It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

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I was eleven years old when I saw the video footage of four Los Angeles police officers kicking and pummeling Rodney King. It was March of 1991. In my parents’ living room in our home in Mansfield, Ohio, I watched as television news seemed to have the violent video on endless loop. When the officers were acquitted in April of the following year, I remember my parents expressing outrage at the verdict. I watched news coverage of the uprising that followed, transfixed. In the absence of high-profile civil rights marches, the 1992 rebellion in Los Angeles became my model of how to protest racism and police violence.

Shortly after that, I heard for the first time the voice of O’Shea Jackson Sr., better known as Ice Cube, formerly of N.W.A. I somehow found my way to Ice Cube’s 1992 album The Predator, buying it on cassette tape from the FYE record store at our local mall. Either my mother didn’t notice the parental advisory sticker, or she didn’t think there was any reason for concern—until I started blaring “When Will They Shoot?” from my bedroom. “You better not be repeating what he says,” my mom commanded.

My mother was hardly a prude, but Ice Cube had a knack for offending respectable ears. Over a frantic track sampling Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Ice Cube addressed the 1992 LA uprising, police violence, American racism, and his critics with extreme vulgarity and an apocalyptic sense of urgency. He rapped like he was the man under the crosshairs in Public Enemy’s logo. But he wasn’t saying “fight the power.” Ice Cube conjured the histories of the assassination of Black leaders—Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X—to remind his listeners what happened to Black leaders who challenged racism. In posing the question, “When Will They Shoot?” Ice Cube assumed that he, and by extension gangsta rappers, threatened the white establishment—the politicians, the police, and the rest of the prison-industrial complex.

Looking back now, as a historian who teaches courses on Black politics, culture, and social movements, I see how the Rodney King moment—and the response to it—shaped my outlook in the early 1990s. At that time, I wasn’t hearing a political message about organizing or reform. The words that reached me were from hip-hop culture, angry and defiant, along with worried advice from my family. The King video initiated a decades-long conversation about race with my parents, especially my mother, that lasted until her passing in 2017. “You are part of an endangered species as a Black boy growing to be a man,” my mom often told me. My parents argued that I needed to “act right,” or conduct myself in the most respectable manner—hold my tongue and be polite to authority figures, steer clear of “problem kids,” work hard, and focus on my education. Respectability represented the best path toward social mobility. My mother did not have a choice but to individualize the solution. No Black leaders or “new” Civil Rights Movement were coming to save us.

Meanwhile, my education failed me. I learned the standard United States history lessons, if not myths, repeatedly until my senior year of high school. We barely discussed enslavement. We always talked about the “founding fathers.” We would be lucky if our history class reached World War II by the end of the school year. I loved reading about World Wars I and II in hand-me-down encyclopedias when I was younger. As a teenager, I was bored. I also developed a superficial understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “had a dream . . . blah, blah, blah . . . content of our character not the color of our skin, blah, blah, blah.” I only knew who Malcolm X was because of the hats and T-shirts emblazoned with an “X.” I was vaguely aware of the NAACP, which had a local chapter in Mansfield, but I couldn’t see how it connected with the world I was coming to know through Ice Cube and company.

Hip-hop became my refuge. It offered me a language and style to express my disdain for the trappings of respectability politics. It spoke to my anti-authoritarianism. I knew I could offend someone older just by the way I dressed and the music I listened to. I could refer to Nas’s “NY State of Mind”: “Niggas be runnin’ through the block shootin.’ / Time to start the revolution, catch a body, head for Houston.” As I heard older folks like Reverend Calvin Butts and the Reagan-era education secretary William Bennett blaming hip-hop for antisocial behavior, I took “the revolution” as a statement mocking the lost promise of the Civil Rights Movement. Even if hip-hop artists barely articulated real political alternatives to police violence, incarceration, the two-party system, or systematic oppression, they delivered critiques of my parents’ generation, the Black middle class, racism, and the failing education system. When RZA told listeners, “Yo Shorty, you don’t even gotta go to summer school. / Pick up the Wu-Tang double CD and you’ll get all the education you need this year,” I took his word for it. Or at least I wanted to, because there was nothing else to believe in.

Violence had snatched Biggie and Tupac. Who was next? Where was hip-hop going? Where was I going?

Black politics was taking a more conservative path in the 1990s. Reverend Jesse Jackson’s insurgent presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 were in the past. Jackson made a peace pact with the Democratic Leadership Council wing of the Democratic Party, as Bill Clinton’s presidency gave us the draconian Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in 1996. Hundreds of thousands flocked to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March in 1995, where he declared, “Now, brothers, moral and spiritual renewal is a necessity,” and called for greater personal responsibility. I know now that Black radicalism simmered on the national stage in the late-1990s. In March 1998, an assemblage of activists, artists, and scholars including Barbara Smith, Amiri Baraka, Cornel West, Adolph Reed Jr., Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Manning Marable composed, signed, and disseminated a statement calling for “a new movement of Black radicalism” that would “rebuild a strong, uncompromising movement for human rights, full employment and self-determination.” But such efforts to reinvigorate Black radicalism transpired offstage from my day-to-day.

My taste in rap music and my perspective on hip-hop culture shifted over the course of the 1990s. I moved from Ice Cube, Tupac, and gangsta rap to Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and East Coast rap. Hip-hop culture was fracturing. Armed robbers shot Tupac Shakur in a botched robbery at Quad Studios in Manhattan in 1994. Shakur was jailed for sexual assault soon after. Vibe magazine began reporting a burgeoning rivalry between LA’s Death Row Records and New York’s Bad Boy Records. The regional tensions reached a boiling point at the infamous 1995 Source Awards, where Death Row CEO Suge Knight took to the stage and invited any artists to join his label if they didn’t want to “worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos,” a clear shot at Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs. Snoop Dogg called out East Coast rappers who “ain’t got no love for . . . Death Row.”

I felt shocked while sitting on the arm of a friend’s couch as MTV News announced Shakur’s death on September 13, 1996. In March of the following year, we learned Biggie Smalls had been shot and killed after a Vibe magazine party in Los Angeles. I didn’t know a celebrity death could affect me the way their deaths had, but I saw myself as part of a beleaguered imaginary community, or a “hip-hop nation.” The killings of Shakur and Biggie Smalls threw the culture into a crisis. Violence had snatched the genre’s two most promising artists. Who was next? Where was hip-hop going? Where was I going?

My friends and I responded to the Shakur and Biggie murders by distancing ourselves from “commercial” rap. We tried graffiti for a while but decided to put down the spray cans after we learned in the local newspaper that residents and local law enforcement had been investigating. “Police at least are reassured that the graffiti does not seem to be much more than the work of some bored, somewhat artistic community members,” the Mansfield News Journal reported.

After our failed attempts at impressing each other as street artists, I started reading The Source magazine. The Source reinvigorated my love for reading and history as it introduced me to the short history of hip-hop culture and rap music. In January 1998, it released its one hundredth issue and instantly became our historical guide to hip-hop. With LL Cool J holding five microphones on the cover (five mics was the magazine’s top rating), we read about the classic albums that earned The Source’s approval. We also sought to acquire and listen to the magazine’s list of one hundred best rap albums. Luckily, several of my friends worked at a locally owned music store, CD Jungle, and two of them used their access to the distributor to order many of those records.

Going back and listening to older rap albums and discussing them reintroduced me to the genre and, most important, to thinking historically. Boogie Down Production’s Ghetto Music; X Clan’s To The East, Blackwards; and De La Soul’s De La Soul is Dead became our primary sources. Instead of just reciting offensive lyrics, I honed my critical thinking skills as we interpreted and evaluated the merits of rap albums and songs as texts. We argued about album ratings in school and at parties. We debated what real hip-hop was among ourselves and among other friends. We chastised others for listening to “commercial shit” (even as I continued to sneak in listening to some Bad Boy artists on the side). And even though I was a quiet kid, I was willing to proselytize about how revolutionary Wu-Tang Forever would be when it was released, how De La Soul is Dead was the true gem in the group’s catalog, and how deep Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth and Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Black Star were. Even if you thought we were full of shit, we became hip-hop critics and scholars. We went from listening to rap and mimicking the style and slang of our favorite artists to building knowledge.

This Is Who I Am

Fast forward: I became a professor. Respectability politics? Joining the Black middle class? Though I’d spent time as an organizer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working against police violence, at some level, my parents’ messages were winning out over the voices that spoke to me in the 1990s. How would I make a living? Not as an activist against police power. Not as an artist, musical or otherwise. I pursued a professional career that allowed me to climb more rungs on the economic ladder than my parents ever could while working in factories. After a master’s degree at Ohio State, I earned my doctorate in history from the University of Michigan. Soon I was teaching African American and United States history classes at Auburn University. I proposed a history of hip-hop course by explaining how the emergence of the culture intersected with several political, economic, and cultural transformations after World War II: deindustrialization, immigration, urban decline, police militarization, and the rise of street gangs and the organized drug trade. My colleagues reacted with enthusiasm. I did not expect to teach a hip-hop history course for the first time at a predominantly white, Southern school, in a conservative town, but here we were. As in all my courses at Auburn, white students outnumbered students of color significantly, but a mutual desire to learn and talk more about the culture brought us all into the classroom. I picked up on their subtle shock during the first day of class. “I can’t believe we’re going to talk about hip-hop and rap all semester,” they were thinking.

Even if you thought we were full of shit, we became hip-hop critics and scholars. We went from listening to rap and mimicking the style and slang of our favorite artists to building knowledge.

We investigated hip-hop’s social and cultural antecedents. We studied and debated some of hip-hop’s critics, like linguist John McWhorter, who claims there’s nothing political—or redeeming—about hip-hop. In fact, in his words, hip-hop “creates nothing” because the negative aspects of gangsta rap (violence, misogyny, and nihilism) outweigh other, more socially conscious forms of rap music. Contrary to his opinions, much of the class thought hip-hop was and is generative: cultural practices helped construct identities, provided economic opportunities, raised political awareness, and, naturally, produced thought-provoking art. Yet, the students also interrogated the culture; they pointed out the ways that authenticity in hip-hop could be limiting for women, LGBTQ performers, and those who do not look like “stereotypical artists.”

Autobiography and narrative are important to establishing an “authentic” identity in hip-hop culture. Consequently, we read portions of Jay-Z’s Decoded and examined songs such as Biz Markie’s “Vapors,” Lil’ Kim’s “This Is Who I Am,” Jay-Z’s “December 4th,” and Prodigy’s “You Can Never Feel My Pain” to think about how hip-hop artists told their stories, usually about living in urban areas caught up in the War on Drugs. Yet, students also asked when, where, and why artists embellished their experiences and tried to understand the nuances between an artist developing a persona and living a life outside (or inside) that image.

This fall, I brought the course, “The History of Hip-Hop Culture in America,” to my new job at West Virginia University. As I do on the first day of all my classes, I scanned the room. This class was smaller than the one I taught at Auburn University; of the thirteen students, twelve were white, and one was Asian; there were a couple more men in the class than women. I learned in our introductions that most of the students were West Virginian while others came from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and England. All the students were versed in the latest pop culture discourse, but two-thirds of them said they listened to hip-hop casually, if not passively.

We started up just weeks after an upsurge in attention to hip-hop history, due to the fifty-year anniversary of what some called the birth of rap. It was on August 11, 1973, that Cindy Campbell and Clive Campbell held a “Back to School Jam” in the first-floor recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx. Needing money to buy school clothes, Cindy asked her brother, also known as DJ Kool Herc, to spin records, since he possessed a loud sound system. Kool Herc then recruited his friend, Coke LaRock, to serve as the “master of ceremonies.” While we have come to recognize the “MC” as the center of attention in rap and hip-hop, Coke LaRock’s performance was limited to verbally directing the crowd with catchphrases. DJ Kool Herc starred in this show.

I often focus on the Campbells’ back-to-school party as the culture’s “Big Bang” moment when I deliver my hip-hop history lecture in World History, Modern U.S. History, and African American History courses. August 11, 1973 is an easy shorthand for the origins of hip-hop culture; it zeroes in on a single place, with identifiable (male) protagonists (as Cindy’s contribution is often erased), in a particular moment of time. In this narrative, DJ Kool Herc, as well as other pioneering DJs like Grandmaster Flash, served as agents of technological and cultural discovery and empowerment for young Black and brown kids at a time when national policymakers, local politicians, urban planners, and industrial capitalists left them for dead.

Of course, as with all origin myths, hip-hop’s story is more complex, and in a full semester we can go further back in time. Scholars, journalists, critics, and practitioners have scoured histories of gospel and soul music, spoken word, Black politics, sports, migration, labor, and legal and urban policy to locate some of its antecedents. Journalist Vann Newkirk looks to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 as an origin moment: “Specifically, something of hip-hop’s genesis can be detected amid the chaos following April 4, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots swept the nation, both the largest of the wave of annual multi-city uprisings in the ’60s, and the last such outbreak for decades.” As Dr. King’s death disrupted the Civil Rights Movement and national and local law enforcement agencies disorganized Black Power’s left flank, radical Black bards such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron recorded albums where they performed their spoken-word lyrics about racism, policing, revolution, and the Vietnam War over instrumentals.

But to understand the origins of rapping, one must dig deeper and consider histories of Black folk culture, radio, and sports. Rap’s roots lay in a variety of folk traditions like jive talking, boasting, toasting, gospel music, and radio deejaying. Boasting and jive talking, or creating one’s own stylistic slang, goes back to the 1940s. Consider the gospel quartet The Jubalaires’ soothing performance of “Noah,” recorded in 1946, for an early, yet impressively rhythmic, spoken word verse. Radio listeners surely heard DJs like Harlem’s Frankie Crocker spitting rhymes between songs on WWRL. Public Enemy’s frontman, Chuck D, often credits Muhammad Ali as an influential rapper. He told journalist Michael Tillery: “Muhammad Ali not only influenced hip-hop of course from the rhyming aspect, which is a known fact, but the brash swagger of backing it up: going into the dozens, making predictions. . . . It’s like he was saying, ‘. . . And I’m gonna throw some rhyme on top of it.’ It’s total hip-hop. Total rap!” And regarding lyrical content, blues singer Bessie Smith’s songs documenting Black workers’ experiences dealing with working-class life in a racist nation predated rapper Melle Mel’s urban tales in Reagan’s America by nearly sixty years. Smith, a queer Black woman, also spoke to sexuality and other issues affecting Black women in ways that Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa would on their records in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hip-hop developed outside the purview of most Americans during the 1970s. As Black and brown youth built their own underground culture in New York City, soul and funk remained dominant forces in Black culture. In fact, the genres enjoyed a classic phase of releases addressing the myriad of experiences of Black Americans in the post-Civil Rights moment. One was more likely to hear Sly and the Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” or Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (which inspired the famous 1996 remake by Lauryn Hill/Fugees) in the summer of 1973. But Flack released the Killing Me Softly album just ten days before the Campbells’ back-to-school party. Stevie Wonder released Innervisions a week before the Campbells’ event. The Last Poets also released At Last in 1973.

Former singer Sylvia Robinson would be on the forefront of turning rap music into a commodity later that decade when she and her son assembled Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson, Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien as the Sugarhill Gang to record “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. Rapping over Chic’s disco anthem “Good Times,” Wonder Mike starts what became the genre’s first commercial hit by uttering the words, “I said a hip-hop, the hippie, the hippie / To the hip, hip-hop and you don’t stop.” “Rapper’s Delight” hit when many in the culture believed one could not adequately capture the burgeoning art form on record. Another piece of the story is that Big Bank Hank used Grandmaster Caz’s lyrics with the latter’s permission but without paying him.

If the Back to School Jam represented hip-hop’s Big Bang, then “Rapper’s Delight” was the culture’s rocket ship. Hip-hop took off and never looked back. Sugar Hill Records released records from the Sequence, an all-woman rap counterpart to the Sugarhill Gang. Blondie’s Debbie Harry invited Funky 4 + 1 More to appear on Saturday Night Live in 1981, making them the first rap act to perform on the show. The genre continued to produce hits in the early 1980s—Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” came out in 1982, and new rap upstart label Tommy Boy Records released Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” which famously sampled Kraftwerk, that same year. Hip-hop hit the theaters too. Wild Style (1983), Style Wars (1983), and Beat Street (1984) documented or dramatized various aspects of early hip-hop culture, whereas Krush Groove (1985) told the fictionalized story of Def Jam Recordings, founded by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. To paraphrase journalist Steven Hager, who wrote a 1982 Village Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, hip-hop was on its way to becoming “the most significant artistic achievement of the decade.”

When Will They Shoot?

In addition to its achievements, we can’t talk about the history of hip-hop without frank conversations about gender, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny. There is the recent example of Canadian rapper Tory Lanez, who shot and injured Megan Thee Stallion in 2020. The case brought up many of hip-hop culture’s most sordid features: violence against women, toxic masculinity, and gun culture. None of the students in my class bought Lanez’s explanation that he was drunk at the time of the shooting or his apparent turn to religion during the case; they sympathized with Megan Thee Stallion and recognized how the rapper experienced the trauma of suffering gunshot wounds, but also had to deal with Drake and 50 Cent mocking her, as well as harassment from Lanez’s fans. “Why did Lanez bring a gun to a party at a celebrity’s residence?” a few of them asked. Women in the class spoke about violence and shared the ways they kept each other safe. We talked about men’s responsibility to criticize sexism and violence and develop, as one male student put it, more “circles of accountability among men.”

Hip-hop was on its way to becoming “the most significant artistic achievement of the decade.”

Such a comment would not have been a part of my world as a young man in the 1990s. The violence that took Tupac and Biggie broke through, but it took longer for us to understand the way male rappers and executives were wielding their power against women. We now acknowledge Dr. Dre’s vicious beating of television show host and artist Dee Barnes and the multiple sexual assault accusations levied at Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons. The ripples continue today: Under New York’s Adult Survivor’s Act, R&B singer Cassie filed a $30 million lawsuit against rap mogul Sean Combs, claiming he physically and sexually abused her. Combs promptly settled with Cassie and stepped aside from his media company, Revolt, after the release of the gruesome details contained in the suit. Former record executive Drew Dixon claims abuse and harassment forced her out of the record business. In a lawsuit she filed in November 2023, she accuses record executive and producer L.A. Reid of preventing her from working with artists after she refused his sexual advances in the mid-2000s. The history of hip-hop is partly a history of the mistreatment and exclusion of women, especially Black women.

There’s a buried counter-history too: women formed DJ and rap crews which operated throughout the Bronx. Sheri Sher and six other women founded one of them, the Mercedes Ladies, around 1976. Sher, Eve-a-Def, Zena Z, Tracy T, DJ RD Smiley, DJ Baby D, and DJ La Spank are names that often do not appear in narratives of early hip-hop. Like the many women who followed their path, the Mercedes Ladies succeeded early despite sexism. Men attempted to undermine their performances by cutting their mics and turntables at shows. The Mercedes Ladies, like other women performers, typically earned less than men.

Twenty years ago, when I was a fan who thought himself a scholar, I knew nothing of that music. As an undergraduate, I structured much of my world around hip-hop, but I was finding my way as a music fan outside the classroom. I will never forget one of my professors in the African American studies master’s program at Ohio State telling us, “We aren’t going to hip-hop our way to liberation.” True enough—yet as I later learned from African American history professors like Zachery Williams, it’s not useful to think of history as separate from culture, nor can one understand culture’s power without the history from which it springs.

Now students taking my hip-hop course walk into class with different relationships to the genre and more diverse music tastes. They are fans of Taylor Swift as well as more contemporary hip-hop artists like Doja Cat, Machine Gun Kelly, Westside Gunn, Lil Uzi Vert, Travis Scott, Drake, and Nicki Minaj. Only a few exhibit the type of close allegiance to hip-hop as a culture I did in 2000. Many of them respect and listen to more socially conscious artists like Kendrick Lamar, but they engage with rap music the same as they do with popular music: they desire to be entertained. Rap contributes to the soundtrack of their lives.

The wider knowledge of popular culture among Gen Z students allows us to think more critically about hip-hop’s history and how we should evaluate rap music. We recently debated whether the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame should change its rules to better reflect hip-hop’s dominance, and the fact that less than 10 percent of all its artists are women. Most of my students grew up at a time when New York City did not represent the center of hip-hop culture. They care less for the regional boundaries and the categories we often drew between different styles. The message I bring to class is less about genre and more that analyzing culture is crucial to understanding the histories of young people and how they responded to the evacuation of capital and public services from cities after the heyday of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. What did it feel like in the 1970s when Gil Scott-Heron spoke about “Whitey on the Moon”? What did the Geto Boys have to tell us about being Black in Houston in the 1980s? Let’s talk about the fury of the 1990s after Rodney King was beaten, Los Angeles erupted, and Ice Cube asked “When Will They Shoot?” We cannot understand the last fifty years of history in the United States—certainly not the first thing about Black history—without studying the emergence and evolution of rap. That also means accounting for those kids searching for meaning and a way out of the economic and political crises of the 1970s and 1980s, the clampdowns and the police violence of the 1990s, the resurgence of rage after the killing of George Floyd. I call my course “The History of Hip-Hop Culture in America,” but everything is plural. We have many histories and many cultures.

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