New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

The phrase “can’t see me” is a well-worn trope in hip hop music. A search on the website—an encyclopedia of hip hop lyrics and annotations—for the phrase brings up thousands of hits spanning the entire history of hip hop. But what does it mean, beyond the obvious, and how are we to interpret it?

We don’t often associate the Romantic period of literature and art with the sounds of factories or machines, but there’s a good case to be made that despite our insistence on realism and modernism, we’ve never really left Romanticism behind. Liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin complained that Romanticism led to the "melting away of the very notion of objective truth," which could conversely be a point in its favor.

Where the old Romantics left off, much of hip hop has picked up, returning to the quest to discover the self within the world that it inhabits.

Brian Tamborello

Among the many critical perspectives that are useful in listening to and thinking about hip hop, two in particular are relevant to a lot of the music being produced recently: Afro-pessimism and Afrofuturism.

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter From Birmingham Jail."

There were plenty of great hip hop albums in 2017, but one series in particular stands out as a perfect way to end the year. The three-album series, Saturation, from the group Brockhampton, is an extended exploration of life after the end of history, not in Francis Fukuyama’s sense of the triumph of rational capitalism, but more like Mad Max in the desert—this is the soundtrack to life in Bartertown.

Christmas music is a funny genre: descended from sacred music, it’s still capable of evoking some serious sentiments, but at the same time it’s fully saturated with commercialism, making our experience of Christmas music more Pavlovian than ecstatic. 

The 2016 collection of poems by Chinaka Hodge titled ‘Dated Emcees’ overflows with hip hop. The culture is manifested in obvious ways, through poem titles like ‘the b side’, ‘small poems for big’ and ‘2pac couplets,’ but hip hop is not a gimmick or a writing device in these poems: it is the entire world.

For most of its existence, hip hop was a sample-based musical form. Any good origin story of hip hop reinforces this—from two turntables and a microphone an entire cosmos was born. 

Hip hop is an oversized music; part of what makes it so great is the exaggeration, the outlandish claims by emcees of supernatural powers, ridiculous braggadocio and the pulp-like caricature of its villains. So it’s rare to find an artist who is skilled at making hip hop smaller, who can turn the arena filled with thousands of people into a room with just the emcee and you. On the 2016 ‘The Falling Season’, Masta Ace does just that through a beautifully crafted concept album that traces the path of a young man switching high schools in the early ‘80s.

Eminem’s now infamous freestyle castigating Donald Trump at the BET Hip Hop Awards raises one very important question: What the heck was that?