hip-hop and its contents
i like to think that, like phife dog, i've been a "hip-hop scholar, since being knee-high to a duck." and while i may not have the height of mugsy bogues or the complexion of a hockey puck, i try to represent as best i can.
and when i say represent, i mean represent. that includes representing in the good ol', holdin-it-down, intransitive manner, as well as re-presenting the story of hip-hop as i see it. for those who don't know, i've been working on representing hip-hop's relationship to reggae (and new york's relationship to kingston) for a few years now, and so for me the story of hip-hop has become inseparable from the story of reggae--and vice versa.
allow me to rehash how i arrived at the present narrative. when i went out to UW-madison to study ethnomusicology, i knew that i wanted to "work" on hip-hop. no, they weren't teaching about hip-hop at UW, and i really didn't need classes to tell me what was up at any rate. what they were teaching was method--the tools to use to understand this big, complex, socio-musical monster. (and not monster meaning bad but monster meaning good.) i wrote my master's thesis on the development of dj premier's sample-based style--from the loops of "words i manifest" to the stabs of "you know my steez"--and the relationship between primo's steelo, street/underground resistance, authenticity (aka, the real), and (the threat of) copyright litigation. for my dissertation, i decided that i wanted to write on hip-hop as a global phenomenon, looking at what it carries with it outside of the US as well as what people bring to it. because they made me study german in grad school and i knew germany had a longstanding and rich hip-hop scene, i had planned to study hip-hop in germany. by chance, though, i ended up taking a trip to jamaica (to investigate a prison rehabilitation program), and i was struck above all by the serious presence of hip-hop in the land where reggae is king. it seemed strange to me at the time, that jay-z and nelly could dominate a club in kingston, so i decided that jamaica would work as well as germany. (plus, wifey wasn't about to follow me to berlin, but kingston could work.)
although i had planned to focus on the subject of hip-hop in jamaica, it's not as if it operates in a vacuum there, and unsurprisingly, the deeper i dug into reggae, the more i realized that, in addition to kool herc and busta rhymes (the classic tokens through which hip-hop acknowledges its west indian input), hip-hop and reggae had been in dialogue pretty constantly since the mid-70s and in a way that the conventional stories of each music didn't really seem to acknowledge. (moreover, looking simply at the story of reggae, it was clear that american music, despite ska's strong break from boogie, has always been big in JA.) it seemed to me that there was an interesting part of the story that was missing--the part of the story that recognizes what an intensely caribbean place new york is and what a cosmopolitan place kingston is. between circular migration and the increasing speed and accessibility of high-tech communication and media technologies, the borders get pretty fuzzy and what's remarkable is how you can hear this, all along, in the music--never mind the way that you can hear conceptions of 'jamaican-ness' or 'blackness' change in the music over time. by recognizing these inter- and perhaps trans-national movements in the music, we can appreciate better the way that the US is intricately connected to its neighbors, not to mention the ways that (black) jamaicans have embraced and engaged (black) american musics and styles as a way of upsetting certain nationalist narratives that tend to obscure race/class conflicts and inequalities. (check out deborah thomas's new book for a fascinating, in-depth argument along these lines.)
the course that i'm teaching this spring at brown will attempt--through lots of critical listening as well as reading across various narrative strategies--to present as much of this stuff as possible, to challenge as it enhances the established narratives about hip-hop and reggae and about the relationship between the US and jamaica/the caribbean. there has been a lot of talk about hip-hop/reggae crossover recently, but we can observe a pretty steady history of american mainstream culture--hip-hop included--absorbing caribbean culture, so that, for instance, dub techniques disappear into unmarked ubiquity and ska becomes something that suburban white kids do. (after giving a lecture on jamaican music at harvard last month, i had a student come up to me and say, "ska is from jamaica!?")
i imagine that, like the syllabus for my electronic music course, this one has the potential to generate a fair amount of discussion and debate, as the world of online hip-hop critics and pundits is no less contentious than that of electronic heads. i direct people to my comments re: the electronic music course, as many of the same points apply. but the gist of my defense is this: i am not seeking to supplant but to supplement the stories of hip-hop and reggae. this course does not attempt to tell the full histories of either hip-hop or reggae; instead, it seeks to hear their histories together in order to appreciate their deep links and the implications of such a relationship. although my approach is somewhat radical, it should not be dismissed as revisionist (unless, of course, all history is revisionist). although i seek to demonstrate in a new and somewhat subversive way that hip-hop and reggae are not only related but relational (that is to say, crucially and mutually constitutive), i'm building on a growing body of scholarship and drawing from a musical record that challenges the received historical record.
i've been curious about the intersections between hip-hop and reggae for a while now. ever since back in '85, when my aunt lorna gave me and my brother our first boombox, along with a few casettes: among them, whitney houston's eponymous joint, miami sound machine's primitive love, and run dmc's king of rock. i don't think we ever removed the cellophane from the miami sound machine, and while whitney got some run, it was run dmc that had our little toshiba on lock.
incidentally, run dmc's king of rock not only introduced me to rap, it also introduced me, in a rather bizarre way, to reggae. on "roots, rap, reggae," run and dmc are joined on the mic by none other than king yellow, and they all do their best to ride a pretty chintzy attempt at a reggae riddim. i can remember finding it funny that they decided to roll their r's on the track, and it was years before i realized that yellowman was saying "hotter, hotter, hotter reggae music" (at the time, i just heard it as "atta," which was the name of a muslim kid we went to school with). now, having dug deeper, i can hear that yellowman's making reference to, among other things, welton irie's 1980 adaptation of the sugar hill gang's "rapper's delight": "hotter reggae music"--an early example of reggae's love affair with rap. and i can appreciate the significance of this collaboration, having learned that yellowman was all the rage in NY clubs in the early 80s--another fact that too often goes ignored in hip-hop histories. reggae been in hip-hop. (thus, "hip-hop and its contents.")
in a nod to "roots, rap, reggae" (which is itself a nod to bob marley's "roots, rock, reggae") as well as the pioneering work on routes/diasporas by scholars like paul gilroy and james clifford, i've titled my course, and my dissertation, "routes, rap, reggae" in order to emphasize that these circuits of travel, migration, and exchange are as much a part of the foundations of hip-hop and reggae as more traditional and obvious sources.
at any rate, i'm really looking forward to this course. we'll do a lot of critical listening and reading, engage (no doubt) in some heated discussions, and, through individual research papers, investigate many of these twists and turns further. we'll also have some guests to enlighten and provoke us from time to time. jeff chang, whose fantastic new history of the hip-hop generation is one of the course's primary texts, will be making a stop in providence to discuss his project and his perspective. and later in the semester, adam mansbach will come by to discuss his latest work on hip-hop, race (traitors), and the tricky politics of engagement/appropriation. i'm hoping to rope in some other special guests before the semester is over.
to any detractors out there not persuaded by my disclaimers, i invoke jeru tha damaja: "i repre-...aww fuck it, don't even need to say it."
6 million ways to tell a story, choose one.