Hip-Hop Scholarship

birth of hip-hop

Last year, my good friend Matt and I submitted a pitch to CBC’s long-running radio program Ideas, entitled “The Next Movement: Stories of a Hip-Hop Generation”. We proposed to do a radio documentary that would “explore the significance of the hip-hop generation to contemporary culture”. Citing a general lack of knowledge (or perhaps a more specific disinterest) in hip-hop amongst members of the selection committee, we were turned down. But that wasn’t too surprising. The proposal we ended up submitting had taken on a far more generic and generalized ‘focus’ than we had first intended.

After a brief discussion with one of the show’s producers prior to submitting our pitch, we were informed that Ideas had never addressed a cultural movement like hip-hop before and would likely be reluctant to do so. We were also advised to propose something “as broad as possible” so as not to alienate anyone who might not be (ie. would not be) familiar with elements of hip-hop music and culture. With that in mind, we opted for a title that borrowed nicely from an excellent track on The Roots‘ Achebe-inspired album Things Fall Apart, but didn’t accurately reflect our real interest.

Instead of trudging our way through a generalized overview of hip-hop’s significance to contemporary culture, we wanted to look at the something dynamic, specific, and new: the burgeoning field of hip-hop scholarship. We wanted to explore hip-hop’s “intellectual currency” and examine the critical intersections between the academic study of hip-hop and the artistic production of hip-hop music and culture.

Hip-hop is not dead – it is one of the largest and most influential cultural movements on the planet. It is no surprise, then, that both its founding artists and its newly-minted millions of myspace rappers are being put, increasingly, under the critical lens of hip-hop scholars. In a recent article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Reyhan Harmanci offers an excellent look at the “literary flood” of hip-hop scholarship that’s occurring in the United States, and notes that, “according to a 2005 survey by Stanford’s Hiphop Archive, more than 300 courses on [hip-hop] are now offered at colleges and universities across the country.”

Many of the hip-hop academy‘s rising stars seem to be emerging from the west coast, particularly centred around the San Francisco/Bay Area. One of the brightest and most widely-read is the writer, hip-hop activist, and Solesides label co-founder Jeff Chang, whose book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” is a seminal work on hip-hop’s history and, as Harmanci observes, “one of the primary texts in many [hip-hop] classes”. Chang is a fantastic writer who has emerged as a central voice of the ‘hip-hop generation’ perhaps, in part, because he is one of the few hip-hop writers who can legitimately claim both academic and street credibility.

Part of Chang’s appeal is his active involvement in community-building efforts. It is important work for him because, as he notes, “hip-hop is meant to be about that, bringing people together and raising the roof.” As such, he is constantly on the road to attend speaking engagements at universities, conferences, hip-hop events and workshops. Chang’s interest in promoting collaboration, dialogue, and discourse on the study of hip-hop has produced a fascinating follow-up to his future-classic first book.

Chang’s latest – “Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop” – is a collection of essays, interviews, and roundtable discussions from heavy-hitting artists and academics like: Harry Allen, B+, Kamilah Forbes, Sacha Jenkins, Paul D. Miller, Mark Anthony Neal, Rha Goddess and many more. I haven’t yet had the chance to delve into this anthology (although I eagerly anticipate reading it), but WireTap Magazine has a great interview with Chang in which he discusses many of the book’s key questions and considerations and Jeff also regularly writes on similar subjects at his Zentronix blog.

Total Chaos, like Can’t Stop Won’t Stop before it, offers a good vector for considering the direction that hip-hop discourse is taking: it is a book intended for both hip-hop fans and academics alike and it is one that will likely be read and appreciated equally by both. Increasingly, however, it seems more appropriate to consider hip-hop fans and academics not as separate groups but as inter-connected points within the spectrum of hip-hop’s critical audience. For as much as hip-hop is now being interrogated by academics, so too is the academy being infiltrated by hip-hop artists, poets, writers, and producers.

Critic Hua Hsu has suggested that “any hip-hop academic shoulders a unique double burden—not only is there the expectation of serious scholarship, there is also a mandate to legitimize an entire field of study in a world built on canons and orthodoxy” – but this no longer seems to be the case. The study of hip-hop, although not without its critics, has been legitimized by the hundreds of university courses being offered and books being published on its innumerable permutations. They provide irrefutable evidence that hip-hop scholarship is here to stay.

Bolstered by the enthusiastic support of its most dynamic and critical voices – such as those of Jeff Chang, Davey D, Shawn Ginright and others – “the hip-hop generation” is rapidly producing its own richly-textured and global discourse. And if “hip-hop is the language of this generation”, as Rickey Vincent suggests, then hip-hop scholarship offers a self-reflexive mode of articulation that is both deeply embedded in hip-hop’s modes of artistic creation and cultural production and, simultaneously, able to examine, critically, its own intellectual currency.

It’s unfortunate that Matt and I didn’t have the chance to produce our little radio doc for the CBC, as the question of hip-hop scholarship is not only a timely, relevant, and an important cultural question to consider, but also a vast and growing subject with many voices contributing to its development.

For additional links and further reading recommendations, please continue after the break.

THE NEXT MOVEMENT:

The following is an excerpt from The Next Movement – our proposal for CBC’s Ideas. Incidentally, Matt is a professor of geography at the University of Toronto (who has incorporated Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop into his lectures) and he is the first person who introduced me to N.W.A, 2 Live Crew, and Public Enemy at the ripe old age of 13.

“In 2006, a press conference was held to announce the Smithsonian Institution’s new collection of hip-hop memorabilia. The Smithsonian is not the first major museum to exhibit material on hip-hop history, but its location is particularly significant. A genre born at the margins of society has arrived at the heart of North American culture.

Hip-hop is the most popular genre of music on the planet, and its influence on youth from New York to Newfoundland and beyond is obvious and overwhelming. As Jeff Chang notes in his recent history Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, hip-hop is at least thirty years old; like the Beat poets of Greenwich Village, the original rappers, DJs, and dancers of the South Bronx have spawned their own generation. Hip-hop’s most popular artists are now global celebrities who travel easily from the world of music to film, television, video games, fashion, and even politics. But for all this success, as the legends in attendance at the Hilton noted, while hip-hop gathers additional recognition the danger of losing sight of its historical roots is acute. And in this history lie the keys to its cultural significance.

With an eye to this emerging hip-hop narrative, The Next Movement will explore the significance of the hip-hop generation to contemporary culture. In order to understand why hip-hop matters to so many people, we will have conversations with both the recipients and the interpreters of this message – with those who create the music and culture, with those who consume it, and with those who ascribe importance and relevance to hip-hop.

As with many other powerful forms of culture, hip-hop has increasingly come under the microscope of critics, journalists, and scholars. From Tricia Rose’s influential study Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994) to the New Yorker’s recent profile of New York rapper Ghostface Killah, writing and talking about hip-hop – as well as critiquing it – has becoming increasingly common. Hip-hop texts, sounds, and images are overflowing with ideas about identity, geography, race, class, politics, gender, and the forces and flaws of popular culture. Hip-hop, itself, has become a cultural force to be reckoned with. By interviewing people who are thinking carefully about hip-hop and contributing to its evolution, The Next Movement will give light and life to some of the reasons for its tremendous staying power, commercial success, and indelible influence on global culture.”

FURTHER READING:

“Hip-Hop Scholars Bumrush the Academy” – by Hua Hsu (Village Voice)

“Academic Hip-Hop? Yes Yes Y’all” – by Reyhan Harmanci (San Francisco Chronicle)

“Hip-Hop Scholars Push for Recognition” – UC Berkeley News

“Hip-Hop and its Contents” – Wayne & Wax (blog)

“Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes” – film by Byron Hurt (PBS)

“That’s the Joint: A Scholarly Study of Hip-Hop” – Audio Feature (NPR)

“Is Hip-Hop Really Dead?” – by Davey D (AlterNet)

J-Zone’s Top 5 Reasons Hip-Hop is Dead – by J-Zone (MySpace blog)

Criticism of rap growing within hip-hop world – Associated Press (Charleston Daily Mail)

Hip-Hop Congress (non-profit organization)

Hip-Hop Symposium: April 2007 (University of Illinois)

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7 thoughts on “Hip-Hop Scholarship

  1. hyphy beats

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  2. Pingback: Show and Prove: The Tensions, Contradictions, and Possibilities of Hip-Hop Studies in Practice « Culturite

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