaging. In the earlier article.. Ibid. a variety of perspectives is presented.. Raquel Cepeda (New York: Faber and Faber. and Newsweek magazines. 2004). “Rap and Race. those by journalists John Leland.66 wrote two cover stories for Newsweek that explored the national fascination with rap and the inevitable intersections between rap and race. a journalist and cultural critic who has written for the New York Times. Spin. 29 June 1992.” Leland alleged that race and racial difference had become “the rhetorical center of pop music” and that in 1992. about black youth and black urban life. inﬂated stereotypes afﬁrmed by the artists themselves”65 as well as the narrow vision of hip-hop culture served up by mainstream media.” Newsweek. . xix. ed. 66. (New York: HarperCollins. and Kevin Powell stand out. soothing them with the promise that one can experience ‘real’ black life vicariously through records. Race is the focal point in several of Leland’s articles for generalist readers. According to editor Raquel Cepeda. or. 65.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 27 complexities of this arm of popular culture and black vernacular expression. Among the many articles written in general-audience magazines in the 1990s. 2004).
”73 Knowing that these deﬁnitions would prove inadequate. Hiphop.. by contrast. Ibid. Christopher John Farley. In this article. journalists who write for generalist audiences wisely stray from idiosyncratic jargon. September 2010 race and black insecurity about class—and selling it back as entertainment. Christopher John Farley. Ibid. Hip-hop has forced advertisers. 54–64. but not completely. 73. 72. he deﬁnes rap as “a form of rhythmic speaking in rhyme.”72 Farley later gives both pithy and lengthy deﬁnitions of hip-hop and rap. interchangeable. In discussing gangsta rap’s images— of violent. Leland asked whether there is a relationship between the music’s messages and violence in black communities and.28 Notes. John Leland. 56.70 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. in another version.” Newsweek.74 69. has compelled young people of all races to search for excitement. 70. misogynist. . also written for Newsweek.71 Although initially imprecise. . 8 February 1999. and nihilistic young black men—and the culture of violence that begat and drives the music. 60–4. academic writers and those writing for scholarly audiences incline toward deﬁnitions laden with language peculiar to their disciplines. . . 71. Leland again discussed the appeal of this genre of rap to white youth. Ibid. pop-music critic for Time magazine. In his concise version. 74.” As I mentioned earlier. and popularity in his retrospective cover story article “HipHop Nation: After 20 Years—How It’s Changed America” (1999).”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. writing “the terms are nearly. even to Time magazine’s generalist audience. reserving his more expansive assessments for hip-hop: Hip-hop represents a realignment of America’s cultural aesthetics. artistic fulﬁllment and even a sense of identity by exploring the black underclass. Ibid. much as the blues and jazz did in past eras. Farley deﬁnes hip-hop as the culture of rap and says that it “refers to the backing music for rap”. ﬁlmmakers and writers to adopt “street” signiﬁers like cornrows and terms like player hater.” Time. Hip-hop has given invisibility a voice. who he said constitute the largest segment of the rap industry. in particular. 57. profane. . Farley provides other ways to consider the terms. complexities. “Hip-Hop Nation: After 20 Years—How It’s Changed America. “Criminal Records: Gangsta Rap and the Culture of Violence. 29 November 1993.. . considered hip-hop’s deﬁnitions. the pot of gold recording companies found in selling images of black-on-black crime to white America. .
but the following excerpt illustrates in part Williams’s ideas about hiphop’s vicissitudes. in six paragraphs. ad nauseam. and enigmas: Hip-hop is poetry. there are also multiple ways to present these deﬁnitions. can be embraced by people from a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds. and alcohol. Hip-hop is agreeing with madness. . Hip-hop journalist Frank Williams cast hip-hop lyrically in 1996 in his very clever analysis. either in the sophisticated language of scholarly writing or in the language of hip-hop fanzines. pockets and TV screens.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.” Newsweek. Drunken adjectives and smoked out sentences ﬁlled with sex. Kevin Powell. guns. to borrow from old-school hip-hop jargon. Ibid. African folktales. .s.”79 The essay. Farley situates hip-hop squarely in the consumer arena. Hip-hop rings of negro spirituals. This variety adds ﬂavor. and lust. complexities. 77. to the hodgepodge of views on hip-hop’s deﬁnition. ears. Ice Cube. in which rappers “rhyme about jewelry. 76. 79. a former senior writer for Vibe magazine and self-proclaimed “hip-hop head for life. The majority of hip-hop’s chroniclers offer their musings in prose. January 1996.77 Although Powell’s primary purpose is to lament the direction hip-hop had taken by 2000. Langston Hughes meets Das EFX. Hip-hop is lyin’ ass ni*gas telling lies to eyes. Hip-hop is tempting sexism and the gloriﬁcation of a wack state of genocidal abyss. . and party and b. 15. formulaic approach to hip-hop in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Hip-hop is the Black existence. according to fashion design mogul Tommy Hilﬁger. inconsistencies. . 78. he also deﬁnes the culture and explains what it has meant to him.” The Source.”75 To this end. proclaiming it to be “perhaps the only art form that celebrates capitalism openly. Midsummer night fantasies conjured up by ghetto princesses and concrete princes in projects everywhere.”78 Just as there are multiple ways to deﬁne hip-hop. . 66. clothing. 75. . violence.” puts a different spin on hip-hop culture in his essay “My Culture at the Crossroads” (2000).76 Hip-hop historian Kevin Powell. “HipHop Is. 9 October 2000. Ibid. More importantly. Ibid. “My Culture at the Crossroads. “Hip-Hop Is. denigrate women in every conceivable way. he discusses corporate America’s infatuation with rap and cites the enthusiastic response of Hollywood and Madison Avenue to the phenomenon of hip-hop. whose style. . Powell longs for the golden age of hip-hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s. is too lengthy to cite in full. Frank Williams. and he bemoans the crass.
including Bill Adler and Brian Cross. Cited in Rap on Rap. This notwithstanding. September 2010 Eazy-E’s gravesite. Black male insecurity. hip-hop is ultimately the seemingly disconnected elements that fuel and give meaning to black urban existence at the close of the twentieth century. Perseverance.”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. Some. “What Is Hip-Hop?” in Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip Hop Culture. “Pink people wanna know if other pink people like hip-hop how can it still be hip-hop?” and stating. 81. The ﬁrst section acknowledges the “dozens” tradition in hip-hop with four lines that each begin “your mother is so hip-hop”. This version. Ibid. It is a street code of laws. the third of these iterations reads “your mother is so hip-hop. have written celebrated books on popular music and have enjoyed illustrious careers as cultural critics. she yelled ho ’fo I even axed her. music. the term “devotee” is an apt moniker for each person whose work I discuss.30 Notes. asking.80 Three years earlier. ed. the author wants us to understand that in addition to being a grab bag of non sequitur. in 1993. have deep and abiding roots in the world of hip-hop as publicists and chroniclers. “hip-hop is half black and half Japanese. and performers—and neither as scholarship re80. Others.” The next sections look at the commodiﬁcation of hip-hop. Greg Tate. THE DEVOTEES The writers whom I have designated as “the devotees” are a heterogeneous group. 1995). Ibid.”82 The penultimate verse explores the multicultural and technological components of hip-hop. 17.”83 In the closing lines. 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. . like Nelson George. 18–19. dance. arguing. because each began a written exploration of hip-hop from an enduring passion for the culture’s art. 83. Hip-hop is digital chips on the shoulders of African lips. Adam Sexton (New York: Delta Books. Hope. 82. True hip-hop is Not capitalism. “Hip-hop is the ﬁrst musical movement in history where black people pimped themselves before the white boy did. Hip-hop is all some brothers have as a guide book to life. 20. 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. The recipient of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards and an American Book Award.84 published at the height of the group’s popularity. and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell—in a variety of milieus: as high-school students in their middle-class hometown of Hollis. Darryl “DMC” McDaniels. 1987. His Tougher Than Leather: The Rise of Run-DMC (1987). and Esquire. 85. 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 Nelson George. Kurtis Blow. Bill Adler. one of the ﬁrst devoted to hip-hop performers.85 written in collaboration with hip-hop graphic artist Cey Adams. and in passing names scores of people involved in early hip-hop. and the Beastie Boys. including rappers Afrika Bambaataa. George 84. Essence. Adler’s most recent work. Nelson George’s name is synonymous with popular culture. DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip-Hop (2008). charts the rise of Def Jam Records. Adler also discusses the early career of Russell Simmons. 2002).” wrote a biography of rappers Run-DMC. (New York: Collins Design. Tokyo. Los Angeles: Consafos Press. .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. Among the book’s most useful features are the abundant citations of the group’s performances from contemporaneous reviews by critics Greg Tate. Although George’s style of writing is lucid and accessible to a range of readers. Queens. dressed in their trademark black velour Stetsons and white laceless Adidas. and in ﬁlm studios. on concert stages in London. 2008). 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). Adler’s book. John Leland. New York. reprint. a former rap publicist who owned a hip-hop arts gallery in New York called “Eyejammie. in the recording studio. (New York: New American Library. George is the author of eight nonﬁction books on African American culture. it provides a glimpse into the development and cultivation of hip-hop from the late 1970s through the middle 1980s. and he has written for the Village Voice. is a ﬁrsthand account. the book itself is as complicated as its subject matter. Run’s brother and one of hip-hop’s most successful entrepreneurs. and throughout the United States. chronicles Run-DMC’s rise to superstardom in the early 1980s. in so doing. tells the story of hip-hop through text and image. and record producers Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen.
these are subdivided into several very short sections.I. “National Music” and “Capitalist Tool. Ultimately. xiii. Hip Hop America reveals hip-hop culture as the “product of schizophrenic.. of course. as George tells us in his introduction. Ibid.G. brand consciousness. Two of the most interesting chapters are the tenth and twelfth. 1998). 136. freeing them to use raw language to say things on vinyl no generation of AfricanAmericans had felt comfortable expressing in public.” Like the other chapters in the book. Sean “Puffy” Combs. and the Notorious B. 87.” George looks at the rivalry between East and West Coast rappers. September 2010 acknowledges the many branches on hip-hop’s tree. This. 135. along the way explaining the downfall 86.32 Notes. Nelson George.-is-God ears couldn’t really hear NWA yet. 88.. This personal approach gives the book a credibility that is sometimes lacking in the work of other writers. Suge Knight.” In “National Music. . each focused on a single idea and often bearing a fanciful title.”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. xiv. and anti-Semitism) are ingrained in our national culture and not unique to rap music. gun iconography. 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. Too radical.. sexism. his “old-school New York.”87 Each of the book’s sixteen chapters is in some way anecdotal. anti-intellectualism—are very much by-products of the larger American culture” and that the unsavory aspects of hip-hop (racism. both as an extension of African-American maleness and as a showcase for the art of verbal dexterity and storytelling.”86 He wants us to “understand that the values that underpin so much of hip-hop—materialism. we feel an immediate and intimate connection to the culture that is enlivened by George’s experiences with hip-hop as it evolved. Hip Hop America (New York: Viking. drawing on George’s engagement with hip-hop culture over the course of more than twenty years. Ibid.”89 George walks us through gangsta rap’s glory days. 89. It was too obscene. In reading Hip Hop America. such as “Fat Laces” and “The Beatles of Gangsterdom. George conﬁdes that when he was introduced to the music of NWA in 1988. Tupac Shakur. but he centers his discussion on rap and looks in particular at “rapping as art. post-civil rights movement America. we get an insider’s glimpse into hip-hop’s early years.E. P. 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. Because the book was published in 1998. Ibid.
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. Cross encountered the racial realities that informed much early rap and that enlivened his fascination with the stories people tell. In this music. Ibid. “Capitalist Tool. The ﬁrst provides brief overviews of Los Angeles and Chicano hip-hop. Given the popularity—indeed. New York: Verso. It’s Not About a Salary: Rap. the second and lengthier section is devoted entirely to interviews with performers of West Coast rap in the 1980s and early 1990s. as well as in the stories he read daily in the 1970s. who was born and raised in Limerick. mellow view in the ’70s. ubiquity—of hip-hip in the international sphere. . wrote It’s Not About a Salary: Rap. 3. Cross divides his book into two unequal sections. Brian Cross.90 Chapter twelve. guns. 143.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 33 of Death Row Records’ cofounder Suge Knight and bewailing the murders of Tupac and Biggie.” this has not precluded hip-hop from having left its mark on American politics. 155. Ireland. to this end. and despair that everyone noticed after the 1992 riots—riots that had been happening on CDs all along. This interest in lived experience led Cross to rap. While George acknowledges that “hiphop’s major problem as a political movement is that MCs are not social activists by training or inclination. a book that explored West Coast rap and the intersection of race and racial politics in this music. Race. Race and Resistance in Los Angeles (London. Just as the Beach Boys spoke for an idealistic vision of the area in the ’60s and the Eagles presented a cynical. the recordings from the Compton/Long Beach axis tell the story of the poverty. with its stories that “relate to the social geography that produces them. owned by Russell Simmons. and “Puffy” Combs.91 Much of the chapter focuses on the commodiﬁcation of hip-hop. and Resistance in Los Angeles (1993). Brian Cross. Karl Kani (aka Carl Williams). Ibid. 91. in 1988. Cross also includes an 90. George discusses hiphop’s inﬂuence in the fashion world and the multi-million-dollar businesses.. Cross’s fascination with rap and hip-hop culture was inspired initially by the political nature of British and Irish punk music. 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. started in the 1990s. 1993).”92 During his ﬁrst visit to the United States.” looks at hip-hop’s inﬂuence in the political and commerical arenas. Cross encountered the anomie his generation felt.. 92.
Eazy E. Most of the interviews were conducted in person. in October 1991 and November 1992. The Words and Music of Ice Cube. and academic discourse in these ﬁelds is 93. 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. have become staples. Cross’s interview with Ice Cube. including the interview with Ice Cube. September 2010 appendix. The Praeger Singer-Songwriter Collection (Westport. both by phone. addresses the performer’s ignominious business dealings and NWA’s image as nihilistic hoodlums. either in the performers’ studios or in Cross’s apartment. performance poet Kamau Daa’ood. and rap as political statement versus rap as entertainment. and Lonzo. The centerfold and most noteworthy interviews are those of gangsta rappers Ice-T.” was conducted in two parts. we might anticipate a veritable surfeit of this writing. . G Money. Trade magazines. black unity. compiled from statistics gathered by the Coalition Against Police Abuse. Courses on hip-hop culture. whose insightful and probing articles have enhanced our understanding of hip-hop’s shifting parameters. Cross’s interview style. works well in establishing an informal tone that elicits equally forthright responses from the performers. conducted in the fall of 1992. CT: Praeger. 1–26. 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. and Ice Cube. that details police abuse in Los Angeles between 1965 and 1991. anomalous in college curricula in the 1990s. homosexuality. His interview with Eazy E.34 Notes. and in a variety of styles that appeal to its diverse audiences. it also includes interviews with a variety of Los Angelesbased musicians. Indeed. were conducted by phone. 2008). Dr. see Gail Hilson Woldu. Dre. which is forthright and tinged with street jargon. For a detailed look at NWA in the late 1980s and the cultural politics of gangsta rap. with their strong fan base and eager advertisers. Cli-n-Tel. including jazz notables Roy Porter and Horace Tapscott. we will continue to be ﬂush in both quality and quantity of published material. Although the bulk of It’s Not About a Salary centers on performers of gangsta rap. others. 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.93 FUTURE DIRECTIONS: BEYOND 2010 If past trends in writing about hip-hop culture predict future trends accurately. LA hip-hop culture. an archetype of the “hiphop interview. and Old School LA hiphoppers Chino.
One ﬁnal area of published work on hip-hop culture needs to be pursued more ambitiously: monograph-length studies of individual performers and groups. Pough. with its rapidly shifting transformations. Greg Thomas. Hip-hop’s kaleidoscope.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 35 nearly as commonplace and acceptable as that on blues and jazz. has proven itself perfectly suited to this range of writing. and Angela Davis in this realm. and the American Musicological Society. . to these I would also mention T. Knowledge. 2009). Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Sessions on hip-hop topics are routinely included in the national meetings of the Society for Ethnomusicology. several books have been written about icons Tupac Shakur and Eminem. Knowledge. Neal. and Pough might be the models against which topic-speciﬁc writing should be measured. Given the multicultural. Keyes. I have already noted the pioneering work of Rose. and we await either a deﬁnitive study of these legends or studies that explore in-depth a speciﬁc topic. the College Music Society. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. With the evergrowing popularity and inﬂuence of hip-hop culture. 94. By consequence. however. written for generalist and voyeuristic audiences. Some of this writing will of necessity restate hip-hop’s history. future readers must be reminded at every turn of the culture’s origins and the racial dimension that spawned it. 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. most are of fanzine quality. multiethnic. 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. at the dismantling of rap’s hegemonic structures. among others. Predictably. in particular. Keyes. while that of Condry. There are exceptions. and multinational direction of hip-hop in the twenty-ﬁrst century. there should be no shortage of provocative new writing. these are of varying quality. including Greg Thomas’s HipHop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. will perhaps set the standard for writing focused on comprehensive explorations of hip-hop culture. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism (2009). would be wise to chronicle the years after 2000. Perry. whose work I have cited. of course. Hip-Hop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. most. 5. While many books and articles exist in this domain. Future writing should also look more closely at women’s roles in hip-hop and. The work of Rose and Chang. which delves into the “new bodies of knowledge and new body politics”94 that Kim’s music and presence invokes.
2005. New York: Oxford University Press. What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. editors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Baker. Inc. and the Academy. Raquel. Dyson. New York: New York University Press. 1990. Awad Ibrahim. Chang. Culture America. 2000. New York: Routledge. and Alastair Pennycook. Durham: Duke University Press. Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. Kitwana. 2005. Nelson. 2005. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. Music/Culture. and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. New York: Viking. Black Studies. Cheney. ———. George. Forman.36 Notes. Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. 2004. Music/Culture. 2002. and the New Reality of Race in America. 2005. Middletown. editors. New York: Basic Civitas Books. editors. New York: Ecco Press. Jeffrey O. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. Houston A. 2006. 2001. G. with a new chapter. New York: Basic Civitas. And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. September 2010 SELECTED BOOKS ON HIP-HOP CULTURE Alim. Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap. Mitchell. Michael Eric. editor. . New York: Routledge. CT: Wesleyan University Press. 2006. The ’Hood Comes First: Race. Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization. Costello. 2009.. Bakari. Youth Identities. Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Murray. Mark Anthony. Rap. Samy. Cepeda. H. Reprint. editor. Basu. Wiggers. Can’t Stop. Adam. Neal. Lemelle. Dipannita and Sidney J. Ian. Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wankstas. ——— and Mark Anthony Neal. and the Politics of Language. 1996. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The Vinyl Ain’t Final: Hip Hop and the Globalization of Black Popular Culture. Wannabes. New York: Faber and Faber. Condry. Space. Ogbar. That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Middletown. Mark and David Foster Wallace. Tony. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip Hop Cultures. Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. New York: Routledge. 2006. Charise. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. editor. Hip Hop America. 1998. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Martin’s Press. 2007. London: Pluto Press. 1999. 1993. Brothers Gonna Work It Out: Sexual Politics in the Golden Age of Rap Nationalism. Jeff. New York: St. Krims. CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Whiteley. ABSTRACT At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-ﬁrst century. Quinn. Hip-Hop Revolution in the Flesh: Power. Halifu. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2004. Adam. 2007. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. NY: Manchester University Press. Manchester. 2004. Russell A. Tricia. Rose. and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism. 2007. et al. Great Satan’s Rage: American Negativity and Rap/Metal in the Age of Supercapitalism. Rap on Rap: Straight Up Talk on Hip Hop Culture. Music/Culture. Denean. Boston: Northeastern University Press. Thomas. Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. Pop Culture. Pimps Up. T. Queering the Popular Pitch. Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology. Boston: Beacon Press. 2006. New York: Columbia University Press. 2008. Hip Hop Culture. Sheila and Jennifer Rycenga. and the Public Sphere. CT: Praeger Books.The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture 37 Osumare. Popular Cultures. Pough. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Watkins. Durham: Duke University Press. CA: Parker Publishing. Eithne. ———. Potter. New York: Routledge. Knowledge. The Praeger SingerSongwriter Collection. 1995. New York: Basic Civitas. Everyday Lives. we continue to see a wealth of ﬁne academic writing published by scholars in ﬁelds as diverse as cultural studies. much of which has succumbed to crude . Scott. Sharpley-Whiting. Hanover. writing about hip-hop is at an interesting crossroads. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood. 2005.. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Imani. Craig. 2009. and women’s studies. editor. Wilson. editors. On the one hand. 1995. Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap. musicology. S. Gail Hilson. Albany: State University of New York Press. and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Perry. Sexton. editors. Gwendolyn. NH: University Press of New England. New York: New York University Press. we have noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of popular writing about hip-hop. The Words and Music of Ice Cube. Greg. The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—And Why it Matters. Woldu. 2007. Westport. Mira Loma. The SUNY Series in Postmodern Culture. Hip Hop Matters: Politics. ———. New York: Delta. on the other. 2008. The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop: Power Moves. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 1994. 2008. 2005.
38 Notes. This twenty-year written history of hip-hop is considered through a variety of lenses. September 2010 street language in an attempt to increase readership. creates a conundrum as hip-hop struggles to deﬁne—and redeﬁne—itself. . 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. with the hope that the various points of view might illuminate new directions for hip-hop’s chronicled future. by turns overly pedantic and gratuitously coarse. works by journalists and cultural critics.
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