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.
Part 1 of the interview is available here.
Geoff Harkness: Actually that transitions well into my next question. You based yourself at Amoeba when you were doing fieldwork for your book, and that made the whole project possible, or certainly shaped it in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Today, a lot of record stores have closed, but it also seems like they’ve lost the social and cultural relevance that they once had. When we were growing up, the record store was the place to go for musicians; they were a gathering place. Do you think it would be possible to center yourself in a record store today and be at the center of a music scene?
Kwame Harrison: I think it could happen but in other ways. Now I think that online forums may be one place where a music scene comes together. Prior to going to the Bay, I had been a participant in a few different online forums, and on those online forums I think that I had made a name for myself. And I think that part of it had to do with the fact that I was a graduate student, so I was a good writer. Also, I was someone who was a little bit older who had been a longtime fan of hip-hop, so I had this amount of knowledge. And I would say that both those things — and maybe something else that I can’t quite grasp — made me, I guess I would say, notable on some of the message boards.
So the message boards are one thing, but then you have to transition into real life. And you do need a physical space; I think that’s quite important. Through a message board I might have learned about the open mics that I would go to. Through going to those open mics, I can see it happening. Amoeba made it easy. Because at Amoeba I was learning about things, but I was also becoming a person that other artists, people who work at the doors at venues, just other people in the scene wanted to be cool with. So Amoeba really made it easy. I was lucky to get that job and I was extremely thankful to get that job.
But after Amoeba, I really see my research as centered around the open mics and maybe some of the artists that I met. If I was doing it today, and if that open mic still existed, I would need a way of learning about it. And becoming a person that some of the people who go to that open mics recognize and say, “Oh yeah, this is that guy.” For certain reasons, I was able to establish that, even online. So it could be possible, but certainly having record stores … As an ethnographer and as someone who is going to be in the scene, where do you hang out all day? The open mic goes on for a couple of hours on a Monday night and this other one goes on on another night. So where do you spend your time? Having that record store as a place to just spend time and randomly bump into people and organically make those contacts without necessarily having to go there thinking, “I need to meet somebody” or something like that was essential.
One of the things with ethnography is that you’re usually in the field for a limited amount of time. And even if it wouldn’t be in your usual nature to go out and see people and meet them and create a contact with them, even if you might normally be a bit more reserved, a bit more shy, and I usually am. It’s like, “well this person’s in the store now” or “this person’s at the open mic now, and I don’t see them here very much and they’re here right now so I better go talk to them.” So I think the music store helped with that a lot.
The second chapter of your book is really interesting because you are writing about doing the study and your methods. How did being an MC inform your research and your research interests?
At the most immediate level, it gave me credibility. At the most immediate level, it meant I’m here watching MCs, watching people who are writing songs and sharing them with me, who are going to open mics and rhyming off the top of their head. And there is a real vulnerability that’s involved with that. Doing ethnographic research involves approaching something with a critical lens. So to have people out there sharing themselves and being vulnerable all the time, and if you are sitting there always looking at them with this critical lens. That happens all the time in ethnographic research. But I think that for an ethnographer doing work among MCs and among hip-hop music artists who are putting themselves out there, I think that that dynamic is really pronounced.
So it was important for me to have a chance to share some of my own biography with people, and let them know that this is who I am and this is how I understand hip-hop and how I came to love hip-hop. But also to share some of my vulnerability. So at the most immediate level, it just opened doors, or developed trust more quickly.
Right now I’m writing something that talks a little bit about trust, but it talks about it in terms of the relationship between trust and deception. Sometimes we just think that in a qualitative research project it takes time to develop trust, and that’s just a straightforward thing that kind of happens through time. But I also think that there is another side to that, which is deception. And I think that in any situation, but particularly a situation like this where I’m not just conducting research on folks but I start rhyming alongside them, I start making music with people. To just ignore that element of deception is being selective. So part of what I’m doing now is theorizing that and examining what is the ethnographic relationship between trust and deception. But at one level, emceeing just opened up trust, it opened up credibility to people, where I wasn’t just that guy who comes to open mics. I had a role and I had a role that people could assess, and people could respond to. I had a place. Similar to what you say in terms of your work and having this role of being the person who videotaped shows and made this documentary.
A lot of people kind of knew, “okay, he is a grad student, he’s working on his paper for school.” Some people knew what that was about, but there is always a certain vagueness as to “why is this person here?” So at the classic ethnographic level, it just gave me a role and a role where I was really working alongside people. It wasn’t just that they could make sense of my presence, they also saw me putting myself out there and doing the same things. But at another level — and this is a level that I am just really beginning to explore with more of my recent writing — I did record two albums that were released while out there. I keep going to the Bay almost every summer. And during those times I still make songs. And even though these songs aren’t necessarily planned as an album or anything, there is still something musical and collaborative going on.
And right now, I’ve really been getting more involved in something that’s called practice based research. And that’s really looking at not just the ethnographic aspect, but also the part of research and discovery that surrounds making artistic pieces. And these artistic pieces would be songs, albums. So my role has really given me some insights into what happens in the studio. What happens in the process of thinking “let’s make a song. What’s this song about? What beat are we going to put this to? Okay do your verse, what’s happens next? Let’s do overdubs.” There’s so much activity that surrounds the creation of a hip-hop song. So many social dynamics, so many choices and decisions about “should we do this or should we do that?” And I’m really trying to get into examining more of the aesthetic power of hip hop, and the aesthetic power of black music, and kind of framing this around what’s happening when we’re in the studio and what’s happening when we’re in the kitchen writing songs and making songs.
So to summarize, emceeing has given me more access to what I would call the more conventional kind of ethnographic information. But it’s also opened up these new dimensions and these new interior spaces for understanding the power of hip hop and exploring how people activate this power and how they work collectively to construct this power. So it’s helped me in very traditional finding-a-role kind of ways, and in these other ways that are trying to push hip hop scholarship into new and exciting realms.
That was something that I noticed when I was doing research: the studio and the importance of the studio as a space for the musicians. Every single person I met had a home studio, whether it was a really tricked-out fancy, expensive set up or some people had studios that they had created in bathrooms and in closets. And it didn’t matter if it was a bathroom or a closet because that space was transformed by the fact that it was a studio and having that booth was so important to everybody. It was key to it in a way that I’m not sure that it is if you’re in a punk rock band. It’s very difficult to have a studio in your bedroom where you can record drums. But in hip hop, you can basically set up a fully legitimate, working studio almost anywhere.
Yeah and here’s the other thing. I’ve recorded probably 150 songs in San Francisco. Mostly in one studio, maybe one or two in other places, but mostly in this one studio. I can probably count the number of shows that I’ve done in San Francisco on one hand. I’m talking about four, five shows. So in this world of underground hip hop, there are opportunities to make songs and to put those songs out. In terms of having opportunities to do shows, I think that those are harder to come by, especially in a situation like ours, where I’m here in Virginia and other people are there. Getting a show is just a much bigger and harder deal. So in punk, the key space where things happen might be at the small venue, on the stage, with people jumping around. In underground hip hop, that key space is the home studio, whether it’s in the bathroom or not. That’s where the magic happens. And these are records. You’re recording. What I’m arguing is that these are records of collaborative ethnographic engagement and knowledge production. And they’re records because they’re recorded as things that we collectively put together.
In the article you wrote about practice-based research, you call for “creative or poetic modes of academic writing,” which sounds great to me. Do you think that it’s possible to advance methods like that and still be taken seriously by the sort of elites in the field? By the traditional folks who think that even recording an interview is going to throw off the dynamics of the whole thing. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do know what you mean and that’s a great question. There will always be people who will set boundaries around what kinds of conventions academic writing or academic research have to have. However, I think as fields grow — and I really think if we look at the direction that a lot of qualitative research has gone over the last 40 or 50 years and I would say especially the last 30 years, — more creative, writerly approaches are fully in line with the trajectories that we see. I think that they make the work more accessible. You like to read stuff that is enjoyable, not something that you are either bored with or that you have to painstakingly make your way through to find what’s there. I also think that there’s something to the form, the way that we represent our research. To taking a form that’s in line with the kinds of sensibilities and aesthetics we encounter in our research. So yes, there will be people who will say this isn’t good scholarship, this isn’t standard, this isn’t legitimate as research. But I think there will be increasingly more voices that are charged, that are excited.
I don’t necessarily put Hip Hop Underground in that place that I’m calling for in that article. But I’ve been surprised, since it was published, by how many young hip-hop ethnographers are coming up to me saying, “This book was really important for me, because suddenly I realized I can do this. This is what I want to do and I can do this. Wow, he’s doing it, so I can too.” So even though some people will continue to say this isn’t good research, I think that more and more we will find a wider variety of folks, both within the academy and outside the academy, who are excited by it. People who are students and scholars and people within hip hop studies, but also people who are just in hip hop, maybe even hip hop artists ,who will look at this kind of work and this writing and say, “I can do this.”
Destined, who is one of the MCs that I’ve worked closely with in the Bay, taught me so much. But now that he’s in graduate school, we’re talking about school related things. He talks to me about papers, and I say, “Look, what I do is not that different than being a hip hop artist.” I teach classes, and a big part of teaching is performance. You get up in front of the students, and you lecture, and you’re enthusiastic, and you write down a lecture in a certain way, and you deliver it. This is a lot like getting up on stage and reciting rhymes. Writing papers is a lot like sampling beats. You dig in the scholarship, you dig in the crates, and you find important ideas, important quotes, and you put them together and you add your own touch to it.
So I really think that pushing these boundaries will do more for scholarship. And I continue to be surprised by even that piece on practice based research. When I wrote it, I felt good about it but I didn’t feel, as a written piece, that it was necessarily what I wanted it to be. It had this sort of unfinished feel to it. Part of that had to do with the (JPMS) amplifier format. Part of it also had to do with the fact that on the weekend when I was finishing it up, I suddenly got sick and spent most of the weekend in bed. I literally had to drag myself out of bed to send it out. So it had this unfinished feel, which I didn’t feel was terrible. But at the same time, I thought — like with all my articles — when I sat down to start to write I thought about all that it could be and it got some of the way there but it didn’t quite get there fully. So I was just kind of “okay” about it. But in the last few months, I’ve had several people approach me about it and about doing more work along those lines.
I do think that if you continue to push these boundaries and take chances, rather than sitting and following the conventions, you may be surprised at how much people respond well to what you’re doing. And how many people you inspire. And that’s when you start getting invitations to do more work. Last thing, I have tenure now, so that’s another consideration. I’m still working as hard as ever and trying to get more of my work out there, but without this publish-or-perish pressure, I feel like I can do a few more things on my own terms.
I think that the thing that as readers we’re looking for in that article is the thing that you said weren’t going to do: Tell us exactly how to do this. Tell us what practice based research is, and give us the four steps that we need to do. It was more here’s an idea; you decided how to apply it.
Well, in the writing that I am doing over the next month, if and when it gets published, I think you’ll see, not necessarily the steps of how to do it, but you’ll see more of what it would look like in terms of hip hop. And actually both of those articles were invitations. They came following that article. So someone liked it and said, “let me see more.”
An interesting insight in your book is that underground scenes are much more ethnically diverse than mainstream rap music. Any idea why you see such a split between those two?
Mainstream hip hop is mostly put out by large companies. And anytime that you are in such a large company — especially with a music industry that seems to be increasingly struggling more and more — there’s pressure to do what works. Yes, music is taking chances to some degree, but the music industry, the popular culture industries, are incredibly formulaic. And I don’t like that, but I don’t necessarily blame a company for making those kinds of choices: “Okay, if we are going to invest all of this money in these artists and try to put this out, we need to go with what we see and understand as working.” For those companies — and I would also say for general fans as well — hip hop has a black face. There is a fundamental blackness to what authentic hip hop is. Kembrew McLeod wrote about this in 1999, and even that research was probably coming out of the mid-90s. And you could say, “well that was in the mid-90s and this black/authentic white/inauthentic thing has changed since then.” But with a few notable and understandable exceptions, hip hop is still understood by music industries and understood by most casual fans — people who love hip hop but maybe are not the kinds of people who look outside their backyard for music — as strictly black music, at least in terms of the practitioners doing it.
You can have your exceptions and you can have your special white artist or your special Asian-American artist or anything of that sort. But it’s still seen and understood as black urban, poor, working class music. And music that comes out of those environments. That idea of America being entertained through representations of blackness is nothing new, it goes back to the 19th century. And one of the questions to ask is, “what purpose is that dynamic serving?” I can hint at it here and there in my writing, and I can work it out a little bit here and there in my thoughts and in my writing, but that’s really not a question that I will say I can provide the complete answer to. But I think that it’s an important question that we need to continually ask: Why have all the great popular innovations in entertainment throughout the history of American pop culture been so connected to blackness and black people and black communities? Is it that black people make better music? Well you can argue that, but I don’t think you should settle on that. I think you should pay more attention to what this music/entertainment is doing. What role is it serving for the mainstream audience, and the mainstream majority white audience?
I think the reason that everybody still cites Kembrew McCloud’s article is that in so many ways it still holds up, or continues to serve as a great launching point for analysis. You have to go to that article if you’re going to talk about authenticity. One of the questions I have wrestled with in my own writing is: Do you think that scholars of hip hop are more concerned with authenticity than practitioners of hip hop?
[Laughs] Hmm. That’s a good question. Probably yes. Let me put it this way: As a term called “authenticity,” certainly. And even in general, probably. And I’m not just talking about hip hop, although I think that hip hop gives one of the best examples for this. As music scholars, there are questions about the extent to which we should be music critics. Whether we should say this is good and this is bad. A critic can say this is great music, and this is terrible music. But as music scholars, in a general sense, that really isn’t our role. But what authenticity allows us to do is to negotiate that. In some cases, authentic serves as a substitute for good. Although it isn’t a perfect substitute. But you can say this is received as authentic for this reason, this is received as inauthentic for these reasons. So in any popular music scholarship, this concept of authenticity serves an important role in allowing scholars to navigate and move around and discuss and think critically about music.
The terms of authenticity surrounding hip hop are as important as in any genre, both for artists and for scholars. But I do think that scholars probably make more of it than artists. Although there’s always this kind of assessment. Most times when two hip hop heads are meeting each other for the first time, there’s this question of “is this someone I am going to connect with or is this someone either I’m critical of and I don’t think they understand hip hop, or I’m cool with but I’m not really trying to get too close with?” So I do think that that exists. Does it exist around the terms that we construct authenticity, and especially the categories through which a lot of scholars talk about it? I don’t necessarily think it exists strictly through those things. I think that they have an impact. I think that race, I think that where someone’s from, I think that class, I think that someone’s understanding of hip hop all potentially matter. But sometimes it’s more, “Who do you like? What do you listen to? Why do you like it?” And I guess as a practitioner of hip hop — I’ll talk about MCs because that’s what I talk about a lot — “what are you trying to do with hip hop?” I mean, “what are your aesthetic sensibilities and what are your goals?” Even if hip hop heads don’t necessarily think about it explicitly in this way, I think that one of the things that goes through people’s heads is — and I believe that I mention this in my book — is this person using hip hop as a means to get something for themselves, or is this person just committed to loving and doing whatever this thing is that we call hip hop?
For a lot of the people I spend time around, if someone is perceived of using hip hop as a means to get something else — Like, “okay, I’m going to do it but I really want to get money, or I really want to get girls, or I really want to get people to like me. And that’s the main reason I’m doing it, not because I have this genuine attraction to it.” That is something that people are critical of. And that gets into authenticity a little bit. There are definitely authentic dimensions to that. But I think scholars will continue to latch on to that term and to latch on to the different ways that we can formulate and construct that term in a way that I think practitioners will be much more like, “Is this a cool person or not? Do they know what’s up?”
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.