Beat Scholars


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2008 9:00 AM

Big Flossy and Wildchild at a BBQ joint near KAOS Network, a community center that hosts open-mic nights.

Tone Changes

One way the university demonstrated its dedication was by welcoming Keyes to Westwood in 1994. But when Keyes, who is also president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music's U.S. chapter, began studying hip-hop — then "rap" — as a grad student at Indiana University-Bloomington in 1981, she says "some of my professors felt it was a fad. The academy never gave it any serious treatment."

That outlook is changing. Established in New York in the '70s, the four elements of hip-hop — graffiti, break dancing, MCing and DJing — have proven to be more than just passing fancy; the past few years alone have seen a dramatic rise in academic interest.

"The first year of grad school back in 2004, there were one or two panels at regional conferences that would have maybe a couple papers on hip-hop," says grad student Lee. "When I go to professional conferences now, it's crazy. I went to a national conference [recently], and there were two entire sessions that all had papers on hip-hop, themes about hip-hop."

This surge in popularity comes as no surprise to DjeDje, who notes that in any ethnomusicological study, there are "always new questions to ask, different kinds of questions." And because of hip-hop's interdisciplinary nature, the field can only continue to expand. "When you look at Western music," she asks, "how many books and articles have been written about Beethoven? Hundreds, hundreds and hundreds! So there's nothing wrong with someone conducting additional study on a topic in a particular field or genre."

While Lee's own work revolves around careers — "the kind of daily grind that these guys do while they're trying to make it," he explains — using hip-hop as a backdrop for study opens doors to subjects from media studies to language, geography to gender.

"Whatever disciplinary kind of theoretical [background] you're coming from, hip-hop speaks to that in unique ways," Lee says. The Hip Hop Working Group is a great example of that diversity, he adds. "We're all interested in the same thing, but have very different takes on it."

Trenseta, one of the most experienced and established artists working with Jooyoung Lee, shown here getting shaved at the New Millenium Barber Shop.

What each of those takes has in common, though, is their presentation of hip-hop as more than just a stereotype. Lee, for example, has been coming to Project Blowed for the past four years, writing his dissertation on young men who are actually following career paths as well suited to CPAs as MCs.

"Even though I'm talking hip-hop, the main literature that I'm reading is stuff on work and occupations," Lee says. "If you took away the hip-hop element of their career, guys like Big Flossy, Wildchild, CP, Trenseta and others are doing things you need to do to ascend the corporate ladder. They're working hard, paying dues, networking with tons of people to make it in the music industry. These are skills a lot of people don't associate with the hip-hop life."