Kwame Harrison Interview
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?
Anthony 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.
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?
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?”
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.