Over the weekend I had a chance to read Hip Hop Matters by S. Craig Watkins. Probably the best book of its kind in the field. It was a little formulaic in places–in order to flesh out the narrative Watkins presents brief bios of important figures in rap, and after a few chapters you can pretty much predict when those bios occur and the form they take. Some of the thoughts I have after reading it:

  • Watkins refers to “corporate rap” in a few places. What’s the difference if any between corporate rap and non-corporate rap–beyond the obvious I mean. He alludes to thematic differences, as do many in the field. But if I recall correctly Straight Outta Compton was a non-corporate release, while I’m pretty sure Common’s Be is about as corporate as you can get. By using the “corporate/non-corporate” dichotomy, Watkins is to a certain extent able to create a dichotomy between “real” rap and “sold out” rap. But this dichotomy is only politically useful. Unless there is some important qualitative difference between the two I don’t think it is actually useful analytically. I wonder where he got this term from? Is there any literature (besides the alcohol piece I already cited) that uses or defends this dichotomy using some combination of theory and empirics?
  • There are many places where he refers to the “hip-hop movement”. Again, this term is politically useful–and when I say this I mean useful because it is a signal to his main audience (hip-hop scholars, activists, heads, and fellow travellers) about his own political line, a signal that they don’t necessarily have to read Watkins’ work with a grain of salt. He doesn’t have to defend it, say what makes it a “movement” or even what a “movement” is…not just because the book is a non-academic book…but because people “know” it’s a movement already. I actually agree that it is, but it is a cultural movement….one that has a form of micro-politics embedded in it. That distinction is important.

  • Where are the politics in hip-hop? Here Watkins provides some interesting anecdotes…but here’s where I become “conservative.” My quick definition of politics borrowed from Adolph Reed…politics refers to the process by which individuals and/or groups compete over state resources. Now in as much as any organization or sphere of influence allocates resources (be it material or non-material) there are politics in various spheres. Politics within an NBA team for example (players compete over playing time for example). But we’ve got to be real clear and make a distinction between politics and cultural politics.

Examples of cultural politics:

  • The fight over editorial choice in Vibe. When Quincy Jones created Vibe in the early nineties, he did so with the express purpose of creating a hip-hop version of Rolling Stone. But when he appoints a gay white male to be the first editor-in-chief, he’s making a decision that–while having nothing to do with voting preferences of black youth–has an influence on the structure of the publication. He’s making a decision that has an influence on people’s PERCEPTION of what the publication is about.
  • The Soundscan battle that moved rap and country to the top of the pop charts (but incidentally not to the top of the rnb charts because they hadn’t made the move yet–here the intraracial conflict between rnb programmers and hiphop mirrors the supposed conflict between young and old African Americans).
  • Radio programming. I remember when stations in Detroit would advertise that they played “All RNB and NO rap.” Now? Even a relatively small market like Saint Louis has two radio stations that play nothing but HipHop.

These politics are contentious, and there are real resources at stake. But again they take place more or less in a cultural milieu that is itself shaped by a larger political economy–radio station ownership for example is partial product of FCC rules and regulations. The entire idea of albums as coherent compilations of 10-12 tracks is a product of cd technology which is even now being blown out of the water by the fact that most people now consume their songs through services like ITunes.

Watkins “real politics” anecdotes are informed. I was in Detroit for Kwame’s inaugural. I didn’t think he was the best candidate of the entire campaign, but I thought he was better than the individual he ran against by far. It didn’t strike me just what he meant to me and people like me until the last inaugural party at the Charles H. Wright African American museum. His predecessor’s “young professional” party was attended largely by young professionals who’d attended Ivy League schools (or the University of Michigan like my wife and I). People who’d for the most part grown up together in organizations like Jack and Jill. In contrast, Kwame’s party was attended by a wide cross-section of Detroit. The young well-bred professionals were there, but so were the players, the hustlers, and the folks just trying to make a way out of no way at the plant. But on top of that….Biz Markie was there, DJ’ing. There was a point in time when Markie started playing his most famous track “The Vapors”…and I’ll be damned if Kwame didn’t get up on the mic and start singing it with him! For that brief moment, it was CLEAR that Kwame was the hip-hop mayor, that he was OUR mayor. But even here there is a strong cultural politics slant. Kwame’s politics were much more informed by the New Democrat model posited by the Democratic Leadership Council.

The other anecdotes–HSAN, “Vote or Die”, the prison battles in Ca? Yes, in each case hip-hop figures (or hip-hop itself) played central roles in spurring people to action. And this choice was explicit. But how does this use of hip-hop by elites change people’s policy preferences? How does it differ from the use of any cultural tchotchke designed to get people to be involved in electoral politics? There is a lot here to deal with, and a lot of room for my project to maneuver within.