Race and Class: Hip-Hop

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Two MCs and one DJ [Experience Music Project]

Hip-hop is a major American cultural tour de force. It’s music, but it’s not just music. It’s a culture, an ethos, and a generation. And wrapped up in hip-hop are clues about race, class, the market, the rise in the rate of incarceration of black men over the last twenty years, globalization, and a number of other heady issues not immediately suggested by your local Top 40 radio station.

As part of our continuing series on race and class in America we’re going to try and tackle hip-hop. In the first of two shows, we’ll try and understand hip-hop’s impact and influence in America, as well as try and decode it a little. Is it, as cultural critic Stanley Crouch calls it, “the new black minstrelsy,” or, “Birth of a Nation with a back beat”? Or is it, as cultural critic Patricia Rose calls it, the “affirmation of collective self in the face of a society that despised the black and brown poor”? We’re working on a list of other questions here. Please add your own, and suggestions for guests.

Jeff Chang

Author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

Blogger, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Founding Editor, ColorLines Magazine

Founder of hip-hop indie label Quantum Projects

(Thanks to jbracken)

Bakari Kitwana

Author of The Hip-Hop Generation and Why White Kids Like Hip-Hop

Former Executive editor of The Source

(Thanks to RichardNash)

Boots Riley

Frontman for hip-hop group The Coup

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  • freddybulldog

    First and foremost I would like to express my thanks that you have chosen Hip Hop as a show subject. I have just discoverd your show through podcasts and I love it. I grew up a lover of Hip Hop, and I believe you can not begin a discussion of race and class in today’s society without stressing the importance of the Hip Hop Culture. In order to understand the Hip Hop Culture you must understand the different forms of it. Cornell West in his book “Democracy Matters” provides a wonderful catagorization of Hip Hop; Prophetic vs. Constantinian. Prophetic being the more progressive, poetic, and sometimes political form of Hip Hop. Artists like Public Enemy, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and most recently Kayne West have used this form of Hip Hop as a socail commmentary to highlight some of the problems this generation faces in today’s society. Though I mention these well known artists there are countless others in “the underground” that go unheard. Constantinian Hip Hop is your typical top 40 Hip Hop that promotes gang violence, materialism and misogyny. When the media discusses Hip Hop I believe there is too much attention devoted to this Constantian form, and not enough atttention given to those artists whose messages are positive and enlightening. So my suggestion for your show on Hip Hop is to first outline the different forms, then highlight what you feel is the more positive and productive. If you do this I think you’ll get a better sense of the true essence of Hip Hop. Thanks again and I look forward to listening.

  • james

    If you are talking about Hip Hop then you have to mention Gil Scott-Heron. He’s been called the father of hip hop by the BBC.

    He was before Dre, Ice Cube, and N.W.A. He could be called thier father. He used spoken word on the top of music back in the 60’s and 70’s.

    But best of all is he famous for his Song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Just read the lyrics. To see the power within them about Race and Class.

  • Gil Scott-Heron would be a very interesting guest but he’s hard to locate these days, though I believe he still lives in brooklyn somewhere.

    I recommend Jim Fricke.. who co-edited “Yes Yes Y’all” which is a history of hip-hop, and part of an Oral History Project in Seattle, one of the contacts on this page should get you in contact with him.

  • Jeff chang wrote can’t stop wont stop, a history of hip hop, based in a class/race analysis. it won an american book award.


  • Pete

    There was a good group featuring Michael Franti called The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, I don’t know what he’s doing now, but it’d be worth it to track him down.

  • William Upski Wimsatt, author of BOMB THE SUBURBS (The best book I read in prison.—Tupac Shakur) and NO MORE PRISON and founder of the Leagure of Pissed Off Voters. In fact, Jeff Chang, refered to above, describes it thusly: “Chuck D called it one of the best hip-hop books ever. He was wrong. It is the best hip-hop book ever” (writing int he SF Bay Guardian)

    Bakari Kitwana, author of “The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture”

    Yvonne Bynoe, author of “Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture”

  • bukwuy

    Michael Franti left the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy some time ago and heads a group called Spearhead. He and the group are activists for environmental and cultural concerns. I heard him on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! and I think his perspective might be a good counter point to Stanly Crouch. At minimum, I think that musicians like him and Lauryn Hill present interesting tangents from hip-hop and deserve some attention.

    On the other hand, I am looking forward to some conversation about gangsta rap and minstrelsy. It seems to me that Top 40 rap and its popularity among people across race and class lines is a very interesting phenomenon. I imagine it says rather a lot about both black self-image and America’s real values.

  • esprit

    Great site and interesting topics. I would really enjoy seeing the discussion of hip-hop carry over to an international theme. Northern Africa and Turkey have sent continental Europe some very talented muscians. (I am not French but have lived here for sometime now.) I think it would be great to investigate the continental European scene and discover the political and social messages of the hip-hop greats such as AKHENATON, Stormy Bugsy,TONI-L, Kmaro. During the recent outburst of violence in the suburbs throughout all of France, the media felt puzzled and it seemed that these hip-hop artists were sollicited by every newspaper and TV channel to convey what the roots of this movement were, paradoxically their music has clearly conveyed the message for years.

  • nother

    So Boston’s Mayor Menino wants to boycott all the stores that sell “stop snitchingâ€? t-shirts. My first thought is – now where is the Mayor going to buy all his FUBU and Phat Farm clothing? My second thought is, how the hell did this Democratic mayor get so out of touch with both the inner-city youth and that little old 1st amendment thing. I don’t know if the noise outside my window is the collective laugh from the youth of Boston or the sound of cash registers ringing up the new rush to buy these shirts.

    Does this mean his boycott extends to stores that sell “stop tattletaleing� t-shirts?

  • nother

    On a flight from Dallas to Boston last year I sat next to a hip hop record producer from Roxbury. We come from very different worlds, him a black man from the inner-city, me a white guy from the burbs. Him in dressed in Versace suit and Italian shoes, me in some bourgeois polo or something. I can’t imagine another circumstance besides assigned seating on a plane, where we could have engaged in the three hour candid conversation that followed. Your show on hip hop reminds me of this encounter because hip hop was the driving thread of our conversation, a common interest we would circle back to again and again. We talked about hip hops impact on America’s vernacular and dress. He was returning from a high level meeting with a record executive in Dallas and things looked good for his company. He told me about the years he had spent in jail. He told me about a drug deal gone bad, he had been shot five times at close range and he had the scars. He told me how he had served his time in jail without giving up any names and this had given him street credibility. Now he is using the experience hustling in his street life and applying it to the world of business. He takes pride in the fact that he can walk into a board room or a street corner with the same confidence. The connection to your show is that this man’s idol is Jay Z, not just for his music but for his business sense. Jay Z showed the hip hop world, that they did not need the white establishment to rise to the top, they can do the marketing, touring, and distribution themselves. Now guys like George Wein are not necessary, the way they were for jazz artists. I wonder though if these inroads in the business of music will go beyond music.

    Jay Z raps:

    Le Tigre, son you’re too eager

    You ain’t havin it? Good, me either

    Let’s, get together and make this whole world believe us huh?

    At my arraignment, screamin

    all us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even

    Thievin, as long as I’m breathin

    Can’t knock the way a nigga eatin – fuck you even!

    -On the “Black Album,� Jay Z addresses the prophetic rap of Common and Talib that Freddybulldog referenced from the Cornell West book.

    Music business hate me cause the industry ain’t make me

    Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be makin

    I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars

    They criticized me for it yet they all yell “HOLLA!”

    If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be

    lyrically, Talib Kweli

    Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

    But I did five mill’ – I ain’t been rhymin like Common since

    When your cents got that much in common

    And you been hustlin since, your inception

    Fuck perception go with what makes sense

    Since I know what I’m up against

    We as rappers must decide what’s most impor-tant

    And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them

    So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win

    So next time you see the homey and his rims spin

    Just know my mind is workin just like them…

    … rims, that is

    I believe Jay Z sells himself short on the lyrics, to me they are raw, personal, and honest, but you can decide for yourself.


    An interesting phenomenon to observe is the hegemony’s attempt to absorb hip hop’s outer elements, to defang it. Gangster rap now sounds almost nostalgic. The “cop killa� Ice T is now a mainstream actor. NWA’s (Nigga’s with Attitude) Ice Cube, just did a children’s film. Snoop is chill’n wit Lee Iacocca, and 2 Live Crew is…who knows where they are (maybe Tipper Gore knows).

    Keeping it real baby – the culture of hip hop is a quest for authenticity. The root of that authenticity can be found in the streets, somewhere in the vocation of hustling. The rules of the “gameâ€? in hustling are the same rules of the game in hip hop.

    Started from the crack game and then so sweet Freaked it to the rap game

    Song: Intro/A Million And One Questions/Rhyme No More

    Biggie and Tupac were hip hop’s biggest MC’s and they attempted to stay authentic by staying close to the streets – they were killed in the process. It’s like the proverbial deal with the devil.

    I got the feds sending me letters ’cause Im schooling the youth

    But they cant lock me down ’cause my tool is the truth

    Yeah I sold drugs for a living, thats a given

    Why is it? why dont y’all try to visit the neighboorhoods I lived in

    My mind been through hell, my neighborhood is crime central

    Where cops lock you more than try to defend you

    I push you to the limit when I’m needing the wealth

    And all I see is life cycle just repeatin’ itself

    Song: Can I Live II Jay Z

    The lyrics from Biggie, Jay Z, Tupac, and NAS, read like dispatches from the street, blogs from the hood. With that said though, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!

  • bottlecap

    To add to the list of artists: The Welfare Poets. Their album “Rhymes for Treason” falls into the “underground” persuasion of hip hop. This might also be of interest for your other hip hop story about the ability of hip hop to cross borders, both literally and culturally.

  • nother


    GREAT interview about all things hip hop with Bakari Kitwana a former editor at The Source. He would be a very good guest for the show.

    A couple of good blogs:



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  • Stay FAR away from Crouch if possible. Keep in mind he has actually punched people in the face over such matters.

    I am quite curious about the race divisions within the hip-hop scenes. There are underground artists that get some level of radio play on [white] college alt-radio and like formats, while others languish in the bins. They will not touch with a 10-foot-pole some of the top-quality hip-hop singles that receive airplay elsewhere, but they WILL give spins to rock music getting airplay on larger outlets. Why the division?

    In another strange division, the underground hip-hop scene is much more diverse racially than the mainstream.

  • tajayana

    I listen to a great podcast called Breakdown FM hosted by Davey D. A lot of really great hip hop, politics, current events, reflections. The podcast covers international artists but mostly focuses on the US. Worth checking out or trying to contact Davey D for the show. It’s a great example of why I think hip hop is so important (and I love hip hop and I am definitely not the target demographic) for it’s oral history component. A way to connect around common experience, a way to talk about politics etc when we have so little public space in our communities to do so.

  • DAM

    I hope the host of this show asks the tough questions, questions that we should have started asking at least 10 years ago. The inclusion of the rise in incareration rates among black men as an issue to be discussed is encouraging.

    But I should say that, given the guests lined up — with the possible exception of Roots Riley — I can’t say that I am expecting to hear the right answers even if those questions are asked.

    In fact, in a perfect world you would not be asking these questions now. The things I am referring to are entirely too obvious to be called into doubt at this late stage.

    But there is still so much denial that, I guess, it is appropriate to treat the obvious as open to debate.

    I look forward to the show. Perhaps it may be the first salvos in the coming debate about rap.

    And make no mistake, it is coming.

  • Robin

    Hi DAM – I don’t really understand your question or concerns. What specifically do you want to say or ask about the rise in incarceration of black men? What, specifically, are the “tough questions” and the “right answers” you’re looking for? Please illuminate us as to your opinions and maybe you can help us ensure we ask those questions and get some of those answers. All three of our present guests are incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful about not only hip-hop, but American history, politics, race and class. I’m sure they can handle whatever you have to throw at them!

  • nother

    I hope you’ll tackle the issue of women and hip hop or consider another show on the topic. Many people dismiss hip hop for its sexism and misogyny, while the big picture is much more complex. Born from hip hop are incredible female artists such as Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill, whose “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill� album feels new every time I hear it. The University of Chicago held a major conference on the issue.


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  • DAM

    Hi again. What I said above was a little vague. Here is some clarification.

    To be blunt, I think hip hop is directly related the black (especially male) underachievement and overincarceration.

    Hip Hop culture has successfully promoted the thug persona as authentic black masculinity, a persona now adopted by millions of young men not only in the inner cities but in some middle class communities as well (and not only in its country of origin).

    To be ‘real,’ one must now have sold drugs (and marijuana doesn’t even count), keep an illegal weapon and be ready to commit violence at the slightest sign of disrespect.

    This message is so ubiquitious in the most popular rap music of today that it should hardly be surprising.

    It is true though that the inner city communities where this persona is most common did not get the way they are soley because of rap music, or even hip hop culture. But it is nevertheless true that hip hip is the medium thru which this persona has been most effectively disseminated. And it is probably the biggest obstacle towards its removal.

    The charge is not that one kid sitting in his room listening to 50 cent is going to want to be a thug. The charge is that when all the music one listens to creates an ideal of authenticity that is at once widely known, adopted and respected, while other identities are frowned on (one popular way of expressing this disapproval is to call someone insufficiently thuggish ‘a bitch azz n*gga’), then it becomes likely that one will adopt that persona.

    I think all of the above is obvious, yet there are lots of people that are very reluctant to accept it. Bakari Kitwana, for example, is a well known apologist for hip hop.

    If you can ask questions relating to the above maybe we can start going somewhere.

  • A little yellow bird

    Now that the Governator has decided to kill a man who is a sort of non-musical hiphop icon, I wonder if that will lessen or increase the glorification of violence. Sorry, but my heart just sank and I turned off the music when I found, through Technorati, that Arnold Schwarzenneger has rejected Tookie Williams’s stay of execution, so that when they change thae law disallowing the foreign-born a shot at the US presidency, Arnold “Friend to Nazis (Kurt Waldheim) The Terminator” will seem real tough. The television will not be revolutionized–it’ll stay the same; and “the revolution will be LIVE.”

  • A little yellow bird

    Also, a note to DAM: black men aren’t in prison due to hiphop. They’re in prison due to the war on drugs. Relegalize ’em all, now, and let every non-violent offender out of prison NOW. Nothing should be illegal except aggressive force and theft.

  • Yay! Good to hear that Kanye West mash up. 😀

  • nick

    Listen to MF Doom for a amazing new twist of hiphop.

  • A question for the show– as to rap as as a political force…

    My sense is that it sorta peaked in the U.S. in the early 90’s as a political force with Public Enemy and Ice Cube on the scene. But Ice Cube (and others) went into acting; Public Enemy self-destructed by tossing faint anti-Semitism at their record execs. The public awareness rap slipped into the derivative music celebrating the high life of gangstas, guns, girls. That’s my sense. Not having been in high school for ten years, I’m already an old fogey. (Chris is bringing this up this very second…)

    The New Yorker article on Iran a few years ago noted how the themes of hip-hop *really* connect to the young people there (tomorrow’s show…)

    Another point– who’s the heir to Duke Ellington? Duke never composed “fight the power” anthems, but he set the table for the civil rights movement. He was welcomed into the Nixon White House. Too many rap acts don’t have the stamina, the pragmatism, or even the high art to do that today. The only musician one can think who can do that is Bono. Something to think about…

  • re: Sinatra. Someone compared Puff Daddy to him: not a thug, but an inspiraton of thuggery of others…

  • mas

    Lets talk about the music. There is great music in this genre, but one has to dig to find it. The best miners that I have seen are my kids. They are always showing me new “music” that is really great. Most of it underground, some of it makes it to the top. They are passionalte about this music and the fact that the good stuff is not played, that they are toying with starting a pirate station to educate the public.

  • There are some who would say that hip hop is at an all time low. I disagree. Commercial rap is at an all time low. Hip hop is global. I had to leave the United States to learn this. I stopped listening to commercial radio in the late 90s. I started listening to rap music coming from Brazil, France, and Sri Lanka. Hip hop ain’t even rap music. Rap is a part of hip hop and I am as much into grafitti and beats as I am rap.

    I may be indifferent about 50 Cent or the Ying Yang Twins but I feel excited by the energy in the rhymes coming from folks elsewhere. It’s like they’ve picked up the torch.

    IMHO the current situation proves a challenge to Black Americans, not just with rap but the whole skill set: creation, production, and distribution. We need to become more aware of the world. Malcolm X changed his mindset when he left the country…we need to leave the confines of commercial media to see and hear the work of non-mainstream rappers and other hip hop artists who are keeping the culture alive.

  • A little yellow bird

    Nettrice: I have wanted to write that I think the genre is really bad off these days, but I couldn’t figure how to say it. You made the distinction that explains it: its basis as unfettered art has been largely left by the wayside as the big guys have found a way to extract a fortune from making a crap version of it, just as with disco in the the seventies. How do you like Roots Manuva, if at all?

  • metolius8

    Thanks, Chris. This article, ‘viewed’ as a podcast, opened my eyes wider to H/H. I have to admit that accepting what I hear as ‘a cultural thing…you just don’t undertand’…wasn’t making me feel any better. I ain’t there yet, but this helped.

    And thanks too for the gift of radioopensource. I stumbled on it quite by accident and I don’t think I have found anything on the web I like better.


  • QDerf

    I think a very interesting idea for a show was brought up during this episode, what’s up with the incredible increase in prison population over the last few decades? Of course it’s not related to hip hop per se, but I’m pretty sure it’s a topic that could make for an interesting discussion as a Race & Class in America episode…

    Just a thought! Peace, Frédéric.

  • To A Little Yellow Bird:

    I have not heard of Roots Manuva but I liked what I just heard on the website. I am excited by the people who explore the possibilities (in rap and hip hop), not the cookie-cutter stuff put out there by the mainstream media outlets. Thanks for the heads up about Roots Manuva.


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  • c3thaonly

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