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.
Any thoughts on where you see hip-hop studies going, or directions that you think researchers should be doing?
Yeah, I guess I have a few thoughts on that. One is more qualitative research and more ethnography. So much of the early history of hip-hop studies was much more kind of media studies, kind of cultural studies. Just looking at hip hop pieces that exist out there, usually in the mainstream, as text. And analyzing and interpreting those texts. But not necessarily talking to people, and particularly not talking to people who are outside the spotlight. So local scenes, local groups, and talking to and spending time with people in those communities. We’re seeing it now, but I would say more qualitative research, more ethnography, and more looking at local scenes. That’s one place where I think hip hop studies will continue to grow. And there’s just such a wealth of work that could be done. I mean, hip hop on a dirt road. I would love to see what that looks like. As a researcher, it might not be the best use of your time, hanging out on the dirt road all the time waiting for hip hop to happen. But it’s happening there. Well, what does that look like? There are just infinite numbers of places and ways that it manifests.
A couple of the other things I would say are, I feel a little tired of all of the kind of — and I’m part of this so I’m not necessarily criticizing others—“okay here are the four elements, hip hop started in New York City in the early ‘70s and then ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out.” I mean, that’s a story and that’s a story that we’ve grown comfortable with. And it’s an accurate history and it’s a history that serves an important function and serves as an important point of recognition. But I’m not sure how many more times that needs to be retold. I would much rather see people interrogating that. And actually, I was talking with Joe Schloss about this. What’s Brooklyn’s role in hip-hop history? I think that Joe is doing some work right now — or at least he is involved in some conversations right now — where people are saying, “Brooklyn deserves to held in the same esteem as the Bronx in terms of talking about where hip hop started.” There are these alternative histories within New York that need to be told. There are also these broader alternative histories that need to be told. I think that most people have an understanding of hip hop as having these African Diasporic roots that extend into the Caribbean, and that extend into the American South, and that extend to West Africa. I think that rather than understanding and interpreting these as distinct cultural traditions that fed into something that crystallized in New York City, we should be exploring, for lack of a better term, the “intrinsic hip hop-ness” of what we see going on in these sites, historically and even now, on their own terms.
So in the standard history, you hear that hip hop started in New York City and then it spread to, let’s say L.A. And the people in L.A. say, “The moment we heard it, we felt connected to it.” But why did you feel connected to it? Was it because it was something that was imported, or was it because it was something that was genuinely a part of what was going on there? And did this imported element — whether it was a scene from Flashdance or “Rapper’s Delight,” or some other song — just kind of make a certain connection or was there something more to it? So trying to rethink these multiple sites and multiple places throughout the Diaspora as legitimate sites of original hip hop, that’s important. Not to supplant the accurate narrative of hip hop in New York City, but to enrich and to add to it, and to broaden our understanding of its global spread. I think that’s work that is starting to be done. Ali Colleen Neff is someone who I’ve had the good fortune of working with a lot lately, and she’s been extremely influential in pushing my thinking about this. Both her book on hip hop in the Mississippi Delta and some of the work she’s doing right now on women Sufi praise singers in Senegal bring these viewpoints to bear. And I think that more of this work needs to be done.
And the last thing I would say is just what I have been saying about — and what I call for in that piece on practice based research — trying to understand the power of hip hop as art and performance. Even songs are performances that go on in the studio and are recorded. And really trying to make better sense of what’s happening at these moments of performance. I think there is great work to do around this. Some of the directions I’ve been headed towards have to do with race and voicing. I mean, every voice is a projection, involving taking on a voice. As an MC you always have an MC voice. And yes, it’s your voice, but it’s also a voice that is intentionally present there on a microphone in the studio at that time when things are happening. And what’s going on around elements of, particularly race and ethnicity, and this voicing that takes place. So I think that the practice based approach to understanding dynamics and projections of race is, where I’m trying to go.
And also the use of different voices. As you said this I’m thinking of Nicki Minaj and how she uses all these different voices when she raps, and sort of what that means, what she’s doing when she does that.
Part of your earlier question about why is underground hip hop so diverse when mainstream hip hop isn’t, I think part of that question may surround not just what kinds of images, but also what kinds of voices do people receive as legitimately hip hop. I think there’s a certain range of voices that are seen as okay. That’s what a rapper should sound like. That person sounds wack or what have you. But that range is still rather limited. There are voices that are definitively not hip hop. And there are racialized and ethnic terms to why and gendered terms to why these voices are not seen as being hip hop.
There was that experimental study where they had different people call about job listings using very sort of stereotypically ethnic or non-ethnic voices. And you can predict, obviously, what happens when they make these calls. But it’s interesting, the power of the voice, and how in different contexts it works for or against you.
Yeah, I mean as an MC it’s your voice and your flow. That’s what your identity is, at least outside of videos.
Second to last question: Do you think that rap music, or even music more broadly, has the same sort of salience in the lives of young people today that it did when we were growing up? Because now there are all of these choices and options. Do you think that music means as much to kids growing up today as it ever did?
I’m going to take a stand and say No. And maybe part of it is just being an old man, but I will tell you my reasons for this. I teach a class; its title is the “Sociology and Popular Music.” And every first day of class, I ask the students to write down a bunch of things on the note card: your name, your year, your major. But I also ask them to write down their favorite kind of music or a kind of music that they really like. But I always make it singular. Half the class always gives me at least two, often three. And a lot of times they give me, “I like all kinds; I like everything except ______;” and they’ll name one genre that they don’t like. The late Richard Peterson is one of the people that I credit with writing about this idea of people becoming omnivores of music and liking all different kinds of music. I think that sometimes in this omnivorous environment of music consumption — and if you also take in to account just how much music people listen to; music’s with young people all the time — and if you put in all these things together, I think that there’s a certain dulling that goes on. I do think that specific kinds of music and specific moments of music don’t have … Music’s still incredibly powerful, but it doesn’t have as much of an impact as it had on us growing up. So I would say that.
I would also say — and this is really my “when-I-first-heard-Criminal-Minded story”: I had travelled to the best hip-hop record store that I knew, which was about 40 minutes away from where I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. And I was there and I had the money to buy one cassette tape. And I looked and one of the cassette tapes that had a big poster and had a lot of copies there in the store was called Boogie Down Productions, Criminal Minded. The other cassette tape was of this group that I’d read about, and I was really intrigued by. I really wanted to get their album, but I could only buy one. It was a group called Stet, Stetsasonic. I remember there was only one Stetsasonic cassette tape. I went ahead and got the Criminal Minded tape. I loved it. I remember listening to it on the ride home. But it felt like I didn’t find that Stetsasonic tape again for two years. It was probably more like six months or something. And I remember the day I finally saw it in the Ingleside Mall. It was a magical moment. I almost couldn’t believe it. I grabbed it and treasured it. I put it on in the car; it was magic. On Fire. Stetsasonic On Fire, that’s an incredible album. When I was thinking about what my favorite albums are, I was listening to that one last night. It’s still incredible, On Fire. But that idea of having to find it, having that discovery.
I remember having to stay up till 1:00 o’clock at night just to watch music videos. This search, and time investment, and discovery. People still discover new music: “I’ve never heard of this band.” But that longing for something that you can’t get your hands on, and then getting it. It’s a different dynamic. And I think having music so pervasive, and having such eclectic tastes, and having it always available. All you have to do is know that it exists and you can pretty much find it. I think that does take away from the power of music for young people today.
Something I have assigned students to do is go out and study the public use of music in retail stores. All these other environments where music is being used, but we are not usually aware of it. There’s quite a scholarship on how retail the corporations adjust the tempo, the volume, and all of these different things to control the behavior of customers. If they want them to stay longer, if they want them to get out of the store. So I think that another thing is that music is used in public and in ways that’s very manipulative too. We are not really aware of it, but that also seems like it could have an impact.
Completely. Actually, just to add to what you are saying, one of the students in my class did a paper on exactly that. But not in stores, in the bank. And no one thinks about music in a bank, but it’s there. And she really had it. You want people to stay, but you don’t want them to stay too long. You want people to be comfortable, but you don’t want them to hang out in the bank. She was pulling many of those arguments into, “What’s this music and why is it in the bank?” And nobody even realizes that there’s music in the bank.
And now you go to the gas station and they play music at the gas pump. Sometimes you can’t escape it. And even as someone who loves music, sometimes I’m like, “Turn off this music! Why is this music playing?” Okay so my last question is a tough question: Who was the second graffiti writer to come out of Oakland?
[Laughs] It’s funny when you write something like that. Because you’re probably the third or fourth person who’s brought that up at some point. It continues to be a punch line. I don’t know. I better figure that out. I’ll be out in San Francisco in a few weeks, and I’ve got some friends who are in the know about that sort of stuff. And I’m gonna make them tell me.
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.