Foucault's Turntable

Hip-Hop Scholars Bumrush the Academy

Unfortunately, The New H.N.I.C. stumbles under the weight of its intentions. Boyd offers useful insight into the political imagination of the hip-hop generation, but his discussion relies more on anecdote, generalizations, and casual sensationalism than analysis. Hip-hop's tradition of irreverent critique may occupy a different moment than the civil rights movement's politics of respectability, but there is far more continuity and play between the two generations than Boyd indicates. The New H.N.I.C. would have benefited from a stronger look at the culture's political nuances as it has evolved over the past two decades, and it leaves many obvious questions unanswered: In what way is the music one of the only expressions of the waning civil rights legacy? How has hip-hop's political culture been influenced by its ever-present performances of materialism or violence? And most importantly, how do the swelling ranks of hip-hop-inspired organizers and grassroots activists fit within Boyd's landscape?

Boyd is unaffected by the criticism, either of his scholarship or his taste in rap. "I find myself far out in left field. Tricia [Rose] and Dyson and others are probably bit more conservative than I am relative to hip-hop. Within this group of people who write about hip-hop, I find that a lot of them have a bit of a moralizing tone to what they say. It should be about the culture—this is what it is, with all its problems, all its warts. Take it for what it is. Deal with it, break it down, chop it up, and leave it for somebody else to do with it what they want, know what I'm sayin'?"

The schism Boyd describes is implicit to hip-hop, where generations always clash over what they consider to be the truest practices of the form—e.g., whether Rakim circa 1986 could take the Notorious B.I.G. circa 1996. (The answer, by the way, is yes.) Contest and critique are part of the culture's self-awareness, but so is the conservatism Boyd describes of each generation passing judgment on the next. To Boyd's credit, his choice to understand rather than automatically condemn what many see as contemporary hip-hop culture's childish, bling-bling excess is a much harder path to walk.

illustration: Chang Park

Any hip-hop academic shoulders a unique double burden—not only is there the expectation of serious scholarship, there is also a mandate to legitimize an entire field of study in a world built on canons and orthodoxy. For many of the aforementioned authors, the second task was a lot easier to accomplish 10 years ago when Afrocentrists, gangstas, and heavy-handed firebrands sexily lent themselves to academyspeak. Hip-hop was easier to legitimize then because it was "better"—more well rounded, more political, more purposefully angry. Not only had it yet to find its globe-conquering spirit, it was still seen as an open space where De La Soul and N.W.A. could coexist as bodies on a stage and ideas on the page. For Boyd, the past 10 years' success is neither good nor bad, it just is: "I think hip-hop is at a point now where, without really thinking about it, it's become successful. And the biggest issue to me is, how does hip-hop deal with its success?"

Boyd's question was far from the minds of the first-generation scholars who matriculated when the dominant culture still saw hip-hop as esoteric and distant. There was a prophetic quality to this generation's work as it fought for recognition, pointing toward what Kelley termed "the graffiti on the walls." The identities and ideas of hip-hop are impossible to ignore today, and as a result it has landed in the most unlikely of places.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research is on the second floor of Harvard University's Barker Center, and at the end of the Institute's main hallway—past the splendid portraits of the university's first black students and posters celebrating department-sponsored talks—is the Hip-Hop Archive, a small office stocked with records, books, magazines, flyers, and other curios collected by Professor Marcyliena Morgan. It's probably one of the only (smoke-free) places in town where you'll find a copy of Los Angeles rapper Aceyalone's out-of-print debut record.

In the parlance of the culture, Harvard is not hip-hop; rather, it's very Ivory Tower. "Harvard is Harvard and this is hip-hop," she explains. "Harvard's not going to change because the Hip-Hop Archive is here and hip-hop's not going to change because the Archive is at Harvard. Everybody is very secure in who they are and that's fine—that's what makes it work." While teaching at UCLA in the early 1990s, Morgan was bombarded by student requests to apply her teachings on African American language to hip-hop. Soon, she began considering the implications of these cultural formations and their standards of critique for her work as a linguist.

"I got the idea [for the Hip-Hop Archive] because of Ice Cube. Ice Cube's father tended the grounds at UCLA near where I taught. . . . I remember when they were filming Higher Learning (1995) on campus and I just thought it was incredibly surreal that this guy was tending the grounds and that Ice Cube was sitting on one of those carts. His father reminded me—and this could all be my imagination, I hardly said anything to him but 'Good morning' or 'Good afternoon'—of someone who was just bitter, and he did what he did.

« Previous Page
Next Page »