Beat Scholars


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2008 9:00 AM

Jazz: The Hip-Hop of its Era

Decades before hip-hop music drew controversy, jazz music faced similar skepticism. Now, it's taught in virtually every university.

Deconstructing Rap

To understand hip-hop, "you've got to know your history," says Cheryl L. Keyes, associate professor in UCLA's Department of Ethnomusicology. That's why Keyes' popular "Cultural History of Rap" course is built around her philosophy of exploring the genre through a sociocultural and historical — as well as simply musical — lens. Students, she says, "begin to reach back to the past to understand what's happening now." Here are her notes on some of the hip-hop artists who have made and are still making that history.

Afrika Bambaataa

"One of hip-hop's godfathers, he probably never in his life envisioned it would blow up like this," Keyes says. "But I think also disheartening for Bambaataa is seeing how it has been economically exploited at the risk of losing what the original message was about."


"I remember someone saying, 'You can live in Beverly Hills, but your head has to be in the 'hood, so to speak,'" Keyes recalls. "We had the 'hood thing with African Americans and Latino youth; then Eminem came out, and he began to address what it's like to be white, poor, young and marginalized. [And] we began to realize: Let's listen to what's happening with poor white youth who are often affiliated with the trailer park."

Public Enemy

The artists that rap about some of the most political subjects — Common, Mos Def, Public Enemy — they're "pushed back," Keyes explains. "Because we want to hear some nice little beat and talking about how bad you are and how many women you have. These have become some common themes that tend to give rap in the mainstream a very negative kind of image, and it becomes saturated with hypermasculinity, [and] a lot of younger males may see that as role models, as to how to be a man. The danger of it is to use that as a rite of passage to manhood ... That's why it's so important for parents to be aware of what their children listen to, and how to help them become critical listeners and viewers."

Lil' Kim

Is there a lack of women's presence in hip-hop? At one point, they were there, Keyes says. But "once we start seeing such artists as the Lil' Kims come in, the Foxy Browns, everyone wanted something that looks like a Barbie doll, a black Barbie doll, or whatever culture you come from, you represent the Barbie doll from that culture. And then we began to see this whole concept of 'pimp culture' begin to dominate in some of the images of male hip-hoppers — where women became less and less vocal to simply becoming silent, as just props within videos."