gamut (2006-11)

Mark Anthony Neal and Joan Morgan

George White and Wornie Reed

David Ikard

A Hip-hop Sampling

A young woman is seated on the floor at the back of the auditorium. It’s doubtful that she can see over the stadium chairs or hear the lecture at hand for the sound of the McDonald’s wrapper she’s fumbling with. In the center of the room, a shaggy-haired student has a terrific seat, with an unobstructed view. But he pisses away his prime real estate, concentrating on his laptop, navigating a pixilated hero through a maze. The rest of the near-capacity audience, however, listens intently to Mark Anthony Neal and Joan Morgan, leading scholars on the hip-hop movement, talk race, gender and class politics within the culture.

It’s unlikely that many of the students are in attendance by their own resolve; it’s more likely an assignment for one course or another. Nevertheless, the remainder of Lindsey Young Auditorium in Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee is engrossed in a thoughtful discourse on misogyny and rapper Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty.”

What began as an underground movement 30 years ago has matured, albeit awkwardly, and is being given analysis as a legitimate aspect of our culture. Even the Smithsonian Museum of American History recently announced its gathering of hip-hop artifacts for an installation in coming years. “If hip-hop were a person, it would probably be married and have a few kids and pursuing a professional career, dealing with the challenges of having a mortgage and daycare and car notes,” Neal says.

Instrumental in bringing hip-hop to UT, Director of African Studies Wornie Reed calls the study of hip-hop “naturally normal” for the university and “following the rest of the world.”

The importance of teaching hip-hop lies in its language, affording the movement a lens into the psychology of the black community. Its entry into academia by and large can be attributed to the growing texts on the subject. Assistant Professors David Ikard and George White teach the 400-level “Hip-Hop and Cultural Theory” as a team. “It’s easier to teach now because we have some way to recognize the course,” Ikard says. “You have three solid decades of production that you can map out and say, ‘This is where we began, this is where we are, and this is what was happening in the ’70s.’”

Because of the significance of media to the curriculum, teaching methods are somewhat progressive. Using an anthology as its foundation, White and Ikard introduce MTV videos, music, movies, websites and television shows to complement the text. “We treat the lyrics of rap songs as literature. We take those and break down the images within the lyrics we use,” White says.

“They’re screening Hustle & Flow in the library next month, and we’re going to talk about aspects of it,” Ikard adds. “These are the kinds of things that make a class like this incredibly dynamic. I’ve personally never seen technology in the classroom like this before.”

And because hip-hop is a movement in constant flux, tackling its sheer magnitude proves tricky. What happens today influences tomorrow’s discussion. “It’s culture, not just gangsta rap music. It’s breakdancing; it’s graffiti. It’s a mindset. It’s political. It’s Dave Chapelle,” Ikard says. “All of these things encompass the complexity and diversity of hip-hop. It’s not just 50 Cent but Dead [Presidents]—your more politically conscious rappers.

“There’s a kaleidoscope of different perspectives and variables that embody hip-hop. That’s not what the mainstream consumes of hip-hop, but that is, in fact, what the reality of it is,” Ikard says.

The course places oft-present negative elements of hip-hop—racism, sexism, homophobia—into context as American phenomena.

“It’s not always a simple matter of here’s a rapper who is objectifying women or talking about their body parts, but that it can be tremendously complex in the sense of a tribute celebrating black women,” White says. “There are very few places in society that celebrate the beauty of black women.”

Drug use and violence litter much of hip-hop music, and the course is meant to analyze, not glorify it. “I would imagine there are classes on Hitler… and AIDS. I feel no need to defend the course,” Reed says. “This is a place to deal critically with the whole issue of hip-hop as a major phenomenon in the world. To ignore it is ridiculous.”

Currently, “Hip-hop and Theory” is offered as a single, special topics course through the Africana Studies department. Fall 2007 will see it expanded, however, into two full classes, “History of Hip-Hop” and “Theory of Hip-Hop.” Campus technology grants will enable the acquisition of iPods and laptops for use in the classroom, and Ikard hopes to localize hip-hop by having undergraduates document aspects of it in Knoxville, like graffiti and clothing.

“One idea is to interview students about the way they dress and why—whether or not it’s simply about fashion or about making a political statement,” Ikard says. “If they don’t dress a particular way that might be identified with hip-hop, how do they feel about people that do?”

And while museums and universities are acknowledging the underground expression for its merit, lifting hip-hop from the underbelly creates a debate. Does an art form lose its soul when it moves from the local to the public sphere? “To some degree, that’s inevitable. But once it gets out there, it can’t simply be the product of a community but a product of the world,” Ikard says. “What’s exciting about the movement, at the same time, is that another form will eventually emerge.”

For now, the university embarks upon hip-hop, creating an urban dialogue in uncharted academic waters. Not everyone has an interest in the sexism of rap, the politics of Dead Presidents or the marketing innovation of M.C. Hammer. For those without, UT offers more than 800 other courses. Or, Hamburger U. is always looking for smiling faces, and Princess Zelda seems to have gotten herself kidnapped, again.

A Hip-hop Sampling “Of the 90 percent of the conglomerates that control music, the black community only represents five to seven percent of people with their hands in the pot. But, the five to seven percent is incredibly significant [when compared] to how it used to be. Even the mindset of these artists has rapidly changed from someone like M.C. Hammer. When Hammer came out, people knocked him for having cartoons, t-shirts and shoes, and on the local level, the feeling was M.C. Hammer is a sell-out, because real rappers said, ‘We’re not interested in selling our wares to this large market; we’re down for the experience at the street level.’ Now, mark Hammer’s experience to someone like 50 Cent who now has his own record label, movie, line of Reebok shoes, a video game. If you’re an artist and you don’t have a hustle—a line of wine or Pimp Juice like Nelly or other business ventures going on—then you’re not really a player in the game; you’re just a fly-by-night artist.” — David Ikard