hip hop

As we take another look into the New American Songbook, KMUW's Zack Gingrich-Gaylord revisits an example of how the poetry of hip hop is a lot more broad than some people realize.

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Ninety percent of what I know about New York City comes from hip hop. My personal map of the Big Apple bears very little resemblance to the Rand McNally accordion—in the place of the orderly and angled streets and avenues are lanes and grooves carved by a DJ’s stylus. Brooklyn is called Bucktown, and the Bronx is oversized, spilling over into Queens and Manhattan. Staten Island is always Shaolin, with the great tower of the Wu-Tang Clan casting shadows across the entire scene.

What happens when hip hop gets weird?

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This week in the New American Songbook, KMUW's Zack Gingrich-Gaylord looks at how one building block of hip hop can reach a lot further than you might think.


The process of making a song radio-friendly seems pretty straightforward: Replace an offending word with either a euphemism or simply nothing at all.

But determining which words are offensive turns out to be more subjective than you might expect. Beyond the obvious words that we all know are impermissible on air, other occasional edits include references to sex, drugs, guns and even the verbs associated with these topics.

Public Domain (Def Jam Recordings)

Dark and desperate, Summertime ‘06 is the new double-disc release from Compton rapper Vince Staples.

It’s a study in American dystopia. The tone of the record is steeped in classic gangsta rap tropes—street crime, drugs and bravado—but Staples manages to use these well worn ideas as a way to support an elegant narrative that avoids the typical cartoonish depiction of the gangsta rap artist.

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A common critique of hip hop music is to point out the violence and vulgarity in the lyrics as a sign of its lack of quality. I’ve always found this puzzling. Americans are connoisseurs of violence. We are tastemakers in this aesthetic, and we know what and where we like each particular violence.

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Our American identities are largely formed around the concept of work, both the noun and the verb, and as our national music, hip hop is no different.

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Hip hop’s early appeal had to do partly with its hyper-localism—the lyrics and musical tastes were originating from particular neighborhoods in New York City, each vying to produce sounds and styles distinct from each other.

As American hip hop grew and commercialized, this organic differentiation mellowed, and as the culture spread across oceans, hip hop was reborn in much the same way as it started: block by block, hood by hood.

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The producer Large Professor has worked with many of the greatest names in hip hop: Nas, Busta Rhymes and Common, to name just three. While never achieving the superstar status of mainstream producers like Pharell or Timbaland, Large Professor, who is also known as Xtra P, has held his own in hip hop for nearly 30 years. Here he is with the group Main Source, from 1991: