Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This Was the Week that Was: Thoughts on Hip-Hop scholarship

Hip-Hop scholarship sucks. Thought over.

Ok, there is more to it than that, last week I went to a 'presentation' on Hip-Hop during MLK week... Also known as Obama week (yay 20th of January). The linkage between the Civil Rights icon (who is constantly appropriated by non-historians), Obama (ditto, except he is appropriated by everyone), and Hip-Hop (ditto, except this is appropriated by non-practitioners) was trite and stupid. It was pushing for the whole 'lets throw in as many things that we consider black as possible!' and the various black organizations on campus were only too happy to oblige. I heard about this presentation from AAS, after all. I really did not want to go, but my friends invited me, so I thought it would be bearable with them around. They could not make it in, but I did, and boy was it terrible. Which brings me to the original point: Hip-Hop scholarship (or should I say studies? For the purposes of this post I mean anyone that writes about Hip-Hop seriously) sucks, except now I feel like explaining why, using the presentation given as the benchmark for the field (Some should say I should not, but I can debate the point further by pointing you to most of the books that make up the field, or how it is taught).

The presentation was given by an AAS/sociologist professor, John Rogers III, which is the first strike against it: because the presentation is going to make Hip-Hop the sole purview of the black experience framed as resistance to a racist American superstructure while at the same time using AAS literary theory to look at black representation in the media. One might protest "But Mr. Anonymous Blogger!" they would begin "Isn't Hip-Hop explicitly what you just stated!" This reply is sufficient if you have already been brainwashed. The other response could be "well, isn't Hip-Hop a black thing anyway?" The answer to the latter point is: sort-of. This ultimately refers to what one's conceptions of Hip-Hop is : if Hip-Hop is basically another word for 'rap', then sure, the presentation got it right, and both rejoinders are in the right. However, if Hip-Hop is a broader cultural experience of self-expression, which is what people that actually live it know it to be, then the presentation was a massive circle-jerk and waste of university resources. I will now demonstrate why the latter point is true:

First off, Hip-Hop developed out of the South Bronx in the early 1970s (1972-1973 are cited as the usual dates) as a confluence West Indian toasting traditions and the development and acquisition of complex sound systems that could loop records over and over. Every first-generation emcee had West Indian roots (DK Kool Herc was Jamaican, Grandmaster Flash was Bajan etc), and that is ignoring the later generation emcees, which are innumerable. The looping records, focusing on the instrumental breaks so people could rap over them and also dance (bboying, although to many bboying is not dancing on the break but actually HITTING THE FLOOR on the break, which is a significant difference) were ways to make money on the weekend. When DJ Kool Herc was pulling in 300 a night from spinning and toasting, he was thinking about money. Not 'the cause'. Not resistance. Money. DJing, emceeing, and bboying all developed from this period, and most of this was brought in from West Indian culture (the development of bboying is another story altogether, and I might tackle that in a later post). Now, this is 'black' culture insofar as the practitioners had black skin and lived in the United States. DJ Kool Herc worked hard to lose his Jamaican accent and fit in with the black kids after all. Yet this belief of a monolithic 'black experience', while perhaps useful in theory, is a shallow and facile understanding of the complexity of experiences facing different 'black' populations in the United States. Also, Hip-Hop almost immediately absorbed graffiti (which is hotly debated as to where it came from, and had elements of the predominantly white punk movement), and much of the dynamic bboy moves came from Puerto-Rican bboys, all of which get written off in the discussion of Hip-Hop. Rather people talk about how all black culture is the same, and Hip-Hop is only an expression black culture. When the speaker talked about how 1978's Rapper's Delight was the starting point of Hip-Hop (which was the definition of a pop/sellout album and the lyrics were totally bitten off from Grandmaster Caz), I knew he was an idiot who was going to commit the cardinal sin of analyzing Hip-Hop: confusing the whole damn thing with rap.

That brings us to the second major weakness of Hip-Hop scholarship; it is emcee-centric. Whether Hip-Hop is elemental (bboying, graff, djing, emceeing, etc) or not, it is not just an emcee spitting to a beat. The general rule of thumb in discussing Hip-Hop with a moron or a down dude is ask him or her the difference between Hip-Hop and rap. If Hip-Hop is described as a purer form of conscious, political, or non-material rap, opposed to vulgar commercial rap, you are talking to a moron. Hip-Hop is the culture, rap is the physical act of rapping over a beat. Do not confuse the two. The fact that you can get a PhD basically reading lyrics (which what most people in Hip-Hop studies know how to do) and occasionally looking at graff but have no knowledge of how to interpret DJing or bboying means that those people are dumbasses. When they talk about Hip-Hop, they are really talking about Black American Mainstream Rap (BAMR? Help me make a juicer acronym please) and leave out everything else. This also has to do with the way Hip-Hop is raced: as anyone that has been to a bboy jam, graff expo, emcee battle, or DJ battle know; the brothas do not quite dominate the field. Actually in a lot of stuff their presence is not all that felt, and if one believes that Hip-Hop IS solely black culture, the asian Bboy, latino DJ, or white tagger (to use the most common stereotypes of supposed 'cultural theft') are not actually representing Hip-Hop, because real Hip-Hop can only BE about black culture. A broader look at the class component of Hip-Hop would show its attraction to marginalized populations, but that would mean that Ukranians, Koreans, and Venezuelans have legitimate non-racial Hip-Hop, which is unacceptable. That is not to say that BAMR is NOT Hip-Hop, (it completely is, although this might get us into the hilarious 'what is Hip-Hop' question) but rather this hagiography must stop. Considering that a ton of Hip-Hop scholars talk about a rigid culture as if they were living in 19th century Germany, whereby pure forms can be stolen or miscegenated by inferior populations is something that NEVER gets talked about (White people ALWAYS steal OUR culture, etc). Ce la vie. And yes, the speaker was constantly making reference to 'Our Culture' and that 'we have to take it back'.

The final point I wanted to emphasize is that a lot of people do not quite realize that much of the BAMR they worship (specifically conscious Hip-Hop such as Public Enemy) only were heard because massive record companies were throwing money at various acts in the 1980s and early 1990s in the hopes of making money from this 'rap stuff'. There is a reason that Public Enemy put out their stuff with Def Jam AND Columbia Records, after all. Prior to the slow mainstreaming of rap in the 1980s, getting music (and I am only talking about the music) was usually limited to your cousin in NYC giving you a mixtape when he came by on Thanksgiving. There were radio stations to be sure, but it was highly dependent on the city (and I am DYING to read a history of Hip-Hop that looks outside of New York, specifically Philly, DC, Detroit, and Miami, two of which had their own local black music that competed with rap for popularity... a cookie if you can tell me which cities and which styles) and even the neighborhood. All the BAMR golden-age stuff was commercial. Even when it was militant, it was commercial. That is not a stunning revelation, but to Hip-Hop studies it is blasphemy. Although then again they conveniently forget that all early generation heads were constantly talking about (not necessarily rapping) how to get more swag. Buying fresh pumas was always in the back of your mind, no matter which element you repped. Getting paid money and having your stuff put out there on the radio and on albums was not a sin, no matter who was paying for it.

The speaker talked about how Golden Age Hip-Hop was subversive and that money had corrupted it. Yes, some of it was, but only to a point, and money was always important to Hip-Hop. When he talked about Biggie as being an amazing emcee, I wanted to strangle him: Biggie is madd overrated, with just two albums and a far better career as a battle rapper. The speaker never mentioned a DJ, bboy, or anyone involved with graf (unless, of course, they were doing that to begin with, and a bunch of heads were multi-talented who could rep two to four of the elements, but I digress). The worse thing was that the audience was EATING IT UP, with the standard 'mmhmms' of affirmation. When the speaker tried to portray the difficulties facing inner-city black youth as tied to Gangsta rap (the nihilistic enemy of everything apparently), I was floored. This line of thinking sounds well and good for a reactionary, or Helen Lovejoy (Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children), but a supposedly liberal AAS sociologist who is familiar with social-formation theory? Oh wait, I forgot, theory screws everything up, AAS and sociology are just as guilty of retarded use of theory as anyone else. Still, if he thinks that conscious rap getting more radio play is the 'answer' to the problems facing inner-city black youth, that rap should get back to its mythic roots, and the way he cloaked his heteronormative, sexist, ethnocentric, and nationalist narrative in liberation ideology was applauded by the audience, well everyone is at fault. Hip-Hop studies and the people that eat it up are stupid, what can I say.

Except Jeff Chang, he is cool, though he likes to couch some his stuff in resistance against the US government which makes some of his writings hard to digest. Real heads should tell Hip-Hop scholars to go to hell and quite worshiping the emcees. Peace.


  1. I like this bit: "if one believes that Hip-Hop IS solely black culture, the asian Bboy, latino DJ, or white tagger (to use the most common stereotypes of supposed 'cultural theft') are not actually representing Hip-Hop, because real Hip-Hop can only BE about black culture."

    As for the larger polemic, I wouldn't know, though there is something familiar sounding about your complaint. But I have learned more about the world of global hiphop from reading Wayne Marshall (at http://wayneandwax.com/), a really smart guy who manages to not do the things you're talking about, so I feel sure there are exceptions out there (if only to prove the rule).

  2. Zungu (or is your name more appropriate?),

    I think the choice of the word 'polemic' is accurate... it was just a salty rant. The larger point is how various important narratives get pushed to the side. Which happens in all histories (and this in itself gets into fundamental questions about what is history in its relation to the past, the truth, heritage, etc), but that I always find it ironic because AAS and sociology is always apparently concerned with 'history', in the most Malcom X use of the term, and they as fields basically do the same thing when given any sort of power. Not that I find it surprising, because everything is about power, and their practitioners are human after all, but unlike others, I am under no illusions that fields outside of history are more 'accurate' or 'inculsive' than history itself, percieved as the domain of dead-white men. Also, keep in mind that this post was written by an African historian with a sprinkling of knowledge of non-American music systems, and the person you cited is an ethnomusicologist who specializes in... non-American music systems. I think a lot of our observations are couched on our knowledge that the world does not revolve around the United States.... Also, his bio of Kool Herc is money.

    PS have you ever watched "hip-hop colonialism"? It has some interesting discussions about language that should appeal to your post-modern/post-colonial sensibilities.