You Must Learn
Teaching 50 Years of Hip-Hop History
Fifty years after Cindy Campbell threw a party on August 11, 1973, featuring the first documented elements of what became known as hip hop, many of us take the culture for granted. We hear the music while shopping at grocery stores, sitting in coffee shops, or watching TV commercials. Rap music is the soundtrack to everything from sporting events to feature films, and hip-hop sounds infuse many other genres of music, including pop and country. Graffiti artists, once the targets of law enforcement and politicians, are now celebrated as their work is featured in some of the biggest art museums. Hip-hop artists such as Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, and Diddy have entered the upper echelons of society, with a few finding themselves on Forbes’s millionaire and billionaire lists. Now breakdancing is even an Olympic sport. As cultural critic Wesley Morris declared in the New York Times in 2023, hip hop “conquered the world.”
While I trained as a historian of politics and social movements in African American history, I have been a student of hip-hop culture (the assemblage of rapping, deejaying, graffiti art, breakdancing, and knowledge production) since I was a teenager. I woke up many Saturday mornings in the 1990s to watch Rap City’s Top Ten on BET. My friends and I passed around the latest hip-hop tapes and CDs, copied them, and then crafted mixtapes. We became critics as together we listened and debated the qualities of a good or “classic” album. As we listened more deeply to rap music, we learned how rappers and producers sampled certain jazz, soul, rock, disco, and R&B records of the past, leading us to pick up the music of our parents—James Brown; Parliament-Funkadelic; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Stevie Wonder. I read about hip-hop culture as much as possible, saving up to buy the latest hip-hop CDs and the Source magazine, which served as a repository for all the hip-hop history we missed. I so immersed myself in hip-hop culture that friends asked whether I planned to go into music.
Little did I know my professional relationship with hip-hop culture would be in the history classroom. As KRS-One rapped in “You Must Learn” in 1989, “I believe that if you’re teaching history / Filled with straight-up facts no mystery / Teach the student what needs to be taught.” After lecturing about rap music at public events and in my classes, I finally designed a full course on hip hop in the spring of 2019. At predominantly white institutions (first Auburn University, then West Virginia University), these classes have not been racially diverse. But my latest iteration included some regional and class diversity, with students from West Virginia itself, as well as Cleveland, Detroit, and even England.
In attempting to think historically about hip-hop culture, I share several objectives with my students. First, we think of ways to complicate our understandings of hip hop’s origins. The accepted narrative is that hip-hop culture began with Cindy Campbell’s “back-to-school” party on August 11, 1973, in the Bronx, yet many scholars and artists have traced its elements to earlier folk traditions, including jive talking, boasting, and toasting of the 1940s; gospel music; and radio deejaying.
Should we tell multiple origin stories?
Rather than considering the emergence of rap in California as derivative of New York City’s scene, Felicia Viator explains the importance of analyzing how Los Angeles’s deejay and gang culture helped shape rap on the West Coast. This provokes a question for our class: Should we tell multiple origin stories? Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago (among others) developed influential hip-hop scenes after the mid-1970s. How do we incorporate hip hop’s rise into the histories of these metropolitan areas, particularly in places like Atlanta, where hip-hop culture was essential to the city’s emergence as a center of cultural power?
We also consider the roles that work and labor played in hip hop’s development. Scholars such as Robin D. G. Kelley, Matthew Birkhold, and Viator, and journalists like Dan Charnas, demonstrate how hip hop emerged not just as a cultural phenomenon but as an entrepreneurial one as well. Hip hop became a source of income, if not a nascent economy, in the 1970s after the flight of industrial work from the Northeast and Midwest and in response to the uneven gains that Black Americans, especially those in the middle class, enjoyed after the civil rights and Black Power movements. While deejays and emcees often reaped much of the earnings from performing at parties and selling recorded tapes of their shows, these authors also highlight the other labor involved—who worked as security, taped the shows, and distributed flyers, as well as how proceeds were distributed among those laborers.
Next, we seek to understand how Black, Brown, and white youth used record turntables, mixers, samplers, microphones, cardboard, and spray cans to forge new identities as hip-hop deejays, rappers, breakdancers, and graffiti artists. This requires studying the gendered history of hip-hop culture. A common criticism of hip hop is that much of the culture is structured around masculine and sexist understandings of society. Since the beginning, sexism has shaped labor practices and limited opportunities for women hip-hop artists. Women artists in the 1970s confronted party promoters who refused to pay them for performances, and women were paid less than men. But students also learn how women were present and important since hip hop’s early days.
Through songs, we interrogate the meanings of authenticity, gender, and race at a time when these ideas were changing in scholarship and public discourse. Black feminism surged into the 1980s with literary, theoretical, and popular culture innovations writers including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. In 1989, Queen Latifah released the album All Hail the Queen, which featured hip hop’s first Black feminist anthem, “Ladies First,” with Black British rapper Monie Love in the same year that Kimberlé Crenshaw outlined the concept of “intersectionality.”
I incorporate visual art to encourage students to think of how graffiti artists harnessed antiauthoritarian and entrepreneurial impulses to challenge antiurban, anti-working-class, antipoor, and racist and sexist narratives about themselves that circulated in social sciences and in public discourse and policy. Students consider debates around graffiti art that transpired amid New York City mayor Ed Koch’s war on graffiti during the 1980s. Graffiti artists such as Taki 183, Skeme, and Dondi painted on trains in a bid to go “all city” (have their tags seen on trains that traveled throughout NYC) to secure status among their peers. However, Koch and law enforcement adopted the “broken windows” theory of policing in their attempts to curb graffiti art. Students learn how broken-windows policing contributed to 25-year-old artist Michael Stewart’s death after NYPD officers beat up the artist after catching him tagging a subway wall in 1983.
We analyze albums as repositories of cultural history, from the covers and album inserts to the liner notes.
We also spend time investigating the relationship between hip-hop culture and the war on drugs. After discussing Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, including a series of ads and public service announcements from Clint Eastwood and the Los Angeles Lakers, the students learn about impact of the 1986 Anti–Drug Abuse Act on the expansion of incarcerations rates, the Los Angeles Police Department’s creation of DARE, and the LAPD’s raids of Black communities during the late 1980s. We then discuss hip hop’s critiques of the drug war, such as Toddy Tee’s “Batterram,” and music from contemporary artists like Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar who look back at the decade. We analyze hip-hop artists’ critiques of drug use, contrasting De La Soul’s antidrug song, “Say No Go,” with “Just Say No” ads and analyzing Public Enemy’s horror-inspired music video, “Night of the Living Baseheads.”
An overarching goal of the semester is reconsidering the definition of “the archive.” I encourage students to think about the archive broadly to include recorded music, visual art, song lyrics, and interviews and podcasts as oral history. We look at music videos as texts and construct playlists in an effort to provide an interpretation of a particular time period. We analyze albums as repositories of cultural history, from the covers and album inserts to the liner notes. Looking at De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and Queen Latifah’s All Hail the Queen, among others, shows how influential artists sampled music from different genres to produce records that resemble audio collages more than albums featuring more coherent soundscapes. In these albums, we also encounter the recordings of Johnny Cash, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, David Bowie, and the Beatles. As hip-hop scholar and musician Questlove declared in a 2016 Instagram post, “Sampling is an education AND it gives back.”
Teaching the history of hip hop pushes us to think about how culture intersects with many topics we cover in our modern US history courses—including immigration, globalization, law, policing, the transformation of cities and suburbs, politics, business and capitalism, and youth culture. And, ultimately, investigating the history of hip-hop culture encourages us to think broadly about the archive. In addition to the primary sources most historians of the modern United States already seek, we deconstruct visual art, whether graffiti or album covers. We search for clues in liner notes and lyrics. We use the various artistic forms of hip hop to examine how artists forged new identities amid social, political, and economic transformations after the 1960s. And while many hip-hop artists used their cultural tools to critique power, we also interrogate the ways many others perpetuated harmful ideas like sexism and homophobia. By constructing and engaging this archive, we encourage students to analyze how practitioners of hip hop reshaped US and global culture.
Austin McCoy is an assistant professor at West Virginia University.
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