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Beat Scholars

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2008 9:00 AM


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Rapper CP and producer Chris, photographed in front of a mural by the New Millenium Barber Shop where fellow rapper Trenseta works and where they all hang out.

Hip-hop is more than the musical language of the city, of youth, of change. It's also a cultural force that reaches far beyond its stereotypes. UCLA was one of the first universities to see the potential of the genre as a serious subject of study, and hip-hop is now an important part of academic inquiry in Westwood.

With their pants draped low and sweat jackets zipped tight, baseball caps tilted sideways and perilously dark glasses, the young men who rap Thursday nights at Project Blowed, a community open mic for rappers in Los Angeles' Leimert Park neighborhood, fit the stereotypical image of hip-hop to a T.

But the hip-hop culture is more than just a stereotype. It's an academic discipline.

"There's another dimension to it, not just guys who are ... rapping about negative things, who don't have any dreams or aspirations and don't have a work ethic," says UCLA grad student Jooyoung Lee M.A. '06. "It's actually quite the opposite."

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Lee is one of a handful of students in UCLA's Hip Hop Working Group, whose studies revolve around the scholarly discourse of the intellectual and cultural movement of hip-hop. And his goal — like his peers — is to go beyond the culture's stereotypes, to display that, as the dominant language of youth culture, hip-hop shouldn't be judged on looks alone.

Academia first started taking notice of hip-hop in the early '90s, says Associate Professor Cheryl L. Keyes, whose 2002 book Rap Music and Street Consciousness is a staple in the hip-hop reading canon, "because of what was happening out in L.A. We started seeing a group called NWA with Ice Cube, and we had Eazy-E, and there was a lot of attention on gang violence and youth disenfranchisement, particularly black youth. We saw films like Colors, the Dennis Hopper film for which Ice-T did the theme track. All these things piqued the interest of academia."

Jazz: The Hip-Hop of its Era

Decades before scholars and musicians looked askance at hip-hop music, jazz music faced similar skepticism. Now, it's taught in virtually every university.

UCLA was one of the pioneers in that exploration. Westwood has played host to several major conferences over the last decade, including two Los Angeles Hip Hop Film Festival & Conferences, in 2006 and 2007. Today, there are hundreds of hip-hop-centric courses at colleges and universities around the country.

"Very early on we recognized that this is an important genre within the U.S. and global culture," says Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje M.A. '72, Ph.D. '78, chair of UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology. "We knew that this was an important topic we needed to have in our program."

A hesitancy to embrace the subject may be typical of the way we approach scholarship and research, DjeDje says, but ethnomusicologists "study music in culture, study music as culture. The study of hip-hop is just a reflection of U.S. culture in the late 20th and early 21st century. We try and understand who and what we are, and why it came to be. So why not?"

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