Listening: Rediscovering Hip-Hop

Early in my career, we were told successful teachers had “withitness.” I’m serious. They would have been less square if they used “hip.” I pointed out to my principal anyone who uses the word “withitness” obviously is not “with it.” However, they did have a point. To understand your students, you have to truly understand them. That means know what movies they are watching, what internet memes are out there, and what music they listen to. You don’t necessarily have to like it, but you have to understand what they like. By doing so, you have some common ground. Think about it, if write a test question in which Kanye West has to borrow $53 million and the bank will charge him 12% interest how much will have to pay back? The boring question about interest and principal has sudden meaning to students.

I truly believe that if you can find music of the current generation to listen to because it’s not as good as your generation’s music means that you are officially old. (The Beatles don’t count. They belong to all generations.) I don’t want to grow old. The music that I’ve been finding that I like the most lately is hip-hop. Hip-hop isn’t dead and yes it’s an art form. While it may not be a musicians medium (which is not entirely true), it is definitely a producers medium. Much in the same way that the Beatles and George Martin experimented to get certain sounds, hip-hop producers today do much of the same thing. Also, very few modern hip-hop songs steal whole sale like “Ice, Ice Baby” did. Now, I understand that the words can through people off. I respect that opinion for I prefer it when rappers don’t use offensive language. Yet, this is vernacular of the genre. I highly recommend using the app Genius when listening to rap, because more than any other music genre, it begs for you to understand the lyrics.

Even though I could list ten to twenty artists that I think are bring the game to its highest levels right now, I want to focus on two. First is Run the Jewels. I discovered them from tweets by music magazines that kept praising the duo of Killer Mike and El-P. Then I listened to Run the Jewels 2, their second album. The music is what drew me in. El-p creates soundscapes. This is the kind of music I would recommend people run to or listen to when trying to focus. It doesn’t need the words. At a recent concert at the Republic in New Orleans, the moment “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” came on the crowd lost their collective minds. Everyone was dancing. Everyone was caught up in the moment. I’ve been to rap concerts before, but this was the first that caught everyone up in the moment like that.   However, as good as the music is, the lyrics are just as good. The lyrics are mainly about questioning authority. Knowing a little about the artists help bring the lyrics in focus. Some of Killer Mike’s lyrics can be considered anti-police, yet his father is retired policeman. Killer Mike respects good policemen; he doesn’t like bads ones. I feel that way about everyone at every job. While Killer Mike drew me in with his masterful and passionate lyrics, El-P’s proved, over a period of time, to be just as good if a little more abstract.


Kendrick Lamar in complete command

My favorite artist in the genre is Kendrick Lamar. He has the intelligence and eye for politics that Chuck D, my favorite rapper of all time has. He has the street viewpoint and sometimes anger of Ice Cube. He also has an ear for great music. One of jazz’s brightest talents, Kamasi Washington (whose 2015 release The Epic is a must-listen), is all over Lamar’s latest record, To Pimp a Butterfly. In fact, I would argue that To Pimp a Butterfly is jazz record. Lyrically, he discusses hatred (racial, generational, institutional), self-love, self-hate, God, and the price of fame. TPAB was nominated for 11 Grammy awards which shows that this is accessible music. Scarily, his previous album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, is just as good. He performed this fall at the Civic Theater in New Orleans. I’ve seen a lot of concerts, and none have come close to the energy put out at this show. I’ve never seen an artist in this much control of his music and the crowd. Having a live band elevated the performance. This is what I would imagine see the Rolling Stones on tour after Exile was like – an artist at the top of their game with no peers.

Of all the things I nerd out about, music is probably number one. In fact, on Sundays I try to articulate my feelings about certain albums in our podcasts. I keep searching for new artist to listen to like Kendrick and Run the Jewels. I keep searching for music I may have never heard but is out there. Of course, I ‘ve heard the Isely Brothers, but thanks to Kendrick using their music (and giving writing credits to as well), I’ve discovered more deep cuts besides the singles.

What ever kind of music you like, keep searching.  Keep finding new sounds.  Keep finding new challenges. And keep listening.

3 thoughts on “Listening: Rediscovering Hip-Hop

  1. We’ve been listening to Kasami Washington for a long time. Aside from Kendrick Lamar’s album, I’m not sure younger students would be into him. Maybe. He comes from a tradition of hard bop in the same way that Miles Davis and Mingus played at that particular time in history. Of course, by comparison he plays in a huge band, while they were busy streamlining things down… I think mostly for financial considerations because it’s hard to pay a lot of musicians. BTW, He’ll be at One Eyed Jacks in mid-April.


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