‘Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar’s Critical Playlist’ reviewed

❉   James Braxton Peterson’s academic yet accessible, detailed critical reading of hip hop culture.

As a Hip-Hop fan, I had always seen room and have had many a tipsy conversation with other fans of the genre about the poetic political form of representation behind the artist and their motivations for doing so. In that manner, I have always been aware that critical theory applied to not just hip-hop music, but hip-hop culture would return a lot of discoveries and affirmations. This detailed, thorough critical reading of Hip-Hop culture and Hip-Hop in popular culture by Hip-Hop scholar and academic (or ‘Rapademic’) James Braxton Peterson explores the culture from early origins of hip-hop, the holy trinity that he affirms started with Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash.

I imagine this book as a critical theory text from an academic of this subject who is highly regarded and respected would be incredibly useful for a student of music theory, popular culture and even American studies. It’s under Bloomsbury’s Music and Sound Studies texts so catered for music academics. It works just as well as an enjoyable read (if you’re a fan of hip-hop and deconstruction) juxtaposed with hints and recommendations you take from the artists and movements within the culture you may not be aware of. Since the start of this review, I had to put the text down several times to google and YouTube artists. As a music hobbyist, I had a lot of fun, and am now a fan of female artist Rapsody.

Cover detail (Bloomsbury Academic)

The book is split into segments that discuss different critical voices towards aspects of hip-hop culture. The first chapter Definitions jumps right in with a reference to the iconic Alex Haley’s Roots and how integral it is to hip-hop culture. Peterson points out the intertextuality of grammy nominee Kendrick Lamar’s King Kunta and its subtle referencing of Haley’s Roots character ‘Kunta Kinte.’

Peterson affirms that “Conscious rap music came into prominence in 1982 with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s’ declaration of the struggles in their concrete jungle”, The Message. He then goes on to explore misogynistic and violent themes in 90’s rap, from what he calls the ‘Bling Bling era’ and the emergence of gangster rap following the deaths of Biggie and Tupac Shakur. A subject impossible to not explore regarding hip-hop culture would be the relationship between the genre and race alongside the ‘global expansion and recognition of hip-hop’ being described as ‘an amazing cultural feat,’ to consider the intertexuality. Peterson advises that ‘Hip-Hop is one of the most difficult cultural phenomena to define’ – linking it to postmodernism when you consider current hip-hop’s use of sampling as a form of pastiche.

Chapter 2 is titled, Becoming a Hip-Hop scholar. This chapter is where Peterson deconstructs the language and lyrics in Hip Hop songs. He talks about Sugarhill Gang’s infamous Rappers Delight and the group fondness for Oxymoronic similes, for example. 3’s Ashy to Classy, referencing a Notorious B.I.G song, further explores the structure of rags to riches as a poignant narrative device solidified in Hip-Hop culture and the language. 4, Best Never Heard: Playlist Pedagogy in the Hip-Hop Classroom covers the popularity of hip-hop in mainstream music and how Peterson applies critical listening to his academic students and proactively seeking out new hip-hop based on recommendations.

The book offers a selection of scholarly reviews focusing on the culture, I particularly enjoyed Angry Black White Boyz due to its discussion on the Beastie Boys and what “positioned them as the first significant white group in Black rap music.”  Hip Hop’s global future Round-table participants, a group of academics of rap including Peterson as moderator, offer a critical discussion transcript on Race Theory and gender which raises some interesting points on the progression of the genre.

5’s Rapademics section offers a selection of critical discussions on masculinity, censorship and interpretation and the sub section Rewriting the remix, gives insight into hip-hop composition from freestyling to cutting and quoting.

The epilogue on B-boy rules for Hip-Hop Scholars discuss the lifestyle choices of self-identifying b boys such as KRS-One.

The book’s appendix features Peterson’s course details and playlists that are educational for courses such as ‘Autobiography in Hip-Hop Culture,’ – which if I wasn’t logistically challenged being in the UK, I would consider studying after reading this book!

All in all, an enjoyable read for those interested in the genre and students of music theory and popular culture, outside of that, perhaps not!

❉ ‘Hip-Hop Headphones; A Scholar’s critical playlist’ by James Braxton Peterson is published by Bloomsbury Academic, RRP £19.99

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