In a 2011 Journal of Popular Music Studies essay about what he calls practice-based research, hip-hop scholar Kwame Harrison advocates for “participatory, experiential, and phenomenological methodologies surrounding the fields of arts and media research.” Harrison spent more than a year exploring San Francisco’s underground rap-music scene to conduct fieldwork for Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification (Temple 2009). Far from a detached observer, Harrison dove headlong into the Bay by securing a gig at legendary Haight-Ashbury record store Amoeba Music, bunking in an enclosed back porch, and freestyling at open-mic nights under the moniker Mad Squirrel.
This hands-on approach to fieldwork resulted in a book that delves deeply into the inner workings of the Bay Area’s underground rap-music scene, revealing untold insights about race and the politics of hip-hop authenticity. In a memorable passage, a white MC suffers a humbling defeat in a rap battle, and later administers to his Latino victor an “underground hip hop test,” drunkenly demanding to know, “Who was the second graffiti writer to come out of Oakland?” Harrison passed the test admirably during a recent Skype conversation, detailing his affection for Above the Law and Wyclef Jean, his participatory research methods, and the current state of hip-hop studies.
Geoff Harkness: What are three of your favorite hip-hop albums, from a fan’s perspective?
Kwame Harrison: I’m really glad you sent that question to me in advance, because I had various things kind of jump through my mind. I looked over your questions last night and that word “favorite” kind of changed things a little bit. I tend to be a fan of second albums. Some of the albums in the running were Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia. Even though I think that Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is a really important album, I like Labcabincalifornia. Mobb Deep The Infamous is really good at what it does. Even though what it does might not necessarily be wonderful from my perspective.
But in terms of my three, the first one was a no brainer: Boogie Down Productions By All Means Necessary. Again, I really feel that a lot of groups put out great first albums, but when a second album comes out and it is just as good if not better, it really says something about the group or the artist. When I heard By All Means Necessary, it announced KRS-One as a teacher and a real force within hip hop. A lot of people love Criminal Minded. I can remember the first time I listened to Criminal Minded. But By All Means Necessary established Boogie Down Productions as a force to be reckoned with throughout hip-hop history. And I just love the album, starting with “My Philosophy,” and the sequence of the album, the way it builds. That’s probably my favorite album, and the first that came to my mind, without question.
Following that, I would say Above the Law, Uncle Sam’s Curse. Above the Law is a Ruthless Records recording group. They were close with NWA and Dr. Dre and sort of had a falling out with Ice Cube. But a lot of times Above the Law is treated as secondary, sort of like younger brothers to NWA and Dr. Dre. But I really think that Cold 187um, the producer for Above the Law, is one of the best producers and one of the really overlooked producers in hip-hop history. I love all of their albums. It’s straight gangster rap, there’s no question about that. And in different contexts, in academic contexts, I can really be critical of these albums where they are pretty much just putting themselves out there as pimps and hustlers. But in terms of just an amazing piece of music and amazing production, I really think this exceeds The Chronic. And a lot people would take issue with that, but Cold 187um has a similar sound to Dr. Dre. On a couple of NWA albums and early Above the Law albums they were spending a lot of time in the studio together so they really influenced each other. And I think he does it just as well if not better than Dre and doesn’t get the credit for it. And of all of their albums, this is the one that I would pick. It is my favorite and I would recommend it for someone who isn’t all that familiar with them.
And the third would probably be OutKast ATLliens. For me, again, it’s the second album so it really announces the arrival of the group. For this more than any other album that I can think of, at the time that I first encountered it I was spending a lot of time in the car making four-hour trips between Syracuse and Western Massachusetts. In making those trips and other things that were going on in my life, this album was just very important to me. And when I listened to it last night, as I was thinking about what other albums are in the running, I realized that there is not a song on this album that I ever want to skip over. I might grab this album and put it in specifically to listen to track number three or track number eight, but in listening to it, I just think it’s magnificent.
I think some of the difference between good albums and great albums has to do with how the songs are sequenced. Most albums start out with good first songs, but having a good second song really makes me think, “Okay I want to keep listening to this.” And then transition to third and fourth and fifth. I think all of these albums have amazing sequence and transition. I didn’t plan this, but I like that they represent New York, L.A. and the South. But they’re all important, great albums. The Above the Law album isn’t their second. If you count an EP, it’s their fourth. But those would be my three favorites, and three that were all important to me at an important time, and just great to revisit and think about.
What’s one hip-hop album that you think would make an ideal text for scholarly analysis?
There are so many and you can think about this in so many ways. Beats are hugely important. But really, I have always been a fan of lyrics, and artists have to be bringing lyrics. When I thought about this question, this album was really obvious to me, but I was somewhat surprised because I think it has more to do with the musical text than the lyrical text. That album would be Wyclef, The Carnival.
In thinking back to how much I listened to it, I remember listening to it a lot that summer when it first came out. Its lifespan in my CD player probably wasn’t the longest. But I always have incredibly fond memories of just how dynamic and innovative the music was, and how many different genres. And really pulling in some classic New York hip hop with a lot of Caribbean influence. And Wyclef is just such a wonderful musician and music maker. And I think he took a lot of chances in terms of styles and different things that were going on in that album, but it worked for me. It just worked for me beautifully.
I’m not sure where this album stands in terms of people looking back on hip-hop history and thinking about great albums. But I had a three-hour road trip to make last October, and I happened to put it in when I started the trip and it never left my CD player. Just magnificent, eclectic and innovative musical layering, integration, production. And as a lyricist Wyclef can pull it off. I don’t think that anyone would call him one of the greatest hip-hop lyricists, but with that production, you really don’t notice any … it is not like the rhymes aren’t up to par. It’s up there as one of my favorites, particularly as I look back and rediscover it and think about it. So that is one that I think you could really do a wonderful analysis of the different themes of songs, of the way in which this kind of classic late 90s New York City on–the-street kind of feel is there. But at the same time there is this Caribbean, Haitian layering and undercurrent that pervades a whole album. I mean “Stayin’ Alive” was a good cover I guess. I didn’t necessarily love it at the time, but listening to it again, I’m bobbling my head, I’m nodding. So that would be one that I really think would make for an excellent and dynamic scholarly treatment.
It is an awesome album, but they’d have to add the song he did with Kenny Rogers.
[Laughs] Yeah, definitely. It’s odd to say this about an album that you are hailing as your favorite hip hop album, but I think Wyclef is one of those guys that would be making music, even if it wasn’t hip hop. Music is a part of who he is and really I think he balances a level of all of the things that we look for from hip hop, which is a different kind of approach to making music and creating music and layering and creating a sense of hardness. And all of that with just what’s really some more conventional fine musicianship and pulling in different traditions. I just think it is almost like a super hero of albums for me in terms of what it does.
It’s also really interesting because there are songs like “Yele,” which if you heard them as a stand alone track you would probably not classify them as hip hop. To me, it’s the range of music that is on that album, and the sort of diversity of styles and genres that makes it such a good listen. It’s kind of all over the place yet cohesive at the same time.
Yeah and I think that at the end of the day for me it works, it works as a hip hop album. So he’s pushing boundaries and he could be pushing the same boundaries and you could like it, but at the end of the day it might not work for you as a hip-hop album. But when I hear it, it’s mid-90s classic hip hop.
Do you remember your first hip-hop concert?
Yeah, I remember it for sure. It is interesting that we are talking about it at this moment. It took place at the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts, and it was the Beastie Boys during Licensed to Ill. The opening act was this group I hadn’t heard of before, but I immediately purchased their album, called Public Enemy. So it was a Public Enemy-Beastie Boys concert at a rather large coliseum. I’m not sure how many people, but I would estimate maybe 15,000, 20,000. And it was the Beastie Boys coming off of the steam of Licensed to Ill. And that was one of those albums that enough people in my high school were into that I could martial a group of us to rent … I think we called it a limo, but it was a van, and to make the hour and a half drive down to Worcester and check out the concert. But really thinking back, the Beastie Boys are just incredible and that was an incredible album and an incredible time. I think that I went out and got Yo! Bum Rush the Show a week or two after, but up until that point, I had never heard of Public Enemy; no one I knew had ever heard of Public Enemy. It was really my introduction to Public Enemy. So two hugely important groups; a great first concert.
I don’t know if you’ll agree with this or not, but I think that one of the problems with rap music is that when you’re in a club and you see underground hip hop, it always seems like it works really well. But the quality seems to go down as the venues get larger. It doesn’t translate as well in an arena setting. Maybe you’ll disagree with that because you just described an arena show that sounds like it was great.
Anytime I see hip hop or rap on the Grammys or something like that, it always feels … well not always, I mean sometimes I just feel like this is pop music and pop music has its place. But a lot of the times when I see it, it really feels painful to me. And it just doesn’t click. Sometimes you have an audience that’s into it, but you can tell that these are people hired to run to the front and hype everything up. But I have to say for the first concert, that was my first concert of any sort really. So just having the concert experience, having one group that I grew to love that I had never heard of and being introduced to them, and another group that I knew their album intimately and really enjoyed. So to have that experience was wonderful and amazing.
But generally you can’t replicate the feel that you have with a small venue. I mean, for me it is almost like the smaller the better, where people are crowded in, where you’re touching people and where you are shoulder to shoulder with everybody and that energy goes right up to the front of the stage. That’s amazing. I really feel that when you get outside of that, you start to lose something. Yeah, certainly. I mean it’s about a closeness and it’s about creating an atmosphere that fills the whole space. And sometimes at these big shows for specific moments you can have a place where the whole crowd is into it and the whole place is jumping, but I really think to have that and to sustain that, you do a lot better in a small venue with a few hundred people, even less than a hundred people because there really is that tightness and closeness. But the one thing I will say is that I haven’t been to many arena shows in the last twenty years. So most of my concert experiences have been with smaller venues. I have been to a few that places that hold a couple thousand people but mostly it’s 500 or less.
What do you listen to besides rap music?
A little bit of a bunch of strange things. A lot of folk. I really like female singer-songwriters. I’m a big Carol King fan. I’m also a big James Taylor fan. A lot of R&B. And these days a lot of, I would say, 80’s and early 90’s R&B, more of the music of my youth. I listen to a little bit of reggae. But then I just have all these strange things like I, that I just pull out, like Stravinsky, Edith Piaf. A lot of various things that I’ll just say, “okay I want to listen to here, I want to listen to here.” But mostly I listen to a lot of hip-hop. These days, I’m sort of torn between going back to the classics from the late 80’s and 90’s. But I still listen to a lot of underground. And it’s gotten to the point where I can’t keep up and I don’t know all the new artists, but I know artists I like. I know artists that I’ve had their CDs for the last 15 years or so. As they used to say in San Francisco, I listen to a lot of “music that no one else listens to” in terms of independent hip-hop and underground hip-hop.
So I still have this connection of wanting to listen to that music that I’ve been into for the last 15 years. And still having select artists or select labels that whenever they come out with new music, I check out what they have. These days, in terms finding new music, it’s much more about labels I trust and artists I trust or something that I just happened to stumble into through meeting someone or someone puts me on to. But one of the strange things about being a hip-hop scholar is that suddenly what you used to enjoy is now work. And even though I guess I could justify it, I just can’t dedicate my time to listening to everything out there.
And another thing I’d say along those lines is I don’t have a car. I haven’t had a car now for maybe 13 years. Living in Blacksburg without a car, that’s something I’m proud of, but you also realize just how much music listening goes on in a car. So whenever I have a chance to make a road trip or do something like that, I’m always very selective about what music I’m going to listen to, what albums I’m going to have a chance to listen to. On certain days I’ll have headphones on and I’ll be walking around listening to things, but that’s not really that social either. So a lot of times, I’m at home working and there’s music on. So really my musical listening has gone down quite a bit from my youth, even though this is what I do now for my profession.
I was going to say something similar, which is that some of my favorite rap albums are things that nobody’s ever heard of. They’re things that I found when I was out researching underground hip-hop. It’s like part of my musical language or whatever you want to call it, the sort of music cells in my brain. When I think about music, I think of these songs and these albums. But it’s music that almost nobody has ever heard.
When I first started listening to hip-hop, I went to a mostly white high school in Western Massachusetts. And I would really call myself an “early adopter.” I mean I was into hip hop at a time when very few people in my high school were. And at that time, it really marked me as being different, distinct. It was something that I could form an identity around, I would say especially as an African American in a mostly white high school.
So since that time, if you track the music that I listen to, in college I had tons of friends who were into rap, who were into hip-hop. But we’re talking about people who were in Massachusetts, on the East Coast. They mostly liked New York rap. They didn’t like anything from out of the West Coast. And I was one of the few people who was into West Coast hip-hop at a time when most of my friends really weren’t. They were all listening to Redman.
I was saying, “I like this group Compton’s Most Wanted, and they have a new album out so I’m going to get Compton’s Most Wanted Music To Driveby.” And I remember one day in the record store, all my friends were around me and they are like, “Oh man, it’s Redman’s new album!” And I was like, “you know, I’m going to get Compton’s Most Wanted.” So I’ve always looked outside my backyard for music, and for rap music. And I think that in terms of discovering underground hip-hop in the mid-90’s, it was something that I realized “okay there’s this other music and it’s great but nobody really knows about it.” And I really see that as carrying through, from having Whodini and Fat Boys and albums like that in the mid-80’s that no one else had heard of, to a situation where as rap was getting more and more popular, I was always kind of looking for what else is being made that other people don’t necessarily know so much about.
And I don’t know if it had to do as much with reshaping an identity for me, but it carries all the way through to working at Amoeba Music in San Francisco. You’re in this music store with a lot of people who know a lot about hip-hop, but still I get the reputation where someone one day says, “You like all that music that nobody knows about.” Because I’m always in the dollar bins, always looking for something that I have never heard of but that the album cover catches my eye or catches my interest. So it’s really a part of my story.
Anthony Kwame Harrison is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Virginia Tech.
Geoff Harkness is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Qatar.