Getting off at the 13th Floor: Rap Genius and Archiving 21st Century Black Cultural Memory

By Bradley, Regina N. | Journal of Ethnic American Literature, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Getting off at the 13th Floor: Rap Genius and Archiving 21st Century Black Cultural Memory


Bradley, Regina N., Journal of Ethnic American Literature


In his verse on Goodie Mob's song "Thought Process," rapper Andre "3000" Benjamin declares, "I got off at the 13th floor/when they told me there wasn't one." The imagery of the 13th floor, a phantom space attached to misfortune and paranoia, is reimagined by Benjamin to signify his transcendence of others' expectations of his (self) awareness. Of course, Benjamin and his rhyming partner Antwan "Big Boi" Patton's hip hop moniker Outkast builds upon the intentional (mis)use of hip hop's margins to establish their brand of storytelling. From this perspective, the 13th floor gauges Outkast's brand of life on the margins as normal. Yet the imagery of Benjamin's voluntary dismount to hip hop's 13th floor can also be used to seek out alternative spaces where hip hop sensibilities reside. The fluidity of place and experience that the 13th floor metaphor embodies is useful in thinking about the Internet and its hand in constructing hip hop's identity politics in the 21st century. Although a highly accessible and popular space, the Internet is also capable of being a phantom commu- nity, allowing infringed and marginalized narratives to coexist with the status quo.

The Internet, like hip hop, reflects America's current social-cultural landscape as a complicated maneuver of race, place, and identity. As Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki aver, "the media operate[s] both as barometer of cultural integration and as [a] potential accelerator either to cohesion or to further cultural separation and political conflict" (206). It is through Entman and Rojecki's contextualization of media as a cultural litmus test of America's social-racial conflicts and anxieties that I render the Internet as a messy intellectual space. Seemingly concrete markers of race, class, and gender problematically collapse. Like hip hop, the fickleness of the Internet-wavering based on what is popular, profitable, and readily identified-further speaks to its position as a gray space of popular expression and social consciousness. Thus, my reading of the Internet and its potential as a hip hop archival space is grounded in its use as a gathering space of experiences, exchanging of ideas, conflicts, cultural expression, and witnessing. Extending Guthrie Ramsey's construction of music as a reservoir of cultural memory, digital hip hop archives serve as a working cultural reservoir of memory that documents a post-civil rights black identity in ways that entertain and offer up dominant upheavals of black identity that do not neatly situate into discourses currently in place about (black) American culture.

Hip Hop's digital imprint is ripe for investigation as a site of its shifting cultural aesthetics and performance. Technology-more specifically, social media-and hip hop overlap as spaces of popular opinion and identity. Consider the popularity of Twitter. Hip hop artists are able to engage their fans and each other in short 140 character bursts. They are also able to plug their latest project for sale. The mechanics of tweeting parallel the construction of a rhyme-word choice, count, and delivery. Tweets, like a freestyle, are a reflection of the user's ability to quickly engage the topic or person at hand and sell themselves to their audience. A rapper's twitter feed is an archive of their digital "bars" and ability to remain fresh and relevant. It is also a public record of the artists' attempt to write herself or himself into a larger dialogue taking place about industry, race, and performance in digital spaces. Fans' engagement with hip hop artists via social media grounds the use of digital archives as performative and commodified spaces. Twitter timelines reflect a larger invoice of new media's role in hip hop's frequent transitions between art and enterprise. The sinew that attaches these seemingly oppositional expectations is hip hop's commodification as a cultural memory.

Hip Hop's status as a collective identity and memory resonates in social media as group forum discussion boards, or online periodicals like AllHipHop and HipHopDX. …

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