Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement

Article excerpt

Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement S. Craig Watkins. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005.

With a nod to Cornel West's influential title, S. Craig Watkins's Hip Hop Matters offers much to consider in pondering the rhetorical question embedded within. For whom does a book on hip hop matter? Hip Hop Matters welcomes a general reader with cliffhanging denouements to suspend anticipation. As an example, the chapter titled "A Great Year in Hip Hop" ends with a hint of things to come: ". . . despite all the noise rap music made in the first half of 1998, the hip-hop movement would have much more to say over the course of the next six months" (66). Afficionados will already know the pivotal personnel of 1998, along with the rags-to-riches legends of today's performers. For these readers, Watkins's probe into the evolution of hip-hop music and lifestyle provides a social and political context. But, while Hip Hop Matters will appeal to young scholars, those who really need this book are their teachers.

We academics continue extolling the virtues of the great European arts of the past, yet often neglect to engage with our own times, especially disavowing the mostly urban and youthful hip-hop arts as "popular," commercial, or worse. Watkins's book offers older scholars access into the changing face of contemporary American culture and the political and economic factors fueling the various hip-hop arts of graffiti, break dancing, and fashion. It is rap music-the MCs, DJs, and producers-that most occupies Watkins. Especially provocative is his analysis of socially conscious rappers Ice Cube, of the groundbreaking N. W. A. (Niggaz With Attitude), and Chuck D. of Public Enemy, both coming on the scene around 1989. We learn how their potentially subversive challenges to the mainstream were ultimately contained by a "corporate take over" during the 1990s (58).

The outsider's point of view first gave rap its resonance within alienated segments of society, but gradually that voice became fashioned by powerful capitalist elites, making a potentially radical popular art little different from the high arts in sustaining the status quo. …