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Beat Scholars

By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2008 9:00 AM

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."

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?"

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."

Hip-Hop Worlds

Admittedly, Lee's take is a point of view that's hard to process for those familiar only with gangsta rap touting the benefits of drugs, sex and life on the street. But that hard-core stuff has largely been played up by the record industry because it sells CDs, ringtones and downloads, says Keyes. The risk, though, is that hip-hop's original community-focused message will be lost.

"When you're looking at the music industry, what seems to be something that may not be too heavy and cerebral for the audiences, they don't want that," she says. "They want something that can be a gimmick, something that may also play on stereotypes," she says.

There are many other sides to the hip-hop culture, Keyes says, notably its continually changing language, a vernacular that can be traced back to the rural South, the jazz musicians of the '20s and '30s, black radio disc jockeys of the '50s and the black nationalist movement of the '60s. "From Latino culture to Native America — the whole world — youth are beginning to say, 'this is a way that we can speak that no one quite understands,' " Keyes explains. "They know that's one of the basic aesthetics of doing hip-hop: You have to have your own hip way, so to speak, of communicating."

That unique way of communicating has presented some interesting challenges for students and professors alike.

Talk to Me

"Our department requires us to have two foreign languages — I had to learn Spanish and French," says Christina Zanfagna M.A. '05, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ethnomusicology and another member of the Hip Hop Working Group. "Actually, the two languages in my research are the vernacular speech of the black church and hip-hop slang."

Zanfagna, whose dissertation is on the subgenre called holy hip-hop, "the intersection between religion and popular music, or the sacred and the profane," says she often "plays around" with the extent to which she can integrate slang and street language into her academic work, and that's been "a really exciting balance to strike."

Her studies have brought up some "interesting tensions," as well, Zanfagna says, including intergenerational concerns, issues around what constitutes the sacred vs. the secular, and issues around the role of popular music in Christianity.

On a macro level, Zanfagna says, "I think there's a lot of scapegoating of hip-hop, especially around these key moments: election times and moments of moral crisis where people like to finger-wave and point at hip-hop. But I'm a firm believer that hip-hop is really symptomatic of larger American cultural trends and issues and struggles."

To that end, Zanfagna finds that teaching using hip-hop as a starting point allows her to better connect with undergraduate students.

While more and more educators and community activists agree with this concept, hip-hop continues to get a bad rap. But so did jazz in the early 20th century, reminds DjeDje. And whenever anything is attacked, she says, "that makes it more appealing, especially to the youth."

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."