The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture

By Woldu, Gail Hilson | Notes, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The Kaleidoscope of Writing on Hip-Hop Culture


Woldu, Gail Hilson, Notes


ABSTRACT

At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, writing about hip-hop is at an interesting crossroads. On the one hand, we continue to see a wealth of fine academic writing published by scholars in fields as diverse as cultural studies, musicology, and women's studies; on the other, we have noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of popular writing about hip-hop, much of which has succumbed to crude street language in an attempt to increase readership. This kaleidoscope, by turns overly pedantic and gratuitously coarse, creates a conundrum as hip-hop struggles to define--and redefine--itself.

This article distinguishes three categories of writing about hip-hop--works by academics, works by journalists and cultural critics, and works by hip-hop's devotees--and discusses a handful of significant publications written between 1988 and 2008. This twenty-year written history of hip-hop is considered through a variety of lenses, with the hope that the various points of view might illuminate new directions for hip-hop's chronicled future.

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The publication of Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994) (1) was a landmark moment for hip-hop culture, giving tacit approval to scholarly discourse on hip-hop and leading to other important writing. Journalists, many proudly referring to themselves as "hip-hop heads," wrote bold articles in trade and popular magazines and newspapers that included The Source, Vibe, XXL, and Rolling Stone as well as the Village Voice, Time, and Newsweek. Members of the academy responded with a freshet of articles and books that linked hip-hop's roots to other African American vernacular expressions. At the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, writing about hip-hop, like the music and culture, is at an interesting crossroads. On the one hand, we continue to see a wealth of fine academic writing published by scholars in fields as diverse as cultural studies, musicology, and women's studies; on the other, we have noticed a dramatic decline in the quality of popular writing about hip-hop, much of which has succumbed to crude street language in an attempt to increase readership. This kaleidoscope, by turns overly pedantic and gratuitously coarse, creates a conundrum as hip-hop struggles to define--and redefine--itself.

Language dictates the tenor of writing on hip-hop, establishing both writer and audience. For the writer on hip-hop culture, whose prospective audiences comprise at least three distinct types of reader--the academic or scholar, the dilettante, and the fan--language is often the sole determinant. Audiences unaccustomed to the style of writing sometimes seen in the academy might not enthusiastically embrace the belief that "hip-hop merely displays in phantasmagorical form the cultural logic of late capitalism" and that "hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community." (2) By contrast, readers accustomed to academic effusion are likely to require a definition of hip-hop more expansive than "a term used for urban-based creativity and expression of culture." (3)

In the sections that follow a brief introduction to writing on hip-hop culture, I distinguish three categories of writing about hip-hop--works by academics, works by journalists and cultural critics, and works by hip-hop's devotees--and I discuss a handful of significant publications of the years 1988-2008. There is a caveat, though: divisions exist within the worlds of writing about hip-hop. These are complicated divides that reflect divergent perspectives often based on gender, race, and politics. For these reasons, in surveying the writing of a host of academics and journalists, I consider a twenty-year written history of hip-hop through a variety of lenses, with the hope that these various points of view might illuminate new directions for hip-hop's chronicled future. …

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