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Sounding Race in Rap Songs

Sounding Race in Rap Songs

Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Sounding Race in Rap Songs
    Book Description:

    As one of the most influential and popular genres of the last three decades, rap has cultivated a mainstream audience and become a multimillion-dollar industry by promoting highly visible and often controversial representations of blackness.Sounding Race in Rap Songsargues that rap music allows us not only to see but also to hear how mass-mediated culture engenders new understandings of race. The book traces the changing sounds of race across some of the best-known rap songs of the past thirty-five years, combining song-level analysis with historical contextualization to show how these representations of identity depend on specific artistic decisions, such as those related to how producers make beats. Each chapter explores the process behind the production of hit songs by musicians including Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, N.W.A., Dr. Dre, and Eminem. This series of case studies highlights stylistic differences in sound, lyrics, and imagery, with musical examples and illustrations that help answer the core question: can we hear race in rap songs? Integrating theory from interdisciplinary areas, this book will resonate with students and scholars of popular music, race relations, urban culture, ethnomusicology, sound studies, and beyond.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95966-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Sounding Race in Rap Songs
    (pp. 1-16)

    Do the Right Thing,director Spike Lee’s controversial 1989 film exploring simmering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, opens with actress Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power.” Framed by a series of urban backdrops representing the film’s Bedford-Stuyvesant setting, Perez performs a set of hip hop–inspired dances as the credits play. Appearing in multiple costumes, including boxing trunks and gloves, she moves with an intensity that embodies the song’s seriousness and righteous anger. Her “kinetic narrative” gives life to the words of the song, connecting her bodily gestures...


    • 1 “Rapper’s Delight”: From Genre-less to New Genre
      (pp. 19-48)

      As early as May of 1979,Billboardmagazine noted the growing popularity of “rapping DJs” performing live for clubgoers at New York City’s black discos.⁴ But it was not until September of the same year that the trend garnered widespread attention, with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a fifteen-minute track powered by humorous party rhymes and a relentlessly funky bass line that took the country by storm and introduced a national audience to rap. Although rap was written about as “black music” from its first mention inBillboard,the first rap song to call attention to racial...

    • 2 “Rebel Without a Pause”: Public Enemy Revolutionizes the Break
      (pp. 49-82)

      Writing for theNew York Timesin 1988 , Jon Pareles began his review of Public Enemy’s seminalIt Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Backwith a telling observation: “In the last decade, rap has become as much a symbol as a musical style.” ² The review’s layout bolstered Pareles’s assertion: its text wrapped around an iconic photograph emphasizing the group’s status as hip hop’s “prophets of rage.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav wear their signature clock necklaces and sit, hands folded in front of them. DJ Terminator X stands behind them, and the three core members...


    • 3 “Let Me Ride”: Gangsta Rap’s Drive into the Popular Mainstream
      (pp. 85-117)

      Writing about the infamous genre of gangsta rap in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising, Robin D.G. Kelley offered a political reading of rappers’ outlaw theatrics. By inflating their reputations for starting trouble and inflicting pain on those who dared to get in their way, he argued that rap artists cultivated “badass” identities that allowed them to stand up, symbolically at least, to the powers that be.³ Kelley explained that by inverting conventional morality and racial hierarchy through their irreverent and boastful signifying, gangsta rappers had carved out a space where they could critique the police brutality, racial...

    • 4 “My Name Is”: Signifying Whiteness, Rearticulating Race
      (pp. 118-142)

      In the closing weeks of 1998,Billboardmagazine celebrated rap music’s commercial success with an article entitled “Rap Rips Up the Charts.”² The author, Shawnee Smith, noted with satisfaction that the “increasing and steady presence” of rap songs on the Billboard 200 chart was a clear indication that hip hop music was nowhere near its end and had firmly ensconced itself within the industry as a major presence. What is more, she emphasized that artists whose songs were charting and reaching a mainstream audience were the ones bringing a more “severe” form of hip hop, the ones who “just expect...

  7. Conclusion: Sounding Race in the Twenty-First Century
    (pp. 143-150)

    Although unified by a common set of Afro-diasporic tendencies, rap music’s projections of race are neither monolithic nor static. In other words, one could say that rap is “culturally black” but that the meaning and significance of blackness (or any other racial identity projected by the genre) often varies widely from artist to artist and from song to song. The diverse constructions of racial identity explored in this book’s previous chapters depend on specific artistic decisions, including those related to how producers make beats. Ironically, by the end of the twentieth century, the same approach to working with breaks that...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 151-178)
  9. Discography
    (pp. 179-180)
  10. Filmography
    (pp. 181-182)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-192)
  12. Index
    (pp. 193-206)