I’m a big fan of second acts – in life as in drama – but that’s only part of why I’m delighted to have hosted a conversation on hip-hop studies with Tessa Brown. Like many people of my cohort at Princeton, I primarily knew Tessa as a writer of fiction who would be annoyingly precocious (writing featured in Harper’s as a college freshman), if only her writing weren’t so delightful and she so pleasant. “Cold War Studies,” a short story of hers that captures both a very specific set of Princeton professors in our time but also the collegiate experience of being totally gripped by a professor, was one of my favorite pieces in The Nassau Weekly during my tenure there. And Tessa was part of the NYRB brunch scene I recently described in a post on Tony Judt: not nearly enough Sunday mornings of heated discussion, coffee, syrup-sopped French toast, and friendships.
But graduation intervened, and we went our separate ways. I spent a year in Germany for a date with Carl Schmitt, and later Oxford; Tessa was soon off (unsurprisingly) to an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, where she is now a Lecturer in the English Department at UMich (and shopping what I suspect is an excellent first novel). So when I resumed correspondence with her this winter, I was a bit perplexed to see that she had re-positioned herself as a budding scholar of hip-hop studies, started a blog, Hiphopocracy, on the subject, and was teaching a freshman writing course on hip-hop studies. Teaching seemed tiring, but she seemed to love it.
So I wanted to find out more. As readers of this blog will know, I have fairly obscure interests myself: Soviet and German history, contemporary fiction, and university reform are some of the topics I’ve blogged on. But hip-hop studies? I had never heard of such a thing. Not that it sounded immediately ridiculous. Entire Music Departments at American universities devote themselves to the study of music (albeit with a certain sense of canon), and I was aware of some tentative directions in African-American studies to examine hip-hop. Could not hip-hop lend itself to a wide and creative variety of readings through established methodologies? There didn’t seem to be anything inherently separating the text of, say, NWA songs, from those of the archival documents I pour through in German and Soviet archives.
More than that, the idea of trying to unpack hip-hop – whether as a lyric form unto itself or a historical phenomenon – had some autobiographical appeal. Like myself a representative of upper-middle-class over-educated white Americans who love hip-hop, Tessa had some peripheral exposure to the genre in high school and middle school in downtown Chicago. Growing up in any major American city in the 1990s, it was impossible not to get some exposure to artists like Coolio or 2Pac via the radio, but it was really attending a public high school that made hip-hop an even greater mystery: here she was, a polite young Jewish woman from Lincoln Park, going to high school dances where the dance floor was totally dominated by African-American students who not only embraced the rap and hip-hop she had only heard on the radio, but could dance to it. Hip-hop had been a presence in her life, but it was only glued to the walls of the high school gym, afraid to venture out into the center, that she realized how marginal an understanding she had of the genre.
What was going on? Even if a subsequent spell at tony, posh Princeton wasn’t the best way to develop greater first-hand experience in hip-hop, its reception, and its performance, the seeds of interest were planted – and received encouragement and fertilizer from scholars like Eddie Glaude at Princeton, and Macklin Smith at the University of Michigan. The opportunity of the lectureship gave her space to try teaching hip-hop studies, and – who knows? – a trajectory was launched.
I was really glad to be able to talk about both this journey as well as some of the content of hip-hop studies in my conversation with Tessa. In addition to her own route to hip-hop studies, we were able to touch on a couple of issues within or about hip-hop that I found really interesting. Even though I have a fairly neutral American accent, for example, I’m always fascinated by regional dialects in our country. One angle to consider hip-hop from, then, is as a way that marginalized populations (too often underserved by the educational system in the US) have sought to promote regional dialects or speech patterns in their music. Interestingly, even as Chuck D once claimed that rap music was “the black CNN,” Tessa’s mentor Macklin Smith argues that among the different rap scenes in the USA (think NYC, Southern California, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans, etc.) we see distinct dominant meters (i.e. beat patterns in the lyrics), to say nothing of often different vocabularies. That is, hip-hop asserts that CNN ought to be critiqued not just over its selective reporting but also over its prioritization of Standard American English and its functional erasure of other dialects. As Tessa pointed out to me, albums with titles like Nelly’s Country Grammar or Ludacris’ Word of Mouf purposely exploit the tension between being commercially viable and linguistically marginal.
This is only a taste of some of the topics we touch on in the podcast, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed this conversation, strongly encourage all readers to follow Tessa’s own blog, Hiphopocracy, and … what else? Ah, right – download the podcast here.